A chance road trip from Torkham to Qunduz turns into an experience of a lifetime
It was December, 2006. We were at the airport, scheduled to fly from Peshawar to Kabul, when suddenly airport authorities announced that the flight had been cancelled due to bad weather in Kabul. It was quite disturbing because we had to catch a flight the next morning from Kabul to Dushanbe – where I was based those days – and it was not a connecting flight. I called one of my colleagues, Shahnoor Rahim, who was based in Kabul. He suggested that we travel by road. I had a discussion about this with Amna, my wife, and we agreed to travelling by road, owing mainly to curiosity and the promise of an adventure.
We crossed the border after immigration formalities but there were no familiar checks on the other side of the border. We had to ask the immigration desk about how to get our passports stamped for entry. We were directed to the designated office, where an official marked ‘entry’ on our passports. The next task was to get a taxi. We were surrounded by a number of taxi drivers but I wanted to travel with a driver who could speak Urdu. At last, a young man stepped forward and started talking in Urdu. After bargaining on fare, we were on the road to Kabul. The driver told me that he had attended high school in Peshawar. He said his parents still lived there. However, he was in Afghanistan as it offered better opportunities to earn a living. We felt rather relieved after a few minutes’ drive because of the familiarity around us. There were the same kind of dresses, the same mannerisms and the same body language as in Peshawar.
After about half an hour I received a call from our host in Kabul. He talked to the driver through my cell phone. He told me that the driver seemed reliable and would take me to our contact point in Kabul. We stopped for Maghrib prayers after passing Jalalabad, where I got an opportunity to interact with local people, who were happy to facilitate us. They even invited us to stay and have food with them, an offer we politely refused due to the long journey ahead. The drive to Kabul was mostly smooth except for a little delay due to a traffic jam near the capital. We checked into the hotel. As we were tired due to the long journey we had to decline a warm invitation for the dinner by our host. Next morning, the driver came to drop us off at the airport. We were subject to utter surprise when we approached the immigration counter. A young official came up to us and informed us that we didn’t have a valid visa to enter Afghanistan. I showed him the ‘entry’ stamp on our passports from Torkham. He said it was a mistake by Torkham immigration. The visa suggested raft o bergasht, suggesting that it expired when we entered Afghanistan last time from Tajikistan and left for Islamabad. He said that he couldn’t allow us to board the plane. I tried to convince him that the Afghan embassy in Dushanbe had categorically told me that I could travel to and back from Pakistan through Kabul on this visa, but in vain. Finally, I called my host, after talking to the relevant official he told me to leave the airport. We came back and applied for renewal of the visa, which we got in two working days.
Instead of waiting another four days for the next flight we decided to travel by road from Kabul to Qunduz – an Afghan city along the border with Tajikistan. Next day, we started our journey early to ensure that we reached Qunduz during office hours to cross the border. This time, Yaseen, a driver provided by our host in Kabul, Nabi Muhammad, accompanied us. Yaseen belonged to the Hazara tribe and had a good command of Urdu, a reasonable command of English and a great love for Pakistan. We will remember his facilitation for the rest of our lives.
The story of his life suggested deep connections with Pakistan. For several years he had lived in central Punjab where he had set up a very good poultry business before repatriation to Afghanistan. Some of his family members were still in Pakistan. He also praised the educational institutions in Pakistan. For his facility in English, he gave credit to his school which he had attended in Pakistan.
At one point during our journey we had to overtake an armoured vehicle. Yaseen suddenly and curiously slowed down, saying, “Oh, now we can’t reach Qunduz during office hours”. On my inquiry he said, “We are not allowed to overtake any armoured vehicles”. However, after a few moments of trudging behind the vehicle he suddenly exclaimed, “No, we can overtake this armoured vehicle”. I asked, “How do you know that you can overtake this vehicle?” He said, “Look, there is a German flag. Germans don’t prohibit overtaking. However, it is prohibited to overtake US armoured vehicles”.
On reaching Qunduz, we learnt that the immigration office was closed due to an official holiday in Tajikistan. We had no other option except to stay in Qunduz. Yaseen helped us find a guest house owned by a German citizen. It was a good experience, nice interaction with the owner, good food and a peaceful night.
Next day, when we approached the immigration officer, he objected to our entry from Torkum. Despite my explanation that we had already rectified the problem and had a valid visa from the Ministry of Interior, he did not agree to stamp our passports for exit. Instead, he said, “Now you need to go to Takhar for clearance. We will allow you only when the authorities in Takhar issue a letter of clearance for you”. I agreed, got the address of the relevant authorities and turned back. A young gentleman in the queue started talking in Urdu, and stopped me from travelling to Takhar, he suggested that I wait for him outside the office. After receiving clearance, he came up to me and told me to come with him to the immigration office. He was fluent in Dari, the language the immigration staff spoke. He talked to the immigration staff for more than fifteen minutes and was finally able to persuade them to stamp our passports for exit. I thanked the young gentleman who then told us that he came from Peshawar. Unfortunately, I no longer remember his name but I will always admire his willingness to be helpful on what was a very difficult day for me.
We left Afghanistan with an impression that Pakistan is relevant from Torkahm to Qunduz and will remain so for decades to come, as long as we have likes of Nabi Muhammad, Yaseen and the very helpful young gentleman we met in Qunduz.
The writer is Associate Professor Management Science at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus and Editor, COMSATS Journal of Islamic Finance (CJIF)