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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
Afghanistan's harsh paradise
In the winter of 1999, former aid worker Marcus George seized the chance to visit the Panjshir Valley, stronghold of the Northern Alliance and home to the late Mujaheddin commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The Panjshir is one of few regions in Afghanistan that is known for its successful defiance of the invading Soviet forces, but not long ago it was revered for its beauty and tranquility.
There was no quick way into the valley aside from taking a short walk over the frontline.
We left behind fiery Taleban soldiers with bulging black turbans, yelling incomprehensibly in Pashto as they searched people coming past. We had crossed into no man's land.
I was caught day-dreaming by an Afghan colleague as I walked along the main dirt road north. We fell into the usual Afghan greetings and I saw he was smiling.
I asked him what was on his mind. "Not much Mr Marcus", he replied. "Only that maybe you should put your rucksack on the back of that donkey."
"Why, my friend, does that tired-looking donkey need to carry my bag?" I replied.
"Only that if one of these anti-tank mines beneath our feet should blow up, it will blow up that donkey with bags, and not you," he roared, crying with laughter.
Anti-tank mines are triggered by a heavy weight, but some people had told me old ones could be set off with very little pressure.
A little further up a deep crater taking up most of the road, littered with small bits of plastic and metal which may have resembled pieces of a car, was evidence enough of his claim.
Looking more than a little stressed, I continued the journey stepping softly in the na´ve hope that it may save me from being blasted into small pieces.
Only menacing Mujaheddin, who were demanding money on a hillside track around the main frontline, awoke me from my discomfort about walking over landmines.
We spent the night in Gulbahar at the mouth of the valley and continued our journey the next morning.
On entering the valley in 1957, distinguished travel writer Eric Newby wrote: "It was an exciting moment," he wrote. "Ahead of us the mountains rose straight up like a wall."
"The road turned a corner and now, on the far bank of the river, infinitely secret-looking villages with watch towers built of dried mud, loop-holed and with heavily barred windows, clung to the mountain-side.
We turned another corner and suddenly were in paradise."
I have never been able to visualise what he meant until I entered the valley and saw for myself the climbing cliffs hemming in the pure dark water of the river Panjshir.
The activity in the patchwork fields, alive with men and women tending to their flocks and washing on the river banks, was as Newby described.
But valley life had evidently changed.
Dysfunctional military equipment lay strewn at the roadside: a short way up the road the turret of a tank sat wrong-ended on its dishevelled body spewing its mechanical guts into the air.
Deeper into the valley the shadowy rusting carcass of an armoured personnel carrier sat entombed by water on the river bed.
Our trip had coincided with the third week of the fasting month of Ramadan and short of covertly munching on soggy biscuits when, out of sight we were obliged to fast too.
One afternoon I was caught red-handed with my fingers "in the cookie jar" by a youthful Tajik.
"You too should fast with our people", he spat. "Otherwise you will go to hell". I looked for an excuse, a reason, but there wasn't one.
Further up we passed through Parokh which, after the last failed Taleban onslaught towards the valley, was surrounded by encampments of displaced Afghan families whose homes had been engulfed by battle.
This was a common sight in areas near frontlines.
Communities flee battlegrounds, but when the shooting stops and the rocket launchers fall silent, they know their home will have been razed or their land pocked with unexploded mines.
I needed a toilet. As a male wearing western trousers it was too difficult to urinate when squatting, like the Afghans. I took relief behind a clinic and quietly wished I hadn't swallowed so many glasses of green tea that morning.
Blissfully unaware of my surroundings I realised I was standing in a medical rubbish dump.
Used syringes and blood-caked bandages had been launched out of nearby windows. Pleased I wasn't wearing my plastic sandals, I tip-toed through the festering waste back to the truck.
Deeper into the valley we reached the village of Dara Hazara which was mostly in shadow cast by the dominating crags above. Newby also passed through here on his way to the heart of the Hindu Kush and over into Nuristan.
'An eerie place'
Nearly 40 years ago he had described it as an eerie place.
"Behind us the sun was lost in clouds of yellow dust raised by the wind that had got up suddenly howling across the valley as the sun went down and lashing the river so that it smoked."
It was 24 December and here I was in the depths of the Panjshir Valley, getting frozen by the wind and darkness on the last Christmas of the millennium. The festive season seemed a long way away.
I'd been in the Panjshir for no more than ten days and yet it felt like months. It was paradise, just as Newby had said.
But it was a harsh paradise that had been sucked into a tragic reality where people, families and life were going to waste.
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