60 miles west of Jalalabad, Afghanistan
17 June 1986
I didn't know the name of the village, though we'd been through there many times. It was just a collection of mud huts on a plateau, three-quarters of the way down a mountain, in a snow-capped range halfway between Kabul and the Khyber Pass.
We had to be out again by first light, when the Hinds would be back to hand out the early-morning news. If they spotted us, the gunships would annihilate the place, and anyone inside. That was how they did things.
We were in-country because the Ivans were in-country, and the West didn't want them to be. It wasn't the invasion they objected to. It was Soviet troops massed so close to the oil-rich Gulf. The sheiks were flapping, so the bad boys had to be persuaded to fuck off back to the land of vodka.
The mujahideen – soldiers of Allah – had only put up weak resistance to start with. Fragmented, and armed with no more than rifles and pistols, all they had going for them was their lifelong knowledge of the terrain and an unshakeable faith in their God.
That was when dickheads like me were told to get the maps out and see where the fuck Afghanistan was, then get our arses over from Hereford and help. We came, we saw, we dropped bridges, attacked police stations, built IEDs, and blew up armoured convoys. I wasn't wild about living in a cave, but other than that, I'd been having the time of my life.
'Over there, in the alleyway. Looks like a body.'
'It will just be a girl,' Ahmad grunted. He wore the kind of expression you use when someone's just pointed out the shit on your shoe. 'We go on, Nick. We need food.'
My new best mujahideen mate cut away and gestured to the others to sort themselves out before the long tab back to our holes in the rock above the snowline.
The girl's body was lying between two mud-walled shacks. At least somebody had had the decency to drape the charred remains of her clothes over what was left of her. Going by the scorchmarks on the ground, it looked like she'd set herself on fire in plain view. When the flames died down, the villagers had probably just dragged her here out of the way and got on with their lives.
I nearly hadn't come over. I'd seen it all too many times before. But this one was different – even in the fading light, I thought I'd seen movement. And, besides, the girl with the cheeky grin lived in one of these huts. I always looked out for her when we came this way. The landscape might be cold, harsh and unforgiving, but somhow her smile always made me think that what we were doing was worthwhile.
The people who scratched a living in these mountains didn't have enough even to feed themselves, but that didn't stop them sharing it with us. I'd never spoken to the girl with the cheeky grin. It would have been taboo. But she'd run up a couple of times and handed me a sliver of watermelon or a cup of water. She couldn't have been more than fourteen.
Not so long ago, the cheeky grin had disappeared, as if someone had thrown a switch. 'Yes,' Ahmad had said. 'Now she have husband.' Apparently he was nearly three times her age and from another band of muj. Ahmad seemed to think her husband was having trouble teaching her respect.
She'd looked a little more desperate each time I saw her after that. The last