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New life in a land of death

Radek Sikorski sees the transformation one warlord has brought to a part of Afghanistan devastated by the Soviets in 1987

4 September 2004

12:00 AM

4 September 2004

12:00 AM

I had long wanted to return to Kushk-e-Serwan, a small Afghan village at the narrower end of the Hari Rud river oasis, between the Hindu Kush and Iran. The first time I went there, I was travelling with Ismael Khan, the leader of the Afghan resistance in Western Afghanistan. Most days bombs fell on places where we had stayed a day or two before, as soon as Communist spies could report our whereabouts. We arrived in the vicinity on the morning of 11 August 1987, and while I was there with his men, a couple of Soviet jets arrived too. Afghan houses look impressive, but the mud brick turns to dust at the slightest impact. The valley darkened as the bombs fell and the dust dispersed. I spent the next couple of hours watching villagers dig out their dead, mostly women and children. They laid the bodies on the floor of the village mosque, 54 people in all.

While I photographed, the villagers kept digging, hoping that someone might have survived in an air pocket. I heard cries from a neighbouring compound and rushed to see what had happened. The men stopped to behold an amazing sight. Under an arch made of mud bricks, a veiled woman with two children by her side sat peacefully, her hands extended horizontally as if she were reaching out to her rescuers. A veil covered her face; her embroidered dress stood out against the dust. One of the children, his hands also outstretched, was smiling. There was no blood but none of the family moved. They had been suffocated by the dust.

Mujahedin parties made my photograph of the Afghan mother with two children killed by Soviet bombs into posters, and it became one of the defining images of the Russo-Afghan war. It haunted me for years. In the panic of the rescue and the anticipation of more bombs — which killed scores over the next few days — I did not establish the woman’s name. And why was she veiled inside her own house? Did she know that death was coming and, in her last conscious act, observed proprieties to prevent strange men from seeing her face? Now I wondered whether anybody would remember that bombing raid, 17 years earlier. It had been a tragic day, but one of many during that war.

There is no proper road to Kushk-e-Serwan, and pebbles hit the suspension of our pick-up truck on the dirt track between the green belt at the bottom of the valley and the desert. But in the local town, Pashtoon Zargun — just a street with a line of miserable shops and a police station — one of the policemen, a former mujahed, smiled when he saw me. ‘You are Rahim, aren’t you, you came here during the jihad with the Soviets?’ He correctly identified my former nom de guerre, bestowed upon me by Ismael Khan’s men.

I needn’t have worried about finding Kushk-e-Serwan. Five more minutes’ drive within narrow alleys and we came to a patch of rough ground with jagged mud walls protruding from the ground. It was exactly as I remembered it, the precise spot where the bombs fell. The houses had not been rebuilt.

We went to the mosque where they had gathered the bodies. It was unchanged except for an ugly concrete balcony and the green algae at the bottom of the ablution pool. The area was even poorer than it had been during the Soviet war. The river, the ponds, the irrigation canals which used to give us such good, if wet, protection from the bombs, were now dry as dust. Crops had failed for several years in a row.


Within half an hour, several villagers gathered inside the mosque around a copy of my book, with the war photographs, which I had brought along to jog memories. One man claimed it was his wife and children on the photograph, but he was overruled. The other villagers reached a consensus: the photograph showed the wife of Ibrahim. Ibrahim was originally also listed as dead but in fact survived. He spent much time praying at the cemetery where sticks with green flags marked the graves of those killed in the war. I met him the following day. He was a man in his sixties, very thin, wearing shoes made of old tyres and a neat turban. He showed me a folded piece of paper that he always carried on his person: an old poster displaying my photograph.

His wife’s name was Bibi Gul and she was about 40 years old on the day she died. The family had been having a reunion that day, and when they heard the aeroplanes they all gathered in the strongest room in the house. That’s how Ibrahim lost his entire extended family: 21 people in all, including all children and grandchildren. His wife had been veiled, he said, because she was praying when disaster struck. Ibrahim now lived in a small room on the charity of his neighbours. Could I help him in his misery please? More than anything else, he wanted to get married again. But in Afghanistan you have to pay. ‘Can you help me buy a wife,’ he pleaded, ‘so that I have some light in my life? Not a young wife for sleeping with, but an old one, just for cooking. It’s only $2,000.’

Kushk-e-Serwan interested me for other reasons too: it’s part of the Herat region, an area of Western Afghanistan which is ruled, in effect, by Ismael Khan, my guerrilla leader friend, now turned governor. He had been the leader of the original anti-communist uprising in Afghanistan in the city of Herat in 1979, and liberated it after years in the saddle in 1992. Captured by the Taleban, Ismael Khan escaped from Kandahar jail in a daring raid; his legs were peppered with shrapnel wounds, acquired when the jeep he escaped in exploded on a mine near the Iranian border.

Although Ismael Khan is a war hero by any definition, I was worried about whether I could still be proud of my friendship with him. Making the transition from a war leader to a peacetime politician is hard. Instead of secretiveness, single-mindedness, courage and ruthlessness, you need openness, trustfulness and the ability to build coalitions. In Central Europe, only Vaclav Havel managed it gracefully. Would Ismael Khan not succumb to temptation and become a tyrant? Like other former mujahedin leaders he is now often referred to as a ‘warlord’, and the warlords are usually thought of as the largest obstacle to a permanent peace in Afghanistan.

But Herat does not look like a warlord’s den. The airport road, which I crossed in 1987, terrified of the Soviet tanks whose tracks had turned it into a series of potholes, is now covered in asphalt, and illuminated by working street lights. It is lined with freshly planted pines, and has a central reservation with a lawn. The western suburbs, where I spent several weeks in 1987 dodging Soviet bombs and rockets, used to be called ‘little Hiroshima’. Today, it’s a busy commercial area, with a new ring road along the ancient city walls.

Until a year ago Ismael Khan channelled money from Herat’s customs terminal — trucks from Iran and Turkmenistan have to pass through the city — into public parks, a monument to the Soviet war, and new roads. It’s quite something, in this dry country, to see women in burkas riding pedal boats in Herat’s municipal water-park, as well as a lunatic asylum and a drug rehabilitation clinic in a country not known for its social infrastructure. Land in Herat has been set aside and houses built for the widows of fallen partisans. I visited several girls’ schools. They were located in tents, and operate in shifts, but they are schools nevertheless. One evening I stood on the terrace of a restaurant that overlooks the city from the cooler, northern hills, in the company of a group of Afghan university rectors who had gathered there for a conference. We watched the sodium street lights light up all over the city. ‘This is not like Afghanistan!’ exclaimed one of the Afghans. This was the highest compliment he could think of. Thanks to the light, families picnic in the parks until m
idnight on Friday nights — unthinkable anywhere else in the country.

For a warlord, Ismael Khan seems like a hard-working and shrewd administrator. I followed his schedule for some days, sitting in on meetings with local police chiefs, Kabul military commanders, and the odd Uzbek diplomat. A crowd of petitioners — cripples, favour-seekers, women asking for permission to divorce — crowded the anterooms. Like the Doge of Venice, Ismael Khan personally empties sealed suggestion boxes that have been set up at main points in the city: blue boxes for complaints against officials, white boxes for disputes between citizens. As a rule, officials are dismissed after two complaints are received against them. The street lights were connected in the poorest areas first.

But Ismael Khan’s rule is more than just one man’s quest to rebuild a city he clearly loves. It is perhaps the first experiment in Islamist-style modernisation, at least in Afghanistan. Against the backdrop of communist-forced secularisation and then the Wahabi-inspired fanaticism of the Taleban, moderate Islamists like Ismael Khan are the functional equivalent of conservatives. Reform and modernisation, they say, must come from within the philosophical roots of their own society and should gain religious sanction in order to be palatable and permanent. Even at the height of the war with the Soviets, I watched him argue with villagers: ‘Why don’t you set up a school? The Prophet, peace be upon him, taught that in search of knowledge we must go as far as China.’ More recently, I heard him denounce men who drive their wives to suicide by keeping them locked up inside their houses. ‘You must give education to your daughters, so they can be helpful to your children. And what kind of men are you to rely on marriages arranged for money!’ If the provincial villagers who were listening are to accept radical changes at all, they are more likely to do so from a local Islamic leader than from some UN do-gooder.

True, local television broadcasts Ismael Khan’s overlong speeches in full, which does not inspire faith in the freedom of the press in Herat. Even his own bodyguards — the most faithful of the faithful from his mujahed days — seem bored with the repetitiveness of his message. Ismael Khan is a conservative in a conservative city and will not, for example, shake hands with women. On the other hand, I could not confirm the operation of a religious police in the city and the women I met in a private house by private arrangement told me that ‘Now that the Taleban have left, we are free.’ Ismael Khan is slow to disarm his old fighters under the UN plan but there is a reason: last time he did it, he found himself with no troops to resist the Taleban. Like everywhere else in Afghanistan, drug cultivation is no doubt spreading.

Back in Kushk-e-Serwan, a village as remote and destitute as any in Afghanistan, all the children, boys and girls, are at school for the first time ever. Everybody is registered for the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections — women as well as men. I detected little trace of the anti-Western feeling which is detectable among urban Afghans. They seemed glad to be rid of the Taleban, whose rule they remembered chiefly for searches and arrests. When the Taleban called a council of mullahs to decide what to do with Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, the local mullah voted to have him expelled. Perhaps more to the point, they were extremely pleased with the only manifestation of Western presence in the village: an EU-funded, Danish-built, shiny, zinc-coated manual well, which relieved the women from having to draw water in buckets.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot in Herat. Ismael Khan’s enlightened paternalism has made the region more optimistic than it’s been since the Timurid rule in the 15th century. For the moment, I am still proud to call Ismael Khan my friend.


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