In November of last year, Debra Denker put on a chador-- the all-concealing, head-to-toe voluminous garment worn by orthodox Muslim women--and set out on foot for Afghanistan from nearby Peshawar, the Pakistani city on the other side of the Khyber Pass.
Accompanied by two moujahedeen, Muslim guerrillas who are fighting the Soviet military occupation of their country, and a photographer, she infiltrated into Pakhtia province. Speaking fluent Dari (Afghan Persian), and posing as a former resident of the more cosmopolitan capital of Kabul, she passed undetected, visiting ruined villages and their few remaining inhabitants--people who have stayed on for the struggle, either as fighters, supporters or stubborn peasants taking refuge in the hills.
In all, she said recently at her parents' home in Studio City, she spent about five nights inside the border, and traveled about 30 miles into Afghanistan's interior. It was an area where bombing has destroyed villages and devastated the countryside, where bombing raids can still occur and where planes still search for signs of life, strafing the guerrillas and their supporters and the animals that sustain them.
"I suppose the most worrisome time was when we crossed the open valley in broad daylight one day on foot. I had a strange calmness that it would be OK, but I did have a knot in my stomach. If a plane came, there would have been absolutely no place to hide," she said. "We had wanted to go in September, but there was heavy fighting then and the border heated up. So we decided to concentrate our efforts on both sides of the border and spend time in the refugee camps too."
Off the Beaten Track
Denker, 30, has been concentrating her efforts on both sides of that border since 1980, for about as long as there have been Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Her November trip in Pakistan and Afghanistan was on assignment for National Geographic, and her experiences were the topic of the magazine's June cover story. But her involvement with Afghanistan started just as the country was on the brink of the Soviet invasion of December, 1979.
Born in Los Angeles, graduated from Hollywood High, Denker has spent, she estimates, most of the past 12 years overseas. After a few years at Berkeley, a year at Sussex University in England, frequent travel with her parents, much of it "off the beaten track" in Europe and Asia with her mother, a stint in Kenya where the work available was that of helping to organize rock concerts, she went to Afghanistan in April, 1979, at the age of 24.
A Slight Figure
A "Valley girl" is not perhaps the most likely successor to the great travel writer/adventurers of an earlier time whose destiny took them to the Middle East, men like Britain's 19th-Century Richard Burton, or T. E. Lawrence. Yet here she is, this slight figure in her Afghan blouse and slippers, sitting in her parents' living room, surrounded by the booty of a family that does not know package tours, clearly marking time until she can get back to the real world. Out there.
"I have a real commitment to the idea and ideal of internationalism. I don't consider myself an alien anywhere. Borders, nations, visas bother me," Denker said.
She happened to go to Afghanistan and it took her heart; it could have been anywhere. "I flew out from London looking for a peaceful place to write poetry and novels," she said of that first trip in 1978. "I had little information. I knew of the coup (installing a Marxist regime that same month, a year before the Soviet occupation) but did not know of the Soviets advancing, etc. I found out on the plane."
In the course of an interview she would go on to mention becoming a "blood sister" to the women of the non-Muslim Kalash tribe of northern Pakistan, of being able to pass herself off as an Afghan of the fair-skinned Tajik tribe, of the dangers and intrigue of Peshawar--where most of Pakistan's 3 million refugees are concentrated and divided by political factions and intelligence agents--of having been drawn initially by the stark beauty of Afghanistan, of the calming effect of thinking in Persian.
Immersed in Afghan Culture
She has lived with the Afghan people, worked for them and been helped by them. She has sponsored a family's immigration to the United States. She has written an historical novel on Afghanistan, unpublished, and is now working on a contemporary one, chronicling the current situation. She has co-produced a documentary that has had a limited showing in this country. She has written articles about and photographed the refugees and guerrillas, served as a translator and interpreter, given first aid in the clinics. In this country, she will speak to schools and groups about the plight of the Afghan people whenever asked.
"Blood sister" and "adopted family"--she uses such phrases constantly. She is heart and soul with the people of Afghanistan: "I'm trying to make them real to people," she said, "so that they won't just seem like strange people running around in turbans and veils. . . ."
The violence of the struggle concerns her, but she supports it, she said. She refers to the guerrillas as freedom fighters, but rejects as an insult any "bracketing" of them with the contras of Nicaragua. The struggle means more to the people than their freedom: They are fighting for their hearts and lives, she said.
"It does worry me that if the war of attrition is to go on for another generation, it (Afghanistan) will be another Lebanon," she said. "It's a generation that is just going to grow up fighting. There are very different attributes between the actual fighters and the little children in the camps. They're being propagandized, singing 'death to the Russians,' etc. It's not cute at all.
Nagging Invasion Fears
"They have to love peace, freedom and God more than hate the Russians and what they're doing to them, or the struggle is ultimately doomed," she said.
Her first visit to Afghanistan lasted three months. She based herself in Kabul, was befriended by the family who owned the hotel where she stayed (and who she would later sponsor as immigrants), started to learn Dari and traveled the country. She left for Pakistan and India, writing in her diary of "nagging fears of a Soviet invasion." A second visit later that same year ended two weeks before the invasion that people sensed, she said, was inevitable.
The following year she went to Peshawar hoping to work with refugees, correctly anticipating that she would not be seen as qualified. Pakistan was flooding with refugees and she ran into many people she had known in Kabul.
She had wanted to work with the women, whose plight especially concerned her, and what articles she wrote dealt largely with their problems, Denker said. "Women in the camps are much less free than in their own country," she said of the practical realities of strict Islamic life. "There they worked in the fields, cared for their homes. In the camps they don't have their regular work to do. Idleness is a huge problem. . . . And if they're widowed or single, it's a tough situation." There is, she said a separate camp for widows, where high mud walls keep them in purdah. What few Afghan women are teachers, doctors and nurses work among the women.
"In Afghanistan itself, now," she said of those who resist the Soviets, "what women are there play mostly a support role. A lot are committed to staying inside. They cook for the moujahedeen . When I met them, they told me 'This is our jihad, ' meaning their religious struggle for right."
'Incredible Urge to Build'
Denker's heart has been with the Afghan people ever since. She did spend 18 months at her parents' house "stuck here," as she phrased her time in America, obligated to wait for the State Department to clear the family she was sponsoring for immigration.
When she finally returned to Pakistan in 1982, to spend several months writing about the refugees, she saw changes in the camps of Peshawar. The facilities were better, she said, and the Afghan people had been taken over by "their incredible urge to build and to beautify." The tent villages had been urbanized in the process, mud houses had replaced some of the tents, courtyards had been created, little garden patches of flowers and vegetables had appeared, Denker said. But the numbers had reached two million.
It was the following year that she infiltrated into Afghanistan for the first time. Her trip last November was the second.
In 1983, she entered the Kunar River valley with six moujahedeen men, who treated her like their sister, she said, and walked two or three days, up and down mountains, crossing a river on an inflated raft. They saw some fighting, none of it heavy, she said, although it was the first live gunfire she had ever been near.
They reached a clinic she had wanted to visit. Operating in an area controlled by the rebels and not the Soviets, it was staffed in part by volunteers from the International Medical Corps, among them, she said, Robert Simmons of UCLA.
"The Kunar has been the scene of some terrible battles recently," she said. "It appears there's saturation bombing going on all up and down the valley. I keep thinking of those families I met, hoping they made it through."
The impact of those two visits on her, she said, has been intense. Unplanted lands, devastated crops, "internal refugees" (she says there are estimates of 1 million) rebuilding in the rubble or in the mountains, a deserted and bombed village where the only living thing appeared to be one cat. . . .
"The psychic impression is that the land itself just seems to cry out. The violent debris of war is everywhere."
If aid is not forthcoming soon--food, medical supplies, personnel--she said she is convinced there will be famine.
Beyond the relief, what are her hopes for Afghanistan?
"I'd like to see the Soviets get out and the Afghans have self-determination with no intervention from the Soviet side or ours. And some form of democracy, probably an Islamic form," she said, specifying a hope it would be an enlightened form of Islam adapted to the present day.
Denker does not rule out getting involved elsewhere, she said. But she would never abandon Afghanistan, she said. It's a personal loyalty. She plans to return to the camps later this year. If she goes into Afghanistan again, she said, it will not be as a journalist. The risk does not justify it, she said. She would rather risk her life acting as an interpreter for International Medical Corps volunteers and do first aid. In the meantime, she is working on her documentary and novel. And she is studying alternative forms of architecture.
Reoriented Toward Building
"I'm reorienting myself toward building after being around so much destruction. Women's issues, refugee issues, applied technology. The Third World can make a choice, I think, of not making the mistakes of East or West. I'm working with some students making mud bricks, learning to build with earth and fire. I see an application for it in Pakistan in the camps, and India and Nepal. There are a lot of places that I care about.
"When I travel I carry a picture of the Earth taken from the moon and show it to everyone. I show it to government officers giving me visa problems, villagers--I say, 'Look. There are no countries, no borders.' It's a little eccentric, but. . . ."