Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Great Massoud: The Lion of Panjshir, Hero of Afghanistan

Photographs: The National Miltary Hospital in Kabul, yet another marvel of Soviet architecture. Clothing hangs out to dry on the Massoud Monument. Another view of Massoud Circle in Kabul. Massoud in the hat he made even more famous.

The National Military Hospital (NMH) of Afghanistan is a paragon of Eastern Block architecture built by the Soviet Union for Afghanistan in the mid-60s. The former USSR’s policies in that decade were more benevolent than in the seventies, when the then second super power decided to create its own Vietnam by invading Afghanistan in 1979 to support (i.e. control) the ruling Afghan communist party. Rumor in Kabul holds that the Soviets then used the basement of the NMH to torture select members of the local populace. A few years ago when US engineers inspected the facility, they reportedly found skeletons in the tunnels that run between NMH and other buildings on the hospital grounds. No one is sure if the remains are simply from a forgotten morgue, or the detritus of man’s indignity to man. I’m still waiting for a tour of these supposed catacombs, but every person I’ve asked to take me down there replies “It’s scary” and abruptly changes the topic.

The same engineers who assessed the building's functionality and soundness recommended that it be razed. The US has constructed new hospitals for the Afghan Army in four major cities around the country, and the NMH was judged to be so wanting for repairs and improvements that a replacement structure would be more economical than renovation. It’s the same argument that professional sports team owners use to coax (i.e. browbeat) municipalities to fund new stadiums, although in the case of NMH the paucity of luxury boxes was never an issue and it’s no stretch to claim that a new hospital might actually benefit the community that surrounds it. The Afghans, however, would have no part of NMH’s destruction, as it once was the operating base of the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, a National Hero of Afghanistan.

Massoud was an ethnic Tajik and one of the mujahedeen military commanders most responsible for the ouster of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989. He then joined with other commanders to form the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban, who were vying for control of the country after 1994. His nickname was The Lion of Panjshir, as he hailed from the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul. (Panj is Dari for the number five, and shir means valley, so the moniker translates, literally, as the Lion of the Five Lions.)

So Massoud fought the Soviets, and he fought the Taliban; but history shows that a righteous military commander in Afghanistan always has at least one more warlord or lunatic group to subdue before total victory is his, and in 1993 Massoud found himself in a battle for Kabul with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a very nasty figure infamous for fickle allegiance and a well-deserved spot on the USA’s list of international terrorists after he tried to overthrow the current government of Afghanistan in 2003. Hekmatyar was also known for wantonly targeting citizens in his frequent bombardments of Kabul, and during the 1993 battle for the city Massoud led his troops and called for fire against Hekmatyar from the roof of the NMH.

Two days before America’s 9/11, on September 9, 2001, Massoud died when a pair of alleged al Quaeda operatives posing as Belgian journalists detonated a bomb during an interview with the commander. Most citizens of Kabul revere Massoud, and the current military reportedly rebuffed any suggestion that the NMH, Massoud’s former base, should be destroyed. Afghanistan has no registry of historic places, but if it did the NMH might be one of the earliest buildings with a bronze plaque. Or maybe something was lost in translation between the Americans and Afghans as they negotiated the fate of the NMH building, as at least two doctors there have told me that they favored a spanking new facility as long as a proper memorial were built in honor of Massoud. After all, they claimed, the Soviets built the NMH and they aren’t remembered fondly by the Afghans.

Massoud made even more famous the rolled wool hat that has long been an international symbol of Afghanistan and in the past has been called a pakol, or a Chitrali hat or Nuristani hat for the regions where the style evolved. Most Kabul citizens now call it a Massoud hat.

The traffic circle nearest the hospital boasts the name of and a monument to Massoud. The first time I saw it, a man was hanging wet laundry to dry on the wires circling the upper deck of the monument. The scene reminded me of the first time I visited the main temple of Angkor Wat and saw Cambodian cattle tied to the stone pillars and grazing on the grass surrounding the country’s most prized historic landmark. But Massoud was a man of the people, famous for retreating from Kabul to save its citizens from further torment of war, so I’m sure he wouldn’t begrudge that Afghan man a few pieces of dry laundry at his monument’s expense.


senior said...

I'm really proud of you,
you have come a long way, from your first days with 3/12.
And CG exercises.Pls take care.
Hopefully you will find a SOAPY
place, to purifed yourself.......

Ken said...

Fantastic article! The circle use to be called "Public Health Circle" becuase it is near the Minstry of Public Health---and the central monument was indeed dedicated to health care before Massoud was assasinated. Writing from your old desk in Kabul...Ken Lankin

Ken said...

Please excuse my spelling errors. The official address of the Afghan Ministry of Health remains, "The Great Massoud Circle" Kabul, Afghanistan.