In the Tora Bora valley of the White Mountains, pick-up trucks, Land Rovers and mortars abound, but the last thing you would expect to find is a bicycle.
However, when the mujahedin soldiers got within sight of caves in the valley yesterday morning, that is what they saw. It was a dangerous moment, at the start of the second day of the battle against al-Qa'ida guerrillas, but the soldiers of Halim Shah, the front-line commander, agreed: they saw bicycles, children's bicycles – with children riding them.
"They ran away with the Arabs, and escaped to the upper caves," said Commander Shah, from his vantage point two miles behind the front line. "But there are families there. Our men have seen them riding their bikes in the caves."
It is a grim thought in an already grim battle: somewhere up there, in the freezing heights of the White Mountains, beneath the tank shells of the mujahedin and the 1000lb bombs of the American B-52s, are women and young children.
And they are on the run. We only have the mujahedin's word for it, but by the account of soldiers freshly returned from the fighting, Commander Halim's men had a good day. They have thrown 2,500 fighters into the battle. For the first time, they captured part of the network of caves in which al-Qa'ida fighters have been sheltering – having gained and then lost them to a counter-attack early in the morning.
But this is a ragged conflict – more of a series of guerrillas skirmishes at shifting flash-points than a conventional battle with a fixed front line. The gains of today may not count for very much tomorrow.
The battle began at 7am when the mujahedin reached the caves, only to be quickly beaten back. It was then that the children were glimpsed but, by the time the caves were securely captured at 11.30am, all signs of life had gone.
"These are the lowest of all the caves," said a young mujahedin named Lala Khan. "The entrances are very narrow, so that only one man can squeeze in, but inside it's very wide and dark. Two of our men went in, and brought out some heavy machine guns and ammunition, but what else is there we don't know. We can't go further because there may be booby traps and mines."
The captured caves are in an area called Melawa, but despite the guns and bullets in there, they represent only the first advance in a gruelling fight ahead. "There are 10 or 12 more caves higher up," said Mr Khan, "and every one is full of Arabs. We don't have any chance of attacking them right away."
On the ground, the distances in this battle are small. From the rise where Commander Shah surveys the battle, beside three intermittently booming tanks, to the hillsides where the American planes drop their bombs, is little more than two miles. But the jagged mountains and the rough tracks make every advance a struggle.
Even in a four-wheel drive pick-up truck the one-mile journey from the observation point to the mujahedin's forward tank position took 20 minutes. After that, the soldiers come within range of Arab mortars and the trek up to the caves is measured in hours.
"In the upper caves, there are narrow holes in the rock which they can shoot through," said Lala Khan. "Since yesterday, four of us have been killed and about 12 injured. To be honest with you, I haven't seen the bodies of any Arabs."
It is hard to believe that many have not been killed. Since last Saturday, they have been under daily and nightly attack by the B-52s, which inspire almost as much fear in the mujahedin as they must in the Arabs. The American pilots have bombed promiscuously, and 15 mujahedin have already been killed since the weekend, as well as hundreds of civilians.
"Please don't drop the bombs on us," said a mujahedin commander named Musa, to whom the difference between a foreign journalist and an American member of the special forces was not an obvious one. "So many of our soldiers are up there too."
And the mysterious Arab children. In the absence of any prisoners, deserters, or even a single corpse, al-Qa'ida fighters remain a faceless and disembodied enemy, glimpsed by the mujahedin through the trees and through the pocket-sized radios which the commanders carry. Yesterday, as I was leaving the front line, a soldier ran up excitedly clutching one of the walkie-talkies. Crackly words could be heard in incomprehensible Arabic.
"Al-Qa'ida! Al-Qa'ida!" said the soldier. "Terrorists!"Reuse content