HERAT, Afghanistan — The elderly guide warned the visitors not to take flash photographs of the gracefully displayed weaponry on the first floor of Herat’s jihad museum.
“They have not yet been defused,” he explained, pointing towards the delicate spirals of grenades, bullets and small rockets in the glass cases. “They could explode.”
The same volatility pervades the entire exhibit, a shrine to the mujaheddin who fought and defeated the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980s, a period known as the "jihad," or "struggle."
Anyone familiar with the popular film “Charlie Wilson’s War” knows the broad outlines of the tale: A plucky band of warriors, armed only with their courage and about $2 billion in military assistance from the United States, brought the Soviet giant to its knees.
But, like the movie, this soon-to-opened museum in Afghanistan’s second largest city is as much about myth as it is about reality.
Conceived in early 2002, just months after the routing of the Taliban, the multi-million-dollar complex is the brainchild of Ismail Khan, who at the time was the all-powerful governor of Herat and known among both admirers and critics as the “Emir of the West.”
It is a circular, domed structure, lined on the outside with 700 marble plaques, each containing the names of three “shahid,” or martyrs. The grounds around the building display helicopters, anti-aircraft guns, even an airplane used in the fight against the Soviets.
In addition to weaponry, the museum features portraits of the fallen, photographs of jihadi heroes, letters and other memorabilia, along with a vast, panoramic display made up of dozens of meticulously fashioned figures acting out the events in Herat on March 15, 1979 that helped kick off the first Afghan war.
It is known, according to the Afghan solar calendar, as “24 Hoot,” the day when a group of Heratis revolted against the Soviet-backed communist central government. They were soon joined by a mutinous army division, which raised the heat considerably.
The government responded with a fierce bombing campaign that killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians. The guide insists that 26,000 Heratis died in one week, but the figure has never been substantiated.
The Herat uprising is thought to be one of the major precipitating factors in the Soviet decision to invade the country in December 1979, an event whose consequences are still being played out today.
In the highly charged context of 2009, the echoes are all too familiar: a puppet government, a foreign invasion, a siren call to defend Islam against an outside threat. Today’s Taliban even use the same terminology: they call themselves mujaheddin — holy warriors — and their fight against the western “occupiers” is known as “jihad.”
Ismail Khan was a key figure in the 1979 uprising, and he stars in the museum’s recreated scenes in which he is always armed with his walkie talkie, his famous beard turning from black to white as the years wear on.
Khan can claim a right to impose his presence on the museum: He paid for a lot of it, according to Sayed Abdul Wahab Qitali, a former jihadi commander who is responsible for overseeing the museum’s completion.
“Ismail Khan received 50 million Afghani ($1 million) from the central government, but when that ran out he funded it from his own pocket,” Qitali said.
Qitali’s describes the museum as a monument to sacrifice.
“We made this collection to honor and immortalize the sons of this land who gave their lives to save their territory and Islam,” he said.
But after beating the Soviets in 1989, the mujaheddin began to squabble among themselves, tearing the country apart and destroying the capital in a vicious civil war.
Major warlords and minor commanders set up individual fiefdoms where they could rule as they liked, unleashing such a campaign of terror and corruption that much of the country hailed the Taliban as saviors when they took over in 1996.
This period has been conveniently overlooked in Herat’s museum, as has one of the central figures of the anti-Soviet jihad, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Hekmatyar received the lion’s share of U.S. assistance during the 1980s, and his Hezb-i-Islami fighters were the mainstay of the resistance.
But Hekmatyar and his warriors are nowhere to be seen in the photo collection. The guide reacts brusquely to a question about the oversight.
“Hekmatyar is a bad person,” he said. “He is responsible for all of the destruction.”
Fair enough — Hekmatyar is now regarded as a terrorist by the United States and is spearheading a major effort against foreign troops in Afghanistan. His rabid xenophobia and regressive positions on women are unlikely to win him many friends.
But Hekmatyar was not alone in wreaking havoc. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the powerful jihadi commander who is known, variously, as “Afghanistan’s National Hero,” “the Lion of the Panjshir,” or “the fox of Kabul,” was Hekmatyar’s fiercest opponent during the civil war years, and between them they nearly reduced Kabul to a pile of rubble.
The Taliban put an end to the fight, conquering Kabul and most of the rest of the country, driving Massoud into his native Panjshir Valley and Hekmatyar into exile in Iran.
Massoud was assassinated Sept. 9, 2001 by Al Qaeda agents posing as journalists.
Now, a decade later, the Herat museum seeks to identify the winners and losers in Afghanistan’s hopelessly muddled history, and to restore the jihadi commanders to their former glory.
“The civil war was never solved politically,” said a western diplomat, speaking privately.
Instead, it left scars on the national psyche that will take years to heal. Human rights groups within Afghanistan and abroad have called for those responsible for the worst excesses of the civil war years to be brought to justice.
But many of the jihadi commanders are now firmly back in power, and in 2007 the parliament passed a law protecting the mujaheddin from prosecution for war crimes.
Monuments like Herat’s jihad museum are not likely to salve the nation’s wounds. Instead, it raises indignation among those who are trying to forge a new national identity.
“I have nothing but respect for the jihad, which defeated a superpower and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said one young Afghan, speaking privately after viewing the collection in Herat. “But I admire that barefoot Afghan who left his home and, with nothing, not even bread to eat, fought bravely against a major military nation. I have no respect for those jihadi commanders who traded in the blood of their fellow countrymen, and who used their power to buy themselves a comfortable life.”
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