Peaceful Afghan village in northern Afghanistan - Hamilton Wende

Memories of cricket and war in Afghanistan

I’m no supporter of the Taliban regime at all, but the news that South Africa will play Afghanistan in the World Cup caught my attention. It reminded me of my Afghan translator and fixer in the village of Khuja Bahauddin in northern Afghanistan only weeks after 9/11. I’ve never forgotten him and his love of cricket.

A lone grey heron winged its way down the river in front of my tent.  Across the valley three men were threshing rice by driving two cows in a circle of beaten earth.  They used pitchforks to winnow it.  The chaff flew up into the air, catching the first still light of morning before the breeze swirled it away.

The heron’s slow flight.  The morning sun.  Dark furrowed earth and rows of broken yellow stalks.  Harvested paddy fields and stacks of sweet-smelling rice hay.

In the house nearby I could hear the soldiers starting their morning chores.  The radio crackled with news in Dari.  One could hear, almost feel, the ancient Indo-European roots of the language as the soldiers discussed the articles of news amongst themselves.  They sat barefooted and cross-legged on the cheap scarlet and mustard carpet.  A battered kettle full of tea was being passed around.  Their black and white checked scarves were wrapped around their head to ward off dust and flies.  ‘Ast,’ – ‘it is’; ‘khub ast,’- ‘it is good.’ ‘nist,’ – it isn’t.’

A teenaged boy brought canisters of water on the back of a donkey.  The sound of water echoed as the soldiers poured the fresh water into the empty galvanized tank.  One of the soldiers was lighting a kerosene stove to boil water for tea.  Another carried plates of rice and beans and freshly-baked whole-grain naan  across from the compound.  The soldiers were grim-faced usually, even when we shared food with them.  When we thanked them for it, they sometimes smiled then, but even those who didn’t would bow their heads and put their hands across their chests to touch their hearts.

This place and its people entering memory in an almost physical accretion of sight, sound, distance and time, all layered on top of one another.

Two men in turbans and long flowing robes walked along the still edges of the river.  One had his hands clasped behind his back, both had their heads bowed as they talked intently.  They looked like two philosophers from an older Afghanistan, before the tanks and the helicopters and the mines.  The country of gardens and couplets of Sufi poetry recited over cups of green tea.

Every night now, we followed the virtual war on the blurred return channel on the satellite.  There was bombing in Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and nearer to us, the Taliban defences in Mazar-i- Sharif, Kunduz and Taloquan were being hit nightly.  Faraway in the Pacific ocean, the USS Kitty Hawk had left Yokohama and was moving into position somewhere off the coast of Pakistan in the Arabian Sea.

The Taliban claimed that a stray US bomb had hit a village, killing 200 people, mostly women and children.

In Florida and New York, anthrax had been discovered in people’s mail.  One of the letters had been sent to NBC’s headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza in New York.   The offices of Nightly News were hastily evacuated because of the possibility of anthrax contamination.  The reports of the bombing got lost under the fear that this strange, untraceable new threat had forced into the minds of Americans.

Hakim was hired as the chief fixer and organizer for the NBC operation.  He was a young man in his early twenties.  He grew up in Kabul and had been studying to be a doctor before the Taliban had driven him out.  His English was excellent.  ‘Hakim’ means ‘wise’ in Arabic, so I suspected, although I never asked, that Hakim was a nom-de-guerre.

‘South Africa?’ he said delightedly when I told him I lived in Johannesburg.  ‘When I was in exile in Pakistan, we always supported the South African cricket team.  We Afghans liked them more than the Pakistani team.’

Hakim told me something of his story.  ‘I was a medical student in Kabul when the Taliban came.  They first made life very hard for women.  Here in the countryside, for women to wear burqais the rule, but it was not that way in Kabul.   The Taliban closed all the schools for women.  It is bad there.  They must just stay in the house.

‘We moved first to another house in the city to hide from them.   But then things got bad, so we moved out of the city to Bagram.  The Taliban are torturing people there who are not Pushtun.  I am Tajik, I speak Dari so they didn’t like me.  My family was also threatened by them.  My cousins and I, four of us, we came here to the Northern Alliance territory one and a half years ago, just some weeks after the Taliban took over.  Since I left Kabul I haven’t seen my family.  I don’t know where they are now.’

Hakim’s eyes grew serious as he said this.  It was clear that he had told his story many times before, but, now since the Americans had gotten involved, his emotions conflicted with one another.  I could sense a certain hope within in him that things would change, that the Taliban would be driven out and that he could pick up his life again from where he had been forced to stop.  But there was also fear underlying what he had left out: the fact that his family were still in Kabul living under the American bombardment.

‘I don’t like fighting at all,’ Hakim said.  ‘I want to be a doctor, an educated man, that is very important for me.’

It had been a long journey for Hakim, at 23, to reach even this point.  After leaving Kabul and his studies he had first gone to Pakistan.  From there, he had somehow found his way to Tajikistan, where being an ethnic Tajik from Afghanistan, he had managed to make his way back to university.  ‘I was studying medicine in Dushanbe, but after the attack on America, the KGB came to me and to my friend.  They arrested us.  We spent 7 days in jail.  Every day the KGB said to us, “You are an Afghan.  You are just like Osama Bin Laden – a terrorist.”  I said to them: “No I am a student.”  But nothing helped.  Eventually I said to them: “take me to my country.”

‘Two KGB men came with us.  They brought us to the border.  There was a big Russian guard there.  He said to them: “Why are you sending them away?  They are students.  They have a visa.”

Hakim smiled.  ‘The KGB were shaking in front of the Russian, but when he went away and we went back to the KGB they said: “Now we will kill you.  Why did you tell the Russian that?”

‘It was no good.  We went back to the Russian and said to him: “Please let us go to our country.  We will never go back to Tajikistan.  So, now I am here.’

That had only been four days before.  He had come through the border while it was officially closed during the start of the American airstrikes.  Somehow, he had found his way here, to Khuja Bahauddin and to a good job with an American network paying dollars.  I had to admire his resourcefulness.  Already he was planning his next move.  He wanted to go to Kabul now and see his family.

‘If you want,’ he said.  ‘I will go to Kabul with a camera.  There are many secret ways to go.  I speak Pushtun.  I look like a Pushtun.  My family can help me.  They know many secret ways.  I will go, why not?’

It was another place, another time, nearly a quarter of a century ago. I wonder where Hakim is today. I hope he’s watching his country play cricket. Hopefully sport might bring some measure of normality to that deeply troubled society.

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.