On September 11, 2002, while the leaders of the world assembled in New York to observe the first anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center, I arrived in Afghanistan, from where the strikes had been masterminded by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. The rickety Ariana Afghan Airlines Boeing touched down shakily on the Kabul runway and bounced along a continuous graveyard of commercial and military airplanes and helicopters, bombed and blasted during the last quarter-century of uninterrupted fighting. Inside the unpretentious terminal, posters educated passengers on articles that could not be carried on planes: landmines, rocket launchers, assault rifles, hand grenades, poisonous gas, and other such necessities of Afghan life.
“Indian?” asked a rough-looking soldier doubling as a customs officer. “Please go. No checking for you. India — dost, friend. If Pakistan, then….” He slit his throat with his hand. Then he showered on Pakistan some coarse and abusive language with the fluency and articulation that only policemen are capable of. He left no doubt in my mind that I was welcome in his country.
The derelict buildings outside the airport were pockmarked with bullets and their compounds overflowed with heaps of shelled airplanes. Posters ornamenting the shabby walls gave advice on precautions to take if you came across a landmine. I drove on the Great Masood Road devouring the scenes of a ruined city once fabled for its splendour and magnificence.
Nobody Won the War
After checking into a partially opened hotel, I left for the market to stock up on groceries. Children and burqa-clad women stuck their soiled hands out of their veils, begging for baksheesh. A dollar fetched 45,000 afghanis, and, at first, I was liberal in distributing 10,000 afghani notes to the alms-seekers. But this only attracted their nieces and nephews, who mobbed me, breaking my heart with their pathetic pleas. At the rate I was disbursing currency, I would have joined the alms-seekers by sunrise had I not slowed down on my good intentions.
Passing the Id Gah mosque and the stadium where the Taliban pursued their favourite sport of killing liberated women, I drove to the hilltop of Tepe Maranjan, which held the torn and shattered tomb of King Nadir Shah. During the civil war, when the warlords fought bitterly for the capital, the Uzbek, Abdul Rashid Dostum, had occupied the tomb, taking position against the other two opposing groups of Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He had dug up all the graves, expecting to find hidden treasures.
“Who won the war?” I asked the grave-keeper.
“Nobody won. Only Kabul lost,” said he with a deep sigh.
Cinema Makes a Comeback
Around Pashtunistan Square, there was not a single building whose walls were not scarred with bullet holes. The shopkeepers had returned after five years of closure. Windows were draped in black flags to observe the first death anniversary of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik warlord who had battled both Russians and the Taliban before being assassinated, two days before 9/11, by an al-Qaeda operative.
I walked past the Kabul Hotel, minding my head from the debris falling from its caved roof. Along the walls of the deserted royal palace, a row of alms-seeking men, victims of landmines, sat on the footpath with their artificial legs, detached from their bodies, lying by the side. At Asmai Street, work gangs were repairing a section of a road where a Taliban car bomb had killed 40 people a few days earlier.
Every cinema hall in Kabul featured an Indian movie. These senseless, wild, chaotic Hindi films that had flopped at the box office at home were creating energy in Kabul. The Taliban had not only banned the screening of films but also the playing of all kinds of music, except Islamic chanting. Even clapping at games was forbidden. With the Taliban gone, Hindi film songs jammed the sound waves.
The Destitute National Parliament
Wanting to capture the hustle and bustle of the 17th-century Char Chatta bazaar from a height, I walked into the Pul-e-Khishti mosque in the middle of the evening prayers. Outside, I met a fierce-looking Pashtun who had returned from Pakistan last month.
“Why come back? Didn’t you like it there?” I asked.
“Hated it! I lived six years in a refugee camp in Peshawar. We were treated like dirt! Their police communicated to us only with their sticks. If they caught us on the road at night, they would make us poorer by PKR100. And if we were asked to produce an ID — and it was established that we were Afghan Pashtuns — they would pick our pockets of PKR300. And give us a couple of slaps as a bonus. Landlords doubled and tripled their rents for Afghans. Neither Pashtuns nor Tajiks have love for Pakistanis,” said the man with a remarkably expressive face.
Jadi Darulaman was once a broad, 6-km-long avenue lined with trees, sprawling offices, embassies, institutes, the National Assembly and other modern buildings. Only the devastated remains of these structures now existed. An Alice-in-Wonderland palace, perched on a hilltop, intended to be the National Parliament building, was now destitute with gaping holes in walls, caved-in roofs and shattered windows. Its façade was sprayed with bullets emptied from countless guns.
Artefacts Were Sold for a Song
At the entrance of the Kabul Museum, one of the world’s most opulent depositories, a man informed me that there were no exhibits inside. Afghan Mujahideen factions had plundered the museum as they fought for the control of Kabul after the withdrawal of the Soviets.
Many of the artefacts were whisked away to the Pakistani smuggling towns of Peshawar and Quetta, from where they were sold to the international mafia of art collectors. Even the government of Pakistan made budgetary allocations for buying off the loot.
“The Mujahideen sold much of it for a song. The sword of Ahmed Shah Abdali, I am told, was sold in Peshawar for $6 – and resold to a European businessman for $120,000,” said the man without any emotion. “President Najibullah had taken away 20 trunks full of relics. The Taliban, when they seized power, took custody of the trunks. Not keen to promote Afghanistan’s non-Islamic heritage, they left them locked. Now with the Taliban snuffed out, the contents of the trunks will be brought back to the museum next week. As you can see, we are in the process of welcoming back these artefacts.”
After spending five days in Kabul, I left for Panjshir Valley, 150 km away and bordering Tajikistan, accompanied by Speed, the Great Massoud’s photographer, and driver Faisaluddin. We got into the countryside, zigzagging across the Salang Highway that led northwards to Mazar-e-Sharif and Uzbekistan. The thin vehicular traffic meandered directionless on the fractured road, sometimes driving on the left and sometimes on the right, negotiating potholes. Signs warned: “Beware of land mines on the sides of the road”.
Skeleton Tanks, Blanket Destruction
There was blanket destruction on all sides of the vast and fertile Shomali Plain, lying in the bowl of bald, mournful mountains of Hindu Kush. Whole villages, shattered and destroyed, had been abandoned. Houses were entirely lifeless, roofless, windowless, doorless. Vineyards, carefully raised and tended over several years, had been torched, their black burns and bruises still visible. Tanks and armoured carriers, breathing fire once but empty skeletons now, strewed the landscape.
“Taliban ruined all the villages. Shomali Plain were the scene of the most fierce fighting between Taliban and Massoud Army,” said Speed. The Taliban conducted a “scorched earth” policy as they retreated, poisoning wells, exploding irrigation ditches and destroying orchards. The livelihood of the farmers was shattered, ensuring that the local Tajik population would not return in a hurry. While the Taliban were turning Kabul’s agricultural belt into a wasteland, 180,000 of Shomali’s residents were in search of a new home. Some fled to the nearby Panjshir Valley. Many women and children were kidnapped and taken to Kabul. Others crossed into Pakistan as refugees. A group of Shomali villagers were found living in a garbage dump in Islamabad.
We turned into the Panjshir Valley. Deep inside, close to the riverbank, was parked a fleet of Soviet tanks. “Massoud Army,” said Speed. The Soviets, his former enemies who had become his allies during the Taliban regime, had given several tanks to Ahmed Shah Massoud. After the fall of the Taliban and the installation of the Tajik-dominated government, most of the weaponry had been removed from Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan and transferred to the Panjshir region by the Tajik Defense Minister. The thinking was that if the unstable country faced another civil war, the Tajiks would have a monopoly over the armaments.
Fallen to Landmines, Bombs and Kalashnikovs
We spent the night in Speed’s simple house in Rokha village. After dinner, we sat on the floor of the living room that was brightly covered with red woollen carpets and lit by a solitary kerosene lantern. Speed loved to converse, but he knew not a word of any other language but Farsi. However, he took great pains to make me understand his thoughts, biases and politics.
“Eleven of my family members, including my father, mother and three brothers, have become shaheeds, martyrs, during the Soviet and the Taliban rule — fallen to landmines, bombs and Kalashnikovs,” said Speed, hiding his remorse.
“Did you do jung yourself?” I asked. (Had he fought himself?)
“Yes! I fought with rocket launchers, grenade throwers, AK-47s.”
“Who trained you?”
“I learnt from tezurba (experience).”
“Have you killed?”
“At least 500 — Soviets and Taliban put together.”
The next morning, we wandered through the fields of Rokha littered with Soviet tanks and armoured carriers that had been obliterated by the stubborn resistance during the occupation.
The bloody nose given to the vanquished Soviets was to be seen everywhere, as were the lethal signatures of Soviet firepower on devastated houses and blackened trees.
Making a sharp ascent from Rokha, we drove to the top of Martyrs Hill that held the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ‘Lion of Panjshir’. Descending to the Panjshir river, we loitered for a while in Bazarak, Massoud’s home village. Had we driven further, we would have reached Parwan, which is at the edge of the glaciated and impregnable land in the snowy Pamir, where Afghanistan shares a 50-mile border with Xinjiang, China. As we prepared for the journey back to Kabul, I silently prayed for an end to the sufferings of the good people of Afghanistan. My prayers don’t seem to have been answered.
(Akhil Bakshi is the author of Afghanistan: An Empire of Blood and Ash. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)