The ancient bus rumbled awake, shook itself off, and headed out, hours before dawn in late October 1997 with the barren Afghan terrain still cold and black as the far side of the moon. Packed with villagers from Paghman, a town in the hills just outside Kabul, the bus was on a 12-hour run to the Pakistani border. The women on board were wrapped in their anonymous, ubiquitous burqas – hidden beneath one of these was a friend of mine, an American from the Defense Intelligence Agency named Julie Sirrs.
The Taliban knew she was in the area. They were hunting for her. She was fleeing for her life.
The Taliban were at the height of their power in this region after exploding out of the south three years before. By May 1997 they had seized control of Jalalabad and Kabul, taken territory as far north as Mazar-e Sharif and blockaded the central highlands of the Hazarajat region. During the time of Julie Sirrs’ trip, they were tightening their grip on the political system, changing the name of the country to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and filling the streets of Kabul and nearby towns with squads from the fearsome Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. These black-turbaned young men, sporting whips made of leather and sometimes cable, were eager to beat anyone who flew kites, painted their nails, shaved, or committed any other so-called crime against Islam.
Her guide, Jan Muhammad, and his sister sat with Julie. Paghman, Muhammad’s childhood home, was close-knit, and neighborly. Word traveled from door to door quickly, about the woman he’d brought from America. And the small-town chattiness that made Paghman so hospitable also made it easy for the squads to keep tabs on Julie and her hosts. Muhammad learned they were already going house to house, making inquiries about the new guest. He brought them all out on the next bus. When morning came, they saw something that underlined the danger they faced. As the sun rose the bus passed a row of men dangling from a scaffold, their faces puffed out and black.
Julie Sirrs didn’t know how she’d be killed if caught. Traveling with a man not her husband would get her stoned as an adulterer. Being found out as a DIA officer would get her hung like those men. She didn’t want to find out which it would be.
The bus rattled over the rough ground, and the passengers held tight, bouncing wildly, beards fluttering and burqas flying. These rides were always hell. Afghan custom was that the men could get off for rest stops, but the women couldn’t, not even for emergencies. On her trip in from Pakistan, Julie had gotten ill from the jostling, and thrown up into her hand. She had to sit with it for almost nine hours. Now she was hunted and tired, feeling the beginnings of a vicious bout of flu. It was a long time to wait.
They reached the border: a small guard house with double gates in the middle of nowhere. On the trip in, the crossing was quick and dirty. Soldiers lifted the gates, and anyone who could run the few hundred yards in 15 minutes got through without question. Julie thought it might be the same, getting out. But it wasn’t. The guards ordered the women into a line leading into the building. Inside, a female Talib was lifting everyone’s burqa to check for spies, for smugglers, and possibly for a stray American. There was no way Julie could pass as an Afghan. Muhammad said a few words to his sister as they got into line. They inched closer and closer to what could be a very ugly scene. But as they entered the building, they saw their chance. There were so many women packed into such a small space that the line twisted and turned in on itself. Muhammad’s sister grabbed Julie and pulled her in and out of the line, heading for the exit. She did it furtively. No one could tell they hadn’t been checked. They made it out of the building, out of the country, and Julie Sirrs was safe.
Ten years before Julie Sirrs did this, she beat me savagely at two junior high debate tournaments. Dave, my partner, dug into his old files for the judges’ ballots from those competitions. One note shows Julie did a particularly good and brutal cross-examination of me.
"She shredded you,” Dave said with a chuckle.
Julie was a cute brown-haired girl, serious and frighteningly driven, who became my great geek nemesis. She and I faced off, trying to outdo each other in grades, SAT scores, and general resume-padding. We were in a small group of forensics nerds at First Colonial High, a suburban school in Virginia Beach, in the shadow of the largest naval base in the world, next door to a half dozen aircraft carriers, blanketed by the constant low thunder of fighter jets on maneuver, and just down the road from the CIA’s legendary training camp, code-named the Farm.
There were a lot of military brats at FC. The Young Republicans had nine members; the Young Democrats none. Someone launched a political group called the Forum for Independent Student Thought, or FIST, but no one knew what the hell they stood for, and everyone was scared of them.
We lost touch. I went to New York to work for magazines in the 1990s, while Julie caused an international incident, lost her job, and became a 9/11 whistleblower, one of the people who warned us of the increasingly dangerous combination of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. After the attacks, after I kind of went crazy and (like a lot of people) signed up to join the CIA, before washing out of the selection process, I spent years writing about this stuff. And then I ran into Julie again. She'd done everything I wanted and failed to do, and it had been one of the most frustrating experiences of her life.
We sat down to write her story, and it changed how I saw the world, and my country's place in it.