by Ismail Sloan
When I went to the Afghan Consulate in New York, I was given the visa but was told that I must leave Afghanistan before April 28, 1978. It was written into my passport in bold letters: "MUST LEAVE AFGHANISTAN BEFORE APRIL 28, 1978."
The consular officer explained that the reason for this was that an international conference on education had been scheduled to begin on that date. There were not enough hotel rooms in Kabul to accommodate all those expected to attend, so all other foreigners were being required to leave by that date.
I flew to England and took a ferry from Dover to Zeebrugge, Belgium and from there went to Munich, Germany, where I purchased a red 1967 Volkswagen Beetle which I found standing outside the University of Munich with a "for sale" sign on it. The price for the bug was only $320 in US dollars, the great bargain of my life.
I drove this Volkswagen all the way to Afghanistan, with several stops and adventures along the way. The trip took more than one month. I crossed Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran. One noteworthy stop was in Bucharest: http://www.ishipress.com/buchares.htm . However, I will never make such a crazy trip again, unless I want to kill myself, that is. There were constant dangers on the way.
It took too long. I did not reach the border with Afghanistan by April 28, 1978. I stopped in Eregli, Turkey, on the Black Sea coast, where my cousin, Edward Jacobson, was working as an engineer in steel mill being constructed by General Electric. On April 29, 1978, the morning of my departure from Eregli, my cousin left a note for me, "There was news on the radio this morning that there has been a coup in Afghanistan. Better not go there."
I kept this note, but ignored it. I was especially concerned about getting my money out of the bank in Afghanistan.
I drove straight through to Tehran. There, I tried to renew my visa for Afghanistan. There was a crowd at the Afghanistan Consulate. All were angrily demanding visas. The consular officer stated, with tears welling in his eyes, that Afghanistan was closed. No visas were being issued. Nobody was allowed to enter Afghanistan, until further notice.
Because of this, I took a side trip by rail to Armenia, where I visited Laura Markarian ( http://www.ishipress.com/laura.htm). After only three days in Armenia (I certainly should have stayed longer, as my entire life would be different today), I went back to Tehran to apply again for a visa.
This time, because of previously having received a visa to Afghanistan, my visa which had expired on April 28, 1978 was extended. Other foreigners were not given a visa.
I drove my Volkswagen beetle to the border, passing Meshed, to Islam Qala. I discovered that the border was not open yet. A long line of trucks and lorries were lined up waiting to enter Afghanistan. There were hundreds of trucks. They had been waiting since the coup which had taken place on April 28, 1978, when the border had been closed.
My small Volkswagen beetle drove past all those big commercial trucks waiting in line to enter Afghanistan. I went right to the front of the line. There was a barricade at the border. The border was closed. I arrived late at night, so I curled up in the back seat of my Volkswagen beetle and went to sleep.
At about 6:00 AM, the sun rose. A while later, the gate went up. The trucks started turning on their motors. I was first in line. I drove my red Volkswagen to the customs checkpost. I was cleared. Thus, I became the first person to enter Afghanistan since the fateful coup of April 28, 1978.
Less than a mile after clearing the Afghanistan side of the border checkpost, I was stopped by a group of Afghan common soldiers of the type known in the Afghan language as "oscar". One of them pointed a Kalashnikov AK-47 through my right window and aimed it directly at my head. I showed him my passport and my travel documents allowing me to enter Afghanistan. He seemed satisfied with this, put down his gun and let me pass. This frightening experience was to be repeated again and again over the next few weeks.
I stopped at the Mustafa Hotel in Herat. The previous year, a man there had promised that when I returned to Afghanistan, he would give me a tour of the country. However, he now declined, saying that he could not do so because of the new political situation in the country. He advised me to leave the country quickly. Again, I ignored this and went on to Kandahar.
On the way, I stopped in the small village of Gereshk for gas, where I met a man named Syed Durali Shah, who was standing by the gas pump. He asked me for a ride to Kandahar. I agreed. This man was to change the course of my life. See http://www.ishipress.com/syedshah.htm .
Kandahar was 90 miles away. As we were reaching there, Syed Shah invited me to his house. I accepted the invitation. Then, he explained that his house was back in Gereshk, from which we had just come. This seemed a bit silly. However, finally I decided that I was not in such a big rush anyway, so I turned my car around and drove back to Gereshk. It turned out that he did not need to go to Kandahar at all. He had just wanted a ride to try to make friends with me.
The next day, Syed Shah had me take him to the towns of Bost and Lashkar Gah. These are about 30 miles south of Gereshk. Bost is famous for ancient ruins, which we saw. We also went to see a friend of Syed Shah named John Firebaugh, who was an American engineer from Ohio, who was working for USAID in Lashkar Gah.
Syed Shah had me stop in several places on the way to Lashkar Gah and on the way back, mostly to visit lady friends he knew. Syed Shah also stopped for brief interludes at two houses of prostitution. The first had some very young girls. Syed Shah said that a man there was the husband of one of the young girls. The other whorehouse had only one prostitute, but she was beautiful. I took photos of all the prostitutes at those houses, but very secretly.
The day after, he convinced me to go with him to a town called Khaway. Khaway is a tiny village about 60 miles in the desert north of Gereshk. I have seen it on one topographical map of Afghanistan. Khaway is north of Nawzad. Nawzad is on most maps.
There is a road to Nawzad, but the road ends there. For the last 25 miles to Khaway, there is no road. I drove my Volkswagen in a dry river bed. Fortunately, a Volkswagen bug is ideal for that sort of travel.
In Khaway, we spent the night in the home of a man named Mereli. He did not have an actual house. He was living under a mulberry tree, with sheets spread out from the branches to form a roof. His wife and child lived with him there. They lived by eating the berries off the tree. The baby was newborn, wrapped in swaddling cloths. This means that the baby was tied in so that she could not move. This is customary in Afghanistan. The baby was not more than about one month old. The wife handed me the baby and seemed to offer to give it to me. I held the baby and then gave it back.
The man, Mereli, was around 65 or 70. His wife was about 30. This is not unusual in Afghanistan, where men save up their whole lives in order to be able to "buy a wife" and where elderly men, finally for the first time having enough money to get married, often buy young women.
Mereli left the house and went somewhere for several hours, leaving his wife and child behind with us. Syed Shah talked to the wife at great length. Finally, Syed Shah asked me to give him 200 afgs. (About five dollars.) I did so. Syed Shah gave the money to the wife. The wife lay down in the back of the home and had sexual intercourse with Syed Shah. The wife was ready to have sex with me too, but her husband arrived back just in time.
Mereli arrived just moments after they had finished having sex. A neighbor man had a donkey. Mereli had brought some hay to feed the donkey.
The wife had advised us to go see Mullah Aminullah, who lived across the road. Mullah Aminullah had a beautiful daughter, the most beautiful girl in the area, the wife said. The next morning, after sleeping the night in the home (under a tree) of Mereli, we went to see Mullah Aminullah.
Mullah Aminullah said that he wanted to marry his off daughter. He was looking for a suitable husband for her. The husband would have to provide clothing and other suitable items as dower for the marriage. These would cost about 70,000 afgs, or nearly $2000, Mullah Aminullah said.
Syed Shah and I left Khaway and drove back to Gereshk. I left him at his home and drove straight through Kandahar to Kabul. Prior to reaching Kandahar, I saw some men in a drainage ditch next to the remnants of a broken down bridge. I stopped to ask them questions. They had a girl with them who was obviously a prostitute. They told me that they were not going to have sex with her, as it was forbidden, but that they had brought her out here in the desert to play around and have fun with her. I took their picture. See http://www.ishipress.com/kandahar.htm.
My car hit a sheep along the way. The sheep herder cut the throat of the sheep before it died so that the sheep would become halal and could be eaten under Muslim dietary law. I had to pay the sheep herder money for his sheep, as is customary in Afghanistan. I did not have enough money, so I left the dead sheep with him, whereas it is customary for the man who kills the sheep to take it with him and eat or sell it.
This incident left me so broke that I could not afford to pay for the gas to Kabul, so I picked up passengers along the way. The passengers gave me enough money to pay for my gas.
With difficulty, I was able to get the more than $2000 I had left in my bank account in Kabul the previous year. I had been right about the currency of Afghanistan. In just one year, the value of the afg had risen from about 50 to the dollar to about 36 to the dollar. I had made a considerable percentage profit from my bank account in Afghanistan.
I then took a trip to Nuristan, a remote area in the Hindu Kush mountains which borders on Chitral, Pakistan. I reached the last town where the road ends, which is Bargematal. I met a man named Syed Jalal and his brother, Haji Jalal, the chief of that village.
In Nuristan, I was stopped several times by the police. It has always been the rule that foreigners could not go to Nuristan without permission. I barely managed to convince the police that I had permission. I was later told that I was one of the first, and perhaps even the very first, foreigner to drive his own car to Nuristan. I later learned that I was famous among the people of Nuristan for doing this. My car was famous, too.
Back from Nuristan, I drove to Gereshk to see Syed Shah. He was not there. His job was to teach school. I was told that he had been sent to Farah to teach school there. I drove to Farah, more than 150 miles away, but was told that he had left already and had gone back to Gereshk, so I drove back to Gereshk and found him in his home there. Again, in Farah I had been detained briefly by the police.
The next morning, I drove Syed Shah and his family to Khaway. This time, he brought along his wife and three children. They were all stuffed into the back seat of my tiny Volkswagen beetle. Syed's wife was wearing a type of veil called a chaderi, so I could not see her face.
We arrived in Khaway at the house of Mullah Aminullah. Mullah Aminullah was not there. Syed's wife and children went inside the house of Mullah Aminullah. We men waited outside.
Against the advice of Syed Shah, I went for a walk. I encountered some men playing volleyball. They said that they were teachers from Gereshk, and had come to Khaway for a holiday. They were not friendly. One of the teachers was hostile to me. He said that foreigners were not allowed to come to Khaway. Foreigners were only allowed on the main roads, such as the road from Herat to Kandahar.
The teachers were curious about me, so they followed me. I could not get rid of them. They followed me back to the house of Mullah Aminullah, where Syed Shah was waiting. The teachers all knew Syed Shah, because he was a teacher too. They had a heated conversation with Syed Shah. Finally, they left.
That night, as it was getting dark, a man wearing a turban approached Syed Shah. They had a lengthy conversation. By this time, I could understand a bit of the Afghan languages, so I had some idea of what they were saying. The man was telling Syed Shah that there was danger.
I asked Syed Shah about this. Syed Shah denied this and said that there was nothing wrong. However, he then abruptly said, "Let's go to Kabul now." I thought that this was ridiculous. Here we had driven all the way out into the trackless desert just to see Mullah Aminullah and the mullah had not yet arrived. Why not wait a bit longer? Why leave now and go to Kabul?
At first, I refused. Syed Shah insisted on going right now. I asked what about his family. He said that he was leaving them behind in the mullah's house. Only he and I would go.
Because of this, I realized that there must be some serious danger, in spite of Syed Shah's assertions to the contrary. Why would he leave his wife and three children out here in the middle of nowhere if there was no danger? Why not take them with us?
So, I agreed to go. I started driving in the night to Nawzad. However, there was no road, only a dry river bed. Less than a mile from Khaway, I lost the road. It was a moonless night. I could not see. My car ground to a halt in the rock filled desert.
Syed Shah and I slept the night on the ground in the desert. He told me not to go back to the house of Mullah Aminullah, even though it was less that a mile away and would have been much more comfortable.
When morning came, I could not start my car. We walked to the next village, where we found a "car doctor". He came with us to the car. He siphoned out some gas and used it to clean out the carburetor of my Volkswagen. The carburetor was filled with sand from the desert. After being washed with gas, my car started fine.
However, my license plate was missing!! Somebody had taken it while we had gone to the village to look for the car doctor.
I drove the car. After a few miles, Syed Shah told me to stop. He got out of the car and, shielding his eyes, peered across the desert. I could see nothing there, but he could see something. After a few minutes, I could see something too. Two men were walking across the desert directly towards us!
We waited. The two men arrived. They had my license plate with them. We got in the car and I drove us to Nawzad. They showed us a pistol they had brought with them. Although he did not say this at the time, Syed Shah now says that the two men told him that they had been ordered by the chief of police to shoot us both, but had not done so, because one of the two men had been a student of Syed Shah in school.
We were directed to the police headquarters in Nawzad. There, we were taken to Zahir, the Governor of Nawzad. He wrote something on a piece of paper, put the paper in an envelope, sealed the envelope, and put his official stamp and seal on the envelope. He gave the envelope to a policeman with a rifle. The policeman got in the back seat of my Volkswagen and directed me to drive us to Gereshk.
Upon arriving in Gereshk, we were directed to the police station. We spent the night there, being watched over by a policeman with a gun. We were clearly under arrest. Still, I was not very worried, because I had done nothing remotely wrong.
The next morning, the chief of police in Gereshk, a nice man with two of his children sitting on his lap, wrote another letter, put it in an envelope and stamped and sealed it as before, and sent us with another policeman to Lashkar Gah. I drove us directly there. Later, I was to think that had I realized the danger I was in, I could have used the opportunity to send a message to the American in Lashkar Gah, John Firebaugh. However, I was not thinking about such things, because I still did not perceive any serious danger.
I was directed to drive to the governmental headquarters in Lashkar Gah, which is the capital of Helmand Province. We were taken to the office of the governor, Abdul Majid Sarbaland. He had just arrived as governor. This was one of his first days on the job. Previously, he had been a school teacher in Kandahar.
Abdul Majid Sarbaland seemed to be a nice man. He had tea brought for us. He wrote another paper. We got in my car again. I was directed to drive to the police station in Lashkar Gah.
At the police station, we were brought before the chief of police, Commandant Baqi, a burley man. Baqi drove a new Range Rover, with the words, "United States Drug Enforcement Administration" on the side. I later learned that Helmand Province is a center for opium poppy growing and that the police had been given this Range Rover by the US Embassy to help them to fight drug trafficking.
We were asked some questions by Commandant Baqi. He wanted especially to know why I had converted to Islam, as I had done one year earlier. He said he wanted to investigate this.
After that, I was taken to another room in the police station. I was directed by a policeman with a gun to sit on the floor in the corner. When I saw the dank and dingy corner where I was being told to sit, I suddenly realized that I was in serious trouble. I was under arrest in Afghanistan, for what reason, I could not even imagine.
Every day for the next several days, I was taken to a room in the police station for questioning. The man interrogating me was named Ibrahim. He was obviously better educated than the other police officers and could speak some English. He kept asking me more and more detailed questions about my trips around Afghanistan. He wanted to know exactly where I had gone, and the names of whom I had met and whom I had spoken to. I answered all the questions, although I managed to leave out the parts about Syed Shah having sex with the man's wife in Khaway and the part about Mullah Aminullah looking for a suitable husband for his beautiful daughter.
I remember that during one of the interrogation sessions, Ibrahim commented that it had been 43 days since the new government of Nur Mohammed Tureki had taken power. Since the coup had occurred on exactly April 28, 1978, that meant it was now June 10, 1978.
During this time, Syed Shah was being help in a separate building in a different part of the police headquarters. I was not allowed to communicate with him. He was also being interrogated by Ibrahim. It was obvious that Ibrahim was asking him questions and then asking me the same questions. He would compare notes and see whether we were being consistent or not. This made it important that I answer all of the questions accurately.
More than the details about the trip, Ibrahim wanted to know about my conversion to Islam. He asked me silly theological questions, such as "How many gods are there?" I knew the answer to that one.
His questions often caused me to wax eloquent and to expound at great length on issues pertaining to religion. I had studied the religion and could discuss all of its aspects. At one point, I mentioned the fact that Mohammed had had ten wives.
When I said this, Ibrahim became enraged and started shouting at me. He said that I was slandering his religion. He said that Mohammed could not have had ten wives because, according to Islam, a man can have only four wives. Ibrahim said that I was not a Muslim.
Of course, it is a fact known to all educated Muslims that Mohammed did have ten wives, plus an earlier wife who died. However, how could I explain this to Ibrahim, while being interrogated and sweating for my life in the middle of the desert in South Central Afghanistan?
After that, the interrogations stopped.
As the days passed, I bided my time by killing wasps, which existed in great numbers, as there was a wasp's nest at the top of the police station. I kept statistics, on one occasion killing 22 wasps in one day. Meanwhile, the room where I was being held started filling up. All the people whom Syed Shah and I had visited while driving around were being arrested and brought in. Both Mullah Aminullah and Mereli, the man with the wife in Khaway, were brought in and held with me. Another man was brought in whom I did not remember but later, when I had my photos of this trip developed, there was a photo of him sitting in Khaway with Mullah Aminullah. The operator of a house of prostitution in Lashkar Gah which we had visited was arrested and kept with Syed Shah.
I spent my time trying to learn the languages, making word lists and memorizing them. There are two principal languages of Afghanistan: Farsi and Pashtu. Farsi is spoken in Herat. Pashtu is spoken in Kandahar. Gereshk and Lashkar Gah are between Herat and Kandahar and both languages are spoken there. Farsi is a much easier language to learn than Pashtu.
Finally, I learned a word in Farsi which was to have great significance for me. The word is "Jasus". It means "spy". Once I knew that word plus my knowledge of other words in that language, I was able to figure out why they were holding me. They thought that I was a spy. They believed that I was an American CIA agent!
I took me a while to realize that this is what they thought, because what would any CIA agent be doing out in a worthless, trackless place like Khaway. Why would I not go to a city or a military installation? But, finally, I realized that the people of Afghanistan have a simple view of the world. They have never seen an ocean and cannot imagine a place with a lot of water. I later learned that they believed that Syed Shah and I had been heading to the Central Mountains of Afghanistan, where we were going to recruit new members to join the freedom fighters, the mujahidin.
Of course, the truth was far from that. In reality, we were just trying to get some exotic pussy. However, I could never admit to that!!
Once I realized that they believed that I was a spy, I also realized that they might be getting ready to kill me. I could easily imagine my life ending in this desolate spot. It was no longer a question of when I would get out, but if I would get out. Nobody knew that I was there. We were being held incommunicado. I had repeatedly asked for permission to contact the US Embassy. This request/demand had been denied. I wanted to get a message through to John Firebaugh, but could not think of how to do it. I later met two British men from Warwickshire who told me that they had been in Lashkar Gah at that time and had heard a rumor that an American was in jail there, but that they had thought that this was common knowledge and had not reported it to their superiors.
When I realized that I might actually be executed as a spy, I made a plan to escape. I knew that I would have only one chance. If I was caught, I would likely be killed. On the other hand, I reasoned, if they killed me for trying to escape, that means that they were planning to kill me anyway. Therefore, according to my logic, I risked nothing by trying to escape from jail.
So, I formulated a plan as follows: In Afghanistan, Saturday and Sunday are working days, but Friday is a holiday. Also, Thursday is only a half working day and everyone goes home in the afternoon. I knew that the police officers, although not the common soldiers, would never come to work on Friday, no matter how serious the emergency. Therefore, the best time to escape was Thursday afternoon.
Next, I observed that at this time of the month, the darkest time of the night was just after dark. Later in the evening, the moon would come up. So, the best time to escape was just after it got completely dark. This would give me all night and all day the next day to make good my escape. I would have 36 hours before the police officers would come back to work Saturday morning.
Next, I was in the trackless desert. There was only one road that I knew of leading out of Lashkar Gah. That went north to Gereshk. The area was hilly, rocky and barren terrain. I later learned but did not yet know that the name of this desert was the "Desert of Death" ( Dasht-e-Margow ). Because of not knowing this crucial fact, I failed to take one factor into consideration in balancing this equation: That I might successfully escape, only to die in the desert.
I did, of course, know the importance of going the right way. I had a tourist map of Afghanistan. I asked a junior officer where we were. He had no idea that I was thinking of escaping, so he answered my questions. Pointing to the area of Afghanistan south of Lashkar Gah, he said, "If a man goes there, he will die. There is no water there."
I had been a star boy scout and, for one of my merit badges, I had studied the stars. I could find the Big Dipper and the North Star. I knew which way was north. I needed to go Northeast, because to the south was death and there was nothing west of Lashkar Gah either. The only way out was to walk to Kandahar, which was in a different province around 90 miles away, and go from there to the US Embassy in Kabul.
Finally, and most importantly, how to get out of the room where I was being held? This was in a police station. There were no walls around it. However, there were armed men watching me all the time, even while I slept.
However, there was one time in the day when they were not watching. This was during the evening meal. Afghanistan is a poor country. The oscars (common soldiers) who were guarding me were being paid only 3 afgs a month (only about ten cents) plus some grain which was not enough for a man to eat for a month. They survived by growing their own food in a little garden behind the police station.. I did not know any of the strange plants which were growing there, except that one of the plants resembled okra. They would pick some greens from their garden and mix up something to eat. Their prisoners ate with them, too! Mereli, the old man who lived with his wife and child under the mulberry tree in Khaway, had only one afg with him, he said. He was going to starve if he was not given something to eat. Prisoners in jail in Afghanistan were not fed. If they could not pay for their own food, they died of starvation, and indeed many did.
All the prisoners and all the soldiers guarding them sat down together in a circle in the early evening and ate from the same plate. I alone did not eat with them, because I still had some money with me to buy food, although most of the 100,000 afgs I had had with me when I was arrested had been impounded by the police.
Every day, a certain soldier went to the bazaar to buy dinner for me. The routine was that he got back at about 6:30 PM, just at sundown. He then went and ate with the other soldiers. He also always brought a bottle of Coca Cola for me, in exchange for an empty bottle I had given him when he went to the bazaar.
The plan jelled. At 6:30 PM on Thursday night, the soldier would come and give me my meal. Then, he would go to eat with the others. That was the best time and indeed the only time to escape. I had to escape on Thursday night. If I waited a week, the moon would be full. It would not be dark in the night. Therefore, I had to do it now.
Lastly, how to get out the door? There was only one soldier who was eagle-eyed and watching me all the time. That was the same one who always went to buy me dinner. The others were lax. I had gotten to know them and they were not watching me too carefully.
Although this was a primitive police station, it had been built by Americans many years ago, during the construction of the Helmand River Water Project. Surprisingly, it had a shower, a rare item in bone dry Afghanistan. I established a routine. I took a shower every day at 6:30 PM, just as the sun was going down. It must have seemed like a strange time of day to take a shower. I wanted the soldiers to get used to my taking a shower every day at that time. I took long showers. I timed them. I wanted to see how often the soldiers would come to check to see if I was still in the shower. In fact, the only one who ever checked was the same soldier who brought me dinner. He would check after 10 or 15 minutes.
So, my plan was entirely worked out. The only thing left was to wait until next Thursday.
On Thursday morning, I organized a plan to knock down the wasp's nest which was on top of the police station. I had been killing wasps as they flew in the room where I was being held prisoner, but I wanted to end this by knocking down the entire nest. I got a junior officer to let me out to the back yard of the police station. I tried throwing things at the wasp's nest. I tried to hit it with a stick. Finally, two of the soldiers decided to help me. One stood on the shoulders of another and succeeded in knocking down the nest, managing to run away without getting stung.
While in the back yard, I asked the same junior officer to tell me which way was Kandahar and which way was Gereshk and other places in the area. He pointed out the various directions. I am sure he had no idea that I was thinking of escaping. He said that his great dream was to see the sea, because he had never seen it.
Finally, the fateful moment came: 6:30 PM on Thursday. However, something went wrong! The soldier who always brought my food from the bazaar at this time was late in arriving. Suddenly, I realized that my perfect plan was in danger of becoming unraveled. I could not wait much past 6:30, because as soon as the soldiers finished dinner, they would go back to guarding me plus the moon would come up. Yet, if I ran out the door at 6:30, I might run into the soldier who would be arriving at any moment now with my dinner. Also, he had not yet brought back my Coke bottle, so I would have nothing to drink in the desert.
I realized that it was now or never. I had to escape now, or else give up this plan for at least one month. I decided to do it now.
I turned on the shower. I looked out the west side door to see if the late soldier was coming. He was not there. I ran out the door and across the field in front of the police station. My timing was perfect. It was pitch black. Nobody could see anything.
I did not know the geography of Lashkar Gah. I did not know where I was. Across the field, there was a road. I did not take the road. I continued straight. I hit a steep embankment down into a gully. I went down the bank and arrived, to my great surprise, in the Helmand River.
I was terrified but obviously could not go back. I started crawling along the bank of the river, going upstream. I could not walk, because the weight of my feet kept sinking in the mud. My shoes kept getting stuck in the mud. I had to keep reaching in the mud to pull them out. Finally, I realized that the only way was to crawl in the river on all fours, to distribute my weight evenly so that I would not sink in the mud. I knew this would be a slow process, but I felt that if I could just keep constantly moving, I could evade capture. I remembered playing war games in the woods behind my house as a child. A side which kept moving all the time would win. A side which stood still would be caught.
Only about 5 or 10 minutes after my escape, I heard a group of men running past on the top of the bank above me. I felt sure that this was my guards trying to pursue me. However, they apparently did not look down at the river and, even if they had looked, it was too dark to see anything.
I considered crossing the river but rejected this idea. The road from Lashkar Gah to Gereshk runs along the west side of the Helmand River. There was no road along the east side of the Helmand River, where I was. I wanted to avoid all roads.
After crawling a few miles along the river bank, the topography changed. The river was no longer in a deep canyon. It became increasingly level with the ground around it. Now, there were houses right along the river bank.
I continued to crawl and finally to walk along the river bank. There was a small path behind the houses. I did not like using this path, but I had no choice. The alternatives were to go in front of the houses, which was out of the question, or to swim in the river itself, in which case I would make noise and attract attention. I decided to continue on the path.
Finally, the path became so narrow that I was barely crawling right next to people's houses. At one point, the windows were only about three feet high. I was crawling under the windows. I could hear people talk inside their houses. As I was crawling under one bedroom window, I could hear a man having sexual intercourse with his wife. She was crying cries of ecstasy: "Ahhh Ahhh Ahhh", very loudly. This has always left an impression in my mind. I have never since believed that Afghan women are undersexed.
More threatening was their dog. The dog ran up and down around me while I was crawling behind the houses, barking at me. Fortunately, the dog stopped barking and lumbered away. Naturally, I was afraid that somebody would hear the barking dog and come out to investigate.
I got past the houses and came to an area where there were flat open fields along the river. I had to walk along the fields, most likely rice fields, behind houses. I saw a watch tower with a man standing guard. Although it was several hundred yards away, it was impossible for me to hide from it, so I kept walking and hoped that the guard would not pay any notice of it and would not have heard that someone had escaped.
Finally, after clearing the guard tower, I decided to break out into the open desert. I was walking along fields with houses in front of them. I climbed over a small fence about three feet high. I walked between two houses. I came out onto the main road with houses along both sides. I continued until the houses along the east side of the road stopped. There was nothing else but open desert. I saw a man walking his camel in the desert going in the direction of Lashkar Gah. His camel left behind it a trail of camel dung. I decided to follow the camel dung and go in the direction from which he had come.
Soon, I was really in the trackless desert. There were no signs of life anywhere. Even the trail of camel dung ended. I was just following the stars, according to my original plan. I could see the lights of Lashkar Gah behind me.
I felt I was safe. Nobody would be able to find me this far out in the desert. I wanted to sleep. There were cactus like plants in the desert. They were so numerous that I could not find a place to lay down between them. When I finally found a place, I was so wound up that I could not sleep. I got up and just kept walking.
I found a water canal out in the desert. My plan had been to fill my Coke bottle with water and sip it along the way. However, the soldier had been late coming back, so I did not get my bottle. I had nothing to carry water in. I used my shoe for a cup and drank as much water as I could.
My plan was to head north east, directly to Kandahar. However, when the sun came up, I discovered that my calculations were wrong. I had been walking almost due north. The Helmand River, which runs north-south, was down in a deep valley to my left.
Although I was shocked to see the river, I was not too concerned about this. At least, I could get water. By now, I realized that there was a real danger that I could die of thirst in the desert. Also, although there was a road on the other side of the river, it was too far away for anybody to see me from there.
I could see some Koochi tents. Koochis are nomadic tribes. Their camel caravans travel back and forth across Afghanistan. They are not under government control. Some transport merchandise for sale. Mostly, however, they follow the grass, taking their camels to the mountains of Central Afghanistan in the summer and down to the warmer areas and even sometimes into Pakistan in the winter. Koochis speak Pashtu, not Farsi.
There is a tradition among the Koochis and indeed among all tribal people of the area: If a man seeks refuge in the home of a Koochi, the Koochi must defend him from all outsiders. He cannot allow anybody, not even the police, to enter his home and take the fugitive away.
This tradition is derived from the Holy Koran. In the story of Lot, two angels take refuge in the house of Lot. The people of Sodom tell Lot to send them out, but Lot refuses saying that he cannot because these men are his guests. The same story is in the Bible.
Following this tradition, if a man, known to be a murderer, while being hotly pursued by the police, runs into somebody's home, the owner cannot let the police in, even if the fugitive had killed someone dear to the home owner.
I knew this when I approached the Koochi camp, hoping they would give me refuge. However, only women were there. They waved me away. I knew that I dare not approach women, so I left.
A few miles away, however, I met a group of Koochi men. They were obviously from the same camp where I had seen the women. I stopped and spoke to them in my broken Pashtu. They pointed me the way to go back to Lashkar Gah, which I could still barely see in the distance. I drew a line across my throat. They gave me some water and pointed out a path which led down the canyon to the Helmand River.
It was a steep climb down to the Helmand River, but I was desperately thirsty. I reached the river after an hour and drank my fill. Then, I started to walk up the edge of the river.
I saw a house. Up until now, I had been avoiding people except for the Koochis, because I felt that anybody might turn me in. However, this house seemed to be too far away from everything. A young boy was there. He shouted at me and threw rocks at me, telling me to stay away. I started to climb back up and out of the valley through which the Helmand River flows, but an old man came out of the house and called to me. When I approached, he shook my hand, invited me into his house, which I declined, and let me pass.
Finally, I reached the outskirts of Gereshk. There was a boy leading his donkey. He asked me where I was from. I told him London, just in case he might otherwise tell somebody that he had seen an American there.
At the point where the main highway from Kandahar to Herat passes through Gereshk, there is a shrine and the tomb of a man who died about 150 years ago. I saw from a distance that there was a pot of water next to the tomb. I saw a man drink from the water. After he left, I entered the gate to the shrine and drank as much water as I could.
By this time, it was starting to get dark again. 24 hours had passed since I had escaped.
I walked along the south side main highway going towards Kandahar. I stayed far away from the road, so that the cars would not see me. I met a man who was also walking in the desert going in the same direction. I asked him where he was going. He said he was going to Kandahar. I asked him why he did not take the bus. He said, "Paisa nishta", which means "There is no money". The cost of a bus to Kandahar was about 60 afgs, or less than $2.00. This man was walking 90 miles through the desert because he could not pay two dollars.
He wanted me to walk with him. However, I refused and got away from him. Again, I was afraid that he might tell someone about me, who would tell the police.
When night came, I decided to walk nearer to the road because I felt that nobody would see me anyway. Also, the desert was rocky and hilly and was difficult to walk through. It was flatter near the road.
I saw a truck stopped along side of the road and a man fixing it. I decided to take a chance and ask him for a ride. He agreed. I got in his truck. He traveled only about 10 miles and then stopped for the night. There was a shop along the right side of the road with some Afghan style cots. We slept there.
However, the owner would not let me sleep long. I do not know the reason, but, as the sun was coming up, he chased me away. I started walking along side the road again.
A ramshackle old local bus came by and stopped for me. I decided to take a chance and get in. I knew that there was a checkpoint up the road where all vehicles are routinely stopped and checked. This checkpost was my one remaining worry. I felt that they would be looking for the escaped fugitive. However, I was very tired. I had by now walked 40 miles through the desert. I had not really slept in two days. My plan was to ride the bus for only a short distance and then to get out and walk far out in the desert, around the checkpoint.
My plan went awry because, only a few hundred yards from where the bus had picked me up, there was the checkpost. It was too late for me to get out. I hunkered down and hid behind and almost under a back seat.
A young man who was a passenger told me to get out and get some water. I refused. He obviously could see me hiding down behind the seats. He got out and got a pot of water. He handed the pot of water through the window down to where I was hunkered. I took the pot of water, drank my fill, and handed it back through the window.
A policeman got on the bus. "We are looking for a Haraji", he said in the Afghan language. The word "Haraji" means "foreigner". The bus was filled with tribal people wearing turbans. "There are no Haraji here", several of them replied. The police official got off the bus, without checking behind the seat where I was hiding. To this day, I often wonder: Did these tribal men know that I was the very haraji that these police were looking for? Do I owe them my life? Were they following the ancient tradition of Afghanistan where a fugitive is never handed over to the police? Were they already hostile to the new government? Had they not noticed me getting on the bus? Or, did they somehow think that I whom they had just picked up in the desert was a local Afghan? Is there perhaps some other explanation?
When the bus reached Kandahar, I was still wondering this. None of the passengers spoke to me after this incident. I wanted to ask one of them why they had apparently saved me from being arrested and possibly killed. However, they just got off the bus and dispersed.
I felt I was safe in Kandahar. The police in Helmand Province would not easily admit to the officials in another province that a prisoner had escaped from their custody. Therefore, the police in Kandahar would not know about this. I had been to Kandahar several times before and knew the town well. I walked across but avoided the public bus station. I walked several miles out of the other side of Kandahar. When I was about five miles outside of Kandahar, I flagged down one of the big Mercedes busses and caught a ride to Kabul.
When I reached Kabul, I walked to the US Embassy. It was Sunday and the Embassy was closed. I rang the buzzer at the gate. A Marine guard answered through the speaker. "The Embassy is closed", he said. "I know it's closed, but I must come inside," I said. He asked me the reason. I told him that I could not tell him the reason through the speaker, but that this was an emergency and I had to get inside right away.
The marine guard buzzed me in.
Inside the Embassy, first I had to take a deep drink of water. The Marine guard asked me what the emergency was. "I have just escaped from jail," I said. "I have walked 40 miles through the desert. I cannot go outside, or they are going to kill me."
The Marine guard called a consular officer, who came from his home. After I had refused his offer to put me up in a hotel, the consular officer gave me some blankets and allowed me to sleep on a couch in the Embassy.
I spent several hours talking to that Marine guard. He was Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch, from the area of Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, but he had left the religion of his parents. He gave me his eyewitness account of the bloody events of April 28, 1978, when a Soviet backed government had taken power in a coup in Afghanistan.
When Monday came, I was interviewed by David Block and Martin Adams, United States Consular Officers. They did not believe my story. Especially disbelieving was Martin Adams, who wanted to check me into a local hotel and have me pay the bill myself. I told Adams that people were being rounded up and killed in great numbers in the countryside in Afghanistan. Adams told me that this was not true, that everything was okay in Afghanistan, and that even if there was fighting in the countryside, those tribes had been fighting and killing each other for a thousand years and this was nothing for the US Embassy to be concerned about. The important thing, according to Adams, was for the United States to continue to do business as usual with Afghanistan, so that the US would retain as much influence as possible there.
Block was helpful and sympathetic but Adams was hostile. Adams kept insisting that I check into a hotel and that I go to the Pashtani Tajeriti Bank where I had left a little money in my account and withdraw it to pay my hotel bill. I refused. I told them that the police might be looking for me in the bank. I was not prepared to risk my life just to recover a few hundred dollars. I also would not stay in a hotel, because in all hotels in Afghanistan foreigners are required to leave their passport with the hotel clerk. These passports are checked by the police regularly. I did not have a passport, as it had been taken by Commandant Baqi in Lashkar Gah.
Block and Adams told me that there was a hotel operator who was a friend of the US Embassy and who, if they asked him, would let me stay in his hotel without asking for my passport. I told Block and Adams that in that case, that man would be risking his life and the lives of his children, because if he were caught hiding me, a person they believed to be a CIA agent, they would kill not only him but also would kill his children.
Finally, after a long argument about this, Block and Adams allowed me to stay at the US Embassy Staff House. However, after about one week, they told me that the staff house was full and I would have to find my own accommodations. A man from Canada who was in Afghanistan on a water purification project allowed me to stay for three nights in the house he was renting. However, he then told me that the house lessors, two girls from Canada, were coming back and I could not stay there any longer.
In desperation, I bought a turban and shilwar kamees (Afghan-style baggy pants) and tried to walk across the border to Pakistan at Torkham. I was arrested at the border and held for two months in a total of six different jails, including Jalalabad Prison, Demazang, Puli Charqi and Tolkif. Many of my fellow prisoners were taken out and executed in the night. Often after sundown, the names of prisoners were read. "Khalas michnanzie", they were told excitedly. "You are going free." They were told to gather up all of their things. They were taken out and shot. The late night fire of machine guns was often heard. I believe that one of the officials who came and saw me in Jalalabad Prison was Najibullah, the future President of Afghanistan and then an official in Khad, the secret police.
I had learned to speak some Farsi. I was able to convince a Hazara oscar from Bamyan who was guarding me to mail a letter to the US Embassy in Kabul. I paid him 10 afgs, about 30 cents, to take my letter to the post office. Akhtar Jan, a fellow prisoner, argued with the oscar, saying that he should only charge me one afg. (Years later, I met Akhtar Jan in Pakistan.) When the US Embassy received my letter, they complained to the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan. I was transferred from Jalalabad Prison to Demazang Prison in Kabul. Soon thereafter, I was taken to the Wazeriti Darhila, the Ministry of Interior, to the office of Syed Daud Taroon, the Security Chief, where I was interviewed by two officials of the US Embassy, one of whom was Chuck Boles. About two weeks later, I was transferred to Puli Charqi, the notorious killing prison. To my great fortune, I spent only one night there. I was ordered to be released the next day. Few men ever emerged alive from Puli Charqi.
Ironically, the number one executioner in Afghanistan, Syed Daud Taroon, the Security Chief, was the man who personally ordered my release.
However, even this did not come easy. When I was taken again to the Ministry of Interior, I was held just outside the door at the entrance to a hallway. I wondered what was taking so long. Suddenly, I saw a clerk wearing a suit being beaten and dragged down the hallway. One of the sleeves to his coat was ripped almost completely off. The clerk was a tiny man whom I had seen before. He was then blindfolded. An AK-47 was put to his head. I thought they were going to kill him on the spot. Instead, however, he was led downstairs, put into a jeep and taken away. I found out that the reason for this was that this man had been the custodian of the $2,000 in Afgs they were holding for me. When they had opened the safe where the money was being kept, the money was gone. The clerk had been the custodian of the money. They said that two other men had stolen it, but he was responsible.
I was taken to Tolkif, a jail in the police station in Central Kabul for common prisoners such as thieves, unlike the political prisons where I had been held previously. I was kept there for three days. During this time, the family of the clerk who had been arrested raised the money to pay back the $2,000 which had been stolen. I was then taken again to the office of Syed Daud Taroon. With two officials of the US Embassy present, Taroon handed me an envelope with the $2,000 in afgs in it. He asked me to count the money to make sure that everything was there. I counted the money. However, I had had a collection of small bills from about 15 countries which I had kept as souvenirs. Those bills were missing. When I asked about this, Taroon's face turned from a smile to ashen. I realized what was going on. This was not my actual original money, but rather was replacement money. I assured Taroon that I had everything and everything was there. I signed a paper that had been prepared for me saying that I had received everything of mine back.
After the embassy officials had left, and I was alone in the room with Taroon, but still in handcuffs, he said to me, "If you come again to Afghanistan, I will kill you." Later, an embassy official, Masood Akhram, told me that he had told them this too, and had further stated, "If Sloan comes again to Afghanistan, I will kill him and, furthermore, I will take his body out into the desert where it will never be found."
Later in the day, Masood Akhram, a local Afghan employee of the US Embassy, took me to the money bazaar in Central Kabul where I changed my afgs into dollars. An embassy official became angry when he found out that I had bargained with the Hindu money changers to get the best price, delaying our return.
I was released on September 3, 1978. My money, car, camera and passport were returned to me. Two US Embassy officials were sent to escort me to the border to Pakistan at Torkham. One of these officials was Warren Marik, who, it has recently become known, was an actual CIA Agent and was later stationed in Northern Iraq and was interviewed on a recent TV documentary about the unsuccessful American efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussain. At Torkham, a local Pakistani official from the consulate at Peshawar came to receive me to make sure that I did not have any trouble entering Pakistan. I then drove to Peshawar, where I was interviewed by two US Consular officers, Stephen Schlaikjer and Douglas P. Archard.
A few months after my release from jail, the new United States Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph "Spike" Dubs, was killed on the order of Syed Daud Taroon, the same man who had ordered my release. Taroon himself was killed in September, 1979 in a shoot-out between the forces of Nur Mohammed Tureki, the President, and the forces of Hafizullah Amin, his prime minister. Taroon was killed when he jumped in the way of the first bullet, a bullet which was intended for Amin. Amin fired back, killing Tureki, and became the President of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union officially "invaded" Afghanistan in December, 1979, killing Hafizullah Amin and replacing him with Babrak Karmal of the Parcham Party. The man who had originally ordered my arrest, Abdul Majid Sarbaland, the Governor of Helmand Province, who was by then himself in prison, was released and became the Minister of Radio and Television of Afghanistan.
I have long been reluctant to tell this story because many Afghans believe to this day that I really was an American CIA agent. This sort of rumor can get a man killed in a volatile place like the Middle East.
The reason I am able to remember the above events in such detail is that they changed my life. I consider my life to have been divided into two parts: The part before I was in jail in Afghanistan and the part after. Had this not happened, my life would have gone in a completely different direction. Who can say if I would have been better off or worse? I never returned to Afghanistan. If I had not been arrested, I might have gone back at a later date and been killed there. What would have happened if I had tried to stay in Armenia with Laura Markarian, who later married a famous TV star there? At the time of my arrest in Afghanistan, I had never been married and had no children. On September 10, 1978, only seven days after my release in Afghanistan, I married a local tribal woman in Chitral, Pakistan. Stephen Schlaikjer, who had helped me when I got out of jail in Afghanistan, approved the immigration visa for my new wife.
Since then, all of my seven children have been born. I started having all these children, a custom of Afghanistan, because I realized how fragile my life is and how easily and quickly it could end for no reason at all. I wanted to leave something behind when I die. How many other things in my life would have happened differently? Nobody can answer these questions. However, there is one thing of which I feel certain: I was never again and never will be again the same person as I was before.