Warsaw (Poland), 15th September, 2001
I was Ahmad Shah Masood’s guest
Late July evening in Dushanbe. People with children will savour their walk around the fountain on the main square in front of the salmon-pink-washed building of the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs till late evening hours. One could wish for a hardly better sign of people’s trust in peace that gradually filters through the capital of Tajikistan after almost a decade of devastating civil war. The only intrusion were crackling series of gun fire in the distance of eastern suburbs in the morning hours - the oddments of the war. Troops of Rakhmon Sangin, alias “Hitler”, have drawn very close to the city limits. His people have taken temporary control of a few sections of the main road from Dushanbe to Khorog in the Pamirs on the Afghan border, and areas between Dushanbe and Kulyab in Southern part of Tajikistan.
I have just arrived from Batken, the Kyrghyz part of the Ferghana Valley, where every year Islamist guerrillas resume fighting to establish an emirate. Trained in a camp ran by Jumanboy Khojiev, native of the city of Namangan in the Uzbek Ferghana valley, and Osama bin Laden, they descend down the Pamir ranges west of Pik Komunisma when the snows finally melt in ice-capped passes late July. In Dushanbe my friend informs me that his uncle, Ahmad Shah Masood, already knows that I am on my way, and offers me his hospitality in Afghanistan.
Officially the Minister of Defence of the Islamic State of Afghanistan and the unquestioned true leader of the mujaheddin, Ahmad Shah Masood welds, thanks to his charismatic personality, the motley mosaic of the democratic opposition fighting against the Taliban regime of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The idea of emirate involves a state with a jurisprudential system based wholly on the Koranic law of sharia, and politically governed by an emir who is a spiritual leader implementing Islamic principles. The fundamentalist idea of a state topped by the emir, mullah Mohammad Omar, has not only been reject at the very outset by democratically oriented élite but it has not won the hearts of common Muslims.
I am on my way to a border Tajik town Farkhor, where the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) 201st Division that controls the Afghan-Tajik frontier made a tiny airstrip available for mujaheddin battered helicopters MI-17. A decent asphalt road, a rarity in the region, would normally allow to cover the 180 kilometres in 3 hours. This time it takes at least twice as much. In a dilapidated Soviet-made Zhiguli, the driver will meander through a maze of village paths and pathless wasteland of mountainous terrain, trying to dodge villages controlled by Rakhmon Sangin’s guerrillas.
Now, in Farkhor, it is only 20 kilometres in a straight line that separate me from Hoja Bahauddin across the reaches of Amu Darya, called here the Pyanj river, that mark the Tajik-Afghan border. I will first see Masood’s headquarters from above. Following his advice, I am airborne towards his home village of Basarak, about 40 kilometres north off Kabul, in the impenetrable Panjshir Valley. My feet almost touch snow-capped peaks and rugged scarps of the inhospitable and awesome Hindu Kush, the Killer of the Hindus. Here and there a quick-silver thread of a rivulet is enveloped by pocket-sized terraces of wheat, grown on soil hacked off amidst eroded rocks. Even in the time of peace Afghanistan would entirely depend on external help for food. Closer to Kabul, the helicopter planes down a little between pinnacled ranges: despite chronic aviation fuel shortages, Taliban MIG-21s may once in a while venture to shoot one of Masood’s fleet of MI-17s.
Mountainous dust road that weaves along the Panjshir river is gauged every 30 or 50 metres by cadavers of ripped tanks, exploded armoured cars and lacerated trucks. These are defunct witnesses of Russians’ ten-year long failure to penetrate the gorges.
After a few hours spent with general Bismillah Khan, commander of the Kabul front, I leave behind the shelter of Panjshir valley and his military base, and drive into the open of Shemali plains. Every minute a bombshell from a nearby hill overlooking the road may remind an intruder that Taliban troops are stationed there. The jeep sneaks around along muddy crippled walls and cramped houses. Burnt, desolate villages sprawl over for a few kilometres, and parched rice fields and dried-out yellowed grapevine shrubs appal a stray visitor from behind dwarfish earthen walls. The Taliban have ravaged fine-wrought mesh of irrigational canals, constructed and perfected through generations, in order to cut off the home front supplies to the mujaheddin. I am to meet one-time local dwellers in IDP (internally displaced people) camps even hundreds of kilometres away. To aggravate the three years of droughts, the Taliban have devastated underground ducts in mountains, many of them gouged out centuries back, that until recently carried water to deep wells scattered around for dozens of kilometres. I ascend an elevated position of the mujaheddin, ready to shoot. In the distance you can see the suburbs of what once was prosperous Kabul. First bullets flying above our heads announce that the Taliban are a few hundred meters away. Squatting behind a mound with soldiers, we share sun-dried runtish grapes, which have not been fortunate enough to grow ripe.
Colonel Babajan’s aide-de-camp joins me. For the next dozen kilometres, he will guide me across the territory occupied by the Taliban to a secret military airport in Bagra, not marked on ordinary maps. In the times of Soviet occupation, it was the main air base of the invaders. It was months before when Babajan’s unit twenty-odd strong accomplished the impossible: it took by storm the airport, protected by heavy machine-guns, a tank and two armoured cars. Sitting next to Babajan at the top, from the stump of the control tower I can easily see the Taliban positions at the peripheries.
In the innermost of the Panjshir Valley, shabby dwellings of refugees desperately clutch on to steep slopes: in the steppe of blue-striped whitish canvases of IDP tents, only a few fortunate homes are raised from mud and jagged rocks. The most acute problem is complete lack of provisions and medicaments. Doctor Sayed who takes care of one of the IDP camps says bitterly that the world has forgotten about them: “Last time we got any food was 9 months ago. There are about 1,800 families living here in these dreadful conditions, which means approximately 18 thousand people. And we had to divide one sack of wheat between two families. That was all we had. How long can ten people live on half a sack of wheat?!” Then he adds: “People have started to eat grass. Do you know where they get drinking water from? From the river over there. An epidemic can break out any moment.” Sayed points to a group of barefoot children: “At this elevation, first snowfalls can be expected even as early as October, and large numbers of people have no shoes and no warmer clothes.”
This is an anguished panopticum, a bona fide display of curios. I am talking to a fugitive from Kabul. It was a year ago when a bunch of Taliban militiamen were apparently attracted to his sister’s wedding ceremony by muffled sounds of music. One of them violently removed the burka veiling the bride’s face and spotted the verboten lipstick. With one hand, he immediately took hold of her lower lip and cut it off with a knife in the other hand. A few kinsmen were incarcerated for two weeks. Two other escapees from Kabul explain that they lost their ears for having listened to music. I am talking to a Shiah refugee from Mazar-e-Sharif, a city captured by the Taliban in 1998. He gives a detailed account of how he miraculously managed to escape from a column of detainees who were being transported to a nearby desert. There the victims were buried alive in a pit, and those who resisted were shot down. It is estimated that in the desert sands on the fringes of the Layli plains, bordering with Turkmenistan, mass graves may store remains of as many as 6-7 thousand people, mostly Shiah Hazaras and most active defenders of the city. The accuracy of these estimates was later confirmed by several people, including Afghan doctors who look after IDPs in refugee camps, officers of some NGOs and a UN co-ordinator who left Mazar-e-Sharif as one of last foreigners there, just before the Taliban final onslaught.
Resentment among villagers whose houses have been burnt and irrigational canals destroyed is contagious, and armed resistance seems to proliferate to many areas under control of the Taliban. A case of a village women of Nahrin, in Baghlan province, vividly attests to how determined various sections of the population already are. Her husband was killed by the Taliban last spring, while guarding his own homestead. In act of anguish, she has called up all her eight sons and other male relatives, and thus raised a 50-strong squad, swearing revenge and the fight to the death. Herself being Tajik, she intones a ballad, composed by a Pashtu female poet Malaleh, who sacrificed her life fighting against the British invaders during the 2nd Afghan War (1878-1880): “If you don’t rise up in arms, I will claim back my milk that once gave life to you.” This only confirms what Ahmad Shah Masood will have told me a few days later: “The Taliban and Pakistani generals try to make the world believe that Afghanistan is comprised of ethnic groups and tribes. … It is again the old method of ‘divide and rule’. … Now they can clearly see that resistance sparks other centres with other ethnic groups.”
I have just spoken to Masood on the radio. He has came back to Hoja Bahauddin from Takhar province, where the Taliban launched another major offensive three days ago. “I can see you tomorrow,” he says. Takhar is a scene of heavy fighting now. After months of preparation, on 16 June, the Taliban launched a massive attack on the strategic Farkhar Gorge, 15 miles east of Taliqan, the provincial capital of Takhar. 5,000-strong Taliban forces, backed by tanks, artillery and MIG-21s and assisted by Pakistani regular units and by guerrillas trained in Osama Bin Laden’s camps, have been repeatedly attempting to capture the strategic ravine.
In mid-July a few hundred Islamist fighters commanded by Jumanboy Khojiev, alias Juma Namangani, come to succour to the Taliban troops engaged in Talachan. In the summer of 2000, supported by Osama bin Laden, Juma Namangani succeed in forcing his way across the midlands of Uzbekistan and drew with his troops as near Tashkent as 80 kilometres, in my eyes turning the capital of Uzbekistan into a panic-stricken, besieged city.
I have the opportunity to interview a few Taliban fighters in POW camps in Talachan and in a squatty prison in Doaub, “Convergence of two rivers”, a nameless place in the Panjshir Valley, a gravel shelf protected by two converging becks and overhanging crags. On of them is a bearded Pakistani mullah of dignified appearance, who was engaged in stetting up Taliban medressas in western Pakistan since 1992 and founded a pro-Taliban fundamentalist party in Kabul in 1995. Himself, he has spent some time in Osama bin Laden’s training camps. Now he has been kept in the Doaub prison for more than six months. On my request to the guards I am left alone with prisoners in the cell for an hour. The mullah discloses to me terrorist plans to export the pan-Islamic revolution to other regions, in the place to countries of Central Asia. In unemotional voice, he divulges that, in their fight against the Occidental Evil, they do not have to rely entirely on inferior military equipment; hijacked passenger aeroplanes can be used a missiles. The first two targets he explicitly mentions are the White House and the Pentagon building.
A helicopter arrives at the dusk to bring me to Massod’s village next morning. At daybreak, fog envelops the peaks, making the flight over the Hindu Kush impossible. I am stuck in Panjshir for another five days.
Eventually I land in Hoja Bahauddin after an hour-and-a-half helicopter flight. It would have taken nearly two full days and nights of continuos jeep drive to trespass the valleys. His close secretary informs me that in the meantime Masood has made for the Talachan front again. He has cancelled all his appointments for at least a week. No one knows when to expect him back. For the time being, I am staying at his guest room. The interiors of one-storeyed squat houses of piled-up sun-baked bricks are surprisingly modest and unpretentious. I am at the heart of the headquarters of the United Front. This is also where the legendary, charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance lives.
Equally insignificant quarters, located at the outskirts of the village, house a number of ministries: finance, education and health. The majority of the higher-rank administration of the Islamic State of Afghanistan is practically recruited from among Masood’s secretaries and confidants. A simple office that has been heighten to the status of the finance ministry is equipped with only two outdated computers. The energy is supplied by a small power generator. In these provinces no one seems to remember the days when once the infrastructure existed that provided electric power. When I am trying to repair a defunct computer of the only two, lying just behind me raves a secretary, with acute symptoms of malaria. I am to meet at least a dozen of victims of the disease, endemic to the Amu Darya basin. Even though curable, it still terminates in death for lack of any medicaments. Scarce NGOs, such as Medicines Sans Frontiers, Afghanaid or the French Acted do the utmost to alleviate the situation, but the actual help proves even less than insufficient.
In what is probably best supplied hospital in this part of Afghanistan, ran by an Italian NGO Emergency and located in Anoba village about 15 kilometres from the Kabul front line, I witness an operation of leg amputation, the patient being only locally, symbolically as it were, anaesthetised. In a Faizabad hospital, I will be present at similar operations, with no anaesthesia though, performed on victims of front-line activities and omnipresent field mines. It is estimated that at least every tenth out of a 100,000 field mines in the world is buried in Afghan soil.
However, doctors are most alarmed by the spectre of encroaching cholera. As early as beginning of the year, nearly a hundred people died of cholera in Badghis province in the Northwest. The germs spread rapidly with infected water. No one knows exactly how high is the death toll by now in the canyons of Balkh province, about a 400 kilometres further east, next to the front line. Every new day chimes the same message, with new figures though: “July 23: A cholera epidemic has killed 43 people in the past 24 hours in Aaqkoprok area, south of Balkh Province. They included men, women, and children.” Since the very beginning local population have resisted the Taliban, who have, in return, obstructed the access for medical supplies and humanitarian help to the disaster area, waiting till the epidemic does away with the opposition. Medicines Sans Frontiers warn that the epidemic may spread any time and reach Faizabad, for large stretches of the country are interconnected with irrigation canals that also provide drinking water.
Still ten years back, provincial Faizabad, with its 20,000 dwellers residing along the banks of the mountain Varduj river, resembled a village rather than a town in its own right. Non-government relief organisations assess that number of the Faizabadians increased up to 200,000 within last four years. The immigrants are driven away from homes by famine, drought, burnt-down houses and fields and fear of the Taliban. Over a half of all refuges in the world, inclusive of the internally displaced people, are Afghans.
This summer’s sun is scorching beyond exception. The heat sweats down the skin, peeling it off, eyeballs are swollen with sizzling pain. The temperature reaches 49 centigrade.
Poverty encroaching from all sides is terrifying. The standard of living would match the average of Calcutta slums. What distinguishes these shelters is sense of tidiness and relative care for cleanness within the precincts. The entrance to a somewhat more affluent earthen house is barred by the door cut off of rusty sheet metal with a paled warning, written across it in Russian: “OGNEOPASTNO!” -“Highly inflammable!” This is what remained of a Soviet petrol tank, bombed by the Mujaheddin a dozen years ago. Perched at a further end of a bazaar, a grizzly-bearded shoemaker strives to mend a plastic sandal that any slum denizen in India would probably spurn. Nearby, at a deserted edge of the sandy maidan, the most heinous mephitis ever imagined drives my nostrils into a state of highest trepidation. It is a local tannery. Sunken in slime and dirt barefoot and ankle-high, an elderly, emaciated ghost of a man winds endless coils of sheep intestines round his tanned, skeletal arm. Down there, nothing can be wasted.
With my good friend Daud, an Afghan TV reporter, we proceed to a voguish restaurant in the village, a few dusty, flaked-off tables congregated under a canopy. Locally produced coke, flavoured powder dissolved in water with crushed ice, is served in antique misshaped Coca Cola tins that have to make for glasses. We order ice-cream. There soon arrives a pair of bowls, stumpy metal cans that were once filled with mince meat and now proudly carry stylish creamy swans, crested with white chiselled heads and winged with glossy folded pennons, of softest, silken texture and savour of purest vanilla, with no synthetic ‘benefits’ of the West, not a tinge of preservatives, and lavishly sprinkled with sweet cherry syrup. Finest ice-cream ever thinkable. It is made in large wooden barrels full of broken ice, transported in massive blocks from the mountains.
The following day I decide to visit Ay Khanom, ruins of a Greek city founded by Alexander the Great, designed as one of his temporary Alexandrias, capitals of his empire. It was built for his Sogdian wife Roxana to seal a treaty with the Sogdians, that ensured Alexander peace at the Northeast flanks and made the further expansion eastward up to the Indus river possible. After 2,330 years even the real name of the “Alexandria” fell in oblivion. The jeep needs almost 3 hours for the stretch of 35 kilometres, which consists in most part of pot-holes intersected with pebble humps that rub the chassis of my Russian-made UAZ. No other jeep would make it. Fine dust fills in my lungs and the whole universe.
We roll down a steep slope into a spacious ravine. An innominate tributary of Amu Darya, which is at this section called the river Pyanj, glistens in the afternoon sun. I pass by a tiny village and as soon as I leave a cluster of trees behind, first gun shots are heard from the hill opposite. This is the way Taliban snipers wish to inform that I have entered the no man’s land right between the front-lines. Hidden behind village stone walls encircling rice terraces, the car will wait till my return. Guided by three villagers, on horseback without stirrups, I will alternately trot and gallop along shallow boulder-strewn rills and pebbly reaches for an hour and a half. Stationed on my right, Taliban artillery faces the East. Above my head and to my right, gun-barrels of the Mujaheddin brace up for the Taliban. The tension may find a vent any minute. Having dismounted the horse at the foot of a hill, I scale on my own.
The confluence of Amu Darya and its tributary unfolds itself down below under my feet. A picturesque plateau separates three mountain ranges facing each other: the Taliban and the Mujaheddin, whereas the third is protected by silhouettes of armed CIS guards, magnified through my binoculars. Gigantic field of molehills and craters is enfolded in river arms. This is where Alexander and Roxana relished their honeymoon moments; this is where a large merchant town subsequently grew on an vital trade route, which connected Bactria and Hellada, only to transform into an important junction on the Silk Road. As late as the Seventies the plan of city walls, outline of Zeus temple and contours of other edifices were distinctly recognisable next to the same shoal of Amu Darya. Nowadays, the only testimony to the past glory of the city can be seen in a chaykhana, a traditional tea-house, in Hoja Bahauddin: scraped and devastated capitals of the Zeus temple, smeared with white oil-based paint and placed upside-down to support pillars.
Where once the capitals topped marble columns, one can hide now in deep pits of illegal excavations. For nominal reward, refugees from the camps in the neighbourhood are ready to risk their lives digging for Hellenistic riches. The treasure-trove is instantly smuggled over to the Middle East. Here and in similar sites priceless treasures are found every now and then. In our conversation, Ahmad Shah Masood confirms the information I possess that treasure hunters excavated an ancient golden cow in the Tol area in the Panjshir valley, which was later sold in Peshawar in Pakistan for 3 million dollars. This was probably one of the most valuable archaeological funds in the history of Afghanistan. This summer a colleague of mine, lecturing in a leading European university, was asked to investigate a precious early Buddhist manuscript that had been acquired by a private Scandinavian collector at one of such auction houses in the United Arab Emirates for 100,000 USD. In this way numerous artefacts of inestimable value have disappeared from the Kabul museum into private collections, provided they have been fortunate enough - unlike the Bamyan Buddha statues - to escape the destruction of cultural purges from the Taliban iconoclast hands.
Single shots are fired in my direction. The Taliban snipers have espied me. I run for life into a nearest pit. The Mujaheddin’s artillery is quick to reply. The dialogue finds its unconstrained enrichment in the rumble of tanks and clatter of rocket launchers on the Taliban side opposite. The distance of two kilometres separates me from the spot where I have left my horse. Every new whiz announces an imminent rocket blast in my vicinity. Then, I have only 2-3 seconds to plunge into any sheltering cavity within my reach. I seek safety behind a bellowing tank entrenched atop the hill. A few hours later the crimson sunset draws the curtain of darkness and long-awaited silence.
I am back at Masood’s headquarters. There is still no news when he will be back from the Takhar front. Tomorrow? Next week? I decide to accept the offer to be flown to Faizabad, a temporary capital of the Northern Alliance, by a helicopter next morning, where I have two appointments with Burhanuddin Rabbani, the president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, once a professor of Koranic law and theology at Kabul University. I only leave a short note for Masood at his bedside. The forenoon sees the helicopter rotors accelerate and I am about to ascend it. The radio rings. It’s Masood. He explains that he returned very late last night, he did not sleep for almost a day and night. He has just got up and read my note. We can see each other in 20 minutes. Tomorrow he has to be back in Takhar. I jump out of the helicopter. I will meet President Rabbani in a few days’ time.
After nearly a month I reach the shores of the Pyanj river, about 170 kilometres south of Khorog. I am standing on the Tajik-Afghan border again. This is also where the drug route starts. Within a couple of days, the trail will take me across the impassable Pamir mountains and along Chinese border fence, a prohibited zone. It will lead me through the Wakhan Corridor, where the Hindu Kush ends only to transfigure into protruding Pamir peaks. It is a true no man’s land, the buffer zone of the old days of the Great Game played by the Tsarist and British empires. I leave behind an exceptional country, that moves with its exceptional beauty and obsessive pain, a country of people who evoke profoundly heartfelt respect with their hospitality, dignity, nobility of heart and honour. A few days will take me across centuries. A month later I will be walking down a modern neon-lit street and frantic traffic, in the middle of Europe, a wee island of plenty amidst the ocean of the other-world of poverty. A friend will ask me later: “Is the poverty there like in Poland or Byelorussia?” From the Afghan perspective, even Poland and Byelorussia float on the island of plenty.
But still earlier, on 17 August, I will learn that Tajik forces have managed to crush Rakhmon Sangin’s troops, killing him and his other sixty comrades. On the Tajik side of the border, this will be another step on the path closing the chapter called ‘civil war’. I ask myself a question how many steps one will have to make on the pathless wasteland of Afghanistan?
The text was originally published in Polish as “W drodze do Masuda” [“On the Way to Masood – Afghanistan a forthnight before 11 Sept. 2001”], in the weekly Polityka 41, 13.10.2001, pp. 100-105.