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.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.