ESCAPE FROM KABUL
IN 2012, I was posted in Kabul as a consultant for Da Afghanistan Bank. Staying and working from a guesthouse with three Indian colleagues, we provided tech solutions to the bank. Twice a week, we visited the bank headquarters to identify certain manual tasks that could be performed more efficiently with computers.
Because of frequent Taliban attacks, our lives in the city were quite regimented. We were advised against going anywhere on our own. Even a stroll on the rooftop of the guesthouse was strictly prohibited due to constant surveillance by drones and helicopters. For the first time, we felt the freedom we'd enjoyed in India all our lives was gone.
This was not the life I would have chosen, but the work was interesting and the pay was good. Finally, our project was coming to an end and the thought of returning to my family in Bhopal made me happy. On 30 March 2012, I woke up all set to fly to Delhi with my colleague, Shishir* from Hyderabad. "Wake up man," I said shaking him at 6 a.m. "We have to leave the guesthouse by eight."
Shishir opened his eyes and gave me a feeble smile. He was in his late 50s, older to me by about 10 years, and wasn't keeping well. His BP and blood sugar had shot up. The lack of a proper diet and exercise had aggravated his condition.
Although we had not been able to meet too many locals, we learnt from our colleagues and guesthouse staff that the Afghans held Indians in high esteem. We also witnessed firsthand how brave and resilient they could be when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a market near our bank. We had heard sirens going off and were scared to step out even a few hours after the blast. On our way back, we found the local men and women milling around the explosion site, quite nonchalantly.
AS I WENT IN for my bath, suddenly I felt the earth shake violently, as if there was an earthquake. There was a massive explosion. Wrapped in my towel I rushed out, and looked at Shishir's ashen face. "Such a powerful blast, I can feel my ears buzzing," he said. "In this place, there's no knowing when your time is up. Do you think we can make it to the airport now?"
Before I could answer, the sirens went off. The NATO office, surrounded by very high boundary walls, was across the road from the guesthouse, some 100 metres away. We heard a red alert over the speakers-army personnel were being ordered to take charge. Terror had struck.
"God-willing, we shall go," I said.
"I doubt it," said Shishir.
I paced in the room feeling like a caged animal. Then, I called up the reception to find out what had happened.
"Sir, a suicide bomber has struck just outside the guesthouse," the voice on the intercom said. "The army is out on the streets."
"Would we be able to leave at eight? Our flight leaves at 10:45."
"It doesn't seem very likely, Sir."
For the next few minutes, we heard nothing. "Who knows how many terrorists are involved?" asked Shishir. "And, how long it would take for the army to tackle them?"
A little later, I called the travel agent. He was responsible for our airport drop. "Is the cab coming?" I asked.
"No driver would risk his life to drive you to the airport now," he explained. "Let things simmer down a bit."
"It's very urgent," I cried out. "My colleague is quite sick and he needs medication. We must catch the flight."
"I understand Sir, but it isn't in my hands."
After a long pause, he added, "Give me some time. I know a driver who might agree."
Even though we weren't sure if we would be able to get out, we started packing our bags and suitcases. Half an hour later, when the agent called me, I blurted out, "Any luck?"
"Yes, I have found the driver. He is on his way to take you to the airport." We heaved a sigh of relief and checked our rooms one last time.
Soon, I got a call on my cellphone. The driver was waiting for us outside the guesthouse. Shaking hands with our two colleagues, who still had a few more days of work left, Shishir and I walked to the reception. One of the waiters opened the guesthouse's wicket gate and we rushed to the taxi with our luggage. The sight across the street was horrific: a body smeared with blood, with some limbs missing, lay on the road. A few NATO soldiers stood around and one of them was photographing it. The dead man was dressed in the traditional kurta and salwar and there was no telling whether he was a suicide bomber or an innocent civilian who happened to pass that way at the wrong hour.
We were so shocked that we looked away from the dreadful sight. Sensing our state of mind, the taxi driver took our bags from us and said, "My name is Sher Ali. I'll take you to the airport. Don't worry." The soft-spoken taxi driver looked in his late thirties. He was tall, had a wrestler-like build and sported a French beard. Extremely fair, he wore a Pathani suit, a full-sleeve brown jacket and a muffler.
Instead of taking the main road, Sher Ali sped through a narrow street. "The security people are checking all the vehicles on the main road," he explained in broken Hindi, to allay our fears that we might be driven to an unknown destination. "I am taking a short cut to reach the airport in time." His body language and tone inspired confidence and although we didn't know him, we felt comforted in his company. We emerged on to a road from a narrow street and saw a few security men but nobody stopped us.
A few minutes later, as we crossed a market around the intersection of three roads, we were horrified to hear another massive explosion. A huge ball of fire leapt into the sky on our right. One more bomb had gone off! Several people in the vicinity were flung to the ground. Shards of glass and goods from the shops lay scattered. The signboards were reduced to shreds. People began running helter-skelter, shrieking for help.
"Yakhuda," uttered Sher Ali, "when will this bloodshed end?"
Taking a deep breath, he pressed the accelerator. "This is 100 times more horrifying than the bombings reported on TV and newspapers," exclaimed Shishir. Closing his eyes he uttered, "Help us get out of here, God." With beads of perspiration on our foreheads even in this cold, Shishir and I looked at each other
"You are my Indian friends. Come what may, I'll drop you to the airport," Sher Ali comforted us in his thick Pashtun accent. "Jaan ki baazi laga dega."
It wasn't just bravado, and we knew it. After living in Afghanistan, we had learnt that when a Pathan gave you his word, he kept it, under all circumstances.
Passing through a few more narrow streets, the taxi sped onto an open, wide road. Although we had been travelling barely for forty minutes, it felt like the longest journey ever.
At last we saw a signboard that said, "Airport 5 km". I was so thrilled that many spectacular sights I had seen paled in comparison. I soon remembered that it was the same road that Shishir and I took to drive into Kabul not so long ago. About two kilometres from the airport, we were flagged at a checkpoint by security men toting automatic rifles and sten guns. They checked Sher Ali's papers and our tickets and passports before allowing us to carry on. Gripped by anxiety, we had forgotten to find out details about Sher Ali and his family. Soon, the taxi sped through the first entry gate of the airport. We sighed in relief as Sher Ali helped us put our luggage on the scanner just outside the terminal.
Overwhelmed by his generosity of spirit, we choked, unable to utter even a single word to thank him. Tears flowed from our eyes as we hugged Sher Ali. I wanted to give him some money but held back-like many Afghans he might have misunderstood the intent. Some of them considered a tip an insult.
Waiting for our flight at the airport terminal, we couldn't help wondering what made Sher Ali come to our rescue. Like other taxi drivers, he too could have waited for the situation to normalize. Putting his own life in danger, he went many miles out of his way to help two stranded strangers return home. We were plain lucky to meet this brave and compassionate man.
Home was comforting, but three days later, tragedy struck: Shishir passed away. I'd never imagined that his health had deteriorated to that extent. If it hadn't been for Sher Ali,his last moments would have been spent in a strange land, away from his loved ones.
Grief-stricken, I could not call Sher Ali at the time. A few weeks later, when I looked for his number, I couldn't find it. In my haste, I hadn't saved it. That I couldn't talk to Sher Ali again remains one of the biggest regrets of my life. But, he is in my thoughts and prayers, always.
* Name changed to protect privacy.
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