Afghanistan/Tajikistan: Leaving Kunduz (cont.)
"Mmm." He jerked his head to the left, towards a small white S.U.V.
I am momentarily tempted to ask him for a lift to the capital but I do not. N.G.O.'s don't help travelers.
To kill time I ask him about the landmines.
"Where do they all come from? Russia?" I ask.
"Russia, China, you know, all those Soviet-block kind of countries. This place is a weapons graveyard." He pauses, "Or more like a kind of museum. We've had guys who have found vintage Enfield rifles—never used." He pauses to let this sink in.
"We've found Russian pistols," he begins to tick off on his fingers, a wild look in his eye, "Polished rifles from the 50s, antique weaponry—it's a collector’s dream," he says, looking toward the hills and sounding ponderous. "The stuff that gets found here." He shakes his head then spits on the dusty ground.
"What about the land mines?" I ask. "How many are there?"
"There is no way to know for sure," he says, shrugging hopelessly. "So many were planted, so many were dropped. For us, from a fund raising—from a money standpoint, it's good if we don't know." He speaks evenly and calmly. "Land mines are great fundraisers. Gets good PR, see. Look, if you say—you know, there are two million land mines left here—it's a huge number, way too many, but, then the money comes."
"The problem isn't land mines," he continues, "it’s unexploded ordinance." Bombs that never blew up, basically. They are everywhere. Few weeks ago we had a boy in his garden, diggin' a hole. Stuck the shovel in, hit a UXO and got blown to bits. This was in Kabul. No one knows where, know one knows when. This shit will be going on for decades to come. The landmines we can get a handle on. All the fallout from the wars—that'll keep us real busy."
"You clear the mines or do other people?" I ask.
He pauses. "I used to do it and—I still will on occasion—but now I do mostly supervisory stuff."
"We've lost some guys. But it's mostly about technique, technical skill. As long as you got a man with steady nerves who takes precautions, you should be alright. But ordinance is unpredictable. We have seen most forms of ordinance and mines so we have it down pretty good how to get 'em out. But life happens."
"How much time do you spend, running around like this," I asked him.
"About ten months a year. Between Cambodia and Afghanistan and the administrative shit. I spend most of my time on the road."
The boat comes in and everyone gets on. I climb onto the barge and keep talking to him, although he remains on the shore.
After several minutes the boat revs its engine and begins to slowly sputter over to the other side of the river. I look back and watch the mine extractor and his Afghan interpreter slowly shrink in the distance.
I look at the other side. Tajikistan looks brown and weedy. A large, flat cargo ship is being loaded with goods. Men walk back and forth from shore to ship, laboriously carrying large cardboard boxes in the heat. The captain cries out orders in harsh Russian. From far way I can make out his shiny gold teeth gleaming. Beyond the cargo ship the horizon stretches out flat.
We approach the sandy shore. The two-man crew scurries around, trying to tether the ship to dock.
The first attempt at throwing the frayed lasso fails. The coiled rope flies into the air, hangs momentarily and lands uselessly into the water with a small splash.
A third attempt yields success.
In the distance, an ancient, bright yellow school bus sits with its engine idling, waiting to take passengers to Tajik customs. The bus has no windshield. The door has been broken off.
All of us climb onto the decrepit bus, sit down and relax. There is always the sense at borders that people have arrived. People flop down into the bus seats and pull out mobile phones, calling relatives to come and fetch them, to take them home.
The Tajik border post is the opposite of the Afghan one. Forms have to be filled out in triplicate, lines are orderly and the people can read.
In front of me is a large family. They have two large boxes that are being searched by two somber female customs officers. Women here are wearing tight jeans, loose white blouses and high heeled shoes —things I ha ven't seen in months.
I fill out my declaration forms, lean against the wall and watch the women. They have self-assurance and a quiet sexuality that has been squeezed out of their sisters across the border in Afghanistan.
Framed posters affirming the greatness of Tajikistan and brilliance of its leaders cover the walls. Dulled color photos of cheering Tajiks, sheep and snowy mountaintops are locked securely behind polished glass as if they were displays in a museum.
I finish the paperwork, am cleared for entrance and proceed down a bright, white hallway toward sunlight.
As I walk outside I am set upon by the ravenous cab drivers. They yell in my face and grab at me, pulling my clothes. I walked to the end of the parking lot to and spot group of older, mellower cab drivers sitting on a raised platform covered in Persian rugs.
I look them over and spot the oldest one. He is a white Russian with a bald head, light blue eyes and a fleshy, grandfatherly face. He looks kind. I nod to him and he springs up with amazing speed.
"Dushanbe?" he asks, taking a set of keys out of his pocket.
"Dushanbe," I say. He hops in his white Lada and leans over the gearshift to open my door.
I throw my bag in the backseat, and we drive away.
I like the way he drives: fast and reckless. As we speed down the road, he puts in a CD of Russian techno music. As the music starts he snaps up a pair of mirrored sunglasses and puts them on.
The sun is bright and I feel hopeful, like a burden has been lifted. I have made it out of Afghanistan and I am thankful.
As we head toward the capital the roads bec ome wider and smoother.
Dushanbe is a city that feels out of context. The Russians made this city what it is. The broad avenues, water fountains, heroic statues, sports stadiums: they all sit in a state of decay, unused and forgotten. They were planned, it feels , for a moment of greatness that never arrived.
The structures have gone unused or people have just built their lives around them. In one futuristic looking civic center, I watch children use the imposing granite banisters as slides. As with the ruins of Russian tanks in Afghanistan, the Soviet influence is being slowly and inevitably swallowed up by time.
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