Over spring break the Yale Free Press sent two correspondents to Afghanistan. The two, Charles Bork and Gregory D’Elia, entered the war-torn country on March 6 posing as Afghan peasants. They spent five days with resistance fighters in the province of Paktia where they witnessed a battle between the mujahedeen and government forces. The two also visited refugee camps located in Pakistan.
Afghanistan has faded neatly from the public view. Yet inside that nation a Holy War rages to oust 130,000 Soviet troops which have occupied the country for more than three years.
In response to a borad-based popular resistance, the Soviets have moved to suppress the entire population.
Since they have failed to win an outright military victory, they now attack civil and military targets alike. The strategy is to devastate the subsistence base of the mujahedeen (Holy Warriors) operating within Afghanistan.
Soviet helicopters bombard villages, raze harvests, scatter anti-personnel mines, and attack livestock. Frequent accusations of chemical warfare have prompted U.N. investigations.
However, the freedom fighters continue their struggle defiantly, despite a shoestring budget. Limited to inferior arms—chiefly World War I rifles, captured Soviet Kalashnikovs and a handful of anti-tank weapons—the mujahedeen have still succeeded in improving their position since the Soviets invaded.
In fact, the mujahedeen are confident they will win the war. Their morale
is very high, and already they have brought the forces of a modern superpower
to an effective standstill. With better weapons they could decide the conflict.
A joke currently popular among Moscow’s higher echelons runs:
Q: Why are we still in Afghanistan?Afghanistan is a valuable territory because of its strategic location and natural resources. Soviet troops now overlook the Persian Gulf and warm water ports. And the 4.5 million refugee population in bordering Iran and Pakistan contributes to the instability of the entire region.
In December 1979 the Soviets opted to intervene inside Afghanistan where a sympathetic communist regime was rapidly losing power. Soviet advisors had long been stationed in the country. Apparently they did not expect the strong resistance that the invasion encountered—even though Afghan fighters had repeatedly trounced an invading British Empire earlier in the century.
The Soviets do control cities, numerous airstrips, and a few central
highways. But it is only by virtue of their armored helicopters that they
maintain their domination, as the mujahedeen have no anti-aircraft capability.
It was snowing the Sunday morning we passed into Afghanistan. We treaded
a sharp and twisting trail across a white-capped mountain.
We were leaving an Afghan refugee camp off Parichnar in Pakistan, after a two-day visit. The camp was nearly empty. Almost every man of combat age had left for Afghanistan to counter the approaching assault. Paktia is perhaps Afghanistan’s most traditional province. And tribal law is present to guide the native belligerent spirit: every family must provide a fighting man to the resistance for six months of the year.
Refugees established the camp more than four years back. Atrocities had begun even before the Soviets entered in response to their “Afghan invitation.” After the Republic’s overthrow in 1978 Taraki and the communist regime methodically decimated the intellectual class and religious leadership. At least 20,000 vanished into Pulicharkhi, a prison of horrors likened to Pol Pot’s Kampuchea. Thousands were bulldozed alive into the earth.
“Ya, dwa, dre.” Hands cupped to his mouth, a young freedom fighter playfully mimicked government loudspeakers calling for surrender of the resistance. “Babrak, Babrak,” another shouted a hundred meters up the mountain slope, invoking the name of the vilified puppet president, Babrak Karmal.
Hours later in Paktia proper we stopped at an Islamic school. Adobe buildings swarmed with children of the vicinity’s remaining families, chattering excitedly at our arrival. Mujahedeen (Holy Warriors) built the school to restore stability in the broken area. The curriculum of Pushto, Dari and Mathematics is one more attempt to discourage an exodus of refugees.
After customary cups of tea steeped with sugar the Headmaster dragged a rocket from some nearby bushes. It was about six feet in length and marked by Cyrillic script. It had landed at the school but had failed to explode. This kind of rocket sends out a shower of smaller bombs and shrapnel upon impact. If you were lucky enough to be lying down very close to it, the spray would sail safely over.
About 50 students, ages five to 20, attend the center. They rely upon school supplies smuggled in from Pakistan by mujahedeen. Fighting remains sporadic. The Headmaster himself keeps a hefty sub-machine gun and frequently leads villagers and students into combat.
The snow had now become a heavy rain. A leaking matted roof meant a nighttime hike to drier sleeping quarters. At a bombed-out village we camped within a mosque, where everyone set about to prayer. They would lay their colored cloaks upon the ground, bow to Mecca, kiss the floor, rise to their knees and stand again; while all the time they chanted invocations to Allah.
Three days before, a seven hour bus ride had taken us out of Peshawar. Disguised in native dress we traveled to the border in silence with our two guides. To elude detection they had painted Bork’s reddish beard black with a toothbrush and transferred our bags to mujahedeen on a later bus. We passed without incident through military checkpoints but authorities slyly exacted a “tax” upon the bags, a fee for which the carrier refused reimbursement. He adamantly insisted we were his guests.
At dawn we awoke within the mosque. Schoolchildren visited after tea; and Itebari, our translator, who had been a teacher before the war, delivered a brief lesson.
Although his family lives in a Peshawar refugee camp, Sher Mohammed Itebari travels widely inside Afghanistan throughout the year. He escorts journalists, carries medicine, teaches children, and fights the Russians.
Gunshots and drum beats carried messages through the village. Usually they signal helicopter bombardments and troop movements. But this morning the purpose was a birthday celebration.
After an hour’s march over a snow-covered plain we stopped before a cluster of stone slabs and drooping flags. Against the thick mist and grayish mountains the cemetery made a somber scene. Flags hung above the graves of recent martyrs in the jihad. The colors were green and white. The mujahedeen have abandoned the blood red used during the wars against the British—red being the color of the new enemy.
We continued through a village at the foot of a mountain, careful to conceal our foreign features and equipment. A member of the radical fundamentalist faction resided in the village. We were traveling with the larger Moderate Alliance. Their differences of opinion can be dangerous.
The Soviets strive to promote collaboration among the villagers. They offer food, arms, and, most importantly, protection from their savage air strikes. Yet tribal areas are so close-knit that the Soviets meet with even less success than usual.
The mountain itself was a very steep precipice. We ascended a difficult zigzag trail, plodding in snow to the knee. At the top we stopped to break bread according to Afghan custom.
On the opposite side a sharp slope assisted our rapid descent. Halfway down we halted at a tea shop, slipped off our boots, and entered upon a crowd of nearly 20 mujahedeen. Plastic stood in the window frames in place of glass, which shatters during rocket attacks.
A hardened fighter, who requested anonymity, spoke of a failed attempt to assassinate Brezhnev. Twelve refugees had planned to interrupt a Soviet motorcade touring a non-aligned country in Southern Asia. They intended to overturn Brezhnev’s armored limousine and douse it with alcohol for a flaming Molotov cocktail. By chance, authorities pre-empted the plot; and in questioning suspects they submerged them in vats of water and inflicted electric shocks.
On the road again, Itebari pointed out camouflaged huts concealed in hillsides and caves that serve as air-raid shelters. Most folk had abandoned the central village, practically an Afghan ghost town now. Return is dangerous; Soviets descend from helicopters to place mines in windows and doorways. We skirted bleak craters and photographed the shapes of houses left in rubble.
The scenes recurred: bombs and ruins, shrubs and camels, guns and peasants.
In the meantime the garrison had begun a calculated diversion. That day tanks and soldiers advanced 400 meters to a neighboring hillside, threatening to break out.
When we arrived, we found the mujahedeen center buzzing with activity. A large adobe complex, it was located about a cluster of abandoned homes and ruins. A dazed freedom fighter presented a limp and mutilated hand in welcome. Otherwise we made little stir.
They placed us inside a spacious, smoky room that was oppressively dark at five in the afternoon. Two horses stood quietly in the corner, and a few fighters paced intently in the chamber. Crashing mortars and crackling gunfire broke the silence.
They use the room as stable, mess hall, and barracks. With empty buildings
everywhere, this attests to a general state of disorganization.
We slept on the hard earth floor to the sound of neighing horses. At
one in the morning 50 mujahedeen filed into the room to ready themselves
for fighting. Snapping rifle bolts and the chattering crowd made sleep
Before dawn we arose to discover a different band of mujahedeen within the room. A group prayer obscured the light of the single kerosene lamp. They, too, were setting off for battle.
We climbed a sentry tower to observe the fighting. A 10-year-old boy looked on with us. He was waiting for a weapon, Itebari explained. When a rifle became available he would join the resistance forces. “He has not yet the fear,’ Itebari said.
The child’s parents live at a refugee camp. They do not fear for his safety. Islam provides that, should he be killed in the holy war against the Soviets, he will have a place in Paradise and also the privilege of inviting his parents to join him.
At 8:00 a.m. we took tea in a local shop. The owner produced a radio
and we tuned in to BBC. Ronald Reagan was at it again. He had denounced
communist expansion and had called upon the U.S. to safeguard Central America.
We walked a quarter mile into surrounding ridges. A scorching sun had
followed previous rains; the land was desiccated. The earthen colors of
our clothing blended well with the terrain. At the sound of distant helicopter
rotors we were to roll ourselves within our cloaks and impersonate rocks.
The mujahedeen have little choice except to hide. Helicopters are the
source of Soviet supremacy. With bulletproofed undersides, they are vulnerable
to attack only when their upper halves are exposed, e.g. flying low through
mountains. Otherwise they may roam free to suppress the Afghan population.
In the early afternoon we returned from hiding and traveled to a nearby house. It belonged to Ayala Jan, age 34, a commander of 200 men. He lived there with his sons, brothers, father and wife. The remaining family was safe in refugee camps.
It appalled Ayala Jan to discover we had stayed in such cramped and restless quarters the previous night. He imposed every available hospitality in compensation. In contrast to our diet of boiled rice, potato broth and flat, dry bread (nan), we devoured a rare meal of hard-boiled eggs, salt and fresh milk. For dinner he promised to slaughter a chicken.
The entire household sat in attendance except for Ayala Jan’s wife. By custom women stay apart from guests. However, we did see many at chores in the refugee camp: drawing water, cleaning rice, watching livestock, etc.
An elderly man looked upon us severely. He had a dark brown turban,
a gnarled gray beard and an ancient British rifle over his lap.
The Karmal government has excellent weapons: tanks, fighter planes and helicopter gunships. But the freedom fighters have very few anti-tank weapons, no anti-aircraft and very few bullets, he stated, indicating that the bullets in his belt were all that he owned.
“Many days we have no food, no arms, but still we are fighting,” he said. The mujahedeen fight for religion and country, and will fight to the death of the very last Afghan, he added.
Western nations profess sympathy with the Afghan cause. Yet they do
not provide badly needed arms while Afghan blood is spilt, he said.
We replied we do not make U.S. policy. It was a feeble absolution of guilt because they could not help but regard us as ambassadors of the United States. Very few Americans visit Afghanistan. The conflict is both dangerous and inaccessible. At least for Americans—French, British and German journalists travel there frequently.
In the room there was a deserter fresh from the government garrison. He had slipped away during night fighting three days before. Three straight years he had fought in the resistance. But the Soviets captured him. After imprisonment and torture, they conscripted him for service in the desertion-plagued army of Babrak Karmal.
The strenuous ordeal had drained his morale. He sat in silence, head bowed, in a distant corner of the room. He was indifferent, perhaps even hostile to our presence.
We marched outside to observe the deserter, Abdul Nabil, display his
government uniform. He had a martial walk and shouted out, “Tasha Kur!
Kur!” when addressed. Thank you Sir! He wore the brown wool uniform
of the Afghan army and a brace of grenades strung around his waist.
“We can tell who are the Russians—they cannot crawl; the Bulgarians—they
cannot throw down their weapons; the Cubans—now they are brave. But the
Afghans—they fight best of all,” Itebari had said one night in the refugee
Morale is not strong at the garrison. Many underfed soldiers peddle arms and ammunition for more food and cigarettes. Others even abet the resistance with active sabotage of government installations, he said.
However, there are a few soldiers who accept the Soviet ways. These few attempt to justify the brutal suppression of the Afghan nation with visions of a golden industrial age, he stated.
They know even that chemical weapons are employed against the populace, he added bitterly.
Towards evening explosions were frequent and loud. Tanks were visible about the garrison positions. Bands of mujahedeen passed us regularly in their approach to the stronghold. They made a motley picture of guerrilla war: antiquated rifles and bedraggled clothing. Yet these people have contained the Soviets, and at the turn of the century they drove out Her Majesty’s expeditionary forces.
Throughout the day we had been told there would be much fighting in the night. When it was dark, Ayala Jan left us for the battle; and we mounted the roof to view the affair.
Brilliant ruby flashes screamed across the sky. Glaring spots of white light popped out on every side. There were giant blasts, ringing sounds, and the angry patter of machine guns. Then a lull, the faint glimmer of snow-capped mountains and a sky of piercing stars. And then the chaos would begin again.
Next morning we began our trek back to Pakistan. Ten thousand Soviets were headed towards us, a day’s distance away. Fighting was intense already. But if the approaching force could not be repelled, the battle would spread indiscriminately.
We forded a river to return to our original route. Hiking was more difficult. Traveling towards the garrison there had always been bands of mujahedeen to provide a wary escort. And, moreover, they had helped us to transport equipment over the rugged mountains. Now there were five of us, each with a full load upon his back. One had suffered injuries from severe frostbite and was headed for the hospitals in Peshawar.
We marched for nearly nine hours that day. It was a fast pace and familiar scene: ruins, bombshells, cemeteries, shepherds and sheep. There were two mountains ahead.
We crossed the first mountain quickly. Our bodies were daily getting accustomed to the task. On the eastward slope we were amazed to discover how much easier it is to go down than up. The landscape itself was breathtaking. A heavy mist is common above Afghan terrain. But here the effect was even more acute and eerie.
A bit further on we deviated southwards from the standard trail. There had been a heavy firefight a few miles away, and Itebari wished to display the remains. He repeated many words of caution; we were to stick closely to the pathway. All about, the hills and fields were buried in a snowfall. “Butterfly bombs” lay insidiously concealed.
“Butterfly bombs” are a remarkable Soviet contribution to warfare. They consist of two plastic petals around an explosive charge, and are dropped from helicopters to a gentle landing on the ground. The seemingly intriguing toys spark a child’s curiosity.
“Butterfly bombs” are representative of Soviet strategy: they do not admit to any difference between a civilian or military population, which is reasonable, since over 95% of the population opposes the Soviet regime. The Soviet response to guerrilla warfare is to terrorize the population, to attack the base of support for a resistance cause.
While they cannot break the resolve of the Afghan nation, the Soviets can still hope to demolish the base of subsistence for the mujahedeen. Thus they indiscriminately ravage harvests, bombard villages, and machine-gun sheep. Chemical warfare is reported, and it would certainly be consonant with this theme.
4.5 million refugees are reported in Iran and Pakistan. The Soviets
claim both bandits and Western bribes are responsible. But this is patently
After a long stretch of careful footsteps we discovered a captured rocket
launcher concealed within a glen. Some rockets were still intact, with
many strewn about the ground. However, the central mechanism had been smashed.
At dusk we reached the Islamic school. The Headmaster greeted us warmly. Now, he said, we were mujahedeen; and he repeated a very familiar prayer: “Thank the God that we are safe.”
We left again at three in the morning for a nighttime mountain crossing. We were determined to make the refugee camp shortly after dawn so as to quickly arrange a return to Peshawar. We had been away a week.
The snow had mostly melted but the path was clogged with mud. Faint specks of light and shooting stars illumined our passage towards the peak. And at the very top, the rocky plains below, gleamed the crescent moon upon the lights of Pakistan.
Joseph A. P. De Feo
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