By Richard Mackenzie
I slept well after we arrived in Kantiwah. I awoke early, ravenous for breakfast. The man who ran the chaikhana, the tea house where we were staying, had cooked a large basket full of hard-boiled eggs– at least a dozen, I was told. There was one small problem. Rahman Baig, my new friend and horseman, had eaten every last egg. It was my first indication that this was a young man with a continuing, an all-encompassing appetite.
As he looked at me with a guilty conscience and some shame twitching on the corners of his battle-scarred face, I could only smile, shake my head, then settle for tea and fresh bread as we started to plan our day.
In short, I was beginning to love Rahman Baig and, from my point of view, he should get what he wanted, most of all what he needed, to meet our grueling schedule.
The day’s first task was to unload the two useless donkeys and get another horse. Not necessarily in that order. Already owning one horse, we now needed a second to replace the donkeys that I was ready to drown.
It took Rahman Baig all morning to negotiate the deal with the folks of Kantiwah but my well-nourished friend did indeed find another horse in very good condition and was able to buy it at a very reasonable price — with the donkeys happily thrown in for good measure.
In the middle of Rahman Baig’s negotiations, I actually unpacked my satellite phone and from the edge of Nuristan in Eastern Afghanistan, I called my sister north of Brisbane in Australia. An expert on horses, Veronica told me which of the horses’ legs to watch as we walked it. Lasting more than half an hour, it was not a cheap phone call — but it was worth every moment.
Everything was going perfectly, I thought. What could go wrong?
As we headed out of Kantiwah in the early afternoon, I did not know every detail of what was about to unfold. In fact, even as it was later happening, I was thankfully oblivious to much of it. I would later learn the exacting details from Rahman Baig.
We trudged on for about four hours along the valley until we reached a flat land sprawling in front of a chaikhana. Inevitably, the place was called Chaman or Field.
We unloaded the horses and, while Rahman Baig was feeding them, I hauled our bags inside the chaikhana and stacked them in a corner. The tea house was built of rocks, stacked against the side of the mountain bordering the valley. It was dark and cool inside. After a long day, I was delighted to slump down against our bags and grab a short nap.
Rahman Baig later told me how I was sleeping soundly when he came in to arrange for dinner. It was then that the leader of a local gang approached him, asking who I was and what I was carrying in my bags.
Suspicious of the man and the questions he was asking, Rahman Baig quickly invented a detailed but fictitious tale. I was a French doctor, he said. I was on my way to a northern province called Badakhshan. He astutely avoided any mention of Ahmad Shah Massoud or the Panjshir Valley. Unknown to me at the time, the area where we were stopping for the night was a centre of Massoud’s sworn enemy, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In fact, even the village of Kantiwah where we had earlier purchased our new horse was a Hekmatyar haven.
In addition, Rahman Baig told them, I previously had money on me — but I had been robbed by bandits on the previous mountain pass, Simm Khotel.
The next morning, not yet knowing of Rahman Baig’s suspicions, I was somewhat confused as he treated them with courtesy and invited the leader and his gang to pose for a photograph before we left. Neither of us realized at the time, of course, how significant that photograph would prove to be.
Less than two weeks after our stay, a Polish television cameraman working for the BBC, Andy Skrzypkowiak, stopped at the same tea house on his way from an assignment with Massoud. After spotting his valuable TV camera equipment, they smashed his head with a rock, killing him instantly. His camera later turned up on the black market in Chitral, Pakistan.
It was only after Rahman Baig and I left Chaman that we would realize we had spent the night with a gang of murderers.