This being ill-fated Afghanistan, the ending started with a war. Fortunate for me, my experience of the fighting only lasted a couple of days. For the Afghans the fighting continues even now. ‘Poor Afghanistan’ doesn’t began to describe it. The war I witnessed was actually the prelude to the ‘real’ war, which started when the Soviets came in. That, in turn, was a prelude to the ‘humanitarian’ war which we Americans undertook. And the ‘humanitarian’ phase, forty long years after I left, is still going on. This is how it began:
I was living in Shari Now, around the corner from ‘Chicken Street’. Chicken Street was popular with globe-wandering hippies, World Travelers called WTs. My housemates and I played on the Peace Corps softball team. One lovely April weekend we set up a game with the Marines who guarded the U.S. Embassy. That afternoon, three of us hailed a cab and headed towards the field beside the American compound. As we passed the President’s palace, a tank came racing down the middle of the road, forcing us into a ditch. Gunfire erupted from both sides of the road. It looked like Afghan regulars were firing on the presidential guard. The taxi driver sped up and we, stoned out of our gourds, chuckled and shook our heads. One of us repeated our mantra, ‘only in Afghanistan’.
The players on the ball field were evacuating as we arrived. One of the Marines shouted, “There’s a coup going down, go back home”. My roommate shouted back, “Ok, but can we buy that case of beer?” The Marines had the only beer in all of Afghanistan and they brought it to all their games.
Another tank rumbled up the road tearing up the concrete with its heavy metal tread. As it pulled even with us, it stopped and pointed its gun across the street towards the Ministry of Defense. It fired and blew a corner off the building. The Marine handed us the case of Bud.
A couple of hours later we had a pile of empty cans growing by our chairs in the courtyard. We took turns narrating the approach of the Mig fighters overhead. The Migs looped around the city as though they were thoroughbreds on the track. “And it’s Lucky Lady coming in for another run (the screeching roar of a low overhead pass). And she’s firing another round (the tactile womp of the supersonic missile). And it’s a direct hit on the palace (followed by a huge concussive blast).” One of the blasts was so close that it blew a couple of our windows out. One of my housemates taped the whole thing on his cassette player. We listened to our narration over the sounds of battle for months.
The actual fighting lasted only three days, but a lot of people suffered during that time. Fellow volunteers told stories of runaway tanks smashing bystanders against city walls. We saw whole apartment buildings blown to smoking ruins by errant shells. Most terrifying of all was the nightly ordeal of Russian helicopters hovering overhead. They pointed huge spotlights onto our houses and rained rockets down at random intervals. All talking stopped when the light blazed across our windows. We were filled with momentary dread. This is how I fictionalized the scene some months later in my manuscript, Jihad:
Prologue Kabul, Afghanistan: April 27, 1978
The day all hell broke loose in Kabul started out like any other day. A Thursday, proceeding the Islamic holy day, and the city skies were clear for the first time since the beginning of winter. A pale gray pallor of wood smoke rose from the thousands of heating stoves which formed the center piece of family life. It seeped through the narrow canyons of the towering Koe-E-Baba Mountains which surrounded the high plateau like mythic sentries. Poppies, the ubiquitous flowers of Southwest Asia, broke through the hard-packed walls and rooftops. The bright red volunteers sprang from the mud used in repairs made the previous year. Even the children who sold cigarettes, candies, and fruit were back in the streets with the departure of the bitter winter cold.