Searching for the Lion of Panjshir

Ever since watching videos  of Ahmed Shah Massoud flying a helicopter up a precipitous river valley in the mountains of northern Afghanistan it had been a dream to go there, to the only place left untaken by the Soviets or the Taliban, to visit the tomb of the legendary ‘Lion of Panjshir. Massoud’s portrait hangs all over northern Afghanistan, in cafes, shops, police cars and in taxi windscreens. He oozes handsome charisma, like Bob Marley, but with a bazooka. His reputation as a strategist and fighter secured his place in history long before two Al Qaeda linked suicide bombers masquerading as journalists detonated their deadly devices in his presence two days before 9/11. His death was no accident of timing -he was a major thorn in the side of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, incidentally, means “The base,” a reference coined by a commander who served under Massoud before switching allegiances. “The base,” at that point in history, was Panjshir.

The Panjshir valley is a geographic safe haven running through the Hindu Kush from Afghanistan to Tajikistan. Accessible to the adventurous by a private company car -with security guard included for a few hundred dollars- it is statistically known to be one of the two safest areas in Afghanistan, the other being Bamiyan where the famous Buddha’s were blown up. I judged it risk free enough to find a cheaper route but was frustrated by the empty promises of others to get me there; so much so I even walked to a Kabul bus company office to ask the price for a fare. Weighing me up as a westerner I watched their faces round the price up to $500; I left laughing, for a local it would more like $15. In the end I got on the phone and called a friend. I promised petrol and food and in return I got wheels and good company. 

The road north took us past Bagram air base, along a vast flat river-cut plain from which the mountains of the Hindu Kush rise impossibly sharp and steep in the distance. The occasional jet screamed overhead sending rolls of thunder across the valley and echoing off the mountainsides. We passed nomadic herdsmen, possibly Kuchi, camping amongst their sheep in the foothills. Samsoor ran the car at speed through villages and ‘round curves, over taking lorries with the typical hair raising risks of youth -Afghanistan is not a place where ordinary road rules are observed. After climbing for some distance the road began to run perilously close to the river Panjshir, cut inside a ravine of rock strata faulted at absurdly acute angles. We stopped at an armed guard post where my passport was checked - underlining the impression that the valley represented a kingdom of it’s own. A huge picture billboard of Massoud wearing a customary woolen pakul hat greeted us beyond. We continued crashing through high gorges, following the tumbling waters of the gorged valley upstream at a rate of knots. Mud built villages clung to the hillsides while farms with grassy crops and fat tailed sheep lined the valley floor. The air was as clean as the Pennine hills or the Yorkshire Dales and the stone walls in the fields reminded me of home. It was liberation from the stifling enclosure and pollution of Kabul. We stopped for food at a restaurant perched on the riverside where we were served a fine spread of freshly fried fish, rice and lamb curries washed down with chai.

Further down the road lay Bazarak, the provincial capital of Panjshir, where Massoud's tomb can be found. On the outskirts of the town a football stadium of significant size was nearing completion. I wondered what justified a stadium in such a remote place but concluded peaceful recreation was reason enough. We sped past to the Mausoleum. 

The tomb itself is set inside the arches of a domed tower edifice of stone and glass, itself set high on a finger of land dwarfed by white scree strewn hills. A tourist center, one day ready to welcome the masses, “god willing,” as they say in Afghanistan, was under construction next door. Near the edifice two men were preparing to pray, “Odd, that,” I thought, “they’re not pointing in the direction of Mecca!”  A white bearded caretaker came out, cajoling and pointing at them. The men laughed and turned their mats to the southwest. We entered the mausoleum. It was a simple regal space, a raised black marble tomb covered with glass panels inscribed with passages from the Koran. We stood on deep red Persian rugs and my Muslim friends cupped their hands in prayer. Massoud himself would approve, he was devout in observing prayer, but was widely recognised for holding a moderate, liberal interpretation of Islam. Intrigued by the veneration he holds I asked my companions for stories that would illuminate the legend. Once, I was told, his enemies had mined the mouth of the Panjshir valley, trapping his forces inside. His response, full of native wit, was to drive a flock of sheep through the minefield to create a pathway.    

Outside tanks, the rusting remains of the Russian invasion scattered the valley like tombstones.  Afghanistan is known as ‘The Graveyard of Empires,’ and, if there is one place on earth that signifies the military defeat of the Soviet state I mused, perhaps it is this. Maybe one day, should peace prevail, people will wind their way from the far corners of the earth to bear witness. The proud people of Panjshir will surely make welcoming hosts.

For more on the story read Freedom at 4AM.

Nomadic Kuchi camp

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