Many of us think of them as ordinary people. Regular drivers transporting goods or passengers to another city or country. It’s deeper than that. They’re second only to Taliban fighters and frontline Afghan soldiers in the sheer scale of bloodshed and terror they witness.
How, you ask?
These are Afghanistan’s truck and bus drivers. They constitute a critical part of the economy on some of the world’s most dangerous roads. From being caught in the crossfire in raging battles between the Afghan Army and the Taliban, paying hefty bribes at checkpoints, encountering undetonated landmines [IEDs], being underpaid all the way to the dangerous and poorly paved roads; they remain largely forgotten or ignored. Many no longer remain the same as the people they were before taking the job; they remain mere shells of their former selves.
I recall speaking to one driver, who worked for the Ahmad Shah Baba bus company. I asked him how he felt driving roughly a hundred passengers from the capital Kabul in the east, to Herat, in the west.
“You know we don’t have much work experience ourselves, we find passion in driving and so we take this job.” He explained, “But it isn’t the best job out there. Sometimes we almost fall off the road or a bridge from the broken roads that have been destroyed over years of continuous artillery barrages, aerial bombardments, or landmines [IEDs] placed by the Taliban.” He went on “Sometimes the roads fracture and crack due to the heavy loads the trucks carry. The roads aren’t stable enough to manage overloads, either.” Sighing, he concluded that “We have faith in God for our safety. We are still thankful for the jobs that we have”. The bravery of these drivers struck me. Irrespective of the prevalent conditions, be they war, unexpected explosions, poor roads, the biting cold or the unbearable heat, they drove on.
I had first noticed the different bus companies when I had originally intended to get to Herat. At the bus stations, I noticed the placards of different companies and the historical figures after whom they were named: Ahmad Shah Baba, Mirwais Hotak and Wardak Baba amongst others. Eventually, I chose Ahmad Shah Baba. I had been with them before, and they were renowned for their fast, if dangerous, drivers, as well as their connections with people outside ‘safe zones’, as they’re known.
I got on my seat. I heard the driver asking his attendee for what the locals call a ‘cleaner’, a sort of assistance. The ‘cleaner’ pours water for the driver in the scorching heat, and helps with the occasional punctured tire. Upon his arrival, the driver asked the cleaner to bring ‘stuff’, local codeword for hashish.
We began our journey. We left Kabul and roughly 15 minutes later arrived in Maidan Shar, capital of Maidan Wardak province. Though Maidan Wardak province borders Kabul, the journey of fifteen minutes was still relatively quick. I gazed upon the driver. He was impatiently rolling down his window and putting a lighter to the joint of hashish, or chars, that he was holding with his lips. He was visibly anxious, no doubt finding relief in the highs of the thick smoke he was soon inhaling. What he was anxious about was something us passengers did not yet know about, but would in due course find out. We soon left the safe zone around Maidan Shar and entered no man’s land. The land with no rules.
No man’s land doesn’t just involve the random Taliban checkpoint, where fighters inspect vehicles for government personnel or the odd family or clan member. It wasn’t for these minor and routine occurrences that the driver was smoking his chars; much worse awaited. In any case, we drove by a local Taliban patrol, were held up for a few minutes whilst they made small talk with our driver, now desperately trying to conceal how intoxicated he was, fearing the wrath of the strict fighters. They let us go.
By now, the sun had set behind the distant mountains, and we were engulfed by the darkness of the night. The night’s serenity was abruptly disrupted when our bus drove into a screeching and ongoing battle between the Taliban and the Afghan Army. The driver swerved the vehicle madly from one side to another, attempting to keep the bus out of the line of fire. After what seemed like an eternity, the sounds of bullets and rockets became more distant, fading and eventually disappearing into the coolness of the night. We made it out.
Yet it isn’t just the Taliban, the army, or their clashes with one another, who menace the roads. We later fell prey to bandits. These were armed men who made their living off looting vehicles like ours and the passengers they carried. It wasn’t uncommon for bus drivers to be in contact with these bandits, cooperating with them and benefiting from the spoils gathered from their own passengers. Such was the law of the jungle that applied outside the safe zone. In no man’s land, every man was King. The bandits were busy, having stopped another vehicle on the other side of the road going toward Kabul and in the process of looting it. They shot at our bus too, in an attempt to stop us, but our driver accelerated and managed to get away, as we heard their bullets clanging against the metal of the bus’ rear.
Bandits operate more freely in government controlled territory. In passing Taliban checkpoints, just like those of the army, they caution us to be careful. The bandits sometimes, cloaking themselves behind the familiar look of beards and turbans, pretended to be Taliban, despite it now being well known that beyond having contact with local Taliban fighters or government officials, they’re little more than brutal highwaymen.
After a lengthy drive, stopped for a break, insisted upon by passengers eager to pray and stretch their legs. The driver once again smoked his chars to calm his nerves, no doubt exacerbated by having to drive through a raging battle and trigger happy bandits. After praying, we got back on the bus. The bus drove peacefully for a surprisingly long duration; the only turbulence it encountered was the routine, often volatile bumping as it drove over rocky roads and kicked up the occasional storm of dust behind it. We got to Helmand when suddenly, we found ourselves in the crossfire of another firefight between the Taliban and the Army. The passengers, driven to desperation, were praying frantically and out loud for God to protect us. The driver coolly managed to eventually swerve us to safety, his unperturbed demeanour no doubt aided by the heavy amount of chars he had inhaled.
After thirteen hours of driving in darkness, recommended due to the lower frequency and greater difficulty of firefights, we arrived at long last in Herat.
The transportation industry within Afghanistan is overlooked. More so than that, the drivers working within it are often invisible in the public imagination, even as they drive not on mere roads, but paths of horror, each path embodying countless stories fraught with death and sheer terror. Ultimately, despite how disliked and frowned upon the consumption of chars is in a widely Islamic society, and despite the sincere religiosity many drivers profess, many have no alternative but to turn to the thick, brown paste to do their job properly. The cloudy smoke enables them to not be overtaken by a flood of adrenaline and emotions as they accelerate through outside of the safe zone into no man’s land: the jungle full of IEDs, heated battles, bandits and perilous roads. Despite being officially illegal, and many companies officially banning their drivers from using the drug, little can stop one from violating any law in no man’s land
Not every driver does resort to chars, though. It is enough for some to merely witness the drug’s effects on their colleagues, including the paranoia, hallucinations, respiratory problems, and the eventual dependence on the drug. Those that do resort to the relaxant often care very little about the poison they rely on. With few opportunities, they put themselves in the physical line of fire, on the road to a perilous life of health problems and jeopardising the afterlife they often discuss anxiously. Solely to put bread on the tablecloth for their families.