You would think he is running for president if you wouldn’t know otherwise: Ahmad Shah Massoud. His picture is everywhere, from full wall-size depictions on government buildings to posters in every grocery store or motorbike repair shop, to postcard sized on the windshields of cars. Laughing, contemplative, shooting, reading, praying or instructing and always, always good looking! He is the born Hollywood star, the Che Guevara of Afghanistan. And though dead since 9/9/2001 (assassinated just two days before 9/11) his fame and glory seem constantly on the rise. Massoud the martyr. Massoud the savior.

He must have been a charismatic man. Coming from humble beginnings he united the men of the Panjshir Valley and the rest of the country; he brought together Tadjiks and Uzbeks and even Pashtuns to fight the Soviets. He defeated them multiple times on his unconquerable home turf, and achieved the one and only ceasefire agreement between the Soviets and any Mujahideen ever. For most he was and is a national hero. His military achievements were enhanced by a simple yet sophisticated life style. He did not own property, but a huge library. He spoke fluent French and had moderate Islamic views. He had five beautiful children. All in all, he was unique. Not everyone adores him for, like any mujahid, he has more blood on his hands than is good for anything. Especially the Hazara hold a mass killing of their people against him. And many Kabulians will not forgive him for needlessly reducing their town to rubble in the 1990’s. “My gun” Shirin, was a local commander under Massoud and to this day is proud of it. I was glad to have the chance to see his valley, his home and his tomb.

Once again we took the road north, the one I have been on for three or four times by now. And once again, Mubin went shopping for a picnic at his beloved subdivision. But before the dreaded Salang pass was even near, we turned right into the Panjshir Valley. No wonder Massoud was so successful in holding this valley. A very narrow entrance, just the river and a two-lane road allows for total control of access. Even today this serves as a checkpoint. The officer in charge carefully took down my data, including my dead father’s name (my female name alone counts for little) and then handed me a snippet of paper with his personal phone number, just in case.

From here, the valley slowly widens into a fertile plain with villages and fruit plantations, animal grazing land, wheat fields and an occasional mountain top. The story is that Massoud evacuated the entire native population multiple times to have a clear shooting range against the Soviets. He also could hide out in the mountains and anyone coming through was like a sitting duck to him and his men. Today, the valley flourishes once again. But many destroyed buildings, in one case an entire bombed out village – remind you of Massoud’s legacy. In fact, people here seem to relish the past and keep it alive by preserving some of these grim artifacts.

It was impressive to see the many rusty tanks littering the otherwise pastoral landscape. Some tanks were upside down, others stuck in the river bed, others lining the road. Next to the monument recently upgraded over Massoud’s tomb, some of the equipment he had snatched from the Russians and then used against them was still lying around to the enjoyment of hordes of kids who had come with their parents to pay respect to their hero. They had a lot more fun pointing cannons and turning wheels rather than gathering around the tomb in silent prayer as many of the adult visitors did.

A simple white drum with a green dome covered the tomb until recently. Now it is an octagonal superstructure which looks a bit more pretentious than Massoud would likely have approved. But it follows some of the architectural types of tombs placed over the grave of important people that are found in Iran and Central Asia.

Mubin deemed the valley unsafe for walking, but he took me on a nearly 2-hour slow driving tour into the valley and back which allowed me to photograph what I wanted and see much more than I could have on foot. I never understand when he puts on his safety breaks, but I am at his mercy. To me it all looks sunny, friendly, and just the same.

But security was high. When we stopped at a roadside restaurant, I had barely stood there for more than two minutes watching the fast-paced feeder stream when two police officers walked up checking my documents. That had not happened to me when I was on foot.

We stayed at a rundown and dirty hotel about 20 km into the valley, operated by the government. It had no services but made up for it with a great view into the valley and a wraparound balcony on which I could do my work. The moon was nearly full and shone straight down on us. But since Mubin would not allow my gun to go to sleep as long as I was sitting there, I relieved him and retreated into my room. My single, energy efficient light bulb (the only kind used in all of Afghanistan), was plugged into the wall via bare wires…

Today, for the first time, I got bitten by something. Four bites, one on my thumb, two on my elbows, and one on my shoulder created huge hard swellings. Those must have been some potent mosquitoes or what else could it have been? Bedbugs, fleas?

Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. I am again so thankful that Mubin is so protective of you for you are on a journey experiencing so very much that so few have traveled safely.

  2. Interesting photos. You would think we would have learned something from seeing all the Soviet tanks etc. litering the countryside!!!
    That picture of Massoud with you standing next to him and his mujahidin…his face is so full of joy! I wonder if/how Afghanistan would have been different had he lived.

  3. I remember after 9/11 when Afghanistan was of high interest in the States seeing a documentary on Massoud. If I remember correctly, it showed the two suicide bombers coming to “visit” him and the ultimate outcome, though it did not show the moment the bomb was triggered. The film did indeed portray him as a hero and his death a tremendous loss to the country. He did seem to be a romaticized hero of the people.
    I am glad that Mubin seems to be aware of whether situations are safe or not for you…bug bites are one thing but the “secrets” and dangers of that country are certainly something else. What an incredibly difficult country that is to understand!!! Or maybe it is just my ignorance speaking now. I don’t know.
    Stay safe and get some bug spray.