The Afridi bandits gather round to stare at the unusual foreign prisoners their young men have just brought in from the pass this morning
April ’73: The Horse Company is Captured by Bandits and Held to Ransom
(This story is a sequel to and continuation of the earlier blog, “The Company of the Horses.“)
Could be Hajji Yusuf…
We told Hajji Yusuf, owner of the stables in Kabul, that we’d decided to leave for Swat in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province as our visas were running out, and we’d take our horses with us. He warned us, aside, that by Royal Decree all Afghan horses ultimately belonged to King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan, and their export by anyone other than the King himself was banned. He reassured us, however, that this only meant that we couldn’t take them through the official border post; they’d have to be smuggled out through the hills into Tribal Area, or Yaghistan (‘the cold country’) where the ‘Free Tribes’ lived beyond any government control. This was perfectly normal. He looked in his address book and gave us a Shinwari contact of his in Jalalabad, the last town before the border, who would know exactly how to get them through to the Pakistan side, but warned that we should watch out for the Afridis, “they’re all thieves and bandits”.
Bandits? We’d been warned about bandits on the Frontier for as long as we’d lived and travelled there but never had the pleasure. “We are the bandits!” Rafiullah told him, laughingly.
“OK” he said, “but pay some money for Shinwari tribal escort to the other side. Then they will be responsible and you’ll be safe, even if Afridi bandits come. It is their own business, believe me. This is what they do.”
“Alright” we said, half in jest, “it’s bandit versus bandit!” But we got the message and given our knowledge of how things worked on this border and amongst the Pashtuns, it made good sense.
He laughed and embraced us. “May Allah be with you and keep you safe.”
We had far too much stuff to take by horse so Archimedes and Renato agreed to accompany an Englishman called Alistair we’d befriended to carry the excess over the border in his Landrover. But first we’d all ride down to Jalalabad together. Rafiullah and I got our hair dyed black to be less noticeable as ‘ferenghi’, and disguised ourselves as locals as well as we could to pass unnoticed. It was a fairly futile ploy, considering. We packed our gear, loaded up and gathered at the stables to saddle up and get moving.
“Bismillah” said Rafiullah, as was his habit when starting anything, as he mounted the tall, dappled white Sharoban.
The rest of us followed suit. Five riders including Archimedes and Renato, two leading the two extra horses on a rope, trotted out and down the busy main road from Kabul to Jalalabad. Twenty eight horseshoes clattered noisily. Savoy eased into the lead, lending his unruffled calm to the rest as trucks, buses and cars whizzed past, klaxons hooting, with people yelling ‘chu!’ or whooping at us. It’s not often they’d see well-mounted, turbaned Europeans in colourful local garb riding smartly along this road in a tight bunch, trotting the bouncing Turcoman trot.
Once out of Kabul we crossed a plain heading for the first range of mountains. The Kabul river flowed alongside, deep and slow. We came to a narrow gap sliced deep into the mountain wall where the river plunges from sunshine into shadow and transforms into a raging, foaming torrent of white water rushing and crashing down over colossal boulders, from pool to pool.
The road zigzags down alongside it until the river disappears into a deep gorge. Below towering crags it takes a longer, tortuous descent with dizzying views, twisting and turning halfway down beetling cliff-faces, descending as if into the bowels of the earth. Suddenly it emerges onto a new plain. From here the river meanders lazily again towards Jalalabad as a series of lakes, blue as the sky.
There was still another mountain range to cross. Khyber Pass and Pakistani Tribal Area lay on the other side, with bandit country in between. We reached Jalalabad on day two, in the middle of the plain, to the south of which lies the magnificent, sparkling white wall of the Safed Koh, the ‘White Mountains’ with its Torabora caves where Osama Bin Laden holed up nearly three decades later. We’d have to cross a spur of this range to get to Landi Kotal, the smugglers’ town at the head of the Khyber.
The Shinwari and the Afridi tribes share this area, and we would have to pass through the territory of both. Their business is smuggling, and they compete, each tribe and clan jealously guarding its own territory. They regard the combination of borders and high customs duty as a good business opportunity. Anything can be exported or imported if you ask the right people and pay their ‘tax’. Their land is generally so poor that they need to charge such taxes to supplement their income.
In Jalalabad we went to Hajji Yusuf’s contact who would know how to export horses without troubling the Afghan customs officers at the border. He arranged for us to keep our horses in the little-used sports stadium down by the river, to munch the lush green grass. We stayed at the nearby inn over the corner kebab restaurant, where all the ‘Afghan Post’ buses between Peshawar and Kabul stop for lunch.
For getting to across to the other side he directed us on to a village called Gurrdi Ghaus at the foot of the range to the south. We should ask for Hajji Khan, a Shinwari, he said.
“He will guide and protect you over a pass on a smuggling route through the Azad Gabile – free tribes area – into the Pakistan side” he assured us in Pashtu.
“What about bandits in the free tribes area?” asked Rafiullah.
“You are foreigners and outsiders and therefore everybody’s guest, nobody will rob you. Only locals, Indians and Pakistanis, Punjabis and Bengalis who try to avoid our tax, are to be robbed or kidnapped and have their hands cut off, or killed” he added, reassuringly. “Do not worry, you will be safe. Hajji Khan will pass you through Afridi territory. He knows them, and they know him.”
Hajji Khan’s chowkidar?
Thus mollified we rode out of Jalalabad, heading for Gurrdi Ghaus. We were off the main road now, on trails used by smugglers’ mule trains. Our steeds were well rested and well fed and we barrelled along at a good pace, letting them canter and varying the pace by reining them in to conserve energy. We had a long way to go. They were full of energy, smooth and powerful and we enjoyed the ride, swiftly consuming the well-worn trail between fields, through open meadows and into the more stony foothills. The mountains loomed.
At Gurrdi Ghaus we asked for Hajji Khan and were shown to a fortified compound near the foot of a rocky, pine-forested hillside. Built on a slope studded with massive rocky outcrops and massive, ancient pine trees it was a small village in itself. Enclosed behind long, twenty-foot high blank mud walls with towers at each corner there was a solid metal gateway big enough for loaded trucks to pass. We tethered our horses under the trees outside and spoke to Hajji Khan’s clansmen who welcomed us through a small door into a guest room and served green tea. Hajji Khan eventually emerged to discuss our needs, a giant, jovial, hook-nosed figure complete with huge belly, flowing orange-hennaed beard and a stiff white turban wrapped around his domed, gold-thread-embroidered skull-cap.
Looks like Hajji Khan!
He pressed more of the obligatory green tea on us and listened to our request. “OK no problem. One horse, five hundred Afghanis. Seven horses, you pay me three thousand five hundred. Up to Land Kotal.” It was about $40. From his point of view, Landi Kotal, that infamous resort of bandits, outlaws, robbers, gangsters, smugglers, drug-dealers and kidnappers was a safe refuge representing civilisation and security.
“What about guides, protection?” asked Rafiullah.
“Yes, of course. I send three men with guns to escort your passage up to Landi Kotal. Food and tea for all person and horses, I pay” continued Hajji Khan, in Pashtu. “No trouble. One and half day’s journey. You stop and rest at night before the pass. I am responsible, my guarantee. Cash payment in advance pay now, leave tomorrow afternoon. Arrive Landi Kotal next day. No problem.” he added, with reassuring authority and finality.
All part of the day’s work and if Hajji Khan personally guaranteed our safety we had nothing to worry about. We supposed that three westerners with seven good horses was a high-profile deal crossing this border and Hajji Khan’s reputation and honour would be paramount, bandits or no bandits.
We counted out the cash and handed it over. “Everything will be arranged. Now you take rest, food will come” he concluded affably with a crushing handshake. Food was duly served and we passed the time diligently rubbing more mutton fat into our leather gear and grooming our steeds. The horses had plenty of hay and young maize leaves. The next morning we fed them with barley grains to give them energy for the tough ride ahead.
That afternoon we saddled up and rode from the village up a dry and sandy streambed from Hajji Khan’s place. Three young Shinwari escorts armed with rifles took the lead with Rafiullah, Kevin and me following up behind with one rider-less horse in tow on a rope. Alistair took the rest of our stuff in his Land Rover via the official route, accompanied by Archimedes and Renato.
We passed silently over the soft sand of the streambed between tall scrub and bushes, entering the rocky mountain range to cross the Durand Line. We were soon joined by several fast-walking travellers who must have been locals taking the same route on foot. We gradually gained altitude, penetrating deeper into the range. Our escort and their companions on foot talked rapidly between themselves in suppressed tones. As we climbed higher the riverbed got stonier and rougher. Its banks became steeper and more thickly covered in a tangle of dense scrub and trees.
As the sun sank behind the hill we picked our way in a long line along a broad, level section of the stream bed which now had a little water trickling in between the rocks.
An old photo of Pashtoon tribesmen with jezails (muskets)
Suddenly the peace was rudely interrupted by a furious yelling as several wild-looking men came charging down the banks towards us, stooping to grab lumps of rock from the stream bed as they went and hurling them at us forcefully while screaming violent imprecations. Up above, there seemed to be a home or hamlet amongst the trees and bushes where some women were also shouting angrily and making threatening gestures. Our startled horses reared up and wheeled as nasty rocks flew dangerously close past our ears and our escort seemed to protest ineffectually from the rear. I couldn’t understand the problem except these wild and crazy people seemed intent on intimidating us or driving us off. It was an ambush.
“Bandits!” shouted Kevin from the front. Deciding that attack was the best defence he manifested a wrathful aspect which few people ever saw. Normally Kevin was one of the most peaceful, gentle and harmless people you could ever possibly wish to meet, but under this sudden and unprovoked attack he morphed into some kind of wrathful avenger. Rearing his horse up with a baleful cry, as it came back down he urged the magnificent Flamador to gallop towards them as if to trample them under his hooves. Standing in the stirrups, eyes bulging, beard bristling he forced his horse straight towards them waving his whip and shouting incoherently.
At the sight of this wild-looking character galloping at them they stopped in their tracks, dropped their rocks and turned and ran. Rafiullah and I followed suit and cavalry-charged after Kevin as they scrambled up the bank. We reined the horses in, turned back in an upstream direction and rode on past, muttering, shaking our fists and glaring at them. They glared and cursed and shook their fists back, but no more rocks were hurled. Then our escort following up the rear exchanged words with them as they passed. Evidently, the sight of our escorts’ rifles helped deter any further attack and they were soon left behind, still shouting intermittently.
“Well! So much for the bandits” I remarked to lighten things up after this alarming episode, “even Kevin can frighten them off!”
Our escort caught up with us and explained these characters wanted “tax” for passing their domain, but they had no firearms to back up their demand. They thought our assailants were tribal outcasts or outlaws on the run to be living in such a place.
We continued on our way, on the alert for further attacks but none were forthcoming. Yet.
The sun had set, dusk came and a moonless night fell. Eventually it became too dark and we had to dismount, leading the horses by the reins and straining to see our way on the rough and rocky path as it narrowed and steepened. We walked the special walk that Kevin had observed Afghans using years before, called “the Afghan walk”. With each step you pick your feet up as if you’re stepping over a low bench. That way you never trip up over the rocks and stones that litter the ground in most of the country.
It was so dark that we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces and the path seemed perilously invisible. We had to keep on moving just by the almost invisible light of the stars and listening to the sounds of our escort leading their horses walking in front of us. Rafiullah called out to them to ask how far we had to go in this impenetrable darkness.
Afridi smugglers of wood over the pass, using camels
“Don’t worry, it’s not far, we’ll soon stop. There’s a place to stay a bit further” they reassured us, but we kept on climbing, interminably it seemed. Then, at last, about to give up hope, we saw the glimmer of a light up ahead and at the same time, the pre-glow of moonrise on the ridge. The glimmer was the flame of a small kerosene lantern hung on a pole over a makeshift kitchen. There it was, a chai-khana in a rest area on sloping ground in the middle of nowhere, halfway up the mountainside. As we approached the scene gradually became visible in the emerging brightness of the moon, with a blazing wood cooking fire and two or three of these smoky little lanterns. A smugglers’ rest.
We struggled up, tethered the horses wherever there was space between other animals, rocks, bushes and stunted trees. Heaps lay on the ground near each beast, their loads which had been shed for the night. Men sat near the fire or lay on string beds and rush mats on the ground. The cook, shaven-headed and with a long beard was boiling black tea and baking thick rounds of maize bread on a crude mud stove over the blazing pine fire. Rocks that had been gathered and piled up on top of each other served as ‘walls’. A flimsy brushwood shelter on a framework of sticks covered the ‘kitchen area’; otherwise it was open to the sky.
Our horses stood out even in that feeble light amongst the mules, packhorses, donkeys and camels. We tied them by their halters and loosened the girths, leaving the saddles on as instructed by the escort. They found a bundle of fresh green maize for the horses to munch on; they were hungry after the long ride and snorted with pleasure as they snatched at it. Then we were called to sit and eat fresh-baked cornbread with black tea. We lay down by horses on rough string cots under the stars as the fire and lanterns were doused. All was quiet as we dozed, apart from the occasional nocturnal bird call and animal sounds of grunting, snorting, stamping and shifting their feet.
Before first light we were shaken awake and told to get going, as quickly as possible. We jumped up, wound on our turbans, gathered our sheets and got the horses ready. We tightened the girths, slipped on the bridles, pulled out the tethers, mounted and rode off up the steep trail with the moon now high in the sky lighting our way. The grey first light of dawn silhouetted the pass above. We leaned forward, held on the pommels and stood in the stirrups as our mounts strained every sinew to keep up with the pace of the escort. They were urging their horses on with whips to climb fast up the precipitous path, zigzagging up the mountainside. The horses soon warmed to the challenge, attacking the climb as the light ahead slowly grew stronger. After half an hour the path levelled out. We reached top of the pass.
Bandits lie in wait
Our escort seemed to hang back as the trail entered a rolling, grassy field with protruding boulders in between mountains on either side. We’d just glimpsed the rosy glow of dawn on the eastern horizon away on the other side of the pass and were threading our way between boulders when five young men suddenly rose up from shadows behind the rocks to either side, rifles levelled. While ignoring us they challenged our escort behind. Our Shinwaris simply dismounted, handed over their guns and the reins of the horses they were riding and retreated, walking back down the path. Our new escort calmly took charge the escorts’ horses, turned to us, came up, got hold of our horses’ bridles and told us to dismount for the descent on the other side. It was all done so swiftly and smoothly that it didn’t sink in that we’d actually been captured by Afridi bandits without a shot being fired. They told us to hand over our weapons because we were entering their area, so without actually feeling under threat we gave them the bayonets and daggers that we carried in sheaths on our belts. We imagined we’d been taken over by a new set of escorts and all this was normal procedure for the next stage.
Rafiullah’s Pashtu was better than mine, however. Since he’d seen our escort surrender their rifles and nobody had said our escort would change, he was sure it couldn’t be right. He spoke with our new escort at the rear as we started down the steep and narrow, dusty trail winding between high cliffs and crags on the eastern side. Then he caught up with Kevin and me and interpreted: “Guess what, guys, they are bandits. We’ve been captured and been taken prisoner! If we try anything, they say they’ll shoot us. This is Bazaar Valley and they’re Zakka Khel Afridis. No Shinwaris allowed. Our Shinwari escorts have basically handed over their rifles and run away. Now these Afridis are taking us to their base, down in the valley below.”
As he spoke, the red sun was rising, illuminating the Tirah valley spread out far below in sharp relief, like a map, with the misty plains of the Indus valley stretching further away to the east. Seven horses and eight men moved rapidly down from the heights, harness jingling, in single file, with Afridis walking, rifles at the ready, in front and behind. The trail twisted and turned tightly down the rock face. We descended silently, picking our steps and digesting this news as our captors joked loudly amongst themselves.
“So what’ll happen, then, exactly?” Kevin enquired of Rafiullah after a few minutes getting used to the new situation. Rafiullah spoke again to our captors in Pashtu.
“You’ll have to pay ransom” we were informed in Pashtu. “The white-beards will hold a jirga and decide. But don’t try anything funny, to escape without paying. Some Bengalis from East Pakistan tried that, leaving for Kabul without passports after the Bangladesh war with India in 1971. We cut off their hands. That’s what we do.”
“We’re Europeans, not Bengalis” I objected in Pashtu, thinking to pre-empt any such ideas from the start.
“Wah!” called the nearest escort to his companions in Pashtu, “they’re Angrezan, foreigners, tourists!” They looked at us again in the strengthening light, apparently amused to have captured some Europeans. They must have thought we were Turcoman or Russian.
“Is this Afghanistan, or is it Pakistan?” I demanded, in Pashtu.
“Not Afghanistan, not Pakistan!” he replied, spitting into the dust, “this is Yaghistan!” ‘Yaghistan’ is what these ‘free tribes’ call their area, literally ‘The Cold Country’, high up above the heat of the plains, proudly uncontrolled by any government.
“What about Hajji Khan, we paid him up to Landi Kotal?” I ventured.
“He’s Shinwari. We’re Afridis” he said with a leering grin. “If Shinwaris come here …” he drew his finger across his throat evocatively.
With this, silence fell again. The path was becoming less precipitous as we emerged from the crags and moved down a steady slope, losing height rapidly. The Afridis and the Shinwaris are both Pashtun tribes but there is always a lot of rivalry, and in this area they vie with each other for business and control of the smuggling routes. As Pashtun tribes, they also follow their code of honour to prevent violence and endless tit-for-tat and escalating feuds from breaking out.
“Another fine mess you’ve got us in, Rafiullah,” mused Kevin, putting the onus on him with a somewhat concerned smile.
“Don’t worry. Inshallah, everything’ll be alright,” said Rafiullah airily. “Nothing bad has happened yet. Allah will protect us. Also, Hajji Khan is responsible to get us out. It’s a matter of honour for him: he promised us safe passage all the way to Landi Kotal. He’ll have to do something.”
“This is great,” I said, “captured by bandits in the Tirah – what a story when we get home. Wow!”
“If we ever do get home,” said Kev, “I don’t fancy having my bleeding hands cut off.”
“Bollocks, man. This lot are alright. Me and Rafiullah can handle them. They’ll be eating out of our hands soon, not cutting them off, you’ll see. Don’t worry.”
“Inshallah” said Kevin with a grin. “Just kidding.”
We continued descending the sandy, stony trail in silence except for the steady, muffled plodding of eight men’s boots and shoes and seven horses’ hooves, the gentle jingling of harness and the occasional snort or chomping on the bit from a horse. Down below at the foot of this mountain, in the lower reaches of the Bazaar valley a surreal landscape emerged and gradually began to take shape as we approached. It resembled some weird landscape from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Some freak of erosion had caused scores of knolls or towers of rock to be left standing high on the plain below, a few hundred yards apart and maybe two hundred feet high. Many had habitations on the tops which were flat and broad enough for the extensive walled settlements of houses and fortified compounds that were built on them. As we drew nearer we could see that most of these settlements were huddled around high, square stone central towers with firing slits on all sides and parapet-like walls round the tops. They were little fortresses. Each inhabited tower was thicker at the base and had a zigzagging pathway with steps cut into it on its least steep side, evidently for people and animals to climb up and down. On the flat and stony ground stretching in between all these towers there were no buildings to be seen, just walled fields and dry and barren-looking pastures suitable for goats. It was bizarre.
Thinking it would be good to chat with our captors a bit, Rafiullah struck up a conversation in Pashtu with the spokesman, a lanky, clean-shaven young fellow with black oiled hair, since apparently none of them spoke English. He wore baggy white shirt and trousers, no turban, with tough, open leather sandals and held his rifle in his left hand and the ends of Gul-e-Badam’s reins in his right. Translated literally, the discussion went something like this.
“Hey, boy! Listen to my talk a little, won’t you?” This got his attention, then, pointing towards the settlements: “What are those towers for, in those settlements?”
“Those are our compounds. From those towers we are able to shoot down onto any enemies who may come against us” he explained, somewhat patronisingly. Wasn’t it obvious? “Then, if we have a problem with our neighbours,” he added, “from those towers we can also shoot at them inside their own compounds.”
“Oh, we understand,” we said, nodding sagely, “very good, very useful.” After a pause for reflection on this, Rafiullah waved at the whole group of scattered settlements dotted around below and asked “This village, what’s it called?”
An old photo of tribal ‘lashkar’ fighters
“That’s no village, that’s all one-one house;” he said with a leer. “One family, one house.”
We paused again to absorb this information. It seemed tribal and communal togetherness had its limits here.
“I understand. Now, where are we going? Where are you taking us?”
“Over there” he answered, pointing one of the nearest fortified towers of solid rock, “that’s our family’s compound, on that mount.”
As we got near, approaching the foot of our downhill trail, he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted loud and long, calling to a lookout on the top of the tower that they’d “captured some booty, with eight horses”, and to “get ready for three prisoners.”
Reaching the valley floor and still some distance from our captors’ family tower we goggled at the collection of towers standing like a range of fantastic sentinels in a science fiction movie, on another planet. Our escort called out again to several women of different ages telling them to disappear. Dressed in brilliantly coloured shalwar-kamees, crimson red velvet with decorative borders and silver jewellery, some carried water on their heads in earthenware or brass pots, others were driving animals up the steps for milking or down for grazing. They had to make themselves scarce since three ‘outsiders’ were arriving. By the time we reached the foot of the staircase zigzagging almost vertically up the tower’s side they had melted away into the scenery. They hid discretely behind rocks, but not before they’d hung about in our path as long as they reasonably could to have a good look, calling out between themselves with loud, cheeky-sounding comments about us or the horses. Finally, the way was cleared to start climbing up the side of the cliff, leading the horses by the reins as directed by our captors.
It was a stiff climb up to the top of the tower and there, when we reached it, our journey ended in the wide open central courtyard with its magnificent vista of the range of mountains we’d just crossed. The horses were taken away and tied up around the perimeter and their saddles removed and taken away. We were by then surrounded by a crowd of inquisitive urchins, old women and young men, some of whom carried rifles. Between them, with great amusement they rudely relieved us of whatever we still possessed. Water flasks, silver-handled buzkashi whips and all the contents of our pockets disappeared in rapid succession. Passports, knives, matches, silver-buckled belts, each item was carefully checked before being passed around or grabbed and claimed. Some were fought over by different parties, with tugs of war over the fancy buckled belts accompanied by laughter, thumps and imprecations.
“We’ll just have to see how this all pans out” said Rafiullah as he was made to pull off his riding boots which were upended and shaken in case of hidden daggers, then like other items submitted to a careful frisking for other hidden weapons or money. “Wait until we can meet some elders and see if we can talk with them”.
The welcoming committee …
“Right” I chipped in, reluctantly handing over my Swiss army knife with its thing for getting stones out of horses hooves, “and what about Hajji Khan’s men? He took our money and promised safe passage to Landi Kotal in return. He is responsible. He said so himself.”
“What an amazing place” said Kevin laconically, unhitching his Sam Browne belt with the bayonet sheath he’d carved from wood and handing it over. “God, I could do with a chai.” It was true, we’d been on the move for several hours since leaving the smugglers’ rest on the other side of the range on the Afghan side before first light, with only water to sustain us.
Rafiullah had what he called a ‘Zalmorah’, a rough garnet crystal as big as a golf ball, a preciously guarded bequest from his old Sufi master the late Saeen Baba, which he always kept in an inside pocket as a safeguard and good luck charm. An old woman snatched it and disappeared. He was dismayed but there was nothing he could do. Stripped of everything but our clothes, we were taken to a safe corner and told to sit on the ground on an old rush mat. Rafiullah asked them to kindly water the horses, they had been walking for hours.
“There’s nothing left except the horses,” said Rafiullah with a shrug, “all they can do is ransom us.”
“Oh, we’ll only be held to ransom” said Kevin, amused, “Well that’s alright then, no problem.”
“It’s better than being mutilated, or shot” said Raf, “we’re worth more alive than dead. They’ll have to look after us.”
“And what if we can’t pay the ransom?” said Kevin.
“Shut up you two, wait and see. As Rafiullah said, ‘nothing bad has happened yet’.”
Afridi bandit family
The elders heard the news and were summoned to decide our fate. They trickled out of the buildings to this courtyard, bearded, turbaned, with whiskers, wonky spectacles, dun-coloured robes, embroidered waistcoats and bandoliers charged with brass shells and cartridges. While they sized up the horses, boys pulled string beds out for them to sit on and set rickety wooden tables with water glasses and jugs, and spittoons on the ground. Young men squatted to prime tobacco water-pipes. Some elders packed pistols in holsters on their belts, others had old Lee-Enfield 303 rifles slung over their shoulders or laid across their knees. It was well before the Kalashnikov era. Once all settled and in place, they stuffed plugs of ground tobacco into their gums and checked their faces in the mirrors on the tins. Little round tea pots and small bowls were brought, tea was poured, the grace of Allah was thanked and the discussion kicked off.
Our ransom value was weighed up against potential backlash from the authorities for bothering western tourists, within the framework of tribal custom and the Pashtun code of honour. Pipes did the rounds, smoke was blown out, tea leaves tossed away, chai bowls refilled, gum-tobacco replaced, spittoons spat into. We sat and watched. They’d have to reach consensus. What would be our fate?
Please, mister, photo!
In low voices, keeping one eye on the proceedings, we were holding our own discussion. What could we do?
“Hajji Khan is absolutely responsible” asserted Rafiullah. “We paid him, he’s liable. He promised us safe passage to Landi Kotal, in front of people.”
“This lot don’t seem to think so” I said, indicating our captors.
“His escort just pulled out” he continued. “He’ll have to sort it out. These guys just want a piece of the action. The Afridis and Shinwaris have to cooperate on the through routes that pass through both their land. If it isn’t settled in a compromise, there’ll be a tribal war.”
“I’m dying for a chai” I complained. “What kind of hospitality is this?”
“I bet they spotted us with the horses in that smugglers’ rest. Maybe it was the guys who were walking with us yesterday. They must have made a deal with our escort. It all happened too easily.”
“If we act all meek and mild they’ll treat us like shit” opined Kev. “Why don’t we have a go? I mean stand up for ourselves as guests and demand chai? They’re all sipping chai while we stay thirsty and we are the guests, aren’t we? I thought these Pashtuns were supposed to be big on hospitality?”
“Good point” grinned Rafiullah. “Let’s do that … but let’s see what they say first, then let them have it.”
“Yeah” said Kevin, “we might be infidels but at least you’re a Muslim.”
“No,” Rafiullah corrected him, “it makes no difference if your guest is an infidel. In fact, it’s better to serve infidels than other Muslims.”
“OK” said Kevin, “that settles it. Wait for the verdict and if we don’t like it, let ’em have it.”
We rehearsed some choice phrases of Pashtu abuse and selected what might work.
“Don’t call them ‘sons of pigs’” said Rafiullah “they’ll kick the shit out of us. ‘Sons of donkeys, sons of camels’, that’s OK. And we complain about their hospitality. The further that your guests have come, the more they should be valued.”
“We´ll play it by ear”.
The jirga chairman was summing up, counting three points on his fingers and the rest assented. Two young men came over to convey the verdict and squatted on their haunches.
“Jirga finished” said the nominated messenger. “Number one. You can go free, no harm. Number two. You also take your horses. Number three. You pay one lakh Afghanis in tax for crossing Afridi land.”
A lakh is a hundred thousand, the biggest number they could think of, about $1,500, more than twice what all the horses cost. The elders observed from across the courtyard.
We looked at him then at each other with mock surprise, and raised a chorus of angry protest.
“What? No way! Are you serious?”
“You sons of donkeys! Nonsense!”
Either war-path, or chai-path
The messenger was taken aback. His jaw fell, and the elders sat up. We followed up with more indicators of discontented guests, a curse on any Pashtun host. “We’re worried! We’re angry!”
Our messenger looked round at the elders. Rafiullah pointed his finger at them and raised his voice. “We came 10,000 miles to enjoy some Pashtun hospitality. Is this it?”
“Yes” I chipped in, “we heard the fame of Pashtun hospitality far away, but so far this is terrible!” They hesitated, and Rafiullah felt encouraged.
“It’s the worst hospitality I’ve ever seen in the whole Muslim world” he said, waving his arms, Italian style, eloquently and dismissively. “May Allah curse all those who mistreat travellers and guests, and send them all to hell.”
“Afridi hosts sit on cushions, drinking tea,” he mocked, “while their guests sit on the ground like animals, dying for a sip of water!”
We all laughed and they began to squirm.
“You pay Pashtuns for protection, then they stab you in the back!” said Rafiullah gleefully, “I think Punjabis are more trustworthy than that!” We laughed again.
I decided to go for broke. “Bring tea, and be quick” I called to the jirga, then lowered my voice so only the messengers could hear “or we’ll screw all your wives!” This coarse Pashtu term of abuse is extremely insulting, but not quite as bad, I hoped, as ‘son of a pig’.
The messenger’s faces darkened, they frowned, and they rose to their feet as if about to reach for their daggers. Help! I’d gone too far.
Rafiullah, however, saw the funny side and suddenly started sniggering, involuntarily. This proved infectious. We began to giggle then laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation. At this, the messengers looked at each other and decided it would be best to treat this grave insult as a joke. They relaxed, grinned then laughed with us and squatted down again, looking round to the elders, who’d been watching these exchanges, as if for guidance. At the same time, the head of the jirga, who hadn’t heard the final insult, stood up and called for tea “for the guests.” It seemed he’d got the idea.
We breathed a sigh of relief as a boy hurried over with a pot of fresh green tea and three bowls, set them before us and poured. All would be well. We sipped the tea with pleasure while discussions resumed and continued.
After a few minutes the messenger was sent to open a door in the wall and we were ushered through it into a cool and shady guest room with ceiling fans, well-made tables, chairs, and cots with cushions. A middle-aged man was deputed to keep us company. He shook our hands and introduced himself, pouring more tea into our bowls.
My mum & sister (left) sit in a Shinwari smuggler’s hujra nr Landi Kotal, ’76
“I’m Sher Afzal Afridi. Welcome to Bazaar. Don’t worry, don’t be angry. You are our guests.” The key words had been spoken. We were no longer prisoners.
“A message is going to Hajji Khan,” he announced “It’s a tribal matter. Everything will be settled. We didn’t know you were coming. He should have informed us. These boys who captured you are hot-heads. They did not know that you were foreign guests.”
“But what about our horses and all our things?” asked Rafiullah.
“Don’t worry about anything. Everything will be returned to you and you will be free to go with your horses. We can escort you up to Landi Kotal, if you like. Horses will be fed also. If you need anything, just ask.”
Breakfast was served, then we rested. When we awoke, Hajji Khan’s envoys had arrived and parleyed and a deal had been cut. To satisfy honour and custom, we had to pay for crossing Afridi territory. A nominal fee of 1,000 Afghanis was fixed, hardly $15, plus another thousand for the return of captured firearms. This was a small matter of honour. They apologised, but there had to be a small consideration to satisfy honour and custom. We were given credit, we could pay on safe arrival at Landi Kotal. Then the whole clan gathered in their meeting hall for a celebratory lunch, with us as guests of honour. Chicken curry, channa dhal, yoghurt, spinach and hot maize bread were served up with lassi.
“You’re lucky to escape like this” croaked a very old man at the lunch, “last time any British came here was 1897. We fought them off and killed many, by the grace of Allah.”
“No,” said another, “they came to punish us, but these are travellers. They came here to enjoy. Anyway, what about that Jan Mohammad, he was in the Panch Piris bandit jail last year. He’s British.”
“He’s not British,” said a third, “he’s a lying Afghan. No British can speak Pashtu like he does. He’s an imposter.”
“No, he is British but he converted to Islam, by the grace of Allah” insisted the second, “he’s a good Muslim.”
We wondered who this Jan Mohammad was, since we thought that we knew or at least had heard of all the Pashtu-speaking Westerners, who were few and far between.
Lunch finished, the order was given for all our things to be returned. Everything was produced and handed over, even my Swiss army knife. We collected all our horses and all our gear, saddled up and walked them down the precipitous path from the bandits’ hideout to the level ground below. Then we rode across the Tirah, out of Bazaar Valley to Landi Kotal escorted by four Afridi bandits whose job it was to ensure our safe arrival without further trouble. They rode the four spare horses with rifles on their shoulders.
There was only one snag, one regret, especially for Rafiullah; he forgot his Zalmorah stone, the gift from his Sufi master, and never regained it. The old hag didn’t bring it back and in the excitement it slipped hs mind, to demand its return. By the time he realised it was missing we were two hours ride down the valley and it was felt too late to turn back to Bazaar for it. He was downcast, and swore his luck changed after that.
In Landi Kotal, we met our other companions in the nominated serai and paid our Afridi taxes, $30 in all. Our Afridi escort took the money, offered to return it if we were short, embraced us, wished us luck and melted away into the dusk, leaving us to take care of the horses and settle in for the night.
The Afghan border at Torkham, from the Pakistan side
It had been quite a day.
Next day we backtracked up the main road to the Torkham border post to get our Pakistan entry stamps in our passports. With a knowing wink and a friendly smile the immigration desk officer quietly asked “how’re the horses?” and ordered chai to be brought for us. Clearly, our story had already made the rounds. Although all the customs and immigration officials knew we had crossed the border illegally, smuggling these horses out of Afghanistan, not a word was said and we were treated with affection and respect. We were foreign guests, we had paid our dues to to pass through the tribal territory and that was the deal. It would have served no purpose to make a fuss, since we’d been unharmed and nobody was complaining.
With a keen sense of history we rode out and over the Khyber Pass later that day and down the other side, the route of so many military invaders of India over the millennia. I had a sudden flashback to Preston’s Harris Reference Library where, as a sixth-form student of history I was doing my homework. I had been fascinated by an account of Khyber I’d chanced upon in the Victorian archives of the ‘London Illustrated Magazine’. There with dramatic engravings of the ‘fierce Afridi tribesmen’ with turbans, robes and muskets lying in wait on the heights to ambush and harass invading troops ‘passing through the defile’. Now, fourteen years later, here I was, riding down the selfsame road having just emerged from an Afridi bandit ambush myself. I wondered why this memory had lingered, why I felt so much at home here, and whether there was a connection; a premonition. Or perhaps a karmic affinity from a previous life.
It was almsot dark by the time we rode our troop up to the exit check post at the foot of the pass and it was already closed for the night with a bar across the road, locked and chained. We were halted by the Frontier Scouts Militia.
“Who goes there? Nobody can pass at night” said the captain, standing in front of the locked metal gate across the road with his rifle across his chest and his finger on the trigger, “You will have to stay in that chai-khana” he said, seeing we were tourists and pointing to a small wayside inn back up the road, “and we’ll open the gate at five o’clock in the morning.”
Frontier Scouts checkpost
“Come off it” I said, “can’t you see that we’re leaving the pass, not entering it. Let us out.”
“I can’t. It’s the law. It’s an old British law, in fact. So at least you British should obey it.”
“I’m Italian thanks be to Allah. Forget the law” said Rafiullah, “let us go.”
“Yes. Fuck the law” I said scornfully, warming to the challenge, “we are outlaws, can’t you see?”
“Yeah, we just screwed a whole tribe of Afridi bandits in Yaghistan” said Rafiullah, warming to it, “so open up, or else!”
He could see we were just a bunch of hot-headed tourists and ignored this bravado, getting into bed with a dismissive smirk, next to the other guards lying in a little row of cots. Propped up on their elbows they stared disbelievingly at our bizarre group, then got under their covers.
“You won’t sleep if we have to stay” threatened Rafiullah.
The captain simply pulled the quilt over his head and ignored him. We were furious.
“Come on Rafiullah” I said, “let’s wake them up, then.”
We jumped down from our horses, went over to two of their cots, lifted up one end and dropped them heavily back on the ground. This made them whip their quilts off and half get up, looking astonished and infuriated, but we just lifted their cots up again and banged them down again even harder, yelling loudly in Pashtu “open the gate! Open the gate! Don’t you want to sleep?”
It was too much. They could hardly shoot three tourists so the captain made a sensible decision. “Alright, OK” he said, “stop it, you can go.”
He opened the gate, we rode through and continued on our way to Swat, thanking him and wished them all a good night’s sleep. He wished us ‘safe journey’ as we clattered off down the road towards Jamrud and Peshawar, the bandits’ hills silhouetted and receding in the last glow of the sunset behind us. What would the future hold?
Tribal Area scene between Thal and Miram Shah, on a trip out from Tarbela, 1971
After establishing its base at Madyan in Swat, the Company of the Horses kept going with various changes in personnel as its members and horses changed, went, left and returned, and roamed across the North West Frontier Province from north to south over the next four years. Some of the exploits are further illustrated in the photograph galleries below, composed from old albums, prints, slides and negatives that have somehow survived for four decades!
GALLERY 1: The Horse Company at the Palace Hotel, Mingora, Swat, May 1973. After escaping from the bandits and arriving from Landi Kotal the company took up residence for a few weeks at their favourite hotel, which had a large compound adjacent which was used as a paddock for the horses. Before leaving to move up the valley like a bunch of nomads, just one film of poor quality black and white stills was taken of us horsing around, using a Kodak camera, and this film was rediscovered at the house built later at Qamarlandi, Swat, in 2006 and rescued before the 2010 floods destroyed whatever was left. Some prints had been pinned to the wall there for 30 years, which explains their poor condition. Despite this, due to their uniqueness it is hoped it is worthwhile to exhibit them here for the record. A few other shots of the Palace Hotel interior from our visits from the Tarbela Dam period from a few years earlier have been included in this gallery.
GALLERY 2: The Company Establishes its base at Qamarlandi, Madyan, Swat. We couldn’t stay at the Palace Hotel forever. Mohammad Ishaaq had magnaminously declared that “My hotel is your hotel” but when it came down to it he couldn’t accept our reply that “Our bill is your bill”! We moved out upriver with the horses, camping wherever we could but this was not horse country in the way that Afghanistan was, and Caravan-serais didn’t exist here. We met an American called Agarn whom we mistook for a Waziri tribesman, until he spoke in Pashtu with a Californian drawl. He lived in Madyan 30 miles up-valley and arranged a field by the riverside that we could lease from its owner, an antiques shop keeper in the bazaar. We tethered the horses, set up our tents there and planned to build a 16-room complex as the Horse Company’s permanent HQ. This Gallery traces the development of this establishment from inception to total destruction in the great floods of 2010.
GALLERY 3: Buzkashi and the Great Trek of 1974: Swat, the Indus Valley, Gilgit, Chitral, Dir and Back to Swat! In the summer of 1974, Kevin having gone to Dharamsala to become a Buddhist monk, and Rafiullah having left with Jill, whom he eventually marries, Sinjan, having finished building the house and stables on his own decides to make this trek with his villager Trevor from Preston, who, like Kevin, had been a student of Sinjan’s father at Preston Grammar School years before they became friends. They train the horses to go in pairs, one rider leading the second horse as a pack-horse, enabling plenty of gear and supplies to be brought, including enough barley grain to feed the horses well daily. Riding south to Khwazakhela then turning east to cross the Shangla pass into the massive Indus Valley, they ride up the Karakorum Highway north to Gilgit and then west for a month through Gilgit and Chitral, before turning back south into Dir State and east back toward Upper Swat and finally south again, back to base, to complete a 1,000 KM circular ride lasting three months, with a number of scrapes and adventures on the way. This time, cameras and photos were taken and most of the films were sent to New York with Susan, a friend of Jill’s, but poor Susan tragically died in a road accident en route to Rawalpindi Airport and all the films were lost. A few images remain, however, somehow or other, and these shots are the only ones to survive that are worth posting. Better than nothing, though!
GALLERY 4: The Story at Zarki Nasrati, Tehsil Karak, District Bannu. This is Rafiullah’s village, not far from the Waziristan tribal area where the USA is currently attacking Taliban extremists with drones. In October 1970 Rafiullah came from this village seeking a job at Tarbela Dam, where we met and became friends. His visa registration had been refused in Zarki because some jealous villagers had filed a false report against him with the local police, because he would not desert his friend Billawar and accept their hospitality instead. He expected having a job at Tarbela would enable his registration to be effected so he could stay in Pakistan, but ultimately this was not to be the case. Two weeks after he arrived it was the annual Muslim Eid holiday and he invited me to join him going back to this village for the weekend. The first four photos in this album have survived from that memorable trip. I returned many times over the years, especially in the mid-70s with the Horse Company. As foreseen, we rode the Company horses south to Zarki each winter, when Swat was cold but Zarki was cool. Tent-pegging is a local winter sport in the region and the sandy ground is ideal for impromptu horse competitions when people gather with their animals at the weekly village markets. This gallery records a few of the typical market and tent-pegging scenes when this took place, in 1975, ’76 and ’77.
GALLERY 5: Tent-pegging Competitions at the Kohat Mela and Local Polo in Gilgit. In late 1973 Rafiullah met the Commissioner of Kohat who invited him and the Horse Company to take part in the tent-pegging competitions at the annual fair or ‘Mela’ at Kohat, the largest town in between Peshawar and Bannu. Along with our horses we were invited to stay at Circuit House, Kohat, where Judges would stay from the British time on their tours of duty. Although we had not yet fully mastered this sport, Rafiullah, Billawar and I took part with Jill in attendance and enjoyed a modicum of success. We also participated in 1976, when my parents also attended on their visit to the Frontier. In the summer we would also attend the polo and tent-pegging tournaments in the far north at Gilgit, situated in Pakistan-held Kashmir. The local version of polo has its own rules and is fairly wild; it is allowed to trip an opposing rider’s mount by thrusting one’s polo stick between its legs. One can also catch the ball in one’s hand and score by galloping through the goal, ball in hand; so when someone catches the ball a no-holds-barred battle usually occurs on the field since the opposing team can then use any means to prevent the rider from riding through the goal. We stayed care of the ace Gilgit Scouts team with their captain Hussein Ali and these snaps were taken in the summers of 1974, ’75 and ’76.
GALLERY 6: Other Places, other People, other Scenes. Here is a random cross-section from various albums of images of the usual suspects and other characters in these and other situations, to give further backgound on the culture of the Horse Company and the intrepid members and friends in these parts. They are mostly from those happy years in the 1960s and ’70s when westerners were absolutely welcome to stay amongst the Pashtuns anywhere at all, all over the North West Frontier and Afghanistan. I twice brought my mum, dad and sister from the UK for tours of the tribal areas (Khyber, Kohat, Parachinar, Zarki, Swat, Kabul etc.) in ’74 and ’76! Included here are a few later photographs from the 1980s to show what some members of the Horse Company got up to in the ensuing years, even after the era of the horses had passed; including how the intrepid and fearless Rafiullah tragically met his end in Afghanistan, four years after poor Kevin had passed away in Swat.
GALLERY 7: The Company’s Last Trek: From Mohmand to Chitral, Summer of ’77. All good things come to an end and by mid-1977 even the Company of the Horses ran out of steam and broke up. Keeping horses is a big commitment in terms of time and energy and after 4 solid years the members of the Company were all called away into other walks of life and other adventures, even Sinjan who had taken primary responsibility to keep the Company and its horses going long after the other founders Rafiullah and Kevin had left their permanent positions on this scene and moved on. Crucially, the main conceiver and creator of the Horse Company, Rafiullah Khan, got married to Jill in Italy. They returned to Swat and Zarki but in 1975 they emigrated to her native Australia to start a family; within a few years they had three children. However, Kevin returned from his life as a Buddhist monk with the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala to resuscitate his membership of the Horse Company one last time, and in 1977 he took part in the last trek of all, from Tangi in Mohmand to Chitral. This gallery records some scenes of that last trip, in which Sinjan and Kevin were joined by a couple travelling in very slow stages from Mazaar-i-Sharif to Goa by horse: Ariane, a Belgian with her black horse, Geronimo and Ted, her Jamaican partner with his white horse whose name the writer can’t recall.
Gallery 8: Postcards of the 60s and 70s and old scenes from Afghanistan and Tribal Area. A selection.