Remnants Of War Litter Road North From Kabul

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By local standards, the road linking Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif is relatively smooth and safe. But the eight-hour journey is littered with remnants and reminders of Afghanistan's brutal wars and the country's efforts to rebuild.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And now we turn to America's other war in Afghanistan. NPR's Jackie Northam has just returned from a five-week reporting trip there. During that time, she made a road trip from the capital of Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and has this audio postcard.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Perhaps the most frustrating part of the journey from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif is actually extricating yourself from the chaotic streets of the capital city itself.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

NORTHAM: But once you get beyond Kabul, the noise fades, the buildings recede and the road opens up to some spectacular scenery, at times making it easy to forget just where you are. But behind the beauty, Afghanistan's brutal recent history - its wars, the insecurity - is never far away, and reminders of all the battles that have been waged for control of the country over the past three decades come into view as you make the 200-mile journey.

A vast plain at the foot of the mountains was a key battlefield between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, which was instrumental in overthrowing the Islamist group in late 2001. The lush vineyards that spread out over acres of land at one time were burned to the ground by the Taliban.

Further on, a road peeling off from the main highway leads to Bagram Airfield. Once a sprawling Russian base, now thousands of U.S. service personnel are stationed there. The burned out hulks of Russian tanks litter the side of the highway, the remains of battles in the late 1980s.

(Soundbite of engine running)

NORTHAM: The plains soon give way to the looming mountains and the road starts to twist as you move through the Salang Valley, slowly gaining altitude. Nowadays, many Afghans taking advantage of the relative safety of the area picnic along the valley's fast-moving rivers. On the road behind them, trucks grind their way through the Salang Pass, 11,000 feet above sea level. That's where you reach the Salang Tunnel.

Designed and built in the early '60s by the Russians, the roughly two-mile-long tunnel slices through the Hindu Kush Mountain range. For north-south traffic, the tunnel knocks hundreds of miles and two days off the travel time. More than a thousand vehicles pass through it every day. But the Salang Tunnel is not for the faint-hearted.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

NORTHAM: You subconsciously take a deep breath as you enter the gaping hole in the mountain. It's pitch black inside. Sometimes the tunnel lights work, sometimes they don't - so, too, with its ventilation. The tunnel is only 20 feet wide. Trucks belching exhaust and loaded down with goods try to pass one another in the darkness.

ATOULA(ph) (Driver): Too much broken, you know?

NORTHAM: My Afghan driver, Atoula, warns me that the road is broken. Our sedan lurches in and out of the massive wet potholes like a tiny ship trying to stay upright amongst ocean waves.

After a nerve-wracking 20 minutes, we can see daylight again. Exiting the tunnel, we join a line of cars that have pulled off to the side of the road, get out and breathe in the clean, cold air of the Hindu Kush. The peaks of the mountain range are still covered with snow.

From here, the south of Afghanistan and all its violence begins to feel like a different country. And as you continue the drive north over the next few hours, passing wheat fields and rich, green rice paddies, you find you're no longer thinking about roadside bombs or military checkpoints, and you begin to feel hope for Afghanistan.

WERTHEIMER: That was NPR's Jackie Northam in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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