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The old new war
Afghanistan's Jihad Museum honours those who fought the Soviets in the '70s and '80s, a bloody time in the nation's history that some believe is likely to repeat itself after coalition forces leave.
For a country disfigured by decades of conflict, it seems fitting that Afghanistan should have a place set aside for reflecting on war. The Jihad Museum on a forested hillside in the western provincial capital of Herat is many things: a temple to the mujahideen heroes who battled the Soviets in the 1970s and '80s, and a memorial for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who were slaughtered or fled the fighting.
It is also, for many Afghans, a not-so-veiled portrayal of a likely future: they review the museum's dioramas of historical violence with clenching knots in their stomachs, fearing that the scenes may play out again soon, after the end of the Nato combat mission here in 2014.
"I think the worst days are yet to come, " said Obaidullah Esar, 51, a former fighter, who was touring the museum one recent afternoon.
The museum is a blue, green and white rotunda covered on the outside with the names of hundreds of victims from the war, all set in a watered garden of flower beds and fountains. It boasts captured Soviet weaponry like tanks, a MIG fighter jet and helicopters. It has a portrait hall of fame of mujahedeen commanders.
The star attraction is a graphic diorama showing models of Afghan villagers rising up in a hellish wartime landscape to cudgel the heads of Soviet oppressors, in a triumphant if rather rosy narrative arc: Soviets commit heinous acts against poor villagers, farmers besiege Soviet tanks with sticks, Soviet soldiers are throttled, Soviet soldiers are shot. At the end, the army of the mujahideen marches home victorious.
Still, if its view is more triumphal than strictly historical, it is one of the few accounts of the era that is easily accessible here. "Since most Afghans are uneducated and we don't have good historians to write our histories, our children don't know who the Russians were, why the Afghans fought against them and what was the result of their resistance, " said Sayed Wahid Qattali, a prosperous 28-yearold politician and businessman who is the son of a former jihadi commander. Qattali's father established the museum with the help of Ismail Khan, a mujahideen warlord and former governor of Herat.
Qattali says one of the motivations for building the museum is the reluctance of the country's official history books to address the painful events of the past four decades. In an attempt to depoliticise the history of a country pulled in so many different ways by ethnic tensions, school textbooks tell Afghanistan's history in depth only up until about the 1970s, skipping over major events since then like the Soviet invasion, civil war, the Taliban's reign and the American-led invasion and military presence. Qattali wants the museum to fill that void, in particular telling his version of the mujahideen's exploits - before time moves on and the next chapter of history is inevitably written.
Recently, he toured the garden of the museum, showing off the mujahideen's trophies, like the MIG jet. "Afghans have very bad memories of this, " he said, shaking his head, before strolling past an 82-mm light-rocket launcher perched in the grass. Near a Soviet helicopter, behind some bushes, Qattali hunched his shoulders and grew even more morose. "A lot of people were killed by this kind of helicopter, " he said. "We lost a lot of relatives and loved ones. Of course, we fought to the end. "
Inside the hushed museum, shoeless feet - visitors are required to remove their shoes - shuffled past glass cabinets of centuries-old rifles seized from British soldiers in earlier conflicts. The British were repelled, too, and the guns were used against the Soviets, showing an Afghan knack for taking whatever weapons invaders bring and turning them to their advantage.
After the guns, a long corridor is lined with more than 60 iconic portraits of mujahideen commanders who made their names during the fighting against the Soviets and, later, the Taliban: men like Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq. Though they share a hallway, the warlords hardly were united.
After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the jihadists fought ferociously among themselves, wreaking their own devastation. That sad story is not told here, though a facet of it is implied: In the Jihad Museum, the portraits of warlords allied with Khan appear proudly front and centre, while the mujahideen of rival parties like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are bestowed only grudging prominence, virtually hidden as an afterthought in the corner.
Even as the faces of factionalism haunt this museum, they also loom over the present-day politics in the capital, Kabul. Many of the same men and their supporters uneasily share space in the halls of government. When Afghans sketch out their fears about a coming civil war, those are also the men they envision leading it.
After the hall of fame, stairs rise to the museum's most dramatic offering - the painted landscape of chalk figurines, tanks and villagers, consumed in an inferno of war around Herat, this province where some of the early resistance to the Soviets and the Soviet-backed government came together. A loudspeaker pipes in the terrible booms and rattles of war.
The clear message here is to remind that war is horrifying, and that if it comes again it will bring destruction and force people to flee to lives of exile in Iran and Pakistan, as many in older generations did, Qattali said. He concedes, though, that there is also a message encoded for the Taliban here: If the ordinary folk of Herat once again faced an invading oppressor, they would fight.
Indeed, Khan is already rallying his followers in this region, stirring controversy by urging them to prepare to fight alongside the Afghan Army against the Taliban after the international troops are gone.
"The Afghans will ultimately face the truth - and that is, after the Americans leave and the Taliban come back, they don't have a choice but to fight the Taliban if they want to protect what we have achieved in the past 10 years, " Qattali said.
Graham Bowley In Herat
NYT NEWS SERVICE
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