Data: Paris, friday, novembre 9, 2001

Autore: Keith Richburg

Cold e miserabile on a high Afghan Mountain

Anjuman mountains, Afghanistan- The snow and ice were driving down hard, like daggers on our exposed faces. The temperature had dropped below freezing, and icicles were forming on our eyebrows and noses. But our 12 horse team forged ahead, guided through the blinding blizzard by Afghan trackers on foot.
The passengers on horseback- three cousins in the jewelry business, a relief agancy worker and three foreign journalists on their way to a war- were hunched against the cold and the snow, beneath hoods and glove and parkas. The Afghan guides walked alongside in tennis shoes, without gloves, wearing old army jackets and Afghan scarves.
"This way!" Called the lead guide, who located the path up the mountainside. "Chu! chu!" The riders and trakers shouted out to the horses- "Go!" in the local language.
The horses had a hard time finding their footing in the deep snow. They stayer mostly in single file, sometimes slipping on. Of all the dumbs things reporters have done to get a story, this definitely was one of the dumbest.
At one river crossino, a chocolate-colored horse named Qumait, who had been showing signs of fatigue for most of daylong trip, finally slipped and fell in the river- taking his load of backpacks, sleeping bags, satellite telephones and laptop computers with him. The horse survived;the watersoaked gear fared less well.
This journey through Afghanistan's Anjuman Pass, notheast of Kabul, into the Panjshir Valley is difficult in the best of times. The crossino is by way of narrow, rock-strewn, crater-marked roads snaking along mountainsides, with sharp tirns skirting sheer drops of a thousand meters or more. But come the winter's first snow, the trek becomes all but impossibile- except by horseback, and with experienced guidance of Afghanistan's tough Anjuman horsemen, who make the eight-hour crossino as a matter of routine.
Hasty planning for the trip began in the darkness of a Wednesday night, in a mud hut in the snow at the base of a mountain in the town of Anjuman.  The original plan was to travel by car , a sturudy Russian-made jeep with four-wheel drive and chaines on the tires. But after a gallant effort in a heavy snowfall, the jeep was forced back, and the passengers ended up with two dozen other stranded travelers in a dingy mountain redoubt.
Mahmoud Habibi, 25, an afghan gem trader who lives in Peshawar, Pakistan, was traveling with his cousin Saib and Mustafa. Mohammed Naim's reason for being there was  his job at logistics officer for a French relief agency called ACTED, the agency for Technical Cooperation and Development. Then  there were three journalis: this correspondent, a Washington post photographer and an Italian photojournalis.
Our destination was Afghanistan's Panshir Valley- a trip home for the cousins, back to the office for the relief worker, and for the journalist an excursion to the front lines of the war between Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance.
"The Anjuman people always ride horses", said Mahmoud, whose excellent english made him the unofficial translator for the stranded foreign journalists. "Me, i'm afraid of horses."
Mahmoud had made the trip bifore, in easier times, by passing directly from the Pakistani border trough the Taliban-controlled part of Afghanistan. But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and the American retaliatory bombing of Afghanistan, the usual route had become  more difficult. "The Taliban considers the Panshir people their ennemy." Mamhoud said. "In the Taliban mind they think the Panshir people have joined with the Americano." With the Taliban blocking one path, and an early snowfall closing off the Anjuman Pass to vehicles, Mamhoud said that he saw the horse trek as the only option.
First came the bargaining. The lead horseman was Mohammed Sharif. Only 23, he had been riding through the mountains for 15 years. He agreed for a price of $60 for each horse, includine an extra horse for the journalists' equipment.  That done the group hunched in a circe, and by the light of the kerosene lantern traced the route on a ma plaid out on dusty carpets.
The group set off in late morning. A light snow was fallino, but the sun was shining bright. The group began the slow ascent into the mountains up the snowcovered path, the guides in front, climbing past vehicles abandoned the day bifore.
Somewhere bifore the mountain's summit, the snow starter fallino harder and the temperature dropped. Soon the scene was a blinding white, and it was impossibile to tell where the mountains ended and the sky began.
The horses seemed to grow exhausted trudging through the deepening snow. Qumait, the designated luggage-horse, seemed off-balance and fell several times on the slippery inclines. The horseman responded with a few cracks of the whip across his hindquarters to get him on his feet, but then decided to lighten his load by shifting some of it to the other horses.
At one point, even experienced Anjuman guides become disoriented in what was now certainly a blizzard. Two rana head to find the right path, and the others helped guide the horsesdown the steepest slopes. Khazil, an aging but determined steed, lost his footing and fell sharply forward, legs buckling; the reporter on his back clung on for dear life.
Finally, four shivering hours later, the cold and tired riders reached what all hoped was the final destination, a tent at the mountain's base used as a way station by ACTED relief group. The tent offered warm respite from the bitter wind and snow outside. The riders took hot tea while the horses dumped their snouts into their feed bags.
But there was no car.
A vehicle that was supposed to meet the group to take us on to the next town had not arrived. But don't worry, said the horseman. Another villane was just a half-hour ride away, and there we could spend the night.
With little choice, and darkness threatening, we mounted the horses again.
As we set off again, our clothes were already soaked through from the snow and ice; our jeans, for all intent and pur pose, were frozen to the piles of blankets that formed our saddles.
Then came the second storm.
This time snow mixed with hail pounding our faces and heads. Thirty minutes stretched into an hour, then two, then three. We were climbing again into the mountains, with darkness all around and no villages in sight. Perhaps the horseman, so accustomed to the trek, had a different sense of the time this leg would take. Maybe they didn't want to discourage their weary riders. Whatever the reason, they had deceived us - we were in for another cold, brutal, four-hour march.
Khazil pushed on, head down, mane lashed by the wind, seemingly oblivious to the terrified reporter clinging to his back. "Come on, old boy, you can make it!" Was I talking to the horse, or to myself?
It was well after 8 pm when we arrived at our destination, a mud hut  in a tiny villane called Kurpetab, in the Paryan district. We were dazed and wet; the Post photographer was shivering uncontrollably. Our legs were stiff and numb. Mustafa slid off his horse and fell directly onto his back in a mound of snow.

But the Panshir Valley stretched out bifore us. We had made it across the mountains and lived to tell the tale.