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Sunday, February 28, 2021

42 Diaries From the Frontline

Afghan diplomat Masood Khalili on chronicling life in the time of war, a near-death experience and the future of Afghanistan.

Written by Sameer Arshad Khatlani |
Updated: April 30, 2017 12:01:57 am
Looking war in the eye: Masood Khalili traversed the length of Afghanistan for nine year, and wrote 42 diaries along the way, now published in the form of a book. (Source: Express photo by Arvind Yadav)

Afghan diplomat Masood Khalili had enrolled for PhD after finishing his master’s degree from Delhi University, when communists seized power in Kabul in April 1978. His father, iconic poet and academic Khalilullah, called him from Baghdad, where he was the Afghan ambassador, to break the news. He warned Khalili that the communists had come and Russians will follow. “Go get your PhD from the mountains of Afghanistan,’’ Khalilullah told his 28-year-old son. Khalili immediately left Delhi to join Afghan rebels as a political officer in Peshawar, before entering Afghanistan.

Khalilullah’s fears came true the following year when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Khalili responded by crisscrossing the country, mostly on his donkey, for the next nine years to mobilise Afghans against the occupiers. In between dodging bullets, the red army and KGB, Khalili made it a point to maintain diaries addressed to his wife, Sohaillah, who lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan with their son, Mahmood. By the end of the war, he had written 42 such diaries, now published in the form of a book, Whispers of War (Sage Publications; Rs 375): “I was writing sometime every hour (about) the plight, suffering, fears, faith, lament, laughter and above all the hope of the people.’’ he told The Indian Express.

Three decades on, little has changed in Afghanistan, with the Taliban controlling around 35 per cent territory, according to a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report. Khalili, 66, says candidly, “We were not able to create honest leadership. We have a president, ministers, ambassadors; but no leaders.’’ Looking back, he says that the Afghans won against the Soviets but eventually lost because they lacked vision. “Interference from Pakistan was quick. At that time, Iran was also helping them and Uzbekistan,’’ he says, adding, “We were in another kind of war; a war imposed on us and then the Taliban came after five years. Then the NATO forces… 9/11, and that is going on until now.’’

But Khalili, who served in India as ambassador and is now the Afghan ambassador to Spain, remains hopeful and has his hopes pinned on the new generation.

“We have got after 16 years (of the Taliban government’s fall) a really strong, new generation. I am expecting leadership from them.’’

Though Khalili emerged unscathed in the anti-Soviet war, he was almost killed when two suicide bombers assassinated Afghan Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001. He hovered between life and death for months in Tajikistan and Germany, with hundreds of shrapnel lodged in his body, and partial loss of vision. “When the doctor saw my X-ray, he went, ‘Ah, it looks beautiful,’ All kinds of poetic things he said: ‘It looks like a night with thousands of stars, all these shrapnel’.’’

Khalili survived but never really overcame the blow of losing Massoud, whom he looked up to as a visionary and fearless leader. He recalled chatting with Massoud until the midnight before his assassination. “He was talking about Al Qaida and Taliban. He was besieged (in his stronghold of Panjsher Valley). Maybe, around him (there were) two to three thousand Taliban,’’ he recalled. But he told Khalili that he does not care because people are with him.

Together, they recited the poetry of legendary Persian poet Hafez, someone Massoud loved.

Khalili was sitting barely a metre from Massoud when the suicide bombers, posing as an interviewer and a cameraman, struck. The attackers had persisted for close to 14 days to get an appointment with Massoud. “Commander (Massoud) said sorry (to them) for making them wait for 14 days. He was a humble man.’’

Khalili recalled that the attackers had 15 questions, including eight about Osama bin Laden. They wanted to know why Massoud was against Laden etc.

“The Commander did not like the questions (but) said okay now you start.’’ Khalili had just murmured something into Massoud’s ear when the attackers blew themselves up. “I think I saw blue fire and the hand of the commander; then I was unconscious.’’ Two months later, the Taliban were decimated following the American invasion after 9/11, with the help of Massoud’s loyalists.

The news about Taliban’s fall was a bittersweet experience for Khalili, as he lay on his hospital bed. The victory was not the same without Massoud. “We were not as close when we first met because I was older to him (and) more educated.” He recalled Massoud’s keenness to return to Afghanistan in 1978. He believed people needed local leaders. “I did not know the meaning (of leadership) very well. So, he had a kind of vision. He was always a man with faith, vision and honesty. We were making mistakes everyday but he was the one who tried not to repeat them,” says Khalili. He says that Massoud always had a plan of action and emphasised on praying to God but also being with people. Sadly, the people were not fortunate enough to have the Lion of Panjsher with them at a time when they needed him the most.

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