On the outskirts of Kabul, far from the dust, smoke and pollution kicked up by military convoys, impromptu Taliban assaults and the always-gridlocked traffic, 30 unlikely fellows share a sanatorium.
They are almost all former fighters who battled for the Taliban or for various ethnic militias during the 1980s and 1990s. Once fierce enemies, their hatred for each other has been tempered over time by personal tragedies. At different times and in different battles, rockets or bullets crippled each of the residents of Arayeshgahe Falja. In an instant, their lives were transformed through wounds that caused the loss of mobility. “The sun rises, the sun sets, and most likely we’ll still be here,” one said.
Dressed in long white, shroud-like shalwar khameez and wheelchair-bound, these men remain as large and fearsome as in their heyday. They lift weights and race their wheelchairs, or steal off into private corners to call their “girlfriends” on battered Nokia mobile phones, women they have often never met whose inviting voices and unseeing eyes are ideal partners for telephone romance. Their paralysis tethers them to a subtle vanity. They trim their whiskers and comb their beards or the cropped locks spilling out from under their skullcaps or flat pakol hats. Most sleep in two dormitory-style rooms cluttered with wheelchair spare parts, back supports and simmering pots of tea.
“We’d like some chess sets,” said Hajji Kerim, a former mujaheddin, “and new wheelchairs that will allow us to do sports and race.”
Surrounded in their lonely retreat by songbirds in cages, they may be cut off from the outside world but they do not lose sight of its politics, or of their former comrades. One of them has just signaled by cell phone that he arrived in England after a yearlong journey across Asia and Europe. In the imaginations of these men who never once set foot beyond Pakistan, the old imperial power Britain is a sea-ravaged rocky fortress of an island, battered by clouds more leaden than the darkest Kabul snowstorm and waves blacker than the richest kohl eyeliner. Despite being one-legged, their comrade limped to England across the European continent with the help of smugglers.
In one dormitory, a battered television takes pride of place, balanced on a cardboard box stuffed with cartons of cheap Korean cigarettes. They can afford little on their 600 Afghani ($12) monthly government stipend and the television is their window on the world. Through it, they follow with silent intensity the war’s daily progress. As NATO Humvees and helicopters parade on the screen, their minds flash back to earlier battles.
“No one does something for altruism; everyone has their own benefit to think of and the Westerners are no different,” said Hamidullah Hamidi, a teacher of religious texts and self-confessed former member of the Taliban. “That is why so many people have become shaheeds [martyrs] trying to eject them from Afghanistan.”
“But please don’t take me to Guantanamo for telling you these things,” he said, inducing scattered chortles among the assembly of wheelchair-bound residents clustered around.
The weedy garden paths lead to the little room inhabited by the men’s spiritual leader, a former Taliban imam who says his name is Hafiz Abdul Qari (which literally translates as “Memorizer, the Slave of Recitation”). It is a telling comment on the separation between ethnic and religious politics in Afghanistan that former mujahedeen see no inconsistency in accepting a Taliban imam to lead them in prayer.
Three hardcover volumes of a Pashto-language religious text are stacked next to where Abdul Qari, a slight man, lies in bed fully dressed. His face conveys suspicion as he sits propped up on two pillows facing an immobile electric fan that wards away the heat during the summer months. Initially, Abdul Qari does not want to discuss his Taliban days, or even admit to them. But gradually he opens up, saying that he studied in Afghan and Pakistani seminaries before joining the Taliban movement in 1994. As an imam, his purpose was to strengthen the troops’ faith and morale as they sought to extend Taliban control across the country. Two years later he was wounded as Taliban forces stormed Kabul’s Presidential Palace.
“Having suffered so much by the previous commanders who carried out so many crimes in this city of Kabul, true crimes against humanity, the people were happy to see us,” Abdul Qari reminisces.
After the fall of the Taliban, he watched some of his former comrades enter the new government and denounce the old order. He was arrested by the new government but bought his way out of prison. “The ones who will be most radically set against making peace with the Taliban are my former comrades, because they know they were the greatest traitors and will be punished the most,” Abdul Qari says.
“From the perspective of Islam, Afghans have a special culture that doesn’t accept foreigners,” Hamidi, the religious teacher, chimes in. It is a gracious way to say that Westerners are not welcome. “I think that the Taliban can come back to power if the current government stops receiving help from the foreigners,” Abdul Qari adds. “But whether that happens or not, isn’t so important. As a Muslim, I want a government that imposes and holds up Muslim values and laws.”
Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist.