— بخښنه غواړم (bachena ghwarom) excuse me.
A mujahidin (« holy warrior) is dressed in a petrol blue suit. He is smiling. His left hand holds his Kalashnikov. A wide green belt completes his outfit.
— Who goes there?
— I don’t speak pashto. فرانسوی (fransawi) je suis français
He burst out laughing.
—What is a Frenchman doing here… Aren’t you busy saving the Eiffel Towers?
—The Eiffel Tower. There is only one.
I was lighting a cigarette. The walk along the steep road to the tunnel has exhausted me. I am shaking not from fear but from fatigue. Above us, the moon is reddening.
—I have never seen a Frenchman.
Everything came back to me. The fading light on the Alexandre III bridge. The anxiolytics, the desire to jump. Disappearing forever at the bottom of the Seine. And the Afghan’s hand on my shoulder.
— If you want to die, die for something.
The Afghan war was in full swing. I wanted to meet the man they called the Lion of Punjab, Commander Massoud, and write a book about him. But I had only wandered in desert landscapes, helped by the kindness of the population. They fed me from village to village, despite the fear of reprisals.
I get up. A desert swallow landed on a rock next to the mujahideen camp.
— Why did you come here?
— I want to marry an Afghan woman
My answer baffles him.
— هیله کوم بیا یي ولولی (hila kawom bia je wolwalej) can you repeat that?
I know I’m gambling with my life. So I don’t answer at the risk of offending him. I squat on the ground. I trace on the ground with a stick the path by which I came.
—Are you lost?
— I gave myself up to the wind.
— Are you fighting on the side of the Soviets?
— No. I came to write a book about the commander.
— A book?
— I am a journalist.
— Give me one good reason why I should let you go back.
— You’ve already said that. I am the only Frenchman. A rare bird, I said, pointing to the swallow.
— هیله کوم یوه شېبه (hila kawom jawa scheba) wait-a moment. The chief will come and talk with you.
The sun sparkles on the ridge line of the Salang Pass. The ice is gradually giving way to the battle-scorched earth. یو (jau), دوه (doa), درې (drej), څلور (zalur) four minutes pass. The swallow has flown away, the wind has slowed its burning breath. My neck is full of dust. I look up to the sky. So this is how it all ends?
Suddenly I hear the sound of a Mil Mi-24 helicopter. The man I am talking to starts running between the rows of tents. I see him ram a ground-to-air missile launcher into the ground. I know that this helicopter is probably my only chance of survival. I sit down to watch the fight. The helicopter is hit in the heart and arcs in a glowing red circle before crashing further into the valley’s river. I gasp.
We are in front of the Salang tunnel, the main crossing point between Kabul and the north of the country. The snow is starting to fall. I rub my eyes. The leader of the mujahideen has just emerged from a tent. Satisfied with having shot down a helicopter, he smiles discreetly.
—My name is Awalmir. My aide-de-camp says you like women. Why did you come here?
I grit my teeth
—I am already dead.
— Am I talking to a ghost?
He bursts out laughing. I don’t know where I am anymore. I see the white walls of the Lycée Louis-Le-Grand again. The students with shirts smoothed by their mothers. The afternoons in the rallies. Amandine and her white parasol… I spit blood.
—I wanted to resurrect here.
—In the sands of Afghanistan?
—Anywhere. Under the dense sun.
—Do you want to die?
I start coughing. I can’t stand on my legs anymore. He makes me sit down. Then he caresses my face, as if he finds answers in this gesture, and continues his interrogation:
—Who are you traveling with?
—زه یواځې سفر کوم (ze jawaze safar na kawom) I am traveling alone.
—Without an escort?
At the threshold of my execution, the Pashtun language returns to my lips. I look at the moon. It has a strange way of disappearing and reappearing behind the mountains. What language does she speak?
—How old are you?
-زه یوویشت کالن یم. (ze jauwischt kalan em) I am twenty-one years old.You are too young.
The teachers of Louis-le-grand, the erased essays, the endless hours of detention. The stopped clock on the second floor. The mothers in tight dresses that we used to stare at after school. And boredom, that terrible antechamber of death. I look up.
—Are you married?
— ما کوزده نه ده کړی (ma koz da na da kere.) I’m not married, I answer, in a deadpan accent.
— And you?
But he’s already up. He leaves again, preparing my execution no doubt. I lie down, my head in a puddle of ice.
A gyrfalcon circles in the golden sky. Farther, the water of the river of the valley of Pandchir trickles from the glaciers.
A man abruptly picks me up and brings me to a red and silver tent a little off the beaten track. We stay several hours him in front of me, without looking at us. The moon glides like a promise of the future on the carpet of the tent. I have haggard eyes fixed on the bright light. The arabesques of the carpet have a mysterious air. I feel as if they will intertwine to form the outline of characters from Pashtun tales. I am exhausted. I fall asleep for a few hours.
When I wake up, silence has replaced the footsteps of the mujahideen.
I look through the tent’s doorway. My guardian, Babrak, is still watching over me.
Suddenly, I hear a rumbling on the road. A petrol truck has just reached the tunnel. A military convoy passes it in the opposite direction.
The deafening sound of an explosion reaches my ears. An intense light penetrates in the tent. Babrak gets up, grabs his Kalashnikov and runs out into the cold air. I run away. On my way, I pass the bodies of a dozen mujahideen, all killed in the explosion.
I enter a line of tall beings who like soldiers stand stiffly before the browning sun.
ماښام مونیکمرغه (mascham mo nekmrgha) good night, a mujahideen says to me, sitting on a tree trunk, as I emerge from the grasses to arrive in front of a ravine. He licks a cigarette paper. He laughs. I am taken back. I wait for him to pounce on me, but he does not.
— Is that you, the Frenchman?
He turns around. His eyes are soft, his beard trimmed. I breathe more slowly. A doubt grips me.
— Are you from here?
— I was born in Pandjchir. My family lived in Herat, and I studied in Kabul.
— It was you who gathered the mujahideen against the Soviets?
— There are 13,000 of them under my command.
The moon shines on a scar on his right cheek.
— What are you doing here?
— I am writing a book about you.
He stands up and stretches. I don’t know if he heard me.
— You can stay here with me for a few days.