PHILLIP ROBERTSON. Selected Stories.

January 2002, Afghanistan. Sar Shahee camp.
Photo: Phillip Robertson

Jan. 19, 2002 | JALALABAD, Afghanistan

It was clear that some serious money was changing hands and this wasn't even the drug trade; this was simply the usual smuggled goods moving into Pakistan from China and Russia, the drivers evading customs duties. Jalalabad and Peshawar, were married to each other through the cash and the merchandise, which has been the situation for centuries, and so they thrived. It's the silk road with Russian trucks and Toyotas, and this gives Torkham a rough feel to it, like a port city. It is also a major route for raw opium from the fields in Afghanistan to heroin refineries in the Pakistani tribal areas.

Manzoor, the malarial fixer, wandered away with the driver and the security guard, leaving me standing before the barrier. Before I crossed the frontier, I asked him about the road to Jalalabad, and how dangerous it was, because in the Pearl Continental Hotel, a National Geographic photographer said that the road was certain death, especially for someone making the trip alone. The night before, I'd gone up to the fifth-floor lounge of the hotel looking to bum a ride in a convoy, but had no luck. Manzoor was now telling me that I could take a cab to Jalalabad from Torkham, no problem. It was a shock to discover that there was regular cab service, but it's true. My colleague with the fright speech had no information at all. A man puts down his gun, the border gate goes up, and I walk over to the customs hut run by Hajji Kadir's men.

After greeting everyone, a man introduces himself in English, enters the number of my passport in a stained ledger and says, "My name is Aman Khan, and I'm a translator."

"OK, which languages do you speak?"

"English, Russian, Pashto and Dari and a little bit of Japanese." It turns out that Aman is not only a government border official and former member of the mujahedin under Abdul Haq, he's also famous. Aman found the al Qaida chemical laboratory for a British correspondent who writes for the Mirror, and knows a good portion of the foreign press by name. When I met him, he was assisting Hajji Kadir's provincial government with the border traffic, but wasn't earning a salary. I told him I thought we could try working together. Aman, wanting to clinch the deal said, "Do you accept me as your translator?"


"OK, no problem," he said, and very gingerly put down his pistol on the customs table.

Aman worked for the government one minute and a foreigner the next. Not all that strange a transition in Afghanistan. Trust is essential, and it cannot be bought, since it's an ephemeral connection between people. I liked him, so we shook hands and went outside to find a cab and a tribal fighter to ride with us into Jalalabad. Across the road, there was a dilapidated Japanese minivan, reupholstered with Afghan carpets, and we all climbed into it and went rocketing down the side of the mountain toward the valley floor. This is how it starts. As we bounced along the road, coming down out of the pass the country revealeditself. Jalalabad sits in a valley of green fields and small stands of trees. It was a shock after Kunduz and Taloqan to find it so green. Halfway to Jalalabad, we came across a refugee camp at a place called Sar Shahi, and turned off the road. At the camp security office, Meheraban, the commander in charge of security said that the camp had about 3,600 people, with several hundred very recent arrivals. As we talked, it became clear that they come from all over the country, and they are still coming.

We walked into the mass of tents, most of which are made out of scraps of plastic that have been sewn together to make a sheet large enough for a few people to sleep under. Partial words are visible in the sheets, names of aid agencies, names of donating countries. Acronyms from Europe and the U.S. Row after row of haphazard dwellings that offer no shelter against the bitterly cold nights. And it makes the people sick. There is no proper heating in the Sar Shahi camp, since many of the refugees don't have proper stoves for tents. And the victims of this situation are widows, amputees, children and unemployed men, as some had ended up as refugees by being on the wrong end of the war. Thousands of them. Sar Shahi is not one of the biggest camps but it seemed gigantic, waves of patchwork tents would appear over rises where the camp should have ended. Meheraban said that I could speak to someone from Tora Bora, the place where most of the recent arrivals were coming from, and after turning down a rutted track, we found him. Shielding his eyes from the sun, Heruddin, a 75-year-old man, said, "I had 13 members of my family, and seven were killed in Tora Bora during Ramadan. My home is completely destroyed. Where should I go?"

When I asked him what he had to eat during the day, he told me simply that they didn't get enough food, that he only had a little vegetables and rice. "Sometimes people give us a little food," he said. Heruddin's wife spoke to me in a pleading voice and started to weep. Heruddin then asked me if there was a way to get him a proper tent, and could I please speak to the authorities for him. He wasn't begging, he was dignified and it was a reasonable request. Here comes that fucked-up feeling.

This was the first story in a series written on the road from Jalalabad to Kandahar. At the time, I was angry that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees did not take an active interest in the largest group of displaced people in the province, numbering in the thousands. One positive outcome of the story was that within a few days, the refugees received a proper delivery of tents. An old widow named Bibi Jan, explained matters and then protected me from an angry group of men who did not want photographs taken. She said, "He is like my son, leave him alone." It saved my hide.

This story originally appeared in under the same title.

LEAD IMAGE: January 2002, Afghanistan, Sar Shahee camp. A widow named Bibi Jan explained that the refugees from the Tora Bora bombing had little food and no shelter. When I entered the camp, I discovered that no agency had made an attempt to shelter these people. The U.S. failed to kill or capture high ranking Al Qaeda members and instead relied upon Afghan forces who let them escape.
Photo: Phillip Robertson
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