The Beginning of the War in Afghanistan


I am glad that your are interested, I have written about some of my trips mainly for my children. Below is a part of a story that involved my trip into Afghanistan on that occasion.

I was employed with an Australian company, Top Deck Travel conducting tours in old double decker buses converted to carry 22 passengers and crew. The bus sat, slept and maintained everybody, it was fully self contained with a kitchen and bunks. I was asked to head to Kathmandu with one of the older Top Deck buses, 'Grunt', they all had names. Grunt is a Bristol Lodekka, built in 1954 and used as a English country bus up until about 1972/3. We had seven passengers for the trip out to Kathmandu, they had paid 99 pounds for the trip, this included food kitty, they expected nothing other than the ride of their life. An all inclusive trip, transport, beds and meals all taken care of by Grunt. They were also aware that sightseeing was to be minimal, this group turned out to be a really good bunch of people who enjoyed the ride. If only they realized that I was teaching John, while he was teaching me and that by the time we got to Kathmandu, they the passengers would have about as much experience on the overland that John and I had.

London to Kathmandu in three weeks, it was daunting, I was to teach John the job and how to drive on the way. When there, we were to join two other buses for a return journey, Moose and Acko were the two drivers. The need for Grunt was brought on by extra bookings for that particular Kathmandu departure. Like any good business, Top Deck never knock back bookings, any problem could be solved, additional bookings just send another bus to Kathmandu, simple. John, 6 male Australians, I English female and I left London on the 10 April, 1978.

In that short three weeks Grunt would cover in excess of 12,000 kilometers at a top speed of about 75 kilometers per hour with a tail wind, any hill would slow us to a crawl and on this route there were some hills, lots of them. I saw some wonderful things, just the scenery, where people lived and different styles of villages and towns, after passing through Istanbul the country that unfolded was all new for me. Some of the trip was a blur as we just drove solidly for day and night, we alternated from the driving to a bunk upstairs, the first stretch was London to Istanbul, the second from there to Tehran so basically it was one stop other than fuel and provisions until Tehran. During that time I did notice things like mount Ararat, the resting place of Noah and his Ark on the left in north-east Turkey. I was in for a big surprise when traveling through Iran, for some reason I expected little habitation, but found it to be quite modern with numerous fuel stations and very cheap fuel. This was a big change as Turkey had massive fuel shortages that would remain for a number of years to come.[ I did get to have a look in Tehran, the capital of Iran, then still controlled by the Shah. I really liked Tehran, we frequented a great bar with nice mugs of frothy beer, steaks and pizzas. The women in Tehran were beautiful, the ones I noticed were as they had piecing eyes, and appeared to flirt, or was that my imagination. The nice looking ladies at the Tehran telephone exchange were all flirts, but I was aware that playing with these ladies was like stepping into a minefield. While flirting at the telephone exchange, I rang Mick Carroll in London and told him that I could live here in Tehran, I was so impressed with the place.

Grunt on the Herat Kandahar Road
"Grunt", our bus which carried us across Afghanistan, on the Herat Kandahar Road
We free camped (as you did) outside a fire station not far from the enormous markets, they allowed us to use their facilities, new tyres were purchased for Grunt as they were much cheaper here than in the UK or Europe as was the fuel. After that short administrative layover in Tehran we continued onto Afghanistan, at that time controlled by President Douad, but as we were soon to learn, not for long. The transit visa's that had been issued to us indicated that Afghanistan was to be closed to foreigners from 30.4.78 to 12.5.78, we had to enter prior to the 26.4.78 to allow us enough time to get across and out before the 30th.

We arrived at the border between Iran and Afghanistan on the 25.4.78 it was an eye opener, the Irani side was ultra modern, with parking bays where vehicles were stripped and searched. All travelers had to pass a small museum within the complex displaying trophies. This consisted of numerous objects behind glass cases showing how drugs and other contraband had been detected. Gas bottles cut in half with internal containers for hash oil and a little gas bottle, indicating to the uneducated that the bottle actually containing gas, we however found these displays very interesting. We had no troubles with the customs as we were heading east as it was only the people traveling west who got into smuggling drugs and received the attention of the Irani Customs. One fellow in particular we knew as 'The Rat' he was a little bloke who looked like a rodent and would search the bus with a screwdriver, just tapping away, tap, tap, tap, tonk, tap. It was then he would remove panels and conduct a more thorough and invasive search. We never had real concerns with drugs as it was a very strong policy that our buses were dope free. Other's obviously didn't have the same rules as these guys caught plenty, I dread to think what happened to the offenders who would most certainly soon become victims. I always thought that with their reputation and the museum people would be deterred from smuggling dope, but they still caught plenty.

After leaving the Iranian border post there is a drive into the desert, I was told by John that it was a couple of kilometers to the Afghan border post. The roadway was rough, Grunt wasn't happy, it went on and on, it seemed to take forever. I think no mans land was at least 15 kilometers until we reached the Afghan border post. It was like none I had ever seen before. A very poor example of a tin shed was the passport control, there were dead vehicles lying about the place and people trying to get processed. The Afghans here seemed to be absolute dopes, they appeared to understand and do nothing. One thing they did understand however was Bucksheesh, Bucksheesh is a common saying throughout this part of the world meaning 'gift' or payment, commonly used by beggars.

Soon we were on our way, a three hour drive to Herat our first stop into Afghanistan, it was a magic place, a very primitive city, we stayed in a hotel close to the centre. The bus was maneuvered in through the archway to the enclosed courtyard of the small hotel, this was as it always was in Afghanistan, I believed that the archways were tall enough for the buses as previous travelers would have used loaded camels, probably just as high as Grunt. These type of premises offered good security for our vehicle and of course us. It was the case where we would pay a fee for a room with bathroom, these were used by us all with most still sleeping on the bus in the courtyard. It was an arrangement that was frequently used by top Deck on overlands as camping grounds were not readily available and when they were, mostly situated on the outskirts of the city. We had some minor repairs to carry out, mainly a couple of the tyres were punctured and needed fixing. I met a young a Afghani boy of about ten years who insisted on helping me and being my personal guide, he took me around to the various places I needed and made my job a lot easier. I looked after him with some bucksheesh for his troubles for which he was happy. It was only a few Afgani's probably one dollars worth Afgani's was at that time the local currency, something we shortened to af's. I have often wondered what happened to him and others like him who I had dealings with.

The road south to Kandahah from Herat was a good 10 hour drive, the roadway was a good concrete slab surface, I think Grunt enjoyed this. This road was built by the Russians for the Afghani's as an aid project, it also led straight up into the USSR from Herat, that would help later. I believe that the Russians always have an ulterior motive, this later proved to be one of those occasions. The barren landscape was vast, hills and mountains to the north east where very little vegetation was apparent. It was also a lonely place, very few travelers or locals were encountered, just the occasional truck and Police post where the toll was paid.

Kandahah is Afghanistan's second largest city, it is also the gateway to the south into Pakistan and another remote city Quetta, a place that I would visit several times in the future. The whole area has an ancient name, Baluchistan. The people are known as Baluchi's and are very proud of their ancestary, they do not have much regard for borders. We free camped in the desert before Kandahah and went into the city first thing the next morning, the 28th April, 1978. The visit to Kandahah was short, we bought fuel and some fresh food. I loved the bread, it is a flat nan bread baked on hot stone heated from a fire beneath the floor. The bakery was very basic, there was a hole in the floor and the flat pizza shaped dough was placed on a large stone therein, the fire was beneath the stone, the baker using a piece of curved wire reached in and flipped the dough cooking it quickly on each side, for him very hot and monotonous work. It was very interesting to see them make it, I saw but ignored the bakers sweat as it dropped onto the bread, it must have been the salt required for the recipe and added to the taste.

After Kandahah we headed north towards Kabul another 12 hour trip, this time on a good bitumen roadway, Grunt was in heaven, This road had been built by the Americans as an aid project, it didn't take a rocket scientist to work out what the World powers were up to. This road was also a pleasure to drive on, but on a regular basis we were stopped at roadblocks, the Police manned these and a small toll had to be paid.

When we were halfway to Kabul we overtook a very large convoy of Afghan troops also headed north, there would have been several hundred vehicles, trucks with troops, armoured cars and tanks. As we went past them they waved and smiled at us, we reminded our passengers not to take photos as we could end up in bother, as in most countries east of Italy it was frowned upon to photograph anything military or even other places such as bridges, railway stations, government buildings or even a plain old intersection, so we waved and smiled back. The soldiers had flowers hanging out of the barrels of their rifles, I thought this strange, hippies in uniform. I thought nothing of the convoy at the time, even after a further two hours on the road Grunt came across another Military convey of a similar size, this one heading south towards us. Again I thought nothing of them, again we smiled and waved as they did to us. These guys also had flowers in the muzzles of their rifles. I thought that they must have all been on the good Afghani hashish that we had heard so much about.

That evening we were driving through the hills that would lead us down into Kabul, we stopped for a loo stop some 20 kilometres from Kabul. It was dark and overcast and in between concentrating on where I was directing my piddle and not wetting my feet. I was looking at these strange flashes, like lightning coming the direction of Kabul. But, it was different to lightning, the light was coming from the ground up into the clouds above, I couldn't hear anything other than a low thunder sound.

The light show also caught the attention of the others, we all attempted to work out this strange display. One of the group, a university graduate, there is always one clever one on board, explained to us that it was refracted lightning. One other bloke, a farmer from Cooma in New South Wales said to me, "what a load of bullshit, he's a dickhead." I tended to agree on both, it was bullshit and he was a dickhead. But, still I had no idea what it was either.

Never the less, we pressed on into Kabul, driving old Grunt, not much could be heard in the cabin over the engine noise, this was also the case in the rest of the rear cabin, but to a lesser degree. We had a cassette player, microphone and PA system in the drivers cabin, just to the back of the drivers seat. This broadcast our voices and the music of the day to speakers in the drivers cabin, downstairs and upstairs.

I was driving and came across a roundabout after we had passed through what appeared to be an industrial area. I saw things on fire and tanks, it was only then I saw that the tanks were firing at things and lots of people running about. My first thought was "Shit! I'm out of here." I took the bus around the roundabout with the intention of going back the way I had come.

Grunts interior lights were on downstairs and upstairs. The glare blind behind me was down, this was a screen behind the driver to prevent the interior lights reflecting on the inside of the windscreen. Grunt must have stood out like a Christmas tree, I made it around the roundabout and was confronted by lots of soldiers facing me with rifles pointed at me and the bus. I stopped the bus and heard yelling screaming from the back, I was aware that the soldiers were onboard, they entered by the back door. There were still a stack of them in the front, all in the light of Grunts' headlights and a few more trying to pull open the drivers door all yelling and screaming, I just sat there with my hands up and shitting myself. It was obvious that they didn't know how to work the handle or were too excited to even look at it. I opened the door and was immediately grabbed and dragged from the cabin onto the ground, I went down and stayed down. One of the soldiers had his bayonet at my throat, it was attached to an AK47. They were still yelling and screaming, I had no idea what was happening inside the bus, I could only hear the movement of people and the yelling.

One of the soldiers had gotten up into Grunts driver's cabin, he leaned out holding the microphone of the PA system and with a big grin on his face yelled and screamed a stream of unintelligible words. I understood a couple of his words, they were in English. 'Americans', 'radio' and I thought he was saying that we were spies, but maybe that was my imagination. I was very concerned at the time, no more than that, I was still shitting myself, these guys seemed to be totally out of control. I had received a couple of kicks and they were still jumping about, yelling and screaming at me, they were all pointing their guns at me and gesturing with them with thrusts, all of a sudden they calmed down.

A well dressed soldier, he looked like an officer arrived he first spoke to the other soldiers and afterwards spoke to me in English, he was very calm. After explaining who we were and my demonstration of how the PA worked, he informed us that we were under arrest, by this time we were in the bus with the others who were all seated downstairs. John and the passengers looked as worried as I felt. Further discussions took place and I became aware that the officer didn't know what to do with us. It was eventually decided that we would be under arrest at the hotel where we had planned to stay, the 'Jam Hotel'. It was situated in the center of the city, just off Chicken Street, this was the area in Kabul where the markets and travelers hotels were located.

We were escorted to our hotel, on the way I was driving Grunt, I saw numerous fires, soldiers and military vehicles, but none firing their weapons, it all appeared to have settled down. The interior lights in the bus were now off as we didn't want to attract any attention. We arrived at the Jam Hotel I was guided in by John who had been there before. It was another of those enclosed hotels with large secure gates that were closed behind us, inside there was plenty of room to move the bus around. I was later to have three buses together in this same compound. The Jam Hotel was situated just off Chicken Street in the centre of Kabul, it also had a good restaurant that sold fantastic pizzas. I think anything would have been good after what we had been eating for the past 2 weeks. A guard for us was placed outside the hotel gate and we were informed that a curfew was in place.

Once inside and after speaking to the hotel bloke who spoke good English, it became clear to us what was occurring, connected to what he said, what we had seen that day on the highway and what we had just experienced it appeared that we were right in the middle of a civil war, looking back it could have been real trouble for us, but at the time it was interesting and business as usual. All through the night explosions, rifle shots and machinegun fire could be heard.

The following morning I received permission to leave the hotel to notify the Australian and English consulates of our presence. John and the female passenger carried British passports, the rest of us were Australian. After leaving the hotel I saw burnt out tanks all around the area of the Presidential Palace, there were also some bodies in the area, mostly soldiers but some civilian. It appeared that a cleanup was in progress as soldiers were removing the bodies. Armoured vehicles stood guard at most intersections, main roads and government buildings. I again saw flowers protruding from the muzzles of the weapons manned by the soldiers. After notifying the British Consulate I was directed to a house in the suburbs that was maintained by the Australian Government. There, I found the Australian High Commissioner for Pakistan, his wife and their 16 year old son. They informed me that Australia did not have a consulate in Afghanistan, but they maintained this house for consular visits. They also informed me that there had been air strikes in the area the night before and lots of windows had been shattered.

I joined them for lunch, they had an enormous freezer stacked with food, I saw layers upon layers of frozen steaks. I thought of getting John and the rest of the group over to join me, that thought didn't last long, bugger them, I'm right jack. We had first class frozen steak, fosters beer and it was a very pleasant afternoon with very pleasant people. I was looking for a nap after that really nice meal and quite a few cans of fosters. While I was there the young fellow seemed to have a continuous grin on face, just like a kid in a toy factory. It appeared to me that he was enjoying one of the local products, hashish, he looked to be in seventh heaven. I was tempted to join him but that would have finished the day for me.

The High Commissioner told me that I could be waiting around for weeks for them to decide what to do with us. He also said that a Russian controlled faction of the Military had taken control of the Afghani Government. I told him of the two separate army groups facing off in the desert on the road to Kabul from Kandahah. The High Commissioner said that President Douad had been assassinated last evening with his family. Army officers entered the room where he had garrisoned himself with his family and asked for his surrender, he apparently shot each one until he ran out of ammunition. Afterwards he and his family were killed. I later leant that over 7,000 military and civilians were killed during this coup d'etat and that it was a spontaneous action undertaken by the Afghan communists.

I returned to the hotel in the afternoon and found the guard missing, the gunfire and explosions throughout the city had also ceased. I went with John and the passengers into town, I wanted to telephone or send a telegram to London to let them know our whereabouts and situation. I found that all communications outside Afghanistan were cut, we also went to the Ministry of Information which wasn't that far from Chicken street, just to find out if we could leave. I was told by a guard at the gate to return the next day. That night was again spent at the Hotel, we were informed that a curfew still existed, there was some gunfire and explosions heard during the night again, but not as much as the night before. The following morning I returned to the Ministry of Information and found a soldier guarding the entrance, we were again denied entry, but he was very friendly. The soldier had an AK47 with a folding bayonet, he started to show off his skills by presenting arms, he was very proud of himself. He stood with the weapon standing alongside his leg and pulled it up to hold it front of his body, he repeated this several times with a big grin on his face. The last time he pulled up the rifle and the bayonet went straight into his cheek. Blood came out all over him and I left as nonchalantly as I could, it was one of the most difficult things to do, walk away from that and not laugh.

That night was again spent at the hotel and it was a very quiet night, just before dawn the next morning, I steered Grunt out of the Jam hotel and headed for Pakistan, I wanted to get away before somebody realized that we were there and caused us some bother. The drive down Kabul gorge was one of the most fantastic drives I have ever experienced, in low gear for most of the descent, the scenery and the road winding down the gorge for what seemed like forever was unforgettable.

It took some time for Grunt to get to the border with Pakistan, the drive through this part of Afghanistan was totally different from the other parts I had experience, here was quite fertile with stone walls separating farms and paddocks and there were many more people, plus the odd burnt out tank. The Afghan border officials informed us that as we had only transit visa's and that they were not valid from 30 April to 12 May. As this was the 1st of May our visa's were invalid. I attempted to explain our detention and the Coup. The officials didn't have the faintest idea of what John or I were talking about. The fines were paid, only a few dollars each for the visa infringement and we were on our way, I didn't want hang about as somebody might change their minds and have us remain. Grunt was a right hand drive vehicle and on the right hand side of the road. At the border between the two barriers we had to switch over to the left hand side of the roadway, this was a strange feeling, luckily there is little traffic on this border crossing, even though it is the major east west highway. I could imagine the confusion if it was busy.

I thought that the Kabul Gorge was fantastic, but the Khyber pass was also very inspiring but in a slightly different way, the roadway was more primitive and single lane covering both directions. It was a hot, hard and slow climb. The Pathan people control the entire area, they were and are a gentle but very fierce people, I wouldn't like to get on the wrong side of them. As I drove through the pass, I saw men walking about and they all seemed to carry rifles, from Lee Enfields 303's, AK47's and very ancient ones that can only be described as being big elephant rifles.

After getting through the Khyber pass we passed beneath the archway of the Kyber fort where we had to report our departure from the area and into Pakistan. I think the area between the fort and the Afghan border belongs to and is really controlled by the Pathans as it appeared to have its own identity.

----- Original Message -----

From: "Sam Sloan" To: "Trevor Carroll" Sent: Sunday, March 03, 2002 11:29 PM Subject: Re: Afghanistan 1978

Thank you very much for your letter. You are apparently one of the very few foreigners who were in Afghanistan on the day of the coup. As you know from my story, I entered Afghanistan one week later.

Yes, I am very interested in more detail, if you have time, and with your permission I would like to add it to my web site.

Sam Sloan

At 06:07 PM 3/3/2002 +1100, Trevor Carroll wrote:

> Sam,

I really enjoyed your website, even though I have only barely touched the surface. I am especially interested in the coup in Afghanistan late April, 1978. I must have been a couple of days ahead of you, I entered Afghanistan from Iran on or about the 24th of April, 1978 driving an English double decker bus 'Top Deck Travel' I toured through Afghanistan 3 times as a driver with this company. On this occasion our visas were marked invalid from 30.4.79 to 12.5.78 and were transit only. We had enough time to travel through and onto Pakistan by the 30th. However we were caught in Kabul, just happens that as we were driving into the city on the evening of the 28th there was still fighting, we were attacked by the Afghan Army and rescued by an officer and placed under house arrest at our hotel, The Jam Hotel. We attempted to gain information on our status but without result, I took the decision to leave and did so, we were fined for overstaying our visa when leaving. I am an Australian, I had two English and 5 other Australians with me on that trip.

If you are interested in more detail, I would be happy to oblige.

Trevor Carroll checkout


I'm glad you liked it, Yes I went back to Afghanistan two more times, once about 6 weeks after the first and again the following year. I did 3 additional overlands but on those occasions I went south via Quetta and bypassed Afghanistan.

Yes, you have permission to post my story, it is a part of a book I have written as yet and maybe never unpublished.

I have attached a photo of one of the old buses as they were at that time. It is Grunt on the Herat Kandahar Rd the year before, it is the only pic I have of Grunt in Afghanistan, but plenty more in other places. Did you ever see one of the old buses?

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