Afghan mujahideen in Kunar Province overlooking the Kunar River with the Safed Koh mountains in the distance. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

FOCUS on Afghanistan: 40 years of war. The following article is part of a regular series by Global Geneva on Afghanistan.

The ongoing Great Game: Reporting notes for history

I was sitting in a café in Paris on a quiet late summer’s morning in 2009, thousands of miles away from the beleaguered war-torn country that I had covered as a journalist for 30 years, when my phone starting ringing. It was my nephew informing me that the Dutch police were looking for me. Bewildered, I rang the number he gave me and to my surprise, was put on the line to the War Crimes Office of the Dutch National Police in The Hague.

Bertjan Tjeerde, the unit’s lead officer, wanted to know whether he and his team could come down to Geneva to question me regarding a long-ago massacre of over 1,000 men and boys in the small town of Kerala in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar. They were following up on a story that I had first reported in early 1980 as a young foreign correspondent working for the Christian Science Monitor. Within a few days, I had left Paris and returned to my house in a small French village just across from the Swiss border. Several weeks later, Tjeerde and an Afghan-born investigative colleague flew down from Amsterdam to see me.

Agreeing to meet with the Dutch War Crime investigators was not a decision I took lightly.  On the one hand, I respected the arguments of those foreign correspondents who had refused to testify in the war crimes tribunals, for example, after the Balkans Wars during the 1990s.  They argued that disclosing such information could have an impact on the confidentiality of potential sources, or even endanger the lives of journalists who might be perceived as spies. On the other hand, I felt that given I might have more pertinent information regarding this crime against humanity in Afghanistan, I had an obligation to share whatever could prove useful.

The Dutch investigators settled down at my dining room table for a long afternoon of discussions about a war that I had covered – and am still covering – throughout most of my journalistic career and which had in many ways shaped the course of my life.  They started their interview by telling me that the War Crimes Office was pursuing a case against a former communist Afghan army commander currently living in the Netherlands. Without giving me his name, they suspected him of having taken part in the Kerala massacre.

Tjeerde said that they were particularly interested in my Monitor story that I had written  on 4 February 1980 titled “A grim chapter in Afghanistan war”. They also had a copy of my 1985 book: Afghanistan: The Soviet War which provided further details of the Kerala massacre. “The people of Kunar have filed complaints and are eager to cooperate,” Tjeerde told me. “However, time has passed and that doesn’t make things easier.” Given that I had cited various witnesses, they wanted to know whether I could provide further specifics on the perpetrators of the crime.

Tjeerde pulled out a printout of my article which I hadn’t read in decades. It explained that on 20 April, 1979, some 1,170 unarmed men and boys had been shot and then bulldozed, some of them still alive, into the soft ground of a field overlooking where the silted waters of the Pech tributary flow into the Kunar River and then onward to the Indus and the Indian Ocean. As with so many statistics dealing with Afghanistan, the figure must remain a rough estimate.  Nevertheless, the massacre proved to be the first reported case of a large-scale military reprisal against civilians since civil war first erupted in Afghanistan in the summer of 1978.  It was also the first important story that I had broken as a novice war correspondent.

Based on first-hand testimony by dozens of widows and a few male survivors who had sought refuge just across the border in Pakistan’s Bajaur Tribal Agency, the article led with this first paragraph:

“It was an unforgettable five minutes. “They forced all the men to line up in crouching positions in the field just outside the town and then opened up with their machine guns from behind,” recalls Abdul Latif, a bearded Afghan traffic policeman. “Then they spread out through the town gunning down all the remaining men they could find.”

Journalist Edward Girardet (middle rear row) with guerrilla commanders in Kunar’s Pech Valley several kilometers from Kerala. All said that they had lost family members in the April, 1979, Kerala massacre. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

The memories swiftly came back to me. I excused myself and went upstairs to retrieve my notebooks – all kept in a huge school trunk in my attic. I splayed them across the table, while explaining that the massacre was primarily an Afghan operation overseen by officers loyal to the hardline Khalqi faction of Afghanistan’s communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) led by then President Nur Mohammed Taraki and Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin.  I told them that although there had always been rumours of mass executions in Afghanistan, no corroborating, eyewitness evidence had ever been forthcoming.

The Dutch investigators were eager to know how I came to report on the Kerala massacre decades earlier. I explained that at the time I was 27 years old and thought that being a foreign correspondent was the most romantic job on earth. With little experience, but tremendous enthusiasm, I had wrangled some freelance assignments out of a few magazines, newspapers and broadcasters and set out in October, 1979, just three months before the Soviet invasion, to start covering a fast-developing civil war which I figured could turn into something far bigger. Based on these first articles, I was taken on by the Monitor as a full-time special correspondent.

The Soviet Invasion: From civil war to occupation

In the early days of the Afghan civil war, the Soviet Union’s military presence was still minimal. However, as armed opposition grew, Moscow poured in more and more support, primarily advisors, but also combat aircraft. On 27 December, 1979, some 120,000 Red Army troops officially intervened by crossing the Amu Darya or Oxus River into Afghanistan thereby beginning the nearly decade-long Soviet occupation of this mountain and desert country on the cusp of Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent.

As with many of the journalists covering the Soviet-Afghan war, I based myself out of the Pakistani Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) town of Peshawar, where the United Nations and dozens of aid agencies had set up relief operations for the three million refugees who fled to Pakistan during the initial occupation period. Located in a broad, fertile plain at the foot of the historic Khyber Pass, Peshawar’s proximity to Afghanistan allowed me to make clandestine cross-border reporting sorties. I was also able to visit the rapidly expanding refugee camps that were popping up along the length of the 2,400 kilometer Pak-Afghan border. Every day witnessed new waves of exhausted men, women and children arriving by foot, by vehicle, by horse or by camel from across the mountains and deserts.

Western journalists inside Afghanistan with Baluch mujahideen in early 1980, including Kerala reporters Rauli Virtanen (front middle); Edward Girardet (front right) and Kore Werpe (second left, back row). (Photo: Rauli Virtanen)

In my broken Dari and Pashto, or with the help of a translator, I was able to speak to the refugees who readily provided useful insight into conditions in government-controlled areas. Many spoke of deliberate attacks by the Shouravi (Soviets) against villages suspected of supporting the mujahideen, or holy warriors, as Afghan resistance fighters were known. Human rights organizations began referring to this exodus as a form of “migratory genocide” given that numerous military assaults appeared to be specifically designed to force local populations to either join the government, or leave the country.

One can talk to refugee widows: they no longer have any ‘value’

Many of the personal accounts were heartbreaking. Yet one story grabbed my attention in particular. An international aid worker told me about a group of widows living amongst some 400 Kunari refugee families in the Pakistani tribal agency of Bajaur less than 20 kilometers from the Afghan border with Kunar Province. I was told the widows talked openly about how their menfolk had been massacred.

I knew that usually as a male journalist it would be impossible for me to interview Afghan women, especially those from highly traditional tribal areas.  Most of my reporting had to rely on discussions with male tribal elders or heads of households, while women listened cautiously hidden behind tented partitions.  However, I learned that one of the oddities of Afghan culture was that although unmarried and married women are not allowed to talk with men who are not relatives, widows can.  I was informed that tribal custom deemed widows as “valueless” and thus I would be allowed to interview them.

Together with Nick Proffitt of Newsweek, Kore Verpe of Norway’s Morgenbladet and Rauli Virtanen of Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat, I decided to investigate the widows’ refugee camp.  In those days, travelling into NWFP’s tribal agencies posed few problems. One simply needed a permit and to register with the local armed militia, who then accompanied us as ‘protection’.  Nowadays, in 2018, it is virtually impossible to visit any tribal area in NWFP because many parts harbour pro-Talib or Islamic State (IS) elements making it far too dangerous for Westerners.

It took us only several hours to drive by jeep to Bajaur, a wild frontier zone with cedar-forested foothills overlooking neatly terraced wheat and poppy fields. Once in the camp, we painstakingly recorded each of the widows’ stories, sharing our observations and notes with each other. I crafted an article based on two days of reporting that I hoped clearly illustrated the brutality of the Afghan war.

The impact of a ‘scoop’: touching the right political nerve, or good reporting?

The piece ending up winning the 1981 Sygma Delta Chi Best Foreign Reporting Award, one of America’s main journalism prizes. I wanted to believe that I had won because of my diligent reporting or that the article had struck a nerve in those who found human rights abuses intolerable. However, it was painfully clear to me that the prize was more likely given because the article fueled the Cold War hysteria of the 1980s. The Americans appreciated headline examples of communist brutality that justified their condemnation of the Soviet invasion.

The Dutch investigators probed me again and again for further insight or names of possible witnesses that I could provide. Any lead, any additional detail, they stressed, could be useful.  Indeed, Britain’s Scotland Yard had successfully gathered testimony against Sarwar Zardad, a former Afghan warlord discovered in the UK in 1998 by the BBC’s John Simpson and Peter Jouvenal. When the Taliban took power, Zardad had escaped to south London where he ran a pizzeria. Using video links to conduct interviews with people still in Afghanistan, Scotland Yard eventually gathered enough evidence to sentence Zardad in 2005 to 20 years in prison for kidnapping and torture.

Clearly the Dutch police were hoping for a similar outcome, and I was eager to help. However, my information was primarily circumstantial. Much of it was based on interviews with the refugees I had encountered, plus several Pakistani officers with the Bajaur Scouts, a military-run militia. The Dutch had already followed up on a number of the witnesses I had mentioned in both my article and book. They tracked them down and questioned them either remotely via video link or through interviews in Afghanistan.  Despite these leads, the Dutch were struggling to advance from collecting hearsay evidence to receiving solid proof that could stand up in court. (A more detailed account of this is in my personal book, Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan, 2012)

In my Monitor story, I made a point of emphasizing that far more people had been murdered at Kerala than when the entire male population of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, was slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II or when American troops shot civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in March, 1968.

Yet, as outrageous as this massacre had been, I had been disappointed to note how quickly Kerala had disappeared from public memory. Toward the end of the 1980s I managed to visit the small riverside town of Kerala for the first time. This was after the Soviets had withdrawn. All I found were two simple, adobe-walled compounds enclosing the mass grave sites. There were no plaques or other form of institutional memory.

The Kerala gravesite in 2004. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Perhaps I was expecting the sort of resistance memorial one finds throughout France marking the site of a Nazi execution or ambush. For most Afghans, however, Kerala was simply yet another horrific incident of war. “We have had so many massacres,” one Afghan friend explained to me. “Why should Kerala be any different?”

This disappointment stayed with me for decades, but the visit from the Dutch police restored hope that perhaps there would be justice for the victims of the Kerala massacre after all. For a journalist who has reported wars and humanitarian crises for so long across Africa, Asia and elsewhere, often to a seemingly indifferent audience, it was gratifying to learn that an article hastily-penned decades earlier might play a role in changing the course of history. Even if only for the Afghans.

The Kerala story was but one of hundreds that I have written and reported about the conflict in Afghanistan, an issue that I still follow closely today. My reports had me hiding out with Afghan guerrillas in mountainous caves, or traveling on foot with refugee caravans over the snowy Hindu Kush in death-defying conditions. My aim was to tell the story of a country torn apart by a dragging war that continues to this day. I met people who embodied courage and honour and others who were driven by fanaticism and hatred.  I tried to share the mosaic of conflicting emotions I experienced when reporting on Afghanistan, while also remaining faithful to what I considered to be the tenets of solid and credible journalism.

Journalists on a food break in northern Afghanistan during the mid-1980s. British cameraman/producer Peter Jouvenal, British journalist Julian Gearing, French reporter Patrick de St Exupery (with hat) and Girardet. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Over the years, however, I increasingly faced the bitter realization that there were few people who seemed to care much about the fate of the Afghan people. Everyone that engages in Afghanistan, the 21st century version of “The Great Game”, whether the Pakistanis, Americans, Russians, Chinese, Indians, Iranians or Saudis, are all motivated by their own agendas and political gain.  Somehow, the plight of ordinary Afghans got lost in the middle. Undoubtedly this is why I have remained unequivocally drawn to this extraordinary country and found myself returning again and again for nearly four decades.

Nearly 10 years after the Kerala massacre, I went back to Kunar Province on a very specific assignment. It was early February, 1989. The Soviets were finally in the process of withdrawing from the whole of Afghanistan. Red Army losses now stood at up to an estimated 25,000 dead, and, not unlike Vietnam, the war had massively traumatized the over one million Soviet troops who had taken part in this conflict. Following UN-sponsored talks in Geneva between Moscow and the mujahideen, the Soviets were scheduled to pull out on 14 February. Dramatically, the last Red Army general was to walk out of Afghanistan and into the USSR across the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Bridge at the northern Afghan border town of Hairaton.

Together with National Geographic’s Steve McCurry, the American photographer who had shot the famous picture of the “girl with the green eyes”, I crossed over from Pakistan to spend a few days travelling around areas newly-controlled by the guerrillas. I also wanted to revisit Kerala.

Refugees fleeing the war in northern Afghanistan, 1984. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Since the early days of the Soviet occupation, I had made numerous clandestine cross-border trips from Baluchistan in the south near the Iranian border to the northern stretches of Badakshan, straddling the Wakhan Corridor touching Soviet Central Asia and China. At times, too, I skirted Soviet-occupied Kabul and even Bagram, a sprawling Red Army airbase 60 kilometers (40 miles) to the north now occupied by NATO forces, within sight of red-starred MIGs and helicopter gunships taking off at one or two-minute intervals to attack guerrilla positions.

I came to know Kunar and other parts of eastern Afghanistan well, but only clandestinely.  Because all the major towns were occupied by Soviet and Afghan government forces, just as NATO and Afghan forces today more or less control the capital and towns, I could only cross the Kunar River on rafts or inner tubes and at points well away from communist patrols or check points.  I also had to be careful about informers as certain villages, including one dubbed “little Moscow”, were pro-government and would readily report my unauthorized presence.  Informers abounded. Nevertheless, I was repeatedly drawn to Kunar even if only as one of the easier transit routes to central and northern Afghanistan. At the height of the war much of the land was abandoned by its civilian population, but it provided a stunning vista of snow-covered mountains, wildlife-rich river flats, fruit orchards and fields of maize.

Sometimes traversing 1,000 or more kilometers of mountainous and desert terrain, I trekked to Kunar and other parts of Afghanistan with the “French doctors” as part of 50 to 80-horse caravans organized by the mujahideen to carry weapons, ammunition and medical supplies. Negotiated agreements with the resistance enabled the volunteer medical organizations to provide humanitarian relief to local populations in guerrilla-controlled zones. Given that most of these medics were women, I was able to give my questions to the doctors who in turn posed them to village women.

Our horses and drivers with camera and other equipment during the 1980s. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

As the war progressed, journalists such as myself became more adept at covering the conflict and we learned to bring in everything we needed to survive. I began travelling with other reporters (it was too dangerous if not lonely to travel on one’s own) with our own hired pack horses and occasionally vehicles loaded with food, film equipment, solar chargers, and medical supplies.

Western journalists crossing 5,000 meter-high col in northeastern Afghanistan with dead donkey in foreground. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

These journeys sometimes lasted five to six weeks, taking us through a spectacular array of landscapes: from the soaring Hindu Kush mountains with their perilous 5,000 meter-high passes to baking semi-arid landscapes dotted with occasional nomad or mujahed encampments and occasionally to stunning Alpine forests and meadows overlooking thrashing rivers and remote highland villages.

I found myself traversing a world reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia or The Man Who Would Be King, with my mix of Afghan and western clothes making me look more like a awkward film extra than the intrepid reporter I liked to think I was. We learned to paint our packs green and brown to avoid detection from the air.

British journalists Julian Gearing and Peter Jouvenal filming fleeing refugees deep inside Afghanistan during the 1980s. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Ninety-five per cent of the time I never directly encountered the war, even if walking through bomb-shattered villages and farms, with their walls crumbling and fields dead for lack of irrigation. But when I did confront the fighting, it was often impressive, harsh – and terrifying. I once encountered a massive Soviet-Afghan offensive against the Panjshir Valley during the early 1980s engaging over 12,000 troops.

TIME magazine correspondent William Dowell (right) viewing 1982 Soviet-Afghan offensive with Edward Girardet (left) in the Panjshir Valley from a guerrilla-held ridge above. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Ensconced among the high ridges overlooking the valley, I watched as up to 200 helicopters droned from dawn onwards non-stop, usually in two’s, four’s and six’s, from Bagram or Kabul to attack guerrilla positions or to supply ground troops. While tanks and armoured personnel carriers drove up the valley using the river bed as a road, Red Army soldiers already positioned in the abandoned villages lay sunning themselves on rooftops with carpets stolen from the houses. BMD multiple rocket launchers repeatedly fired volleys of missiles into the mountains, while helicopter gunships circled like sharks levelling rounds against suspected mujahed hideouts.

Covering the Afghan war: one foot in the 19th century, the other in the 20th

Reporting in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s, was like existing in a schizophrenic time zone, with one foot in the 19th century, the other in the 20th. On the one hand, I lived alongside tribal Pushtun or ethnic Tadjik, Uzbek and Hazara fighters.  In the early days of the war, they still used home-made jazail muzzle-loaders more fit for a museum than practical use or bolt-action Lee Enfield rifles first introduced by the British in the 1880s. Only later did AK-47 assault rifles and then the more modern AK-74 become common. These were followed by the US-supplied Stinger missiles which helped change the course of the guerrilla war and place the mujahideen on a more even footing against their Soviet invaders.

Travelling with the mujahideen, I walked 14-16 hours a day along river gullies, sinewy mountain trails or precipitous narrow ridges. Occasionally, I passed the rotting carcasses of horses or makeshift graves with piles of stone marking a slain fighter or a refugee who had died from wounds, exposure, or sheer exhaustion. I slept out in the open, sheltering amongst fallen boulders or stone sheep stalls to avoid the wind. I was up before dawn to cross the exposed mountain passes in order to avoid rock fall as the ice melted or to hide from the overhead droning of a Soviet Antonov reconnaissance plane that warned of a possible – or impending – helicopter or MIG attack.

Mujahideen moving equipment from an injured caravan horse which broke its leg crossing the Diwana Baba mountain pass in northeastern Afghanistan. With Afghans loathe to waste a bullet on a condemned animal, Girardet at one point was obliged to shoot a suffering horse. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

If I came to a ‘safe’ village, I might sleep in a mosque, which often doubled as a guest house, or I would cram myself in among the fighters in a guerrilla hideout. Fleas, lice, ticks were my companions. There was no light other than kerosene lanterns, or sometimes clay oil lamps that dated back to the Bactrian Greek times of Alexander the Great. At night, I often stared at the stars contemplating the fact that little had changed for millennia in these craggy mountains.

The mujahideen transported supplies mainly by horse or sometimes by camel, often using the old caravan routes which had been abandoned in the 1940s and 1950s as the roads of a slowly modernising Afghanistan improved. Some of my reporting descriptions read like pages from historical novels depicting muddy guerrilla encampments and bazaars with smoking tea houses and filthy, vermin-ridden taverns lined with common room sleeping mats. Clutches of fighters would sit around campfires, huddled in blankets, while – amid shouts and whistles accompanied by occasional shots fired by someone trying out a rifle – throngs of horses and camels were loaded with guns, ammunition, medical supplies and food. I liked to refer to these strange scenes as the Wild East.

Afghan mujahideen from different factions meeting up along guerrilla trail inside Afghanistan. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Yet at the same time, there was another side.   I witnessed a modern, 20th century-style conflict as Soviet and Afghan government forces deployed helicopter gunships, MIGs and high-altitude bombers to attack guerrilla positions, to move highly-trained, Speznaz (special forces) into position for ambushes or to scatter anti-personnel landmines along the known guerrilla or refugee routes. Often, too, they bombed villages and farms in an effort to terrorize civilian populations into fleeing, thus denying the guerrillas local support.

Much like the American-led post-2001 NATO war against the Taliban, the Soviets controlled the main towns and roads.  As I could not access the occupied zones (my repeated requests for visas were always denied), the only way to cover this war was to travel, or ‘embed’, with the mujahideen. Today, most reporters prefer to ‘embed’ with NATO forces as they face a constant risk of being killed or kidnapped if caught roaming in non-government zones, even if some journalists, notably Afghans working for the BBC, have managed to recently visit areas openly held by the Taliban.

British-American journalist Rory Peck filming with fighters of Pashtun commander Jalalludin Haqqani (post-2001 founder of the anti-western Haqqani Network) near Khost, eastern Afghanistan in 1989. Peck, a highly courageous if not tempestuous former Sandhurst-trained officer-turned-reporter, was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Moscow in 1993 during the attack on the White House, the parliamentary shelled by the army during Russia’s constitutional crisis. (Photo: Tim Weaver)

Without question, such constraints lead to imbalanced reporting about the conflict.   Unlike the journalists embedded with NATO forces today, journalists reporting with the mujahideen had the freedom to come and go as we pleased. There were no restrictions on our coverage. This was also because the mujahideen were never particularly well-organized – unlike guerrilla factions with whom I travelled in Angola and Eritrea – and because they always assumed that journalists were on their side anyway.

When the Red Army first surged in, some 3,000 reporters, photographers, cameramen and other press descended on Afghanistan. Most journalists, myself included, had been granted visas. But as the war became increasingly brutal, only select reporters were allowed in and then under strict conditions. More often than not, these journalists were never permitted to leave Kabul. By the time the novelty of Moscow occupying its first foreign country outside the Soviet bloc since World War II had worn off six months later, there were never more than two or three dozen of us actively reporting at any one time.

Girardet (right) and colleagues Ian Woods (left) and Tim Weaver (second from right) under Pakistani arrest for having tried to cross illegally into Afghanistan. Arrest was more of a nuisance than anything else. Transported under guard to Peshawar, we simply tried again the next day.

Because most journalists could only travel clandestinely, we were often arrested by the NWFP tribal militia. Being detained by the Pakistanis, who were trying to show the Soviets that they were not enabling reporters or aid workers, such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) or Aide Médicale Internationale (AMI), to cross over illegally, was never a big deal. It was just a waste of time. Typically, I would be held under arrest for a day or two in a guest house, or the ‘jug’ (jail) and then sent back to Peshawar. I would then turn around and try again to enter Afghanistan clandestinely. The Pakistanis rarely arrested me on my way back from ‘inside’. Instead, I would be invited for tea by the NWFP Home Secretary, who would amiably ask about my journey and how the mujahideen were doing. Inevitably, too, there would be two or three officers of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, ISI, a veritable “state within a state”. They were never in uniform, but rather in shalwar-kamizes, quietly listening.

In retrospect, Afghanistan represented one of the last 20th century wars where journalists could still do proper reporting without the constraints of what one BBC correspondent described as the “dictatorship of live time” television. Journalists headed ‘inside’ for weeks on end and only produced their pieces when they got back. Satellite phones were too bulky – and costly. There were no mobile phones. My editors never knew, nor asked, when I would be back and able to file my stories.

Nanagrahar mujahideen weighing raw opium, a principal source of revenue to fund their war against the Soviets. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

This gave me and other journalists a chance to report extensively, from the ground, taking the time to understand what was really happening. I took reams of notes while travelling in the rural areas, interviewing local inhabitants, refugees, aid workers, guerrilla fighters, deserters and POWs. Reporting was probably at its finest amongst all of us journalists, because there was nothing much else to do and little demand on our time from editors. We came to know the people, the war, and the combatants in an in-depth manner that rarely exists in today’s world of fast-paced, 24 hour cycles of news journalism.

Destroyed village in Kunar Province, 1989. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Back in Kunar in early February, 1989, the Soviets had already pulled out. The Afghan government forces, consisting primarily of conscripts or regular troops and hardliners who had not defected, had retreated further down the Kunar River in a bid to deny access to the main strategic town of Jalalabad in neighbouring Nangrahar Province.

One of my first major reporting trips during the early days of the war had included covering a nocturnal guerrilla attack against Jalalabad airfield on the outskirts of the city which Soviets had taken over within days of the 1979 invasion. I accompanied a force of Nangrahar mujahideen, most of them former veterinary students, from the Safed Koh mountains to the south as they carried out a determined but largely ineffectual assault against the airfield.

Journalist Girardet in a cave during interview with a Pech Valley commander in Kunar Province. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

My host was a Kunar commander who was a member of one of the moderate Afghan guerrilla factions. He was also a former school teacher and spoke English well. He insisted on taking me to the frontlines which consisted of a group of low-lying rocky hills, not unlike African kopjes, some 30 kilometres west of Jalalabad. He wanted to show me how much progress they had made since my last sortie into Kunar half a year earlier. Jalalabad, he predicted, would fall soon.

The government troops, however, were fighting far harder than expected. They were, in fact, fighting for their lives. From their trenches a kilometer beyond, they lobbed mortars at the guerrilla positions, one every 30 to 40 seconds. These would explode with dull roars across the countryside, throwing up fountains of water if they hit the river and thick clouds of dust if they struck the abandoned fields. For their part, the mujahideen would occasionally fire back with mortars and heavy machine guns or shells from two captured tanks that they had parked behind a cluster of ruined farm buildings.

The Arabi: Doing Jihad in Afghanistan

While McCurry, my traveling photographer companion, scrambled among the rocks in search of combat photographs, never an easy task in Afghanistan, I took descriptive notes and interviewed dozens of mujahideen for a Christian Science Monitor piece heralding the final departure of the Soviets. I was also scouting for a TV report that I was preparing for The McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, a leading American public television current affairs’ programme, to illustrate the final day of the Red Army withdrawal. One of my close colleagues and an old Afghan hand, Tom Woods, an American producer, was hoping to come out from Paris over the next week, so I wanted everything lined up.

Kunar guerrilla commander (right) in front of traditional Qala, or compound, in Kunar Province near the frontlines in 1989. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Most of the guerrilla trenches were dug in at the base of a rocky promontory overlooking the Kunar. On the other side lay an abandoned state orange farm, originally part of a Soviet development aid project. Each tarpaulin-covered trench was manned by a different Afghan faction. To my surprise, I also sighted a group of Arabi, as the Afghans called them. These were volunteer Jihadists from the Middle East, mainly Algerians, Saudis, Iraqis, Egyptians and Sudanese. Few wore Afghan clothes. Instead, they walked around in shabby kaftans or jalabayas with pieces of scraggily cloth as headgear. They stood out in drastic contrast to the mujahideen who were known for their vanity and would spend hours preening themselves using shiny Nawaz (snuff) boxes as mirrors.

For the Arabi, Afghanistan was the only Jihad, or holy war, going in the world at the time. As a result, since the early days of the occupation, Afghanistan attracted hundreds of Arabs, Chechens and some Europeans determined to fight against the Russians whom they considered heathen infidels.  For the young Arabi, “doing Jihad” was a bit like those young Americans who would “do Europe” or follow the “Hippy Trail” to India for a few years before settling down to a dull job and middle-class existence.  It was their rite of passage.

The foreign Jihadists were not known for their military prowess. Nor were they particularly liked by the Afghans who considered them arrogant. But they were also extremely rich and so the Afghans were happy to take the Arab dollar and let them play Jihad. The Afghans also considered them ‘diwana’ (crazy) because they actually wanted to die for Allah. Afghans are ardent Muslims and often excellent fighters, but few had ever shown any desire to throw down their lives for any particular cause. This does not mean that they were not willing to do so. But their Jihad was more focused on ridding Afghanistan of the communists and anyone else seeking to impose their will on their homeland rather than religious fervor. In those days, the concept of a suicide bomber was completely unknown. It was a trend introduced by foreign Muslims during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

On meeting a tall Arab

As I approached the Jihadist trench, a tall and distinguished Arab emerged from one of the bunkers. In good English, with a slight ‘international school’ accent, he demanded to know what I was doing there. “This is not your Jihad,” he declared. Immediately, several Arabs armed with assault rifles took up his rear. They all stared at me intently and with utter contempt.

My Afghan interpreter glanced at me with concern. The Afghans had not appreciated the Arab’s tone which they considered an affront to me, their guest. It was now important to establish my position as a matter of face-saving. I turned to my interpreter. “Tell him,” I said in English, “that I am a guest in this country, just as he is.” I shall leave,” I added, “only if my hosts require that I do so, just as I am sure he would leave if his hosts so demand.”

My interpreter was at first confused why I was asking him to repeat – in English –what I had just said. But then he grinned, realising that it was part of a deliberate stance. The tall Arab was clearly taken aback but then continued to pry me with questions regarding my right to be in Afghanistan. For several more minutes, we continued with our absurd if not childish dialogue from English to English to English. Once my point was made, however, I began addressing him directly.

By then, the tall man had been joined by a throng of other Arabs. They all stood behind him glaring at me. They clearly considered me insolent for talking in such a manner to the man they considered their distinguished leader. At the same time, various Afghans had taken up positions with my interpreter who provided them in Pashto with a blow-by-blow account of our discussion. They all grinned and nodded whenever I said something that met with their approval. For them, it was wonderful street theatre.

For the next half an hour, I spoke with the tall Arab. I noted to him that I was Ali Kitab (of the Book or Old Testament, and hence a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian), just as he was. This is always a good expression to use when discussions turn ideological.

French doctors Laurence Laumounier and Capucine de Bretagne in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan in 1982. Three days earlier, Soviet special forces had attacked their hospital forcing the medics to flee into the mountains. (Photo: Edward Girardet(

We talked about religion, the Afghans and the French doctors, who, I pointed out, were mainly women and who had been risking their lives since the early days of the war. They were bringing much-needed basic health care to ordinary civilians. I also noted that I – as with other journalists – had been covering the Soviet invasion since the very beginning. “So where were you?”  I asked with a smirk.

The tall Arab continued to speak with imperious haughtiness, but our discussion had become somewhat more amiable. And informative. He maintained that he did not consider Afghans real Muslims. He and his jihadist brethren had come here to transform Afghans into the “New Islamic Man.” When I suggested that Afghans were all Muslims in their own right, he shook his head with disdain. I also added that all guests have a duty to respect their hosts – and that Afghans will always likewise show respect to their guests.

The tall Arab’s parting shot was that he and his brethren-in-arms were in Afghanistan to fight all infidels, whether Russian, American or Israeli. They would destroy anyone who did not embrace Islam, he affirmed. By then it was getting late and I told our Afghan team that it was time to go. I apologised to the Arab about having to leave and held out my hand. He refused to touch it. I was clearly Kafir, an untouchable heathen.

“You see, that’s the difference with Afghans,” I pointed out. “They may be poor but they will always show true hospitality. They will always shake your hand, no matter who you are. For me, these people are far more civilized.”

The tall Arab was clearly annoyed by my words.  As I turned to leave, calling out to McCurry, he said: “Don’t come back. If I see you again, I’ll kill you.” I waved to him with my back turned and walked away.

Less than 10 days later, I was back in Kunar, this time with my film-maker colleague Tom Woods to produce the TV segment about the Soviet withdrawal. I decided to head down to the frontlines but I was hoping to avoid another encounter with the Arabs who were clearly volatile and easily provoked. I expressed my concerns to the Afghan commander, who immediately protested that the Arabi’s presence should not deter us from our plans.   “We shall take you to the frontlines. We are Afghans and this is our country,” he insisted.

American cameraman/producer filming for PBS’ The NewsHour in Kunar Province in early 1989. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

On arrival at the frontlines with two vehicles loaded with armed fighters, we found the area again being mortared by the PDPA forces. For the moment, the bombs were exploding harmlessly on the other side of the river, but gradually moving in our direction as the government siting improved. As we climbed down from the vehicles, I suddenly heard a loud commanding voice.

“I told you not to return.” It was the tall Arab.

I tried greeting him again, but this time, he was far angrier and an altercation quickly ensued between the Jihadists and the Afghans. Shouting, even screaming at each other, they all pulled their guns with Tom and me in the middle. At one point, the tall Arab had noticed the red recording light on my colleague’s camera – he had been trying to secretly film at knee-level – and demanded that he switch it off. A stocky Jihadist, stepped up behind Tom, stuck his AK47 into his back, bolting it.

For the first time, I thought soberly that after more than nine years of covering this war, I was now going to be killed by a bunch of diwana Arabs. Meanwhile, the mortars were  exploding their way across the river at 20-second intervals, getting nearer and nearer. Yet neither the screaming Arabs and Afghans seemed to care. Suddenly, the Afghan commander stepped in between the two groups calling them to put down their guns. “This is not good for Islam,” he proclaimed. With this distraction, one of his lieutenants gestured to us to climb quickly into the vehicle. The driver pulled away with a jolt. Just as we left, a mortar slammed into the very position where our pickup had been parked, lifting the other vehicle several feet into the air. We escaped down the rocky track leaving the Jihadists – and the mortars – behind us.

Killing prisoners like dogs

Passing an abandoned maize field, the Afghan commander, who had caught up with us in the other vehicle, halted.

“I want to show you something,” he said.

We walked into the field. Bits of mummified human limbs, a withered hand, the fragment of a foot, stuck out from the ground.

“This is what the Arabi did,” the commander explained.  Apparently, the Jihadists had taken some 60 Afghan government prisoners into the field and murdered them by slitting their throats. Many of them were ordinary and unwilling conscripts. They were not even given the chance to redeem themselves as good Muslims, the commander said, shaking his head sadly. “If you kill a man, you shoot him,” he maintained. “You don’t slit his throat. The Arabi killed them like dogs.”

We later learned that the Afghan mujahideen had gone back several days later to arrest half a dozen Arabs, whom they then executed. I was told, but could not confirm, that the executions were not because of the POW massacre but rather because the foreign Jihadists had insulted us, their guests. This was not acceptable according to Pushtunwali, the law of the Pathan or Pushtun tribal custom. Guests have to be respected, the mujahideen insisted.

Some years later. while in Kabul during the late 1990s, I bumped into the commander who had accompanied me that day. He greeted me enthusiastically before taking me for tea at a nearby chaikhana, or tea house. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he recalled our encounter with the Arabi in Kunar.

“You remember that tall Arab?” he asked.

How could I forget?

“Well, you know who he was?”

I shook my head.

“Bin Laden. Osama bin Laden.”

The Al Qaeda impact

Osama Bin Laden, head of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Of course, during the 1980s, no one knew Bin Laden. He first came to Peshawar soon after the Soviet invasion to provide humanitarian relief to Afghan refugees. As the war progressed, he gradually became more engaged, eventually as a fund-raiser and then as a supporter of Jihad. He set up a guest house in Peshawar to welcome new volunteers before dispatching them to fight in Afghanistan.

At Jaji across the border from Parachinar in Kurram District, a neck of Pakistani territory that juts between Nangrahar and Paktia Provinces, he established a military supply centre that came to be known as Al Qaeda (The Base). I had passed this underground redoubt on a number of occasions and had seen a bulldozer with the label, Bin Laden Construction, the name of the company owned by Osama’s father in Saudi Arabia.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but both Bin Laden – and Al Qaeda – would play an important role in my journalistic journey in Afghanistan more than twenty years later.

    –      –      –

Throughout the 1990s, I returned to Afghanistan on a regular basis but toward the end of the decade, I married and had a son so I cut back on my foreign reporting, particularly in conflict zones. Nonetheless in early September, 2001, I travelled up to a far-flung guerrilla base in Khoja Bahauddin in northern Badakshan Province near the Tajikistan border. On assignment for National Geographic, my objective was to meet with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance guerrilla commander whom I had known since 1981. Supported by both Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s intelligence services, the Taliban now controlled up to 80 percent of Afghan territory. They planned to install an Islamic Emirate over the whole of Afghanistan based on a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic Law. Massoud was the last major resistance commander holding out against the Taliban.

Writer Girardet with Ahmed Shah Massoud in a cave during Soviet bombardments in the mid-1980s in northern Afghanistan. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Massoud’s goal was to push back the Taliban or at least hold the ground his troops now occupied. His primary support at this late stage in the conflict came from India and, ironically, his former enemy, Russia.  While on a trip to Paris months earlier, Massoud had briefed United States and European Union officials about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the possibility of a major Al Qaeda strike against the West. These warnings were steadfastly ignored. Once again, despite first-hand accounts, a well-informed press and diplomatic reports, the West chose to ignore relevant developments in Afghanistan.

Massoud was not at the operational base when I arrived, so I found myself waiting with several other journalists. According to his aides, the ‘commander’ was either on the frontline or in Dushanbe negotiating for additional support. No one knew when he would turn up. However, I was in touch with him via satellite phone. It was clear that Massoud was eager to meet with me, ostensibly to reiterate his messages to the West, but also because he knew National Geographic well. Furthermore, I had told him that I was preparing a new book on Afghanistan. Given Massoud’s renown as one of the 20th century’s most effective guerrilla strategists – he had held off multiple offensives by the Soviets to destroy him – I wanted to spend several days with him exploring what he thought he had done right, or wrong, as a resistance leader since he first took to the mountains in the late 1970s to fight the communists in Kabul.  He was keen to share his reflections so I decided to wait for him, even if he were delayed for a few more days.

Staying at Massoud’s official guest house with my translator, Mohammed Shuaib, I spent most of my time doing short trips to nearby refugee camps. Thousands of Afghans were still seeking refuge from the fighting, but this time there was also widespread hunger with people flocking in from more distant, non-combat zones. Although Khoja Bauhuddin was a frontier town overlooking a vast valley of fruit orchards and fields irrigated by the Amu Darya, the crops had failed in neighbouring regions. Several times a day, I returned to check whether Massoud had arrived.

Next door to my room in the guesthouse were two Tunisians from Brussels who told me they were working for a Middle Eastern TV network. Every day we chatted briefly in French as they sorted equipment in front of their door. But whenever I invited them for tea, or tried to speak with them at length, they would always make an excuse and then disappear. During the day, they left the compound on apparent reporting trips, but would always return before sundown to wash and pray.

Eventually it became clear that Massoud might be delayed even longer so I decided to leave.  It was my wife’s birthday on 13 September and I had to get back to Geneva. “The wrath of the Taliban will be nothing compared to my wife’s fury if I miss her birthday,” I joked in a message to Massoud. I then made arrangements to return in two weeks’ time.  This time I would travel to Khoja Bahauddin from the Taliban side. I had just received a Talib visa from their embassy in Pakistan so would be able to cross the lines through an informal arrangement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

As I prepared to depart for the long, jolting drive to Faizabad, the capital of Badakshan Province, to catch a UN plane back to Islamabad, I noticed one of the Arabs emerging from the shower, a towel over his shoulder. I told him that I was leaving as it could still take a few more days, even weeks, for Massoud to arrive. The man nodded. “We will wait,” he declared.

Less than a week later, just before dawn on the morning of 10 September, 2001, I was preparing to climb into a taxi in Islamabad for the airport. On my transistor shortwave radio, the BBC announced that two Al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as TV journalists had attacked and severely wounded Massoud the day before. I realized that my guest house neighbours, who had been living in the room next to me, were the assailants. Their camera equipment, which they religiously packed each day in front of their room, had been loaded with explosives. One had been killed in the blast, the other shot dead as he sought to escape. It was only much later that I learned that Massoud had in fact died less than 30 minutes after the explosion. His commanders had wanted to keep the news secret until they had chosen a successor.

The assassination of Massoud, it transpired, had been an Al Qaeda ‘present’ to the Taliban in return for allowing Bin Laden and his supporters to continue using Afghanistan as a base for their now world-wide Jihad.  It was also a prelude to Bin Laden’s involvement in the operation that would take place the next day, that is, September 11, 2001. Less than one month later, the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan.

US troops in Afghanistan (2009). Photo: Edward Girardet

The post-2001 NATO intervention: a period of missed opportunities

I continued to travel to Afghanistan following the US-led intervention, at one point spending five months working in and out of Kabul in 2004-2005. But the reporting scene had completely changed. A new wave of journalists was slowly replacing the “old-hands” who had covered the country since the Soviet invasion.  Often sporting military garb, and armed with satellite technology, they would fly or ‘parachute’ into the country and start reporting within a few hours. Many, too, only reported as ‘embeds’ with the NATO forces, and had little or no contact with the local population. Their sense of historical perspective was also lacking. Some reports suggested the war in Afghanistan had begun in 2001 when in fact, the war had been a permanent feature of this country already for decades.

Occasionally, I would attend NATO briefings – Afghanistan’s own version of the ‘five o’clock follies’ from the Vietnam days – at Bagram Airfield where a US or British colonel would brief reporters on the latest military developing.   Sometimes dozing in the sunshine as the uniformed spokesman went through the various successes of the day, I would look out over to the dusty mountains east of Bagram recalling how I had walked with the mujahideen within sight of the outer perimeter of this huge base when it was controlled by the Red Army. NATO security was far more stringent than during the Soviet period, but I could not help wondering whether some Talib commander was not at that moment looking down on us with his binoculars.

The need for credible international reporting

Although some reporters make an enormous effort to travel around the country in order to gauge the impact of today’s conflict in Afghanistan, for the most part the coverage fails to cover all sides, particularly the predicaments facing ordinary civilians in rural areas.  For one thing, most media no longer provide journalists, including freelancers, with the financial means to spend inordinate amounts of time reporting on the ground. My editors at the Monitor, for example, always believed in ‘consistent’ coverage, returning to a story, whether in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa or Southeast Asia, again and again, even if there was no apparent headline issue. The important thing was to ensure that readers would remain informed.

Western aid workers in Helmand Province in 2009 heading to British army helicopter. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Today, few news organizations are willing to invest in foreign reporting, significantly undermining access to the sort of credible journalism audiences – and democracies – need to make informed decisions about what is happening in the world. And when editors do open their budgets, it is for quick ‘in and outs’. Or the focus is only on the really big stories while neglecting emerging or equally crucial events elsewhere. Most parachuted reporters in Afghanistan embed with their own troops, travelling, eating and sleeping with them. This inevitably creates a disturbing sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ with regard to Afghans and this division is reflected in their stories.

U.S. soldier and vehicles in Helmand in 2009. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

While on a trip accompanying a friend from the World Bank exploring development projects in Helmand in 2009, we also travelled with US, British and Danish troops. At one town, we walked through the bazaar surrounded by armed NATO soldiers and mercenaries and then met with local elders. This was an area that I had visited during the Soviet war. It was obvious that no one was going to tell us what they really thought when helmeted uniformed men nursing assault rifles hovered nearby.

My immediate urge was to pull out my contacts and to try and return on own. Despite the familiarity in the tactics used by between the Taliban and the mujahideen, I had to admit that no Talib commander was going to allow a western journalist to report with him. The days of travelling with Afghan guerrilla factions were gone.

British mercenaries in southern Afghanistan in 2009. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

The Kerala decision

Apart from a few email exchanges with Tjeerde, I heard little more about the Kerala case. But then in late October, 2015, more than 36 years after the massacre, he contacted me to let me know of the arrest of Saddiq Alamyar, a 64-year-old naturalized Dutch citizen, for suspected war crimes. As one of several senior PDPA military commanders, he was accused of direct involvement in the Kerala killings.  He was now appearing before a war tribunal to answer for his actions. After reporting for so many years on human rights abuses and civilian atrocities – not just in Afghanistan but also world-wide – I was incredibly gratified that I had played a role in bringing some justice and closure to those who had suffered.

A court hearing in the Netherland. (Photo: Dutch Ministry of Justice)

To my disappointment, however, in December 2017, the Dutch prosecution dismissed the case against Alamyar for lack of convincing evidence. The Ministry of Justice made clear that the case could only be re-opened if more evidence was forthcoming.  The decision was clearly reluctant. “The Netherlands will not serve as a safe haven for war criminals,” the Dutch stated in the decision. To date, the Netherlands has charged a total of three Afghans with war crimes or crimes against humanity; two were given prison sentences and one was acquitted. So far, none of the Kerala perpetrators have been brought to justice.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague or related legal initiatives have tried and even sentenced human rights offenders such as Charles Taylor of Liberia or Radovan Karadžić  of Bosnia, but overall the numbers of convicted remain small. Even when there are eye-witnesses, it is difficult to prove the guilt of the accused. (See Global Geneva piece on Civitas Maxima) Nonetheless several European governments are still persistently seeking to track down suspected war criminals from the Afghan war.

Early last year I was contacted by the German police via the Swiss Federal authorities. They were investigating abuses carried out prior to the Soviet invasion, a period that I had not covered directly except for my first visit as a reporter to Afghanistan in the fall of 1979.  I met with two German war crimes officers at Geneva airport behind the customs border in line with Swiss law.  They wanted to know whether I could identify the names of possible suspects on their list, including a former KHAD (Afghan secret state police) agent, now living in Germany. One of his victims, a female Afghan refugee, had recognized her former torturer at a mosque in southern Germany but there wasn’t’ enough evidence – yet – to back up the woman’s claim in court.

As with many such accounts of human rights violations in countries in conflict, documenting hard facts, often many years after the incident, is challenging if not impossible.  Various investigative organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have documented numerous killings or summary executions based on refugee testimony, but this information was often too insufficient to lead to prosecution. The situation was further complicated by the fact that atrocities were committed on both sides. During the 1980s, the Soviets as well as certain Afghan resistance groups committed abundant crimes that contravene the Geneva conventions, including the deliberate killing of civilians, the execution of prisoners of war, and the murder and torture of political opponents.

The abuses did not stop with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in early 1989. Bitter in-fighting and jostling for power amongst the mujahideen during the early and mid-1990s also led to horrific lawlessness.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan resistance politician massively supported by the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI. He held responsible for the numerous murders of moderate Afghans as well as both Afghan and Wesstern journalists. He is now involved with the current Kabul government.

One noteworthy crime against humanity included the deliberate shelling of Kabul by former Afghan resistance politician Hekmatyar Gulbuddin of Hezb-e-Islami, an Islamic extremist supported during the Soviet war by both the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and ISI.

I was in Kabul at the height of Gulbuddin’s shelling of the city from 1993 onwards. My colleague, French film-maker Christophe de Ponfilly, and I watched in horror as daily and nightly onslaughts of rockets slammed into the Afghan capital. Some 50,000 Afghans, mainly civilians, are believed to have been killed during these prolonged and indiscriminate lethal barrages.

Human rights abuses: a problem for all parties

Ironically, one of the reasons behind the initial success of the Taliban in the mid-1990s was their promise to end such outrages and to bring peace to the country. However, following their takeover of much of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in December, 1996, the Taliban killed and otherwise repressed thousands of suspected opponents, including minority Shia Hazaras, whose farms and villages were burned or otherwise razed.

Old Town buildings damaged by Hekmatyar’s shelling of Kabul in 1993/94. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

While I have not returned to Afghanistan recently, I continue to follow – and report – events closely and plan to return in 2019 for a feature on life in the countryside. In the meantime, I watch with dismay as Afghanistan’s horrendous war grinds on. Rather than bringing peace and prosperity, the US-led involvement with its estimated 45 billion dollars a year in spending in Afghanistan has achieved little other than prolong the country’s four-decade long conflict.

The resurgent Taliban and foreign Islamic militant groups, such as IS, now once again control or otherwise dominate up to 70 per cent of the country. They have proved ruthless in their use of suicide attacks, often involving young, mentally-handicapped children or poverty-stricken families who offer up a member of the family in return for cash.

In early 2018, Afghanistan’s Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organization entered 1.7 million documents with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague with accounts of alleged atrocities. These include accusations not only against the Taliban and IS, but also Afghan security forces, government-affiliated warlords, the US-led NATO Coalition, and foreign and domestic spy agencies. And so it continues.

Writer Girardet with French reporter Patrick de St Exupery in northern Afghanistan in 1984. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Reporting a country at war for four decades has taught me that the only story that really matters is one that moves others to take action. I remember vividly the young and ardent mujahideen whom I first interviewed in 1980, bragging about the military exploits they would carry out against the Shouravi. They had little idea what war was. Barely old enough to shave, they brandished their decrepit, outdated rifles as if they were handling an advanced rocket launcher. Most of them were terrible shots because the mujahideen could not afford to waste expensive bullets (1.20 USD per round) on training.

I also recall the captured young Soviet conscripts – almost none of them ethnic Russian but rather draftees from Estonia, Ukraine or Uzbekistan – sitting quietly in the shade of a mulberry tree not quite sure of their impending fate.   They had all heard terrible stories about what Afghans did to captured Soviets. Some guerrilla commanders were more than happy to send them to Pakistan for propaganda purposes or to hand them over to the ICRC. But for others, the Geneva Conventions were meaningless. The Red Cross had dutifully distributed comic books to educate the illiterate mujahideen of the need to respect the rules of engagement. However, keeping Soviet POWs alive meant providing them with food the mujahideen could not afford to give away. Far easier to take the young draftees down to the river and shoot them.

Captured Afghan army conscripts who were released by the mujahideen and making their way home by foot. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Fixated in my mind are also the hundreds if not thousands of refugees I encountered trying to cross the Hindu Kush mountains, with virtually no food or belongings, carrying their babies.  Sheer exhaustion meant they no longer bothered to comfort young children who cried incessantly.  On one occasion, shame overcame me as I sat with a colleague in front of a campfire on our way back to Pakistan, thinking about the wonderful hot bath I would take once we got to our hotel in the next day or two.  An old man approached me. In his hands, he held a silver platter with glasses of steaming hot tea. The tea was even heavily sugared, an utter luxury for such poor people. When I tried to refuse, he said, no. You must take drink. We know that you are journalists. You must tell the world what is happening.

So what about Afghanistan’s women? Will they have a proper say if real peace is ever negotiated? (Photo: Edward Girardet)

Throughout my reporting, I have tried to tell the war from the perspective of the civilian population, perhaps naively with the hope of spurring others to action.  It is now the turn of the new generation of journalists, including local reporters, to tell the ongoing story of Afghanistan and other wars that show no sign of abating after so many years. Yemen is another example where informed, on-the-ground reporting is crucial but also both dangerous and exceedingly difficult.

Unfortunately, as part of this decline in foreign reporting, many news organizations today are simply no longer enabling young journalists – as I had been fortunate enough to do – to go out into the field to report in the old-fashioned way, by talking to people.  Some, too, believe they no longer need experienced foreign correspondents whose background, insight and sense of context can help audiences better grasp what is happening. As one senior journalist with France24, a leading international broadcaster, recently lamented to me: “Few organizations are really willing to invest in credible journalism or in reporters able to do the job. I see this as a real problem for democracy.”

Plus ça change: More of the same

At the UN-hosted international conference on Afghanistan last November, 2018, I attended a press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance and Head of Security both spoke of the need for the international community to continue supporting Afghanistan, highlighting the ongoing humanitarian plight and the new possibilities of peace engendered by recent talks with the Taliban.

I tried to be optimistic but it was more of the same. The sad reality of the past 17 years since the NATO invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001, is that it is has become a story of missed opportunities, arrogance and greed. Nothing in their discourse appeared to have changed since the early 2000s when so many Afghans thought that – finally – their country was on the verge of real peace, and yet now feel betrayed.

Listening to these two officials with their slick suits in Geneva, I heard nothing about plans to counter the country’s massive corruption or the complete lack of trust amongst ordinary Afghans in their country’s justice system.  Neither mentioned the fact that billions of dollars continue to disappear into private coffers with little reaching those most in need.  Yet these are some of the precise reasons why so many ordinary Afghans are turning to the Taliban against the Western-supported government.

Afghanistan: what future? Hazara elders, who are primarily shiite, in Bamiyan Province discussing the possibilities of peace in their country. (Photo: Edward Girardet)

When I asked about these persistent realities, the two officials almost seemed hurt. Afghanistan is suffering from a humanitarian crisis, insisted the Finance Minister. And yes, we are doing something about corruption, maintained the Head of Security. But Afghanistan has been in humanitarian crisis for 40 years, I pointed out. And corruption remains one of the biggest drawbacks to real development.

So what is really being done to bring about change and an end to war?  These are the questions that reporters need to ask -and help answer today, thus allowing fact-based journalism to come back into its own. Indeed, this is what some Afghan reporters are trying to do, but often at great risk from both the Taliban and the government. Many have been killed, beaten up or threatened.

News organizations, but also readers who have grasped the need for credible and trusted reporting – and which cannot exist without their support – need once again to give reporters both the time and means to really understand the plight of people confronted by relentless conflict and not be compelled to reduce their story-telling to snappy sound-bites and slick online productions. It is my unwavering hope that cheap accusations of “fake news” will not convince a new generation of audiences that they cannot trust journalists. Equally it is my hope that a new generation of journalists will fight hard to retain the ethics and trustworthiness that many of us reporters, who still believe in the power of a free and informed press, seek to uphold.

Henry Luce, the American news magnate who founded both TIME and LIFE magazines, once wrote> “I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.” In many ways, the heart of my world as a journalist was the war in Afghanistan. And if I am really honest, I got into journalism to change the world. While I was disappointed that my reporting never led to convictions for war crimes, or justice for the Afghan people, I still trust that some who read my stories – or other colleagues of mine who still believe in true reporting – may now help readers understand what conflict was like for several generations of Afghan people. To quote Albert Enstein, journalists can help remind them that “war can never be humanized, but only abolished.”

Author Edward Girardet in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, in 1982.

Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet is a Swiss-American journalist and writer who has been covering conflicts and humanitarian crises world-wide for more than 40 years. Passionate about Afghanistan and the Indian Subcontinent, Girardet continues to follow events closely.  He is author of “Afghanistan: The Soviet War” (2005; republished in 2011) and “Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey through 30 years of war in Afghanistan” (2011).

See Great Minds television interview about Killing the Cranes. 

 

 

 

 

 

Girardet is also co-editor and contributing writer of four fully-revised editions of “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”  The latest was published in 2014. 

 

 

 

 

Related Articles in Global Geneva

Masood Khalili’s Whispers of War – A guerrilla’s journey during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Law in Afghanistan: The Crooked Path from Custom to Code

Letter from Islamabad: Afghanistan from Past To Present To Past Again

Abdul Haq: the Afghan commander who could have led to peace.

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