Father and Daughter on the Road to Tora Bora
We met them on an unpaved mountain road in the Safed Koh range, an ill-defined area of 15% inhabited features like small farms, mud-fortress warlord bases, and developed cave systems, and 85% mostly deforested, snow-topped mountains flanked by steep talus slopes alternating with lower inclines pierced by hand-dug horizontal wells easily identified by lines of vertical access holes. For millennia, workers have dug these wells, called karezes, to bring meltwater from glaciers down to the villages. A century ago, the British tried to dominate the region with an India-style Raj, but resistance fighters used the karez tunnels to escape and outflank British forces leading the Empire to excuse Afghanistan from forced participation.
Our patrol had stopped to look at such a karez when, walking along the road toward us from the direction we were headed, came this man named Gul Yar carrying his young daughter Nahzy asleep on his shoulders. In addition to Nahzy, he carried an embroidered woollen bag so heavy he immediately sat it on the ground when he stopped at the front of our first vehicle.
He spoke a lot of Farsi, a little Arabic and almost no English. Our guys spoke some Farsi and Arabic. Gul Yar, meaning Flower Lover, said he was a farmer at (redacted), a village two kilometers up the road. Though we struggled to understand him, I rather liked Gul Yar. Maybe it was the twinkle in his eyes, or the way he was not pushy or beggarly. I glanced at his daughter asleep on his shoulders. I pointed at my camera and then at him. He signalled okay.
Our guys wanted to grill the man. They asked him where he lived, what he did, where he was going, what was in his bag, if he had seen armed men on the road ahead, and if he used the karezes to travel. Gul Yar said he was going for a week-long visit with family members at (redacted), a village six clicks back down the road. Staring at a line of regularly-spaced karez access holes used by workers, he readily admitted it was a job he knew well. “Everyone shares karez duties,” he emphasized. The guys seemed unimpressed, but I appreciated being enlightened.
Pressed for more information by my associates, Gul Yar talked about the caves we had spotted on the other side of the valley, caves where he may, or may not have lived himself. Language and secrets gum up communications here. Locals might lie to westerners out of defensive habit, or Gul Yar could even be bragging. According to rumours, wealthy people and war lords are often folk heroes here, reputed to sometimes live in caves equipped with generators and other modern conveniences. I noticed several pairs of binoculars were already pointing at the cave-riddled cliffs. The guys later told me they had seen men with families, electronics, and all kinds of things inside the spiffed-up caves.
Gul Yar accepted our offer for a ride to the village where he and his daughter were going when we met them. He thanked us profusely when he realized we were doing them a favor because that village was opposite of the direction we were traveling. I noticed Gul Yar was formally polite in a jungly sort of way, ‘jungly’ being a term dating back to the old British Raj. It refers to tribal people living in the outback far from the nearest villages. It is pretty much a racist term, but I frequently heard it while I was embedded ‘in country’. Life is primitive and rough out there, and sometimes the men attend to different mores than we are accustomed to back home. I use the term here because it is part of the story's truth, but nevertheless, I apologize.
That village Gul Yar and Nahzy were headed toward had been cleared only yesterday by another unit that also blew up some tunnels linking to the karez system to discourage al-Qaeda operatives from returning. In anticipation of more Coalition bombing, we left the area the very next day. Three days later, both villages were bombed. Every structure was demolished and every civilian killed.
W Goodwin is a writer and visual artist bound by blood and experience to salt water, and directed by mixed genetics to explore uncommon places and themes. W graduated from UCLA (biology and English), plowed through graduate studies in biochemistry, studied scientific photography, traveled the world, taught high school and university-level sciences, raised two excellent children and founded two so-so businesses, including an ocean enterprise in San Diego from whence this story was born. W’s short stories and artwork have appeared in more than a few publications including some well-known literary journals and websites.