A tenuous peace has settled over Afghanistan following the defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. The nation’s fighting men, who also battled invaders from the Soviet Union from 1979 until 1989, have been left with the daunting task of adjusting to civilian life. With little else to do, many are turning to the lucrative business of growing poppies for the opium trade. Toronto journalist Adnan R. Khan travelled with three mujahedeen soldiers returning home after 10 years of fighting with the Northern Alliance. Khan also followed them into the poppy fields, and wonders if these men will ever be able to put down their weapons. His report:
SABIR KHAN can take a Kalashnikov apart and put it back together in under a minute. Not so amazing a feat, perhaps, but he does it with his eyes closed. It was an important skill during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the 41-year-old soldier explains as he lays the reassembled weapon gently down like a rare Stradivarius. Daylight was a dangerous time then for the mujahedeen, and they spent days sleeping in dark, dank caves, waiting for the cloak of night before venturing out. It’s a nocturnal habit that Sabir is unable to break. “I’m used to staying up all night,” he says. “Besides, there’s nothing to do in the day anyway.”
For the thousands of Afghan fighters who have been waging one battle or another for years, the time to put down their weapons is coming. What to do next? It is a question that perplexes Sabir, as he arrives at nightfall in Jegdalek, 40 km southeast of Kabul in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. This is his home village, which he has not seen in 10 years. Life does not appear to have changed here in centuries. Meagre oil lamps provide light; there is no electricity, running water—or even roads, for that matter. That made the journey to the village a difficult one for Sabir and two other returning local mujahedeen, his cousin Ismail, 35, and Ashoor, 31. From Sorubi, where they had been based with the Northern Alliance since the
fall of the Taliban, we drove through a dry riverbed strewn with boulders for most of the four-hour trip, pushing our four-wheeldrive Toyota pickup to its limit.
I was half expecting a welcoming party when we arrived in Jegdalek, but Ismail had warned me not to expect much. “Some men are leaving after only a few days back,” he told me between violent bounces in the back of the truck. He was right: our nighttime arrival garnered little attention. Virtually all of the men left Jegdalek to fight the Soviets in 1979, attacking convoys from the rugged hills for a decade. Then came the war with the Taliban. After all the violence, it is hard to believe that the three fighters will ever become farmers. They still wear army fatigues and keep their weapons locked and loaded at all times. In the absence of an enemy, they shoot at birds, and remain members of a small battalion of men from Sorubi. Unlike their Western counterparts, former Afghan soldiers don’t have the luxury of reintegration programs to help them move into civilian life—a problem that could haunt Afghanistan’s leaders for decades to come.
Ashoor wakes me up at sunrise. He’s been the most eager to see his home and proudly leads me to a viewpoint overlooking the entire valley. “All the land surrounding the hill belongs to my family,” he says, pointing to terraced fields of wheat just below us. “You missed the fruit season, but if you’d been here you would have been shocked by the amounts of plums and apricots.” Ashoor has seen the least amount of fighting of the three returnees, and it shows in the youthful vigour with which he talks about his home. There is an absence of disillusionment, a readiness for new challenges that the other two lack. But even Ashoor doesn’t go anywhere without a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder.
That morning, the welcoming committee finally arrives—a few former soldiers who have recently returned home with their families after fleeing the invading Taliban army. A young boy serves rounds of green tea and the conversation begins. Sabir, it turns out, is a living legend in this remote part of Afghanistan. When he speaks, everyone listens, stopping whatever they’re doing, settling their weapons gingerly on the ground and surrounding the chiselled veteran. The stories Sabir weaves, of shooting down Soviet fighters, of firefights at the break of dawn, are aweinspiring for the younger men. They listen to the feats of courage with an unsetding hunger in their wide eyes. But members of an older generation have a distant gaze of reminiscence, nodding their heads appreciatively and remembering a time when there was a purpose in their lives.
Afghan soldiers are coming home, but some yearn to fight once again
Now they must deal with this new thing called peace, and many are turning to growing poppies to survive. Picking up his
Kalashnikov, Sabir turns to me and says, “Today we will show you the poppy fields.” After a brief breakfast of flatbread doused in milk, we walk into the wheat fields, toward a dogleg in the valley that eventually opens into a wide expanse of brilliant red and white flowers. The poppies are in full bloom, cutting between the green wheat like a psychedelic river. Despite U.S. and Afghan efforts to eradicate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, sometimes by bulldozing the crops or paying farmers to destroy their flowers, these fields are thriving.
Sabir points to a small patch of land where opium is in the process of being collected. A few young boys gather the brown ooze from the flower head and add it to a growing collection in a bucket. The
excretion is later dried. Sabir and Ismail gather up a small amount of the sticky substance for their personal use. Later, we make our way up into the hills, where various cave complexes and trench systems attest to the more violent, recent past. Sabir shrugs his shoulder to redistribute the weight of his weapon and then falls into a more philosophical mode, perhaps due to the opiates he has licked off his thumb. “Most of us are tired of fighting,” he says. “We’ve seen enough bloodshed to last a thousand lifetimes.” But then, motioning with his arm at the verdant landscape that lies around us, reminiscent of a Monet painting, he asks, “What am I supposed to do here?”
In the distance, children leave the newly opened school, a converted barn housing some 30 students, and head off toward their homes. The scene is one of promise, but it’s difficult not to be skeptical about the near future. My doubts are confirmed the next day when I leave Jegdalek. Only Ashoor stays behind. The culture of violence is too strong for Sabir and Ismail; longing for their fighting days, they head back to their battalion in Sorubi. Afghanistan remains volatile, and they may not have too long to wait before another battle.
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