Christopher Howse talks to a Catholic journalist about his epic 400-mile trip through Russian roadblocks in Afghanistan.
THE ONLY journalist to have succeeded in passing Soviet road blocks on the road north from Kabul and reaching the town of Mazari-iSharif within a few miles of the border between Afghanistan and Russia has returned to Britain with an extraordinary story of close escapes from guerilla attacks and Russian patrols.
Mr Luis Foix, a correspondent of the Barcelona newspaper Vanguard/a. a Catholic living in London managed to remain undetected on the 400 mile round journey in a local bus with the help of a two-day hard and an Afghan fur hat.
His journey took him through the Salang pass, the main supply route for the Soviet divisions in Afghanistan.
As he went north, by the side of the road he saw several lorries which had fallen over the precipices.
Western journalists have been restricted to Kabul and turned back at road blocks within a few miles of the city. Mr Foix boarded a northward-bound bus at the capital's bus-station and told the official there that he was from England. From then on, army checks were on the lookout for an Englishman, while Mr Foix held a Spanish passport.
So slim did he feel his chances of making it through the Salang pass that he took with him only 800 Afghanis, equal to about £6. 1-le told me that he was helped by the breakdown in the chain ot command in the country and the aid given by Afghan fellow travellers in the bus.
When the bus was stopped and boarded for searches by Soviet troops, the passengers shouted Out against Russia and insisted everyone inside was Afghani.
At one point troops were looking for deserters from the Afghan army. "I'll show you one," said a man on the bus, and pointed to an ancient tribesman who had fallen asleep in one of the front seats. The Soviet soldiers had to retreat under a barrage of catcalls. The Afghans make no secret of their contempt for the occupying forces. , The bus had to stop several times, once for more than an hour while troops were engaged in fire against guerillas. At one stage Mr Foix was able to see Soviet artillery emplacements pumping shells into the mountains hemming in the road.
When they were through the pass, between mountains rising to over 13,000 feet, Mr Fobs was approached by a student from Kabul. a committed Marxist-Leninist. Ile was threatened with exposure and told that his action could put him in prison. Under this pressure he was forced to give up the film of Soviet emplacements and supply lines he had photographed. On reaching Mazar-i-Sharif, a city of 400.000, he evaded arrest with the help of a westernised couple he made friends with on the road. He made his way by donkey-cart to the main hotel where only three of the 50 rooms were occupied. He had no money for food though he had eaten nothing since dawn and it was now evening. He could afford only a room with no heating in the freezing Afghan winter. The hotel and the whole city were plunged into darkness as a result of anti-Soviet action. All
around, a steady booming of artillery could be heard, Later in the night he was told that the district governor wanted to speak with him on the telephone and he was escorted by candlelight through the cold corridors of the deserted hotel.
Though he had registered as a traveller, of the kind that used to conic to see the city's mosque, the finest in Afghanistan, government intelligence that he was the journalist being sought had caught up with him, Ile was harangued and told to leave as soon as possible the next day. The return journey past fields filled with hundreds of tanks was again held up by the consequences of ambushes on the narrow road. Once back in Kabul he resisted demands that he should surrender his passport by saying that it was not his but his government's property. Eventually he was able to tly out via Delhi. Mr Foix told me that there were no Catholic churches left open in Afghanistan as far as he knew. [he church in Kabul was closed and the remaining priest, attached to the Italian embassy had left some days before.