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Taking the high road

By Donald Dochard

While on mission in Tajikistan in August last year, Donald Dochard was asked to lead an ICRC convoy transporting emergency medical and relief supplies from the capital Dushanbe to displaced people in the high, isolated centre of the country. Here he shares some of his experiences of the trip.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at mornings. I don’t do them, in fact, as Garfield might say. But if there’s one thing that sticks in my mind about my mission to Tajikistan it is the unearthly hour at which I had to surface practically every day. I’d been on mission for the ICRC a few times in Africa, and there too we would all be up with the lark, but at least there you got to bed at a reasonable hour.

Here it was different - I had been put in charge of an ICRC convoy bound for Khorog in the east of Tajikistan. It wasn’t far as the crow flies, but the fighting and the treacherous mountain passes obliged us to take an enormous detour through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, rising at 4 a.m., sometimes even earlier, and driving literally all day, often until late at night.

We set off from Dushanbe on the first day, bound for Samarkand: three juggernauts, two of them with trailers, and a LandCruiser, carrying medical supplies, blankets, mattresses and food. I shared the driving of the LandCruiser with Pavel, the photographer who had accompanied me on my mission. We had initially been sent to cover the ICRC’s operation in Tajikistan for fundraising purposes, and what better way, enthused Thomas, the ICRC head of delegation in Dushanbe, to get first-hand knowledge of the action than by taking a convoy to Khorog and then heading on up to Khalai Khum and Sagir Dasht, where we were assisting people displaced by the fighting? It’ll probably take about three days, he lied. It took more than a week.

The obstacle course began at the border with Uzbekistan, with the first of what turned out to be six (yes, six) border crossings. Pointing to the large red crosses on our lorries and waving a sheaf of official documentation, we eventually managed to squeeze our way through each of them. It took more than four hours. But this was just a foretaste of things to come: all along the road to Khorog, whether in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, we were stopped time and time again at checkpoint after checkpoint, not just at borders but at regular intervals all along the road, and the whole procedure of registering the entire convoy would recommence. After a while I began to wonder if they had been set up as an elaborate job creation scheme.

On one occasion we were stopped for the requisite paper inspection at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. It was very cold and the military were all standing around watching this improbable procession of shiny white vehicles emblazoned with red crosses. Responding to the call of nature I walked down a grassy bank at the side of the road and into a meadow. Nobody stopped me. It was spectacularly beautiful: snow-covered mountains, dwarfed by the vast expanses all around. Most were well over 6,000 metres, but they might as well have been a third of that from our viewpoint on the plain, itself above 4,000 metres. It was the height of summer but it was freezing. Silence reigned. The wind was the only sound we heard.

As the days progressed, the by now habitual 18 hours on the road were taking their toll. In a matter of days we had gone from a blistering 43 degrees in Dushanbe to altitudes of 4,500 metres and snow along the Chinese border. Up and down we went, one mountain pass after another, past the horsemen of the mountain plains and their myriad yurts which dotted the landscape, the twisting, climbing roads showing us no mercy as we half-dozed through the constant bumping of the potholes.

“Brake!” I yelled suddenly to Pavel. Sure enough, ahead of us on the road, without warning, lay a break in the road. A gaping hole about five metres wide and two metres deep to be more precise - it was more than your average pothole and enough to comfortably swallow our LandCruiser. We radioed to the other vehicles just in time for them to leave the road and drive round. Later on, we came across a solitary signpost saying, rather belatedly, something along the lines of “Caution potholes”. In this case, the potholes in question were barely visible.

After a stopover in Khorog, at the ICRC office, we continued on to Khalai Khum and Sagir Dasht, close to the front line in central Tajikistan. On the way we drove along the Afghan border, on a hair-raising road which followed the river separating Tajikistan from its neighbour. I shuddered to think what it would be like in wintertime. One of the drivers laughed as he told me how a colleague had been stuck in snow drifts for days before he was dug out. It struck me then as it had on previous missions that our convoy was neither the first nor the last to come this way and that the delivery of humanitarian assistance is often not only difficult but also dangerous, and my admiration grew for those who devote their lives to it.

From time to time we would see signposts pointing towards Dushanbe, highlighting the ludicrously short distance that separated us from our point of departure, a couple of hundred kilometres away. We had journeyed over 2,000 kilometres to come full circle.

But once we had arrived in Khalai Khum and in Sagir Dasht, I saw what made it all worthwhile. Crammed together in schools and in the homes of local people were the families whose lives had been destroyed by the conflict. Many had lost everything - their homes, their land, even the ones they love. With the arrival of our convoy, these displaced people were going to have mattresses to sleep on, a little more food to eat and access to some basic medicines that could possibly save lives. It really put all the little discomforts of our own trip into perspective.

On the long way back to Dushanbe, as we stopped at the umpteenth checkpoint, I remembered it as the place I had walked into the meadow and felt so small in the scheme of things. It was then that I noticed a small and almost invisible signpost close to the side of the road and a shudder ran down my spine. Written in Cyrillic was one – seemingly innocuous – word: “Landmines”.

When I finally left Tajikistan, I thought to myself how sad it is that so many beautiful parts of the world are torn apart by war. I thought of the incredible force of nature and how only man with his guns and landmines can destroy it. I thought of the lucky escape I’d had in a minefield. I thought how wonderful it would be to get a decent night’s sleep. But most of all I thought of the people there, of their ongoing distress and of how they too were entitled to sleep peacefully at night.

Donald Dochard
Donald Dochard is an editor in the ICRC’s Publications Division.


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