Places You’ve Been To Blowing Up – Part I (Pul-i-Khumri, Afghanistan)
At least three places I’ve been to regularly have blown up in recent months – all of them places I felt (relatively) safe in while I was there. I’m sure this isn’t something many readers will relate to particularly. But not many readers have the travel background I have.
Back in November last year was the first one that I really noticed – a suicide bombing in a sugar factory in Pul-i-Khumri, just north of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. I’ve been to Pul-i-Khumri many, many times. It’s your middle-of-the-journey break when travelling from Kabul to the north of Afghanistan or vice versa. It’s the first decent sized town north of the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush – the massive mountain range that seperates the north and south of Afghanistan.
Pul-i-Khumri was one of our safe places on that road trip. If you ran into trouble, it was one of the places you would go to be secure. On my first ever trip in Afghanistan, I drove from Kabul to Taloqan (where I was based for the 14 months I spent in the country) in the back of a Toyota Hilux (Mobile 9, pictured below). Not comfortable. This was a few weeks after insurgents had executed an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ex pat in the south of the country. After 12 hours of driving, we finally passed through the Salang Tunnel and headed down the mountains towards Pul-i-Kumri.
We’d been delayed for hours (and hours and hours) on the south side of the tunnel. At that time (April 2003), the tunnel could only handle traffic in one direction, due to having been in disrepair since the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. Traffic went north to south or south to north on alternating days. Or at least that was the theory. We were on a south to north day, heading south to north, but an important local military commander (read: warlord) was on the other side of the tunnel heading south, and was rather insistent to the tunnel operators that he be allowed go through in the wrong direction. Insistent with guns. So, northbound traffic was stopped for about four hours, and we were stuck on the side of a mountain in the freezing cold. It was now late, too late to be driving, so we were heading for the nearest village where we could find shelter for the night and wrap up in our sleeping bags.
Then we got a call over the radio saying that there were rumours of problems “similar to those of a few weeks ago” in the area. Pul-i-Khumri was our target then. Get there, and we’d be safe. Darkness was now falling. As it later turned out, the rumours of Taliban out to kidnap foreigners on the road were false, but they’re not nice rumours to have to drive through the hours of darkness (normally forbidden in Afghanistan for security reasons) with. We got to Pul-i-Khumri and stayed with an aid agency there – ACTED, I think.
I’ve nicer memories of Pul-i-Kumri too, of course, other than it just being a safe haven. They make particularly good kebabs there, and they’ve bread (naan) that’s closer to the nice southern style than the dry northern style in the town.
Anyway, to leave that tangent and get back to the story at hand. Hearing that there had been a serious attack in Pul-i-Khumri was a bit of a surprise. Not a shock really, as you always expect security problems in Afghanistan. But when somewhere you consider a safe zone within an insecure environment suddenly stops being that, it’s strange.
It also reminded me of how your perception of “secure” or “safe” changes depending on your environment. When I lived in Afghanistan, it was a perfectly normal thing to drive through minefields, or potential minefields. We didn’t even consider it particularly unsafe, as long as you followed certain rules (e.g. don’t be the first to drive a route in the morning, and always drive in someone else’s tire tracks).
Parts II and III will follow.
Part II now exists.