(Photo: Naveen Kapoor) Interviewing Ahmed Shah Masood, the Lion of Panjshir Photograph:( WION )
2021 is proving to be very different from 1997 for Afghanistan
May 1997. The Taliban militia, backed by Pakistan, were moving swiftly to take control of Afghanistan. About two-thirds of the country was under its control and the rest under the Northern Alliance or Jumbish-e-Islami, a coalition of militias loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Hizb-e-Wahadat of Karim Khalili and the Jamiat-e-Islami of Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani & Ahmed Shah Masood, the Lion of Panjshir .
I was asked by my then media organization to travel to Afghanistan for a ground report. So, along with a camera person, I chose to go to Mazar-e-Sharif.
We flew from Delhi to Tashkent and onwards to the border town of Termez in Uzbekistan before taking the iron bridge over Amu Darya (Oxus River) to enter Afghanistan. This bridge was built by the Soviet Union, so that their tanks & other heavy supplies could cross over smoothly. After the Soviet Union broke up, it was renamed as the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge.
At Amu Darya
The moment we crossed the bridge and entered border town of Haeratan in Afghanistan; we were greeted by smartly dressed Uzbek soldiers owing allegiance to Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum. We told them we were Indians and to our surprise one of them started singing the famous Raj Kapoor song, 'Mere Juta Hai Japani' and we were served piping hot green tea. The border formalities were over even before we could finish our green tea. The taxis parked nearby flaunted posters of Bollywood stars like Karishma Kapoor, Juhi Chawla & Shahrukh Khan.
This was my first impression of Afghanistan – which is still imprinted in my mind—even though almost 25 years have gone by.
We were picked up by our local contact and then we drove for about 2-hours thru the highway to Mazar-i-Sharif. Sand covered most of the highway and we noticed burnt tanks, trucks etc on the way. Apparently, they belonged to the erstwhile Soviet army.
As we entered Mazar-e-Sharif, the majestic Hazrat Ali Mazar also popularly known as Blue Mosque surrounded by thousands of white doves, symbols of peace, greeted us. Markets were full of visitors, traffic unruly and Bollywood music blaring out of shops selling tape recorders and cassettes.
At Hazrat Ali Mazar, also known as Blue Mosque
We decided to start our reporting from the Balkh University located in Mazar-e-sharif. Here there were no strictures based on the Islamic way of life. Young girls were being imparted education and they mingled freely with men while sharing the same classrooms. It seemed like any other university. In contrast were the pictures from Kabul and areas under Taliban control that we had seen on TV in New Delhi, showing women being flogged for sending young girls to school or college.
This was the Mazar-e-Sharif I saw.
After spending almost two-days at the home of a local commander of the Northern Alliance in Mazar-i-Sharif, our request for a meeting with Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Masood materialized. The next morning we were on his personal chopper travelling to Takhar province’s capital Taloqan to meet the man himself, a legend whose exploits are the stuff of many stories in the region.
With personal bodyguards of Ahmed Shah Masood
The first glimpse of the man himself was overwhelming & our first meeting was full of warmth.
The next three-days we spent travelling with him in his black Land Cruiser from one place to another including interiors of the province. His energy was infectious. We went from one meeting to another, where he discussed military strategy with his local commanders. The sole objective was how to defeat the advancing Taliban militia. On average, he was spending over 18-hours a day planning his moves against the rapidly advancing Taliban.
On sighting the Lion of Panjshir, locals would flock to greet him and shake hands. He knew many by first name. And would ask them about their wellbeing and that of their families. As day two ended and we sat to eat our dinner at a local military commander’s home, the man himself appeared and joined us for the meal. The conversation over the dinner ranged from his days fighting the Soviets as a Mujahideen to the future of Afghanistan.
His dream of seeing a peaceful Afghanistan, was then being shattered by the Taliban with support from Pakistan. He acknowledged that India was and will always remain a friend of Afghanistan. Then we talked about our respective families. This was Ahmad Shah Masood to me. Later, I was told that it is rare for the commander to share a meal like this with strangers, and the memorable meal is a privilege I cherish.
Finally, on day 3, we got an opportunity to interview the Lion of Panjshir on record. As we sat down for the formal interview, he was guarded. He talked about how the Taliban militia would never be able to enter the Northern Parts of the country; his relationship with other warlords like General Dostum; how they were planning to defeat the Taliban and retake Kabul; and, how each & every citizen of the country was standing by with them. It was an exhaustive interview.
At the end of it, we bid adieu with a promise to remain in touch. It was a promise we couldn’t keep.
Later in the day, we boarded his personal chopper for the flight back to Mazar-e-sharif. There was trouble in store. En route, our chopper was fired upon and we could hear the volley of bullets hitting the helicopter’s outer surface. But thanks to the Lion of Panjshir’s personal pilot, who was remarkably adept in handling the chopper, we managed to evade rest of the gunfire. And, just about survived to tell our story.
But 2021 is proving to be very different from 1997. The Lion of Panjshir is no more. He was assassinated days before the 9/11 attacks on the US
Media reports emerging from northern areas tell a different story. The Taliban has almost encircled the one-time strongholds of the Northern Alliance. And it continues to make dramatic gains. The Taliban currently controls about 195 districts and in contests over another 129 districts. Afghanistan is once again confronted by the Taliban waging a war to take over the country. And, there is no telling how long the turmoil and violence will last.
Will peace ever return to this beautiful, rugged country?
This question, which I asked Ahmad Shah Masood in 1997, still eludes an answer.