Like many people throughout history I have been on a quest: a search for an understanding of ultimate reality. This has been the fundamental theme of my life. After a long, meandering journey I have found an explanation that satisfies me but is difficult to use as a guide in my life. Along the way I have come across some other philosophies of life and learned very much from them. One in particular served me as a guide for many years and set my life on a course which I can and will no longer change: the Divine Principle as taught by the late Korean religious leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
I no longer believe in the Divine Principle and Rev. Moon, who proclaimed himself with his wife Hak Ja Han as the “True Parents” of humankind, essentially the one and only Messiah. In fact I no longer believe even in the God postulated by the monotheistic religions. My idea of “God” is quite different, closer to the reality I perceive and understand. But I am no longer alone and free to pursue my quest wherever it may lead me. I have a family and a responsibility that I cannot and will not shirk. My family was begun by Rev. Moon and is inseparable from him and the movement he founded.
Here, then, is the story of my meanders.
New York City, Thursday, 6 March 1975. After a long flight over the icy wastes of Iceland and Labrador, this was Manhattan, a different world. It was after dark, on 42nd Street near Grand Central station, when I encountered what to me was a foreboding of Doomsday. The tall, dark buildings, the impression of decay given by the city’s famous potholes, and the steam rising here and there from pipes running under the streets reminded me of a haunting image I had in my mind of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, which I expected to occur within a few years’ time.
It was a relatively warm night for this time of the year in New York. As I walked with my backpack on my back, I noticed a young man standing on the sidewalk in front of a small blackboard, alternately drawing and gesticulating rather wildly while he gave what seemed to be a lecture at the top of his voice. The funny thing was, there was no one listening.
Another young man stood a few meters away, apparently waiting for something or somebody, but he seemed to pay no attention to the first one. I looked at the blackboard but the figures the lecturer had drawn meant nothing to me. I caught the words “Last Days” in the stream of his talk, and then something about the Bible and a “Divine Principle.”
Tired as I was after the long flight, the man’s lecture seemed too arcane for me to be able to figure out what he was talking about even though his mention of the “Last Days” had intrigued me. Also, I was hoping to catch a train to Montreal rather than having to spend the night in New York. So I asked the bystander where I could find out about trains to Canada. “Sorry mate, I can’t help you there,” he said with an accent that didn’t sound American. He turned out to be an Australian who knew little more about New York than I did.
As I walked on, down Park Avenue, then over to Fifth Avenue and back up towards 42nd Street, I saw more young people giving lectures in front of blackboards set up on the sidewalks. Some of them had an audience, others did not. They all seemed to preach the same message and draw the same figures.
One of the city’s yellowcabs stopped at the curb in front of me and two well-dressed young women got out, one black, the other oriental. Both came right up to me and introduced themselves: Barbara from Guyana and Tamie from Japan. They asked me if I needed some help. I told them I was from Luxembourg and asked where I could catch a train to Montreal. Barbara said I had to go to “Penn Station” below Madison Square Garden. She told me they would take me there but could not because they had an appointment in the building in front of which we were standing.
She explained that they had to attend an important lecture about a new revelation about God and a new understanding of the Bible, and she invited me to attend if I was interested. I said I might be interested but first I had to find out about trains to Montreal, as I was hoping to catch one that same night. Barbara gave me directions to Madison Square Garden and both girls handed me their business cards, suggesting that I call them if I needed any further help.
I walked slowly down Fifth Avenue, lost in thought. Yes, this big city really conjured up the feeling that it was doomed, and the entire civilization that created it was doomed. It would all be annihilated in the nuclear war that I saw coming within a few years’ time. That holocaust had to happen — and I actually wished for it to occur. Because I felt that something was fundamentally wrong with this civilization. More than that, something was fundamentally wrong with humankind.
In my view, the earth and in fact the entire universe was a harmonious whole, like a gigantic organism within which every part played a certain role and all parts were complementary to each other. Only man did not fit into this harmonious whole. Man was like a malignant cancer that, though originating from the whole, spread uncontrollably and destroyed other parts of the organism. Man alone was going against the purpose and design of the universe, and modern human civilization represented a cancer that had grown to such proportions that it threatened to overwhelm an entire planet. It had to be destroyed. Actually, because of its inherent contradictions, it was bound to destroy itself.
But I believed there could be, there had to be, a new beginning — because the universe had brought forth humankind and it was thus meant to exist, but it clearly had somehow gone wrong. Modern civilization would be destroyed but there would be survivors in different places. Those people would have to live in nature and start anew, but they would have to avoid the original mistake that made man go in the wrong direction.
I felt that those survivors had to become completely one with nature, one with the spirit of the whole, the essence of the universe. And they should never ask the question “why?” To me, this was the root of all the problems. We had to attune our hearts and minds to the harmonious whole of the universe without ever asking why things were the way they were and why we were what we were. Asking “why?” somehow meant that we separated ourselves mentally from the whole — and that was what caused humankind to go astray.
Our ancestors in Stone Age had made this mistake, and the survivors of the expected nuclear holocaust would have to go back to Stone Age to try again. I was on my way to Stone Age. I was planning to go to a remote area in the wilds of British Columbia and to try to live in nature on my own, ridding myself gradually of all the implements of civilization that I carried with me to help me get over the initial shock.
I felt that if I could survive like this for a year or so, then I was ready to become one of the survivors of the nuclear war to come — and perhaps even a leader of a new humankind. I was 24 years old and I believed the nuclear war would come in 1979, which was four years away. After spending at least a year in British Columbia, I wanted to make my way down to Patagonia, where I would wait for the holocaust to begin. The reason why I had chosen Patagonia was that I felt there would be less nuclear fallout over the southern hemisphere because most worth-while targets for nuclear strikes were in the north.
In front of Madison Square Garden I saw two blackboards like the ones I had encountered before. Several people were standing around either listening to two preachers who were lecturing about the Last Days or talking to others.
I watched the scene for a moment and then looked for the passage to the train station below the building. Just as I started moving toward the entrance an Oriental lady in her 30s approached me and asked if I was interested in science or religion. I said I was interested in both. She gave me a flyer and told me the people lecturing about the Last Days were speaking about a new revelation that could bring science and religion together for the sake of world peace.
The idea sounded good to me, and when she told me a little more about it I realized it must be the same revelation the Guyanese lady Barbara had mentioned a little earlier. I asked where she was from and it turned out she was Japanese, and her name was Noriko. I gave her my name and told her I had just arrived from my country Luxembourg but wanted to take a train to Montreal that evening or early next morning.
She said she hoped I could find the time to listen to a special lecture about the new revelation, which she called the Divine Principle, before I took off for Montreal. The lecture was going to be held in a building across Fifth Avenue from the New York Public Library, exactly the place where I had met Barbara and Tamie earlier.
I said I was interested but I needed to get information about trains to Montreal and to buy a ticket first. Noriko called a tall young man standing nearby and asked him if he could show me where to find what I wanted. The man introduced himself as Bill. He took me down to Penn Station, where I bought a train ticket to Montreal.
A little later Bill disappeared briefly and then returned driving a big Dodge van. Noriko and I got in and we drove to the building near the library on 5th Avenue, picking up a few other people along the way.
I don’t remember any detail but we entered a hall full of people, with a man in front who had just begun to give a lecture. From time to time he drew figures and symbols on a large board facing the crowd.
He explained about how God’s nature is reflected in everything through the dualities of internal character and external form, and positive and negative charges or male and female genders.
He said God was like a parent to us humans, whom He created in order to share his love. But, as told in the Bible, when the first humans fell away from their Parent He had to let them go their own way because He did not want to interfere with their freedom of choice. In order to win them back to His side He guided leaders He chose among them to set conditions that would ultimately prepare the way for a Messiah, a person who perfectly embodied God’s love.
This Messiah would have to find a perfect bride together with whom he would become the “True Parents” in reflection of God’s dual nature and lead humankind back to Him. The Messiah was Jesus Christ, but the people did not follow him, so he could not find a bride and had to sacrifice his life to become a spiritual guide and inspiration to the world.
Jesus’s followers the Christians then became the people through whom God worked to fulfill His providence to bring a Messiah who could become the “True Parents” of humankind. The Last Days prophesied in the Bible was the time when a new Messiah would appear with a new understanding of God’s truth, and this time was upon us. …..
I remember seeing many pictures on the walls of the man I later learned was Rev. Sun Myung Moon of Korea, the man who had discovered the Divine Principle, and I couldn’t help feeling even then that perhaps he was the one the people here believed to be the new messiah.
At the end of the lecture the speaker suggested there was much more to the Divine Principle than what he had just explained. He invited anyone interested in learning more about it to attend a weekend workshop in a beautiful place in the countryside on the Hudson River north of New York City.
Over snacks and drinks after the talk Noriko introduced me to a few of her friends who were all members of the Unification Church, the movement founded by Rev. Moon. Some of them asked me how I liked the ideas presented by the speaker, whom they named Mr. Barry. I said I thought they were quite interesting because they seemed to indicate a possibility to reconcile the Bible with modern science. Also, I liked the proposition that Jesus’ death on the cross was not God’s original plan.
When Noriko suggested I attend the workshop Barry had mentioned I told her there was a problem: I was allowed to stay in the United States only until the next day, 7th March. This was because the immigration official at J.F. Kennedy Airport who checked my papers stamped that date on the I-94 card that he stapled into my passport. He had asked me how long I was planning to stay in the US and I said I wanted to take a train to Canada either that evening or the following day.
When I showed her the form in my passport Noriko went to talk to Barry and others about it. Barry later came up to me and said my stay permit could easily be extended. He seemed quite confident about it, so I decided there was no need to worry and I could spend the next weekend in the retreat upstate on the Hudson, which he had called Barrytown.
I was told a bus would take people to Barrytown the next evening, so I thought I might have to spend that night in a hotel. Barry suggested I could stay in a house owned by the church in Manhattan, on 71st Street.
Late that evening Bill, driving his Dodge van, took Noriko, me and several other people I had met after the lecture to the house Barry had mentioned. The church members called it a “center,” and it seemed packed with mostly young people. The men and women were strictly segregated and lived on separate floors. I was taken to a large room where many men lay close to each other in sleeping bags on the floor. The ceiling lights had already been turned off, so it was fairly dark inside. I found a place in a corner with just enough space for my backpack and sleeping bag.
Early next morning we were all woken up when the lights were turned on, and we had to take turns using the bathroom and the few sinks where we could wash our faces. I talked to some of the men there, and when they found out I was not a member of the church they were surprised I had been allowed to spend the night there with them.
Noriko came to our men’s floor a little later to pick me up for a sightseeing tour of Manhattan. We had lunch in a Japanese restaurant that day and visited Central Park, the Empire State Building and a few other places around town. ….
The following is excerpted and adapted from an entry in my diary for 4 July 2010:
… I have connected with many mostly American church members [= the Unification Church / Movement founded by the late Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon] on Facebook. Some are old colleagues from my time in the USA (1975-1982).
It is almost frightening to see how fanatic and narrow-minded most of them are [in a political sense only; I know the vast majority are really good people in other ways] — from my point of view. When I was in the US, especially during the time (end-1976-1982) I was with the News World (New York daily newspaper launched by members of that church/movement — a forerunner of the Washington Times) and Free Press International, we had the feeling that we were in a war against communism. It was an intense ideological conflict from our point of view, whose seriousness and dangers most people outside our political community within the church failed to understand/appreciate.
We needed allies, like-minded people who were also movers and shakers in the political world of the USA, and in other countries, too. The USA was — to us — by far the most important country in the world, and we had to save her from the decadence and depravity that the leftists and communists propagated and encouraged in order to weaken and finally conquer her. America had to become the world’s greatest power by being both morally superior and much better armed and motivated — politically and militarily — than any potential foe or group of foes.
And there were always foes: evil empires (Reagan was our hero as president — even though Moon was jailed for a year and a half on his watch, for tax evasion), terrorists, etc. There was a sense of moral superiority, but our morality did not extend to the point where we would have disapproved of mass murder as long as those murdered were — or could be labeled as — communists or leftists. It was thus quite alright for the US to have bombed Vietnam with napalm and Agent Orange or for Argentine, Chilean and Colombian generals to massacre thousands of suspected leftists and sympathizers. It was fine for death squads to torture and murder thousands in places like Colombia, Brazil or El Salvador — and many others — as long as the death squads could be somehow labeled pro-USA (mostly meaning fascist/oligarchist) and their victims leftist.
I was never enthusiastic about this but mostly played along, because, after all, I believed in Moon, his church, his mission and the importance of the USA in fulfilling this mission.
Today, of course, I stand more or less at 180 degrees to all that.
I feel the church has played a very nefarious political role in the USA by going to bed with narrow-minded, fanatic nationalist, elitist/oligarchic and militaristic politicians, and doing its utmost to promote causes such as those of the worst fascists. The idea from the church’s and also Moon’s point of view — of course — was always that those were people who were on God’s side in the larger scheme of things. They were people who had power, who could perhaps be won over to completely support the work of Moon — the Messiah — and ultimately turn the whole country around so that Moon would be recognized for who he really was. The USA would become — so the American members (we) hoped — the first country to officially recognize and follow the “king of kings.”
Today, I see on Facebook and elsewhere that American members seem not to have changed at all — not to have learned anything new at all. They are still fighting an intense ideological fight against the political “left” [and socialism / communism] and the Islamic (primarily) “terrorists” [real and imagined] — and they still believe the USA is not armed well enough — both ideologically/morally and militarily — to fight its enemies.
What I don’t understand is how powerful this — to me, mythical, but to them very real — Satan and his legions still are. I thought Moon had conquered and subdued him [according to his own words], and Moon’s sons in spirit world were completely turning that realm upside down. How come, then, that this so-called Satan and his minions still have so much power that the world continues to be the mess it is — and spirit world seems in no better shape?
I have my own answer, of course, and I don’t believe in a spirit world as the Moonies describe it at all. To me, God has created and always played both sides, and we humans are very much part of both sides — “good” and “evil,” just as we are part of God [in essence I believe we humans, collectively, are a spearhead of God’s own evolving consciousness, which grows through us — although as individuals we are just temporary existences and will dissolve back into the whole when our bodies die].
The so-called “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” in the Bible — that very name says it all: to God, originally, there was no good or evil, there was no moral sense. God himself or rather itself (to take away the gender) only “discovered” a sense of “good” and “evil” through us humans. He/she/it “discovered” how useful (from its own larger perspective) and — yes — exciting it could be to divide us between “good” and “evil.”
MORE BELOW THE PICTURES
The News World in December 1977
Our Spanish sister newspaper launched in 1980 – Noticias Del Mundo
ON ETERNAL LIFE, GOD, REV. MOON AND THE USA FROM MY 2011 DIARY:
Diary entry Monday 7 March 2011: Yesterday 6 March was the 36th anniversary of my first journey to the USA, which lasted 4 years and 4 months (52 months) and became the start of a new life for me in many ways.
Also, last month (11 February) I turned 60 years old.
Today I ask myself: Do I want to live/exist forever? I have pondered this question before, of course. The answer in recent years has always been: No. … And today it is not only no but hell, no!
I do not want to live forever.
Diary entry Sunday 15 May 2011:
Following up on what I wrote in my last entry: No, I don’t want to live/exist forever. I feel it is perfectly normal for all of us humans and everything else in this Universe to exist only for a certain period of time. We continue to exist only indirectly, through others we have touched in our lives and in the universal memory – God – which is borne by all that exists
In the last year or so I have felt that the end of my life on earth is approaching fast. It could be just an illusion like the many illusions I have felt in the past. But I don’t or can’t, somehow, feel that I still have a long life ahead of me. Another possibility is that a major chapter of my life is about to end and that there are dramatic changes afoot. – I don’t know.
— Certainly, the world as a whole needs some dramatic changes. — I feel that the nation which has long epitomized and driven change for the better, dreams of happiness, freedom, scientific/technological progress and many other things — the USA (my second homeland after Luxembourg) — has been going down a dangerous slippery slope of self-aggrandizement and self-glorification at the expense of others. It has built up awesome military forces and a powerful global intelligence and surveillance apparatus that have become — in my view — the greatest single threat to peace and freedom in the world.
Power always corrupts, because God itself, the ultimate power, is corrupt — in a way, since it has deceived us (-see my earlier diary entries on God, especially “The biggest lie” dated 11 July 2010 — open and scroll down here: On how my view of God has evolved ). Unchecked power is and has always been the most dangerous and nefarious thing. Of course, there is no absolute, totally unchecked power. Even God has limits — because he/it definitely has no existence outside or beyond this Universe (I don’t believe in “multiverses”).
But the greater the power of one (or more) over others in this world the greater the danger of misuse. This is what I feel the USA has been doing. It has taken 9/11 (the 11 Sep. 2001 tragedy blamed on “terrorists” that cost the lives of nearly 3,000 people when the World Trade Center’s “Twin Towers” in New York City collapsed) and the emotions unleashed in response to it as an opportunity to impose its military power on the world, doing its best to scare everyone into submission and killing, wounding and torturing hundreds of thousands of people in the name of fighting a “terrible” enemy it calls “terrorism.” No, this fight is not against terrorism, it is terrorism – by the USA, against anyone who opposes it or refuses to kowtow, to submit.
I also believe that Rev. Moon’s Washington Times and his other media outlets, as well as most of his other endeavors in the political arena, have contributed significantly to this state of affairs in the USA. He claims to be for peace but the results of his actions and speeches on the political level have helped to push the USA further down the dangerous slippery slope I mentioned, towards self-aggrandizement at the expense of others. In a way it is not surprising — because even though Rev. Moon makes an effort to sound humble from time to time, most of what he says and does is for the glorification of the invisible, intangible God, which ultimately reflects back only on himself and his family. It’s self-glorification, self-aggrandizement.
But he has been very mealy-mouthed when it comes to denouncing the massive crimes being committed by the USA and its “allies” in their so-called fight against “terrorism.” He has made mild statements calling for peace and said with reference to the fighting in Iraq (after the 2003 US invasion that triggered a virtual civil war) that this “savagery” needed to stop. Most American members clearly saw this as a call for the end of suicide bombings, primarily, that caused many civilian deaths — not for an end to US military operations there that snuffed out or destroyed the lives of many more people if you count the ones conveniently labeled “terrorists.”
Of course, Moon knows on which side his bread is buttered. He depends very much on the war-mongering neo-conservatives and other jingoists in the USA to keep his fame, his power and his family’s wealth. His American followers nearly all belong to that ilk, and the most important people who helped him to advance his cause are of that stripe.
I know (or rather I feel I know) that God has been supporting this, supporting the USA and Moon, because he always supports the powerful — at least until such time as he tires of his favorites and chooses others — because perhaps the only certainty in this world — God’s world and our world — is change. God changes, evolves, as he learns. Yes, I believe God learns, and he learns through us – through all beings at the highest levels of consciousness/intelligence. …..
1973-01-04 Mecca and the nearby tent city of Mina (stayed there 2 weeks +). The bottom right photo actually shows Jebel Arafat, a few kilometers past Mina, the site of a high point during the pilgrimage.
(Stub of main portion of my Oct. 1979 trans-Siberian ticket – Moscow to Khabarovsk; 8,531 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. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post under the links to “Photos:” for more on my impression of Soviet Russia during that 9-day journey across the vast land).
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 Baikal 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).
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.
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 Baikal steamed at full speed towards Yokohama Bay, which we finally entered around 6 a.m. on the morning of the 20th. The Baikal’s nice sunroof aft on deck was almost completely chewed up, as if a giant had bitten off pieces of it.
A Japanese coastguard or customs boat pulled up alongside and officers came on board the Baikal 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…
(This is how I remember the trip, 35 years later — it’s a little blurry now)
About photographs, or lack thereof ….
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.
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.
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…..
Here are links to my posts on my travels, and to some of my photo albums:
My postcard home from Moscow, sent 8 October 1979. Stamp removed.
From an email to a friend:
About my first trip to Japan, I was not pressed for time and thought it would be more interesting to go by train and boat (rather than flying). Also, I wanted to see with my own eyes what the Soviet Union looked like. At the time, in New York, I worked for a Moonie(=followers of the late Korean Christian sect leader Sun Myung Moon) anti-communist newspaper where all of us regarded the USSR as the big enemy, the ‘evil empire.’ I was on my way via Japan to Bangkok/Thailand, where I wanted to work as correspondent for that newspaper.
At the time also, the leader of our religious movement Sun Myung Moon himself kept saying he wanted to go to Moscow to hold a ‘freedom rally’ in Red Square, and all of us Moonies were supposed to prepare for that (it meant the liberation of the USSR). I was quite skeptical of his chances of doing that but I wanted to get my own impression of the country first.
Well, on the train in West Germany headed for Moscow I met a man who was a Communist Party official from Tselinograd, Khazakh SSR. He spoke German and we talked quite a bit all the way to Moscow, which took 2 days. Later, I corresponded with him for a number of years until his wife wrote back to me one day in 1990 that he had died.
I was surprised to find that the undercarriage of the whole train had to be changed at Brest on the Polish-Soviet border, a process that took a couple of hours. It was, of course, because the rail gauge is different – wider – on the Soviet side.
I thought, well, if the Soviets launched a major offensive against western Europe, as us anti-communists feared, they would face a problem bringing enough supplies from the hinterland to their troops on the front line if every train from their country was held up at Brest and other places like that. They would represent bottlenecks. Road and air transport wouldn’t be enough for the logistical job required. Also, those places would make valuable targets for air strikes from the west.
I didn’t see how the wheels were changed because a Soviet border guard took me off the train when he found a book (supposedly) of Khrushchev’s memoirs in English in my luggage. I was kept waiting for awhile in an office at the border and was asked to sign a paper agreeing that I could not take that book into the USSR and in effect allowing them to confiscate it. They asked a few questions but were generally polite. I actually had a lot of other stuff in my luggage that I had reason to be more worried about than that book, but they didn’t check very thoroughly at all.
In Moscow I once walked into a sort of cafeteria for local workers, listened closely to how the other customers ordered bread, sausage and beer in Russian, and ordered the same in Russian (at the time I still ate meat). I didn’t feel that anybody noticed I was a foreigner.
The country looked poor and generally quite shabby to me, not at all like a great superpower. There were other incidents during the trip and especially in Khabarovsk where I did things normally forbidden but nothing happened and I didn’t have the impression that I was being watched very closely. Near Novosibirsk I saw roughly 3 dozen armored personnel carriers on a train in a shunting [rail] yard, and when I heard a few months later in Bangkok that the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan I thought those vehicles I had seen in Siberia might have belonged to a contingent getting ready to move down to Uzbekistan in preparation for the invasion.
A few years later, of course, I would come under artillery, mortar, tank and rocket fire from some of those Soviet forces and their Afghan allies in Afghanistan myself – and see a lot of destroyed Soviet APCs, tanks, field guns, etc. – and also many dud bombs lying around (yes, many failed to explode, probably because of the negligence [or even deliberate sabotage] of disgruntled workers in Soviet munitions and other factories, producing mostly shoddy goods).
Really, no, to me the Soviet Union didn’t look like a big military power threatening the west, though it took some time for that realization to sink in.
Already at the end of 1976 in New York I had read the book La Chute Finale by the French demographer Emmanuel Todd, predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union as a result of worsening economic problems, discrepancies between
the Russian heartland and the vassal states, etc. – and I had written a commentary about it (under a pseudonym) that appeared in our paper The News World in early 1977. (I still have a clipping of that commentary, one of the first pieces I wrote that appeared in print).
By Erwin Franzen correspondent (for the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus in the 1980s.)
( My editor insisted that I use a somewhat impersonal style in this article and did not allow me to write it up as a personal experience, which, of course, it was. I wrote this after returning to Islamabad from a two-week trip to Baltistan in January 1988. This is the unedited version)
ISLAMABAD — In the winter, when the weather is bad in the mountains, taking a bus on Pakistan’s perilous Karakoram Highway (KKH) can be every bit as exciting as a game of Russian Roulette.
There is nothing like a rough ride of four and a half hours on the back of a four—wheel-drive pickup truck on a bitterly cold winter morning for the traveller to appreciate the awe-inspiring grandeur and desolation of the Karakoram mountain range, which contains the greatest concentration of high peaks anywhere and is regarded by geologists as one of the most unstable but also most fascinating features on the earth’s surface.
Along the 100-kilometre dirt road through the wild gorges of the Shyok and Indus rivers from Khaplu to Skardu in Baltistan one cannot help feeling that the enormous bleak rock faces, the jagged, snow-covered peaks poking into the clouds, the eerily frozen waterfalls, the huge boulders strewn all around and the vast scree slopes must belong to some distant uninhabitable planet but not to this earth. All of this spells danger. Under a gloomy, leaden sky, with the sun’s rays unable to break through thick clouds that hide the high mountain tops, there appears to be a veiled threat of i mpending disaster.
From Skardu, a small town in a wide, sand-covered valley at 2,300 metres, the road continues along the Indus River through dangerous gorges for about 500 kilometres before turning east away from the river on its way to Rawalpindi. If one travels on a public bus, this trip on the KKH has to be made in two stages. It involves a seven-hour journey from Skardu to Gilgit followed by a gruelling sixteen-hour trip to Rawalpindi on a different bus.
For four days from the end of 1987 until the first day of 1988 heavy clouds hung above Skardu Valley and hid the many 5,000-metre mountain peaks surrounding it on all sides. As the small airport in the valley had no radar, all flights were cancelled. The sky looked as though there was worse weather to come, so it seemed that there was no choice but to court disaster and take the bus.
Everyone in the packed, gaily-painted bus appeared to be in good mood when the journey began on the first day of the new year. The gloomy atmosphere outside did not affect the passengers for a long time as the bus sped on the asphalt road to the western end of the valley, then moved slowly over a narrow suspension bridge across the Indus and entered the gorge.
Compared with the bleakness of the grey, brown and black tones of the massive rock formations on its sides, the river was a pleasant sparkling green colour — almost inviting save for the fact that it was at times separated from the road by several hundred metres of sheer cliffs.
For most of the way the road appeared in good condition except for only one or two spots where part of its foundation had collapsed and plunged down the precipice into the Indus far below, leaving a gaping hole. The driver was quite agile and avoided such death traps easily. At least two small bridges spanning gaping chasms above raging tributaries of the Indus appeared rather dilapidated. The driver accelerated, apparently anxious to cross the bridges before they collapsed.
Some eighty kilometres before Gilgit a number of boulders the size of large cars had broken off from a gigantic rock formation that hung threateningly above the road. The road was hopelessly blocked. A maintenance crew was already at work preparing the area for blasting.
A little farther west, high above the road on a steep scree slope that seemed to stretch endlessly into the sky, two local shepherds herded their sheep and goats down as quickly as they could. The workers had signalled to them to come down because the blasting might make the scree come alive and cause a huge landslide. The shepherds wore roughly cut pieces of goatskin wrapped around their feet and ankles in lieu of shoes. They could perfectly well have fit into a Stone Age setting, with nothing on their bodies to show that they lived in the 20th century.
Luckily for the travellers, the three heavy blasts that were required to break up the boulders did not bring down any more rocks although cracks appeared in some huge slabs that hung precariously above the road. A lone bulldozer took more than two hours to push the debris over the edge into the Indus. Darkness fell soon after the road was cleared.
The bulldozer then headed west on the narrow road at a snail’s pace, and the bus driver had no choice but to follow at the same speed for some time. The driver quickly became irritated. He tried to pass the bulldozer several times but there was not enough space.
A military officer ran up on the road from behind the bus and knocked on the driver’s side window. The two exchanged some angry words. The driver had been ordered to pull the bus up to the edge of the precipice to allow a military truck to pass. He did so but complained bitterly. Then the officer also ordered the bulldozer to get out of the way at the next spot where this was possible.
The military truck sped on ahead, followed quickly by the bus, whose driver appeared very angry and nervous all of a sudden. He was determined to pass the military truck, which was already moving quite fast on this perilous road with rock walls or scree slopes to the right and a gaping black chasm to the left where in many places parts of the asphalt had broken off and plunged down into the gorge. The bus driver used his ear-shattering horn and flashed his lights wildly to drive his message home to the soldiers.
Finally, they let him pass. But they stayed close behind and flashed their lights as well, irritating the bus driver even more. His antics behind the steering wheel became increasingly wild and on several occasions the bus very nearly went over the edge of the cliff. Two passengers sitting in the front abreast of the driver angrily warned him to slow down. Others anxiously mumbled prayers. The angry warnings seemed to madden the driver even more, and some other passengers urged everyone to calm down. The atmosphere in the bus became increasingly tense, laden with a strange mixture of anger and naked fear.
Suddenly, there was another bus in front and the angry driver of the first bus flashed his lights to signal that he wanted to pass. The bus in front slowed down but stayed in the middle of the road for some time. When it finally allowed the first bus to pass its driver was fuming. To make matters still worse, the other bus also stayed close behind and flashed its lights. Many passengers on the first bus were terrified but no one dared to approach the driver for fear of distracting him in this extremely dangerous situation.
After what appeared to be an eternity, the valley widened and the bus stopped at a petrol station. When the bus left the station after refuelling, a teenage boy sat down on an improvised seat next to the driver and this seemed to calm the man down. Later, he let the boy drive the rest of the way to Gilgit. Although the boy’s driving was somewhat unsteady from lack of experience, the passengers were relieved that the bus was now moving more slowly and carefully.
Next morning, another bus with a few foreigners among the many passengers left Gilgit on the long journey to Rawalpindi. The driver was a man of about 50, clearly very experienced and skilful. But on this trip the road was in very bad condition — and the weather turned worse.
There were scores of spots on the way where rocks of all sizes had fallen from above and very nearly blocked the road. Often the space left between the bigger boulders and the edge of the precipice was just barely wide enough to allow the bus to pass.
Again and again, the bus lurched sideways as it moved slowly over very uneven terrain past big boulders. Some terrified passengers, who saw the gaping abyss come up from below their windows as the heavy vehicle seemed close to the point of rolling over, leaned into the aisle and looked the other way.
At one point, some rocks rolled away from under the wheels of the bus at the edge of the broken road and the driver had to quickly steer the vehicle towards a big pile of boulders away from the precipice. The boulders tore into the side of the bus, causing minor damage, but passengers later congratulated the driver on his presence of mind.
After a seemingly endless series of similar incidents, the passengers felt relieved when the bus crossed a bridge on the Indus, hoping that the worst was over. But then, shortly before dark, it began to rain.
Water is both a boon and a bane in the mountains. Local villagers need it for drinking, cooking, washing and irrigation but it also inevitably brings down boulders and mud, and it causes the landslides that so often obstruct the KKH.
The bus drove on into the night on the wet road, dodging many more fresh rockfalls. In one area, the going was slow over a stretch of at least 20 kilometres where many landslides had completely blocked the KKH for over two weeks in October. The road was still badly scarred and the piles of debris on one side did not allow two vehicles to pass each other along most of this stretch.
After the bus finally crossed the last bridge over the Indus and headed out of the gorge, the driver stepped on the accelerator. As the road was still dangerous, some passengers became concerned that the bus was moving too fast. An Australian woman expressed her worries to a Pakistani passenger who translated for the driver.
After more than 12 hours on the KKH the driver was clearly becoming tired and it seemed that he was accelerating because he was afraid to fall asleep. There were a few more hair-raising moments when the driver nearly seemed to lose control of the bus in dangerous curves. But he finally stopped and allowed a younger colleague to drive the rest of the way to Rawalpindi.
It is by braving such a danger-filled winter journey on the KKH that one can learn to appreciate the remarkable feat that the building of this road represented. One can also easily understand how the KKH claimed at least 500 lives during the 20-odd years of its construction and many hundreds more in the last eight years since it was opened.
KKH Gilgit-Skardu road, August 1985 – taken on my first trip on this highway.
With Yunus Khalis mujahideeen on bridge near Bargam north of Asmar, Kunar, August 1985 (4th from left).
Recently (2010) I was interviewed about my experiences in 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. [See: My 1987 trip into Kunar Province ]
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):
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf -left- Jaji Paktia Afghanistan late August 1984
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:
The guy on right is aiming a bazooka at my head -Jaji Paktia Afghanistan 1984
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…
Passu Cathedral peaks above Hunza Valley late August 1985
More about my pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina 1972-73:
There are many incidents I still remember but didn’t mention in my brief report on our Haj. People died during the Tawaf around the Kaaba and in Mina, and also during the prayers in Medina, etc. Usually their bodies were carried away on stretchers and an extra “Allahu Akbar” was recited by the Imams when they became aware of a death. I heard it was beneficial to help carry the dead for at least a few steps along the way, and I did so a few times. They were always covered, so I couldn’t see their faces. I estimate a few dozen people died when I was present. When I walked among the many thousands of tents in Mina my feet sometimes hit something hard sticking out of the gound. It was bones buried in the sand. I imagine they were the bones of animals slaughtered for the sacrifice during the Haj every year over the centuries. I was supposed to slaughter a sheep, too, like everybody else. But my friends and I paid a butcher to do it for us. I think by far most other pilgrims did the same. We ate only a very small portion of the meat. I don’t know what happened to the rest but I learned later that Saudi Arabia sent meat to some African countries for the poor there. There was a place near Mina where I saw huge piles of bones of freshly slaughtered animals. We used to get water every morning from a tap on a pipe that stuck out of the sand not far from our tent. I think Mina was divided into sections, and each of them had their own tap. The water came through the pipes under the sand from large concrete reservoirs some distance away. One morning as I went to join the line of people waiting to get water from the tap, I heard someone at the front shouting “Maafi moya!” There was no water. The cry multiplied and soon many people were very angry. There was quite a commotion. Our toilet was a hole in the sand inside a tiny round tent, and there was always a jug of water for cleaning. I don’t know if anyone ever used toilet paper there but I don’t remember seeing any. The morning when there was no water I remember hiding under an old bridge at some point to take a dump. There was, of course, no water anywhere. All I had was sand… Some years during the Haj many people caught diseases such as cholera, and I am not surprised. My friends and I were involved in two very brief fistfights with other pilgrims before people pulled us apart. One happened in Mina during the stoning of the shaytans, the three pillars that represent petrified devils. See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoning_of_the_Devil (much has changed in the last nearly 50 years since I was there) Some people worked themselves into a frenzy throwing pebbles collected earlier from a place called Muzdalifah, and after some time the pillars were buried under large mounds of stones. I saw many sandals on the piles, too. Sometimes stones would fly over the mounds and land on the massing crowds on the other side. Also, people stood so close to each other that it was difficult to avoid hitting someone with one’s arm or elbow when throwing the stones. This is how the fight started, and I am sure there were many others like that, although I think there were always people with cooler heads who quickly restrained the fighters. Another short fight happened over parking space for our van in the plain of Arafat on the last day of Haj, where we got into an argument with some other pilgrims and a few fists flew before everybody calmed down. When we were on our way from Mecca via Taif towards Riyadh we stopped in the desert at a place near the road where we saw a water pipe and tap. Fakhar’s wife proceeded to wash some of her children’s clothes (their 3 boys were about 3, 2 and 1) [Fakhar, since deceased, was “Ali”‘s brother; “Ali” actually went by the name Taffy, based on his real given name Iltaf]. Suddenly a group of Bedouins with some donkeys and alarge herd of goats came over a rise nearby. An older man with a long gray beard immediately walked up to the woman and pushed her roughly to the ground. Fakhar saw this and jumped him. Next thing we knew the two of them were rolling on the ground, fighting. I saw that some of the other men had their hands on knives they carried with them, and I took out a big Bowie knife from my backpack in our van, just in case …. Taffy quickly moved to pull his brother away from the fight. We had to apologize and let the men and their animals take over. I don’t think we could have survived if the fight had escalated.
The morning after… this is the tent at Badullah where we were under mortar bombardment; my baptism of fire, sort of…
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. 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 multpile 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
Rockets ready to hit Barikot garrison -Kunar Afghanistan August 1985
General Patton’s grave deeply buried in snow -Luxembourg Dec 2010
My message about peace in answer to a question from a family member of General George S. Patton, Jr., the World War II US Third Army commander who rests among over 5,000 of his troops in my workplace, the Luxembourg American Cemetery:
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 hunmankind 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” (or “terrorists” or “enemy combatants”) 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, ABMC, 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 German 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.
Luxembourg American Cemetery -summer 2007
My view of the 2003 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.”
On how my political views changed twice, and how I spent 3 days in prison — in Czechoslovakia
From an email to a friend at the University of Illinois:
… Before I came to the US and met the church (= ‘Rev.’ Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, which I joined in New York in March 1975) I had been politically left-leaning, strongly anti-Vietnam War, and I actually believed the US would start the nuclear war I expected. The church in the US turned me into a pro-American anti-communist.
After joining The News World (a NYC daily founded by Unification Church members) I started reading other newspapers such as The New York Times, which we thought were dominated by liberals and leftists. What I read in those papers challenged both my intellect and my acquired sense of morality because it made me feel increasingly uncomfortable with the church and our paper’s position against what was derisively called “secular humanism.” Jimmy Carter and his people were always talking about human rights but our church did not seem to agree with this, and we embraced Latin American fascist dictators just because they were anti-communist.
I felt increasingly alienated by a lot of other things as well, but looking back now I find it amazing that I stayed in the church and continued to believe in the Divine Principle and Moon (Sun Myung) for so long. It’s good to see that it took you and many others like you much less time to decide to leave.
Most of my time on The News World I was an assistant editor in the international news department, mostly combining and rewriting wire dispatches and reports from our own foreign correspondents (almost all of them church missionaries). I also wrote a number of articles under the pseudonym Aaron Stevenson, which Carol L. of the Opinion/Commentary department had chosen because my first published pieces were commentaries. Our first publisher was actually Dennis O.. Mike W. came a little later. If you worked in circulation you must have known Joachim B. and Nick B..
The only time I used my real name in the paper was when I worked in Washington D.C. with Josette S. in 1979. In New York we were worried about the INS people coming to check whether we employed illegal aliens — and of course I myself was one and there were quite a few others — but there was no such concern in D.C. I received many reports from the Pentagon over the years 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 ones 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 (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).
.. And yes, you are right about the Unification Church mindset. Some of my old colleagues on the UC newspapers are still out there fighting the big enemy we fought in the 1970s, only now it is called “terrorism” instead of communism.
Commander Ajab Khan test-fires a 14.5-mm Zikuyak in Shultan Valley, Kunar – Oct. 1987
It’s been over 20 years since I wrote this story. The writing is a bit awkward because I was under strict orders from my editor to avoid penning it as an account of a personal experience, which of course it was. — It was my 4th and last visit to Afghanistan since 1972, the 3rd one since the Soviets invaded that country at the end of 1979. — I have inserted some text in italics and square brackets for explanation.
One of the people mentioned, the one-eyed Italian would-be mercenary Eugenio, was an interesting character whom I met in a dingy, cheap “hippie” hotel in a dark corner of Peshawar. He had a glass eye, which he took out to clean from time to time. He said he’d lost his eye to a stray bullet somewhere in Europe. He had spent 2 months in Logar, Afghanistan the previous year with mujaheddin attacking convoys on the main road from the south to Kabul, and, like the French guy Jacques, he wanted to get into some more action this time.
I was shocked when Eugenio showed me a picture of two beautiful baby boys and told me those were his sons back in Rome. He gave me the address of his girlfriend, their mother, in Rome and told me to contact her in case he didn’t make it out alive….
asadab.DO [For information: This was originally written on a small NEC PC-8201 laptop with less than 32 kilobytes of usable RAM. This is scanned from a printout of the original, unedited version that I typed up in Peshawar]
ASADABAD — KUNAR PROVINCE (18-22 October 1987 — written on 1 November) [1987 in Peshawar, Pakistan] [from my article in the Middle East Times weekly, based in Cyprus — now long defunct]
TARI SAR PLATEAU, Afghanistan — Mujaheddin commander Ajab Khan, a short, wiry man with a vaguely bird-like quality in his movements and speech, is perched precariously on a rocky outcrop. In rapid Pakhtu, he is speaking into the microphone of a red plastic walkie-talkie. Next to him, Pazlimalek, a tall, seasoned fighter at 25 with a thick beard, leans on a flat rock and peers through binoculars into the Kunar Valley far below.
Seconds earlier, the heavy blast of the driving charge of an 82-millimetre mortar reverberated through the rugged mountains and valleys to the east of the fast-flowing, slate-grey Kunar River. Then a small cloud rose from some low hills across the river, just above Shigal Tarna, a garrison of a few hundred government troops.
“Down five millièmes,” suggests Pazlimalek, and the commander repeats the message into his microphone. The next mortar bomb, fired by one of two mujaheddin positions in the mountains near the border with Pakistan, explodes on the road that leads to the base of the Soviet-backed dushman, the enemy. The second mortar also places a bomb close to the road.
“Allahu Akbar — God is great,” shouts the commander. Pazlimalek suggests a further slight shift in the aim of the mortars. Soon, the cries of “Allahu Akbar” multiply as, one after another, three clouds of smoke from mujaheddin mortar bombs rise in the middle of Shigal Tarna itself.
Later, the mujaheddin fire a few 107-millimetre rockets from a single, man-portable tube — the Bimyak — and, following some adjustments in the aim of the weapon, rejoice when two of the missiles hit a large house in a village by the Shigal River upstream from the army base. People in the village, the families of pro-government militiamen from other regions who were resettled there to occupy houses left behind by refugees, can be seen running for cover.
Throughout the firing by the mujaheddin, the heavy thump of a large-calibre artillery gun can be heard from the government base, followed by the explosions of its shells in the mountains to the east. The gun, well hidden under earthworks in Shigal Tarna, fires roughly one shell a minute.
On a different frequency than that used by the mujaheddin, the radio crackles with the excited voice of the commander of Shigal Tarna base. Later, another voice speaks in rapid Russian.
Suddenly, the air above Tari Sar Plateau is filled with a sort of swishing sound that is followed within seconds by a series of powerful explosions. Flashes can be seen on a mountainside across the lower Shultan Valley, and soon clouds of smoke cast shadows over the pine-covered slopes.
“Asadabad, Bimsiezda,” Pazlimalek tells three foreigners who watch the spectacle from the vantage position on Tari Sar. Bimsiezda is the Afghans’ term for one of several modern versions of the famous Stalin Organ multiple rocket launcher that was dreaded by invading German soldiers on the Soviet front in World War II. Asadabad is the capital of Kunar Province and the site of Chagha Sarai military base, roughly 10 kilometres to the south of Tari Sar Plateau and about twice that distance from the Pakistani border.
[I had brought two other Europeans with me to this place in Afghanistan: Eugenio, a one-eyed Italian adventurer and Jacques, a French ex-Foreign Legionnaire. I ran into them separately in Peshawar after each of them had tried in vain for weeks to find a mujaheddin group that would take them across the border. I then took them to my contact Engineer Es Haq in University Town, who arranged the trip for us after they presented themselves as journalists like me – which they were not.]
High above Asadabad, on two mountain plateaux to the east and one to the west of the Kunar River, Soviet Spetsnaz commandos have established small permanent bases that are regularly supplied from the valley by helicopters, mostly at night. Four helicopters were parked on the tarmac of an airfield at Asadabad when the fighting around Shigal Tarna began.
Pazlimalek claimed that each of the three mountain bases, Soder Sar, Mechellay Sar and Shahbazay Sar, housed about 300 Soviet commandos. According to Ajab Khan, the Spetsnaz have a Bimsiezda on Soder Sar, only a few kilometres to the south of Tari Sar mountain and clearly visible from the highest peak above this plateau. [I believe I must have misunderstood this at the time; the Bimsiezda must have been in the valley, not on the mountaintop. Also, surely, the number of Spetsnaz forces in those locations could not have been as high as the mujaheddin claimed]
The mujaheddin count 13 rockets in the first salvo. A second salvo blasts the same mountainside across the valley with nine rockets but all fail to hit the mujaheddin mortar and Bimyak positions.
Commander Ajab Khan was well aware that the Soviets, together with the Afghan government forces, could lay a heavy rocket and artillery barrage over the entire area under his men’s control, including Tari Sar mountain. They could also call in Mi-24 helicopter gunships and Sukhoi-25 ground attack jets to blast the mountains and valleys all around, as they did just two months earlier in August. Compared with the firepower at the disposal of the communist enemy, that of the mujaheddin seemed truly pitiful.
Normally, the mujaheddin would continue to fight no matter how much retaliation they had to expect from the Soviets. But this time, the commander felt responsible for the lives of the three foreigners, the first to visit this area since Ajab Khan and his men established their bases on the massive rocky ridges along the upper Shultan Valley about two years ago. He decided to call off the attack on Shigal Tarna at about 1:30 p.m. and save his remaining mortar and rocket ammunition for future operations.
[Actually, in retrospect, I don’t think Ajab Khan broke off the attack because he was concerned about us 3 Europeans. I found out a bigger attack was to take place a few days later with a larger force. A week or two after these events I met the well-known American correspondent Kurt Lohbeck (since deceased) at the American Club in Peshawar, and when he heard I had been north of Asadabad he told me he went there a few days later and filmed a major offensive by the mujaheddin towards the Kunar capital in which they came close to capturing the town.
I could not believe it and asked if I could see his film, but he said he had already sent it to New York for editing. It then occurred to me that most likely the mujaheddin had sent me and my companions out of the area because they wanted to give Lohbeck exclusive coverage of whatever operation they planned — Lohbeck himself may have asked for it — because he was a much more important witness than we were.
I have never since been able to find any information about the battle for Asadabad that Lohbeck said he filmed, and the town was captured only a year later — months after Soviet forces withdrew from the area. —
Also, our mujahed guide Mohammed Kaftan was unhappy when he realized Eugenio and Jacques were not journalists as they had claimed, because they did not have cameras, never took notes and were only interested in getting Kalashnikov assault rifles from the mujaheddin so they could join them in fighting.
They did get the Kalashnikovs but were very disappointed they couldn’t use them when we were under artillery bombardment far from any enemy soldier. Kaftan is the one who insisted on sending us back over the mountains to Pakistan].
** While some mujaheddin based on a mountain to the north fired random shots from a heavy single-barrel 14.5-millimetre anti-aircraft gun as a diversionary tactic, the commander had a few of his men lead the three foreigners down into the Chowgam Valley below Tari Sar Plateau.
From there, the party proceeded over several ridges back to the mujaheddin camps in the upper Shultan Valley. But although the mujaheddin stopped firing early in the afternoon, the riposte from the Soviets and the Afghan army continued for several hours until long after sunset.
A slow but steady rhythm of heavy mortar, artillery and rocket fire continued to rock the Shultan Valley, coming from the nearest Soviet commando base on Soder Sar Plateau to the south-west, Shigal Tarna to the west and Asmar to the north-west. Two of the Bimsiezda rockets tore holes into the mountainside only about 10 metres above one of the mujaheddin’s Zikuyak 14.5-millimetre machine-gun positions.
The operation cost the life of one mujahed, who stepped on a mine near the east bank of the Kunar River and apparently bled to death after losing both legs. His body was later carried on a mule for burial in the Bajaur tribal area of Pakistan.
The number of casualties on the other side of the river was not known but mujaheddin reported that one helicopter made at least two return trips between Asadabad and Shigal Tarna, presumably carrying wounded people to a hospital in the city.
The mujahed who became shaheed, martyred, had triggered the fighting somewhat earlier than planned when the mine exploded under his feet. Firing had started along the Kunar River before the mujaheddin mortars and the Bimyak, carried by mules on treacherous paths up the mountains, were in position.
Soldiers in Shigal Tarna raked the east bank of the Kunar with bursts of heavy machine-gun fire and one tank blasted the lower slopes of Tari Sar, while mujaheddin near the river responded by firing rocket-propelled grenades and rifle bullets.
In the Kunar Valley, there is a striking contrast between the military situation to the north of Asmar and that to the south between Asmar and Asadabad.
In the north [north of Asmar, where I went with another group of Yunus Khalis mujaheddin two years earlier, in August 1985], the mujaheddin control a number of villages along the river itself and have laid siege to the government garrison of Barikot near the border with Pakistan.
In a major offensive during the spring of 1985, a division-sized Soviet force [in hindsight I’m sure I was misinformed about this — there is no way the force could have been that large] backed by an estimated 100 warplanes and helicopters fought its way up the narrow dirt road along the Kunar to relieve the besieged garrison at Barikot, using airborne Spetsnaz commandos to destroy as many as nine anti-aircraft machine-gun posts that the mujaheddin had set up on mountain peaks overlooking the valley.
The Soviets managed to bring Afghan army reinforcements to Barikot but as soon as the main Russian force returned to the south the mujaheddin retook control of almost the entire stretch of road between Asmar and Barikot, established fresh machine-gun nests in the mountains and resumed their siege of the border garrison.
In May last year, Soviet jets destroyed an important bridge across the Kunar River between the villages of Sao and Neyshagam north of Asmar in an effort to deny the mujaheddin an easy way to cross to the west bank with their mules laden with heavy arms. According to Pazlimalek, the mujaheddin have since stretched at least three cables across the river and use rafts to transport heavy weapons and ammunition, and they are trying to repair the Sao bridge as well as another one at Narei further north.
South of Asmar, however, the Soviets have made a strong commitment to keeping the Kunar Valley under direct control and it is extremely dangerous for the mujaheddin to try to cross the river. The east bank of the river is heavily mined, and the Soviet commandos in their mountain bases above Asadabad are ready to intervene at any time should the mujaheddin threaten any part of the valley.
Due to the possibility of surprise attacks on mujaheddin strongholds by helicopter-borne Spetsnaz forces, the guerrillas keep guard posts with watchdogs on all the strategic high points above the Shultan Valley as well as in some of the villages in other side valleys of the Kunar. The majority of the original inhabitants of most farming villages on both sides of the Kunar Valley have fled to Pakistan since Soviet forces pushed into this extremely rugged region more than four years ago, using heavy bombardment to terrorize the population.
Many of the men from those villages are now mujaheddin. After the Soviets asserted control of the valley, tribesmen who were willing to work with the government that was installed during the invasion in December 1979 were resettled in some villages, occupying abandoned houses and farmlands.
Few civilians live in the villages of the lower Shultan and Chowgam valleys just to the east of the Kunar, in the areas under mujaheddin control. Some families whose houses are still intact remain in the area despite frequent fighting nearby, growing maize and wheat, tending orchards and raising cattle, sheep and goats.
Some children were playing in a field at Gaweja village as mortar bombs, rockets and tank shells passed high overhead, exploding in the mountains to the east. The children belonged to the only family that remained behind in the village, and they seemed almost oblivious to the din. All other families had long fled.
Just across the valley, the village of Wan was completely abandoned. Scattered bomb craters and gaping holes in most of the houses, which were built of rocks and mud, provided mute testimony to the tragedies that must have forced the people out.
Considering the Soviets’ enormous advantage in firepower and equipment, and the very rough conditions under which the mujaheddin continue to live and fight their jihad (holy war) in this region eight years after their country was invaded, it comes as a surprise to witness the courage and determination of these fighters.
The most active group of mujaheddin in the Kunar Valley, both north and south of Asmar, appears to be the Hezb-e Islami (party) of Maulvi Yunus Khalis, an aging but tough leader who was recently named chairman of the seven-party Ittihad-e Islami Mujaheddin Afghanistan (Islamic Alliance of Afghan Mujaheddin) based in Peshawar. Maulvi Khalis is expected to lead a mujaheddin delegation which will attend the debate on Afghanistan in the United Nations General Assembly beginning on 9 November.
The three foreigners who visited the Shultan Valley for five days to watch the attack on Shigal Tarna in late October were impressed by the fervour with which the mujaheddin practised their faith. Islam is a very demanding religion. To pray five times a day in the Islamic way is not easy, especially under difficult conditions such as those encountered in the jihad in this rugged land.
At one point, on the day before the attack on Shigal Tarna, a small group of mujaheddin raced at breakneck speed over very treacherous terrain for well over an hour just in order to reach a mosque in an abandoned village in time for the maghreb (sunset) prayer.
After eight years of a terrible war against a superpower in Afghanistan, it is perhaps no wonder that only a fervent commitment to their religion, Islam, can provide the mujaheddin with the courage and determination to carry on their difficult struggle.
Postcard from Lathrop / CA to my parents the day before Thanksgiving – in German
Excerpt from my diary entry for Thanksgiving Day 28 November 1996:
… Today being Thanksgiving reminds me of my most memorable Thanksgiving Day in America 21 years ago (it was also my first Thanksgiving there since I arrived in the States on 6 March 1975). That year, 1975, Thanksgiving Day fell on 27 November, a day earlier than this year.
The day began, for me, in a boxcar of a freight train about 10 kilometers or so east of a town called Tracy, which is somewhere to the southwest of Stockton, California. It had been my third and last ride on a freight train in California (the first ride had taken me from Roseville outside Sacramento, where I had spent 3 days without a roof over my head, to a railroad yard only a couple of miles away, and the second ride was from that yard to Stockton at night).
With me in the boxcar outside Tracy was a man whom I had met in Sacramento (at the Salvation Army soup kitchen) a few days earlier and who had given his name as “Bob Robinson,” from West Virginia (if I remember correctly). We had tramped together. He had been on many freight trains and could tell many horror stories about life as a hobo. He said he also once spent 8 years in jail in Louisiana on charges of armed robbery. And he said he had fought in Korea. I estimated his age at 40-45. And he also said he’d been a boxer.
We had gone from Stockton to a place called French Camp, hitch-hiking and walking, planted onions in a field together with some Mexican workers for a few bucks. Then we went on to the small town of Lathrop and spent the next two cold nights out under the stars on a nearby swath of tumbleweed-strewn wasteland. I bought bottles of cheap red wine here and there along the way, and he drank most of it (he wanted the stuff but said he had no money, so since we were traveling together I bought it for him).
We hoped to be able to catch a freight train going south through Lathrop, but the ones that passed were all going too fast. No way to catch them. “Bob” (he also called me Bob because he could not memorize my first name) had persuaded me to come with him to Indio, southeast of Los Angeles, for the winter, where he had previously worked in lumbering and where he thought we might both find temporary work.
The third night at Lathrop, on the eve of Thanksgiving, we saw some workers preparing a freight train for a trip. There were two nice boxcars, one with both doors wide open — just right. Bob got in while I went to get my backpack and his bedroll. When I came back there was no sign of Bob. It was pitchdark inside that boxcar. When I called him there was a muffled sound as if someone moaned in pain.
I got in and the moaning intensified. There was something big on the floor under my feet and when I touched it I realized that there were several big and heavy wooden boards lying there. It turned out that they had been standing upright when Bob arrived, leaning against the wall of the boxcar and fastened there. Bob had apparently loosened them and they fell right on top of him. I pulled them off to the side one after another. They were so heavy that I could only lift one side of one of them at a time.
I couldn’t see Bob’s face but he must have been miserable. He complained of excruciating pain in one leg and one side of his pelvis/hip. And he stank of excrement. His pants were full of shit. I assumed that the heavy load must have pressed on his abdomen, forcing his feces out. Luckily I had a spare pair of pants in my backpack. So I used handkerchiefs and paper tissue and a small towel to clean up his legs and buttocks in the dark after carefully pulling off his soiled trousers (he couldn’t move one of his legs at all and couldn’t even turn on his hips).
He cried in pain. Very slowly I inserted his legs into my spare pants and then covered him with his blankets. He asked me to take him to a doctor. I would have had to carry him, of course. The workers outside were long gone (we had waited till they left before approaching the train). There was an engine at the far end of the train but I didn’t know whether it was manned at this point. I was a bit hesitant to take him to the town because I was an illegal alien in America, liable to face a brief jail sentence and deportation if caught, and we had already committed an offense by just getting on the freight train in the first place.
Moreover, I was upset with Bob at the time because he had broken into a trailer home that day trying to steal something. That trailer belonged to a nice middle-aged couple from Missouri (which they pronounced something like “Mazarra”) who had invited us in that morning for a cup of coffee when they found us creeping out of our hoarfrost-covered beddings amid the tumbleweeds. They had told us they planned to drive to Stockton that day, and they left the trailer sitting there. It was not very big but it contained, among other things, several bird cages with various small birds in them, and 2 or 3 dogs.
I gave Bob his wine that evening. He usually took only a few gulps but I later found out he had emptied the bottle this time while I had gone for a walk. I returned to our camp when I heard the Missourians’ dogs barking. Bob came back from the trailer. He was drunk. He confessed that he’d smashed a window with his fist, trying to break in, but gave up when the dogs went crazy. I told him we couldn’t stay together after this. I would not go with him to Indio — and anyway, we had to get out of this area fast because the Missourians would call the police when they returned.
Not long after that … [continued on 30 November 1996, Saturday:] … we saw the fateful train with the open boxcar and decided to take one last ride together.The train started moving before I could make up my mind to take Bob to a doctor. We didn’t go very far, though. Probably less than half an hour. The train stopped in what appeared to be an uninhabited area, because there were no lights except a small one outside a low building nearby that seemed to be empty. At the far end of the train I could see the engine leaving. We were alone in the dark.
In the morning I saw that we were on one of several railroad tracks, and that a road ran beside them — although there was a low fence in between. Bob was still in bad shape. I picked him up carefully and carried him to the fence by the road. Somehow I managed to get him over the fence. He moaned a lot and appeared on the verge of passing out at one point. He clearly was in great pain when I moved him. I brought our luggage.
We found out that Bob was able to stand on one leg, and so we stood there, Bob leaning against me, waving wildly at the first car that came up on the road. It sped off. After a while a second car came, and its driver was less afraid than the first one. He rolled down his window and I told him we needed an ambulance as my companion had broken his leg in a bad fall.
The man drove off, and sure enough, not much later he came back with an ambulance. Bob was put on a stretcher and I rode in the front of the ambulance with the driver. He told me that they came from a clinic in Tracy.At the clinic Bob was immediately cleaned and x-rayed. The doctor told me he had suffered a complex fracture of the hipbone and had to be transferred to a bigger hospital in Stockton. I told Bob that our ways had to part because I couldn’t accompany him to Stockton, then wished him good luck.
At this point I had only 9 (nine) dollars to my name, and there was nothing more I could do for him … [continued 1 December 1996:] … I decided that it was time to fulfill a promise I had made to my friends at the Going-Up Press printshop (I’m not sure I remember that name correctly) in Washington D.C., fellow members of the Unification Church, when I left them 16 days earlier on 11 November 1975: to visit a Unification Church center in the San Francisco area on my intended trip around the world.
My central figure (boss) at the printshop, Mr. George Edwards, and my friends at “Upshur House,” a former Libyan Embassy building on Upshur Street in D.C., had asked me to do that. One of them had hidden 10 dollars in a small plastic bottle of “holy salt” that I had in my luggage (to supplement my meager fortune of 30 dollars), and another had given me a space blanket for cold nights out under the stars plus the good advice to take Interstate Highway 40 instead of I-80 as I had planned.
I-80 passes through mountainous Colorado, which is why I favored it (I always loved mountains), but he (he was a giant of a man named Dennis Taylor — a very good brother) looked at my sleeping bag and said I would freeze to death if I slept outside along I-80. He suggested that I take I-40 instead, which runs through North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California.
I’d followed his advice and made it from D.C. to the Los Angeles area in 5 days (San Fernando Valley, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Santa Barbara and finally as far as Arroyo Grande on Route 101 [south of San Luis Obispo] where I spent my first night in California 15-16 November 1975 — I ended up staying in California until 31 January 1976 — exactly 2½ months or 77 days — my favorite state).
I hitch-hiked from Tracy in the general direction of the San Francisco Bay area, hoping to visit the Unification Church center in Oakland and then try to head north again towards Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada — my original destination when I came across the Atlantic on 6 March 1975.
After one very brief ride with a young hippie-type couple I was picked up by a man in his mid- thirties (my guess) who drove a big pickup truck. His name was Tom …. — I think — and he said he was from Ohio. He told me he was planning to buy a horse, or horses (don’t remember which) in this area, and then he asked me if I knew Jesus. I told him that I had joined a Christian movement on the East Coast and that I was planning to visit a church of that movement in the Bay Area.
In the course of the conversation I admitted to him that I had sort of lost my way in the search for God and wasn’t praying anymore. I might have mentioned to him that the movement I had joined was the Unification Church, which did not ring a bell in his mind, but I certainly did not say anything about Reverend [Sun Myung] Moon, whose name would almost certainly have rung a bell for him.
He asked how much money I had on me, and when I said 9 dollars he took a 20-dollar bill from the top of the sunshade above the windshield and handed it to me. He dropped me off on a bridge that crossed the freeway leading north to Concord, saying he had to look at some horses in nearby Livermore and would be back in about an hour. He said he would take me to Concord if I didn’t get a ride until he came back.
Some time after he was gone a car passed me and went down the ramp but stopped just short of the junction with the freeway. A young guy got out, waved to me and shouted, “Do you want a ride?” I picked up my pack and ran down towards him, but on the way I suddenly had a funny feeling that something was wrong with this guy and the way the car stopped where it did.
The guy was on the passenger side, and another young man was in the driver’s seat. The car had no rear doors, so the first guy had had to get out to let me in. I dismissed my ill feeling and handed him my backpack when he reached for it. That was my mistake.
Instead of letting me into the car he simply threw my pack into the back and got right back in himself. Almost immediately the driver stepped on the gas and put the engine in gear. I jumped, trying to get on top of the guy who had taken my backpack, but found myself actually hanging between the car and its open door, with one hand on the roof and one on the door (when I told this story to others later they said I had made that up based on Hollywood movies). But as the car began to pick up speed I quickly realized that I was risking my life.
Luckily I let go before it was too late. I fell flat on my belly on the freeway, and my glasses fell off my nose. By the time I had put them back in place the car was gone too far for me to be able to read the license plate.
I was unhurt, except for a couple of scratches, so I walked back up to the top of the bridge. The backpack contained nothing valuable to anyone but myself. It was almost all I possessed at that point. It was also a symbol of my past.
There was a notebook in which I had written down my ideas and feelings, my philosophy, letters, and my first Divine Principle book, given to me by my spiritual mother, Noriko S. (of Japan).
I still carried a few things in my pockets: my passport, some Polaroid photos I’d taken in New York and my wallet with 29 dollars. That was all. I had symbolically lost my past. And I should have begun a new life at this point. But this type of situation had occurred before and would recur many more times without me ever really succeeding in making a new start — changing my life. I was never able to really cut off from my past, though I tried many times.
Anyway, Tom … came back in his pickup truck, and I told him the story. He said perhaps that was a sign from God that I should go back to the Christian movement I had left and stay with them. Just before he dropped me off in Concord he took two 20-dollar bills from his sunshade, handed them to me, and then took my hand and said a short prayer to Jesus, asking that the Lord guide me.
From Concord I took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train to Berkeley, went to a telephone booth and looked up the Unification Church in the directory. It was listed. The address was on a street or avenue (don’t remember the name) just off Hearst Street, which lines the nice University of California campus. When I went to the house I was told it was a day-care center or some such thing and the Unification Church had moved out some time (6 months?) ago: new address unknown.
I walked around the campus for awhile, checking out the trees and shrubs to see if there was a good place to sleep without being seen. Then I bought a 20-dollar sleeping bag in a shop downtown and returned to the street where the Unification Church had once been located.
I thought I would now try to realize my original plan to go back to Stone Age in the woods of British Columbia. But one of the things I had lost when my backpack was stolen was a book I absolutely needed for that purpose: a wilderness survival guide. So I went to a bookstore near the campus and looked at the books there. They had several interesting ones.
As I was looking through one of those books two well-dressed young men walked up to me and greeted me. I was a bit suspicious because I thought they might be from the Immigration department (INS) looking for illegal aliens like me, or perhaps from the FBI or the CIA or who knows what.
They said they were students and told me about an outfit called the Creative Community Project that brought young people from all kinds of backgrounds together to share ideas and experiences with the aim of promoting inter-cultural communication and understanding, and working together to build a better future for all.
They mentioned that there was a beautiful farm where young people could study and work together. The idea of such a farm did not alarm me because I had worked on a sort of farm at Barrytown, on the Hudson River near Kingston and the Catskills in New York State, where the Unification Church held its workshops in a building that later became (as of September 1975) the Unification Theological Seminary. We had gardens on that 250-acre property and I had helped to grow corn there, etc.
The two in the bookstore invited me to a free Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and cake at their community place on Hearst Street, and I happily accepted. Being a bit short of money as I was, a free dinner was certainly welcome.
After they left it occurred to me that they seemed vaguely familiar. Not because I had seen them before, but there was something in their faces and in the way they talked that was familiar: they seemed like members of the church that I had known back on the East Coast. One of the two, whose name was Trimble, from Minnesota (he was later kidnapped and reportedly became an enemy of our church — deprogramming other members), was just like some other brothers from the Midwest that I had known in New York.
Another thing that was funny was my own feeling and attitude. I am by nature a rather pessimistic, melancholy person. And I had just been robbed of my most precious possessions. And I had nowhere near enough money to buy the necessary equipment to survive in the wild in British Columbia or even to make it up there — except if I was very lucky hitch-hiking (in Sacramento I had been stuck for 3 days without getting a ride). And yet I felt happy. I didn’t worry too much about where I would sleep that night or the next.
I went to an ice cream parlor and enjoyed a nice hot fudge sundae (I think — at least that’s what I used to like in New York). Trimble, the “student” (I think his first name was Jeff, but I’m not sure), came in and reminded me of his earlier invitation to the Thanksgiving dinner — at Hearst Street, number such and such, at 18:00 hours.
Well, come 18:00 I went to the place. From the beginning I felt something as if I was not going to a strange house but actually coming home. Coming home, indeed. I had never seen the place before but the people’s faces were familiar — somehow. There were many young people.
We gathered in a circle in a big room and began to sing songs. I knew the songs. I had sung them all in Barrytown, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., etc.I turned to a sister next to me and asked: “Is this the Unification Church? — I’m a member.” She put a finger across her lips and indicated that we should talk after the singing and prayer. We had a great dinner, during which I learned, from the same sister and out of earshot of the others, that this was indeed the Unification Church.
She asked me not to use that name, however, because there was too much bad publicity about it. She told me that Rev. Moon had approved the use of the name Creative Community Project.We were all invited to spend a weekend at the farm at Boonville, 120 miles (200 km) north of San Francisco in the coastal hills — a 750-acre property. Of course I would be happy to go, I said, and signed up.
We were to be taken there by bus the following evening — Friday, 28 November 1975. After it was all over I went out to try to find a place to sleep. Though I had been a member on the East Coast for some 8 months, nobody here knew me and they couldn’t let me stay at the center.That night I walked up a road lining the upper side of Berkeley campus, looking for a place to crash and at the same time enjoying the view across the Bay to the lights of San Francisco …
(continued 2 December 1996) … Suddenly I was illuminated by a car’s high beam. It was a patrol car. A police officer came up to me and asked to see some ID. His partner stayed in the car. On the spur of the moment I decided to show him my Luxembourg passport. He leafed through it, looked at the American visa and handed it back to me.
Apparently he didn’t know that I was supposed to have an I-94 immigration dept. form attached to a page in the passport, which gave my date of entry into the United States and specified how long I was allowed to stay. I had thrown that form away months ago when it expired with no possibility of renewal. He then told me that I was not allowed to sleep outside near the campus, and he and his buddy left in their patrol car.
People at the church center had given me directions to the local YMCA, where they said I could spend the night for little money. I went there and got a cheap bed for the night.
The next day I went up to Boonville, the 750-acre farm, which was called Ideal City Ranch. It’s a beautiful place. I went on to spend about 5 weeks there, attending workshops and helping with the farm work. Then I spent another month or so in San Francisco, mostly witnessing to people in the Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Square area (met many New Yorkers there) and once selling roses on the street.
I lived in the church center on Washington Street near a small park (Lafayette Park?) in Pacific Heights (?). Only once did I manage to bring a guest to a workshop in Boonville: a German girl by the name of Elisabeth H., who studied in Massachusetts and whom I met at the Wharf. She hailed from Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, I think, and was a practicing Catholic. She joined the (Unification) Church in Oakland later.
I met her very briefly 7-8 months later in Washington, D.C., in a McDonald’s, I think. She was on her way to visit her folks in Germany. She said the Oakland Church leaders, Mose and Onni Durst, had given her permission to do that. This surprised me, as we were in the midst of Rev. Moon’s most important campaign in the States: we were preparing for the big Washington Monument rally on 18 September of this Bicentennial Year 1976.
Anyway, so much for the story of Thanksgiving Day, 27 November 1975, when I returned to the church after a 16-day absence. I never saw or heard from Elisabeth again.