Waiting can be quite interesting as well. Questions, emotions, rumors, decision making, group dynamics, hope and disappointment all happen at the same time. At the end, there was an escape by embassy convoy all the way to Dushanbe.
The fighting was centered in the other end of town, a few kilometers away, and also on a bridge, just 500 meters from our hotel. Stuck inside the hotel we tried to figure out what was happening, why it was happening and what would happen. Most of us spend hours discussing all kinds of topics of which none of us had detailed information or answers. Others were listening to music, reading, or, like me, watching a couple TV episodes of Cold Case on a laptop. I played Go-Go with Bernard but we weren’t sure of the rules and made our own here and there. We listened to the full automated gun fire, the shots of Kalashnikovs and the helicopters flying over. There were sodas and water and our hotel manager arranged lunch and dinner in the Indian restaurant next to the hotel. There was a choice of Vegetarian or Lamb, and we were happy that we still could eat something. We had no way of communicating with the outside world because both the internet and the mobile phone service were out of order. However, at around 21:00 hours we managed to contact the tour director, who was staying in another hotel 7 kilometer away from the group, and a few embassies through a satellite internet connection.
On Wednesday morning the fighting stopped suddenly somewhere around 09:00 hours. Rumors were that there was a ceasefire as a result of ongoing negotiations between the government and the opposition. Some of us went to the main street where they saw many men, women and children gathering in small groups discussing the situation. I assumed everyone knows someone who is fighting the government army. I also assumed everyone knows someone who died in this terrible fight. It’s a weird feeling: a few days ago I was shooting an AK 47 Kalashnikov for fun on my birthday. Now, that type of weapon kills people just around the corner.
With the little information we had it was difficult to assess the situation. Some locals believed the fight was over. Others assumed the army is bringing in more soldiers. One thing we did know was that the staff was not able to join the group and all roads out of the town were blocked. In town, there were many roadblocks created by the opposition (or locals) and the army set up road ‘checks’ outside town.
During the morning emotions in the group were intense. Some riders were close to panic, others were scared or just calm. At 12:00 hours, the majority of the riders decided to leave the hotel and guesthouse and walked for about one hour to a hotel, 5 kilometer at the outskirts of town. They wanted to be as far away as possible. The reason I and 7 others stayed was that at that point in time it was uncertain when the fight would start again, it was unknown if the Serena hotel would have enough space, food and water to support such a group, each person would have very limited luggage to bring, communication to the outside world was unknown, there has been fighting in the area the previous day so security was unknown as well. The hotel I was staying had a lot of concrete walls, the respected UN Food Program and Aga Khan Foundation were located in the same building, there were shops close by, we had plenty of water, sodas and food, there was an internet connection and our bicycles and bags were within reach. Most important, I felt safe among the locals and I did not want to leave our staff members behind. In the end, I believe that everyone made the right decision based on the little information available.
It turned out that fellow riders in the Serena hotel were able to communicate through the Afghan mobile network, from the other side of the river. A few riders put a lot of effort to coordinate with the German, British and Swiss embassies a quick evacuation. The ceasefire was extended many times and on Thursday afternoon the group of 8 riders still in town, moved to the Serena hotel as well since a possible evacuation might happen on Friday.
As soon as our staff and vehicles were able to travel through the town on Friday morning, we managed to reach Rushan, 40 kilometer from Khorog, by shuttling riders with a car belonging to one of the NGO’s. There, a convoy of diplomatic vehicals from the European Union, organized by the German embassy, met us. Since we were also traveling with two expat families, there was a helicopter to evacuate children and their parents, elderly and sick people to Dushanbe quickly. The others had an approximately 15 hour ride over rough roads to look forward to. During the ride, the Dutch ambassador in Astana, Kazakhstan, and responsible for Tajikistan as well, Mr. P. van Leeuwen, gave me a call and asked how the three Dutch riders were doing. I can tell you that it was a good feeling to know that somewhere someone was watching and knew that we were in danger and helped us to get out of there!
Saturday afternoon all of us, except the support vehicles which arrived hours later, were safe and sound.
According to news sources, approximately forty persons died during Tuesday’s fighting, mainly “militants”. However, most persons we spoke to in Khorog claim the number of deaths is much higher. I spoke a local who said he was in the hospital and counted more than 80 people dead. From what I heard and read, fighting in Khorog has not recommenced but the situation remains tense.
Although I want to cycle as soon as possible, a few days in Dushanbe are good to reflect on things that happened. The group has changed and I lost some faith in our tour director. This experience was intense for everyone and one participant decided to leave us early and fly back home. It will take some time for things to get back to ‘normal’. But I am sure I want to go back to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as these are two wonderful countries! Mariëlla is all in, as long as it’s a 4WD!
I’m looking forward to the two weeks cycling in Uzbekistan! And then the 18 days through Iran! There is more excitement ahead!