Page last updated at 18:05 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Perils of an Afghan bus journey

Northern Afghanistan

By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, northern Afghanistan

On a dark winter morning in northern Afghanistan, Mohammad Hassan is about to drive his 12-seat van from Kunduz to Pol-e Khomri.

He does not have to worry about the Taleban and al-Qaeda militants who lie in wait on roads in the south and east, but Mr Hassan faces an obstacle that can be no less deadly.

Bands of armed thieves regularly mug passengers and threaten drivers in this area.

"They normally come out after 5am. They once stopped my vehicle and took money, cell phones and beat me for not stopping my vehicle," the 42-year-old says.


Before Mr Hassan starts the engine, his passengers utter a simple prayer for the journey ahead.


They include a local mullah, a tradesman, a police officer and several women with young children.

The passengers look on blankly as we pass the corroding carcasses of Soviet-era tanks and other military vehicles.

Little wonder that Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires.

Conversation among the passengers keeps returning to the most pressing of concerns - security.

For the first time in seven years, the Taleban have begun to make their presence felt on the fringes of the northern provinces, targeting Afghan and international forces.

Despite all the setbacks, hope among the passengers still persists.

"Afghanistan is a very different country. Today we have roads, police, army and the world is here. Under the Taleban we had none and we were going 100 years back," says Mohammad Khalid, 69, from Imam district in Kunduz province.

Everyone agrees that Afghanistan is better off without the Taleban, but progress remains painfully slow.

"During the election, [President] Karzai promised a lot of things. He said 'I will bring you security, roads and Afghanistan will be corruption-free' - but he hasn't remained true to his campaign promises," adds another passenger.


When the van stops to pick up its 13th passenger, a young Afghan policeman, we all shuffle closer together to make room.

Mohammad Hassan
These new police check posts are really effective. Thieves and robbers are scared
Mohammad Hassan

Back on the road, Mohammad Hassan soon complains about corrupt policemen.

The policeman responds pointedly: "I am not saying all police are angels, but there are good people. I don't take bribes.

"If the government paid us more money and gave us more resources why should we ask for bribes? It's necessity that drives people to corruption."

Some of the older passengers intervene and the brief verbal clash gives way to a tense silence.

Visibly angry, Mohammad Hassan flicks on the radio, allowing music to chase away the awkwardness of the moment.

Outside, the view is breathtaking as the road stretches through a scarred and jagged landscape dominated by white peaks.

After an hour, one passenger breaks the silence to declare proudly that a journey which used to take five hours now takes two.

We pass roadside adverts promoting the latest deals in phone packages and cooking oil. Some depict women waiving registration cards for presidential elections due later this year, while others urge young Afghans to join the police and army.

Near the old town of Baghlan, several police checkposts force all vehicles to stop. After a five-minute security search and brief round of questions, the police officer waves us on.

Mohammad Hassan thinks the new check posts are "really effective".

"Thieves and robbers are scared. But they sometimes still come out during the night and rob people."

A senior official in Kunduz told me the checkposts were aimed at gathering intelligence about the gangs of robbers.

But he complained the authorities could do with more personnel and equipment to police the road, which links Kabul with northern provinces and Tajikistan.


Before long, Mohammad Hassan is telling us to collect our belongings: "We will be arriving in Pol-e Khomri city shortly."

After Salang avalanche
A number of vehicles had been hit by the avalanches

Along with everyone else, I clamber out of the vehicle, and briefly stretch my legs before hopping on to a second van to Kabul.

Three hours later, we arrive in northern Salang, a mountainous valley deep in snow.

A series of avalanches have blocked the road through the pass ahead and our van is stuck behind a long line of buses, trucks and other vehicles.

We have no choice but to spend the night in the village of Malkhan.

The local hotel is tremendously overcrowded - 10 people are crammed into one room with just a small fireplace to warm us.

Traffic policemen wake us early - the road is now passable and passengers and drivers race for their vehicles.

When we reach southern Salang, we come face to face with the destruction of the night before.

Several vehicles are upside down, some half-buried in snow. A number of people lie by the roadside, victims of an unexpected avalanche.

Our convoy creeps onwards through the muffled white terrain.

The passengers are hardly speaking now. It is as if we have become silent spectators to our own fate - there is no telling when the next avalanche will be, or what lies around the next bend.

Not only do Afghans fall victim to suicide attacks and roadside bombs, but they are harassed by robbers and crushed by the weight of avalanches.

My fellow passengers, however, remain remarkably unphased.

As one they erupt into a jubilant chorus, and I find my voice among them: "The road is open! The road is open!"

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