Slumped in his chair at the top of the watchtower overlooking his home, Mahmud scanned the village and the moonlit valley below. He caught a glimpse of the Mullah, always the first up, making his way to the mud-built mosque for morning prayers. A goat chewing a plastic bag looked up and not bothering to move watched the cleric waddle by. Down in the compound that surrounded his house Mahmud heard the sound of wood being snapped and, turning, saw the old widow who cooked for him lighting the fire for breakfast. Hunched, she poked at the crackling twigs with a bit of rusty wire, dipping her head to avoid inhaling the smoke and coughing with a weak hacking sound. She was covered from head to foot with a sky blue burqa. She must realise we have visitors, Mahmud thought.
The walls that surrounded the house were a shade over 2 meters high – tall enough to prevent prying eyes. Inside the sandy earth was compacted with years of use, hard but still uneven. In one corner waste paper and bits of straw swirled in the light breeze. Close to the house there was a dilapidated, off-white four by four, which Mahmud had acquired in return for a weeks labour helping build a neighbours house. Unable to find spare parts he had never been able to make it run. Hens pecked at the ground leaving white specks of droppings behind them. Beside them was a scrappy unkempt vegetable patch. The plants – carrots and some dirty, pale red tomatoes with yellow patches were protected from the hens by short sharp sticks stuck into the ground. A disused plastic 5-litre car oil container that the old lady used to water the plants lay on its side nearby.
The visitors had arrived shortly after midnight and Mahmud reckoned they must be Uzbeks. When he had opened the gate for them he had only been able to see their bloodshot, yellowing eyes looking out from intricately folded red and white keffiyehs. They had been carrying not only Kalashnikovs and anti tank missiles but also a Barrett M107 sniper rifle. A new one by the look of it.
One of them was cradling his arm in a cloth sling.
Mahmud looked past the gate, down the sandy street to see if anybody had noticed their approach. On the horizon there was the familiar silhouette of the massive mountain range to the west. Its slopes rose steeply from the desert floor and Mahmud made out the shape of a steeply sided V. The Mouth of the Jackal as the locals called it: the narrow pass that formed the easiest route to and from Afghanistan. It was probably where they had come from.
“Ah Salam A Laicum. Problem?” Mahmud had asked pushing the tip of his forefinger into his own arm, screwing up his face to indicate pain.
“OK” the man had muttered shaking his head, “No problem.”
Since he hadn’t heard any gunfire that night Mahmud calculated the men must have been walking for some time before they reached his home just inside Pakistan. A perfect place of refuge for those moving back from the frontline.
Mahmud opened the clanking metal gate that was the only way through the wall that surrounded his home, and counted the men in. Five in all; one wounded. The first through seemed to be the leader. His clothes hung loosely on his thin frame except where an ammunition belt was strapped diagonally across his chest. “Mirvani,” he thanked Mahmud in heavily accented Pashtu and then pointed east where dawn would break, slowly lifting his outstretched arm from horizontal a few degrees upward to symbolise the rising sun and then pointing at the gate.
So, they’d be off mid morning. Mahmud would have to skip school. Next, the man pointed at the watchtower and slipped a $100 dollar note into Mahmud’s hand.
That worried him. It probably meant they feared the Americans were in pursuit. But it never occurred to Mahmud to turn the men away. “On my honour….” He muttered to himself. After all, how many times had he sat on his father’s knee and listened to the pig story.
“A pig was fleeing some hunters when it burst into a farmer’s house,” his father used to tell him and his brother Jaz. The story had always brought a sparkle to his father’s eye. At least that’s how Mahmud remembered it. “So the hunters, on horseback, surrounded the house and shouted to the farmer: ‘Flush it out!’”, Mahmud thought back to how he used to listen, nestling his head into his father’s long, greying beard in the oscillating, slightly nasal tones of the Baloch language.
“But he refused. ‘This pig may be the most unclean beast on Allah’s good earth,’ the farmer declared, ‘but it’s seeking sanctuary. On my honour I will protect it!’”
The story always ended with the defiant farmer killing a hunter, whose fellow tribesmen in turn fired through the flimsy farmhouse walls until both farmer and pig were dead. But as many fathers had told many wide-eyed children: “it was a praiseworthy death.”
So by tribal tradition, and by way of respecting his father’s memory, Mahmud would allow the Uzbeks to stay as long as they liked. In fact Mahmud felt guilty taking the $100 but they’d offered it and if they had a rifle like that, it looked like they could afford it. And if he was to make it to London, he needed all the cash he could put his hands on.
As the men crossed into the compound Mahmud pointed at a side door that gave access to a room at the end of the house in which the Uzbeks would find some quilts on the concrete floor.
“You are welcome,” he said, holding back the desire to ask where they had come from and how the man had been injured. Maybe at breakfast, Mahmud thought.
As the men filed into their quarters Mahmud went to the main part of the house to fetch them a jug of water and a glass. They’d be thirsty.