Authors: J.B. Hadley
The professors of the Nanticoke Institute had chosen well. The three men now worked as a close-knit team, an outcome that
would have surprised many at the beginning of their journey. After Sayad Jan’s three-man escort had passed
them on to another group, and that group to another, Winston and Baker had impressed Turner with their military analyses
of each group’s standing against the Russians. Turner saw that these two men, whatever their other faults, had brains and
could see things with their trained minds that even he, a combat-hardened veteran, had missed. Baker and Winston, for their
part, had begun to learn what no textbook ever taught anyone—that it takes a lot more than brains to survive in an enemy-occupied
zone. Their courage, willpower, and good spirits were tested at least several times every day. As the two college men responded
well under pressure, Turner became more friendly to them. They in turn learned to respect him for his tough-minded common
sense and his experience, things they now saw as essential to their survival and here, in Afghanistan, more valuable by far
than a theoretical knowledge of the latest Soviet infantry tactics.
They were now with another guerrilla band, though these seemed to be small farmers first and resistance fighters second. Unlike
the men they had met before, these rebels had their women and children still with them, worked their land, and did not operate
back and forth across the Pakistan border, being too far from it. The area’s headman was too old to fight, they were told,
and so whoever happened to be around worked it out among themselves who was leader for any particular clash with Russians
or the puppet-government soldiers. Baker, Winston, and Turner were stuck with Mohammed.
Mohammed knew no English, not a word, but that did not stop him from talking to them continually, arguing with them and shaking
his head sternly, nodding in smiling agreement with things never said, urging them to follow him.
“I think we got ourselves tied in with the local cowboy,” Turner opined.
“Yeah, I think he wants to show us his stuff,” Winston said.
Mohammed wanted to show them things, all right. He brought them into a ruined village, similar to the many they had seen before.
The people had not fled their land in this
case, and they now lived in caves scooped by hand out of banks of earth with a blanket or carpet hung across the opening
to keep out the heat and dust. The mutilated were everywhere, hopping or sidling or dragging themselves around. Men, women,
and children had one or more feet blown off by the tiny anti-personnel mines dropped randomly by the Soviet planes. Small
children had hands blown off by the booby-trapped toys the Russians dropped. The Americans had heard about this dirty warfare
against harmless people, young and old, but it was a different thing to see it. Mohammed wasn’t such a crazy, after all—he
was insisting that they see firsthand what the invaders had done to his people. What the Russians did to other tribesmen in
other valleys might not be of so much concern to him, but these were
people, this was all that was left of
village, and he wanted the Americans to see that.
The asses were loaded, and they set out on the next stage of their journey in the early afternoon, having had to give the
beasts of burden longer than usual to rest between their daily hauls. All six animals had been slow and droopy-headed when
they arrived the previous day. The plentiful mountain grass and water in this place, along with the rest, had made new animals
of them. Instead of being listless and docile, as they had been in their exhausted condition, they were back to being independent
and contrary again. Turner swore at them and claimed that was the last grass they’d eat or the last rest they’d take as long
as he had control over them. It was true that a few of the animals seemed deliberately to defy Turner on some kind of donkey
Mohammed signaled for everyone to stop. Baker went forward with him and two other men, leaving six Afghans behind with the
two Americans and the pack animals. Baker soon saw what this was about. They had to cross a tarred road, which Baker understood,
from Mohammed’s gesticulations, led to a pass in the mountain range ahead, a pass they, too, would have to use but at a higher,
more difficult level than the road and during darkness that night. First they had to cross the road, which Mohammed feared
might expose their slow-moving asses to the sight of government or Soviet vehicles. They returned, and Baker explained the
problem in English. The Afghan answer to this problem was. demonstrated to them. The twelve men divided into six teams of
two, one team to each ass. The front man clutched the creature’s bridle and attempted to drag it forward at a run, while the
rear man beat the animal’s rump, in the absence of sticks in that area, with the butt of his Kalashnikov rifle.
Baker had an attack of laughter. “I’m going to play this one up in my report on transportation techniques.”
But as soon as they got out into the open and his animal balked, Baker lost his sense of humor. Looking anxiously up and down
the road from time to time, he and Winston half pushed and half carried their ass across the tarred surface and heaved it
down the slope of a ravine on the far side, where it had to stumble and find its footing. No more than half a minute after
they had gotten the six animals and themselves out of sight in the ravine, they heard the roar of a heavy truck pass by on
the road above them. This close call highly amused Mohammed and the Afghans.
Baker’s sense of humor had totally evaporated by now. “This fucking joker is going to get us wasted, Turner.”
Turner didn’t bother to respond, being too busy brushing dust off his pant legs.
Two of the Afghans were walking along the ravine bottom with the asses. When the Americans made to follow them, Mohammed urgently
beckoned to them to creep up to the side of the road.
“You think they’re trying to steal the pack animals?” Baker asked Turner as they went where Mohammed directed, and crouched
out of sight of the road behind loose rock.
He heard the metallic scrape of Turner cocking his AK-47 and took this as an answer that Turner thought this might be what
was going on.
When Baker saw Mohammed load a rifle grenade, he began to change his mind.
Winston knew it. “It’s an M60 HEAT. You see the slim, streamlined shape, the round-nosed body, and the rounded stabilizing
fins? The Yugoslavs make them, and they’re the only weapon of this type that a communist country makes well. The Polish PGN-60
ain’t worth shit. But this baby has
a range of a hundred and fifty meters. I think that’s an old M48 rifle he’s using.”
They waited. Mohammed gestured to them from his hiding place, and Baker, who had a talent for interpreting sign language,
explained to the others, “He’s very excited for some reason about that truck or whatever it was that passed. From what I understand
it’s only when the Russians are feeling very confident that they allow vehicles to travel singly on this road. He desperately
seems to want to show us something, and it’s not just him blowing up a truck. I can’t understand what he’s trying to tell
me, though. But I don’t believe they’re keeping us here in order to steal the asses.”
“I was hoping they were,” Winston muttered.
They waited for another twenty minutes before they heard anything. A truck came traveling north at high speed. Mohammed waited
till it was less than eighty yards away before he fired the rifle grenade, which hit the truck square in the radiator. The
antitank grenade blew the engine off its bearings and knocked it into the roadway almost opposite, where the three Americans
were concealed. White-hot fragments of metal emerged from the blinding white-and-yellow flash of the explosion and skittered
off the rocks around them.
The engineless truck rolled down the road a way. When it stopped, soldiers poured out of the back of die canvas-covered vehicle.
The Americans were about to fire on them as they leapt over the tailgate onto the road, until they noticed that Mohammed and
his men were not firing. The soldiers were not ethnic Russians. They appeared to be Afghans but had military-style haircuts
and no tribal headdresses. When they walked on the road, they had the unmistakable gait of city dwellers in the countryside.
The soldiers from the disabled truck began to stack their rifles by the roadside and threw ammunition, pistols, and other
gear on the ground beside them. Then they walked back into the middle of the road and shouted slogans and raised their fists
in the air. Mohammed and his men chanted back die same slogans and raised their fists. After that, the disarmed soldiers set
out on foot along the road.
Mohammed winked at the Americans and came over to shake their hands. He sent one man with them to bring them along the ravine
to the asses while he and the other eight men went to gather the stacked arms before another vehicle came.
The pathway left the ravine and traveled more or less parallel to the tarred road, sometimes coming very close to it and then
veering away again. The ground was bare and dusty from the passage of many feet, and it was obvious that this alternate route
was heavily used by people with no wish to meet military vehicles on the road.
At one place where the path neared the road the Afghan walking beside the lead ass’s head grabbed his bridle and yanked him
to a savage stop. The others piled up behind, and gradually the whole line came to a halt. Ahead, over a roadside bank of
earth, the camouflaged canvas roof of a military truck was visible. If they continued on the path, any soldiers with the truck
could not miss seeing them. And there was no other route for them to take across the rocky hillsides except this path. One
Afghan remained behind to keep the animals still, and the other two stealthily advanced toward the bank of earth, rifles at
Before Turner could stop them, Winston and Baker had joined the two Afghans in stalking the truck’s occupants. Turner cursed
silently. The job he had been sent to do here was to stop Winston and Baker from getting involved in things like this. They
were here on an intelligence-gathering mission and not to trade lead with the Russians. But since Turner saw that he was too
late this time to stop them without causing a dangerous disturbance that might give their presence away, he decided to join
them and thereby increase the chance of their success. He was in time to see two Russian soldiers standing next to the truck,
talking and smoking—and these were definitely Russian, with high Slavic cheekbones and fair hair—before the two Afghans riddled
them with automatic fire. The soldiers clutched their guts, dropped their cigarettes, and crumpled to the tar, one managing
a few steps before he fell.
They cautiously made their way around to the back of the
truck. It was filled with cardboard cartons stamped with lettering in the Russian alphabet.
Baker looked them over “C rations,” he said, and then mimed putting food in his mouth for the two Afghans.
One of the tribesmen pointed at Baker, then to the truck, then across the road and down a piece, where there was a steep slope
downward for some hundreds of feet. The Afghan twisted an imaginary steering wheel and pointed at himself and the other tribesmen
and shook his head. They didn’t drive. Baker was pleased to start the truck, drive it down the road a little, and jump out
after steering it toward the slope. It caused a miniature landslide down the slope and banged and rattled but stayed on its
four wheels till it came to the bottom, where it flipped on its side and scattered some of the cartons.
The Afghans were hiding the soldiers’ bodies in the rocks. One remained behind, and the other went back for the asses so they
could continue their journey toward the pass.
Aleksei Rybakovich Ustin was taking a peaceful leak among the rocks, following instructions to be modest and not give offense
to the locals by pissing in public. His pleasurable relief was strangled by a burst of gunfire from the roadway. He froze,
prick in hand. When he heard nothing else after the first burst of automatic fire, he guessed it might be one of his comrades
horsing around. But Aleksei had been long enough in Afghanistan—four months—not to make any assumptions. He eased his head
slowly around the rock and saw his two comrades lying still, on the road in front of the truck. Two Afghans were looking into
the back of the truck, along with—Aleksei could hardly believe this, but there they were, no more than fifty meters away—two
white men and a black man, all clearly American.
If he could shoot one, he knew he could demand to be sent home as a reward. He would be a hero. He might even be on television,
for he had heard that the newspapers and television back home had begun to admit the existence of this war. It was rumored
that so many Soviet soldiers had been killed here—some said more than ten thousand—that
the Party could no longer hope to keep it quiet. He glanced back at the lifeless bodies of his friends, who had been so full
of life and jokes such a short time ago. Some Party committeeman would say at a meeting that they had died fulfilling their
internationalist duty on Afghan soil. And that would be that. A few bottles of vodka and reminiscences among their friends.
That was not going to happen to him! He was going home! Back to Natulya in her warm bed…
And these Americans were how he was going to get home. If only he could shoot one. But he had left his rifle in the truck,
which, of course, was against regulations, and he had only a pistol against five men with automatic rifles.
He watched one of the Americans ditch the truck and the two Afghans drag his friends’ bodies among the rocks. One Afghan stayed
behind, and the other left with the Americans. Then he saw a sight that surprised him even further, although he would not
have thought it possible. The Americans reappeared with a train of six asses loaded down with camouflage-fabric-covered cylinders
that looked very much like some kind of missile to him. This was it! He didn’t need a dead one. His information alone was
worth an immediate transfer home.