The late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, who fought against the Soviet and Taliban armies, remains a cult figure in many parts of Afghanistan.
In September 2001, when I visited Massoud’s temporary mausoleum on the top of a mountain overlooking his beloved Panjshir Valley, the place attracted numerous mujahed fighters who came there to pray and remember their slain leader before they left for the front to fight the Taliban enemies.
Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, was assassinated in Khwaja Bahaudin by supposedly Arab terrorists who pretended to be journalists keen on interviewing Afghanistan’s most charismatic opposition leader who looked remarkably like Bob Dylan. The assassins set off their bomb during the interview that they were finally granted. The fact that Massoud was killed by “journalists” was a great obstacle to the work of international reporters in Afghanistan. People looked at all journalists with suspicion as if we all were after their leaders or were in some way responsible for Massoud’s death. Needless to say that Arab journalists were not allowed to come to Afghanistan, unless they were able to present Russian or other passports, which often was the case. Afghan authorities did not allow ethnic Chechens – and legitimate journalists – from Russia to visit their country either, because there were many Chechen fighters among the Taliban. But the most hated nation was Pakistan because of its real or alleged support for the Taliban. With the number of journalists swelling by the day, tensions were high sometimes, so high in fact, that the chief mullah of Taloqan in Takhar Province devoted a large part of his Friday sermon to khabarnigar, or journalists, in the middle of November 2001 during the battle for Kunduz. The mullah said not all journalists were terrorists (thanks!) and local people should help them in their work to show the world the truth about the war. His appeal, of course, did not stop robbers from taking the life of one of our colleagues.
Massoud, a wealthy man who sold gemstones produced in his own quarries to buy weapons for his militia, was respected by other warlords and ordinary people alike. Ustad Ata, commander of the Tajik militia in Mazar-e-Sharif, as well as other “generals” of numerous self-styled armies invariably had Massoud portraits in their offices and wore the wool pakul hat that came to be associated with the style embraced by the Lion of Panjshir. Following Massoud’s death, the people’s admiration for him continued to grow. Drivers posted huge Massoud portraits on their windshields: it remains a mystery to me how they managed to drive without seeing the road in front of them. Black flags and Massoud posters were placed on tanks as they were prepared for an attack on the Taliban. In fact, when we first flew into Afghanistan in September 2001, our helicopter had a huge box with various Massoud posters printed in Tajikistan. The love for Massoud also inspired carpet-makers to produce rugs with his images. Street vendors in Mazar-e-Sharif would ask about a hundred dollars for a small hand-made carpet with the praying leader.
To say this love is universal is not true, of course. Apart from Massoud’s rivals and their supporters from other clans and ethnic groups, even some Tajiks blamed him for the drawn-out civil conflict in the country and for numerous war crimes. And one Afghan man bluntly answered my question about Massoud with another question, “How can you love a man who didn’t build a single bridge or house, but destroyed hundreds of them?” But this attitude is an exception.