It was quiet on the road but my mind was ever so restless. The worried thoughts went on and on, and I kept looking out for any suspicious movements or looks from anyone. I was tense as the bus inched closer to the Torkham border. There were buildings on either side with Afghan and Pakistani flags atop them. I started to get cold feet, but there was no going back.
As the bus approached the gates, I recalled a conversation that I had had with Atta-ur-Rahman, where he was frustrated with my delays and said, “Are you Indians always this scared?” I was determined to rescue Fiza, and no, I was not scared, I said to myself.
There was a long queue of vehicles waiting to cross over. I was trying to see what was happening when I heard the sounds of young boys trying to sell something. I couldn’t understand what they were saying till I heard the words “phone” and “SIM”. I sprung up and tried to search for the voice that had said those two words. I called out to him.
Signalling the boy to get me a SIM, I asked him with hand gestures if it was pre-activated. He said “Ao, ao”, nodding to mean yes. I paid him 150 Afghans for a UFone SIM. I quickly inserted it in my Nokia phone, hoping to call Atta-ur-Rahman. But there was no signal.
This was the crucial test. I had to pass immigration. Just as I was preparing to get up and disembark, I saw the door of the bus open and the conductor give way to a man wearing all-black Pathani clothes and a black cap. At this point, my hands started shivering, so I folded my arms and looked down. I thought I would be caught and taken away.
That the immigration officials had information on me. When I moved my head up slightly to see what was happening, the officer had not moved an inch. He stood on the stairs, ran his eyes around the bus and stepped out, after giving a nod. The door closed and the conductor signalled for the bus to move through.
I had mixed feelings. How was it that easy? Wasn’t this the world’s most dangerous area? How was this possible? Heaving a sigh of relief at the same time, I thanked Allah for the countless blessings on this arduous journey. Memories of the time I had spent with my four new friends in the last couple of days flashed through my mind. The joyous drive and the laughter-filled evenings...
But suddenly I panicked and thought something had to be wrong. It could not be this simple. Did the guard recognise me and inform his seniors? Did they know? Did they have information about an illegal entrant? What would I do? I remembered Atta-ur-Rahman telling me, “Don’t be scared, Bhai, this is like an open border. There are no checks. One can walk across freely.” And then I saw the bus pass the building without stopping.
I had crossed over.
Then began a rough ride. The moment we entered Pakistan, I could see the infrastructure was in a sorry state. While we navigated through mountains with no buildings, I saw that the roads were broken in some parts and non-existent in others. A two-way drive without a divider.
Being driven around in Afghanistan was a joyride compared to this roller coaster. The mountainous ghats twitched and turned in random fashion. But the driver drove like he was doing this journey for the millionth time. And then I saw the first few officers of the Pakistan army in their fatigues. As we moved ahead, they were visible at regular intervals – in black uniforms with black caps.
Finally, the roads became a little better as we hit civilisation, but the infrastructure continued to be a total disappointment. But there were signs of life beyond the armed forces, and the bus stopped at a marketplace for refreshments. I wanted to know where we were, but for fear of being found out, I kept to myself. I didn’t step out. I just wanted to reach Peshawar.
The bus started to move again. My destination wasn’t far so I started scanning the roads for army men and cops. But in the city area, they were rare to spot, which put me a tad at ease. I suddenly thought of Ammi and her blessings before I left for Kabul. Maybe it was her hand on my head that had kept me out of harm’s way.
By now the sun was up and the weather had turned warmer as compared to Afghanistan. The air felt cool. Having entered without any problem, my nerves eased and I fell asleep, with the fresh air grazing my face. Suddenly, I woke up with a start when I heard the bus conductor shouting, “Pekhawar! Pekhawar!” The bus had come to a halt at the depot.
I got off, took out the Nokia phone from my pocket and checked for a signal. There wasn’t any. I panicked. Atta-ur-Rahman would be waiting for me. So I went to the shop nearby and asked the shopkeeper, “Bhai Sahab, is there a PCO booth here?” The man looked at me quizzically. Then I realized those things were long gone. Nobody needed to go to a calling booth in this era of mobile phones.
Some of the men there looked at me with suspicion. I knew I had made a mistake. But no one asked me my nationality.
I was directed from one place to the other till I stopped in my tracks on seeing a checkpost with seven or eight army men and four to five cops. I rushed back to the shopkeeper and quietly requested him for his mobile. “Bhai Jaan, my friend is supposed to pick me up but my mobile does not have network. Could I please borrow your phone? I will just make one call,” I said.
He gave me his mobile phone. I quickly pulled out Atta-ur-Rahman’s number from my phone and called him. He picked up. “Atta Bhai, I have reached Peshawar. I am at Haji Camp Adda. Are you coming to pick me up?” I asked.
He replied, “Welcome, Hamid Bhai. I am stuck at work, so I will not be able to come. I am sending my friend Imtiaz, who will be there shortly. He will take you to another bus stop from where he will put you in a taxi to Rawalpindi. From there, you will have to hire a taxi to come to my house in Karak.”
I was flummoxed. This was an all-new plan that I knew nothing about. Why should I be going all the way to Rawalpindi when Karak was just two or three hours from Peshawar? I was visibly disturbed and could see the shopkeeper looking at me. Since I did not want to raise suspicion, I agreed. Before hanging up, Atta said, “Hamid Bhai, Imtiaz does not know anything about you, so don’t tell him anything.”
I said, “Okay,” and cut the call.
I thanked the old shopkeeper for his kindness and offered to pay for the call but he refused to take any money. I bought a bottle of water and a few packs of biscuits. As I was walking away, the shopkeeper hollered at me and said, “Let’s give your mobile a shot.”
I ran back to him. He said, “We should try refilling cash on the SIM number using the direct mobile or easy top-up service.”
I didn’t understand exactly what he meant but nodded in agreement. He tried adding 100 rupees using his cell phone, and bingo! The top-up was successful. I now had a balance amount of 100 rupees and my SIM was activated.
I wanted to hug the old man. But I resisted and instead thanked him profusely. I then called Atta and told him that my number was active. I could be in touch with him till I reached his house in Karak. This was my chance to ask him about the change in plans.
“Atta Bhai, why do I have to go all the way to Rawalpindi? I can just take a taxi directly to Karak from here or even travel back with Imtiaz,” I asked.
Atta-ur-Rahman calmly explained, “There are too many checkposts, Hamid Bhai, from Peshawar to Karak via Kohat. The route is through a tunnel which was made by China; a few years back there was a blast in the tunnel and that’s where the army checkposts are. These checks cannot be avoided under any circumstances, and if they stop you for documents then you are bound to get caught. So the only way out is to go to Rawalpindi’s Peer Wadai Adda (bus stop) and then take a cab to Karak. That way you can avoid the tunnel and the army checkposts.”
Excerpted with permission from Hamid: The Story Of My Captivity, Survival And Freedom, Hamid Ansari with Geeta Mohan, Penguin Books.