Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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1 - Carrying on Down the Khyber Pass


After Afghanistan it hinted of a return to some familiar normality. But the uplifting symbolism of crossing the border out of Afghanistan into Pakistan soon diminished. The border town had a dusty and uneasy bustle. It was not a place to hang around.

Where is your guns? The Pakistani soldier asked me, as his colleagues looked me up and down with suspicion.

Erm, I don't have any on me, I replied truthfully.

Passport, he demanded. I immediately obliged.

Ah, you are Britisher. His tone changed. You need gunman for your protection. This is from Pakistan government. It is free. Welcome.

I made my way to a waiting vehicle.

All Tribal Area are Closed to Foreigner. The sign read on the way.

Foreigners Are Not Allowed Beyond This Point Unless Specially Permitted By The Political Agent Khyber Agency By Order of Political Agent.

It didn't say anything about those foreigners coming down the Khyber Pass from the other direction out of Afghanistan, instead of going up it. But then most foreigners didn't go down it.

The Khyber Pass was many things in peoples imagination.

Legendary. Forbidding. Dangerous. A Wild Frontier.

It was none of these things. In a rather anti-climactic way, it was a moderately scenic mountain pass with a well tarmacked road. The road was occasionally interrupted with boulders the size of small houses and the land tumbled away, but the terrain looked about as wild and lawless as parts of Mid-Wales. Who knows, perhaps the natives were friendlier.

After days and days of hard slogging through Afghanistan, mentally, the travelling burden was being lifted by just being in a new country.

Conquerors and traders had forged passages through this part of the world for hundreds of years. For greedy armies from the north it had been the gateway onwards to the great prize of India's riches. There were no longer camels loaded with goods as there had been on the road from Jalalabad. The road was far less cluttered and it enabled a flash of history to imprint itself on a transient traveller. It was an area which had received a concentrated imprint of history.

Some four hundred years before even the birth of Jesus Christ, Darius the Great had led his soldiers through here. Alexander the Great followed soon after another couple of centuries later. The Khyber Pass of the modern era was laid around five hundred years ago to enable the Mogul rulers to connect Kabul to the Bay of Bengal. It was described by Kipling as a river of life.

Many of the arches and viaducts have been abandoned, but the many tunnels and bridges on the Khyber railway gave an idea of the epic scale of what was once undertaken here. Nothing, except cricket maybe, symbolised the British empire more than the railways.

The present situation had some of its origins in the British wanting to secure safe passage for their troops up the Khyber Pass. They had done so by allowing tribes like the Afridis to continue their gun making in the Tribal areas, in return for secure passage of British soldiers along the main highway. This was why they had built a fort where they could hole themselves up in. Seventeen thousand British soldiers had also been slaughtered in this region in one of the bloodiest ever military defeats for an empire which at the height of the British Raj, ruled one in five of the world's population.

But this part of the world was an imperial headache, to put it mildly. They were still fighting wars here comfortably less than a century ago in 1919 and many men died for the cause.

Strangely, the great hulks of rock, which disrupted the Khyber Pass, still remained engraved with insignia and giant numerals from the regiments of British soldiers. They made surreal snapshots of my own country's influence in a part of the world I had come to regard as very far removed from my own.

There was, and still remains, an inherent vulnerability about the terrain to an outsider.

Of course, the British had an economic interest in the drugs trade once. India was an outlet for opium. Plenty of the modern day raw materials came from Afghanistan. The factories were in Pakistan.

Kathrine was my Danish travelling companion, who had travelled through Afghanistan with me. For the purposes of social convenience in countries with Islamic customs, now and again she was my new "wife". She was merrily chatting away in Urdu to our assigned driver. It wasn't long before she was receiving her first marriage proposal in a new country, the driver clearly swept away by her exotic Danish complexion. Her new "husband" watched on from the back wearily observing his intent, but unable to understand a word.

I was a little more concerned about the loaded weapon in the lap of our relaxed guard which was casually waving itself around close in front of my face. He was neatly compressed into the back seat next to my own spent limbs. I didn't know whether to be alarmed or reassured. Wearing a blue jumper and beret, he was our fourth armed guard. We had traded a young man for an old one, before going back to a younger one again. All of them with the same guns and ready to kill for me. I could not decide what was more unnerving: the threat posed by them or the much emphasized threat they were supposed to be protecting me from.

Great care had to be taken in remembering not to step too far off the road itself when we stopped, because this was outside the protection of the Pakistani government. Still there was little reason to worry. Although there were lots of men everywhere, and lots of guns everywhere, it was a sight I had just about become accustomed to in Afghanistan.

This area had represented the very outer limits of the British empire in its pomp. The Durand Line had once been an arbitrary line in the map, which made little sense to anyone except the British. Now it had become an international border inherited by the state of Pakistan and it still made little sense to most of the people it affected, the Pashtuns.

Many parts of Pakistan had separatist tendencies, but none was so prickly as that in the North West Frontier Province. Pashtuns were proud and unconquered people with their own strict moral codes. They had a marked dislike of external interference in their affairs in their land of blood feuds. It had made them virtually ungovernable.

Altogether there were some twenty million Pashtuns spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan with little regard for the artificial borders. The Pashtuns were one of the world's largest tribal societies. They were as renowned for something called Melmastia (generous hospitality) as much as they were for badal (a fierce sort of revenge). The word for cousin was little different to the word for enemy. In such a wild land there were two very important, but strangely contradictory principles - hospitality and revenge.

Carrying guns was perfectly normal, as was using them. Doing or even just saying the wrong thing might result in a bullet through the head or a throat being slit. To speak or accidentally touch someone's sister or wife in the wrong way would invite major trouble. It was very much a male dominated world. You sensed they didn't always need an enemy to have a fight.

And as you might expect, they were very good in battle, having seen off and impeded a succession of distinguished empires from the Moguls and the Sikhs to the British and the Russians. No one had managed to change their behaviour. In the modern day, the reach of Pakistani law was about as effective here as it would have been in somewhere on the other side of the world. The Pakistani government could barely control the roads through their territory. It was practically a state within a state.

Before too long, we reached Peshawar, the "Frontier City". Here, for me, there was a strangely defiant sense of returning to the Indian Subcontinent. Maybe it was the chuntering rickshaws. A city very much alive with sights, noises and smells, many of them unhealthily intoxicating. And, of course, the plentiful paperwork.

At my hotel reception, I was made to fill out three separate forms of paper, all entitled

Hotel Arrivals Report.

What is your good name? I was asked with polite eagerness.

The faces were friendly and the welcome had a gentle warmness to it.

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