IT was one of those moments when all that matters is to go on despite one’s fear. That’s how it was once upon a distant war many years ago, as I followed my guide along a dried-up river bed towards some foothills marking the Pakistan–Afghanistan frontier.

Sidestepping a small cluster of butterfly landmines on the track ahead of us, I pointed to the ground and asked a simple one-word question: “Afghanistan?”

My guide’s grin was all the reply I needed. I was finally in.

This was a war long before the current one in Afghanistan. It was the 1980s, the height of the Afghan mujahideen guerrilla war against the Soviet Red Army who had invaded their land. It was a war too that would come to be known as “Russia’s Vietnam”.

It’s a sobering thought that Afghanistan has now been at war in some shape or form for going on 40 years. It’s now 17 years almost to the day that the United States launched its own invasion, much as the Soviets did all those decades before while the West was preoccupied with Christmas back in 1979.

Throughout all those intervening years as a correspondent I’ve followed the fortunes of Afghanistan and never ceased to be amazed by the fortitude of its people.

The Soviet war was the one in which I earned my spurs as a war reporter, doing so in a country that I grew to love and in which I experienced the best and worst of times.

Over decades I would witness the Russians leave, watch the rise of the Taliban and see the British and Americans come and go again. But it’s those early years of the Soviet war that I will remember most.

Time and again I would go back and forward illegally across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in exotic disguises.

Western reporters, after all, were not meant to be inside Afghanistan with the guerrillas, and the penalties if caught by the Russians could be severe indeed. At best imprisonment as a spy in Afghanistan’s most notorious prison, Pul-Charkhi, east of Kabul, lay in store.

Pulling out all the stops to avoid such a fate, on one occasion I made the crossing dressed as a woman, wearing a burqa complete with painted toenails and sandals.

On another I was swathed in bandages soaked in sheep blood and laid in a makeshift coffin pretending to be a wounded guerrilla fighter to escape detection by the Pakistani border authorities.

Always though, once inside Afghanistan the subsequent long march in-country with the guerrillas would follow a familiar pattern. Each night our heavily armed band of mujahideen would set off by starlight to avoid the Soviet helicopter gunships. Looking back now I can scarcely believe how gruelling those marches were, some often anything up to 20 hours or more.

As we marched through the mountains, explosions often growled and rumbled and the horizon flickered like a candlelit room from some far-off battle or bombardment.

At night, as fatigue set in, events would assume an almost surreal quality, as if a line from the Arabian Nights had come to life.

But instead of the 40 thieves, other groups of footsore, hollow-eyed mujahideen would pass by, murmuring “Manda nabashi’’ – “May you not be tired” – to which the reply was “Zenda bashi” – “May you live”.

Fear was a constant companion, its reminders never far away. The threatening look of some rival mujahideen on a lonely mountain track, the silhouette of a distant helicopter gunship like some bloated dragonfly or the bright magnesium flare spiralling above a Russian outpost as we slipped quietly by in the dark.

Documenting Afghan guerrilla operations was not for the faint hearted or unfit. Sometimes the long weeks in the mountains, forced marches and hiding in caves from Russian patrols would eventually take their toll.

I remember once, wracked with dysentery, finding myself talking to the two dead men that lay either side of me for three days on the floor of a battered bus crammed with casualties, as it crawled towards the Pakistan frontier.

While I was clearly delirious somehow it seemed natural, reassuring even. Death has two faces. One is nonbeing; the other is the material being that is the corpse.

Sometimes though it was better not to think too much about the lives of the dead. Like the afternoon we overran a Russian hilltop post near the Afghan village of Sanglakh.

Days of heavy fighting had left only a batch of pulverised emplacements, the charred bodies of its young Russian defenders sticking out from the rubble surrounded by spent shell cases and empty ration tins of Bulgarian meat.

One of them lay face up, twisted under some wooden beams. I stood there staring at him, feeling a strange affinity.

Both of us were so far away from home. Like me, this young man had come to this unforgiving place: eating, sleeping, marching, feeding fleas and falling ill with dysentery and hepatitis.

Like me, he’d become tanned, thin, made friends and lost friends. Unlike me though, he had no choice. Now he wasn’t even a conscript, just a “zinky boy”, as the Russians called those lucky enough to have their remains sent home in zinc-lined coffins.

Perhaps it was the stench, or the creeping sense of loneliness, but I started to turn away, until a sudden shout stopped me in my tracks. At my feet a young Afghan guerrilla carefully traced a wire revealing a booby-trap grenade pegged into the ground at either end. I looked back at the young Russian. Only by chance had our common lot been deprived of its finale.

Years later, after the Russians had withdrawn from Afghanistan as Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika” prevailed, the daily ritual of slaughter and survival was no longer against the communists. Having routed the “Reds”, Afghanistan’s “holy warriors” now turned on each other in a bitter factional struggle for control of the country’s capital, Kabul.

Once, during the battle for a gutted bus station in the city, the group of fighters I was with were caught in the open by a mortar barrage. It was like some nightmarish Sam Peckinpah movie being re-run. All around in a maelstrom of noise and confusion, men were being hurled into the air and coming down in pieces.

I found myself cowering alongside a low wall in a puddle of blood and muck, next to a man trailing his left leg from a string of tendon, his eyes bulging like those of a dying hen, as he reached out his hand to me.

Before I could grasp it, another shell had me automatically on my feet, running, my chest heaving like a spent swimmer’s. To stay there was to end up like him. War has its emptiness, its zero points during which men are simply glad about not being dead.

Some days later while looking for a safe place to shit without being shot, I came across a severed human hand lying in the mud. Something convinced me it was his, haunting me as revenge for my fear and indifference that day.

During those dark days in the mid 1990s, as warlords and factions struggled for control of Kabul, the city’s civilians diced daily with death.

Just taking to the streets then was to run the gauntlet of bullets, rockets and shells that were fired indiscriminately into neighbourhoods, schools and hospitals.

One day, because of the fighting, I was told that Kabul’s Marastoon mental asylum had been abandoned by its staff, and patients had been left to fend for themselves.

Expecting the worst, I arrived at the open gates and cautiously ventured inside to find myself confronted by an unexpected scene.

INSIDE, the blind, crippled and mentally ill patients had taken to running their own lives; cooking, baking bread, helping each other to the filthy toilets and washrooms or playing soothing and reassuring music on flutes and the traditional stringed tambur as the war around them raged. It was the sanest place in the city.

Ever resourceful, most Afghans got on with life the best they could. There might have been a little respite from the fighting but already yet more barbarians were massing at the gates of Kabul. Enter next the zealots of the Taliban and their overseas guests Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Afghanistan’s wars up until then had always played out within its own land, but al-Qaeda had other ideas.

With the September 11 attacks on the US it was only a matter of time before American military might and that of its allies was brought to bear.

As both the Americans and later British bunkered in for the long war, I found myself on occasions embedded with their forces.

It was an odd feeling, totally the opposite of all those years before when I accompanied the guerrillas as they fought outside invaders.

Where once I had hidden in the mountains of the Hindu Kush I now found myself sometimes flying across those same valleys and ridges in helicopters much like the Russians I used to fear did in the past.

I recall once while aboard a US Black Hawk Medevac helicopter landing in a god-forsaken seemingly forgotten outpost to pick up wounded. Clinging to a steep craggy mountainside this American base had been attacked by the Taliban on numerous occasions.

Seconds later our patient’s stretcher was slid on board. He had been shot in the neck and stomach. Still conscious, his face was contorted with pain and his hair matted with blood. Over the clatter of the rotors I could hear nothing of his cries.

Only when we landed did the American crew chief tell me the wounded man was a suspected “bad guy” or Taliban. The US crew had risked their life to save him, not something I would have expected from my first Medevac mission.

Sometimes it was as if the war I was witnessing again now was just a continuation of those I had covered in Afghanistan in the past. “This wound I got from the shuravi [Russians],” a man called Haji Mohammed told me one morning, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a long scar below the elbow of his left arm. His village was in Helmand’s upper Sangin Valley, a notorious Taliban stronghold.

As we talked, British Royal Marines from 45 Commando, whom I was accompanying on a mission to destroy Taliban arms dumps, searched the man’s home and compound for the weapons intelligence had indicated was in the vicinity.

Alongside Haji Mohammed stood some of his children, one of them a little girl who was barefoot and shivering in the bitter winter cold.

Poverty here is endemic and most people in rural Afghanistan like Haji Mohammed’s family have known nothing but war throughout most of their lives.

I asked him whether, if he were a young man today, he would fight the British and Americans the same way he had fought the Russians. “Maybe yes,” he replied with a mischievous grin.

It struck me that this was as close to an honest answer about what he thought of the Taliban as I was likely to get.

Forty years on from those days when Russian troops went to war in Afghanistan, the country still searches for an elusive peace.

Right now the Taliban are active in 70 per cent of the country and more civilians have been killed during the first half of this year than any other year since the UN started counting bodies in 2009.

Proud, tough as nails yet hospitable to the point of embarrassment, Afghans are long overdue some respite. How it hurts me to see them still suffering after all this time.