- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

GULBAHAR, Afghanistan When the Taliban retreats, Mufus Rosekh, a somber man with deep-set eyes and a flowing beard, wants his home back.
"Two years ago, the Taliban burned my house and they killed my son," he said during a food-distribution session in the Panjshir Valley. "I hate them. Now, I hope the king will come back and I can go home."
But Mr. Rosekh, 48, and his seven relatives wouldn't survive the icy Afghan winter in the ruins of their house, located on the fertile Shomali plain some 40 miles from the Panjshir Valley. Nor is immediate rebuilding an option: Houses here are made of clay bricks and mortar, and these materials require the harsh summer sun to literally bake the strength into them.
To help Mr. Rosekh and 25,000 other Afghans caught in the same bind in the Panjshir Valley, France took a bold step early this month. The French Foreign Ministry chartered for $8,000 a giant Il-76 Russian cargo plane, filled it with 40 metric tons of equipment (including 200 tents, 20,000 tarpaulins and 5,000 blankets) and sent it to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan and gateway to northern Afghanistan.
It was the only airlift of humanitarian aid to reach the area since the Afghan crisis began, and how the cargo got to its destination illustrates the difficulties in helping the population of this primitive, inaccessible country.
Taking off was the easy part. But the Tajik president, Imomali Rakhmonov, apparently feared that the aid was coming in a French military plane, which could be misinterpreted as giving open support to the U.S. strikes in Afghanistan something he has avoided.
So, according to a French diplomat, he had it diverted to Kulyab, an airport in the south of the country that has been used for years by the Northern Alliance.
When the press showed up at Kulyab to photograph this example of French generosity, they found the airport deserted confirmation that the Alliance is not getting much help these days. For the whole afternoon, officials in charge insisted the rundown airport and its collection of antique biplanes were "secretno" and banned any picture-taking.
Crossing the Amu Darya
The cargo was eventually unloaded during the night and trucked the next day to the border, which is one of Central Asia's main rivers, the Amu Darya.
There is no bridge, and no through traffic, so the 40 tons of cargo was ferried across on an old steel barge propelled by an on-board tractor connected to a steel cable. Then the material was loaded onto five Soviet-made Afghan trucks, all owner-operated, and taken to Khodzha Bahuddin, a small town where ACTED, the humanitarian organization most active in northern Afghanistan, has one of its bases.
The fact that ACTED (translated, Aid for Technical Cooperation and Development) is French is not unconnected to the French Foreign Ministry's largesse: Pleas for help are best understood in one's own language, an ACTED staffer pointed out.
ACTED, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 1993, drew up the list of needed equipment and delivered the goods.
Four days and many permissions later, the ACTED convoy five trucks and a radio-equipped jeep set out from the Amu Darya plain and headed for the foothills of the Hindu Kush, the mountain range that bisects Afghanistan.
"We'll do it in four days," predicted Laurent Laloge, an ACTED logistics specialist who rode in the jeep. In fact, it took six days before the trucks unloaded their cargo at the ACTED compound in Gulbahar, at the mouth of the Panjshir Valley, just 200 miles from Dushanbe. Now, if the Taliban does retreat, the refugees will be able to spend the winter near their homes.
As the convoy climbed into the foothills, herds of horses with pathetically bony rumps and lowered heads walked slowly by the road, a reminder of the drought that has been parching the region for two years.
When the convoy started hugging the river Kokcha, the grayish ocher landscape didn't get any greener: Hardly anything seemed to grow on the banks of the jade-colored stream.
A village appeared, clinging to the high crags. The earthen houses were angular, vaguely medieval-looking and seemed to grow organically out of the soil. They last less than a decade and have been rebuilt in exactly the same style for generations.
At the caravanserai
At night, the convoy pulled up at primitive, one-room hotels called serais, carpeted but unfurnished and lit with oil lamps. Sometimes there would be succulent rice pilaf or barbecued mutton, sometimes only soft, unleavened bread and tea. The drivers didn't seem to care.
The food was eaten sitting on the floor, with bread in lieu of forks and knives; the guests would sleep, pressed together sardine-like head to toe, pretty much where they had eaten.
Twice, the road disappeared directly into the stream, which the high-clearance trucks plowed through without trouble.
The dirt road there was nothing else on this side of the Amu Darya was rough and uneven. On the other hand, it was perfectly maintained by men with nothing more than picks and shovels. Like a tailor-made suit, it fit the size and capabilities of the six-wheel-drive Kamaz and Ural trucks of different vintage and identical dimensions that are the workhorses of Central Asia.
The ledges with crumbling edges were always about a foot from the outer wheel, and when the gorge narrowed to 50 yards and the road rose half a mile above the riverbed, those 12 inches mattered.
The view from the truck's cabin was like one from a plane's cockpit as the truck reared at the top of a particularly steep hill before taking a sharp turn, seemingly into thin air.
Our driver, Mohammed Nur, handled it with nonchalant expertise. Occasionally, he would take out a cigarette filled with hashish and smoke it, to no noticeable effect. Hashish is widely used in Afghanistan's transport industry.
Some hairpin turns were so tight that the trucks simply reversed up the hill to the next one, then went forward again. A mechanic with a dust-encrusted face rode on top of the back of each truck, jumping down on these occasions to guide the growling beast.
At one such turn, the lead truck burst its second transmission, blocking all traffic. The driver was not fazed. He led a team that took out a transmission from another truck, installed it in his, moved his truck out of the way and then reinstalled the good transmission back where it came from. The whole incident lasted less than 10 hours.
In Tamerlane's footsteps
On day four, the convoy crossed the Anjuman Pass, at the 14,000-foot level. On their voyages of conquest, Alexander the Great had gone northward here, and Tamerlane after him had come south.
When we reached the top, even the driver stopped and walked over to the highest point to contemplate the towering, snow-draped mountains around us that seemed in the sharp light close enough to touch.
A few hours later, a snowstorm temporarily closed the pass, which is expected to become impassable by the end of November unless ACTED succeeds in a project to get bulldozers up there and build a pair of road-clearing stations.
With the front where it is, the pass is the only road access to the Panjshir Valley. On the other side of the pass, the driver and his friends pointed excitedly to huge craters that Soviet bombers had left during Moscow's 10-year attempt to subjugate Afghanistan.
Their tactics, based on overwhelming firepower, were in spirit similar to those of the British a century earlier and yielded the same overwhelming defeat in the face of Afghan endurance and determination.
The Panjshir River soon appeared as a tiny stream, and road and convoy followed the swath it cut through the mountains as faithfully as they had followed the Kokcha.
Another truck broke down on the fifth day, and the on-board mechanics proved equally adept at fixing it on the spot.
Roadblocks manned by Kalashnikov-wielding, bribe-seeking irregulars were handled by the drivers with equal aplomb.
Several times a day, the convoy would grind to a stop in billowing dust so the drivers could pray by the roadside. Afghanistan is one of the Muslim world's most religiously observant countries.
Near the Lion's grave
After a few hours, the road leveled, villages became bigger and terraced fields more common. Ordinary cars ancient Russian Volgas, operated as taxis appeared and golden mulberry trees along the river added an odd note of autumn to what is essentially a mountain desert.
As the convoy moved south and the Panjshir River grew more assertive. An increasing number of wrecked tanks, some with the turrets cleanly blown off by mines, testified to the 10 major offensives the Soviets had undertaken seeking to destroy the base of the valley's famous native son, Ahmed Shah Masood.
Panjshir means "five lions," and Mr. Masood became known as the Lion of the Panjshir. His portraits are still everywhere. He was the military chief of the Northern Alliance and the only Afghan warlord with any charisma when he was killed Sept. 9 at Khoja Bahuddin, by a suicide team believed to have been sent by Osama Bin Laden.

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