Five Lions in Afghanistan

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Five Lions in Afghanistan

The Panjshir Valley is an oasis of calm in war-torn Afghanistan. Could a colourful history one day help to make it a tourism hotspot?

A huge portrait of the late Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud sits at the entrance of the Panjshir Valley. Two hours after leaving Kabul by car, we arrive at the checkpoint where the image looms. The checkpoint is manned by a small group of soldiers, all no doubt happy to be operating in this relative oasis of calm, free of suicide attacks, roadside explosives,and US drone sorties.

But the valley’s appeal doesn’t just lay in its relative safeness—it’s also beautiful. Amplified by the enormous valley walls, the roar of the river follows us as we ascend. The foothills on the southwest create a formidable fortress of stone. Gradually, though, the stone slopes open up to allow sunlight to flood into the valley and wash over the first tiny village we come across—a cluster of humble houses of stone and clay that have rugs, tomatoes,and corn drying on their flat roofs.

‘Panjshir’ comes from the Persian Panj (five) and ‘shir’ (lion), in recognition of the five brothers who legend says managed to contain the flood waters of the river that runs through the valley back in the 10th century. These days, though, it seems the only ‘lion’ that locals remember is Massoud, the iconic local commander who became the symbol of resistance against the Russians and the Taliban.

Travellers and Residents

As we travel through the valley, we’re regularly held up by the nomadic Kuchis as their sheep and camels criss-cross the road. After centuries carrying goods between the Middle East and Central Asia, these nomads are now trapped not just by the natural boundaries of the desert and mountains, but also the manmade crossfire of the Afghan war.

Their lives are further complicated by the various rumours that circulate about them. ‘They have lots of money’ and ‘they carry weapons to loot villages’ are just two snippets of gossip I heard about the Kuchis in the region.

Such accusations—and suggestions that they should simply settle in one location—exasperate one elderly Kuchi leader I spoke to. ‘Just build a house and find a job they say. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be risking our lives moving between anti-personnel mines, the Taliban,and foreign troops,’ he points out. As he saddles his camel to head off again, I ask him how long he has been on the move. He doesn’t respond to that question, but is quick to state something else before he leaves—he has never fired a gun in his life.

The clan’s cattle wander the valley, indifferent to the visual drama of wrecked Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles that litter this otherwise idyllic landscape. The Soviet army launched numerous major offensives across the valley of the five lions, but each time Massoud is said to have evacuated the entire population from the area before striking back with the guerrilla tactics he had mastered. The stubbornness of the Panjshir people is said to have been behind a ceasefire request from Moscow.

In his book A Prayer for Rain, Polish journalist Wojciech Jagielski explains the significance of this stronghold:

‘In the Panjshir valley, Massoud created a real state, with its own administration, police, prisons and torture rooms, and mosques and courts dictated by Koranic law and their schools. The money for weapons, fuel,and food came from seizing, looting,and smuggling emeralds and other precious stones.’

The Man Who Didn´t Kill Massoud

It’s no surprise, then, that the Mujahedeen commander’s home village of Jangalak is the best known in the valley, and each of its inhabitants seems to have a personal anecdote about Massoud.

‘You could feel his presence from 500 metres away—he was extraordinary in every sense,’ says Essam, a local Tajik who runs a hotel and one of the hippest bars in Kabul. Essam claims he once saw Massoud shoot down a Russian helicopter a few miles from where we are now.

But perhaps the most interesting story I heard from Panjshir was one about Hoja Ahmed. Dubbed the ‘best cook in the valley,’ Ahmed also goes by another moniker—the man who could have killed Massoud. According to local legend, he was given a large sum of cash in exchange for poisoning the Mujahedeen commander during a visit to his restaurant.

But Massoud apparently noticed that Ahmed seemed unusually nervous. Overwhelmed by the whole situation, Ahmed is said to have confessed about the plot before the commander could tuck into his rice and lamb. ‘They haven’t paid you much. Go ask for more and come back,’ Massoud is said to have joked on hearing of the plot.

Like most of Afghanistan’s population, Massoud died prematurely, and his remains now rest in a mausoleum erected a few miles from Jangalak. The structure is a curious cross between traditional architecture and futuristic marble columns and arches.

Nearby, a billboard announces the imminent construction of a hotel that has been proposed by an Iranian company. It makes one wonder whether this historic and visually stunning valley might one day be able to recapture the imagination of tourists the way it did in the 1970s.

In 2006, the Aga Khan Foundation for development launched an ambitious tourism project in Afghanistan that included hiking opportunities in the valley. Last April, a new initiative was launched that included the opening of a guesthouse in the picturesque village of Bazarak: 15 rooms with flat screen TVs starting from 15 euros a night.

The efforts to boost the tourist appeal of the valley aside, there’s always an influx of visitors on September 9 each year as thousands of Tajik pilgrims come to honour Massoud on the anniversary of his death.

Death of a Warrior

On September 9, 2001, two suicide bombers disguised as journalists reportedly detonated explosives hidden in their camera, bringing Massoud’s life to a violent end.

Still, although September 9 is a national holiday in Afghanistan, Massoud is an icon only to his own people—don’t expect to find his portrait on a car windshield of an Uzbek or the walls of a tea house run by a Pashtun.

We travel on as far as the tiny village of Omars. ‘Don’t drive any further,’ says a fishermen as we approach, echoing a warning given by the soldiers at the valley checkpoint. We are told that this road leads out of the peaceful ‘island’ that is the Panjshir Valley, meandering towards Badakhshan Province, where the Taliban presence is said to be growing.

Heading home, it’s hard not to wonder if the valley will succeed in exploiting its relative calm as a selling point for tourists. Already, some local and even foreign tourists have been taking advantage of the scenery, including a group of Canadian expats based in Kabul who I’m told come here every spring to try out the rapids created when the snow from the Hindu Kush summits melts into a swirling torrent as it descends toward the southern desert. 

Until an elusive peace can be found in Afghanistan, though, such visitors to the valley will probably have much of the scenery for themselves.