By John Fullerton
Sweat dribbled down his back, legs and face. Fraser wiped it from his chin lest it drip onto the pages of the hotel registration book; he used the front of his shirt to dry his right hand, too, so he wouldn’t make a mess of signing in. Then it took the combined strength of Fraser, two staff and his taxi driver who had carried him safely up the Great Trunk Road to Peshawar from Islamabad to propel a metal trunk, bought in a Rawalpindi bazaar and secured with two padlocks, around the side of the hotel to his room. With much heaving and shoving and fierce imprecations in Pashto, Urdu and English, they managed to stow it under his iron bed. It contained his stuff: camera, lenses, rolls of film, sleeping bag, ground sheet, boots, notebooks, pens, portable Olivetti typewriter, ream of A4 paper, cash in the form of U.S. dollars and Deutschmarks, morphine ampules (for use in the event that he was shot in gut or head), two military field dressings, two cartons of smokes, a well-wrapped bottle of scotch, another of vodka, 18 sheets of declassified satellite maps of Afghanistan and two changes of Western clothing.
Built in 1913, Dean’s Hotel was a colonial relic. Whitewashed and single story, complete with ballroom and chandeliers, spread out across generous lawns and flower beds, it had played host to the famous and infamous: Arnold Toynbee, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and King Nadir Shah had been among its guests. It lay close to the railway station and just outside the Peshawar cantonment, the city’s leafy garrison area from which the Empire’s troops had set out to wage several campaigns on the North West Frontier and in Afghanistan itself; the cantonment’s old guardhouse still boasted a mirror set in the cement outside the entrance, whereby NCOs could check that Highland soldiers of the Black Watch wore nothing under their kilts as per regulations. Room 19 had its own verandah, living room, a sleeping alcove and bathroom. The ceilings were high and the heavy air was stirred by big, sluggish ceiling fans, the whitewash was peeling, and the resident insects, crawling, flying and biting varieties, were innumerable. There was an odd smell Fraser couldn’t identify. His little stoep looked out on lawn, trees and hedge. He liked nothing better than to sit out on the grass in a deckchair, waiting for an ancient waiter in grubby whites to totter over, bearing a pot of Ceylon tea and the very distant relative of a toasted cheese sandwich.
The mountain reared above him, and on the conquest of each ridge, yet another loomed only higher than its predecessor; they were a succession of stony waves, each bigger and steeper than its predecessor, from seven thousand feet to ten, from ten to twelve. The forest of pine and larch he’d left far below – only rock and scrub stretched above. Fraser felt infuriated as if played for a fool by this immense, lordly landscape that reduced him to a wee smidgen of tormented, insignificant life squirming on its broad face. He had done no training, he was unfit and quite unsuited to extreme, prolonged exercise. He smoked, he drank. He was no paratrooper or marine. He was a reporter, moreover one drenched, his face crimson, and his lungs and throat afire with the effort of sucking in air; his thigh muscles screamed bloody murder, and when he stopped, however briefly, they quivered and twitched.
He sensed that he was the only one in the column gasping noisily, the only one whose shalwar kameez was sopping black with sweat, the only one who grunted and tripped and stumbled about like a drunk. A falcon swept out of the crags, then shot away at the sight of two hundred men climbing. The only sounds he heard were his own tortured breathing and the sandals of the men slipping, scraping and kicking the loose stones, the slings of their rifles rattling against their weapons.
‘English.’ A fighter put out a calloused hand, and Fraser was tempted, but no, he shook his head, attempted a smile of thanks that was more rictus of pain and embarrassment. He wasn’t English, there wasn’t a drop of that stuff in his veins (so he liked to think), but the truth of identity was too difficult to explain in Pashto. Perhaps in their communal memory of resisting the imperial British, they had retained some image down the generations of the Scots as colonial troops in kilts, but this was not the place or time. Carrying his own pack was part of their unwritten code; hand it to someone else and he’d feel their respect slip away. The same went for his position in the van of the march; he could at any moment stand aside, let others pass, fall back until the porters with their loads of Chinese landmines and 12.7mm machine-guns caught up with him at the rear. No-one would stop him, but he knew that for every fighter who overtook him, his standing would slip a further notch. It was a high price to pay for a twenty minute breather. He had to keep up.
Squalls of rain struck: icy needles stung face and hands, blinding the guerrillas. From burning with heat Fraser shivered until the rain stopped and his body heated up once more, his clothing clinging to him and making it more difficult than ever to keep his legs moving. Then it snowed, feathery flakes floating into his face. As night fell they stopped at some sort of shelter and he realized it was a bothy, or the Afghan equivalent, and stinking of goat; a mighty fire burned in the center and the dripping, unwashed bodies formed a solid, foetid wall around it. The front of him burned, the back of him stayed icy. He could feel vermin start to move out of the waistband in his cotton pants; the crab lice spread across his belly and abdomen, found the warmth around his testicles and anus and began biting, and when he lay down on the filth near the embers, wrapped in his cotton shawl or potu, they continued feeding on his blood, and were joined by cattle ticks. He chucked handfuls of insect powder into his pants, but it had little effect.
There was no point in asking how much further or how much longer, for the Afghans seemed to have little conception of distance or time. It was what it was and it had to be done if it took an hour or a month; they were walking someplace and walk they would until they reached it. If he did ask, they might say ‘over the next hill’, or ‘three-four hours, maybe’; they’d say whatever they thought he wanted to hear, the way one quiets a child and suppresses his or her tears with a comforting but untruthful response. It was possible they themselves didn’t know, that only the commander knew, and he wasn’t saying. Here Fraser was a child again, ignorant and naive, powerless, his life in their hands, his wellbeing a matter of their generosity and empathy. He did want to cry at times, his self-pity almost overwhelming. Without them, and without their help and their humanity, he would die. He might of course do that anyway, but in the meantime, he must try to earn their respect as their guest.
It took three days to traverse the mountains. He learned some important things about himself; that he could sleep on the ground, on rock, and entirely wet through; he learned that he would not catch a cold from simply being chilled or drenched, and he learned to walk with bloody blisters and feet so cold he couldn’t feel them. All this experience would be useful on subsequent trips, though he would never be able to say he would become used to any of it.
At this early stage of the war, the spring of 1981, the Soviets were predictable; they sent over reconnaissance aircraft before they attacked. The mujahedeen broke up into smaller parties when they heard the drone of the Soviet plane and they hid among the rocks. There was never enough sleep, so hiding was a chance for Fraser to catch up. Under an immense boulder – he crawled on his belly into a sandy depression right under it – he slept until his companions pulled his legs; the English must wake up; the English did, just in time it drink a glass – two glasses, but very small glasses – of hot green tea with a sprig of wild mint. He ate, too, half an unleavened roundel of scorched bread. For days that was all they ate or drank and Fraser had the novel experience of replacing his dreams of sex with uninterrupted fantasies of food, invariably Italian, and drink, mostly French Bordeaux and Burgundies and his favourite single malts from the Isle of Lewis. Not even his blisters or immense population of vermin could spoil these happy dreams.
Resting in an Alpine clearing, enjoying gentle sunshine and sitting on grass as rich as anything to be found in Argyle, his back against a rock and surrounded by pines, Fraser’s mind idled in a state between sleep and consciousness when he became aware that an elderly, tall Afghan with a neat white beard was trying to get his attention by smiling and nodding. The fellow had been admiring himself in a pocket mirror. Afghan men liked to look at themselves, apparently, and carried mirrors for the purpose. Many used eyeliner of some kind, kohl they called it. This one did not appear to carry a weapon, and his clothes seemed unusually clean. He moved closer to Fraser and by means of gestures, indicated that Fraser’s leg muscles must be stiff (which indeed they were) and that he would happy to give their foreign guest a massage.
Fraser never liked being touched by strangers. In any case, he noted that some younger Afghan fighters were grinning at them, nudging one another and pointing. He declined the offer as politely as he could, given that he had little Pashto, shaking his head, smiling and showing the palms of his hands. No. Thank you, but no.
So it was that a week after leaving Peshawar, capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, Fraser and his companions were lying up in wooded foothills overlooking a village on the edge of a wide, stony plain that the Afghans said led to their capital, Kabul.
‘English, you stay. Too much danger. You wait here.’
Fraser disagreed. He argued; he refused to stay. In truth, he was afraid; he could hear his built-in alarm sounding shrill in the back of his head. He knew they were testing him; he also knew that he hadn’t walked for a week across the Hindu Kush, starved himself, gained bloody blisters on both feet, learned to use a stone to clean his arse, having shat something as hard and painful as a brick (he half expected it to bounce but it didn’t), become lousy with vermin, merely to turn away when at last he had a chance of seeing action.
The little Soviet monoplane interrupted the argument. It buzzed up the valley, turned in a leisurely half-circle over the village, flew back.
Early the next morning after prayers, they walked down to the village, Fraser among them. It was still dark. There were twenty-three Afghans, young and old, armed with Kalashnikovs of one kind or another, from Czech to Chinese and Egyptian versions; they walked through the cool, mud-walled alleys through to the other side, then sat themselves down on a small rise just beyond the hamlet as the sun rose. They ate a kind of scrambled eggs – Fraser wolfed down his share – with the flatbread; it was very oily, but the first real meal he had enjoyed since the journey began. They drank heavily-sweetened green tea, smoked Fraser’s Lucky Strikes and chatted with the village elders and admired the sea of gravel. It was going to be a beautiful day. They were waiting for dusk before moving across open ground. Fraser felt sleepy with a nearly full belly. He told himself he and his throbbing blisters had the entire day to rest; he could feel afraid again later if he had a mind to.
They heard the enemy before they saw them.
Helicopter gunships, the formidable Soviet weapon systems NATO designated Mi-24 and codenamed ‘Hinds’ were at this distance tiny insects, flying low, back and forth, back and forth, buzzing busily. Now Fraser saw the dots, a string of them, raising billows of brown dust. The gunships fussed over them like a couple of over-zealous collies nipping at the heels of recalcitrant sheep.
The dots grew and so too did the aircraft.
It was only after perhaps ten or fifteen minutes that Fraser’s companions showed signs of unease. The dots were turning; yes, they turned east, line abreast, heading towards Fraser’s companions and the village that lay directly behind them. The predatory outlines of the gunships and distinctive whack of their rotors were unmistakable. Another minute and the vehicles were no longer dots but clearly BMP-1s, tracked and armored fighting vehicles that were fast and low, armed with both co-axial machine-guns and 73mm smooth bore cannon. They were accompanied by more mundane troop carriers, the wheeled BTR-60s that were the workhorses of both Warsaw Pact and People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) infantry.
The BMPs fired. Shells fluttered overhead and struck somewhere in the village, each detonating with a flash, a dull thump and a plume of dust and smoke.
Serious shite, this. Fraser spoke out loud; in the week alone among these people he had begun muttering to himself. He longed to hear just a few words of English. He turned; he was quite alone. He had been so absorbed in what was unfolding to the west that he hadn’t heard his companions shouting, or noticed that they were fleeing in some disorder, their loose clothing and potus streaming behind them, billowing in the morning breeze. They didn’t fall back. They didn’t retreat in stages, facing the enemy. They turned tail, scattering like kids who’ve been spotted stealing sweets from the corner shop.
They called to him, turning around momentarily, but they turned back and kept running towards the village and the hills and mountains behind it. Fraser caught up, but he was still tail end charlie as they ran through the village; they had no intention of defending the place or its inhabitants, and they wouldn’t slow down for him.
With the mud-walled village now between the guerrillas and the Soviet/PDPA attacking force, a red, single-decker bus appeared, apparently summoned by the commander. Where it had come from Fraser had no idea. Its engine idled while the two dozen fighters scrambled on board; two Afghans grabbed Fraser and pushed him on, too. He had no option, unless he wanted to throw himself out of a window, for the windows had no glass so it wouldn’t have been difficult, though Fraser had no death wish and no desire to end up with the leading role in a show trial. The bus might be ancient, but the paintwork was new; on this drab landscape it must have stood out for miles.
The Afghans gave vent simultaneously to their opinions as to the best course of action. Yelling at the driver, they jumped hammered feet and fists on the body of the bus and its floor, cocked their weapons and pointed them at the driver’s head. With a grinding of gears the bus bumped along a track, swaying from side to side; progress seemed excruciatingly slow. The mud walls fell away and they were in open country; the sound of the gunships overrode everything else, drowning out the shouts of the panicky passengers, and Fraser glimpsed the shadow of one of the predators as it sped overhead.
A single burst from the mini-gun jutting from under the nose of the ‘Hind’ would do for them, bloody right it would.
The bus halted. The driver leapt out of his seat.
They all got out, or fell out, leaping from doors and windows.
They loped through fields of melons; they skidded through fields of poppies. They raced across what seemed to be fields of watercress or clover and jumped over irrigation ditches; they climbed over mud walls and sprinted through openings from one field to the next, dodging the trunks of apricot and plum trees like downhill skiers navigating moguls. The egg-beater whacking of the gunships thudded in Fraser’s brain. There was a great deal of firing behind him – they were shooting up the village.
Fraser dared not look back or up; it would only slow him down. He did not know how far or for how long he ran; he sprinted for his life. His turban, a grey and silver affair worthy of a Pashtun chief or successful dope smuggler that he’d bought in Peshawar’s old city, was beginning to come undone and wound itself snake-like around neck and shoulders. Such vanity! Python-like, it would work its way all around him and eventually trip him up and he knew that if he fell he might very well not get up again.
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail –
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride.
A hand grabbed Fraser’s shoulder, pushed, gave one final thrust; a gruff voice gave orders, and he realized the iron fingers digging into his flesh belonged to the commander. He bent, waded in, following others, away from sunlight into grey gloom; icy water cascading over his ankles, his knees, his thighs, the snow melt shocking, numbing his joints. Afghanistan: land of contrasts. Enjoy.
They stood in line, snaking along the kerez, the almost horizontal, underground irrigation channel that carried mountain water under the road to the fields below; some Afghans prayed, reciting passages from the Koran, some drank the water; some lifted their shalwar kameez, fumbled with baggy pants and urinated. Urgent prayers for deliverance ceased as a new danger reached their ears from the vertical shafts every fifty meters or so; these provided not only sounds from the surface above but also a thin, dusty, cone-shaped cathedral light to reach those standing nearest to them. The noises told Fraser the BMPs and BTRs had left the village and were coming up the track in the wake of the bus; their tracks squealed, grinding away like steel teeth, hungry for prey. Fraser cringed; he imagined that at any moment a PDPA or Soviet soldier would jump down and stroll over to one of the shafts, pull the pin on a grenade and drop it. Fire in the hole! Anti-personnel, fragmentation, phosphorus – whatever took his fancy, whatever he had on his belt.
They were overhead.
Fraser held his breath.
The noise of the enemy receded.
It was late afternoon when Fraser and his companions emerged; the shadows were lengthening as they walked back to the village. When they reached the pink-beige houses he saw that the attackers had rolled along the main street, firing into the homes and mud walls. Several people had been injured, mostly women; two village men had died in honorable but futile defense. Their bodies were laid out on their backs and wrapped in their potus, awaiting burial; they hadn’t been washed; there was still blood on their waxy faces.
It was expected of Fraser that he would do something to help. To his surprise they didn’t object when he cleaned the wounds of the women: a head injury, a puncture in an elderly woman’s breast, a strangely bloodless hole in the upper arm of another. He did his best; he used up his iodine, antiseptic cream and dressings. When he was done he asked a village youth – the lad spoke some English, seemed to be about 14 and was therefore considered an adult – what they would do with their wounded.
The boy seemed surprised. ’Oh, they’ll take the bus to Kabul tomorrow. There’s a Russian hospital where they can get help. They’ll say they were wounded by the mujehadeen. They’ll come back in the evening.’
For the first time Fraser – until now unwitting victim of his own and others’ propaganda – saw clearly that the peasants were caught in a vice, squeezed between superpowers and their proxies. It occurred to him that the bus provided a regular, twice weekly service between village and capital and perhaps that was why the gunships had not destroyed it. Perhaps the mujehadeen were counting on Soviet/PDPA restraint. Would U.S. or British or French aircrews have held back in similar circumstances?
Fraser was elated; every fibre, every nerve was joyously alive; the bliss was intensely physical. He talked a lot, loudly; he couldn’t help himself. He was mad, certainly. He had learned an important lesson of war: survival in the face of others’ violent death brings intense pleasure. He forgot his blisters; he felt more alive than ever.
The Jamiat-e-Islami mujehadeen commander arranged for Fraser’s return by providing a guide and a donkey. The donkey belonged to the guide, a sullen youth with acne and an Ak-47 rifle. Fraser wasn’t sure if he’d bought it or simply rented it but either way, he had no intention of riding the animal; he told himself it wasn’t much in Pakistani rupees and although he suspected he was being overcharged, Fraser didn’t object. He was in too much of a hurry.
If he started early and walked hard, he could make the border in a day, albeit a very long day; it wasn’t really a border, just a line drawn on a map the previous century by a British colonial officer named Durand. Fraser would write up his experience in several different ways, tailoring each version in style and length for each outlet to maximize the return. It never occurred to him until very much later that his tale of hiding in an underground irrigation channel would have consequences, that a party of Afghans would be slaughtered in a similar kerez the following year and that Jamiat-i-Islami would blame Fraser for the deaths.
Only a handful of mostly French and British freelancers covered the Afghan war on anything like a regular basis, and some ventured deep into Afghan territory for weeks or even months, especially five freelance cameramen and photographers, two British, two French and one American of French origin. They had enviable stamina and courage. How they could justify the amount of time they invested in the conflict in terms of financial return, Fraser had no idea. Perhaps they didn’t try. Maybe they did it for the love of the place, of the Afghans, of the cause of so-called freedom, or to build up their own career prospects; maybe they paid for it from the proceeds of other assignments. It certainly wasn’t the American notion of war reporting – there were no helicopters to take correspondents to the front, or anywhere near it, then back in time for a hot shower and cold lager at the hotel bar. There were no real briefings. The news wasn’t neatly wrapped and packaged. The American vice-consul in Peshawar gave ‘off-the-record’ briefings based on what a single, unnamed carpet dealer or simply ‘a traveller’ had reportedly seen in Kandahar or Kunduz, and this was also provided the same day at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, but no-one could take that State Department drivel seriously, except for the New York Times (which could never resist, then or now, the temptation of publishing highly dubious stories based on ‘sources that spoke on condition of anonymity’) and the ideologically driven Wall Street Journal. The only way to be sure of anything was to get to the fighting on foot, with no guarantee that at the end of it there would be action; the reporter was limited to line of sight. Then there was the return hike to file copy by telex, by which time any news would be stale. There were no phones, of course. The enemy wasn’t Soviet; it was exhaustion and it was time itself, for there were vast tracts of Soviet-occupied Afghanistan – and indeed, tracts that weren’t occupied by anyone – that went unreported for years, maybe decades.
All went more or less well until they reached the mountains and hit snow fields on the western slopes. The donkey carried nothing but was still slow. In the drifts it came to a complete halt, its front legs sinking deep into the snow. It made no headway at all and looked to Fraser pretty pleased with itself for its willful act of civil disobedience. The guide refused to beat his charge, or insert the muzzle of his Ak-47 up the animal’s backside as an increasingly furious and hungry Fraser insisted.
Fraser practiced what Pashto he had learned.
Miming the action: ‘I want to shoot the fucker and eat one of its legs’.
Guide, sniffily: ’Ha! Only a Russian would eat a donkey.’
Fraser went on; after twenty minutes or so he turned and looked back. The guide was far below, pulling the donkey after him and trying to catch up, but it was a losing battle. Fraser marched on. All he had to do was keep heading east, for eventually he would be on Pakistani territory, or more accurately, in one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal agencies. Somehow the climb seemed easier this time. He panted with the effort, and he used his hands to push down on his thighs, but he felt pretty good. He was quite alone. Guide and donkey were out of sight; maybe they’d turned back.
Fraser came upon a valley with a broad, shallow stream meandering down the centre. Forests grew on either side; above that the valley was rimmed with blue peaks and white patches of snow. There were no villages, no houses he could see – there was no sign of human habitation at all, though he had to assume he was being watched by someone, perhaps a shepherd; Afghans could tell a great deal about a stranger at a considerable distance, from the way he walked to the cut of his clothes and especially the way he wore his turban. Fraser knew that if there were watchers they wouldn’t mistake him for an Afghan. He wore American combat boots, not sandals, and he was far from expert in tying his turban in the correct fashion. He didn’t worry about it for there was nothing he could do: they’d certainly think it odd that he wasn’t armed, as possession of a rifle was an accessory essential to male self-esteem.
At dusk he was moving uphill when he heard voices and looked up. Ahead, on the same track but moving down towards him in the opposite direction was a group of Afghans, perhaps thirty or forty in all; they strolled along in a crowd, bunched up, chattering. Companionably, some held hands. They hadn’t seen him because they weren’t looking – they had no scouts out on their flanks, no advance guard. Apart from their weapons and ammunition, they were no more military in the way they carried themselves than football spectators heading to a match on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, they were youngsters for the most part; they were going in to fight. Fraser contemplated moving off the track and taking cover behind some boulders, but he decided to act openly, reasoning that if he were caught skulking behind the rocks it might seem as if he was hiding something, and it wouldn’t go well with him, so he kept walking uphill in full view.
The Sovs were missing a great opportunity.
When they were no more than a dozen paces apart, one of the Afghans saw him and said something. A dozen Ak-47 and SKS rifles were raised and cocked; the group parted and moved aside for him to pass, but strangely, they made no effort to stop him.
‘Russki,’ said one Afghan as they drew level. It was more statement than question; they were close enough to see the colour of Fraser’s eyes, his reddish-blond beard, and his foreign boots.
‘Russki?’ They’d stopped and turned.
Be friendly. We’re all pals. Fraser smiled, shook his head.
‘Assalaam aleikum,’ he said, placing the palm of his right hand over his heart in respectful greeting.
‘Waleikum salaam’, came the chorus of replies.
They stood around him in a circle, uncertain. While several weapons were pointed loosely in his direction, Fraser noted that the faces of their owners were more curious than hostile. For one horrible moment, Fraser realised he’d forgotten the word for ‘press’ and ‘journalist’ in Pashto; he raised his hands and tapped away as if at a keyboard. Then he made a scribbling motion with his right hand, as if holding a pen.
Someone got it. ’BBC?’
Fraser nodded. ’BBC’.
‘Ahh. BBC!’ That explained everything. The muzzles of the threatening rifles dropped and in their place a hedge of brown hands appeared. Fraser, grinning, shook as many as he could. They patted him on the arm and slapped him on the back as the acronym was repeated again and again. ‘BBC. BBC!’
They went on down the hill, still saying ‘BBC’ and turning to wave to him. No Afghan, certainly no Pashtun, would let an evening go by without listening to the BBC’s Pashto or Dari services on a shared transistor radio, its owner expertly switching from one wavelength to another as reception faded in and out. The Voice of America, or VOA, was the second choice. Still, Fraser could have been just about anyone walking up that hill.
Minutes before midnight, Fraser arrived at the Jamiat-i-Islami compound in the Paracinar Salient of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. He banged on the gates until a guard woke and let him in. He was fed, and everyone who wasn’t still asleep gathered round to watch him devour goat stew. Fraser didn’t mind the audience; he was used to it by now. He was shown to what he was told was the commander’s bed, the commander being absent. It was inviting: it was a three-foot bed, with mattress, sheets, blankets, pillows in pillow cases and to Fraser’s amazement it was clean, much cleaner than he was and it stood against a wall in the main room where most of the slept on the floor.
He protested as he thought he ought, but his hosts insisted. No, no, no, you must take it. You are our guest. All right, if you say so. The commander would be in for a nasty surprise when he got back to find his clean sheets were soiled and his blankets infested with lice and ticks, but by then Fraser would be back home in Peshawar. Aside from boots and turban, Fraser climbed into bed fully dressed. It was comfortable and warm and smelled good. Fraser stank like a zoo, even to himself, but he fell asleep at once even before he felt the lice start to bite. Everyone else went back to bed, too. Or so he thought.
Fraser was woken by someone shaking his shoulder.
‘My bed,’ said a voice. ‘My bed.’
It was the younger of two kitchen cooks, a plump, round cheeked youth who’d brought him his dish of stew and watched him eat it with the aid of a spoon and bread.
‘Fuck off.’ Fraser went back to sleep.
It happened again. It might have been five minutes or five hours. This time the Afghan was trying to get into bed with Fraser, and was urging him to make room.
Something in Fraser snapped. All the frustrations, the fear, the impatience, the loneliness, the discomfort of the previous ten days erupted in blind rage. Leaping up, he had both hands round the youth’s neck; he drove him back, away from the bed and slammed him into the opposite wall, stepping on sleeping figures, ignoring protests. His fingers dug deep into the flesh of the lad’s throat, his thumbs were on the boy’s trachea and he was pressing into it. Hard. He was going to crush it. He was going to rip it out. He was shouting. He didn’t really know what he was shouting, but he wanted to rid himself permanently of this pest. He wanted to obliterate this fat, soft creature.
Others intervened, forcing the two of them apart. Fraser pushed his feet into his boots, grabbed turban and backpack and ran out into the forecourt. He hammered on the big metal doors, demanded the guards unlock them and open up.
‘You can’t go out there – the Pakistanis will arrest you. The police are watching.’
Five Afghans had the cook by the arms and dragged him before Fraser. They handed him a Kalashnikov. ‘Beat him. Please. Hit him. He has shamed us.’ That was what Fraser thought they were saying, but he wasn’t sure. To ensure he did understand, they performed a pantomime of striking the youth with the rifle stock and kicking him. He took the weapon and pushed the muzzle into the cook’s face. He racked the slide. He pushed the safety off. Why beat him? He could and would shoot the bastard. The kid fell to his knees and started blubbing for mercy; he was sorry, please mister.
There was no clip.
Fraser squeezed the trigger.
Damn thing really wasn’t loaded.
The thought occurred to him that possibly – just possibly – both cook and bed were regarded as amenities for the foreign guest to enjoy on his first night back. A welcome gift like scented soap in a hotel bathroom or a Belgian chocolate on the pillow. With Pashtuns, you could never tell, even if they were devout members of Jamiat-i-Islami.
The absurdity of it; the impulse to murder evaporated. He laughed at his hosts and he laughed at himself; he walked back into the headquarters, giggling, weeping, tore off his boots, dropped turban and backpack and fell onto the bed. He slept for twelve hours. When he woke, Fraser staggered out into the yard and relieved himself, Afghan-style, crouching down in the dust. He was just in time to catch the daily public bus back to Peshawar and the hotel.
John Fullerton was born in England, grew up in apartheid South Africa and after working for newspapers, set out in February 1981 to cover the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Three years later he joined Reuters, working on 40 countries and covering a dozen wars. he has an MA in Buddhist Studies, and has published five novels and one work of non-fiction. When not traveling, he lives in Scotland.