An Afghan Haircut
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The locals squatted low, holding a protective arm to cover their faces. We khareji [foreigners] knew better and stood tall – lenses at the ready. Over the radio, the countdown was in Persian, from five: ‘peinj, char, se, du….’ It was a bit of an anti-climax – more a ‘sphutt’ than the anticipated ‘ka-boom’.

Then came the pressure wave.

Then the red-hot shrapnel fizzing through the air between us. The sound of several six-inch nylon zippers – unbearably amplified, brief, alive in the ear.

Taher’s supervisor raced across field, shalwar kameez billowing out behind. He began cuffing Taher round the head. The local men giggled. Taher apologised. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry. I learn blue-bombs yesterday only.’

* * * * *

The embossed accreditation paper from the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said we were journalists. But we were war tourists, like everyone else. Posing for photographs on beat-up Russian tanks, collecting stories of near-misses to tell in our local – finding out what ‘an Afghan haircut’ means.

We were at a de-mining demonstration out on the Shomali plains. American jets had dropped BLU-97 cluster bombs on fleeing Taliban fighters. The Taliban, though, were up the road half a mile away, in their Toyota pick-ups, laughing and stroking their beards – according to Taous, the head villager of Syab Quli, a mud-walled kishlak. He laughed at the memory. Not because being bombed was funny, but because the American had missed by such a long way.

Now, though, Taous was pissed off. The bombs that exploded had destroyed the irrigation ditches essential to his stony wheat fields. He was left waiting for the de-miners to come and deal with a hundred or so duds – yellow canisters about the size of a beer can, 225g of high explosive inside a cone of pre-fragmented toughened steel. The red-hot shrapnel can penetrate the skin of an armoured Landrover at 50 metres. Colin, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert had described them as ‘vicious little triple-fused fuckers’. He calculated the Americans had dropped over 40,000 during the conflict phase, a fifth of which had failed to fire. Colin, ex-British Army, was back behind his desk in Kabul.

Instead, Taher, locally trained, agreed to blow one up for the cameras. He pointed to a mound about 150 metres away – from where we could watch in safety. The villagers came to watch the show too. Apparently, BLU bombs were great for fishing, so long as you could get them to the river before they blew up. Two days later, I spotted a newspaper report of a fisherman killed doing just that.

We were lucky. We survived our Afghan haircut.

* * * * *

General Matien was unimpressed by this adventure, but too polite – or too bored – to say so. At the punchline, he nodded. He flexed and unflexed his left hand, looked at it and said, ‘Bia barim!’ – let’s go!

A clatter of Kalashnikovs. Soldiers scrambled up, tying their bootlaces. Sayed-Mohammed was not quick enough. General Matien hurled one of his boots out the door and half-kicked, half-threw the soldier after it. Sayed-Mohammed hopped to the 4×4, his gun in one hand, trying to put his boot on with the other. The General laughed. We laughed. It seemed polite.

General Matien clipped his automatic pistol into its leg-holster. It was a Makarov PM nine millimetre – standard-issue to Russian army officers during the 1979-89 war. How did he acquire that? I enquired. The General laughed.

* * * * *

After Charikar, the road split left to Bamiyan, ancient city of the buddhas – a drive of ten hours along the single-track dirt road that crosses the Baba mountains. The 1972 guide book – all about the Silk Route traders and Mongol commanders who had travelled along this way – was impossible to read. The vehicle was plunging and lurching violently, its own rodeo. The scenery – barren mountains, mud villages, willow groves fed by mineral-rich rivers – was an eloquent substitute.

General Matien took the front seat beside the driver. His two soldiers (our bodyguards) were stuffed in the boot with the luggage. Polished black boots, black beard, black woollen burglar’s hat. He hardly spoke, staring at a private horizon. The motion of the vehicle was exhausting but the General seemed unaffected.

On the road there was a damaged bridge. The central span had been destroyed by an American bomb. Rusty, bent sinews protruded in tangles from the northern stump of reinforced concrete. That night a white and yellow taxi had driven off the end – a drop of sixty feet. A small crowd had gathered to watch the recovery of the six bodies. We crossed the river-bed and stopped for a moment. Someone sneaked a photograph. General Matien didn’t even glance. ‘Bia barim!’ he said.

* * * * *

I knocked three times before getting an answer. A cigarette? The general didn’t smoke. A sweet? Only children ate sweets. Perhaps he would like to borrow the binoculars – a new pair of powerful Canons in shock-proof green rubber? They were a farewell keep-safe from my girlfriend. He slung them proudly round his neck – an accessory befitting the commander of the mission. Braced against the window he began scanning the peaks, tracks and rivers where had fought first the Russians as a teenager and, until two months ago, the Taliban.

Every hour we stopped in a village for chai sabse – green tea. Word of General Matien’s arrival passed from shopkeeper to benzine dealer to car mechanic to roadside baker. Little boys abandoned their goats and ran back to their fathers. Commanders and comrades presented themselves at the tea-house door. They exchanged greetings – heavy hugs and the lightest of kisses that brushed the cheek before landing somewhere behind the ear.

At these times the General was present again, alive and laughing, talking about the old days, introducing his ‘new’ binoculars and the unwittingly comical khareji. Everyone we met undertook to kill anyone that laid a finger on us. It was a mark of respect to the General.

Sometimes the General would take an older man aside, find a quiet corner and squat on his haunches to talk business. He was gathering intelligence to take back to General Anwari, the big Hazara boss in Kabul. When I asked for details, my translator always came up with the same unintentionally poetic answer. ‘The General is sharing sadnesses.’

* * * * *

‘There,’ said General Matien. He was pointing to the base of a mature willow grove, twenty feet below the level of the road. He got out and scrambled down the bank. We followed. When we caught up, General Matien was standing where his captured Russian tank had come to rest when it toppled off the road. He explained in Persian – smacking the back of his hand into his palm to express each of the impacts. The tank had rolled six, maybe seven times before coming to a standstill. Then there were flames.

He was sitting high in the turret and was thrown clear from the commander’s seat. He was flying though the air. The tank would have crushed him – but for its several tons of steel armour bouncing like a toy over his head. Only Allah, peace be upon him, knows how it missed. He broke two ribs. His four comrades were killed, including the best driver he ever had – ‘a crazy man’, but the maniac could take a tank anywhere. That day, as they descended the pass, he had been unlucky. The tank had slipped a track running at full speed.

The General turned his back for a moment. He stood stroking the silvery bark of a perfectly straight willow sapling. ‘Bia Barim!’

* * * * *

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