We Felt No Mercy
In Afghanistan, the wisdom of the powerful has resulted in decades of endless violence. What might we learn from ordinary people?
An Afghan National Army soldier keeps a casual watch from inside a guard tower at a Base in the Panjwai District west of Kandahar City. Photograph by Philip Cheung.
My grandmother often said that as the elders died, so would history. She came from an oral tradition and she was a master storyteller. The details would occasionally shift—the colour of her scarf, the number of guests at a wedding, how many goats were slaughtered at a feast—but the plotline never varied, and the villains and the heroes always fulfilled their roles.
Starting from the time of her birth, my grandmother’s stories traced the historical arc of what was then British India. Her tales of change were wrapped up in accounts of daily village life, of a time when your destiny depended on your gender, who your father was and where in the village your house was built. My grandmother had no formal schooling. My grandfather taught her to read after they got married, but she never left the village, and had no idea of life outside the boundary wall. Women and girls lived with each other; the world out there was for men.
But the outside world shaped the lives of the people in my grandmother’s village, even if they were oblivious to its force. The world changed and people agitated and the effects rippled outward. Those shifts—sometimes mere blips, occasionally upheavals—made themselves known in my grandmother’s performances. Her stories didn’t float freely; they were anchored in historical context. There were no dates or years, simply broad references to “when the English were in charge” or “the year the floods came” or, simply, “Partition.”
Taken together, my grandmother’s stories painted a picture of a time and place, reflecting the politics of colonialism and the emerging desire for nationhood. By knowing her world, it was possible to know a version of British India: the version that existed in the fields and in the villages, where the language you spoke said something about your religion, which, in turn, said something about your politics.
Those oral histories are sometimes the only records that exist in a place. In my travels through Pakistan and Afghanistan, much of what I’ve come to know is based not on pages from a book, but rather on stories like the ones my grandmother told me. Sometimes these tales go against accepted narratives; they counter the heroism of battle or belie the creation myths of nations. Through the memories of ordinary people, we learn that wars are not waged for love of God and country but for something far less noble, like the love of wealth. Through piecing together the narratives of villagers and farmers and others outside the corridors of power, we see that the fight for self-preservation is sometimes actually a fight for superiority.
Often, though, the things that can’t be stamped with a date or indexed in a reference book are regarded as less legitimate than what can be meticulously recorded and footnoted. If it can’t be looked up, it doesn’t exist. My grandmother’s stories were part of those undocumented existences that fill the spaces in official timelines; they provided the human drama missing from the history books.
I’ve become preoccupied with gathering stories, and I decided to look at south-central Asia through the lens of war—hardly a novel approach. It has already left us with the ugly and inaccurate term “AfPak,” as though diverse peoples and cultures can be summed up in five letters. Such falsehoods are typical in current conversations about Afghanistan, where history seemingly began with the US-led invasion in 2001, and everything that ever happened did so in the last decade.
Afghanistan’s last thirty years have spawned a narrative in the West that classifies people as heroes or villains depending on whether they are with us or against us. But heroes become villains become heroes with shifting alliances, and with each change the clock is reset. It was reset again in 2001. The problem, of course, is that when you ignore what came before, you’re astonished when it invariably comes back—a crucial lesson to remember as Canada withdraws most of its troops from Kandahar this year. Afghanistan’s history has been playing in a loop. We’ve simply forgotten that we’ve seen it all before.
I’d been chasing Neamatullah Arghandabi for several days. He was visiting Kabul from Kandahar, and was booked solid with errands and meetings—and funerals. The funeral conversation is one that I rarely have in Canada, where death seems a rarity and final farewells are typically small, subdued affairs. In Muslim societies, burying the dead is a communal activity.
It was dark by the time I reached Arghandabi’s house in the Karteh Seh area of West Kabul. It sat on an unlit street; I had to wait for an assistant to come out and get me. Despite the instructions—our home is across from the TV station, three doors down from the house with the blue gate—I couldn’t see well enough to orient myself.
I was interviewing people—men—who could help me understand what life was like in Kandahar before the war, and how war changed the business of life. A friend in Kandahar had given me a list of people he thought would make good interviews. The names came with a line or two about who they were: tribal elder/landowner; former mujahed; well-known 1980s commander; speaks English but prefers Pashto.
Arghandabi, in his mid-forties, was the “former mujahed,” a member of the Barakzai tribe. He works with young people now, trying to help them find some direction for their lives. I waited for him in an upstairs sitting room. Long sofas lined all four walls, with coffee tables arranged in the centre. The young man who’d helped with directions brought in a tray of ice-cold Red Bull drinks instead of the expected green tea and sugar cubes.
Arghandabi arrived some twenty minutes later in a crisp white shalwar kameez and black-rimmed glasses. His English was peppered with Western idioms, and he began his story in the late 1960s. Arghandabi spoke with a smile—regardless of the horrors he discussed—as though his grin could distance him from the brutality of Afghanistan’s years and years of war.
“When I was a child, life was very simple. There was peace, a lot of love. People loved each other, they liked each other, they supported each other—though I remember there was no money. Now we have secondhand vehicles from Japan and Dubai. We used to have donkeys and horses and camels, but there was peace. People were poor, but they were much happier than now.
“In those days the government was structuring things in a modern way. People were really realizing that they had to change Afghanistan, slowly. Not like King Amanullah—fast, and he totally failed. And Afghanistan was improving; people were going for higher education at that time. That was the only time that Afghanistan was actually doing very good. School was compulsory and it was free and, by President [Mohammed] Daoud’s time, people would know that for their own improvement they should put their kids in school.
“We were from a rural area, not very far from Kandahar City. My grandfather was a farmer and a landowner. My father was sent to school—to an army school—and he was really clever and good. He became a doctor, a military doctor. My father’s generation, they were all educated. My grandfather didn’t have any education.
“I grew up in Ghazni. My father had [military] duty there, then Badakhshan, then Kabul, then Helmand, but on our school holidays we would go back to our village. The tribal structure was there, but there was rule and law. Slowly [state] law was taking the place of tribal law. Even the Sunni–Shia friction was going away because people went to the university—if there’s a Shia girl and a Sunni boy and she likes him, then that wall is broken.
“Before, it was really bad for a Pashtun’s daughter to be married to a Tajik. But that was changing. People didn’t mind. So tribe was there, but it was losing its grip on the people.
“My father was a doctor and, growing up, I thought that me and my brother—he’s dead now—we thought that we would really do good, we would be going to a very high education. My father really looked after us. He was the first of the educated generation, and so he was very strict about studying, nothing but study, nothing but study. Sometimes we pretended we were sleeping just to deceive him. We thought we would be a really, really highly educated people.
“I think I was in class six or seven when Nur Muhammad Taraki came to power [in a coup]. People took the streets and were shouting ‘Hurrah’ and ‘Long life this’ and ‘Long life that.’ There were red flags on all the autos. My father was really anti-Taraki regime because my father’s tribe was from [overthrown president] Daoud’s, and he was fundamentally anti-these guys. But he kept quiet in public, because otherwise he would be dead.
“It would surprise you to know that during President Daoud’s time we were following the footsteps of the Beatles. You know, the Beatles were very famous here too, and so we said, ‘Okay, these guys have long trouser sleeves or long hair, this is the Beatles,’ or, ‘This girl is dressing like the Beatles.’ So things were changing—the music was bringing change.
“During Taraki’s time he took it to an extreme level. Thirty reforms were announced in one month. Land reform was the one that brought him down. The jihad didn’t start about Islam or the Russians; it had already started about the land. So taking land from the rich people and leaving them with thirty jireebs or twenty acres or something, then giving their land to the farmers, was what brought the conflict—not Islam and the Russians.
“[Taraki’s] reforms were really giving too much freedom to women: making them dance on stage, bringing girls the miniskirt, forcing people to wear jeans or suits rather than shalwar kameez. These [reforms] were going too quickly, to such an extreme level, that the Afghans couldn’t take it. Many people knew that it was going to be a disaster because it was so quick and so much change.
“A lot of military officers were taken from their houses during the night and never seen again. My father was taken, but a [schoolmate] released him from the death squad. He was lucky. Then he kept quiet in public. The teacher would insist we should have a red shirt and red trousers [to show support for Taraki], but my father would kill me if I did so. My mom would hide the red clothes and I would change into them at school. By the time I got to class twelve, it was already Babrak Karmal’s time and the Russians were already in the country. By then we were in Helmand, and in Helmand I left school.”
Babrak Karmal was the Kremlin’s man in Afghanistan. When he came to power in 1979, he made big promises to the Afghan people, most of which went unfulfilled. But the agitation that began under the Taraki government gained strength, and isolated resistance grew into all-out guerilla warfare. Afghan government forces fought alongside soldiers from the Soviet Union to crush the rebellion.
Tribal leaders began organizing their men, and factions of mujahedeen—anti-Soviet Muslim fighters—formed along the lines of traditional tribal alliances. Each tribe fielded its own commanders. But the authority of the tribal leaders was dissipating; power had more to do with fighting prowess and access to resources like men and guns. Younger, more aggressive commanders came to be the new power brokers.
Ethnic mistrust and sectarian rivalry came roaring back. Women disappeared from public life. The people began to see enemies where before they saw friends. Neamatullah Arghandabi’s family fell apart. His father took a second wife—an educated woman—so his mother took the children and left. Without his father’s strict guidance, Arghandabi’s daily life turned into a series of negotiations. He could only find safety by joining the mujahedeen. He was about sixteen years old.
“As a young boy you had to shave your head and look as ugly as possible, because a lot of boys had been raped. The women had been hiding, and there were these sexually frustrated guys with guns. It was really, really hard to live in Kandahar. You would wake up in the morning and go to mosque, and there were three dead bodies in front of your door. It was such a familiar scene.
“You would wake up and on your roof there was a soldier, either mujahedeen or a government soldier—or they were throwing grenades from the neighbour’s roof onto that roof that you are living beneath. It was such a total war. It was not a conventional war.
“I studied at a madrassa [school]. The reason was not education, but it was just to have a student ID so that [the government] wouldn’t take me to soldiering. I remember burning the hair from my leg. It was very common for the young people, because if the soldiers stopped you and said, ‘Okay, how old are you?’ and you said, ‘I’m a young boy,’ they would say, ‘Can you pull your trouser up? Okay, no hair on your leg.’ They were recognizing your age by whether you have hair on your legs or not, so we would make a fire and put our legs on it so it would burn the hair like a woman’s.
“It was really bad to live in Kandahar. People today say it is bad to live in Kandahar, and it makes me smile. You don’t know what bad means. I remember three napalm bombs dropped by the Russians in the city. Five hundred people died. One was near a very famous square, Shaheedan Square. One was in the mechanic school near the governor’s house.
“One delegation from the north came. They were [pro-Soviet fighter Abdul Rashid] Dostum’s soldiers. They were rapists and murderers. They came to our madrassa and they took a handsome boy and they wanted to make sex with him. He refused, of course. He was from Kandahar. I knew him. They just shot him in front of us. Then they took all three hundred of us to the place where they recruited the soldiers. Some of our boys attacked the guards and killed three of them. Six of our schoolmates were killed. We ran to a place called Mahalajat [outside Kandahar City], where the mujahedeen were, and we never returned to the city.”
Fleeing to Mahalajat marked a turning point in Arghandabi’s life. He was now committed to the fight. But he still had to prove to a group of seasoned fighters that he was worthy of them—or he’d spend his days living like a servant.
“We were just moved and pushed [into the mujahedeen]. We supported them, but then they forced us to join up. Everyone else was grown up, but we were these teenage boys. We would stay up all night so that we wouldn’t be raped by one of our mujahedeen guys. Nobody would talk about this, but it was the reality for us because all these guys—I know they were religious guys, I know they would rather die than do this kind of stuff—but they were still human, and you had to watch yourself with these guys. You had to play tough, you had to fight hard, you had to say, ‘I am a man also, although I am a teenager, but I can kill you!’
“It was like these cowboy movies. If you are not a tough guy, you are somebody’s cook or a servant within the rank. So it’s like an army and it’s a tough life.
“I remember it was very hard for me to do night watch. That was the hardest part on that first day. Being in the night, in the water, without light, in these bushes, I was scared because I was scared of the animals in the water. We worked without shoes and slowly, slowly we didn’t need no shoes anymore. We didn’t wash our feet. Our skin became so thick you couldn’t even penetrate very sharp needles through.
“I could hardly handle it. But I knew I was clever. I had a good family background, so that background helped me, but not many people were lucky like me. We were three guys [assigned] for night watch. We did six hours watch, but they said, ‘You are scared, you are little boys, so you do two hours each, but you stay together.’
“The second night, I said I wanted to do mine alone. They said, ‘You are a young boy, this is no man’s land. These guys may come and attack us, so how can you do this?’ I said, ‘No, I will do this.’ But I will never forget that day in my life. I was frozen [with fear]. If somebody touched me, I would have had a heart attack. I was frozen for two hours, I could hardly move my hand. It took me at least fifteen minutes to twenty minutes to raise my head and look at my watch to see how much time had passed.
“You were the only guy on the roof and it was dark and it was this bushy area with no people around because they were all refugees. That first night I will never forget. But I managed it. I came down and they said, ‘How was it?’ and I said, ‘It was okay,’ just boasting about it, but in fact it was the hardest thing I ever did, that first watch.”
By the mid-1980s, the war against Soviet and Afghan government forces was reaching a climax. The mujahedeen not only had financial and military support from the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and various European countries; they also benefited from international media keen to show them as chivalrous and courageous, a ragtag, passionate band of men defending their land from communist aggression.
Some five million Afghans had fled the country, finding sanctuary in Iran and Pakistan. The wealthier found their way to Europe and America. As Arghandabi describes it, the mujahedeen didn’t just wage war on the enemy—they also waged war on those left behind.
“These guys fighting in Zhari or Pashmol were just living day to day. There was no thinking. We were there for twenty-four hours a day. We were told not to watch TV, not to listen to music because it was haram [forbidden]—there was no entertainment, there was nothing.
“When we struck, we struck exactly where [the Russians] hurt because we had nothing else to do. We just sat there and thought about how to get them: where to place a bomb, where to do an ambush, who is helping who, and how do we get to his house and take him out and slaughter him and throw his head in front of his door so the other people don’t do that.
“Sometimes we would throw rockets into the city without even thinking about where they would drop. We were jealous of the people sitting in the city watching TV, when we were sitting here in the bushes with nothing. I remember we threw fifty or sixty rockets into the city on Eid Day [marking the end of Ramadan]. Why? Because we didn’t have family and couldn’t enjoy ourselves. So why should they have family and enjoy themselves? Let’s disturb them—sixty rockets on Eid Day for no apparent reason, without a target.
“We poured acid on women with the burka just because they had come out to do some shopping. I remember we killed people just because they shaved. The Taliban were putting them in a container and beating them, but we killed them. The Taliban didn’t let women go to school—we didn’t even let them shop. We destroyed more bridges than the Taliban can ever think about. If you came to Kandahar, you knew exactly what we were up to. And now we are so surprised that the Taliban were so extreme and we are so shocked that they could do this. What do you mean, ‘How could they do this?’ How could we do this? And the world was supporting us.”
The fighting peaked from 1985 to 1986. Over the next several years, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. The mujahedeen credited solely themselves with the victory. Arghandabi had been fighting for several years by now, but instead of seeing an end to his days as a warrior, he watched as his mujahedeen brothers turned on each other, a fight that would carry on for nearly a decade more—stopping only when the Taliban took power.
By the time Mohammad Najibullah’s government collapsed in 1992, most of Afghanistan had been reduced to a series of fiefdoms, each lorded over by enriched warriors busy consolidating their power and economic bases. Life was one misery after another. Marauding bands of gunmen targeted women and young boys. Criminal gangs operated without fear. Tribal leaders, once considered problem solvers and benefactors, now preyed on their own people. With no common enemy to fight, former anti-Soviet warriors turned their guns and rockets on each other in a never-ending cycle of vengeance.
It was in this environment that the Taliban seized control. Many of those who called themselves Taliban had fought as mujahedeen, alongside their current enemies, in the anti-Soviet war. When the Taliban finally grabbed power in 1996, Afghanistan had been mired in violence for nearly two decades. Arghandabi’s wife had died in the conflict. He fled to London after sending his children and parents to Pakistan. It would be five years before he was reunited with his family.
On September 11, 2001, Arghandabi’s children left Pakistan to join their father in London. Less than one month later the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom—the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Arghandabi did not find his way back to Kandahar until 2004. Seven years later, he doubts he will see a happy ending this time either.
“This conflict is no different from the one I fought. In the big picture—and even in the small details—it is exactly the same. I predicted something and it happened two years later. It makes me smile, and [also] angry. One day I told my friend that when the Russians were going from [Kandahar Airfield] to the city [toward the end of the war], they would come down from their convoys, and these poor soldiers would kneel along each inch of the road—it is seventeen kilometres—looking for mines. I said, ‘This will happen to the Americans.’ And it is happening now.
“I told the Americans many times, ‘Don’t do what the Russians did. Why do you do this? Why don’t you learn or listen to people who’ve been there?’ If they did two years ago what they’re doing now, there would be no war. They do everything at the last possible minute, after they fail.
“The British shot somebody in front of me and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how could it be so the same?’ When the Russians first came, they were giving chocolates, shoes—I waited in school for three hours to get shoes, and I received the wrong design and I was so unhappy. And then they slowly, slowly started shooting us. Not because they wanted to shoot us, but because they didn’t know who was who. So slowly, slowly, in the details, it’s exactly the same thing.
“For the Russian [soldiers], they were there for two years and then they were leaving. For soldiers now, it is six months. For us, we are there until we die. By the time the Russians were leaving, we were really fearsome soldiers. We could do things that nobody could do on this planet, because we were just about the fight and nothing else. We didn’t have mercy. We didn’t think. We didn’t care. We just thought about how to win. We just thought about the day the Russians would leave and we would be heroes.
“Now reintegration is impossible. Somebody’s brother is dead; he wants revenge. I’ve been there. I remember. We felt no mercy. We didn’t give a damn about jobs. After I joined, I became a professional soldier—I remember the first day, and then I remember what became of me.
“If we didn’t have war the old generation would die and the new would be educated—they would be going places, they would know a bit better, they would know Islam better. Slowly but surely, they would bring some changes. But now is not the time for change or to think about democracy or girls or concern about women or rights. If somebody’s bleeding and he comes to you for advice, you won’t say, ‘Okay, go to the gym and do bodybuilding and you will have a nice body.’ No, you will tell him go to the hospital and get help, or he will die. So now we are dying. Our first concern is security—how to survive.
“We are in for a long fight, long chaos. I believe the Americans will retreat to their bases and just support their soldiers. And then they will bomb places. [President Hamid] Karzai is not a fighting man. He is a very peaceful president. I wish he could be president of India or somewhere. He was a very good foreign minister, though. He knows how to talk. But he is not a chief or commander of Afghanistan.
“I was talking to a Talib one day and I said, ‘What about these people who die when you [blow up] a car? One Canadian soldier is either dead or he is wounded, but seventy people die when they are buying cucumbers.’ He said, ‘This is just like stepping on ants without any intention. They die. You just walk, you step on ants, they die. God will not punish you for that.’
“For [the Taliban], killing these people, these people dying—it’s jealousy. They don’t want people going to school when they’re not going to school. You’re going to university, but this poor chap in the mountains, he has no wife, no girlfriend. ‘Go to hell. I will throw my rockets. You show me some people crying in the night on the TV because their family is dead? Go to hell, too, because I buried someone yesterday killed by your guys, and his mother was crying too.’
“Do you think they’ll leave the fight? No way! When Karzai was on the other side with [the mujahedeen] and Najibullah was begging them [to stop]—when they didn’t come to peace, how can they expect the Taliban to come to peace? Never, ever. Even if I am dead and someone brings the news to my grave that Karzai and the Taliban have made peace, I will say, ‘No way. I know the Taliban, I know their ideology, I’ve been living with them, I fought with them, I know what they think.’ So [Karzai is] just wasting his time or waiting for a miracle. If you have come with peace, expect peace. If you have come with fighting, keep fighting. The only way out is to fight.
“I can’t sleep, and war has a lot to do with that. My dreams are filled with killing and dying. I am just like the rest of these Afghans. I don’t know what to do, where to spend the rest of my life. I am a fighter, a warrior, a soldier. I don’t know what to do with myself, but I don’t want to die for nothing. I don’t want to go back to studies to get a degree, because where would I use it? I don’t want to use it in America or Britain, because they have so many educated people. I can’t use my education in my country, so why study when you can’t use it?
“The more you know, the worse you feel. So you’d rather be an idiot. Most of these idiots are really happy because they don’t think. And sometimes I’m not really proud that I know things. It would be so nice not to know.”
See the rest of Issue 49 (Spring 2011).
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Related on maisonneuve.org:
—Interview With Naheed Mustafa
—Why Afghanistan is Canada's next Korea
—Afghanistan: Canada's Mission Impossible
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