Radek Sikorski

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


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.

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