KABUL, Afghanistan -- Six years ago, Osama bin Laden sent two assassins to kill Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud had been trying to warn the West about an impending attack. He was also the sworn enemy of the Taliban, whose protection bin Laden would need when the “planes operation” was carried out.
Two days after Massoud’s death, hijackers brought down four airliners and two buildings in the United States.
The martyred Massoud is now the national hero of Afghanistan, credited with driving out the Soviets, leading the Northern Alliance, and fighting the Taliban. His likeness graces windows and walls throughout Kabul, people put his poster on the windshields of their cars, and there is a banner of him several stories tall in the center of Kabul.
Today is the anniversary of his death; Massoud Day, and it is a particularly worrisome affair because the situation in Afghanistan has been steadily deteriorating. NATO forces have been encountering a more emboldened Taliban resistance and Massoud is a symbolic enemy, but the Taliban isn’t necessarily the only threat. Even among moderate Afghans, Massoud’s reputation is more controversial than his ubiquitous face would have you believe. Between earning hero status fighting the Russians and then the Taliban, some Afghans say Massoud victimized other ethnicities, particularly the ethnic Hazaras. During the civil war years, when warlords lobbed rockets at each other over Kabul, Massoud was responsible for a significant share of the death and destruction in the city. But as long as Massoud loyalists continue to fill government positions and ministry posts, his face will be everywhere.
I’m in a taxi headed for the celebrations held on the anniversary of Massoud’s death, at the Ghazi stadium in Kabul, having bribed Aimal, the taxi driver, to be my fixer.
“Taliban has been wanting to make bomb blast in Kabul, lot of bomb blast, kidnapping, killing,” Aimal says. Aimal’s English is suspect at best, but he’s no less willing to display it. When Celine Dion’s Titanic theme song comes on the radio he says, “You see it? Nice film, very romantic film. When that boy love to become friends with that girl, very romantic.”
As Aimal speaks we are approaching the point where two lanes of traffic have stopped, backed up all the way to the stadium, but Aimal is not slowing down, and I’m looking at him, wondering what the hell he’s doing. He aims for the middle and flies between the two lanes of stationary cars, whizzing by them with inches to spare on both sides, and while my hands grasp for something to hold on to Aimal says, “Mr. Jeff, you have girlfriend?” He turns his head to me and closes his eyes theatrically. “Love is very romantic.” Then without slowing the car he tries to tell me about his girlfriend, but he gets his pronouns mixed. “He wants to marry me. He was like ‘let's have wedding’ and I am like ‘you are a crazy!’ Wedding means wife and wife means kids and kids means no live! But still he is wanting have wedding!”
I have no press card so Aimal and I have to get through the checkpoints by showing off a meaningless form letter that came when I applied for my Afghan visa. Each time I hand it over, the soldiers look at me quizzically -- it’s crumpled, has phone numbers and various notes scrawled in blue ink on the back, and doesn’t look the least bit official. But Aimal improvises new translations of the irrelevant English text every time I present it. It says I’m the chairman of a foundation from Washington, D.C. It says I’m the president of a corporation from Canada. Eventually, inevitably, Aimal gets us through.
As we near the stadium things start getting crazy. Cars plastered with posters of Massoud swerve around each other, there is honking and yelling, passengers lean halfway out bus windows waving pictures. People jettison themselves from moving cars and start running towards the stadium, unable to contain their euphoria. “Why you run!” Aimal says. “To run don’t make Massoud alive!”
Soldiers have unrolled razor wire and blocked the access roads with armored humvees, and begun telling people the stadium is already at capacity, which has the predictable effect of inciting the amassed crowd into a frantic anger. They push towards the gates, as others march around the stadium chanting nar’a takbir, allah u akbar: “The voice of greatness? God is great!”
There is a crowd accumulating at the perimeter fence to the stadium, and the guards defending it are leaning up against it, jabbing their arms through to try to push the crowd back, but they are quickly overtaken. The crowd breaches the fence and surges towards the nearest stadium entrance, where two more soldiers are waiting. Aimal and I slip in with the crowd and try to push to the front. Aimal is more nimble than me and within seconds I’ve lost him, and with him my letter, my passport, and my ability to (kind of) communicate. I lower my head, turn myself sideways, push harder, and then emerge at the front in less time than expected, quickly realizing that the crowd has receded around me because one of the soldiers has lowered his shoulder and started charging into us like an aggravated boar. When we move forward again, he takes his machine gun off his shoulder, holds it by the barrel, and starts swinging the butt at us.
Aimal has made it past him and is talking to another soldier, gesturing toward my letter. He beckons me but when I step forward the angry one puts his hand on my chest and shoves me back towards the crowd. Aimal comes bounding out and now we’re running back to the car away from the crowd, jumping over the mounds of rock and dirt, past an old man squatting to relieve himself in the sand. When we reach the car Aimal says there’s another gate we should try, and that we need to move the car because someone might try to attach a bomb to it here; this is what the soldier told him.
At the checkpoint before the next gate, a member of the president’s police dressed impeccably (and incongruously) in white trousers and a white suite vest lowers himself to the driver side window, reaches across for my passport and my letter, and then talks to Aimal in Dari. “He says its very dangerous down there, there are people are crazy, the police are nothing to them. It’s not good for foreigner, very unsafe. Go if you want but you are crazy. We can’t help you. If something happen to you police don’t help.”
We drive on.
Just as President Hamid Karzai is taking the podium to deliver his speech, we are arriving to where a crowd of thousands gathered outside has become increasingly agitated because they haven’t been allowed in. There’s been pushing and yelling and now people start throwing rocks at the stadium. The sound of rocks hitting concrete is mistaken for gunfire, the soldiers respond by firing their weapons into the air to scare the crowd back, and inside the stadium, Hamid Karzai thinks someone is trying to assassinate him. Karzai’s American-trained guards rush him off the stage, and just like that the proceedings are brought to an abrupt and premature end. The Massoud faithful get into cars and buses to make the two-hour pilgrimage into the Panshjir Valley where Massoud is buried.
The stadium where this has all taken place is in a part of the city hit particularly hard by the years of civil war. Exposed rebar still holds hanging chunks of cement from collapsing on whatever’s below, and vendors have set up shop in front of buildings with bullet marks and sections of roof or wall missing. In the middle of the dirt lot in front of the stadium, there is a bombed-out bus with a bombed-out pick-up truck protruding from its roof, as if fallen from the sky.
The destruction here is the result of Massoud’s rockets as much as it is the other warlords fighting for Kabul, but regardless, Massoud was instrumental in liberating Afghanistan from the Soviets (and arguably winning our Cold War), he did fight the Taliban, and he did try to warn us about 9/11.
And anyway, today as much as ever, Afghanistan needs a hero.
[Posted by permission from Esquire.com. Stern is a 2007 graduate of the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University and the winner of the 2006 Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism for his in-depth first-person reporting on a homeless community in Durham, N.C.]