Kabul – Panjshir Valley

Kabul, 4th April 2013

Indira Gandhi International is Delhi’s futuristic airport, all plate glass and wifi hotspots (not working), but the queue for Safi Airways to Kabul was traditionally attired: shalwar kameez and waistcoats for the men, long robes and headscarves for the women. I was the only foreigner. In fact my presence was clearly a mistake, as an airport employee pointed me to the next check in which was for Virgin Atlantic. “This queue for Kabul sar.” Yes, I know. We flew over miles of sun baked Punjabi plain, then over Pakistan. The first folds in the landscape began to appear, and then a range of serrated mountains dusted with snow. Waziristan and the wild border region with Afghanistan. I kept an eye out for drones, but saw none. The in flight meal was served: penne with roasted veg. It was all rather surreal. The mountains grew ever higher: huge snow capped peaks and scalloped ridges. Small villages clung to the hillsides, separated from each other by enormous valleys that dropped thousands of feet in sheer slopes.

We hit turbulence on our descent into Kabul, and bumped down on a runway lined with row after row of military aircraft. Helicopter gunships squatted menacingly, their armaments drooping like insects’ antennae. The terminal was decorated with pictures of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir (which itself means ‘five lions’) and also the occasional portrait of President Karzai. A sign outside said “welcome to the land of the brave”. Customs was a little chaotic, as the passengers had clearly been shopping in Delhi and Dubai – trolleys were laden with microwaves and TV sets. Out in the parking lot I saw the first Americans – a convoy of dull grey Land Cruisers full of troops in helmets and camouflaged fatigues. Many vehicles sported a mount for a heavy machine gun, and Afghan police stood about in grey uniforms and big boots, toting AK47s. Out on the road you saw blast walls and sandbags, and multiple checkpoints. Many of the soldiers were masked. A Mig jet mounted on a plinth was a precursor of the anti aircraft guns on exiting the car park. Driving down the dual carriageway we passed two enormous buildings I took to be shopping malls. In fact they were wedding halls, capable of seating thousands of guests.

It’s a tense city; one that is effectively under siege. The mood changes fast: after a suicide bombing and subsequent gun battle in Farah two days ago, they are expecting an imminent attack. The embassy emailed me a security briefing informing me that a red Toyota Corolla packed full of explosives was known to be in the city, but the target was uncertain. Of course at the first checkpoint we came to, manned by oriental looking Hazara soldiers in American style uniforms with Soviet style weaponry, the vehicle that pulled up next to us was a red Corolla.

I am advised that I can walk as far as the cafe in the next street but no further. And never at night. A foreigner was kidnapped on this road a couple of months ago, at nine in the morning. Nevertheless we walk home from Sufi restaurant on the first night – in my Nehru vest and scarf at a distance I could pass for a local: you get all sorts of ethnicities here, including many Afghans who look British. Crossroads of empires, this place. Sikander Makdoni, or Alexander the Macedonian (ie The Great), added not only diversity to the local gene pool, but also remnants of Greek culture – Nuristani houses built in the Greek style, wine drinkers, and decidedly European features. Red hair is not unusual, often with green or blue eyes, and there are some Afghans who are blond.

Returning late one night to my street, which has a police station at the end, and the Ministry of the Hajj halfway down it, there is a tremendous yell. “Dreeeeesh!” In the darkness I make out a policeman pointing a machine gun at me. “Dreesh!” He yells again. I stop. I have a backpack in one hand and a shopping bag in the other. One doesn’t normally get a third warning – the next sound is usually a gunshot. We freeze. “But I live here!” I say. A policeman nervously approaches, keeping us covered. Ah, English. You should use the other gate after dark. Right, well I shall make a point of it from now on. Things are very tense. This is a dangerous city. Entering restaurants or supermarkets frequented by foreigners you enter a nondescript gate and find yourself in a blast proof room. Your bag is searched and you are patted down. Last night the soldier apologised for having to do so. Then a steel door swings open and you enter. Most places are deserted, and one rarely sees a foreigner: their employers advise them not to leave their compounds, so they socialise together. In fact some restaurants have a No Afghans policy. Locals are not admitted. Here in their own capital city. There’s a word for that – a Dutch one. It’s called Apartheid.

Dinner in Blue Moon restaurant. The food is consistently good – this one offers Bamiyan pizza with potato – and of course naan bread. Afghans eat naan three times a day, and they are huge, up to four feet long. There is a swagger to the locals, a machismo entirely absent in India. Black salwar kameez, pointy shoes, leather jackets and stubble is the dress code. Half way through dinner two girls walk in, dressed in jeans and with headscarves. All conversation stops, all eyes turn to follow them. Kabuli coquettes, as a friend dubs them. You don’t often see women here, other than the occasional burqa. In fact one burqa and small child have taken up residence in the middle of a busy road, hand outstretched from under blue folds of cloth in supplication. One man last night was so desperate he wandered in front of the car and raised his arms beseechingly. We didn’t stop. After Blue Moon we wander the dark streets, past embassies and NGO offices hiding behind high blast walls topped with razor wire. A taxi pulls up and we all pile in. We head to Berchi, a Hazara neighbourhood. On the streets everyone has oriental features; we could be in Mongolia. Occasional armed men stand around, sometimes in uniform, sometimes not. The air is so clear that the towering snow covered mountains in the background look as if they are in walking distance. The sun is so bright it hurts the eyes. And these are the lower Hindu Kush. What must the higher ones be like?

We travel to a house in the suburb of Kherkhana to meet our host for a trip to the Panjshir Valley. He speaks German fluently, so I have the slightly surreal experience of chatting in German to him with occasional lapses into Farsi when my vocabulary fails me. Our convoy is three Land Cruisers driven by ANA soldiers in battle dress, complete with machine guns. At each checkpoint we are waved through, and maintain a steady 100kmh on the good stretches. Off to the right Bagram airbase looms, a city in its own right. There are direct flights there from the Middle East, bringing in troops, contractors and various ‘experts’. We pass through Charikar, then over a plain which was the front line against the Taliban. Our driver is a grizzled veteran and points out the scene of numerous battles. Thousands died at one bridge which is a strategic bottleneck. The Taliban had Mig jets, flown by Pakistani pilots, allegedly, which did bombing runs. In the villages the locals resisted, including women. We pass the governor’s office – hit by a suicide bomber a while ago. Four attackers: the first blew himself up at the gate, enabling the others to enter. They stormed into the governor’s office, he reached for the AK kept under his desk and shot all three of them as they entered. Local politics is a dangerous game round here.

Two hours out of Kabul the road climbs and we enter the valley. At a checkpoint our escorts greet the guards – many of them fought here. Panjshir was never successfully assaulted; the Soviets launched ten offensives and all of them failed. The Taliban tried repeatedly to occupy it but Ahmad Shah Massoud, who commanded the valley, held them off. Refugees from surrounding districts headed here to escape the brutality of the Taliban, and the valley floor was covered from one side to the other with their temporary shelters. It was a desperate time. At one point I become aware of an extraordinary feeling, a kind of levity in the thin mountain air, and I exclaim “this place is just magical”. It turns out that at exactly that point we had passed a shrine to a pir, or saint. I hadn’t seen the shrine, but my comment is taken as evidence of the supernatural properties of the place. The valley is highly suspicious of outsiders; as a natural fortress it is high on the agenda for the Taliban, and the local population, who are mainly Tajik, keep to themselves. Mujahideen style is in: beards, pakol hat (popularised by Massoud who made it a trademark) and camouflage anorak, as well as the inevitable black and white scarf. And these people don’t just look like mujahideen – they were, and it it comes to it, they will be again.

We halt our convoy and climb up the hillside through lush green pasture and low trees. It looks like Wales, but the ring of white summits around the valley are as high and dramatic as the Alps. We climb to a house high on the hillside with stunning views down over the valley and are greeted by an elderly man, white bearded and wearing pakol and camouflage fatigues: the grandfather. He looks very spry and I have a job keeping up with him as he climbs up to the house. Various men stand around, exuding an air of tough competence. And yet they are amazingly welcoming: handshakes are exchanged, the right hand placed over the heart after each one. We have lunch – kabob, kofte, river fish and pulao, then adjourn to the terrace for tea and cigarettes. Piles of fruit are brought. Periodically there is a dull boom which echoes around the valley, and the crack of an explosion. The sound of war is never far away, but this is blasting for rock to use in construction. Our host, who is urbane and softly spoken, and yet who exudes authority, speaks to me in German about the situation. I paraphrase, but this is the gist of it:

“Everyone is talking of 2014. What will happen after NATO pull out? Nobody knows. We have no future. If the Taliban come back in, everything is finished. Thirty years of war, ten years with a small glimmer of hope, for peace, democracy, reconstruction, and then it is all snatched away? It is too cruel. The only future for many Afghans is to leave, to get out. But they are the lucky ones. The majority have to stay, and face the awful prospect of a return to medieval barbarity. And once again the international community have gone back on their promises and abandoned Afghanistan.”

High on a hillside, commanding sweeping views up and down the valley, lies a curious structure – a bit like a water tower. Its lines are elegant and it is constructed of local stone from the valley. This is the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was murdered in 2001 by a Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin posing as a journalist, on the orders of Al Qaeda. There was a bomb inside the video camera. Massoud’s personal bodyguard, a grey bearded mujahideen, guards the tomb. We shake hands – many of our own escort embrace him. We remove our shoes and file in. A glass tomb, with what looks like sand inside, golden Farsi script upon the glass. A solitary bunch of flowers. We stand in a semicircle around it, heads bowed. The soldier next to me murmurs a prayer. I feel a tremendous welling up of sadness, at the loss of a great man, at the lost opportunities, at the loss of hope for Afghanistan, the waste of it all. Massoud’s portrait is everywhere in this country. He is venerated. If anyone could have united this place, he could have. These people are not easily led, but they followed him. He was needed to hold it all together. Outside the tomb they are building a library and centre of learning, for a new generation with a future that looks distinctly bleak. At the moment it is a building site, and the cold wind whips up the valley and sweeps through empty corridors overlooked by towering peaks. Down on the valley floor lie the burned out carcasses of Soviet armoured vehicles. Two cars pull up outside and a group of women get out, adjusting their headscarves and making their way up the steps towards the tomb. We stand in our small group, each lost in thought, and then the man next to me cups his hands, draws them over his face, and we all turn and walk away.