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10 Months in Afghanistan

July 28, 2021 09:36 IST
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'The Afghans used to say that if there is any person whose name should be taken after Allah, it is Hindustani.'

IMAGE: Lieutenant Colonel Arup Basu with children in Kabul. All Photographs: Kind courtesy Lieutenant Colonel Arup Ratan Basu (retd) YSM

During his tenure as a surgeon in the Indian Army, Dr Arup Basu served in the Kargil hospital during the Kargil War and was part of the first Indian medical team that arrived in Afghanistan after American-led NATO forces ousted the Taliban post the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Dr Basu along with a medical team set up camps in various places in the war-torn countries and was tasked to augment the facilities of the Indian hospital in Kabul.

The doctor received a Yudh Seva Medal for his services to the nation during the Kargil War and took early retirement as a lieutenant colonel from the Indian Army.

As the Taliban once again regains control of large areas of Afghanistan, Dr Basu looked back on the 10 months he spent in the country.

"They loved Indians. There was a lot of curiosity about India, about Bollywood," Dr Basu tells's Archana Masih.


As a surgeon in the Indian Army, I did a two-year tenure in Kashmir during the Kargil War and after the war I was posted to Ranchi.

When in Ranchi, I was sent for a month-long deputation to Tajikistan in 2001.

I was deputed at a field hospital near the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border that had been established by India in the 1990s.

The hospital provided treatment to Northern Alliance Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud's men who were fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.

IMAGE: Ahmed Shah Massoud's tomb.

The Northern Alliance was the main resistance to the Taliban that ruled Afghanistan at that time.

When Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda suicide bombers, two days before the World Trade Centre terror attacks, he was flown to our field hospital in a helicopter.

I was not there at that time.

Unfortunately, he had already breathed his last by the time he reached the hospital.

I returned to India and was sent to Afghanistan in October after US troops and allies invaded the country after the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda.

I was a part of the first Indian contingent that arrived in Afghanistan. Our job was basically to build the medical facilities of Afghanistan.

The Indira Gandhi Medical Institute already existed in Kabul and our brief was to augment it.

I stayed in the war-torn country for 10 months. I was selected on the basis of my annual reports.

'We saw the Taliban sitting on hill tops with guns, their faces covered'

IMAGE: A medical camp at the gurdwara in Kabul, the site of a recent Taliban attack.

We built our medical teams and travelled around Afghanistan. We set up camps in various remote and dangerous places.

Once we were almost about to walk through a minefield! But we fortunately, held ourselves back and survived.

We used to travel to varied locations -- once we had to go to Mazar-e-Sharif. We got delayed and it was soon dark. Though the Taliban that had ruled the country had been ousted by NATO forces with support from the Northern Alliance by then, our taxi driver told us that some Taliban were still active in the area.

He warned that if we were caught, they would kill us and take away our cash.

Though we had a police escort, we could see the Taliban sitting on hills, their faces covered with rifles in hand.

We were lucky to have escaped with the skin of our teeth.

The pluck of our youth went a long way during our travels in the country.

IMAGE: In a poppy field.

'He put a gun to my head'

Once a cop put a gun to my head thinking I was Pakistani. He let me go and was extremely apologetic when I told him that I was Indian.

The young constable obviously couldn't make out the difference between Indian and Pakistani. We were two Indians and when we showed our passports, he didn't know how to read!

He thought that he had won a booty by capturing two Pakistanis and thought he would be rewarded.

When they realised that we were Indians, he was reprimanded by his inspector.

IMAGE: The Kunduz hills in north Afghanistan.

'The Afghans treated us as kings'

The people of Afghanistan used to say that if there is any person whose name should be taken after Allah, it is Hindustani.

That was the kind of respect we used to get.

There have been times when we have eaten at an Afghan restaurant and the owner would just not accept money.

There were times when we were stranded in the middle of the night and given shelter in a gurdwara or masjid or somebody's house. And it was always free of cost.

You could feel the respect for Indians when you went out on the streets. There was a lot of curiosity about India, about Bollywood.

IMAGE: Lunch with an Afghani family; the head of the family was an erstwhile Indian, a Bengali from Barrackpore.

They treated us like kings. The common man was really enamoured by India.

The Afghans were extremely delighted to see us. They loved Indians. They had a lot of expectations from us. They used to say that they don't like the Pakistanis, but couldn't do without them because everything for their country came from Pakistan -- from a pin to a truck to every food particle.

Life as an Indian doctor in a war-torn country

IMAGE: At Baug e Babur, the tomb of the Mughal emperor Babur.

We had to build up medical facilities right from scratch -- giving the indents and getting the contractors to construct buildings etc.

We used to see patients in the mornings. The respect for Indian doctors was so great that everybody wanted to come and get treated by us. Sometimes, there would be a riot-like situation in front of our dispensary -- people used to get injured in the jostle and the police had to fire rounds in the air to disperse the crowd.

The first camp we set up was at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. A team from the armed forces of another country was stationed there.

The second camp visit was to Kunduz.

Subsequently, we went to Jalalabad on the eastern sector. We also went for a medical camp to Bamiyan, the famous site of the 6th century Buddha statues that was destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

We also spoke to Haji Abdul Qadir, a well-known Northern Alliance leader who later became vice president of Afghanistan in Hamid Karzai's government. We spoke about opening up the hospital and how to reach the camps etc.

Abdul Qadir was assassinated a few months after becoming vice president.

IMAGE: The Bamiyan Buddha site.

We travelled to many places helping and setting local dispensaries. I once accompanied the Indian ambassador to Paktika, one of the remotest areas of Afghanistan to find out the health issues faced by the people. I visited a hospital over there that was being set up by some NGOs.

One of my friends went to Herat; another friend went to Kandahar. We went to almost all the major places and gave our reports about the health and infrastructure requirements.

Later, India set up consulates in some of the places we had visited.

IMAGE: At an abandoned al-Qaeda camp in Rishkhor near Kabul.

It is sad that some of the consulates had to close down due to the resurgence of the Taliban.

It has been 20 years, but those days in Afghanistan have remained with me. I have written a book about my Afghan experience in Bengali.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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