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The Legacy of a Warrior: Ahmad Shah Massoud

Massoud, a warrior who maintained his humanity. (Photograph by Reza Deghati)

“If there had never been a war,” he said, “I would have been a very good architect.”

Ahmad Shah Massoud, a renowned guerrilla fighter of his generation, left behind a mixed legacy after his death on September 9, 2001. A moderate amongst the leaders of jihad who grew extremer every day, few close to him would question the personal dignity of the commander.  His humanity remained intact despite being devoured by the beast of war for more than half of his life. However, what taints his legacy is the involvement of his men in the darkest period of Afghanistan’s history—or Kabul’s history, rather.

The period I speak of is the years between 1991 and 1996, when the government of Dr. Najib was toppled and the Mujahideen moved into Kabul. As their eminent victory over Najib’s government neared after the Soviets withdrew their military power, the Mujahideen grew progressively divided. At the heart of their disputes was the structure of the future government that would move into Kabul. How would the power be divided? And more importantly, who will move into the mouth-watering presidential palace?

As the various factions tightened the noose around Kabul, Najib offered to step down. His attempts to ensure a smooth transition did not reach anywhere for no one listens to the demands of a leader on verge of demise. The country was at the mercy of the handful jihadi leaders who bargained behind closed doors in Peshawer. Pakistani agents sat at the head of the table, trying to broker a deal.

Massoud himself did not have any ambitions of becoming president, that is one certainty of the matter.  He was a king-maker and his word carried a lot of weight, but he had never shown any desire for the seat. He repeatedly said that he had left the issue of leadership of the country to the elders. However, it was his rivalry with Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a fellow engineering classmate in his younger days, that eventually turned Kabul into the bloodiest killing-ground.

The commanders had delayed an immediate entry into Kabul until a political agreement was reached by the different leaders in Pakistan. A sudden entry would bring chaos in the city, it was said. But Hikmatyar grew restless of the negotiations, and felt that nothing was being achieved. He wanted to move in immediately and claim the ultimate prize for the Mujahideen: the presidential palace. But there was no longer such a thing as the mujahideen. The language used was one of ahzab, or parties, factions. Hikmatyar’s entry meant a victory for his faction, not for all. And Massoud vehemently warned against such an entry. He tried to convince Hikmatyar that he should wait, pending the results of the negotiations in Peshawer. But Hekmatyar would have none of it. So Massoud declared that he would “defend the people of Kabul, the man, women, children, and elderly of Kabul.” And so began the darkest period in history.

For close to five years, until Taliban emerged from the South to rid them all and corner Massoud into Panjsher, Kabul burned in a hellish civil war. The small city was divided up into numerous kingdoms, with a throne on every street. Hikmatyar fired mortars from one end, Charasyab, and Massoud responded from the other, Koh e Telvision. In between, Kabul was looted, raped, and burned until it turned into a ghost-town.

The Legacy:

Any warrior, whether he likes it or not, will have blood on his hands. Massoud is no different. His image, as Afghans see it now, has splashes of blood over it. Whether he pierced his own dagger and drew that blood is questionable.  Did he have men under his command who caused tremendous bloodshed? That is a harsh certainty.

But Ahmad Shah Massoud stands out for one characteristic that many life-long warriors lose in the face of war: the ability to maintain a concerned, moderate, human heart. At every moment of his life, in every speech, in every gesture, Massoud gave the vibe that he had risen from the people, that his struggle was for the people, and that he was firm on the principles of his struggle.

Journalist Sebastian Junger, who visited Massoud for a National Geographic assignment, had this to say about Massoud’s undeniable charisma:

There was something about him – the slow nod of his head as he listened to a question, the exhaustion and curiosity engraved on his handsome, haggard face – that made it clear we were in the presence of an extraordinary man. I found it impossible not to listen to Massoud when he spoke, even though I didn’t understand a word. I watched everything he did, because I had the sense that somehow – in the way he poured his tea, in the way his hands carved the air as he talked – there was some secret to be learned.”

From what his friends and those close to him recall, one gets a sense that Massoud was a man  firm on upholding his principles at all times. In time of peace, that is an easy task. But when you are cornered into a ditch for years and your enemy threatens to destroy you every moment, it takes an extraordinary man to stay firm, to stay true, and to maintain a kind heart.

Little anecdotes help us put this picture of Massoud together. General Daoud Daoud, one of Massoud’s commanders and the recent Deputy Minister of Interior, shares this story:

We were in Kabul. A professor at Kabul university came to Massoud and complained that his daughter had been taken by the son of a commander. Massoud ordered Fahim [his intelligence chief at the time, the current Vice President of Afganistan] to return the girl to his father at any cost. In fact, Massoud said he would not eat until the girl was returned to his father. Fahim said that the case would get messy, it could ignite fighting. The boy’s father had lots of armed men. Massoud replied that the honor of the professor and his daughter was everything to him. She should be returned at any cost.

Dr. Mehdi, one of Massoud’s advisers and current politician, remembers this anecdote:

I joined Massoud at a gathering in Takhar. My entry into the room had interrupted his conversation  with one of his commanders. After greeting me, he turned to the commander and asked him to please continue.

“Yes sir,” the commander continued, “so I left with eight of my men. They have Kalashnikovs and I have a kalakov.  We arrived there at dawn. Our guide showed us to a place where deer grazed. There were two ways that the deer could escape and my men blocked both ends. When it turned light, the deer that had been grazing got scared of us and started running. Since both escape routs were blocked, they had no option but to come towards me. And I started in the name of God. I fired three rounds. When I finished, my men came and gathered the deer. I had shot 28 of them. The rest that were injured ran away. They might have fallen later, but we did not follow after them. 28 was more than enough for us. I brought ten home and give away the rest, to my men and the villagers.”

The gathering remained silent. Massoud took a long look at the commander. Then, he brought his hand to his forehead and lowered his head in silence. All eyes were fixed on him as to how he would react. He turned to the commander and said:

“What a pity. You are mujahid, a haji who has gone to pilgrimage, and a sufi. You killed God’s creatures, you ended a generation of them. Don’t you think in Islam, hunting has its limits? And that excess is a sin?”

Later, Massoud refused to have a bite of the deer meat they had brought him as a delicacy.

And a final anecdote from Mir Dad, one of his commanders:

I served as the commander for the Commando Battalion.  Once, Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army invited Massoud for a meeting, which he accepted. With a few commando soldiers and couple horses, we left for the headquarters in Badakhshan. The  journey was long, so Massoud repeatedly offered his horse to one of the soldiers. “You are tired, come ride my horse,” he said. The soldier refused. Massoud got off the horse and started walking. He left the horse behind for the soldier. He asked me to have the rest soldiers take turns on the other horses…

Massoud, on many times, reminisced about his student days. The man had gone through a lot, but he still remembered his days at the lyce Istiqlal as the best days of his life, where he played soccer and prepared to join the engineering faculty at Kabul Polytechnic. His first two years of university, too, he recalled with nostalgia. He had been very focused on his studies, very excited about becoming an architect. But the communist revolution in Afghanistan changed everything for him, turning him into a life-long warrior.

One only wonders how good an architect Massoud would have become had there been no war.

This is the second and final part of a two-part serines on Massoud and his legacy.

In the Shadows of War: the Reporter

This is first in a series of entries in which I will try to understand the effects of war on those who experience it up close.

Photographer Ashley Gilbertson closely followed US Marines in Iraq.

“Only the Soldier really lives the war. The journalist does not. He may share the soldier’s outward life and dangers but he cannot share his inner life because the same moral compulsion does not bear upon him. The observor knows he has alternatives of action; the soldier knows he has none. It is the mere knowing that makes the difference.”

Eric Sevareid, CBS radio broadcast, 1945. *

Undoubtedly, those involved in a war inherit scars, visible and not, tangible and not, that take a long time to heal. If they heal at all. The lucky few who manage to come out in one piece will be haunted by the loss of loved ones, by images of gruesome violence, and by the screams of  children they could not rescue.

The soldier, especially, bears the most extreme emotional toll of the war. He is the one carrying the gun. Whether he shoots or not, whether he saves or not, whether he acts or not will always live with him.

But what about the reporter on the ground? How does he fare after a war is over? How taxing is the experience for him?

In recent years, war-correspondence has certainly become much more intimate. The war in Iraq, especially, has seen tremendous human resource deployed for its reportage. Journalists have taken enormous risks to feed the public with details of the battlefield.

After a brief while of initial freedom for reporters, Iraq became too dangerous. Reporters could not move around on their own. They had to embed with a military team.  So, to record the happenings on the ground, the reporter shadowed the soldier, following him into battle, dodging the same bullet, walking the same number of hours without rest, and eating the same M.R.E.

In a sense, the reporter is becoming more and more involved in the experience of war. He faces similar realities as the soldier. Yes, he does not bear the same “moral compulsion” because he doesn’t make decisions of life-or-death as the soldier does. But, as American journalist Dexter Filkins and Australian photographer Ashley Gilbertson would tell you, the experience of war haunts the reporter as much, depriving him of a sense of normalcy long after the war is over.

Usually, the reporter also feels up-close what the soldier only sees in passing: the pain of the civilians caught in the middle of the chaos.  He gazes at their wounds, records their screams, and notes their hopelessness. True, the soldier too sometimes, mingles with the civilians. But his contact is not as intimate as the reporter’s.

One can only get a better sense of what the war experience is to a reporter by reading their own words. Bellow, I share excerpts from the works of New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins and photographer Ashley Gilbertson.

Here is Filkins writing in the introduction to Ashley Gilbertson’s photo collection titled  “Whisky Tango Foxtrot”:

“War, the old saying goes, is seven parts boredom and one part terror. A soldier mans a post for hours on end, with only the crickets to liven his night. Life in the village carries on, the distant armies no more troubling than the clouds on the horizon. Then, in a flash, all is changed: lives are upended, bodies wrecked, futures destroyed. This is war’s way.

But the old formula, while true in a sense, misses war’s most singular aspect: its ability to evoke a wider range of human experience than any other human endeavor. Heroism, cowardice, joy, deceit, brotherhood, and violent death. A nineteen year old from upstate New York discovers an unknown capacity for courage as he pulls a fallen comrade from a mosque. A young Iraqi woman feels her life dissolve as she cradles her blinded son. All in an afternoon, all in a flash. War maybe a peculiar mix of boredom and terror, but within those horrifying moments lies the whole galaxy of human conditions.”

The Trauma:

In the early years of the war, Filkins and Gilbertson embedded together with Bravo Company in Falluja. Their reporting from the front-line, both the pictures and writing, is riveting.

Dexter Filkins, photographed by Ashley Gilbertson during the embed with the marines.

One incident on the mission, however, highlights the intimate relationship of the reporters with the soldiers and the trauma that they both share in.

Apparently, Bravo company came under fire from a tower. After an exchange that lasted a couple hours, the fire ceased. The marines felt that the insurgents had been taken out. The editors in New York had asked for a photo of the dead insurgents and Gilbertson felt the moment right. He notified the commander that he wanted to go up to the tower and photograph dead insurgents. The commander, Gilbertson says, insisted that they be accompanied by a group of his marines.

So Gilbertson and Filkins followed a group into the tower. However, as soon as they started climbing the stairs, shooting began again. Lance Corporal Miller, who was one of the marines accompanying Gilbertson and Filkins, had been the first to go up. He was shot. The rest ran back, but there was no sign of Miller.

Filkins describes the immediate scene in his book, The Forever War:

Ashley was sitting on the stoop beside the entrance to the minaret mumbling to himself. His back was turned to the tower, and his helmet was on crooked so he looked especially vulnerable. His shoulders were heaving. My fault, he was saying, my fault. There was blood and bits of white flesh on his face and on his flak jacket and on his camera lens. My fault.

The firing stopped. Smoking rifles. Two more marines went up, and the minaret began to come apart. Bricks falling, dust and rocks, the tower swaying… Ashley was still seated on the stoop, helmet crooked, mumbling to himself like a child. My fault.

Miller appeared. Two marines had pulled him out…Miller was on his back; he had come out head first. His face was opened in a large V, split like meat, fish maybe, with the two sides jiggling.

“Please tell me he’s not dead,” Ash said. “Please tell me.”

“He is dead,” I said.

I felt it then. Darting, out of reach. You go into these places and they are overrated, they are not nearly as dangerous as they say. Keep your head, keep the gunfire in front of you. You get close and come out unscathed every time, your face as youthful and as untroubled as before.  The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and her tears move so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling  across the wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of the marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you have always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.

An introduction to Filkins’s book:

* Source of the opening quote is the book A Time of Our Choosing: America’s War in Iraq.