Of Lions and Horses in the Panshir

Feb 23, 2011   //   by LouBu   //   culture, long, photos, videos  //  4 Comments

Last Fri­day morn­ing we head­ed off at first light from the mud­dy streets of Kab­ul. We wound our way north, past Bagram, where ISAF is head­quar­tered, and took a sharp turn east in the vil­lage of Jebal Ser­aj. We’d decid­ed to take a day long pil­grim­age, of sorts, to the tomb of Ahmad Shah Masoud. His grave lies deep his home­land of the Pan­shir Val­ley which he so famous­ly defend­ed against the long and ardu­ous Sovi­et attack.

View From a Tank
Masoud is arguably Afghanistan’s biggest hero. Through­out Afghanistan his pic­ture is dis­played in car win­dows, post­ed on build­ings, or memo­ri­al­ized in woven blan­kets. The day he was assas­si­nat­ed, Sep­tem­ber 9, 2001, by sus­pect­ed Al Qae­da agents pos­ing as jour­nal­ists, is a nation­al hol­i­day. He earned his title “The Lion of the Pan­shir” defend­ing his home turf from the Sovi­ets dur­ing the attacks of the 1980s. Lions are intrin­si­cal­ly part of Pan­shir cul­ture. The word itself means “Five Lion­s” and we saw elec­tion posters for a can­di­date whose sym­bol was four of the majes­tic beasts. (Each can­di­date is “randomly assigned” a visu­al sym­bol so illit­er­ate peo­ple can rec­og­nize their can­di­date on the bal­lot. It’s well known that with the right funds and con­nec­tions it is pos­si­ble to influ­ence on this “random assignment.” One polit­i­cal par­ty paid for all of its can­di­dates in dif­fer­ent races to have apples for icons, to present uni­for­mi­ty to its illit­er­ate supporters.)

Dur­ing the Sovi­et inva­sion of the 1980’s the Lion of the Pan­shir and his mujahideen fight­ers would descend from the val­ley, attack the Sovi­et sup­ply chains head­ing across the Salang pass to Kab­ul, and retreat with their stolen booty. The Sovi­ets tried to dis­lodge him from the val­ley in ten sep­a­rate offen­sive attacks. All of them failed.

When the com­mu­nists fell from pow­er Masoud served in the mujahideen gov­ern­ment as Min­is­ter of Defense for the few years before the Tal­iban took pow­er. He then retreat­ed back to his val­ley, from where he con­tin­ued fight­ing the Tal­iban, (until the bomb hid­den in the dis­guised jour­nal­ists’ cam­era made him a mar­tyr.) When he died he was the leader of the North­ern Alliance, or the Unit­ed Islam­ic Front-an unprece­dent­ed mul­ti-eth­nic group of lead­ers who fought against the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment and, once the US began car­pet bomb­ing post Sep­tem­ber 11, took con­trol of Afghanistan.

The Chief of Martyrdom's Hill
In 2002 Mosoud was post humous­ly nom­i­nat­ed for a Nobel Peace Prize. (How­ev­er, the prize can only be award­ed to a liv­ing per­son.) He was buried 30 km from the entrance to the val­ley, near the vil­lage that was his home. Orig­i­nal­ly it was a plain, sim­ple grave on a large prom­e­nade over­look­ing the val­ley, but recent­ly a mas­sive mar­ble struc­ture has been erect­ed over the grave, with plans already in con­struc­tion to add a large mosque and build­ing com­plex to the site.

Masoud Monilith
This was our ini­tial des­ti­na­tion as we made our way up the val­ley, dri­ving along­side the Pan­shir riv­er, stop­ping to climb around in the rust­ed shells of dis­card­ed tanks and heli­copters, until we reached the hill­side crest­ed with the mar­ble mono­lith. We paid our respects to the great hero, along side with a steady stream of oth­ers, local and vis­i­tors, who often stopped to pray at the holy grave site.

Taliban Seal
The path approach­ing the site was lined with a vari­ety of Sovi­et armored vehi­cles, some spray paint­ed with the Taliban’s sym­bol (were they cap­tured as Pan­shiri loot dur­ing a bat­tle 15 years ago?). A few bees had tak­en up res­i­dence behind the screen of one of the instru­ment pan­els, cre­at­ing a clus­ter of per­fect­ly geo­met­ri­cal cells, whose inhab­i­tants and mak­ers were now frozen to death by the chilly win­ter. Beyond the high prom­e­nade, fields spread out across the val­ley, sewn with snow.

Fields of snow
As we climbed around the rusty met­al, the wind whipped falling snow at us prim­ing us for some hot tea, so we went in search of a chai­hana. As we drove up the val­ley we stopped to ask men wrapped in green Uzbek robes, hud­dled against the cold, where we might be able to get some chai and a bite to eat. “Fifteen min­utes up the road” seemed to be the stan­dard response. After a few incar­na­tions of this, the road final­ly passed through a tiny town cen­ter, com­plete with a mosque, a few stores, and exact­ly one place to get food.

We stomped in and hud­dled near the fire they lit for us. After real­iz­ing all they had was beef broth and tea, so Najib took charge and sent the employ­ees to the bazar for sup­plies and then end­ed up cook­ing up the meal him­self. I’ve encoun­tered few restau­rants where you bring your own food and cook for yourself.

Najib gives the thumbs up

Grate­ful to be out of the car and out of the cold, we relaxed on the raised wood­en plat­form cov­ered in car­pets. The oth­er patron across the way start­ed chat­ting with us. We learned from him that every Fri­day in win­ter the vil­lage played Buzkashi on a field just down the street. They were now on a break for prayer, but would resume the game in an hour. He invit­ed us to come watch.

Buzkashi is the nation­al sport of Afghanistan. It’s a win­ter sport, played on hors­es, some­what like polo. Two teams com­pete to grab a dead goat and trans­port it across a field into one of two goal cir­cles. Usu­al­ly two vil­lages com­pete against one anoth­er and there are cash prizes for the play­ers who score goals.

The match we saw was played in a large field of mud and snow. A clump of play­ers reared their mounts, smash­ing and push­ing one anoth­er in attempts to reach down and scoop the 36 kilo dead goat off the ground. Many of the play­ers wore Sovi­et tanker hats. When asked how they acquired their head­gear they answered “We took them from the Rus­sians we killed.” Four hats per tank, hun­dreds of tanks, you do the math. As they kicked and whipped and pushed, the hors­es’ and play­er­s’ legs alike were cov­ered in mud­dy brown slush and the goat was inde­ci­pher­able from a bag of mud.


And so we spent the after­noon hud­dled against the cold with the entire pop­u­la­tion of a small Pan­shir Vil­lage, watch­ing hors­es and men fight each oth­er to car­ry a dead goat across the valley.

Epi­logue: On our jour­ney home we stopped to watch some kids shoot snow­balls across a field using a long sling­shot appa­ra­tus. When they real­ized I was video­tap­ing they quick­ly pushed their ace sling­shot­ter for­ward, encour­ag­ing him to dis­play his tal­ent. They then taught Peretz how to shoot, applaud­ing his efforts. His num­ber two shot earned him much whasta.


Downed Helicopter