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D I S P A T C H E S

+ "Don't Go to Timargarha."


from Marcela Gaviria

click here for a larger map The road from Chitral to Drosh swings east hugging the Shi Shi River on its way. About 20 miles south of Drosh, the river is cut in two by a tiny island that holds a beautiful old fort built in 1919 by the British. Martin has found one footnote about this place in some book, and is determined to make it there by nightfall.

After three nights sleeping in grim guesthouses, we hope to take a break from the sewage canals, soiled sheets and malodorous bathrooms. We cross a rickety bridge and pound on the door of the Nagahar Fort hoping it is still a guesthouse for weary trekkers and journalists.

It takes a good long time before someone opens the door. The place has not seen many visitors since Sept. 11. There is no running water and electricity. The place is practically abandoned, but the grand wrap-around views of the valley and the stark mountains fill the place with magic.

We sit on the side of the fort and watch the powerful waters of the Shi Shi well up hundreds of feet below. The river winds past the terraced layers of corn fields and cuts through the mountains, which stack up against each other like cutouts. It is the most breathtaking view of our journey.

Without water or electricity, dinner takes four hours to prepare. We haven't had a bite to eat since 7 a.m., and we wait impatiently, counting stars. Martin sees three falling stars. I spot the Milky Way and the Northern Star. Scott is more fixated on filming the lights of cars crossing the Hindu Kush at a distance. At midnight, after countless cries for food, Martin calls it a day and heads for bed on an empty stomach. The rest of us figure we've made enough of a fuss and wait for another hour until a feast of stir-fried vegetables (sabzi), lentil stew (dhal), grilled chicken (tabak), and bread (chappatis) is served to us in the garden. Pakistani food is much like Indian food, except much oilier and less varied. I am tired of it by now, but at this hour it tastes great.

Our break from work lasts only one evening. In the early morning hours we head back to Dir, where we hope to shower and get back on our beat. Again, we camp out at the Al-Manzer hotel while Shameem brings possible interviews -- a school teacher, a doctor, a religious scholar -- to our roof-deck studio. It seems that today, we are again stuck listening to the usual: Islam means peace, Al Qaeda is an invention of America, Sept. 11 was orchestrated by the CIA to create an excuse to kill all Muslims.

The doctor turns out to be the most candid of the bunch. He tells us that George Bush is a dog. When he hears we plan to head to Timargarha after lunch he balks.

Nagahar Fort sits on an island in the middle of the Shi Shi River near the town of Drosh in the remote Northwest Frontier Province. (Photo by Scott Anger)
"Whatever you do, don't stop at Timargarha."

So, of course, that is exactly what we do.

A few miles before we reach Timargarha we hit the first checkpoint. An anxious border guard pulls us aside and checks our papers. He tells us there is trouble up ahead and says that it is unsafe to stop and unsafe to continue. It's a confusing Catch-22. Shameem isn't translating, either. The guard talks rapidly and most anxiously. Scott is rolling as Martin asks what is happening in the town.

"It is too dangerous," the guard says. "There are demonstrations on the street. You might get hurt. There is much hatred for Americans. You must get out of here. "

Shameem is so worked up he only translates every 20th word. Our nerves are starting to fray. Martin, Scott and Shameem get out of the van to sus out the situation. As usual, I am forced to stay inside.

Faizal, our driver, is close to panicking. His lip actually trembles as he implores me to convince Martin to continue on to Peshawar without stopping at Timargarha. For the first time, I am scared.

Faizal riles off a million questions, "What will happen if they beat you up? Why are you doing this? There is no point risking your life. Who will pay for my car if they vandalize it?"

I explain that we don't have much of a choice but to head onwards. Dir is unsafe, and we have to cross Timargarha if we are to make it back to Peshawar.

The van falls silent as we get closer and closer to the town. I have my finger on the speed dial of my satellite phone, hoping to make a quick call to a resourceful contact in Islamabad if anything should go wrong. The phone is useless in the car -- it only works if you point it at the satellite up in the sky -- but I hold on to it like a little security blanket.

We are all vigilant. It seems that every man squatting on the street might be holding a hand grenade and that every carload that passes us might be a group of jihadists hoping to shoot us down. It's this kind of fear that breeds blind prejudice.

We have our usual escort. Six armed guards in front, six behind. But this is rarely of any consolation. The guns make all of us nervous.

Armed guard stops the FRONTLINE team from going into the tribal areas.
Funny enough, the minute we reach Timargarha, we are back at ease. Martin believes that the best way to know if you are in hostile territory is to look people in the eye, nod, and see what kind of response you get. If they stare blankly back, you may have to wonder. But people in this town are responding to our overtures, and some even smile as we pass by. The town is bustling about like it would on any old Monday. There are no signs of demonstrations. We are perplexed.

We are whisked off into a back courtyard of the Continental Hotel, a walled fortress in the middle of town where we can call some of the local contacts in our Rolodex. Soon a few facts, however confusing, start trickling in. The demonstrations were not organized by angry locals demanding to know what happened to the 7,000 jihadists that went to Afghanistan never to return, but by a handful of family men protesting the imposition of electricity meters in their houses. What else is new?

The cops insist that there is a different story. Once source tells us over the phone, "Listen to the cops." It's a hard one to read.

We don't overstay our welcome. In truth, we never really knew if we were in danger or not. It's hard to get a straight answer about the simplest things in this country. Especially when Shameem is too nervous to translate.

It's late by the time we leave Timargarha and we still have four hours to go on the road. The road to Peshawar seems far less carefree and beautiful than it did a few days back. It is also hard to doze off since the van jerks at every twist in the road.


< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

London
(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

Pakistan
(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

+ Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

Pakistan
(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

Frustrations
9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

Indomitable
23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

Yemen
(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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