“Together, we built this,” says Sufi Zafran, leader of the 12 villages which gave their lands to the Salma Dam, his face aged by a life spent making war in the searing heat and pitiless winters.
Invisible, in the mountains above, stands the army of Haji Saeed Wali, a dam site truck driver turned bandit turned warlord, guarding the site from Taliban assault. Lower down the road, Abdul Ghani, a project cook, is dishing out vadas — a delicacy that, though mystifying to many Afghans, has found a niche audience.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani will press a button on a remote-controlled console in Herat, sending jets of water cascading down the $290 million Indian-built dam.
Behind the story of how the Salma Dam was built lie extraordinary sacrifices by ordinary Indians and Afghans — extraordinary sacrifices of sweat and blood, tied together by an extraordinary history.
For nine years, Zafran fought as a commander with the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami, one of the coalitions of seven jihadist groups that forced the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. Then, for another 10, he fought the other parties in the seven-party alliance.
“I, and men like me, destroyed everything in Afghanistan, much more than the Soviets or the Americans managed to bomb,” says Zafran. “Today, I learned your Prime Minister is not coming here, and my heart filled with stone, because I wanted to tell him the story of how we built this thing, together, and why.”
Chisht-i-Sharif, connected by a 160 km earth road to Herat, is where Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti — the Emperor of the Poor, venerated by the millions who visit the Ajmer dargah each year — began his journey to India in the 10th Century. His uncle, Abu Ahmad Chishti, is reputed to have built the shrine near what’s called Wapco village, where the Indian engineers who built the dam now live.
In 2007, when work began on the dam site, there were no dosas on offer. “I was woken up, in my first week here, by a rocket landing next to our shed,” recalls Sudhir Shetty, an engineer from Bengaluru. “For reasons that are still a mystery to me, we all showed up for work at 7 am.”
Those first months tested the patience of Salma’s Indian expatriates. The only phone connection was an $1 per minute satellite service, open just for outgoing calls. Then, in 2009, local cellphone service Roshan started, but the local Taliban made sport of blowing up its towers, blacking out services for weeks on end.
For the dam’s workers, though, the problems were just beginning. In 2010, the district governor was assassinated by the Taliban and, the next year, a group of engineers was targeted. “The mine they’d planted went off just metres ahead of our bus near Obe village,” recalls project engineer Sumant Kumar.
The only way in and our of the dam for the 200-odd Indian staff was now a once-a-month, unscheduled Afghan military helicopter service. “I couldn’t get home when my father died,” recalls Shetty. “That was just how it was.”
Pradeep Shetty, from Mangalore, left for India just three days before he was due to get married, accompanied by Afghan staff who dressed him up as an ailing villager being transported to hospital. “I suggested we dress him up as a bride instead,” jokes logistic officer Qais Meherezad, “but he was not very open to this idea.”
For Afghan staff, conditions were even more brutal. Last year, two truck drivers ferrying diesel to the site were executed and then beheaded by Obe-based Taliban commander Abdul Rahman, in what’s reputed to have been the outcome of a dispute over protection money gone wrong.
S P Nair, who had the dangerous job of laying over 500 pylons to transport power to Herat, says the job would have been impossible if it wasn’t for Afghan security forces, who lost over 50 lives, sometimes knowing they were deliberately giving up their lives to keep Indian staff safe.
“Every few days,” he recalls, “there would be firing from somewhere or the other, sometimes from one side of the ridge, and sometimes on our teams working out in the open. The workers showed amazing courage by sticking to their jobs, and the least I could do was stay out there with them.”
Local transport contractors sometimes made their own deals, spawning something of a private sector industry. Haji Saeed Wali, who could not be contacted for this article, left his job as a driver and decided to set up a militia, providing security services to dam-linked contractors.
His business, paid for by small fees from truckers and suppliers, has allowed Wali to develop into one of the Chisht-i-Sharif’s two major pro-government warlords, along with Mullah Muhammad Mustafa, who controls the ranges around the reservoir.
The third side, downstream, is still vulnerable to the Taliban, and though Herat is relatively safe compared to other parts of Afghanistan, violence isn’t unknown in the region. Friday saw the Herat garrison’s small fleet of four military helicopters ferrying over a dozen dead and injured soldiers from Ghor.
“I’m going to switch over for ground rocket attacks in Ghor right after I’ve dropped you back,” says pilot Toryelai Azizi. “For people like me, this war is 24/7, all year around.”
There’s hope, though, that Salma might just mark a change in the fortunes of the Moinuddin Chishti’s cradle. Italy has committed funds to hard-top the road from Chisht-i-Sharif to Herat, and to link the city by rail to Iran — opening up new opportunities for the giant marble quarries known to exist in the Ghor mountains.
Irrigation, power and transport could also give the region’s famous fruits and nuts access to markets.
“The young people in my village, they asked why our land should be submerged for the dam,” said Sufi Zafran. “I told them I sacrificed my youth to bombing things and burning them, and thus I gave them the life they have. Their sacrifice, I told them, would bring us something better.”