Don’t mess with the Taliban!

Money changer in Afghanistan

Money changer on the street with kalashnikovs on the side

Backpacking in Afghanistan may sound unusual to many of you, especially if it took place when the Taliban was in power. It may sound even more unusual, if it also included a detention with espionage allegations in a Taliban prison, where I got also slightly beaten – we were accused of being American spies by the Taliban, even though neither of us were Americans.

In February/March 2001, I backpacked through Jalalabad, Kabul, Ghazni, Kandahar and Herat in Afghanistan for 15 days during my cross Asia overland trip. I traveled in Afghanistan with a British backpacker, Stuart Fraser, whom I randomly met in the guesthouse I was staying in Peshawar, Pakistan. Stuart was also a hippie like me and had been backpacking in the region for a long time. We happened to get our visas on the same day from the Taliban run Afghani consulate in Peshawar and decided to travel together in Afghanistan at the last minute, mostly because of safety concerns. At the time, it was almost impossible to get reliable information about the country due to the everlasting wars taking place since 1979. Other than the general civil war information I had, all I could learn before entering the country was that hundreds of Afghanis died nationwide, as a result of a famine and drought and they were moving within the country to find better places to live and survive. And, not surprisingly, I saw groups of desperate Afghanis waiting at the Pakistani border with the hopes of crossing into Pakistan for a better life.

 

Afghanistan: The Poorest of the Poor

Kabul

Impacts of the Soviet and the civil war

I have been fortunate enough to have spent time in some of the poorest countries of the world to explore the local culture and observe their way of living. However, the poverty and the desperation I saw in Afghanistan was more heartbreaking than that of anywhere else I have ever been to before. Many people we talked to were so desperate that they were hoping to somehow make it out of the country to start a new life. Therefore, everywhere Stuart and I traveled, people constantly asked for our home addresses in Istanbul and London, so that they would have a door to knock on, when they get smuggled out of Afghanistan. It was a very strange thought for me to give my home address to all these strangers I just met, but I think, it very clearly showed the desperate state they were all in.

There were literally no jobs and even farming was not an option since the land was not arable – there was almost no vegetation in the country and we ended up eating the same meat dish with rice everywhere we went. Most people hadn’t seen any schools in their whole lives. All they had seen were wars, pain and death. After the end of the Soviet invasion that started in 1979, the country suffered from a civil war with six or seven different political and ethnic groups trying to take control of Kabul. And, when I was there in February/March 2001, the Taliban was controlling 95% of the country after years of fighting with these rival groups. The other 5% was under the control of the Tajik warlord Shah Massoud and the fighting was still going on in the Panshir Valley in the north east corner of the country.

The Taliban: Uneducated, Traumatic and Harsh

Kabul hospital sign

No kalashnikovs in the hospital please!

After the Taliban defeated most other rival groups, they set up a backwards and repressive regime, which in many ways reflected the trauma they had suffered since 1979.  The Taliban was an iron fist and ruled the country with its harsh laws and its own very harsh interpretation of what they thought to be Islam. As a Muslim, I was saddened to see that Islam was used as a cover to justify many of their wrong doings that clearly stemmed from lack of education and the deep trauma they suffered. The fist size beard requirement for every men and the photography ban were among the many harsh rules that the Taliban imposed in Afghanistan.

My observation was that most Afghanis didn’t like the Taliban and the way they ruled the country. But, almost all of them appreciated the security and the relative stability the Taliban brought to the country after the decades of chaos they had suffered. And, after all they had no other choice.

My Backpacking Experience in Afghanistan

Kabul bullet holes

Impacts of the Soviet and the civil war: Notice the bullet holes on the wall

Afghanistan was definitely one of the most interesting countries I have ever been to, and despite all the trouble I got in there, I am so glad that I got the chance to explore and have a first hand experience of the region in that specific era. It was not only a unique adventure for me, but also a great life lesson that I will not forget throughout my whole life.

I had already started growing a beard, when I was in India, with the hopes of increasing my chances of getting the Afghani visa in Peshawar, Pakistan. Once my visa was approved, I had to find a gunman to take me through the tribal area and the Khyber Pass all the way to the Afghani border – it was a legal requirement for all foreign nationals in Pakistan to enter the tribal area with an official permission and a gunman. Since Stuart’s visa was also approved the same day, we decided to backpack together in Afghanistan. We had a great experience in our first 14 days that we traveled in Jalalabad, Kabul, Ghazni, Kandahar and Herat. We didn’t see any other foreigners in the country and we were the center of attention everywhere we went. We even caused traffic jams in some places, just because people were not used to seeing foreigners and they often stopped to stare or talk to us. Everyone, including the Taliban, was very friendly to us. We were even interviewed for a publication by a random Pakistani Taliban guy in our last day in Kandahar. The only slight problem was the language barrier. It was hard to meet someone, who could speak English fluently. We mostly tried to communicate using body language.

Herat was our last stop in Afghanistan, before crossing the Iranian border. Some Taliban officials came to our hotel room after our first day in Herat and asked us some questions. We were asked whether we took any pictures of the military airport and why we were dressed like locals. We said no to the first question. Indeed, we didn’t even know that the Taliban had any war planes. We also tried to explain to the person, who seemed to be the head of the group, that we were not trying to look like locals. Even though both of us had shalwar kameezes (the local dress) on, because of our North Face jackets and backpacks everybody knew that we were foreigners. Then, we were told that we were only allowed to walk around in Herat with a local guide designated by them and we had to pay the guide USD 50 per day. We had nothing to hide and were fine with having a local guide with us, but we didn’t want to pay him that much money, as it was a lot for Afghanistan at the time. When we tried to explain this to the guide the next morning, when he came to meet us, we were taken to a place that looked like a prison and were detained there all day with the accusation of being American spies.

In Ghazni with a Soviet tank

In front of a Soviet tank captured by the Taliban

Everything didn’t seem that bad and we were treated well until the point I tried to tell the commander that he should release us and we were not American spies. He obviously couldn’t understand any English and must have thought that I was being rude and possibly too loud. He got furious and struck me twice across the face with anger. Then, he grabbed a kalashnikov from the guard behind him and attempted to hit me with it, but because I stepped away, he ended up not doing it. At the end, I was lucky that he didn’t insist on hitting me with the kalashnikov and left.

Not knowing how long we were going to be held there, I spent the next few hours with a mixture of fear and frustration. For the first time ever I seriously thought of the possibility of not being able to return to Turkey. If we were to held there for a long time, my parents didn’t have a clue about where I was in Afghanistan and Turkey didn’t have an embassy in Kabul – the Taliban regime was officially recognized only by three countries at the time and Turkey was not one of them. But, fortunately, in the end they released us with the condition of leaving Herat as soon as possible and I immediately crossed the border to Iran.

 

8 Comments

  1. taye says:

    What was the dish in Afghanistan?

  2. 2wid says:

    how were they reacting to you taking pictures, were they ok with it?

    • Mustafa Dogru says:

      Photography was strictly forbidden by the Taliban, but the people on the street didn’t have any problems with it and gladly posed for my camera. Hence, I was very careful about not flashing my camera in the beginning, but I got less and less cautious towards the end. And, I am guessing our detention by the Taliban in Herat may have something to do with it – I took several shots of a busy street from the roof of a building and when the Taliban officials came to our hotel the same night, one of the questions I was being asked was whether or not I took any photos of the military airport.

  3. James says:

    An amazing read. Thanks. I wish I could do something like this one day. But the risks seem to great (for me). Good on you!

  4. Aaron says:

    If the war ever ends I would recommend going to parun nuristan, the kunar river valley, the pesh river valley, deserts in nagnahar and seeing the tora bora mts . Afghanistan is one of the most breath taking mountainous areas I have ever seen. Granted it was all walking up mountains with 150lbs on my back and getting in fire fights with Taliban but by doing so I really got to see alot of the valleys and secluded areas no foreigner has really seen to much before. I hope someday I can come back here with no fighting no taliban and really get to see this place and enjoy it.

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