A short walk up the Panjshir

Mujahideen guides took us to the northernmost part of the Panjshir Valley. All photos: LISA CHOEGYAL

Kids playing on rusted tanks abandoned by the retreating Russians, war debris comfortably incorporated into stone walls to contain sheep and goats, and flickering green flags of the martyrs’ graves, too many graves, under a cloudless sky.

These are the enduring images of the Panjshir Valley, wild flowers, willows and orchards lining the clear streams beneath the grand arc of barren hillsides, rocks and caves used to hide the resistance fighters loyal to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary ‘Lion of Panjshir’.

Nestled deep within the Hindu Kush, Massoud’s faithful foot soldiers, the fierce unforgiving geography and its defendable narrow entrance enabled the Panjshir Valley to hold out against waves of invasions — the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. 

In 2001, just two days before the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York, the revered commander of the former Northern Alliance, lover of poetry and mujahideen leader was targeted by al Qaeda and the Taliban, assassinated by a bomb detonated by two Arabs posing as journalists in one of his Panjshir forts. This week, it will be 20 years since his assassination and the 9/11 attacks that brought American retaliation on al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan.

‘More than five years after his assassination Massoud remains a national hero to many Afghans,’ Time magazine wrote in 2006. 'Passengers at Kabul airport are greeted by a mural of him standing several stories high. Massoud’s place in history is assured by the fact that he was arguably the most brilliant practitioner of guerrilla warfare in the late 20th century.’ 

High praise in a country where rebel insurgency has been honed into an art form over the turbulent centuries.

These Panjshir fields and villages are currently holding out against the Taliban’s otherwise successful swoop throughout Afghanistan, the last stand for freedom in a nation gripped with uncertainty and fear, tribal recriminations and revenge that have festered over the past twenty years. This time the young Ahmad Massoud has stepped into his famous father’s shoes to lead the resistance from their Panjshir stronghold.

Panjshir Valley lies in the northeast of Afghanistan, and in October 2005 we travelled through it to the furthest northern border in search of trekking and tourism ideas that would benefit local homeowners, guides, horsemen and crafts people. My hopeful notes show that our suggestions included Afghan village guesthouses, the Mir Samir trek ‘a short walk in the Hindu Kush’, a five-day hike ‘in the footsteps of Massoud’ circuit, visitor information, and a saddlebag and blanket weaving enterprise.

One of the issues to overcome in rural Afghanistan was to persuade our hosts that they must charge money for tourist services. So powerful are the traditions of hospitality (‘guest is god’), sharing what little they have, that taking payment for what we consider normal tourism services such as meals, accommodation and guiding was an alien concept which they struggled to accept.

“Your visit here was at a time when there was hope and great expectations for the country,” remembers Ali Azimi, our Asian Development Bank client and an Afghan American with deep-rooted insider networks within the community. 

In Kabul he always seemed to know when and where there would be trouble, much better informed than the United Nations security system who was nominally responsible for us. He insisted on accompanying me to Panjshir to help “find ways to put money in pockets of village folks through tourism initiatives”.

As we drove out of town in a large white vehicle bristling with antenna and aerials, we failed to feel an earthquake which shook the city. Leaving behind the acrid fragrance of war, Ali Azimi morphed from his usual persona of a neatly-bearded grey-suited ADB executive into the country’s ubiquitous flowing robes of anonymity. 

I tried, no doubt less successfully, to blend in with scarves and shalwar kameez. It was Ramadan, the time of fasting, but as travellers the rules did not strictly apply. ‘Mobile sex’ was the SUV’s call sign, but Ali was happy to lose contact once the signal weakened in the countryside, preferring to rely on local knowledge of his Panjshir guides, hand-picked former mujahedin of course, who joined us soon after entering the valley.

These fighters were hard-core, the trauma of years of mountain combat etched into their weathered faces and wild eyes. They prayed at every shrine, honoured every grave, showed us their hideouts, revealed their hunting trails, took us into their homes, unrolled their carpets, shared their food, played with their children, and talked with urgent low voices on flat mud roofs under the stars in Dari which I could not understand. 

It all made sense when Ali explained that our two mujahideen friends were Massoud’s personal bodyguards, his most trusted elite, still haunted by the guilt of the day they waited outside their commander’s room having admitted the ‘journalists’ with a deadly device concealed in the television camera.

Part of the TRC Tourism team of Kiwi and Nepali consultants, we worked in Afghanistan for ADB and the Aga Khan Development Network on three missions in 2005, 2006 and 2008 that included Kabul, Bamyan, Band-i-Amir lakes, Wakhan Corridor and the Panjshir Valley. Ali wrote recently: ‘You will be pleased to know your recommended ecotourism policy is being practiced in Band-i-Amir.’ 

Most of all we remember the harsh beauty of the landscape, the unexpected warmth of its people caught in an eternal loop of historical conflict, and hearing the chilling tales of horror under Taliban rule.

Twice we arranged for groups of Afghan officials and tour operators to visit Nepal’s ecotourism models in 2009 and 2011, including the governor of Bamyan, Hariba Sarabi, a remarkable Hazara woman who was part of the Doha peace talks. 

The Nepal trips to study sustainable tourism were led by my New Zealand-funded Bamyan ecotourism project colleague, Amir Foladi. The work included a visitor centre dedicated to the remains of the Buddhas of Bamyan, carefully collected by UNESCO. 

Foladi showed me tragic metal pieces from the explosives that destroyed these 6th century monumental statues in 2001, still embedded amidst the mud and plaster fragments which are all that is left - except the massive blank empty niches.

Throughout the catastrophic drama of last week’s departure following the Taliban takeover, it is impossible not to mourn for an Afghanistan that might have been. The progress over the last two decades, however imperfect, is dissipated. Particularly the fate of women is desperately unclear.

One ray of light amidst the grief and despair of the withdrawal is that my friend Foladi and his ecotourism teammates have arrived in Auckland, six Afghan families evacuated to safety through the chaos of Kabul airport by the New Zealand Defence Force just 24 hours before the fatal bomb. They are the lucky ones, so many left behind to face a frighteningly unreliable future.

Lisa Choegyal


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