Brave Afghan bus drivers' gauntlet of terror

Image caption,
Fare-dodgers and cheeky youngsters are the least of worries for these drivers

Bombs, kidnappings, drive-by shootings, corrupt officials and road-hogging coalition convoys, not to mention hairpin mountain bends and brutal weather - it's all just another day's work for Afghan bus drivers, the BBC's Bilal Sarwary learns.

It's a chilly morning.

Mohammad Wali is getting ready for a 450-km (280-mile) journey that will take him from Kabul to the southern province of Kandahar, a key Taliban stronghold.

But Mr Wali won't be alone: he'll be driving about 100 passengers.

Mr Wali has been driving buses on the Kabul-Kandahar road for the past 30 years.

He saw the Soviet invasion in 1979, the fall of the communist Najibullah regime in 1992, the arrival of the Taliban and then the invasion of international forces in 2001.

But he says the going has never been as tough as it is now.

"Under the Taliban, it used to take 14 hours to drive from Kabul to Kandahar," says Mr Wali. "But you felt safe, even if you were carrying a truck-load of gold.

"Today, the journey takes only six hours, but there's no guarantee that you'll arrive at the destination in one piece."

Mr Wali says the road is now plagued by bandits, who beat just about anyone they can lay their hands on.

"All they want or care for is money," he says.

International troops have only worsened the problems for other road users, according to Mr Wali.

Insurgency spreading

He says they are often halted for no reason by foreign forces.

"They stop our vehicles, shoot our tyres, break our windshields. Moreover, they refuse to give way to civilian vehicles," says Mr Wali.

Image caption,
Thirty-five passengers died when this bus fell off a treacherous mountain pass after hitting a truck

"A half-hour journey could take as long as three hours if you have the misfortune of encountering a foreign forces convoy."

Haji Goal Pacha, who runs a small transport company, and is travelling on Mr Wali's bus, says the behaviour of international forces on the highways is one more reason behind Afghans' growing resentment.

"They should know that there are no suicide attackers in passenger vehicles," says Mr Pacha.

"There is no fighting in these vehicles. They put passenger vehicles in the middle for their own security."

Another worrying aspect is the re-emergence of the Taliban in areas which were until recently relatively insurgent-free.

Northern areas, in particular, were considered safe zones. But this is no longer so.

Music punishment

Bismillah drives a truck on the Mazar road, which connects Kabul with the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Image caption,
Drivers are fed up with coalition forces convoys holding up the traffic

''Security is ensured until Puli Khomri (the capital of Baghlan province)," says Bismillah, who uses only one name. "But beyond that there is no security worth the name."

Afghans have bitter memories of the civil war days when militia commanders used to set up checkpoints on major roads to extort money from passers-by.

Most Afghans thus equate government authority with security on the highways.

''Drivers on the Kabul-Jalalabad road [in the country's east] are often stopped by the Taliban," said an angry truck driver, requesting anonymity.

"They search for music cassettes in the vehicle. If a cassette is found, the driver is abused, kicked and pounded with gun butts.

"I am not talking about Kandahar or Helmand. This place is just two hours from the capital. The government needs to wake up."

The Kabul-Jalalabad road was until recently considered one of the safest routes in the country.

A senior official in the highway police agreed that the situation has worsened, but he blamed the Taliban and private security contractors.

The official defended the country's police and army.

Route Fear

It is the same story at Khost bus station, which takes passengers to south-eastern Afghanistan.

Image caption,
You can park that there: It's amazing what you can fit on top of a bus these days

Most drivers complain about the international forces, and the Americans in particular, whom they accuse of blocking the road and slowing down traffic.

Another bus driver, Mohammad Wazir, says: "It takes six hours to drive to Khost, but if there are Americans, it takes us 13 hours.

"Even if we have a patient or a dead body or an emergency, they won't let us go."

Driving on Afghanistan's highways is a challenge no-one in their right mind would like to take on.

But these roads are a lifeline for a landlocked country.

And for bus drivers like Mr Ali and Mr Wazir, it's their bread and butter.