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They started by shaking hands. We said “Salaam aleikum” — peace be upon you — then the first pebbles flew past my face. A small boy tried to grab my bag. Then another. Then someone punched me in the back. Then young men broke my glasses, began smashing stones into my face and head. I couldn’t see for the blood pouring down my forehead and swamping my eyes. And even then, I understood. I couldn’t blame them for what they were doing. In fact, if I were the Afghan refugees of Kila Abdullah, close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I would have done just the same to Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.
So why record my few minutes of terror and self-disgust under assault near the Afghan border, bleeding and crying like an animal, when hundreds — let us be frank and say thousands — of innocent civilians are dying under American air strikes in Afghanistan, when the “War of Civilisation” is burning and maiming the Pashtuns of Kandahar and destroying their homes because “good” must triumph over “evil”?
Some of the Afghans in the little village had been there for years, others had arrived — desperate and angry and mourning their slaughtered loved ones — over the past two weeks. It was a bad place for a car to break down. A bad time, just before the Iftar, the end of the daily fast of Ramadan. But what happened to us was symbolic of the hatred and fury and hypocrisy of this filthy war, a growing band of destitute Afghan men, young and old, who saw foreigners — enemies — in their midst and tried to destroy at least one of them.
Many of these Afghans, so we were to learn, were outraged by what they had seen on television of the Mazar-i-Sharif massacres, of the prisoners killed with their hands tied behind their backs. A villager later told one of our drivers that they had seen the videotape of CIA officers “Mike” and “Dave” threatening death to a kneeling prisoner at Mazar. They were uneducated — I doubt if many could read — but you don’t have to have a schooling to respond to the death of loved ones under a B-52’s bombs. At one point a screaming teenager had turned to my driver and asked, in all sincerity: “Is that Mr Bush?”
It must have been about 4.30pm that we reached Kila Abdullah, halfway between the Pakistani city of Quetta and the border town of Chaman; Amanullah, our driver, Fayyaz Ahmed, our translator, Justin Huggler of The Independent — fresh from covering the Mazar massacre — and myself.
The first we knew that something was wrong was when the car stopped in the middle of the narrow, crowded street. A film of white steam was rising from the bonnet of our jeep, a constant shriek of car horns and buses and trucks and rickshaws protesting at the road-block we had created. All four of us got out of the car and pushed it to the side of the road. I muttered something to Justin about this being “a bad place to break down”. Kila Abdulla was home to thousands of Afghan refugees, the poor and huddled masses that the war has produced in Pakistan.
Amanullah went off to find another car — there is only one thing worse than a crowd of angry men and that’s a crowd of angry men after dark — and Justin and I smiled at the initially friendly crowd that had already gathered round our steaming vehicle. I shook a lot of hands — perhaps I should have thought of Mr Bush — and uttered a lot of “Salaam aleikums”. I knew what could happen if the smiling stopped.
The crowd grew larger and I suggested to Justin that we move away from the jeep, walk into the open road. A child had flicked his finger hard against my wrist and I persuaded myself that it was an accident, a childish moment of contempt. Then a pebble whisked past my head and bounced off Justin’s shoulder. Justin turned round. His eyes spoke of concern and I remember how I breathed in. Please, I thought, it was just a prank. Then another kid tried to grab my bag. It contained my passport, credit cards, money, diary, contacts book, mobile phone. I yanked it back and put the strap round my shoulder. Justin and I crossed the road and someone punched me in the back.
How do you walk out of a dream when the characters suddenly turn hostile? I saw one of the men who had been all smiles when we shook hands. He wasn’t smiling now. Some of the smaller boys were still laughing but their grins were transforming into something else. The respected foreigner — the man who had been all “salaam aleikum” a few minutes ago — was upset, frightened, on the run. The West was being brought low. Justin was being pushed around and, in the middle of the road, we noticed a bus driver waving us to his vehicle. Fayyaz, still by the car, unable to understand why we had walked away, could no longer see us. Justin reached the bus and climbed aboard. As I put my foot on the step three men grabbed the strap of my bag and wrenched me back on to the road. Justin’s hand shot out. “Hold on,” he shouted. I did.
That’s when the first mighty crack descended on my head. I almost fell down under the blow, my ears singing with the impact. I had expected this, though not so painful or hard, not so immediate. Its message was awful. Someone hated me enough to hurt me. There were two more blows, one on the back of my shoulder, a powerful fist that sent me crashing against the side of the bus while still clutching Justin’s hand. The passengers were looking out at me and then at Justin. But they did not move. No one wanted to help.
I cried out “Help me Justin”, and Justin — who was doing more than any human could do by clinging to my ever loosening grip asked me — over the screams of the crowd — what I wanted him to do. Then I realised. I could only just hear him. Yes, they were shouting. Did I catch the word “kaffir” — infidel? Perhaps I was was wrong. That’s when I was dragged away from Justin.
There were two more cracks on my head, one on each side and for some odd reason, part of my memory — some small crack in my brain — registered a moment at school, at a primary school called the Cedars in Maidstone more than 50 years ago when a tall boy building sandcastles in the playground had hit me on the head. I had a memory of the blow smelling, as if it had affected my nose. The next blow came from a man I saw carrying a big stone in his right hand. He brought it down on my forehead with tremendous force and something hot and liquid splashed down my face and lips and chin. I was kicked. On the back, on the shins, on my right thigh. Another teenager grabbed my bag yet again and I was left clinging to the strap, looking up suddenly and realising there must have been 60 men in front of me, howling. Oddly, it wasn’t fear I felt but a kind of wonderment. So this is how it happens. I knew that I had to respond. Or, so I reasoned in my stunned state, I had to die.
The only thing that shocked me was my own physical sense of collapse, my growing awareness of the liquid beginning to cover me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much blood before. For a second, I caught a glimpse of something terrible, a nightmare face — my own — reflected in the window of the bus, streaked in blood, my hands drenched in the stuff like Lady Macbeth, slopping down my pullover and the collar of my shirt until my back was wet and my bag dripping with crimson and vague splashes suddenly appearing on my trousers.
The more I bled, the more the crowd gathered and beat me with their fists. Pebbles and small stones began to bounce off my head and shoulders. How long, I remembered thinking, could this go on? My head was suddenly struck by stones on both sides at the same time — not thrown stones but stones in the palms of men who were using them to try and crack my skull. Then a fist punched me in the face, splintering my glasses on my nose, another hand grabbed at the spare pair of spectacles round my neck and ripped the leather container from the cord.
I guess at this point I should thank Lebanon. For 25 years, I have covered Lebanon’s wars and the Lebanese used to teach me, over and over again, how to stay alive: take a decision — any decision — but don’t do nothing.
So I wrenched the bag back from the hands of the young man who was holding it. He stepped back. Then I turned on the man on my right, the one holding the bloody stone in his hand and I bashed my fist into his mouth. I couldn’t see very much — my eyes were not only short-sighted without my glasses but were misting over with a red haze — but I saw the man sort of cough and a tooth fall from his lip and then he fell back on the road. For a second the crowd stopped. Then I went for the other man, clutching my bag under my arm and banging my fist into his nose. He roared in anger and it suddenly turned all red. I missed another man with a punch, hit one more in the face, and ran.
I was back in the middle of the road but could not see. I brought my hands to my eyes and they were full of blood and with my fingers I tried to scrape the gooey stuff out. It made a kind of sucking sound but I began to see again and realised that I was crying and weeping and that the tears were cleaning my eyes of blood. What had I done, I kept asking myself? I had been punching and attacking Afghan refugees, the very people I had been writing about for so long, the very dispossessed, mutilated people whom my own country –among others — was killing along, with the Taliban, just across the border. God spare me, I thought. I think I actually said it. The men whose families our bombers were killing were now my enemies too.
Then something quite remarkable happened. A man walked up to me, very calmly, and took me by the arm. I couldn’t see him very well for all the blood that was running into my eyes but he was dressed in a kind of robe and wore a turban and had a white-grey beard. And he led me away from the crowd. I looked over my shoulder. There were now a hundred men behind me and a few stones skittered along the road, but they were not aimed at me –presumably to avoid hitting the stranger. He was like an Old Testament figure or some Bible story, the Good Samaritan, a Muslim man — perhaps a mullah in the village — who was trying to save my life.
He pushed me into the back of a police truck. But the policemen didn’t move. They were terrified. “Help me,” I kept shouting through the tiny window at the back of their cab, my hands leaving streams of blood down the glass. They drove a few metres and stopped until the tall man spoke to them again. Then they drove another 300 metres.
And there, beside the road, was a Red Cross-Red Crescent convoy. The crowd was still behind us. But two of the medical attendants pulled me behind one of their vehicles, poured water over my hands and face and began pushing bandages on to my head and face and the back of my head. “Lie down and we’ll cover you with a blanket so they can’t see you,” one of them said. They were both Muslims, Bangladeshis and their names should be recorded because they were good men and true: Mohamed Abdul Halim and Sikder Mokaddes Ahmed. I lay on the floor, groaning, aware that I might live.
Within minutes, Justin arrived. He had been protected by a massive soldier from the Baluchistan Levies — true ghost of the British Empire who, with a single rifle, kept the crowds away from the car in which Justin was now sitting. I fumbled with my bag. They never got the bag, I kept saying to myself, as if my passport and my credit cards were a kind of Holy Grail. But they had seized my final pair of spare glasses — I was blind without all three — and my mobile telephone was missing and so was my contacts book, containing 25 years of telephone numbers throughout the Middle East. What was I supposed to do? Ask everyone who ever knew me to re-send their telephone numbers?
Goddamit, I said and tried to bang my fist on my side until I realised it was bleeding from a big gash on the wrist — the mark of the tooth I had just knocked out of a man’s jaw, a man who was truly innocent of any crime except that of being the victim of the world.
I had spent more than two and a half decades reporting the humiliation and misery of the Muslim world and now their anger had embraced me too. Or had it? There were Mohamed and Sikder of the Red Crescent and Fayyaz who came panting back to the car incandescent at our treatment and Amanullah who invited us to his home for medical treatment. And there was the Muslim saint who had taken me by the arm.
And — I realised — there were all the Afghan men and boys who had attacked me who should never have done so but whose brutality was entirely the product of others, of us — of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the “War for Civilisation” just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them “collateral damage”.
So I thought I should write about what happened to us in this fearful, silly, bloody, tiny incident. I feared other versions would produce a different narrative, of how a British journalist was “beaten up by a mob of Afghan refugees”.
And of course, that’s the point. The people who were assaulted were the Afghans, the scars inflicted by us — by B-52s, not by them. And I’ll say it again. If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find.