NOVEMBER 2002




NOVEMBER 2002 Contents


 South Asian Travels


 Arrival in Kabul
 Spirit of the city
 Cultural Suicide
 Panjsher Valley 


 Natural Heritage

Sundarbans of Bangladesh


 Recognising Depression

 Real Issues

 Bonded Labour of South Asia


 Letter from Pakistan

 From the pages of History

 Maldive Islands - in 1884


 'Rudraksha' - a review
 Artiste: poumi

 Around us

 Coffee break



 South Asian Events in
 London & Washington DC

 November   8 - Nov 14
 November 15 - Nov 21


 the craft shop

 the print gallery


 Silk Road on Wheels

 The Road to Freedom

Enduring Spirit

 Parsis-Zoroastrians of

The Moonlight Garden

Contemporary Art in Bangladesh





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Page  4  of  6


- Panjsher Valley


Akhil Bakshi


panjsher valley - soviet tanks.JPG (59251 bytes)
View of Panjsher Valley
Photo courtesy: Alexander Merkushev

Having seen almost everything that was to be seen in Kabul, I turned my attention and my petite budget towards the Panjsher Valley, 150 km away, bordering Tajikistan. Accompanied by Speed, the Great Masood’s photographer, and Faisaluddin, the driver of our station wagon, I left Kabul with a feeling of placid exultation. Just as we approached the outskirts of the city, a violent duststorm blanked out the entire view. My companions utilized the time to stock up on flour and vegetable oil for their village house in Rokha, in the interiors of Panjsher Valley. After the storm subsided, we got into the countryside, zigzagging across the Salang Highway that led north towards Mazar-e-Sharief and into Uzbekistan. The thin vehicular traffic meandered directionless on the fractured road, sometimes driving on the left and sometimes on the right, negotiating potholes. Signs warned "Beware of land mines on the sides of the road". There was blanket destruction on all sides of the vast Shamali Plains, lying in the bowl of a range of bald, mournful, brown mountains of the Hindukush. The lush plains were once of the most fertile regions of Afghanistan. Today, whole villages, shattered and destroyed, had been abandoned, left to the ghosts. They were entirely lifeless, roofless, windowless, doorless. Vineyards, carefully raised and tended over several years, had been torched, their black burns and bruises still visible. Tanks and armored carriers, breathing fire once but empty skeletons now, littered the landscape.

"Taliban ruined all the villages. Shamali Plains were the scene of the most fierce fighting between Taliban and Masood’s Army," said my companions. When Faisaluddin stopped for a namaaz-break, I asked some locals assembled at a cigarette shop about whodunit. The all pointed their fingers at the Taliban.

Until the middle of 1999, the Shamali Plains were home to mainly ethnic Tajik farmers. In September anti-Taliban forces, including those of Ahmed Shah Masood, also a Tajik, surrounded Kabul. During the fighting that followed, Taliban soldiers swept through the Plains and forced out everyone - nearly 180,000 people. Not satisfied with "cleansing" the valley of it's Tajik population, the Taliban conducted a "scorched earth" policy as they retreated, poisoning wells, exploding irrigation ditches, and destroying orchards. The livelihood of the farmers was shattered, ensuring that the local Tajik population would not return in a hurry. While the Taliban were turning Kabul's agricultural belt into a wasteland, 180,000 of the Valley's residents were in search of a new home. Some fled to the nearby Panjsher Valley. Many women and children were kidnapped and taken to Kabul. Others crossed into Pakistan as refugees. A group of Shamali villagers were found living in a garbage dump in Islamabad.

The Tajiks themselves have been guilty of the most violent and fearful reprisals. After the defeat of the Taliban by the internationally-supported Northern Alliance, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks pillaged Pushtun villages in northern Afghanistan, mercilessly killing, looting, burning, raping and forcing the Pushtuns, identified with the Taliban, to flee south. With emotions ranging from anguish to fear, anger and ethnic pride, Pashtun’s are still reeling from post-Taliban attacks.

At Matuk, Speed bought a 15-kg canister of grapes for $2. We continued down the rough road, crossing river streams on iron plates placed next to bridges that had been blown away. The sun had long set when we reached Jaboolsiraj from where the road leads to Mazhar-e-Sharief and another forks into the Panjsher Valley. All the bumping and shaking had stirred up our appetite and we called on a roadside inn to fill our stomachs. High wooden beds, takhts, covered with bright red carpets, packed the inn from corner to corner. The place did not seem to be doing any business at the time. When the inn-keeper found out that I was a Hindustani, he produced a TV and a VCR and inserted a VHS cassette of some non-descript Hindi movie, turning the volume as loud as the technology permitted. Within no time, tall, bearded men and hairless boys trooped into the inn. Taking off their shoes, they squatted on the takht, their eyes glued to the idiot box.


We headed east into the valley of the Panjsher, driving on a dirt track full of rocks and gravel. Raising clouds of dust, we passed through villages of Gulbahar with cultivated fields and orchards and bazaars with rows of mud-brick shops, all of which had downed their shutters for the night. Going through a gorge with massive rocks cropping out of the mountainside, we climbed higher and higher with the roaring Panjsher River always below us to our right. Faisaluddin had been driving slowly on the highway. As soon as we hit the dirt track, he discovered wings and drove at a break-neck speed that had me keep my hands on the door latch, ready to bail out. One bad hit on a boulder would have sent the speeding car out of control and flying off the unprotected side of the road into the deep abyss below. In ten different languages I told Faisaluddin to slow down but he did not seem to understand any of them. When I finally managed to get through to him, Faisaluddin said he was rushing because this area was full of sher, lions.

"But there are no lions in Afghanistan," said I, amazed.

"You are in Panjsher – the land of five lions. Every man here thinks he is a lion," said he, coolly and calmly.

I tried to involve Faisaluddin in a conversation but he lacked the concentration, application and patience required to comprehend my farsi. He would give up easily without making adequate effort and turn his attention again on the accelerator. Dangerous-looking and tough-talking Speed was also edgy as a pigeon and pleaded hard with Faisaluddin to slow down, bringing ruin upon his own name. Finally, Speed feigned hunger and asked Faisaluddin to pull up on a sandbank so he could wash some grapes in the river. I hauled my creaking limbs out of the car and limped to the river to seek help of its cold and invigorating water to restore my terminated sparkle. Under the mellow moonshine I devoured quantities of grapes, gazed out at the magnificent picture of towering mountains and rocks and the rapids, enjoyed the fresh breeze and wished we could camp here in serenity for the night.

The only times Faisaluddin was forced to slow down was when we met the oncoming traffic of goats and sheep descending from earthquake-prone Badakshan and the foothills of the snowy Pamirs. Herd upon herds were coming down the track, covering as much distance as they could in the cool of the night and resting during the day. They were all heading towards Kabul for their rendezvous with the butcher to whom they would be sold for about $60 a head. The survivors would winter at Laghman. The nomads were mostly Pushtuns. We also came upon donkey and camel caravans of the mountain gypsies. The glass-embroidered skirts and blouses of the gypsy women, their radiant faces bedecked with silver jewelry, razzled and dazzled me. Every once in a while, the animated traffic delayed our progress – to our relief and Faisaluddin’s frustration.

After two-and-half hours of driving dizzily on the dirt track with my heart always in my mouth, our rough journey came to an end in a wilderness. We unloaded our baggage on the path and as I stood wondering on which precipice Speed’s house was situated, my host shouldered the 100-pound flour sack and asked me to follow him. I hurriedly picked up my backpack and the 50-pound canister of grapes and tailed him as he went across a patch of harvested fields. The land slanted so sharply downwards that I let gravity do its work. Speed disappeared into jowar fields and I pursued him with persistence. Emerging out of the flowering crop, we walked on a narrow irrigation channel, balancing ourselves as best as we could, hoping there were no banana peels around to spoil our progress. We descended into a gully and walked breathlessly till we came to a perpendicular cliff that had no visible bottom to it. I saw Speed throw away his sack and move down into the abyss. Without giving me any directions or waiting for me, he walked away. Steadying the canister of grapes on the top of the rock, I clutched on to some stones, lowering myself down slowly, my eyes fixed upon vacancy, trying to find a foothold – till I sat with a thud on a bush of thorns. Aaaaaaawwwwwhhhh – I cried, but only in my mind, bearing the piercing pain in silence for fear of the barking dogs whose distant din seemed to be coming closer ever since we left the track. When my feet hit solid ground, I found that the chasm was only twice my height. I climbed back up to retrieve the grapes and staggering another couple of yards on the path met once again with a steep break, the descent of which was eased by an iron wheel of a battle tank. I caught up with Speed who walked unburdened, calling out to his dog, Jack. His loyal friend appeared like a ghost out of the darkness, wagging his tail, and climbed all over his master, welcoming him home. "Jack…talim," said Speed, comforting me that the dog was tame and civilized. A little boy and a girl, aged between ten and twelve, who I assumed to be Speed’s children, emerged out of his mud house, and without introducing us Speed handed my baggage over to them and signaled that we must return to the road to pick up the rest of the stuff. Up I went again and down I came, without an incident, lugging a canister of vegetable oil and a flowerpot.

Descending some wooden stairs inside the simple house, we took off our shoes in a little hallway and stepped into the sitting room brightly covered with red woolen carpets and lit by a solitary kerosene lantern. There was not a single piece of furniture. I sat on the windowsill, enjoying the breeze and the view of fields and mountains illuminated by the moon, three-quarters of its fullness. Speed played the vanishing trick. I thought he had gone to hug his wife and to stow her away. He reappeared after a long while. Speed loved to converse but he knew not a word of any other language than farsi. Though his accent was too slippery and elusive for me, he took great pains to make me understand his thoughts, his biases, and his politics.

"Eleven of my family members, including my father, mother and three brothers, have become shhaeeds, martyrs, during the Soviet and the Taliban rule – fallen to land mines, bombs and Kaleshnikovs," said Speed, hiding his remorse.

"Did you do jung yourself?" I asked him. Had he fought himself?

"Yes! I fought with rocket launchers, grenade throwers, AK-47s."

"Who trained you?"

"I learnt from tezurba, experience."

"Have you killed?"

"At least 500 – Soviets and Taliban put together."


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