`Road from hell' keeps war rolling

Trucks rumble where beasts tread with care

War On Terrorism

The World

October 14, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan - There is a road, of sorts, to the front line of the war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.

It winds past fields of poppies that will be refined into opium and heroin, through villages where most of the male population carries assault rifles, over bridges barely adequate for donkeys, and up and down treacherous switchbacks in the forbidding Hindu Kush mountains.

Nowhere is there even a mile of asphalt or concrete. The road consists of dirt, rock and streambed - and is the Northern Alliance's Interstate 95, its main supply route for the shipment of arms, ammunition and commercial goods to the mountain strongholds it controls despite seven years of steadily losing ground to the Taliban.

The lifeline starts at the Panj River, on the border with Tajikistan, and, after 180 miles, reaches the sun-washed Somali plain, where the Taliban have amassed forces to block the entrance to Kabul. In between are sun-scorched plateaus covered with gray-brown dust, and snow-crusted mountains that burst from the earth like fireworks. Mud-walled villages lie in the valleys; rivers thunder through gorges of gray-black rock.

But, above all, there is the remarkable Afghan dust, so fine and powdery it wreaks havoc on cars and trucks. Drivers perform repairs on the spot. Replacement parts are whatever is at hand: Worn rubber gaskets and seals are replaced with pieces of thread. The driver of a broken-down military truck carrying mortar shells squatted on the ground, patiently disassembling the truck's differential with fewer tools than Americans typically have in their kitchen drawer.

During its decade-long war here, the Soviet Union had problems on these roads. Afghans hid on rocky slopes, waiting for convoys of Soviet armor to approach before they would roll boulders into the road to block the vehicles. The Afghans then would launch rocket-propelled grenades at the first and last vehicles in the convoy, trapping the rest. Within a few years, Soviet convoys traveled only under escort of a helicopter gunship.

The legacy of that war is visible everywhere. Rusting hulks of tanks, armored personnel carriers, armored bulldozers and helicopters lie in fields, on mountainsides and in rivers. They serve as safety barriers, aqueducts and (in the case of upside-down tank turrets) containers for firewood.

Most of the bridges are made of logs. Drivers race across in hope of reaching the other side before the structures collapse. At Pol-e-Begum, west of Fayazabad, is a bridge made of steel. But a man who came to help build it about a month ago misjudged its width. His truck plunged into the Kokscha River, killing him and two children riding with him.

That was the talk last week at Pol-e-Begum's teahouse, overlooking the bridge. A teahouse is combination restaurant, motel and fraternity lodge where village elders gather every day to sit on carpets, drink tea and keep an eye on comings and goings. At night the teahouse becomes a spartan bed-and-breakfast where travelers sleep on the carpets.

Strangers inevitably draw a crowd. At a village called Azrat-a-Sayd, men perched in teahouse window and sat two-deep on an oversized bench, staring genially at visitors drinking tea, eating rice and protesting being charged double the usual price for the meal.

In areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, the legal currency is the afghani. A single afghani is a theoretical unit: The most common bill in circulation is the big, green 10,000 note. Before the sudden influx of foreign journalists, the exchange rate was about 80,000 afghanis to the dollar. Now, it is less than 35,000 to the dollar.

On Monday, after the first night of American bombing against the Taliban last week, hundreds of Northern Alliance soldiers jammed the central bazaar of Bahrak. They were waiting for a truck to carry them south, toward the front. A soldier shouted, "We are going to Kabul!"

Omar Zamery, a 25-year-old trader, expressed admiration for Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, he said, would never have planned the Sept. 11 attacks: Bin Laden "is a good Muslim, and Muslims do not kill innocent people," he said.

In the town of Jurm, some people welcomed the raids. "The Taliban regime supports terrorism," said Sulemin Nawee, 22, an unemployed teacher. "All the people condemn terrorism. Jurm's people dislike this terrorism, and they think that Osama bin Laden is the enemy of Islam."

Many men here are combat veterans. In Jurm, Doud Begmila is still famous for having killed seven Taliban a few years ago, when Northern Alliance soldiers surrounded a sleeping enemy unit.

"I am happy to finish the Taliban people because the Taliban are the enemy of Islam and the people of Afghanistan," he said last week.

Military checkpoints marked by a chain or log across the road are scattered along the length of the highway. South of Jurm, it climbs the side of the mountains - a passage so steep that four-wheel-drive vehicles stall on the grade.

At Zir-e-Katal, at the foot of Anjemon Pass, two Northern Alliance guards warn travelers that Nurastani bandits were preying on cars heading south. And the guards offer to provide an armed escort for $20.

Anjemon Pass, the ridge of the Hindu Kush, is littered with the carcasses of horses and camels that did not survive the climb, and the wrecks of trucks that couldn't negotiate its hairpin turns.

"This road was not built for human beings," an Afghan driver said. "It's a road from hell." It reaches Kapissa province, where the Northern Alliance was firing salvos of rockets at four Taliban tanks about 5 miles away. Compared with the road, it seemed a tranquil scene.

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