Afghan brothers kept out by war and poverty: At a border crossing it pays to be a revered khorriji, writes Raymond Whitaker in Peshawar

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The Independent Online
'WE ARE brothers,' said the plaque recording the words of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, when he visited the border with Afghanistan in 1948. 'There is no power on earth that can separate us.' I had the opportunity to examine these words at closer quarters than might have been anticipated as I climbed over the locked border gate at Torkham.

A crowd of Afghans, to whom Pakistan has effectively closed the frontier, looked on in moods ranging from envy to despair. Our travelling companions from Kabul were not among them, however. Dispensing with the formalities, they had left the minibus a few hundred yards short of the frontier to try their luck in the hills, where the going rate to be guided into Pakistan is about 150 rupees.

Being rich foreigners over 6ft tall, Bob and Terence and I had each negotiated a row of seats in the Toyota Hi-Ace, paying the same rate as four Afghans - 40,000 Afghanis, or about pounds 13.50. After raising our hands to Allah for a safe journey, we plunged with the snow-swollen Kabul River into the Sarobi gorges, heading for Jalallabad and Torkham. The locals were happy to have us, because of the extraordinary reverence for Westerners in Afghanistan. The words khorriji journalis (foreign journalist) are usually enough to have the most unstable-looking teenage mujahedin wave you on without question.

In a local minibus, however, the Hizbe Islami gunmen needed a closer look at the foreigners to satisfy themselves that these were not legitimate prey. Several cast hungry looks at our baggage before deciding not to risk it. The driver's wit did not help: 'Tajikistan,' he told the first men to stop us on being asked where the khorriji came from. Hands tightened on Kalashnikovs - no Tajik with any sense would come to this fiercely Pathan area of the country. 'Only joking,' said the driver. 'They come from Journalistan.'

The Sarobi gorges have always been dangerous, as the British Army of the Indus learned when it was all but wiped out in 1842, and the precipitous road is still thick with mujahedin. Before each checkpoint the driver would switch off the swooping, whining South Asian music and hand the cassette to his mate, who would put it in his pocket with all the other tapes. The gunmen are always looking to add to their collection.

More than 20 times along the way, the assistant leapt out to hand 1,000 or 2,000 Afghanis to the commander of that stretch of road. Without our presence, his subordinates would probably have been demanding free rides, siphoning off fuel or taking their pick of the passengers' possessions, but we all tried not to meet the eye of one man we encountered, an Arab in sunglasses. The Arabs with the mujahedin are notorious for their hatred of foreigners.

Poor, smashed Afghanistan: go in any direction from Kabul and your eyes are unwillingly dragged from the awesome scenery to the man-made wreckage by the roadside. Armoured vehicles, mud houses, petrol tankers and bridges are all blasted and bullet-pocked. As we descended nearer to Jalallabad, where spring has taken hold, the river opens out and signs of cultivation appear, one of the first intact buildings we saw had old tank shells supporting the roof. At least someone was earning a living other than by the gun.

Jalallabad itself seems like a return to normal after the insanity of Kabul. Peace is enforced by a council of commanders, the street lights work and everywhere there are the signboards of aid bodies who want to help Afghans but find the capital too unnerving. Its relative prosperity has led to the area being nicknamed 'Little Pakistan'. Just past the city, however, is another one which is fast rivalling it in size. More than 130,000 people displaced by constant fighting around Kabul live in tents on a rocky plain. Everything has to be brought to them, from water to firewood, but at least they are safe.

We felt safer, too. The minibus picked up speed as the road became less like a riverbed, and the mujahedin at the checkpoints were more relaxed, a condition explained by nearby fields of poppies. A problem over the necessary permission to travel past Jalallabad was solved by a wad of Afghanis.

Torkham was another matter. For several weeks Pakistan has insisted that Afghans must have passports and visas, documents most of them have never seen in their lives and a particular outrage to the Pathans, whose territory was arbitrarily divided by the Durand Line in 1893. We fought our way to the front of a volatile mass and waved American, New Zealand and British passports through the bars at a group of uniformed Pakistanis lounging in chairs nearby. Eventually one came across and explained that the mujahedin had chained the gate as a protest. If we could climb over, he said, we were welcome to Pakistan.

A few minutes later it was down the Khyber Pass in a taxi to beers and steak at the American Club in Peshawar. It had taken 12 hours to cover 170 miles. Why the crowd at Torkham had not exploded remained a topic of debate, but once more it appeared that the khorriji factor had played its part. If the Afghans had been able to read the plaque on the gatepost, it might have punctured their stoicism.

(Map omitted)