July 28, 2015
It was the news report I watched while at one house in Qala-i-Panja that first made me aware of the current situation in Afghanistan, fairly close to where we were. The television this family had was powdered by a solar panel. With no electricity, no internet, no wifi, no newspapers and essentially no communication, news trickles through mostly by word of mouth. And occasionally by mobile phones if there is sufficient coverage.
The family and I watched the footage of long streams of Taliban soldiers atop motorcycles riding into the base in the province of Varduch. They rode in triumphantly with guns in the air – this was their victory march.
All sorts of rumors were floating around. There was talk that the base fell without any protests or fighting; that there was defection in the ranks. But no matter the reason, it is true that Varduch is now firmly in the hands of the Taliban. If they were to proceed further north, the next base would be Zebak. And although rumor had it that soldiers and supplies had been helicopter-ed in, this in itself was no guarantee that it wouldn’t fall. With or without a fight. Just beyond Zebak to the north lies Sultan Eshkashim, the only entry/exit point to Tajikistan that is currently open. From Varduch to Sultan Eshkashim is only a couple of hours by road.
Our information was sketchy at best but it was difficult to get full or even accurate news. With the meager information we had, we had to decide whether to stick to our plans or leave. We discussed our options. Two of our group had intended to stay for just four days anyway so for them it was not a great loss. I was torn – I have been wanting to come here for so long! The original plan of visiting the Balk province had already been scrapped and now even the Wakhan was too risky. But I could not possibly stay on by myself; I would have no transport. Besides, it is common knowledge that there are tourists here in the Wakhan. I did not want to even think of the possibility of the Taliban taking Sultan Eshkashim and entering the Wakhan. For a foreigner, this is a scenario that doesn’t bear thinking. As they say, the game is over.
So we decided to leave. As quickly as we could, as quickly as bad washed away roads, fields of mud and swollen rivers allowed. It was a long day but rumors of the border being closed was (thankfully) unfounded. We got stamped out of Afghanistan and stamped into Tajikistan without incident.