Learning the Way of a Warrior
When Abdullah Jan stole the Kalashnikov from the body of a Russian soldier 18 years ago, he could see it was in bad shape, dirty, battered, in need of love and care.
The rifle was so neglected it had lost its power to protect the anonymous Russian soldier, who died so far from home in the razor-backed peaks of the Salang Gorge in northern Afghanistan.
Abdullah took the gun home. He took it apart, cleaned it fastidiously, oiled it, whispered sweet words to it.
“You are my friend,” he murmured softly. “You are my friend, and I will take care of you.”
After that, it never let him down.
Abdullah, 45, was a young moujahedeen warrior when he scampered to retrieve the prize in the fourth year of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Now the Kalashnikov is the most treasured object in his household. It hangs on his bedroom wall, always in easy reach. Both he and his second son, Kodratullo, 25, use it to fight, shooting at Afghanistan’s radical Islamic Taliban.
In their village, you sometimes see a young boy wending down the road with a schoolbook in his hands. But far more common is the sight of teenagers toting Kalashnikovs, their faces set in hard expressions, as they imagine a fighter should look.
In Afghanistan few boys can read or write, but nearly all of them can shoot. As well as inheriting their fathers’ guns, Afghan boys absorb their desire for vengeance, their hatred of their enemies, and their fatalistic view of war and mortality.
And the Kalashnikov is at the center of Afghan society: a symbol of manhood, a symbol of freedom, a symbol of victory.
Decades of war have militarized the society, left thousands of widows and fatherless children, and spawned thousands of boys with grudges to repay, on both sides of the country’s civil war.
A few weeks in Afghanistan and you develop reflexive Kalashnikov blindness: You forget to be surprised by the sight of them everywhere.
In Afghanistan’s bazaars, men carry Kalashnikovs, slung over the shoulder. In the teahouses, guns lean propped against the walls like thickets of dead branches, or they lie beside a man’s plate as he eats. At prayer time, guns are kept within reach, placed on the ground in front of the prayer rug.
From the age of 5, Afghan boys play with crude toy guns fashioned of wood. But by 10, their childhood over, they are learning how to fire a real Kalashnikov.
Boys here dream of being moujahedeen commanders, in a society where the richest, most powerful and admired men are the generals. The “holy warriors” successfully resisted Soviet invaders in the 1980s, and now many fighters in Afghanistan’s north have adopted the mantle in their battle against fellow Muslims in the country’s ruling Taliban.
They join the moujahedeen when their fathers tell them it is time to fight. Describing their first time in battle, none admits to fear. They describe only their excitement and joy that they were trusted as men.
Weapon Is ‘Both Freedom and War’
When an Afghan man hands a gun to his son in a ceremony of manhood, he explains the weapon’s significance. The oldest man in the family says a prayer.
“It means he has become a man. The boy should understand he is trusted to fight and defend his country,” Abdullah explained.
“When I gave a weapon to my son, I said, ‘Son, this is a gun. This weapon is both freedom and war. With the help of this weapon, you can preserve your freedom. But to have freedom, we need sacrifice.’ ”
He reflected sadly on the results of Afghanistan’s 22 years of war: “In other countries of the world, they teach their children to do something, to be engineers. In our country, we teach our children to kill people. But it’s not in vain. It’s for freedom.”
In the Salang Gorge, Abdullah cannot think of a single father who did not teach his sons in the ways of a warrior. Boys begin training at the moujahedeen base in the gorge at age 10 to 12.
An innocent-faced 15-year-old, Mullayasin, joined the moujahedeen at 10 and was fighting by 14. Two months ago, he learned to use a grenade launcher, which seems to dwarf his slight body.
“My father told me, ‘My son, terrorists live in our country. They don’t leave us in peace. They’ll get us. We must make sacrifices, and that’s it.’ ”
Mullayasin has seen little of life and knows almost nothing about the world outside his valley. But without a second thought, he would sacrifice himself in the war against the Taliban.
“Why should I be afraid of death?” asked the boy, who last year survived a fierce front-line battle near Bagram, north of the capital, Kabul.
For Mullayasin, worse than the possibility of death was the fact that the older moujahedeen had told him the fighting there was too fierce for him to join in. “I was crying and begging them to let me go. I cried because they didn’t trust me. They didn’t treat me as a man. It was humiliating,” he said. “All the same, I joined them. We were surrounded. The enemy was firing all kinds of weapons at us and bombing us. I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t care.”
Zaher, 16, is a fighter who sleeps with a Kalashnikov as a pillow.
He learned to shoot at 12 and started fighting at 14, when his father told him to go defend the nearby town of Charikar from the Taliban.
“My father was a moujahedeen. He told me I must become a moujahedeen to defend my country, like I would defend my mother,” he said. “As much as your mother has a right over you, your country has the same right over you.”
Shopkeeper Became a Moujahedeen
In Ejan village, 70 miles north of Kabul, three generations of Abdullah’s family have heeded the call of war. Abdullah was a shopkeeper who could read and write but became a moujahedeen at the urging of his father, Mohammed Nur, when the Red Army invaded in 1979.
Abdullah has six sons and a daughter, age 4. Invisible in the kitchen, his second wife works, slapping flatbread onto the walls of the tandoor clay oven and boiling eggs, which she dyes golden to honor her husband’s guests. His first wife died more than five years ago.
In many Afghan families, at least one son is sent away to earn money, another studies religion and the rest are given to war. The fighters’ pay, as well as food grown on plots of land, helps sustain the families.
Abdullah’s oldest son, Amanullo, 27, is working in Iran. He fought against the Soviet army and was wounded in the arm at about age 14.
Abdullah shrugs when asked how he felt when his son, still a boy, was wounded in war.
“It was fate. We didn’t think about it. It had to be that way. If he’d died, that would have been his fate too,” he said without emotion.
His second son, Kodratullo, is a driver who never learned to read and write because he was drawn into the war against the Soviets from the age of 12. Nyamatullo, 20, was born with a disability and works around the home. Another son, Esmatullo, 16, is a fighter. Samiullo, 14, is studying at an Islamic college in Pakistan. And the youngest, Inayatullo, is 2.
Like all boys, Kodratullo began as a fighter by carrying guns and water for the moujahedeen. He saw his first action at age 13, against Afghan government forces. After the withdrawal of the defeated Soviet army, the moujahedeen continued to fight the Soviet-installed Najibullah government. That was when his father gave him the Kalashnikov for the first time.
“I had a sense of honor, of becoming a man,” Kodratullo recalled. “My grandfather was a moujahedeen who called all the people in the village to fight. My father is a moujahedeen. I had this feeling that they trusted me, although I was small. We were dreaming that our country would be free.”
About 30 of his friends from the village joined the moujahedeen; six have died and the rest, like Kodratullo, are still fighting. As a boy, Kodratullo had no fear of death and no appreciation of the value of a life. That came later.
“When I got older, I started to feel a little afraid, especially after I was married with children,” said Kodratullo, who has a 1-year-old daughter; his son died of malnutrition at about 8 months of age. “Now I have a family; I worry about them.”
Patriarch Too Old to Fight Soviets
Abdullah’s father, Mohammed, the village leader, is a blind old man in a turban who sits with a blanket gathered around him. He does not know his age but must be in his 80s.
“I don’t exactly remember when I was born, but I remember 10 changes in the kings and governments of this country,” is as precise as he can put it.
He was a child in 1919 during the third Anglo-Afghan war, when the Afghans defeated the English. Mohammed grew up with the legends of Afghan resistance fighters, who were armed only with primitive hunting rifles and sabers.
“If we died, we would go to paradise, and if we won, we would be winners. Even in the case of defeat, we would be victors,” he recounted, his voice firm and clear.
Mohammed trained as a soldier in the king’s army for five years, but by the time the next threat to Afghanistan came--when the Soviets invaded in December 1979--he was past fighting age.
Instead, he rallied the village’s young men to fight, including his son, Abdullah, who was armed at first with an archaic English hunting rifle. He fought with it until he managed to take the Kalashnikov from the dead Russian.
Once, with three others, he was ambushed at night by Soviet soldiers.
“It was terrible. They outnumbered us heavily. Two of my friends died. Their bodies were lying in front of us, and we spent the night lying behind them. We had to leave our dead friends there,” recalled Abdullah, who has lost 33 friends in battle and believes he killed more than 100 Russian soldiers.
After the defeat of the Red Army in 1989, the Najibullah government fell and a coalition of moujahedeen took Kabul in April 1992, Abdullah among them.
“It was a wonderful feeling, impossible to describe. We thought the war was over forever, that we’d finally won, and there would be no more aggression,” he said. “We thought we could start working and building our country.”
But rival Afghan warlords vied for control of territory, and the battles continued. In 1994, the Taliban emerged, seized Kabul in 1996 and then managed to take more than 90% of the country.
The U.S. war aimed at deposing the Taliban and capturing Osama bin Laden has raised moujahedeen hopes that the Americans could beat the enemy they could not defeat alone.
Mohammed, his son and his grandson Kodratullo are all weary of war.
Kodratullo’s illiteracy worries his father, who sees it as testament to the family’s decline and a threat to its prestige in the close-knit Salang Gorge. Abdullah knows the family’s authority in the valley derives not only from its strength historically but from the respect it won as people who could read, write and resolve quarrels between local families.
When Mohammed dies, Abdullah is ready to take his position as head of the village. But come the next generation, he is not sure whether any of his sons will command enough respect to lead the village, where most people do not read or write, and no one bothers to count how many children die of malnutrition, although they do count their dead warriors.
In his position of authority, the old man has many problems to solve. There is a shortage of teachers and schoolbooks. The population is seeping away as people leave in search of a better life. And people come to him with a dribble of daily complaints, over the division of land or the amount a groom should pay for a bride.
When there are quarrels, men are not supposed to resort to guns. Instead, they must appeal to venerated old men like Mohammed to resolve their disputes.
But often, it doesn’t work out that way, particularly when family honor is concerned. For many Afghan boys, the gun is the nearest, most reliable remedy.
Zaher, the 16-year-old fighter, said guns should only be used in combat, never to resolve disputes. But in the next breath he said that if he felt someone had dishonored one of his two sisters--for example, if a strange man approached her and spoke to her or touched her--he would kill the stranger without thinking twice.
Though older men profess to be tired of fighting, no one has a remedy. While the war goes on, most men readily send their sons to fight, fearful of condemnation by their neighbors should they fail to support the cause.
Older fighters acknowledge that armed teenage boys are much more volatile and unpredictable than those more seasoned, and are more likely to use guns recklessly outside combat.
“It’s very dangerous. It’s a big problem,” said Gen. Abdul Basir, commander of the moujahedeen in the Salang Gorge. “Instead of learning to read, they learn to fight and kill. I regret it very much. But we have to do it [teach boys to fight] because of our life these days.”
Gen. Babajan, commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces at Bagram airport, despairs of the gun culture that puts weapons in the hands of teenage boys.
“They don’t understand the price of a human life. They kill people, they loot and rob,” said Babajan, one of the few Northern Alliance generals who graduated from military school before he took up a gun.
He is contemptuous of the moujahedeen tradition and the cheap currency of the rank of general in the anti-Taliban forces.
“What generals?” he snorted. “You mean the people who came down from the mountains and couldn’t read or write and were made generals? Do you think I’m one of them, taking up a gun at the age of 15?
“No, I went to school, I went to university, then I was trained to use a weapon and understood what it was before I took a gun into my hands.”
Afghans talk wistfully of a time when instead of part-time, mostly illiterate fighters who dig the fields when they’re not at war, there was a trained and disciplined army and laws to prevent teenagers from carrying guns.
“I’m dreaming of the day when my daughter and sons and grandsons will get an education and become doctors,” Abdullah said. “This is my only dream. I don’t want them to go up into the mountains and fight. I want them to live like human beings.”
But the dream is like a distant mirage. After decades of fighting, the Afghans seem to lack the vaguest idea of how to achieve peace.
And not everyone hankers for a peaceful life, at least not yet. Teenagers and young men still thirst for the thrill of battle and the chance to avenge dead friends. They learned the hunger for vengeance from their fathers--the same men who now say they are tired of war.
Mohammed passed to his son the stories of resistance to the English that he had learned from his elders.
Abdullah handed down the same fighting stories and his own tales of resistance to the Red Army.
Kodratullo has no one to teach after the death of his baby son but hopes that one day he will have another boy.
“We hope that peace comes and after the war ends he can go to school. We’re all very tired of this war. But if the war doesn’t end, I’ll have to teach him to fight. There’s no way out,” Kodratullo said, “because freedom is very important to us.”
Dixon was recently on assignment in Afghanistan. Special correspondent Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.