A People Beyond Suffering: Afghanistan by Russell Gordon
Russell Gordon is a photographer and journalist. This article was originally published in the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs in 1994.
"It saddens me to see Muslims killing each other," said Mohammed, a Palestinian, during our bus ride from Islamabad to Peshawar en route to Afghanistan. "We gave our lives for the cause of freedom, and now look. The jihad is over, finished, and so is Afghanistan." One of many Muslims from abroad who had fought in Afghanistan's holy war, Mohammed turned away and stared quietly out the window.
After the victory of the Afghan mujahedeen over the Soviets in 1989, the world lost interest in the Afghan conflict. The few news reports that reached Western media were only about continued infighting and rocket attacks in Kabul, the Afghan capital. I went to Kabul as a photojournalist in July 1993 to try and understand why, after a brutal nine-year war of liberation, so many Afghans were still dying, why Afghanistan had turned against itself.
I recall as a teenager watching news footage of Afghan freedom fighters. With Kalashnikovs in hand, bearded and wearing gray wool caps, they rode a Toyota pickup toward an assault. Like many Americans watching the conflict on TV, I felt a kinship with the mujahedeen, cheering as the guerrillas knocked out Soviet tanks with rocket-propelled grenades. Shouts of "Allahu Akbar," God is Great, could be heard in living rooms around the world.
But after the fall of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992, the 18 mujahedeen groups, supported and armed by different foreign powers, were left in a bitter power struggle, with Kabul at front and center stage. Since August 1992, between 15,000 and 20,000 people had been killed in rocket attacks and street battles in the capital. The vast majority of the casualties were civilians.
As I entered Afghanistan by road from Pakistan, through the famous Khyber Pass, it became understandable why mighty armies from the time of Alexander the Great to that of imperial Britain had been halted in Afghanistan. The land is barren and dusty, punctuated by brown rock-strewn mountains that would make for a tedious advance. By the time the Soviets arrived, the Afghans, at the hub of Central Asia, were well versed in war. For 2,000 years, to control the region was to dominate the Silk Route and Central Asia.
My first impression on the dusty van ride from Peshawar to Kabul was of the wreckage left by the war. Armored personnel carriers (APCs) and Soviet T-55 tanks lay crumpled and rusting along the potholed road. Gaping holes and ripped-open armor hinted at the immense violence needed to halt their advance. Most of the young men along the road were armed—heavily armed—with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Heavy machine guns stood at the ready on every small hill. Even some amputees and small children carried weapons.
The two-day journey took us through areas held by opposing factions. Soldiers had set up successive roadblocks to extort graft—road tax—from drivers. As teenagers halted the van at gunpoint, I asked other passengers whose troops they were.
"This one Hekmatyar, last one Sayyaf, next one Masood," they informed me, labeling the fighters by their leaders' names. Those leaders, who once defeated the Soviet army, now "fight only for the chair," say the Afghans.
The most recent chapter in Afghanistan's tumultuous history opened in 1978 with a communist coup, and then, within a single year, the assassinations of three successive rulers. In 1979, Soviet troops landed in Kabul and installed as president Babrak Karmal, who, the Soviets claimed, "invited us to Afghanistan."
In reaction, grass-roots Islamic groups sprang up throughout the country to expel the "godless invaders and those who persecute the faith." Starting with crude flintlocks and daggers, the strength of the mujahedeen grew rapidly with captured automatic weapons.
Muslim and Western nations were quick to condemn the invasion, and billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid poured in via Pakistan and Iran. The United States alone is believed to have given $4 billion, including, eventually, lethal ground-to-air Stinger missiles. Jimmy Carter further supported the Afghans by implementing a grain embargo against the Soviets, and pulling U.S. athletes out of the Olympics held in the Soviet Union.
Saudi expenditures on the mujahedeen were said to have matched those of the United States. Iran armed and funded mujahedeen groups operating from within or near its borders with Afghanistan. By the time mujahedeen forces reached Kabul in April 1992, the various factions supported by Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia, each with their own regional agenda, were armed to the teeth.
Arriving at the Kabul office of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), I linked up with a German colleague, Rainer Unkel from Der Speigel magazine. We took a taxi to southwest Kabul, and walked through a tense no-man's land between two rival factions: on one side, the Shi'i Hezb-i Wahdat, and on the other, the government troops of Ahmad Shah Masood and President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
In Kabul, foreign journalists generally can cross front lines. Foes will even call out to each other to "hold your fire—foreign journalists coming." Yet local journalists frequently receive death threats. Afghan government security even sent a letter to BBC London threatening "severe and tragic consequences" to its Kabul staff if there were "any further editorial errors." One Afghan staff member fled into exile.
Rainer and I headed for the sound of gunfire and RPG thuds in a ruined housing area below Chilsatoon Ridge, descending from one of the many hills in and around Kabul. We jumped over some trenches and sandbag bunkers on the Wahdat side and presto—just like that—we were drinking tea with Wahdat's enemy, mujahedeen troops loyal to Rabbani and Masood.
Masood's troops were engaging their opponents with heavy machine guns and RPGs. Every burst had me flinching or ducking for cover, to the great amusement of Rainer and the "muj," who laughed at my nervousness. The muj fighters didn't seem to have a target in sight, but merely fired in the general direction of some enemy-held buildings.
We moved cautiously from cover to the street to photograph the fighting. We had just moved back behind a wall, when an RPG slammed into a rubble pile 35 feet from us, and bullets whizzed nearby. I asked Rainer if he still thought it was funny. "It's close, but you get used to it," he said stoically.
An Absurd Conflict
To an outsider, it seemed like an absurd conflict. One day the fighters would be chatting with each other in the middle of the street. The next day it was back to heavy weapons. The town was not divided into regular fronts, but instead was a checkerboard and patchwork of blocks and corners. The factions weren't directly controlled by the leaders whose names I'd heard recited in the minivan, but by local commanders who cut deals in one area, while continuing to fight in another.
During my stay in Kabul, the advances had come to a halt. The skirmishing I was photographing was largely mutual harassment and retaliation between fixed positions.
Like many places in Kabul, Chilsatoon Ridge was a three-way front: Tajik General Masood's government coalition forces were trying to halt any advance into the city from the west by the Hezb-i Islami forces of his arch rival, Pashtoon Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Shi'i simply sought to hold on to their little corner of the checkerboard.
Considered one of the most fundamentalist of the guerrilla commanders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had received 60 percent of U.S. military aid to the mujahedeen during the long war to expel the Soviets. After the U.S. and the Russians cut off aid to the warring parties in 1992, then-President Najibullah agreed under a U.N.-brokered peace plan to step down. Najibullah tried to flee the country, but was turned back at Kabul airport by his own troops and took refuge in the U.N. compound.
One of Najibullah's commanders, General Rashid Dostam, an ethnic Uzbek, defected at the last minute to form a new group, the Northern Movement. He allowed the muhajedeen to make a quick entry into Kabul with little fighting against the communists.
With the end of the Najibullah regime, however, the final battle for leadership began. During the jihad against the Soviets, Hekmatyar was backed by the U.S. and Pakistan governments because he appeared to be the most viable force to stop Soviet expansion. He issued his directives out of an opulent home in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Masood, supported by the Saudis and considered by many in the West to be the most reasonable of the muj leaders, stayed in Afghanistan as a field commander and won significant battlefield victories against the Soviets in the Panshir Valley. Hekmatyar claimed he was the only rightful ruler of the Islamic state of Afghanistan, but many of the other shareholders in the fractious mujahedeen coalition were unwilling to unite with him.
When the two forces reached Kabul, Masood's prevailed in heavy fighting and the Hezb-i Islami troops were pushed out of Kabul, 30 kilometers east to Char Asyiab; then Hekmatyar's rockets came in.
The current dilemma is not only political, but ethnic and religious. The Iran-backed Hezb-i Wahdat draws its fighters from the ethnic Hazaras, a Shi'i minority comprising about 10 percent of Afghanistan's population. The Hazaras have long been persecuted by other Afghans. In an uneasy alliance with their old ethnic Pashtoon enemy, Hekmatyar, they have taken on Masood and his hard-line ally of necessity, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf.
A Shifting Maze
The fighting also involves Tajiks such as Masood and Rabbani, Uzbeks such as Dostam, Nuristanis and others, all in a maze of shifting alliances and crossed loyalties.
"Afghan people are not united," Commander Nasir, a Wahdat leader, told me with obvious understatement. "We have many ethnic groups and each one wants to be led by its own people. We are fighting for our freedom against oppression."
Commander Nasir was speaking to me from his hospital bed. He continued his explanation of the war by lifting his blanket and pointing to his bandaged abdomen. "This one Kalashnikov," he said. Then, pointing to his arm, "this rocket," and to his leg, "grenade." In all he had five combat injuries.
"We don't like fighting, but if we lose, we will again be treated as second class," he explained, speaking for the Shi'i Hazaras.
Commander Nasir offered to leave the hospital to show us around the area held by his Hezb-i Wahdat forces. Asked if it wouldn't hurt his wounds, he replied, "It's no problem. We are Afghans."
Most of the fighters in the conflict are very young. Whereas the civilians and older soldiers seemed tired of the war, the young fighters were still enthusiastic. "Many have been fighting since they were eight years old," a former teacher said. "Now, 14 years later, they're 22 and the Kalashnikov is the only rule they've ever known."
There is little incentive for the fighters to lay down their arms. As soldiers, they get food, clothes, $21 a month, and all the ammunition they want. Each man is his own mini-emperor with, to paraphrase China's Mao Zedong, the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun.
In fact, there are few other options for young people in Kabul. Many neighborhoods have been leveled, with the schools both wrecked and looted. The intellectuals having fled long ago, the next generation is growing up armed and illiterate. When money runs low, it's not unheard of to have entire units bought out by their opponents.
Some of the heaviest street fighting Rainer and I encountered was at Dehmazang, near the wrecked Kabul University campus, where heavy weapons fire was being exchanged at close range. We went up a side street toward the front, ducking in doors, holes and behind rubble piles, as the din grew louder.
"I think we can go further," Rainer suggested confidently.
"Then how come no one else is standing around here?" I asked. As he led the way along an alley toward the shooting, some Wahdat fighters peered through a hole in a wall and implored us to get down. We scurried from door to door until we reached a room formerly used for car repairs, with an oily trench in the floor. "I'm not going any further," I shouted above the din of the firefight, from the trench.
Rainer, standing up behind a mud brick wall, complained, "It's hard to get good pictures when you're caught in the crossfire."
It's hard to get good pictures when you're dead, I thought.
During alternating intervals of heavy shooting and relative calm, we got our photos and returned to the BBC, where we told our colleagues of the heavy street fighting we had encountered.
"Fighting? What fighting?" British photographer John Reardon queried. "There was no real fighting."
"But it went on for three hours with heavy weapons," I protested.
"Listen," John said, "when these people really battle, hundreds of people die and rockets rain down by the dozens for days. How many dead or wounded did you count? Two? Three?"
"Two wounded," I acknowledged. Later, when I visited some of the hospitals, I came to understand what Reardon meant.
Access to Kabul's four main hospitals is controlled by the factions in whose areas they're located. The Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital in the north sees many casualties daily. Some are government soldiers, but most are civilians maimed by rockets and land mines. "It's not just one-sided—not just Hekmatyar's rockets," said Hafizullah Rahin, the hospital's chief administrator. "It's everybody. Masood was supposed to protect the city, but many have been killed by his shelling too."
Even during the rocket attacks of "Bloody August" that left the hospital without electricity or water for days on end, surgeons performed countless operations to amputate limbs and save lives.
A woman in a recovery ward pointed to the hole in her face where her nose had been blown off in a rocket attack. The blast killed her husband and two sons. Doctors, limited in their ability to undertake reconstructive surgical procedures by the continued fighting and shortage of foreign assistance, have to put patients on indefinite hold for artificial limbs and plastic surgery.
"Can you send me to America for surgery?" she pleaded. I wished I could.
A Stoic Acceptance
In ward after ward I was struck by the stoic acceptance of pain and loss, despite shortages of anesthetics and sedatives. A former civil engineer expressed his thoughts on this: "The situation is unbearable. The people are beyond suffering. They expect they will die."
Outside the hospital door, I asked the father of a boy who had just died of abdominal injuries what had happened. "Rocket," he said simply. "Afghanistan kharab." Afghanistan's finished.
Even when the fighting quiets down, the casualties don't stop, Every morning and night soldiers fire their machine guns into the air—perhaps to feel the power of their weapons or to watch the glowing red tracers arc across the starlit sky. But lead bullets don't vaporize or vanish. They land with lethal impact—too often through some hapless child's cranium. Senseless killing—out of sight, out of the gunners' minds.
Four Million Land Mines
Probably the most insidious weapon used in the war, and the one with the longest life of destructive potential, is the land mine. During the 14-year war, the communists and the muj laid over four million mines in the countryside. Some of the plastic Italian mines can last 150 years and are undetectable until they are detonated.
"Every week in one village we have at least three mine accidents resulting in amputation," said Khalil Achmad of the Halo Trust's anti-mine operations. The British-based charity's mission is to clear mines from high-priority land containing houses, farms, roads, paths, and access to water.
"The Soviets wanted to protect their convoys from muj ambush," said Tim Porter, Halo Trust's de-mining supervisor at Jebal Saraj, "so they mined anything that would offer cover or passage to the guerrillas."
He explained that by mining access to wells and fields, the Soviets deliberately made villages uninhabitable so the people would have to move. "In the Second World War, mines mostly were used as a deterrent," he said. "Mines were laid in predictable patterns and signs were posted not to cross the minefield." But the communists and the muj indiscriminately mined vast areas, from pastures to back alleys in Kabul, and every day small children arrive in hospitals, shocked, bloody and incomplete.
Other relief agencies have braved periods of heavy fighting to assist in the country's rehabilitation. The Red Crescent is engaged in food distribution to displaced people. The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) runs several hospitals and clinics. The highly respected groups Médecins sans FrontiÃ¨res and International Assistance Mission also have provided emergency medical care to the countless victims of the "insane war." Several of the agencies' medical staff have been killed in rocket attacks.
Amid all the destruction, Afghanistan is a country of endless contradictions. Despite the nine-year war against the Soviets, there now is a booming trade with Russia, and Afghan currency is printed in Moscow. Former communists and secret police, instead of being purged by the muj, remain in their positions, and Najib remains unscathed in the U.N. compound. Despite locally heavy clashes, most of Afghanistan seemed peaceful and functioning. Even in most of Kabul, normal life, from business to marriages, goes on, with little notice of gunfire as long as the bullets are falling elsewhere.
The fruit of Afghanistan—apricots, melons, grapes—is sweet beyond description. "Like honey," exclaimed one vendor. But the Kabul fruit vendors were washing their produce in the cholera-contaminated Kabul River, causing epidemics.
Day after day a small group of journalists, BBC bureau chief Suzie Price, Afghan colleague Mirwais Jalil, and a few others, chased after the politicians and their generals, attending their boring press conferences. The rhetoric was no different than that of any other world leaders. President Rabbani hoped for peace and foreign aid while his troops blasted away in the city. General Dostam, who came to the capital as a buffer, was running around to every faction jockeying for alliances to give him more power. Dostam talked of calm and order, but his troops were infamous for looting and even tried to mug Mirwais and me on a dark street. One day Prime Minister Hekmatyar charmed and wooed foreign reporters like an innocent child; he launched rockets at the city that night.
"I don't know whose rocket it was," wailed a man whose house had just been destroyed. "But now my house is finished! Afghanistan's finished! They don't care how many die. They only want to be leader."
Few observers believe the populace ever will accept any of the factional commanders as leaders. "My home, my family, finished!" a taxi driver raged. Drawing his finger across his throat, he declared: "Hekmatyar's rocket! If Hekmatyar comes to Kabul, I'll kill him myself!"
"The muj were good at defeating the communist regime," Halo Trust's Porter said. "But so far they've been unable to replace it with a real functioning government. What little infrastructure was left, they've destroyed."
Indeed there is much hindsight about the myth of the mujahedeen as freedom fighters. No one disputes the wisdom of supporting the Afghans at the time of their struggle against a brutal occupation. The myth was that liberation would fix the problems. Since the fall of Kabul, women in the formerly cosmopolitan city who used to wear Western dress to the office complain that now they have to be veiled or covered for fear of reprisals. The more conservative leaders want women out of the workforce entirely. In reality women are the workforce. All administration would cease to function without them.
Whereas Islam implores the faithful to "seek knowledge even unto China," some of Islam's self-proclaimed champions have sacked and looted schools and the university. Textbook pages are used as food wrappers in the markets; classrooms now are open latrines. At present, instead of being poised at a crossroads, Afghanistan seems to be stuck in a roundabout.
"The problem is that the muj didn't do any homework on how to form a state," said Barrister Sameen Khan, former negotiator for the mujahedeen. "Democracy and theocracy have never worked here. Mullahs [religious figures] have overthrown governments and have been good advisers, but poor leaders."
Asked for some possible solutions to the current standoff, he suggested that for now "there should be a power-sharing" between the warring leaders. "In the long run there should be an election monitored not by the U.N. [presumably with a Western agenda], but by the Organization of the Islamic Conference."
Like so many nations which have served as the battlefield of competing foreign powers, Afghanistan suddenly finds itself adrift without a blueprint for its future.
An Ominous New Chapter
"These ethnic tensions are temporary and will pass," Sameen Khan said hopefully. "Afghans have always been, first and foremost, Afghans."
But in my last few days in Afghanistan, an ominous new chapter was opening. Refugees who had fled the hard-line government in Tajikistan, in the former Soviet Union, were using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against Tajik government forces. Russian troops, backing the Tajik government, responded to the border incursions by launching rocket and artillery strikes into Afghan territory.
After more than 40 years of Cold War against the Soviets, the United States seems to have decided to back the former communists in Tajikistan with millions of dollars in aid, presumably to encourage reform and democratization, In the views of Tajik mujahedeen leaders, however, the U.S. is opposing the spread of Islam as a political force. Tajik refugees in Afghanistan allege that the Tajik government captured and executed two foreign journalist seeking to report and expose the truth about the conflict.
While the Afghan government denies involvement in Tajikistan's civil war, it's common knowledge that some Afghan mujahedeen, and others from abroad, are carrying out their religious obligation to oust from the former Soviet republic "those who are unbelievers and persecute the faith."
Russian involvement in Tajikistan is the one thing that seems to unite all the Afghan leaders. Opposing sides in Afghanistan issued almost identical press statements dealing with the fighting along the Afghan-Tajik border. Said one such statement: "We don't think the Russians are really foolish enough to get involved with Afghanistan again. We already broke their teeth once."
On New Year's Day 1994, the Afghan situation deteriorated amid new offensives. General Dostam formed an alliance with Hekmatyar, and briefly captured the airport, while Hekmatyar's forces pushed all the way to near the Presidential Palace. Vicious street fighting and rocket attacks ensued in the capital, killing an estimated 1,000 people in seven weeks, and forcing thousands of others to flee, this time with nowhere to go as Pakistan sealed its borders. No food has reached the capital for weeks, and aid agencies warn of possible famine.
International diplomatic efforts are under way to bring a lasting truce and settlement to Afghanistan, but one has to question the motives of would-be peacemakers if, thus far, they have been maneuvering for geopolitical influence. Meanwhile, the Afghans brace for the next chapter to be written.