09 November 2014

About my first journey to Japan, across Siberia, in October 1979

Trans-Siberian ticket stub -- Moscow to Khabarovsk; distance: 8531 kilometers.

I traveled across the southern part of Siberia on the trans-Siberian train in October 1979 during Soviet times — from Yaroslavski station in Moscow to Khabarovsk, where all foreigners had to get off to spend a night, and then from Khabarovsk to Nakhodka east of Vladivostok. I loved the Lake Baykal area most, where the train passes a stone’s throw from the lake shore near Slyudyanka, with the snow-capped Sayan Mountains on the Mongolian border to the south. Beautiful.

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The trans-Siberian was part of my first trip to Japan. It took me exactly two weeks to get from Luxembourg to Yokohama, from 6 to 20 October 1979 — 11 days on trains. I was ushered to Japan on the Soviet Morflot passenger ship Baykal by the remnant of Supertyphoon Tip, which a few days earlier had been the largest and most intense tropical cyclone ever measured (it’s described in Wikipedia and in a 1998 report I have from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).


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We left Nakhodka about midday on 17 October 1979, crossed the Sea of Japan (or Eastern Sea), then passed through Tsugaru Strait between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido before turning south off the Pacific side of Honshu, headed for Yokohama. The weather was really beautiful and the sea was calm until some time after we passed Hakodate on Hokkaido Island in the afternoon of 18 October, entering the Pacific Ocean. The sky darkened, the sea got rough — I got seasick fairly quickly — and soon all passengers were asked to go below deck because the ship’s crew was going to lock all hatches. No passenger was allowed on deck any more. The captain’s announcement did not say anything about us heading into a big storm but it was obvious from the rocking and creaking of the boat that something like that was afoot.


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Not long after that I spent about 24 hours passing back and forth between the bed in my cabin and the toilet across the corridor, my body seemingly turning inside out from extreme seasickness. Around midnight of the 19th the storm eased up, and the Baykal steamed at full speed towards Yokohama Bay, which we finally entered around 6 a.m. on the morning of the 20th. The Baykal’s nice sunroof aft on deck was almost completely chewed up, as if a giant had bitten off pieces of it.


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A Japanese coastguard or customs boat pulled up alongside and officers came on board the Baykal to check our passports.

When I first got down to the pier at Yokohama I suddenly felt very dizzy and for a moment, inadvertantly, I rocked back and forth to keep my balance as if the ground under my feet was like the boat in the typhoon…


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(This is how I remember the trip, 35 years later — it’s a little blurry now)


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About photographs, or lack thereof ….

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Nowadays I regret very much that it took me very long to realize it would be a good idea to buy a camera and take pictures during my travels. My father always had a camera and took a lot of photos, and he also shot quite a bit of film of our family with a small wind-up 8-mm Yashica camera that he bought at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. Despite this it didn’t occur to me that I should get a camera of my own to take along on my travels.


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I did buy a cheap Polaroid camera shortly after I arrived in New York City in March 1975 and took a few pictures in Central Park that I still have — nothing very interesting. In 1982, again in New York, I took a few more pictures in the Chinatown area with another Polaroid. 


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I finally bought my first 35-mm camera in 1984 during a short trip to Luxembourg to renew my passport while I was living in Cyprus. It was a Yashica, fixed-focus — very simple and cheap. But I took a lot of good pictures with it in Cyprus, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Japan, where I bought an Olympus OM-10 with a 35-70 lens at Camera-No-Doi in Tokyo in 1987. This Olympus served me well in Japan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Luxembourg, though I never learned how to use all its features. Since 2003 I have been using digital cameras, including a Fujifilm Finepix S2950 that I got for my 60th birthday in early 2011 — nothing fancy but I’m quite happy with it, though still shooting mostly on automatic…..


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Here are links to my posts on my travels, and to some of my photo albums: 


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Photos: 

06 June 2012

More on God

I believe God, this one spirit or universal consciousness (see here), has basically divided Himself into innumerable small parts by bringing about (in whatever way) what we regard as the physical universe with all the individual consciousnesses within it, each tied to a body of some kind or another.

We are really all one ― each one of us living beings and inanimate things is a part of this God ― but through our bodies we have the illusion of being separate from one another. When the bodies of us living beings fall away we return to where we came from and become one again completely with God ― the universal spirit. It is only the short-lived body of ours which makes us feel separate.

I cannot think of another way in which the world could be "just." No concept of heaven and hell and good and evil that I have known would ever satisfy my sense of justice. For years I thought Moon's Divine Principle had the answers but I have concluded that it doesn't. It is no better than some other ideas that do not satisfy me at all.

God is absolutely responsible for everything that happens in the universe — from the greatest, most beautiful thing or event to the most horrible monstrosity or atrocity — but we all share that responsiblity because we are all part of God. God as a whole has thrived on the differences and divisions among us that lead to conflict — especially in us humans, the spearheads of the evolution of his consciousness in this world — and on both the good and the evil things we have been doing to each other in our bodies, which make us feel separate. But his/our consciousness is evolving. God is learning with us, through us.

In our primitive days, when we were totally unable to understand the reality of our ultimate oneness, God gave us myths including the Bible and all the scriptures, which were propagated by people inspired by "Him" (or "Her," "It") to awe us and make us fear, and to herd us together as groups and make us fight each other for His own pleasure. To explain this: I believe the deepest parts of our nature are the emotions, which we share with God, our source. Yes, I believe God has the same emotions, though from a universal perspective, since his "body" is the entire universe.

Now, I think, the time may be coming when those myths are no longer useful. It is time that we humans outgrow them and look for the truth behind and beyond them. Most of all I hope we can truly become aware of the reality of our original and ultimate oneness.
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Also see here

22 January 2012

On Life After Death


I have thought about the concept of a spirit world. Do I believe there is a world of spirit where we/our souls go after we die? Do I believe we have a spiritual body in which our soul/spirit resides for eternity and which resembles our physical body as it is when we are young and healthy? -- No, I do not believe this! -- This does not mean that I believe it is impossible.

I think that when we die - when our physical body dies and decays - our spirit dissolves in the ocean of universal consciousness, which is what God is to me. However, there remains a residue of a memory within God - a memory of us as we were when we were alive. As I have written before, I believe time - the "flow" of time - is really an accumulation of memory or memories within God. It expands ad infinitum, which is probably also why our universe seems to expand. When we die, then, the memory of our life remains as part of this ever-growing universal memory. In this way we will continue to exist - but we cannot create new things or learn or grow because we will no longer be conscious as a separate entity. We will be fully assimilated or merged into the whole whence we came, a grain of salt dissolved in the ocean - still salt and still contributing our specific flavor to the ocean - at least to the tiny part of it that we have been able to influence during our lives - but no longer a separate entity and no longer able to expand our influence.

I may be wrong, of course, but it would be very hard if not impossible for me to return to a belief in a spiritual world like the one described by Swedenborg and others ... 

15 May 2011

My one and only experience of prison - 3 days in then-communist Czechoslovakia in 1982

When I worked as a journalist in New York City between 1976 and 1982 I received many reports from the Pentagon including all the SecDef annual reports to Congress from Donald Rumsfeld's last one under Ford to those by Carter's SecDef Harold Brown and the first one by Reagan's man Caspar Weinberger. They sent them to me in New York for free. 
In Czechoslovakia in March 1982 five soldiers took me off the Vienna-Berlin train at Tabor, south of Prague, where I was thoroughly searched (stripped naked) and then kept under guard (two soldiers with Kalashnikovs right behind my back even when I went to the toilet) for several hours until two men from the Interior Ministry in Prague arrived. Some of the things they found in my luggage had made them suspicious, including some of our anti-Soviet material and one or two of those Pentagon annual reports (a diary they found also contained contact info for a man I had called a few times from New York for information: former Navy Captain Herbert Hetu, who opened the CIA's first Public Affairs office under then-director Stansfield Turner -- I found him again not long ago, here: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/hehetu.htm ). 
I was taken at night to a big office building in Ceske Budejovice (Budweis in German) that turned out to be a high-security prison and interrogated (without any violence) for hours throughout the next day. On the third day they decided to send me back to Austria, took me to the border at Ceske Velenice and put me on a special train (it seemed to me I was the only passenger on that train), with two soldiers with Kalashnikovs watching as the train headed into the forest towards Gmünd on the Austrian side (I guess they thought I might jump off before the train crossed the border).

29 April 2010

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia






(Photo left: The 6 mujahideen in the tent in Jaji mentioned in a question below)

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Recently I was interviewed about my trips to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Here are my answers:
About writing an autobiography:
… I do hope to find the time to write a book, primarily because I want to tell the story of the lessons I have learnt in my life to my family and friends. I will need a lot of time because I am a very slow writer. I have put some of my thoughts and brief accounts of my experiences on the Internet just in case it is of interest to others, especially old friends with whom I have long lost contact and who might be looking for me and may be curious about what happened to me without necessarily wanting to get in touch. They might not like how my religious and political views have changed.

About Saudi Arabia 1972-73:

The people with whom I traveled to Mecca were my friend “Ali” – whose real name I won’t reveal, to protect his identity, and whom I met on an earlier trip outside Europe — and Ali’s brother and the brother’s family (Pakistani wife, from Lahore, and three small boys). They lived in England and came to Luxembourg to pick me up in December 1972. They had two cars: a VW van with a mattress and gas cooker in the back and a Ford Capri 3000 GT sports car. They had to get to Jeddah by early January 1973, in time to pick up their old mother, who was coming there by plane from London for her first and probably last Haj. After the pilgrimage and putting their mother on the plane back to London they were going to continue their trip to Lahore in Pakistan to visit their family there. They wanted me as a backup driver, and I was all gung-ho about going to Pakistan. But since I could not accompany them to Mecca we were going to drive to Kuwait, where I was going to stay with their eldest brother (they were a family of 12 kids, and “Ali” was the youngest) and I was to wait for them to return after about a month in Saudi Arabia.
When we got stuck at Abu Kemal on the Syrian-Iraqi border, where the Iraqis refused to let us enter their country, my friends had to change their plan and drive down through Jordan and directly into Saudi Arabia’s Hejaz. When they offered me the choice I decided to officially become a Muslim so that I could accompany them, and they were my witnesses at the Saudi Embassy in Damascus where we all got special “pilgrim entry” visas for the kingdom. We arrived in Saudi Arabia at the end of 1972 and stayed in that country until 1 February 1973.
In Mina, the tent city outside Mecca, where we spent at least 2 weeks, many people were very curious about me and invited me into their tents for a cup of tea and to ask me questions about my background and my thoughts about the world of Islam. Some people refused to believe that I was from western Europe and insisted I must be Turkish. The same happened in Medina, where we rented a small apartment in the old Uhud quarter near the main mosque, where Prophet Mohammed’s tomb is located, during the period of 40 prayers after the Haj. The old quarter where we stayed and which seemed like a town from the Middle Ages, was torn down a few months after we left to make way for a project to expand the great mosque of Medina.
I received a big Quran in Arabic and English from the director of the Islamic University in Medina and read a little bit from time to time, including the lengthy commentaries in footnotes by the translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali.
I remember the big crowds in Mecca and Medina, more people than I had ever seen before. In Mecca we used to wash up in a large underground facility under a square just outside the big mosque before going inside for the Tawaf, the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, and the walks between Safa and Marwa, and so on. “Ummi” (or mother), as I also came to call my friends’ mother, only spoke to me in Punjabi, though she tried Suaheli sometimes when i didn’t understand. I quickly learned the few words I needed to know in order to follow her instructions. Like many old or infirm people she could not do the Tawaf by herself, and we paid a pair of big, strong men to carry her on a stretcher with a sort of basket in the middle.
After we saw “Ummi” off we stayed a few more days in Jeddah. We lived in the house of a family of Pakistani origin, and my friends suggested that I marry the youngest daughter of that family – who was only 16 at the time – and stay in Saudi Arabia. A Filipino friend of Ali’s who acted as our guide on the Haj had received a scholarship some years earlier to study at Medina’s Islamic University (with the support of King Faisal, if I remember correctly), and my friends thought I could try to get one too and stay behind in Saudi Arabia rather than go with them to Lahore.
I was very impressed by the experience of the Haj and meeting so many people who were mostly very nice to me, but I was not ready at all to get married and to stay in Saudi Arabia. Again, to make a long story short, I accompanied my friends to Kuwait, where we spent 9 days in a big villa doing nothing but eating, drinking fruit cocktails and having fun — then later they dropped me off in Abadan, Iran, and I made my way from there back to Europe on my own, with very little money. Nowadays I wonder how much of my experiences I still remember correctly. I learned some Arabic from my friends and others, and still remember the numbers and quite a few words that I had had to learn, such as the Shahada, etc.

About my attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and whether my experiences there were the most special time in my life:

As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, my interest in those countries comes from the wonderment I felt in my first experience traveling outside Europe, as well as my fascination and awe of mountains. Luxembourg has only low hills, and the first time I saw real mountains was when I went to Austria with my boy scout troop in 1963. I was so fascinated and awe-struck that I stared for long periods of time at Mt. Grimming near Tauplitz, in Styria, without uttering a word.
My first trip outside Europe took me to Teheran, Iran in March 1972. I met Ali there. As I mentioned, his family was originally from Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. He was born and grew up in Kenya. When I met him he was on his way to Lahore, in a car he had bought while studying in the United States. He wanted to share expenses on the trip so he was looking for people who would travel with him. To make a long story short, we traveled together from Teheran to Kandahar, and I had to return from there on my own because I had to get back to my job in Luxembourg. The experience of that short, two-week trip affected me so much that it was almost impossible for me to re-adjust to my workaday life in Luxembourg. I longed for the mountains and the very different kind of life I thought I had glimpsed especially in Afghanistan.

About the contrast between the Afghanistan I saw in 1972 and that of the 1980s:

I entered Afghanistan from Iran on the day after Nowruz (that is, the New Year, 21 March), which was 2. 1. 1351 in the Hejra solar calendar used there. In Saudi Arabia and most of the Islamic world the Hejra lunar calendar is used, so when I went there 9 months later it was the year 1392, because the lunar year is shorter. In 1972 I traveled only to Herat and Kandahar, and spent just five days in Afghanistan. King Mohammed Zahir was still on the throne and a lot of western hippies passed through the country on their way east to India and Nepal. Young boys followed foreigners almost everywhere in the towns to beg for some spare change. It was clear the country was poor and life was hard for most people — but it was a country at peace. I remember talking to young men in both Herat and Kandahar. You could not talk to young women in those towns; though I am told it was different in Kabul. Some of the young men I met were unhappy because they saw no future for themselves, and they hoped to be able to go to the west, perhaps because they envied the seemingly happy hippies they saw. Generally, though, I did not get the impression in 1972 that the country might be headed for serious political trouble. The atmosphere was peaceful, perhaps because people seemed resigned to their fates — I don’t know. At any rate, I liked the atmosphere of the country very much and wished I could have stayed much longer to explore and get to know it.
In the 1980s I did not visit any of the towns of Afghanistan but passed through several villages, some abandoned, mostly within 20 kilometers of the border with Pakistan. I went to the Jaji area in Paktia Province in 1984 and to different areas north and south of Asmar in Kunar Province in 1985 and 1987. At this time, of course, the country was at war — and it seemed almost as much a civil war as it was a war against foreign invaders. Naturally, the mujahideen emphasized the fact that they were fighting the Soviet infidels and those they regarded as their lackeys. But it seemed to me that there must have been substantial numbers of Afghans who welcomed some of the changes the so-called communists were making with the support of the Soviet Union. The mujahideen I was with were mostly fighting the Afghan Army. Of course, my newspaper being of a rather conservative, anti-communist orientation, I felt it would be unwise to mention this. At the time I also felt a personal solidarity with the mujahideen in their struggle against a superpower that had invaded their country. I must point out here that I had very little training as a journalist, and that in any case I had learned the trade from very conservative Americans who had a strong ideological commitment against anything socialist or communist.
I saw some of the damage done by bombing and shelling in villages, and I also saw children who had lost limbs to mines, and refugees who fled the fighting.
Overall I feel my experience and knowledge of Afghanistan is very limited, and I could by no means be regarded as an “expert,” whatever that really means. Nonetheless, as a result of my experiences there I cannot help feeling deeply concerned about the situation in that country as the state of war has continued for more than 30 years now.
To tell the truth, when I first visited that country in 1972 I knew very, very little about Afghanistan and didn’t bother to read up on it even after I got back to Luxembourg. That time I just wanted to get out of Luxembourg — badly. And seeing Afghanistan — even for such a short time — had at least taught me that there were places in the world that were really very different from my country, much more like the places I had read about in the many adventure stories that I had read. — I did not get back to Afghanistan until 12 years later — 1984 — and many things had changed in the meantime, both for me and for that country. 1984 was also the first time I visited Pakistan, and I think I sort of fell in love with at least some aspects of that country at first sight. I went to Jaji, Paktia Province, Afghanistan with mujahideen of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami Mujahideen Afghanistan group. In the western media Sayyaf’s group was known by a different name, but they emphasized to me that this was their real name. Together with a Japanese journalist friend who had lived in Pakistan for 9 years I interviewed Sayyaf himself in a tent in Jaji – I still have the transcript of that interview as it appeared in my newspaper, the weekly Middle East Times, which I had helped to found in Cyprus at the beginning of 1983.
I returned to Pakistan and Afghanistan again in 1985, and that time I also traveled to Baltistan and Hunza, as far as Passu. At that time the Karakoram Highway beyond that village was closed to foreigners. Both in 1984 and 1985 I couldn’t spend as much time on my trips as I wanted because I had to get back to my newspaper office in Cyprus, plus I was short of money – as always. I used my own cheap camera and paid most of my expenses from my pocket because the newspaper was just barely surviving financially. In August 1987, after getting married in Japan, I settled down in Islamabad — my wife stayed behind in Tokyo for the time being — in a house rented by my Japanese friend who had taken me with him on the 1984 trip to Jaji. He could not come to Kunar with me in 1985. In October 1987 I went from the Bajaur tribal area to Kunar Province, again without my Japanese friend, intending to travel into Nuristan. But after a brief battle north of Asadabad (a few mortar rounds, answered from the Soviet and Afghan Army side by many hours of bombardment with rockets, field guns and heavy mortars) the mujahideen I was with refused to let me stay in Kunar and took me back across the border.

About an example of how good the mujahideen were as fighters against the Soviets and the Afghan Army:

In the battle I witnessed in 1987 the mujahideen scored a few direct hits on an army base north of Asadabad from positions in the mountains but extensive minefields did not allow them to even get close to the treacherous Kunar River, which they would have had to cross in order to pursue their assault. There were mujahideen from at least four different and supposedly allied parties in the area but cooperation among them was very limited.
The Soviets, who at the time had several hundred well-equipped spetsnaz commandos (according to the mujahideen) stationed in three mountaintop bases above the major air base of Chagha Sarai, and their Afghan allies retaliated by firing multiple rocket launchers, «Bimsiezda», and heavy field guns and big mortars at mujahideen positions for several hours until long after the rebels stopped shooting.
It was clear that those troops in Kunar had a good idea of the exact location of the rebels’ mortar positions, their „zikuyak” – the 14.5-mm anti-aircraft machine gun nests –, their hidden shelters and even the paths they used because a number of shells missed by less than 30 meters over distances ranging between five and 15 kilometers without the aid of spotter planes, at least none observed by me or the mujahideen I was with.

About how I met Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in 1984, the man who introduced Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan and helped him to set up his first base there (I met Sayyaf two months after Bin Laden was with him):

My Japanese journalist friend, who had lived in Pakistan since 1975 and who had been to Jaji in 1983, found out in Peshawar that Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s men had taken over that area and had driven the Afghan Army out of one base there, which the mujahideen called Sarai. He is the one who organized the trip to Jaji for the two of us that time, through a man named Abdul Hannan, who had connections with different mujahideen groups. Soviet and Afghan Air Force planes had repeatedly bombed the positions of Sayyaf’s men for more than two months before we went there in late August 1984. We did not expect to meet Sayyaf himself there, but a few days after we arrived we were told that he had come and was willing to meet us in one of the tents, supplied by a Saudi relief agency, that the mujahideen had pitched in a pine forest on the slope of a hill just 2 kilometers behind the Durand Line – the border. He met us there with some of his lieutenants, and we interviewed him at considerable length. His English was very good. He spoke with confidence of overcoming the Soviets “because God is helping the mujahideen,” and of having detailed plans to establish a “pure Islamic system” of government. He also predicted that “someday you will see the power of the Soviets vanquished, and all of those poor countries now under their domination will be free — they will get their freedom as a result of the freedom of Afghanistan.”

About the importance of Jaji, Paktia Province, where Osama Bin Laden set up his first base in 1984:

Jaji is strategically important because it is located just inside Afghanistan near the point where the Pakistani border comes closest to Kabul. I described Jaji this way in my first report from there in 1984 — I shall quote this: It is a beautiful area, with many springs and brooks of sparkling and delicious water from the mountains. But many people had to leave their villages here for a dreary existence as refugees in the steaming hot lowlands of Pakistan, where there is no clean, fresh water. Hardly one of the more than a dozen villages I passed through on a 60-kilometre trek from a resistance camp just inside Afghanistan, on the way to the frontline, seemed to have escaped the bombing, rocketing, shelling and strafing by Soviet and Afghan forces – Babrak Karmal’s forces. Many houses sustained heavy damage, leaving their inhabitants without shelter for the harsh winter in these highlands.
Strategically, the Jaji area, less than 80 kilometres by air southeast of Kabul, was vital for both mujahedeen and the refugees because it is one of the main avenues for traffic between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The struggle for control of this area, therefore, was constantly intense, as the Soviets and the Babrak Karmal regime tried to prevent the Muslim fighters from bringing food, ammunition and supplies into the country.
They were facing an uphill struggle in this terrain. After September 1983, when the resistance forces overran the government base of Sarai after three months of heavy fighting, they have pushed their powerful enemy out of all of Jaji except for one base of two square kilometres in an area called Chownee. Morale at that base was by all accounts very low. Some deserters died on the way trying to flee from that base, on the minefields in the surrounding area.

About a photo I took where a guerrilla aims a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at my head:

That picture shows 6 mujahideen in a tent in Jaji in 1984. They were preparing to go on a long trek from there to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. One man in the front of the picture on the right was actually a defector from the Afghan Army, who had escaped from the Sarai base before it was captured and joined the mujahideen. The guy in the background pointing his RPG launcher at me was, of course, just trying to look funny for the photo.

About the religious conviction of the mujahideen and what role it played in their struggle:

I must say I was impressed, sometimes, by the religious fervor of some of the mujahideen – though they were by no means all like that. In 1985, some of Yunus Khalis’s men I was with in Kunar Province tried very hard to teach me some Pakhto (with „kh” as in the northern dialect) and some basics of Islam, even though they could not speak English. In 1987, also in Kunar but further south, the Yunus Khalis men there once ran for close to an hour over treacherous terrain just to get to a small mosque in time for the evening prayer. Even though I wasn’t carrying any weapons like they did I was barely able to follow them and totally exhausted when we arrived.
I felt that their religious convictions may very well have helped those men to be strong enough to face an enemy with greatly superior firepower, equipment and training. If a mujahed was seriously wounded, in most cases he was doomed, because the others could not provide medical aid. One mujahed in Kunar in 1987 stepped on a mine and bled to death because the others could not help him. I saw him only after his body was already wrapped up in a blanket. But I am sure very many mujahideen died like that after being wounded, because no one could help them. I am also sure that this is still happening today in Afghanistan to the Taliban and other insurgent forces, probably a lot more than in the 1980s because the Americans today are a much more powerful and dangerous enemy than the Soviets ever were. What is interesting in this is that the Americans themselves also generally hold quite strong religious or quasi-religious convictions, and they are clearly well aware of how important those are in keeping up the morale of their troops in the field. I have met American Army chaplains (not in Afghanistan, of course) who seemed to play a role similar to that of communist political commissars, but probably much more effectively because of the enormous potential power of religious belief. Few things can help people overcome the fear of death as much as religious belief. But at the same time few things can drive people to commit atrocities without remorse on the scale that religious conviction has done. Probably the only thing that comes close in this sense is a conviction of racial superiority like that of the Nazis.

About what I think of Sayyaf’s activities today, as a member of the Afghan parliament, etc.:

I know very little about what Sayyaf has done since I met him in 1984. I have read the Wikipedia article on him, and some other accounts that accuse him of having ordered massacres and of having helped the fake journalists who murdered Ahmadshah Massoud in 2001. But I have not heard from him or anyone connected with him, and don’t know his side of the story at all. I know that he always had good connections with the Saudis. I have grave doubts about the role that the Saudi government has played and is playing in the world, and in Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular. It seems like they are playing both ends, supporting the propagation of radical Islam on one hand while keeping strong military and economic relations with the US on the other. I can only guess that this is because they feel they need both in order to preserve the House of Saud. About whether the West should cooperate with people like Sayyaf, I don’t know. I believe the US-dominated foreign military intervention as it is now must end as soon as possible. Perhaps a peacekeeping force could be put together with the help of neighboring Islamic countries, and then a wholly new political process should take place that would include the Afghan insurgents. These are just my feelings but I don’t know anywhere near enough about the situation to be able to give any kind of advice on what can be done to bring peace and good fortune to Afghanistan.

About my memories of Pakistan:

In December of 1987 I spent two weeks in Baltistan observing the work of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, and for a number of years after that I felt that I had to return to that area to help with development programs and get a chance to hike a bit in those awesome mountains. I have since read the book Three Cups of Tea, about an American by the name of Greg Mortenson, who was in Baltistan a few years after I left and who has built many schools for both boys and girls not only in that area but also in Hunza, Afghanistan and the Pamirs – much more than I could have hoped to accomplish. That book is now my favorite.
Getting back to your initial question, yes, I do have a special attachment to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But whether it was the most special time of my life: I would have to say no. It was special and a unique set of experiences for me in some ways but it was not the most special time. I feel there were many very special experiences, mostly very different from each other and unique in some ways — but none stands out as the most special of all.
About my stays in Pakistan, in 1984, 1985 and 1987-88, I have to point out that they amounted to a combined total of barely six months, and I spent most of that time in Islamabad and Peshawar — so that was not so long. I found most people I met there quite friendly and hospitable, and I liked the atmosphere in the towns very much. I found most places I saw very beautiful because there was a lot of green all around, especially in Islamabad. I very much enjoyed walking in the Margalla hills, for example, and along Rawal Lake.
Another thing I enjoyed very much was the food. I often ate food I bought from people in the street or in cheap eateries, and almost always liked everything. The only time I ever felt sick from food was when some British people I met in Skardu, in Baltistan, gave me some British shepherd’s pie — I ate it out of politeness but hated it from the start and vomited afterwards…
Also, during my third stay of exactly five months in 1987-88 I started drinking the water in Islamabad and Peshawar straight from the tap and never had any problem. And, of course I loved seeing the big mountains in northern Pakistan, even though I didn’t get a chance to do any real hiking in them as I was always short of time and money, and not adequately equipped for that type of thing. On the negative side, apart from seeing the juxtaposition of opulence and miserable poverty and disease, which is sadly, of course, not at all unique or unusual, one of the most difficult aspects of life in Pakistan for me was what I would call the “absence” of women from street life in the countryside, and that was the same in Afghanistan. I find the presence of women extremely important and comforting. In the cities you can see women in the streets but in the countryside it seems almost like they don’t really exist or at least they are always hidden because you cannot see their faces. I don’t know of anything more beautiful than the face of a beautiful woman — though I am not and have never been a womanizer at all; it is just one of the greatest pleasures to see them. Pakistan has many really beautiful women, but you don’t see them in the countryside.
It is very hard for me to pick out one particular point that I liked most about Pakistan; I think every country has a certain “feel” to it, and I just liked the “feel” of Pakistan very much, even though I am also aware of its dark side, which I could not ignore. I have hope that the country’s problems can be overcome someday.

About what I think the most tragic outcome of 9/11 was, and whether I see a glimmer of hope for the world:

I think that the reaction of the United States to 9/11 was much worse for the world than 9/11 itself. The so-called war on terror, to me, is a war of terror. Humankind’s addiction to violence and war has worsened very much because the USA tries hard to make them look clean and neat even while inflicting great suffering and damage on other countries and wasting enormous resources that could be used instead to help resolve the problems that generate terrorism in the first place. – I do see glimmers of hope as more and more people in the United States and elsewhere are slowly coming to realize that military means cannot resolve the world’s problems. I was inspired when I saw how people around the world expressed solidarity with the American people after 9/11, but then, tragically, the feeling of empathy was lost as the US embarked on what was really a campaign of revenge. Recently, after a series of natural disasters struck various places around the world, it seemed that a new spirit of empathy and solidarity started to emerge. I only hope I am not just dreaming… 


-------------- End of interview------------------
See some of my photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erwinlux


27 August 2009

Under Fire... in Afghanistan, some time ago



Reading about the terrible battle in Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley in Hal Moore's book "We Were Soldiers Once... And Young" reminds me of my own comparatively puny experiences of coming under fire in Afghanistan 20-odd years ago. It also reminds me of the horribly realistic first half hour in the movie "Saving Private Ryan." I wonder if having bullets whizzing around your ears is more scary than artillery shells exploding nearby - which is what I experienced. I never faced small arms fire, although a volley of machine gun bullets dug up the ground in front of my feet during the civil war in Lebanon once in June 1985 -- a warning from the Lebanese Forces against my taking pictures.

In Afghanistan, on my first trip after the Soviets invaded, I was with Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in Jaji, Paktia Province in late August 1984, two months after the same Sayyaf welcomed Osama Bin Laden in the same area on his first visit to that country. Bin Laden and his men had their baptism of fire under Soviet aerial bombardment in Jaji that time (according to the excellent book "The Looming Tower" by Lawrence Wright) -- they were scared shitless, and Sayyaf and his seasoned Afghan fighters thought those guys were useless. Three years later Bin Laden would become the big Muslim war hero after a battle with Soviet commando forces in the same area.
I had my own baptism of fire - so to speak - also together with Sayyaf's men, in a forward base they called Badullah, in a small tent pitched behind a rock at the foot of a range of hills overlooking the high plain near the army garrison Sayyaf's men just named "Chownee," which apparently just means cantonment (perhaps Ali Khel, I don't know for sure - a larger army base a little further out was called Narai). Mujahideen were firing 82-mm mortars from positions just above us into Chownee, and an artillery gun, mortar crews and at least one tank fired back towards us from the garrison. Mortar bombs and artillery shells were exploding close by as I was talking -- actually shouting -- to Commander Mohammed Naim in that little tent. The mujahideen seemed unperturbed by the din and the shaking of the ground under us. They knew we were safe. I was a bit queasy but their confidence made me feel better. At one point a mujahed stepped out of the tent for a second after a mortar bomb explosion very close by and came right back, dropping a very hot piece of shrapnel in front of me. I picked it up later and kept it as a souvenir.
Another time, in a camouflaged Dashaka .50 caliber (12.7-mm) heavy machine-gun position a bit closer to Chownee I was with mujahideen who were firing into the army base, trying to hit a building where 7 Soviet advisers were staying, according to Commander Naim (based on info from defectors). I was supposed to fire that gun myself at one point but it jammed. A tank from the base fired a few rounds back at us. The first two fell short but the third one passed just above our heads - so close you could "feel" it - and blew up a tree some 50 meters to the rear. Again another time a few of us crossed a steep hillside completely exposed to fire from Chownee while mujahideen mortar crews behind a ridge just above us shelled the base. Artillery from the base fired back and blasted the rocks above us.
A year later in August 1985 I climbed over high mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border with a different group of mujahideen (Yunus Khalis) who were planning to attack the exposed Afghan army garrison of Barikot in the Kunar Valley. They fired a total of 17 rockets from a place on the river the fighters called Narei. The response took longer than I expected, indicating to me that the rockets had probably missed their target. The first mortar round from Barikot exploded in the exact location from where the rockets had been fired. You can hear them whistling if they are going to hit some distance away -- not if they come too close. Of course, there was no one left in that place. The next round came quite a bit closer to where I was -- still whistling. They were taking potshots, but they might get lucky and hit us. Another round changed direction a little bit, again, and I thought my cover behind a mud wall might not be good enough. The fourth and last round took out a chunk of the corner of a mud house about 50-60 meters from me.
In October 1987 I was in the Kunar Valley again, much further south and perhaps about 8 km or so north of the capital Asadabad and the nearby Soviet air base of Chagha Sarai. I was with Commander Ajab Khan on top of Tari Sar hill, watching as mortar bombs fired by mujahideen in the mountains to the east exploded closer and closer to a small army base called Shigal Tarna just across the fast-flowing river below. The commander used a walkie talkie to direct the crews. Finally one, two, three bombs exploded right in the middle of the base. "Allahu Akbar," resounded the cry of the mujahideen. During the whole time a heavy artillery gun inside the base had kept up a slow but steady fire into the mountains and its boom reverberated through the valleys. But now, suddenly, we "felt" something like a swishing sound in the air above us, and seconds later a hillside to the northeast was covered by plumes of smoke. "Bimsiezda," commented one mujahed. It was a Soviet  multiple rocket launcher, firing from the Asadabad area. Shortly after the second rocket salvo whizzed by we were on our way down the hill to get back to the Mujahideen caves and dugouts in the Shultan Valley closer to the Pakistani border. Just before we left the position we saw a helicopter landing in Shigal Tarna, possibly coming to pick up wounded soldiers there.
There was no more fire from the mujahideen mortar crews after this but soon the "dooshman" or "shuravi" (enemy) were firing into "our" Shultan Valley from three sides with rocket launchers, field guns and heavy mortars: Asadabad to the south, Shigal Tarna to the west and the Asmar garrison upstream to the north. I don't know if this can be called a barrage but the shelling continued for a long time until late into the night. The ground shook many times under our feet and the sound was frightening once or twice when several very heavy shells exploded close to each other not much more than 100 meters away and lit up the valley. But it seems they did not use airburst munitions because I think some of us would have been blown away. Also surprisingly, there was no air activity, and in fact I never once experienced being under aerial bombardment.
The big difference between my experiences and those of most soldiers/fighters in combat or civilians under bombardment is that neither I nor any of the mujahideen close to me was ever wounded or killed. I saw one wounded mujahed being carried by others in the mountains once, and another who had bled to death after triggering a land mine that blew off his legs -- but his body had already been wrapped up in blankets. I didn't see anyone getting hurt in battle. I think if I had I might have been just as scared as Bin Laden's men in their first experience in Jaji. So, yes, I have been under fire -- but it was nothing at all compared to what unfortunately too many other people have experienced. And it continues...
Like most if not all of those people I wish for peace.
Erwin Franzen
Some pictures from Jaji: http://unjobs.org/duty_stations/afghanistan/paktya/jaji/photos (those marked "erwinlux" are mine) 
More of my photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/erwinlux 

29 June 2009

Afghanistan and Thoughts About War & Peace -updated


Kids in Jaji, Paktia Province, Afghanistan, late August 1984 during Soviet occupation. The little girl's face and demeanor tell a moving story. (My photo - cropped)

About my trips to Afghanistan

About Afghanistan, I have visited that country 4 times - once from Iran in 1972 when the king was still there (he reigned 40 years - 1933-1973), and 3 times from Pakistan with mujahideen fighting the Soviets, in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Each time I stayed only between 4 and 6 days — because I didn’t have more time, unfortunately — so I have never even seen the capital, Kabul. The first time in March 1972 I went to Herat and Kandahar, and in 1984 I spent 6 days with A.R. Sayyaf - the man who had just introduced Osama Bin Laden to Afghanistan 2 months before I met him in Jaji, Paktia Province (and he had helped Bin Laden to set up shop there — I didn’t know Bin Laden then, of course, although I did have a connection to his country Saudi Arabia as I had made the Haj pilgrimage in 1972-73 and almost got married in Jeddah that time — long story… see “My first Journeys” below”). Then in 1985 and again in 1987 I spent a few days with other groups of mujahideen who launched rocket and mortar attacks in Kunar Province. Each time I went barely more than 10 miles into Afghanistan (on foot), but I also came under artillery fire each of the 3 times with the mujahideen (close enough to have shrapnel hit the ground a few feet from me). I wrote for the Middle East Times weekly at the time, which I had helped to found in Cyprus in early 1983.

You can see some of my Afghanistan photos from the years 1984, 85 and 87 when you click on the Afghanistan Set on my photo page: www.flickr.com/photos/erwinlux

Foreign Troops Out of Afghanistan

I think we have to stop regarding and treating groups of people different from our own as non-humans, regardless of what some of their members may have done. I was in Afghanistan a few times during the Soviet occupation, but I had also seen Afghanistan the way it was when the king was still there -- a country in relative peace for over 40 years. The radicalization caused to a large extent -- if not exclusively -- by foreign intervention is very obvious and terrible. The Afghans opposed to this foreign intervention (be it Soviet or US/NATO or whatever) face an enemy with overwhelming firepower and resources. Their situation is almost hopeless. There is enormous disruption and suffering. The result is that these fighters eagerly listen to the most radical, fanatic leaders and become virtually brainwashed, and some of them end up committing unspeakable atrocities. Foreign military intervention can only breed more of this radicalization and hatred -- and especially suffering & disaster.
ErwinF, for the Facebook group "Troops out of Afghanistan," 25 January 2009.

Can We Believe in World Peace?

From a message I wrote in December 2007 to a grandchild of the famous WWII General George S. Patton, Jr. (who is interred in the US military cemetery where I work and which also holds the graves of some 5,000 of his soldiers):
… I think the most worthy goal is to work for peace, which means first of all to help people to believe in peace — world peace, that is. Humankind has lived with war throughout the history we know, and because of that most people nowadays don’t seem to believe world peace is possible — unless a heavenly Savior comes down to earth and uses supernatural powers to establish it (by force?). Too many people think it’s naive to believe that humankind can build a peaceful world, and any effort in this direction is doomed. Your grandfather fought in the two world wars and he could surely see how the outcome of the first one led almost directly to the second one, and he also foresaw that the second one could lead to a third one. He needed war in a way - to prove himself as a soldier - but he also needed peace for his family. He did not get a chance to see the peace that has now lasted 60 years over all his battlefields in western Europe. His son, your father, followed in his footsteps in war but he also saw the peace, and he consolidated the gains made by your grandfather in southern Germany after the war by building a friendship with former enemies. Your generation of the Pattons has really grasped the value and meaning of peace, and I think there is something big there on which you can build real faith in peace — and inspire others to believe.
We cherish freedom, and the saying goes that it is not free. But does war give us freedom? Does war make us secure — even if it is a war our soldiers fight in distant places? Are those places really so distant anymore in this day and age? Can we always rely on the west’s overwhelming military superiority to ensure our freedom and safety and prosperity by taking war to other lands and keeping it away from our shores? Is that good, right, just? Can we label other people as “evil” or as “barbarians” or “rats” and then utterly destroy them, and go on to live in peace with ourselves? Hitler and his gang tried that with the Jews, for example… Luckily they were stopped and defeated before it was too late. However, ideas similar to theirs continue to proliferate in different guises and in insidious ways. We have to guard against that by promoting peace.¨
Not long ago our agency (which maintains American military cemeteries) adopted a “new” motto: Time Will Not Dim the Glory of Their Deeds — which is something Gen. Pershing said after WWI. I think WWII came to dim somewhat the “glory” of those deeds — because it showed that regardless of their own value the larger cause for which they were done (the war to end all wars) was lost. And other wars since then have dimmed the “glory” of the deeds done in WWII. But is “glory” the true message of our cemetery? Does glorification help to promote peace, freedom - all the things we cherish most?
Many American visitors to our cemetery also like to visit the (nearby) German (military) cemetery, and some of them find it drab and uninspiring compared to the beauty of ours. It is the final resting place of those who fought on the side that lost the war. But the idea behind the German cemetery is to promote peace. In all the literature of the German war graves commission (Kriegsgräberfürsorge) I find one theme that is emphasized: peace.
I wish our cemetery could also help to inspire people to believe in peace.

About War

From a message to a friend on 15 February 2007: … I am not an absolute pacifist but I do believe wars are very, very serious business and cause so much unpredictable upheaval and so much suffering that every effort should be made to avoid them. Virtually every war sows the seeds for another because there are always loose ends and problems inevitably created by the way the war is fought that ultimately lead to other wars. The unresolved problems of World War I led to World War II, and unresolved problems created or exacerbated by WWII have led to many smaller conflicts around the world that are even now still playing themselves out — and sowing seeds for further conflicts. It is too easy for people to talk about war and even to send others to fight wars when they themselves and their families face no or little danger of becoming victims of those wars. I have very little experience of war myself but I have been close enough to wars, both directly and through meeting survivors, to at least take them very seriously. I feel that far too many people in the west don’t take war seriously enough. … [this is mainly because the west, especially the United States, possesses military power that is so vastly superior to anything almost any potential foe can muster that it has no need to fear serious retaliation for any attack it decides to launch]. As far as America having been isolationist — I don’t think that is really even true; America has always intervened politically and militarily in other countries, probably more than any other nation since the decline of the European colonial empires. Yes, it has learned from the mistakes made by the European colonialists and has not behaved as badly as they did in occupying others, but it has nonetheless caused a lot of misery — and indeed killed tens or hundreds of others for every American killed in its wars. And it is far from over…

The US attack on Iraq

Adapted from an email to a friend in April 2003 - a month after the USA attacked Iraq: … I have several major problems with what I see in the beliefs and attitudes of many conservative and neoconservative Americans today. For one thing: they seem to value the lives of “Americans” (actually, most especially Americans of European or primarily European ancestry, meaning “whites”) so highly that the taking of one of them can only be avenged by the deaths of tens or even hundreds of “others.” I have met Americans and read opinions of others who seem to feel, for example, that even the firebombing of Tokyo and the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not sufficient revenge for the attack on Pearl Harbor (that and the Bataan Death March [here the few hundred American dead counted far more than the many thousands of Filipinos who died at the same time] seem to figure much more prominently in Americans’ minds than the Rape of Nanking and other Japanese atrocities in China and Korea, and elsewhere).

To many Americans, it seems, the deaths of over 55 million “others” in World War II don’t really compare in significance to those of the 400,000-odd American servicemen/women who also died at that time. Perhaps, if they could be brought to seriously think about it, their feelings would be different. I don’t know.
I am also worried that the Christian conservatives seem to be turning their America into something akin to a religion. I feel that there are grave dangers in exaggerated nationalism, especially when it is combined with a certain callous and arrogant attitude towards other nations and the will to use an awesome military machine that can kill thousands of people (even if they are labeled “terrorists” or simply called “ragheads”) in the blink of an eye without risking any serious retaliation.
You know, there have always been “really evil” people. Can you say that the thousands of Taliban or even Al Qaeda members and camp followers who were wiped out in Afghanistan or the thousands of Iraqi soldiers blown up in the latest conflict — quite apart from the civilian lives lost or destroyed — were all really evil? Of course not. So how are they to be accounted for — as expendable for the sake of the greater good? What greater good…? Who decides and based on what? This is might, not right!

Saddam Hussein and his gang can surely be called evil — but he didn’t just suddenly come to power in Iraq — nor is he the only evil one around. But one thing is for sure: whatever military capabilities he ever possessed, they were absolutely nothing compared to the power that just swept him away. The United States has by far the most potent nuclear, chemical and biological warfare capabilities in the world. Luckily for us (so far), it has a fairly good system of checks and balances that normally restrains it from any misuse of those capabilities on a massive scale. I believe everyone needs to do their best to help that system of checks and balances work as it should — and that may sometimes mean opposing the government in power or warning of the dangers one sees in certain courses of action.

*** Today, 4 years later, I have the impression that the system of checks and balances has broken down. This is much more dangerous than any threat from “terrorism.”