Escape from Jalalabad

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A Muhajedin soldier stands guard in Jalalabad

TIME stringer Ghulam Hasnain had gone into eastern Afghanistan to report on the Taliban's collapse. But being Pakistani, he found himself having to negotiate his way to safety by armed Afghans of various political persuasions. His story:

I was halfway through lunch at roadside restaurant in central Jalalabad when we heard the first gunfire. The place was empty except for an elderly bearded man at a table nearby, and my driver and I were sharing Kabuli pulao (rice), Afghani tikka (barbeque meat) and Kandhari nan (bread) with a television repairman we'd picked up at Torkham. TV repair was a bad business to be in, Sardar Mohammed told me, because the Taliban had banned television. But he'd helped me negotiate two-way cab fare with Mohibullah, the driver. It was 12:30pm, a pleasant afternoon with soothing breeze. The manager had been listening to a radio, while his three teenage waiters looked bored.

The gunfire was distant, at first, and we took it to be Taliban anti-aircraft firing at high-flying U.S. jets. "Eat well, don't worry," said Sardar. "The driver will take you safely back to Torkham. Don't slow down. Nothing will happen."

No time for tea

[an error occurred while processing this directive]But I was not feeling much for the food. So I ordered green tea for the three of us. Then we heard some shooting nearby, and it seemed to be approaching in our direction. One of the waiters peeped out into the street and said something in Pashto to his manager. I could not pick it up, but the faces of Sardar and Mohibullah turned pale. I asked what happened. "Nothing," they said.

Another waiter brought the green tea. As I picked up my glass but before I could touch it to my lips, another shot was fired just downstairs. "We will have tea somewhere else," shouted the driver. "Let's hurry. Get up. They have arrived."

The manager and waiters were looking at me as if I was some sort of a sacrificial animal.

As I went downstairs and moved towards my cab, the restaurant staff surrounded me to provide some sort of cover. As soon as I settled next to the driving seat, Mohibullah who was virtually hysterical, shouted at me, "Don't talk in Urdu. (My Pakistani native language). Keep quiet. I will talk to them. You don't talk. Understand? You are my responsibility. I will take you back." And then he sped off.

Gunmen in the streets

A few yards away, a teenager carrying an AK-47 rifle was firing at someone in a nearby street. There were some other gunmen taking positions at what appeared to be some sort of government building. The street was filled with the smell of cordite.

None of them looked up as we passed by. Mohibullah was driving up to 80 miles an hour on a narrow street through the town. And his constant honking to clear the road was actually attracting everyone's attention. I was also shaken. He was moving street to street searching for a safe passage out of town, and it appeared gunmen were everywhere — on foot, on Toyota pickups and so on.

Finally, he found the main road leading out of downtown Jalalabad to Torkham. Traffic was at a standstill. And then suddenly, a pickup full of militants carrying rocket grenades and AK-47 rifles was just in front of us. The gunmen asked us to stop.

Return of the mujahedeen

My taxi driver tried to avoid them by saying something in Pashto. But then he stopped, rushed towards their commander, and said something pointing towards me. I kept sitting, not knowing what was going to happen.

But then he was back, driving on. "Don't worry," he said. "I know them." We had hardly moved a few hundred feet when Mohibullah suddenly veered off the road into a field. "Take it easy, I have to talk to my brothers," he said while constantly honking in an effort to attract someone's attention from the large mud house that stood in the field. Nobody came. He ran into another house. A moment later, at least a dozen armed men in two vehicles came towards our vehicle. In the meantime, Mohibullah had brought two men in military fatigues outside and pointed at me.

Moments later we were back on the road to Torkham. "It was a safe house. Talibans are out. They have taken over. Talibans are finished," he said. Anti-Taliban militants had hidden here the previous night before taking over the city this afternoon. I was later told by Pakistani officials at the border that Taliban forces had voluntarily surrendered and handed over Jalalabad to Younis Khalis, a former Mujahedeen commander, rather than lose it to Northern Alliance.

Faking a fight

The shooting we had seen was between the Khalis group and Taliban fighters who were still unaware of the decision of their high command. And the Khalis group also wanted to give the impression to the people that they are taking over the city, not that it was being given to them on a platter. Street vendors were running for shelter, and ours was the only car still moving.

Once outside the city, at the checkpoints that had been manned by the Taliban there now stood men in military uniform with camouflage caps rather than the shawls and black turbans that are the hallmark of the Taliban. Mohibullah turned on the radio. A female singer on a Pakistani station was singing in Urdu: "Please smile, just once." But Mohibullah and I could not manage a smile. We were too preoccupied with how we were going to get through the remaining hour of our journey.

At the abandoned Taliban checkpoints, my driver would slow down without stopping, shout something to the new guards, and speed away. At one such checkpoint, he found some of his old friends. He got out of the car and hugged each one. At another checkpoint, another friend of the driver asked jokingly whether I was Taliban. "They are from Younis Khalis Group," said Mohibullah, gunning the engine to 80 miles an hour. "They have taken over the city. Talibans are gone."

Further away from the city, he accepted a cigarette even though he'd told me he didn't smoke. Inhaling deeply, he seemed calm, now. "They have gone, the Talibans out," he said with a sigh. A few checkpoints later, we were at the border post at Torkham. All that stood between me and safety was four Talibs with guns. I tried to enter Pakistan, telling them I am a Pakistani. The words caused commotion. One Talib grabbed me from the neck. Another grabbed my left wrist. The third put his hands on my chest, forcing me back to Afghanistan.

Border hiccup

"You Pakistani," he shouted in Pashto. "What are you doing here? You a Pakistani officer." I kept replying in Urdu. They forced me to sit on a wheel barrow. I was terrified. My camera was in the pocket of my waist coat. I shuddered at what would happen if they search me and find the camera.

I took out my passport and gave it to a Pakistani guard standing within reach. I wanted to get nearer to him, but the Talibs forced me back. I explained that I was a journalist, but they kept staring at me. I told them I would stay put, in an attempt to pacify them. But when the Taliban's attention was drawn to some incoming refugees, a Pakistani border guard winked and asked me to come in.

The worst thing for a Pakistani in Afghanistan is the Afghan hatred against Pakistan — most Afghans today see Pakistan as the cause of all their troubles. But despite this hatred on my journey from Jalalabad, there were some who took it as their honor to save me and take me home.