by CuChullaine O’Reilly
It seemed like such a logical thing to do at the time. Buy a horse in Peshawar, Pakistan, then head north on my own to the remote and distant area of Chitral, where I planned to team up with Afghan resistance fighters I had never met, who were heading into Afghanistan on a mission against Soviet occupation forces.
The Jihad, or war of liberation as some called it, was going very badly for the Afghans back in 1983. Russian Hind 24 helicopters controlled the skies over a country I had once ridden through and remembered fondly. The mujahadeen were outgunned and demoralised. Every week new posters were plastered around Peshawar showing dozens of photographs of “shaheed” or martyred mujahadeen who had marched home, only to die a few days later.
|Hajii Muhammad from Kandahar was one of the many mujahadeen who the author met in Peshawar.|
Despite their legendary bravery, the average mujahadeen was poorly armed and even more poorly led. The leaders of the seven major resistance groups were at each others throats. The only thing they could agree on was that, after the godless Russians were killed, they would turn their bloody knives on each other.
|Mujahadeen leader Gulbadeen Hekmatiar (centre) confers with Professor Sayyaf (left) at a giant mujahadeen rally held outside Peshawar.|
I swam around in this climate of intrigue and deceit for months, waiting for one or more Afghan commanders to take me inside Afghanistan. My plans upon arriving there were hazy at best. I felt it was important enough to make a stand against Soviet aggression, however remotely unprepared I was.
Yet despite repeated assurances from various mujahadeen leaders that I would leave for the war-ravaged interior of the nearby country soon, weeks of delay turned into months. I found myself out of patience with the Oriental conspirators and decided to strike out on my own.
My old friend Pirgumber Kul, a Turkoman mujahadeen commander, was the one who gave me the idea to head up north and meet horsemen from his tribe. According to him, mujahadeen from his “tanzim” were supposedly gathering there to rendezvous and gather ammunition. It would be my third horse trip in that part of Asia, only this time I would be alone until I located Pirgumber’s friends several hundred miles away.
Using Pathan contacts, I bought a fine palomino mare and an old British cavalry saddle. The ancient Webley revolver I had purchased surreptitiously in the bazaar and my phoney mujahadeen identity card I placed in the bottom of my Afghan saddlebags. With a hoofpick for the horse and a copy of War and Peace for me, I set off for the unknown.
It was a hell of a beginning. The weather was as hot as a blow torch. The Pathan tribes I passed through were suspicious. The mare soon developed a limp in her off fore. And I still had several hundred miles to go.
But it was my Irish roots that nearly got me killed. Before leaving Peshawar, I had an artist friend of mine paint a large red hand on the right shoulder of Shavon, my mare. This totem of Irish defiance had represented O’Reillys for centuries. It seemed appropriate considering the journey ahead of me. Besides, I was too naďve to know it could be interpreted as being anything but Gaelic.
|Mohammad Arif, a renowned calligrapher, painted the red hand of the O'Reillys on Shavon's shoulder prior to the author’s departure from Peshawar.|
The sun was threatening to boil my brain inside my turban when I rode into a nameless fly-blown village. Alongside the road was a shack just big enough for one man to squat in. Some sort of nameless scrub trees threw a splattering of shade over the hovel. Sitting outside the doorway on a charpoy, a native bed made of rope strung between poles, were three crusty-looking characters. But I didn’t pay any attention to these rustics. The only thing I saw was the ancient icebox full of cold soft drinks.
I pulled the mare up. A quick glance told me that the nearby village was an Afghan refugee camp. Even at this distance the place stank of despair. In Farsi I asked the shopkeeper for an orange soda. He obliged and handed one up to me in the saddle. One of the three Afghans sitting on the charpoy started to question me before I had the bottle drained.
“Who are you?”
“An American Moslem.”
“Where are you bound for?
“I’m going to meet friends of mine there.”
That’s when things started to take a sudden wrong turn. In defence of these unknown strangers, it wasn’t such a bad idea to suspicious of a white-skinned stranger dressed like an Afghan. Both the K.G.B. and K.H.A.D., the Afghan communist secret police, had informers in all the mujahadeen organisations. Spying was rampant. Assassination wasn’t uncommon. Nobody trusted their neighbour, much less a foreigner on a horse.
|A Soviet soldier's identity document captured in Ghazni by the Afghan resistance.|
But I never got the chance to explain. Suddenly the inquisitive man closest to me on the charpoy stood up. His face had been partly melted away by a napalm blast. He was ugly and belligerent. I was hot and had a long way to go. It was an unfortunate meeting.
I tossed money towards the shopkeeper
“Thanks, but I must be going.”
“Look at this,” he said triumphantly, pointing to the red hand painted on Shavon as evidence of my communist collusion. “You’re a Russian spy. Get down,” he screamed and, grabbing the reins just below the bit, tried to gain control of my horse.
I could stand a lot; the heat, this ignorant peasant, even his misplaced suspicions. But no one messes with my horse. I snapped.
“Let go!” I yelled and then hit him with my quirt before setting spurs to the horse and breaking free. The mare charged out of town. It didn’t seem the time or place to stick around and discuss the history of Irish resistance symbology.
We rode hard for fifteen minutes. But the weather was fierce and Shavon was soon drenched in sweat. I slowed her to a walk, patted her and started to tell her how I would be more careful n the future about where I bought my soft drinks. The motor traffic on the road was steady and I wasn’t paying too much attention until a large Toyota van sped by me, then came to a sliding stop sideways, blocking the road. Before I realised it the doors swung open and a crowd of men, including my former inquisitor, came rushing at me.
“Kushad dushman muhbir, kill the enemy spy” the men were screaming.
Then hands were reaching up, trying to drag me to the ground. I started whipping them with my quirt, trying to keep Shavon under control and stay in the saddle at the same time. But then time seemed to stop. I froze as my vision narrowed in on an old man striding towards me from the van. His face was full of fear and his gun hand was shaking. But the pistol he was holding was pointed at my heart. It seemed to be staring at me with its huge evil-looking black hole. I waited for him to fire and told myself, “This is where I die.”
Before the old man could take aim and fire, I was swept off my horse by the crowd of angry, shouting men. But the wizened gunman made his way through the crowd and held his pistol on me while various members of the mob started to beat me. I tried to cover my face with my arm. Luckily my turban took most of the impact from the blows aimed at my head.
There is no point in trying to talk. These fellows were shouting back and forth in Farsi and Pushtu and were clearly out for my blood even if I couldn’t understand every word they said. Shavon’s reins had been ripped from my hands. Now the old gunman shoved his pistol into my back and motioned for me to move away from my horse. I hesitated for a moment until someone gave me a terrific shove in the back.
I had no choice. I started walking back towards the refugee camp and a dangerously uncertain future.
During this episode, the motor traffic that was travelling down the road was forced to slow to a crawl in order to pass both the mob and their van that was still sitting sideways across one lane of the rural highway. As I walked, I was surrounded by my antagonists. But I could clearly see these motorists passing slowly, staring awkwardly at me, the guns and my angry captors.
When I noticed a shiny black car pull alongside, I discerned that the passenger in the back, a rather well-to-do looking Pakistani, was obviously being transported somewhere by his chauffeur. Instantly I decided to take a chance.
“Help! Stop your car. Stop your car. I’m being kidnapped” I shouted in English at the now-alert passenger, while trying to break free from my captors.
Though my shouts brought a rain of blows on my back and head, my captors were out of luck. I saw the Pakistani motion to his driver to pull over. He quickly got out and came walking back towards us.
“What’s going on here?” he asked me in the British-accented English of the educated upper classes. Reaching under my shirt I produced my American passport from a hidden leather bag, then quickly summed up the situation to this good Samaritan, a government official on his way down from Timagura, the local capital, heading back to Peshawar.
“The bloody cheek of these refugees”, he said when he heard my explanation. He then began to upbraid the abductors in a torrent of abusive Pushtu, casting aspersions on the chastity of their mothers and commenting on the ignorance of these sons of the Khyber Pass.
“I’ve told them that they are guests in my country, as are you. And, as Moslems, it is a disgrace to treat one of our American brothers with such disrespect. I’ve ordered them to let you go immediately or I’ll be forced to bring in the police”, he told me.
Meanwhile the before-mentioned guns had begun to disappear, the van had suddenly come on side and my former captors were making noises as if they were sorry. I didn’t take more than a second to grab Shavon’s reins back from the ignorant villager who had been leading and eyeing her greedily. I vaulted into the saddle then turned to thank my rescuer.
“Don’t worry. They’ll leave you alone for the time being. But I wouldn’t trust them once I’ve gone. Go at once and don’t slow down before you reach Dargai,” he told me. I didn’t need to be encouraged. I set spurs to the mare and flew towards safety in the nearby mountains. As I rode away it dawned on me that I had never asked my rescuer his name. It was a tense night. The villagers at Dargai didn’t even have a chaikhana, or teahouse that could put us up. With the possibility of my former captors showing up at any minute to exact their revenge, Shavon and I pushed on into the dark, not knowing what lay ahead. Thinking that a village or some sort of rest was still within reach, we continued mile after weary mile through the desolate, darkened countryside.
When the road started climbing up into the mountains, I simply followed it, not realising I was leading the tired mare up the mighty Malakand Pass. Just before dawn we found a tree with enough level ground under it for the two of us to throw down our dead tired bones and rest. Though my former captors never reappeared, the following days were suddenly filled with new challenges. We crossed the top of the Malakand Pass the next morning and pressed ever northward towards the elusive Turkoman mujahadeen contacts I was to meet in the town of Chitral.
Soon the Lowari Pass blocked our way. When we saw its 10,000 foot wall of solid rock that reared up into the Pakistani sky, we knew that the hot days of the plains were behind us. Ahead lay mountain range after mountain range.
|Locals atop the Lowari Pass.|
After buying supplies in the village of Dir, we pushed straight uphill for seven and a half hours before finally reaching the icy, windswept crest. There was no place to stay on the summit, so we fled its cold, barren rocks and started marching downhill.
That night I berthed in a tent with a group of Pakistani army engineers sent out to clear rockslides off the Lowari Pass road. The next morning they urged me to turn back, telling me that the horse would surely be eaten by snow leopards if I continued. I thanked them for the advice and the tea and bread breakfast and rode on.
|The Pakistani army officer who warned the author about snow leopards lurking in the mountains.|
Days and nights and village after village passed. I grew closer to my goal of reaching Chitral and meeting the Afghan freedom fighters who could take me into their war-torn country. But the weary miles had taken their toll on both the mare and me. She looked thin and tired. I felt beat. But I had an option.
Before arriving in Chitral I could turn off for a rest in the side valleys of the Kalash, a group of indigenous natives who were the last living relics of a former pagan empire. Supposedly descended from soldiers of the army of Alexander the Great, the Kalash had a mixed reputation among Pakistan’s devout Moslems.
But I was not on any mercy mission. I aimed to take my horse into the Wilds of Afghanistan. The Kalash had grass in their valleys, lots of it.
I came to the canyon that led west, towards the Kalashi. To hell with theology.
I headed Shavon away from my Moslem brothers in Chitral and on towards a well-earned respite, pagan or not.
|Shavon's lodging on the way north.|
They say in Pakistan that Allah knows better about all things. Maybe that’s why events happened the way they did there. I found a tiny wood hotel-cum-chaikhana in Bombaret. The village, which followed the beautiful, winding canyon, was peopled by kind Kalashi farmers, smiling mothers and laughing children. A magnificent river rushed close by my room. Shavon was up to her belly in the pasture full of succulent grass I had bought her. Everywhere I looked I saw an Arcadian paradise.
Yet I felt lethargic. Within a couple of days I started getting chills, then came down with a fever. I shrugged it off, having already been sick from just about every germ known to man. Just amoebic dysentery again, I told myself.
Then I started to throw up after eating my dinner one night. The next morning I was woozy, could barely walk down to the pasture or bring Shavon to the river for a drink. Now I was starting to get a little concerned. I had reason to. It only got worse. The next morning I was so weak I could barely sit up. Then I threw up my morning breakfast tea. It seemed like my stomach was going into convulsions. I staggered back to my room, hit the bed and passed out.
I awoke early the following day, lying on the bed, soaked in sweat. I could hear Shavon neighing frantically.
“She must be hungry,” I thought and then tried to sit up. I couldn’t. In fact I was so weak I couldn’t move a muscle. I laid there going in and out of a delirious state of consciousness. Slowly my vision narrowed in on my right hand. “Close your fingers. Just close your fingers,” I told myself.
It was impossible. I couldn’t summon up the energy to do even this simple task. I heard the hotel servants passing by outside my door but I was too weak to call out for help. Once again I passed out and drifted into a black hole of sickness.
Later, well after dark, the hotel boy gently shook me awake. In broken English he told me the horse was hungry and he had put her out to pasture, then watered her later. I told him how sick I was and he agreed to fetch the village medic in the morning.
Help of sorts came with the rising sun. The local school-teacher who arrived was also the resident medic. He was well meaning but ill equipped to handle an illness he couldn’t diagnose. His determination was that I suffered from ‘general weakness.’
The prescription: an intravenous drip of glucose water.
As the sugar water slowly coursed into my veins I knew I was dying. Knew for certain that if I stayed in this backwards valley I’d end up being buried next to some kafir, pagan, Kalashi. The nearest help, the nearest real doctor, was in Chitral, a hard day’s ride, at least thirty miles away through a sandy, mountainous no-man’s land.
I didn’t have a choice. When the drip finished, I had the boy bring Shavon around and saddle her. He threw my saddlebags on her back, filled my canteen and gave me two aspirins for a going-away present. Then he and the “doctor” helped me mount.
It must have been the glucose. I was light-headed but coherent for the first time in days. I waved goodbye and headed down the valley towards help. My condition didn’t take long to catch up with me. Within a couple of hours I was racked with a blinding headache. I swallowed the aspirins with a slug of hot canteen water.
I threw it right back up. So I just kept going. After several hours we made it down the canyon, hit the main dirt road then turned left, heading north towards Chitral and safety. Overhead, the sun was blazing. The country was grey rock, grey dust and the grey water of a river rushing by far below the road. It seemed like mile after mile of unending Hell.
Then I awoke. I had fainted, slipped from the saddle and had fallen face down in the road. I have no idea how long I lay there. I could taste the dirt in my mouth. But I could feel that I was partly in the shade. I groaned, managed to sit up and saw Shavon standing over me, her reins in the dust, shielding me patiently from the burning sun.
I’ll never know how I got back on that saddle. Taking the turban off my head, I tied myself to the saddle and gave Shavon her head. She walked. I passed in and out of consciousness, hit Chitral just before nightfall and found help.
The next day the doctor told me I had hepatitis. I protested, saying I was going into Afghanistan. “Your liver’s almost shot. If you leave here on that horse you’ll be dead in two days, I guarantee it,” he told me.
I protested. How could he be sure? Was there a test for the illness? He handed me a dirty test-tube, told me to go out and urinate in it, then bring him back the results. I did as I was told.
Minutes later the doctor held the test-tube up in front of the window. The morning light revealed a batch of warm urine the colour of Coca-cola. He swished it around, took a quick look and then turned to me and said, “Yep, hepatitis.”
So with that casual comment he brought down the curtain on the horse trip. Shavon was sold to a rug merchant in the Chitral bazaar. My saddle I carried with me when I staggered onto the weekly plane back to Peshawar. And the Turkoman mujahadeen
I had struggled so hard to find, the gallant freedom-fighters that were to take me into Afghanistan?
They were nowhere to be found.
|Explorers’ Web described CuChullaine O'Reilly as “a living legend” and praised his adventure travel book, Khyber Knights, as “magical.” After completing the longest recorded horseback ride in Pakistan's history, as described in the book, CuChullaine specialized in equestrian exploration and historical research. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club, he has published hundreds of travel books in five languages and advised more than a hundred equestrian expeditions on every continent except Antarctica. He is also the author of The Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration and The Horse Travel Handbook.|
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