EDITOR’S NOTE: Intrepid Kiwi journalist Alastair McLeod died on Saturday in Kabul. The following farewell note and travelogue are offered here in his memory. Farewell Sam.
“Yes. I boldly went where no journalist had gone before. The back of beyond and my God what a journey. Roads, well they were not roads. went with my fixer who works full time for the New Yorker and his driver, an ex Mujahadein who has driven all Afghanistan and he said the roads were amongst the worst he'd ever encountered. Photo explains the current state of my mental stability or lack of it.” - Sam
“On June 1st this year, journalist-adventurer Alastair McLeod, Sam to his many friends and acquaintances in New Zealand, Spain, and in troublespots around the globe, wrote the following email to several Kiwi friends.
India and Pakistan appeared at that time were on the brink of nuclear war and Alastair was trying to get from one country to the other on his way to Afghanistan to shoot footage for TV3’s 20/20.
Typically, he was travelling light, always with a good supply of cigarettes and a powerful toolkit of medications to deal with the perennial toothaches and other medical misadventures which routinely attacked Sam. Just a few weeks before, he'd been ordered to bed in New Delhi with heat exhaustion and bronchitis as he tore all over that city seeking visas and the vital extra intelligence that he was so good at winkling out of people and so often got him closest to the real story.
Alastair died in Kabul last Saturday night, in a car wreck that could as easily have happened anywhere else, back in the capital between assignments for The Australian in some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of Afghanistan.
I'm really sad, Sam. My world is the smaller without you.”
- Pattrick Smellie Monday, 26 August 2002
----- Original Message -----
From: "alastair mcleod"
Sent: Saturday, June 01, 2002 10:12 PM
Am following Goff's advice and leaving for Kabul. Things may turn ugly sooner than expected sources tell me, Ahmed Rashid, via various distraught diplomats. We’ll talk soon, am leaving for Peshawar soon on a plane. Am a dreadful cameraman and am about to embark on Mission Impossible. Talk soon. I include a muse I just wrote to a friend on travelling here.
----- Forwarded Message -----
Pakistan Border Crossing - By Alastair Mcleod
Well all's well really apart from a tooth infection, alas more antibiotics, hate em.
Left Delhi the other day and yesterday crossed into Pakistan. Yes there's a war on, but I can't find it and that is what I meant to do. Crossing the border was interesting, I had been warned that it would be very difficult, time consuming, the situation tense and I may not get across.
Arrived at the border around 10am and I thought Delhi was hot; well forget it, this place sears. Got out of the car on the Indian side of the border, there were a few shops and little roadside stalls selling tea and the usual fare shaded by 20 metre trees. Sat down and took tea with a few soldiers and other residents who live at the border crossing. The soldiers asked me if I thought there would be a war, I replied I hoped not. They said the same thing and that as it was 47 degrees it was too hot to fight. Then a porter appeared, dressed in a blue electricians coat, who insisted on carrying my bags even though I protested and wouldn't let them go for about five minutes, eventually I gave in.
Walked 50 metres to the Indian border control point, the Indian customs official stamped my passport and wished me well. The porter and I continued in no mans land together walking on a well-paved dual carriageway. We passed dozens of blue clad men, all porters, waiting for someone to turn up. As the border is closed to Pakistanis and Indians and few foreigners turn up, business is grim.
The trees along the road formed a green umbrella above and on either side were large colonial style buildings, all well maintained. Every few metres was a rubbish tin, half the size of a 44 gallon drum, freshly painted in the green, white and orange of the Indian tricolour. I looked into one and it was empty, the strangeness of it bewildered me as here in this last vestige of India were dozens of rubbish tins yet the rest of the country is covered in ankle high shit piled up in every gutter and curb side.
We reached the cross over point and were met by a Pakistani porter wearing a red coat of the same style as his Indian counterpart. This was tensest moment as they stood eye to eye. As the Indian handed my bags to his potential enemy my bag slipped in their hands. Words were exchanged and for a second I thought things may get out of hand until both porters turned to me and said, "very very sorry sir". So my blue carry bag didn't spark WW3.
Headed another 200 metres along the road till we reached the first Pakistani official, a soldier, and presented my passport. He stood up offered me his chair then took my passport details. All the warnings about being allowed into Pakistan were dispelled. On both sides farmland had given way to acres of barbed wire mounted on tall posts. The posts zigzagged in all directions and a few soldiers from both sides could be seen shading under nearby trees, heat induced torpor was prevalent everywhere.
Finally reached the entry and customs building where my passport was stamped and I was welcomed to Pakistan. Then proceeded to Customs, festooned with a television DV camera bag, tripod and sound kit, (for the 20/20 programme am making - only for the money, DON"T BREATHE A WORD, its all very hush hush!) laptop bag, blue carry bag and leather briefcase. I thought it would take ages as they went through everything.
The customs official asked, "Do you have any whisky sir"? I replied, "No hate the stuff, it gives me a headache".
Neglected to tell him had two bottles of vodka and that it often gave me a headache as well. Importing alcohol is strictly forbidden and if they catch you with it the officials seize it and get pissed later that night.
Please come he said as he ushered me into his office and enquired if I needed a taxi to Lahore about 30km way. I replied I did and he dispatched his assistant. Suddenly tea was brought in and he poured me a cup and asked if I had sugar. We chatted about cricket, the perennial conversation gambit in the sub-continent, and I asked him if he believed war was imminent.
"No I don't think so, Pakistan is very afraid of India and India is very afraid of Pakistan", he said.
My taxi arrived and he escorted me to it, telling me that I should pay no more than $NZ15 for the journey. Shaking my hand he wished me a safe enjoyable stay in Pakistan.
And I thought that there may be a print piece in cross border tension at the only border point between these two, supposedly, warring nations! Obviously not. In fact there was a piece this morning on page 16 of the national English daily that said that Pakistanis felt quite relaxed about the situation.
Am staying in downtown Lahore and fly to Peshawar on the Afghan border tomorrow. Its an hour and a half flight and has set me back $NZ50. Am at Fulletis hotel, a two storeyed ochre and white building built last century. There is a large garden in front, the rooms are set back from the garden and when you leave the room to walk to either reception or the restaurant you walk along a wide black and white chequerboard tiled floor below the high arches. It's slightly run down but very charming.
The rooms are all air-conditioned and are enormous, at least two and a half times the size of your kitchen and lounge with 4 metre ceilings, with two sofas and armchairs set round a coffee table, a large wooden writing table, two single beds, two in-built wardrobes, two ceiling fans, television, fridge and a large white tiled and marble bathroom and a lad who keeps delivering mint tea and biscuits throughout the day. All this for $N25 a night! I think I might come and live here.
As a last note do not come to Pakistan if you have a shoe fetish. They make a lot of European label shoes here and the styles and prices are incredible, from $NZ 15 to 40 for great shoes.
In one of the shoe shops I went into this morning two men in traditional Islamic costume, white skull cap and white ankle length dress, sat in front of me on a low bench. One had purchased a pair of dark brown patent leather sandals he obviously admired and the other was waiting for the attendant to get his shoes. Both had neatly trimmed black beards and both looked toward me with an implacable stare that did not hide their mistrust.
They were Pashtun tribesmen, the famed ethnic group of warriors from the Autonomous Tribal Region that straddles the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I noticed the hands of one of them, they were sort of hands that you see very occasionally, large, wiry and strong as wire cables. Looking at his hands I sensed that those hands were the kind that could effortlessly twist your neck till it snapped.
The attendant returned shoes in hand and the Pashtuns, both two metres tall, stood up and shook hands with the attendant and the owner. Then one then the other thrust their hands toward me, I clasped one of the man's hands as firmly as I could as I intuited the vice-like grip with which he would grasp my hand. He eyeballed me and as he did I said Salam Malacam, the traditional greeting and farewell of the Islamic world.
On this he smiled and flashed his large white impeccably beautiful teeth and in my pain killer aching tooth haze I envied him. If I could have spoken his language I'd have asked where he got his teeth from, I wanted em or teeth like them. Of course being a fundamentalist Muslim he would have said from Allah, and I'd have replied Allah gave me mine too, so you see sometimes he Allah really f**ks up.
Luckily we couldn't communicate so he had no immediate reason to break my neck.
Well that's passed almost an hour in this internet café and kept me out the heat.