Tajikistan is famous for a couple of things. In particular, its wild landscape, warm hospitality and drug-trafficking syndicates. Heroin is something we’ve all heard of, but barely think of when it comes to its origins and how it gets to our shores. It’s a complicated process and a vast network of dodgy dealings weaving its way through multiple countries. Travelling through the Whakhan Valley, which is shared by Tajikistan and Afghanistan, I came into contact with just a small part of these fascinating networks. Between running into small-time Pamiri mafia drug runners and hitchhiking aboard a stranger’s jeep, I opened the car door to a chance encounter with an elusive member of the Afghani Taliban.
The majority of the world’s opium, used in the production of heroin, is grown in Afghanistan and is the source of billions of dollars in revenue for the country’s black market. This is essentially how the Taliban funded, well; everything. Opium is transported generally through Tajikistan, which is Afghanistan’s northern neighbour, through Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan and into Kazakhstan, then into Russia. It could be turned into heroin in any of these countries then ends up in Europe, the US and the rest of the world. Whilst in Tajikistan, I came across places where the Afghanistan border was no more than 20 metres apart. With only a handful of official border crossings, the business of transporting opium is relatively unpoliced.
The jeep was packed and stuffed like a can of sardines. I struggled to fit myself in and carrying my rucksack was beginning to become problematic. But like all situations in these wilder parts of Asia, things work themselves out. I crawled through and over men, women and children to reach the last remaining makeshift seat in the back. Mesmerised, I sat, watching people’s heads bob up and down, sway side to side and see saw back and forth, the rocky road wasn’t maintained and struggled to keep its structure in different points. This was the first car that had driven past me in four hours. Traffic was scarce and petrol was almost non-existent.
In the semi-peaceful, but not so graceful ambience of the silent car, a man turned to face me and stared. The dark semi-bloodshot eyes gazed into my soul with every intention of scrutinising me. I sat, waiting, not knowing what for. Seven years of travel makes you accustomed to this kind of thing. It was normal, you look different, don’t speak the same language, you’re alien. This time was different. As thoughts crashed into my mind, perhaps there was a hidden agenda behind that face of his which was far from simple curiosity. It made me uneasy and uncomfortable. A whirl of thoughts made passage through my mind. He did not look Tajik, Pamiri or Russian, the main ethnicities of the area, rather he resembled an Afghani. I was certain. Nervousness took over. My eyes moved up and down, pretending not to notice and avoiding direct eye contact for sustained periods of time. The world outside slowed down into a state of static. Light-heartedly, I awkwardly smiled and nodded.
The ice broken, time defrosted and he extended his rough hands out to shake mine with one hand across his chest. Scars and wrinkles illustrated a harsh portrait of life and on one hand, three fingers were missing - the consequences of war. A smile broke through the darkness of his black beard that was peppered by white hairs and his stained yellow teeth emerged from his dried and wind burnt lips.
He introduced himself: “Diwa Muhammed”. This was most likely an alias or completely false. It wasn’t a unique name and common amongst Pashtun Afghanis. “Where are you from?” he asked in a heavily accented English. “Australia,” I replied with a faint tone of joy. “What are you doing here in Tajikistan? Are you tourist, military, USA or company working?” The car transformed into an interrogation chamber. The windows turned black and there was no way of hiding my unease, but curiosity fused itself with the trembled and troubled tone of my voice. I pushed on. “I am a tourist, visiting all Central Asian countries, maybe Afghanistan,” I said. A moment of silence passed by, only to be broken by the sound of gravel being crushed under the Chinese made tyres, “Good, Afghanistan good! My home, Afghanistan, I leave, come to Tajikistan to spread good word and business do well”.
I thought about Ahmed Rashid’s books on Islamic extremism entering Central Asia, my curiosity deepened. “What is your job? No Afghanis in Tajikistan, only you!” I asked in broken and what I thought understandable English. Diwa tilted his head down and reached for something in the pocket of his Shalwar Kameez. He gestured for me to wait a moment. I followed the orders. A Nokia N series phone was pulled out and he scrolled through the photos in the media folder. The scratched screen made it hard to see and distorted the image, but the images baffled me. Black turbans, AK-47’s, bullet belts, RPG’s and old rifles filled the screen. He held it proudly. Diwa starred in most photos. “Afghanistan. Taliban,” pointing at himself.
I lost concept and comprehension of time. I was sucked into a vortex and my universe expanded into the unknown and our conversation blossomed. “Taliban good. No terrorist” he asserted. Infancy found me and I was speechless like a stupid child. I said: "I have not been to Afghanistan, so I do not know and cannot make a judgement.” Of course I didn’t mean this, but it was better than potentially infuriating the man. He never took my answer into consideration and simply continued, “I join Taliban because government in Kabul is corrupt and not working, people hungry, food. America democracy, bad!” In his words I found it ironic that a member of the Taliban was blinded by his own ambitions and ideologies (like we all are) but the Taliban destroyed traditional agricultural systems, imposed feudal domestic and foreign policies and dictated every inch of life, cruelly. However, there was a sad truth in his words about the current state of Afghanistan and American ‘democracy’.
“Do you believe you are fighting for a reason?” I questioned. “Fight for God, Allah and against America. America leave, then all Afghans be happy. Taliban is not only Afghan fighting for power, everyone. We fight very long time. Forever,” his English was bad, but comprehendible. I was left with images of perpetual war and conflict within the battered and bruised country and wondered just how many people were tired of fighting? I certainly do not advocate American occupation, but it made me look into the future of Afghanistan with my limited understanding and pictured a country of rising warlords, like it was so in the past. He continued: “But, Afghan Taliban good future! No Pakistan Taliban. Tajik and Uzbek no good in Afghanistan, they kill many Taliban, Taliban kill them.” A soft, but dark laughter entered his voice.
Our conversation drifted to a stand still and I was left, crammed in the back seat with my own thoughts circling my head. I felt tired and wanted to sleep, my eyes burning. I wondered if anyone else in the car understood. An urge to ask for a photo came over me, but I argued with myself and precaution got the better of me. Diwa shouted something at the driver and the car came to a halt. He turned and shook my hand. Once again, I couldn’t help but notice the missing fingers. “We meet again soon ‘Insallah’ (If it is in God’s will)," he farewelled me. The car drove on. It churned dust and Diwa disappeared into the brown cloud, the Hindu Kus mountain range sat behind him, watching.
Seven years, it took seven years for me to have one of the most riveting conversations of my travelling life. Perhaps he was talking shit, perhaps not. I’d make up my own mind on it. I sat, asking myself the questions I wished I could have asked with a translator, though it was too late. The sun set in the distance behind a mountain that cast a dark shadow over the blood stained land and the first stars began to appear in the night sky like a curious child, much like myself.