The Timber Carriers of Afghanistan
A Personal Visit With The Mujahideen Of Afghanistan
Copyright © by Hideo Asano
Since the very first day the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 27, 1997, the Mujahideen* fought with life-and-death commitment against the troops and armaments of the Soviets -- who, themselves, had little idea what they were fighting for.
*Self-adopted name of the Afghan rebels. The Afghani term Mujahideen is taken from Arabic word mujahadah (“striving”), which in turn derives from a Sufi (Muslim mystic) term meaning self-mortification. Mujahadah comes from the root jahadah, which means to struggle, and from which the sufi word jihad (holy war) also derives. In Pashto (the chief vernacular of eastern Afghanistan), the suffix “een” is the plural, which emphasizes the sense of “adherent” or even “disciple.” Hence the Pashto use of the word Mujahideen in its modern sense meaning “Holy Warriors.”
The United States, politically speaking, was equally enraged by this open aggression, and one of the first steps it took to announce its position was to boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. On a less vocal note it launched a massive covert arms supply to the Mujahideen. This, of course, dramatically escalated the political game being played by the Western and Eastern superpowers, and metaphorically brought these two giants closer than ever to sword point. Only those alive today can appreciate the net factual believe the final economic undoing of the Soviet Union was hastened as a result.
But, in human terms, a much greater tragedy was visited upon the defenseless and unarmed Afghan people, who initially had no one to turn to but themselves. Since that first Soviet invasion, two million refugees were required to flee their homeland – mainly to Pakistan and Iran, where they then lived – some for years – in daily dread and uncertainty.
While all this was developing and being reported in print media and on television, I watched in morbid fascination. I could hardly believe the courage and determination of theunder equipped and untrained Mujahideen as they attempted to stand their ground against the Soviet aggressors. My heart went out to them and it soon became apparent to me that I had to see and talk to them on their home turf, get to know and understand them. Even then, as I was caught up in the fever of the thing, I realized it was senseless – as well as too dangerous and too expensive. Nevertheless, my senses of both tenacity and reportage demanded that I see my plans through. Besides, I was already a freelance editorial/photographic intern for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and needed a good solid piece of work to my credit before I would be eligible for a top job in the ever-ongoing “editorial sweepstakes.” But even though I was utterly determined to learn – and tell – the story of these heroic people, it was several years before I was actually able to bring it about. But that delay did not stop me from studying and learning about the lands and people of Afghanistan. In fact, I spent every available minute during the next few months to study the background information I would need.
During this period I told a few personal friends about my plans. Several of them urged me to give up this “hare-brained’ scheme, citing reason after reason why it wouldn’t work out as I planned.
“It’s too dangerous, Hideo. You must have read about reporters and correspondents from many land-Japan, England, France, the United States, etc. who went to get the story, and didn’t come back at all.”
Another friend told me that he had heard of at least three journalists who had lost feet and legs to landmines.
“It simply isn’t a safe place to walk around,” I was told. “Even when there are no soldiers to face, and no weapons pointed at you, you still have to worry about having your feet and legs blown off.”
And yet, no matter how many or how dire the warnings I received, nothing would keep me from going. Something told me that if I were ever to be a true journalist, I could not accept fear. My decision remained firm.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country, the nearest navigable water being the Arabian Sea, three-hundred miles to the south. This relative isolation, together with its importance as a trade route (it is the only practical Western approach to the Indian subcontinent) has always exerted a powerful influence on Afghanistan’s history. During periods when communication has been overland between Europe and the Middle East, on the one hand, and India and the Far East, on the other, Afghanistan has been a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange. When communications have been by sea – for example, when the Portuguese opened a sea route to India at the end of the 15the century – Afghanistan has been isolated and left outside the mainstream of civilization. Its geographic location has also meant that almost all the great military conquerors who marched to India have had to pass through Afghanistan (Alexander Great, Genghis Khan, etc.) – a fact that also explains the great diversity of the country’s population.
In studying this fabled land, I also found myself fascinated by its physical features. The Hindu Kush mountains, for example,areraised to more than 21,000 feet and people live near the top! In a matter of speaking, the Hindu Kush mountains are a direct offshoot of the Himalayas, but, geographically, they are referred to as part of theKarakoram Range.
For the moment, at least, I put my studies to rest, with the promise to myself that I would learn much more, most of it from first-hand observation and study.
In 1985, I managed to put my affairs in order and flew to Islamabad,the capital of Pakistan, nearest my destination, Peshawar, a dry and dusty, ancient but active city near the Afghan border. I had learned even before my departure that Peshawar was the staging point for all seven of the groups that collectively called themselves the “Mujahideen.”
November 20, 1985, 11:30 a.m.
From the Islamabad airport I took a taxi to the bus terminal to catch transportation to Peshawar. Nearly two hours later I arrived in Peshawar aboard an old, unclean, yet air-conditioned mini bus where loud-singing women on a radio sounded much like mating cats – which strange nocturnes never stopped. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could think of these wailings as music – indeed, my ear was – and remained – quite irritated at the sound of traditional Pakistani songs.
To this day, I do not understand the Pakistani lyrics that are part of these songs. Perhaps I could understand the screaming cacophony better if I understood the words that went with them.
In Peshawar, I checked into the Five Star Hotel – which name to me was quite a joke, since the facility deserved no stars at all. But I nevertheless appreciated the kindness of the people in the hotel.
That first day, out on the streets of the city, I met a small boy with clear, green eye – possibly an Afghan refugee, possibly a Pakistani – who was selling gun and cigarettes from a wooden box that hung from his neck. He was smiling as he looked at me, and that was just about his only form of communication with someone who did not speak any of the local tongues. To me, this boy represented the great sadness of a society that was making no effort to educate its young. If children of the world are the flowers of a society’s future, what sort of future was this society going to enjoy? This was roughly the same social sellout I had seen on the streets of many cities of the world, where poor children had tried desperately to sell me packages of candy and gum.
Thus arrived, I first proceeded to visit several of the local hospitals where I saw many wounded Mujahideen, most of whom were lying abed recovering from their battle wounds and all of whom were experiencing a driving impatience to return to the fightingto exact their retaliation.
“What happened to your hand?” I asked one of wounded men.
“When I picked up a pen to write something, it exploded and all my fingers were blown out of their sockets except one. I didn’t know it was a toy bomb.”
“A toy bomb?”
“Yes. They’re made in the shapes of pens, watches and small toys that explode when picked up.”
“My God. Wouldn’t that mostly injure the children?”
“Yes. And that’s who they most want to injure and kill…the children.”
“That’s not hard to figure out. If they kill the children, they won’t ever grow up to be soldiers.”
The following day I set out to visit Afghan refugee camps and as a result saw many children who were playing in the dirt barefooted. Indeed, none of them many children I saw had anything on their feet.
A thirteen year-old girl, Fatima, was holding a small, frail boy in her arms. She, too, was barefoot, and stood against a mud wall.
“What happened to your family?” I asked her through a Mujahideen who could speak a small bit of English.
“My father was taken away by the soldiers one night and we haven’t heard anything from him since. Now I live with my mother…and this is my brother.”
She smiled brightly when I was leaving. I could not help but press a ten-rupee note into her hand, even though I had been warned against giving out money to these starving people. The reason? If word got out that one was “soft,” a stampede could result.
During my first three days there, I gathered information as fast as thoroughly as I could. In Peshawar, I also visited the headquarters of The Afghan National Liberation Front, one of the seven organizations of theMujahideen.
Arriving at the headquarters on a rickshaw, I felt quite tense. It was a fine two-story house, guarded by three hard-faced rebels, one of whom carried a Russian-built automatic Kalashnikov – a top-grade firearm. Inside, in the spacious, reddish-black carpeted council chamber, there was a large wall map of Afghanistan.
It was there that I met Mohammed Hekmatyar, a tall, slim man in a flowing, traditional garment in muted colors. He wore thick glasses and seemed well educated, even noble. Earlier, on my way in, I had engaged in handshakeswith many of the Mujahideen who were drinking reddish-brown hot tea and they rested and waited.
After making these initial contacts, I was given an opportunity to stay with a small group of Mujahideen in the village known as Uzubargh – near Asmar in Konarha Province, deep in the mountainous southeastern Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is beautiful country, more than Switzerland. You will see,” said Hekmatyar proudly in his thin voice.
“Have you been to Switzerland?” I asked.
In this are people might think Switzerland is beautiful as a stereotype. Probably that’s why there were many scenic pictures taken in Switzerland everywhere in Pakistan; in the airport lobby, in the hotel lobbies, in the restaurants, in the shops and so…even there were several scenic pictures of themin the lobby of FIVE STAR HOTEL where I stayed, I thought.
Prior to leaving Peshawar, I visited the bazaar where I purchased a light-brown traditional garment, an apple-pie shaped hat with a tightly rolled-up brim and a stainless-steel cup, which together should permit me to enter Afghanistan safely. Had I worn my regular hat, other Mujahideen might have shot me as a Russian.
Sadly, that bazaar in Peshawar opened my eyes to the painful realities of war. Many items, such as clothing, shoes, blankets and assorted tins of food – all of which had been donated by supportive anti-war nations such as the U.S. – were being sold as black-market commodities. Obviously, the people who needed these supplies the most – and those from whom they were intended – had the least means, or chance, of obtaining them.
But, even though I had many misgivings, especially about food, I bought some. After all, I had to survive, if for no other reason than to make sure my pictures would see the light of day.
Among those things I purchased were a can of cheese from the Soviet Union and several chocolate bars from England.
“This is the first time in my life I have eaten anything from Russia,” I said.
“These days,” the heavy-set shop-owner replied, “you can buy anything Russian-made from radios to television sets to heaters to refrigerators if you have enough rupees.”
“But when does it all come from?”
“It’s all brought here on the backs of the Mujahideen through Afghanistan.”
“But is it any good?”
“It’s all right. Not the best, but all right…and quite cheap in the bargain.”
November 23, 1985, 7:00 a.m.
I arrived at theMujahideen headquarters on a rickshaw from my hotel, weigheddown with a heavy backpack. I must have looked silly, indeed, since the backpack was almost as large than I was, and the weight of it had me bent almost double. Taking the cumbersome equipment off my back, I once again shook everyone’s hand with politeness and sincerity, as was customary.
Handshaking is one ofthe more important aspects of the culture of this world. If there were a thousand people with whom to shake hands, any well-raised Afghani would pull it off like a practiced politician. Mohammed Hekmatyar introduced a Mujahideen named Bashir, who wore a large brown shawl – called a chador – over his garment, and who was going to escort me into Afghanistan. Bashir wore a creamy-white hat as if to emphasize his dark, thick beard. He spoke some English, which he learned as a medical student at the Kabul Medical University.
I liked him immediately because he had intelligent soft-spoken mannerisms. Also, he was a rather effective interpreter. This may not seem like much, but the truth is that a good interpreter can accomplish meetings of the mind that even professional diplomats sometimes cannot.
When the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, he had quit the University and joined the movement – medical education on hold for the duration. Was this the norm? I asked. Was everyone’s life on hold pending the outcome of the war? The answer not only came in the affirmative, but in the most emphatic affirmative. In the minds of the people, if there was no victory, there would be no more Afghanistan, in which case the lives and careers of all would be mounted on the trash heap that was once a proud nation.
Bashir took one long look at me and said, “Najeeb.”
Mohammed Hekmatyar answered my question.
“Najeeb. It’s the name he has given you. In order to get into Afghanistan, you will have to pass as one of us. If the border police ask your name, Najeeb will sound convincing.”
“Have a productive and uneventful journey,” he said as he stepped back.
“Uneventful?” I asked.
“One stays alive longer that way,” he concluded.
A brand-new Mitsubishi jeep was waiting outside when Bashir and I stepped from theheadquarters. The driver was taking a nap with his mouth opened wide. We were joined by one of the commanders, Ahmad Aziz, a man with a white beard and only one-foot, compliments of a Russian land mine.
Bashir introduced us and added, “When Ahmad had two feet, his beard was jet black.”
A few minutes later, we were out of the small city and onto the main road heading north. Soon, in short hours,the air became colder and the scenery became full and green. Somehow, the buildings of this part of Pakistan, so close to Afghanistan, were extraordinary, to any artist’s eye. By their very one-color drabness and total absence of personal identity, they served as bas-relief to the stunning architecture of God in this unusual land. I had finally had a chance to see what the world regards as “back-country.” In truth, it seemed more like the Promised Land.