Five Lions in Afghanistan
Image Credit: Jim Kelly

Five Lions in Afghanistan


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.

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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.

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