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Whispers of War: a heart-wrenching tale of freedom & hope in times of strife

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 8 April 2017, 20:42 IST

Masood Khalili's 'Whispers of war – An Afghan Freedom Fighter's Account of the Soviet Invasion' is the journey of a young resistance fighter on horseback, on foot, with mules and donkeys, to meet the legendary Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

It begins in Chitral in Pakistan in July 1986, and goes on to Panjshir, Baghlan, Takhar, Badkashan and ends in Kunar in September of that year.

Khalili's is an insider's account of a war-torn society, the search for a revolution, and a fervent hope for freedom from Soviet occupation and a better tomorrow.

He writes his diary as letters to his wife Sohailla. ln his first diary entry  the poet and the peacenik in Khalili justifies the war for liberation to his wife:

“Thinking of going to war, I hate my long journey ahead, but when I think that I am a part of a liberation war, I appreciate it because I had learnt from my father that mercy to the wolf is cruelty to the lamb. Leaving the wolf free deprives the lamb of its freedom. For me, fighting the war for freedom is a way of rejecting the war itself. Tell me: Is there any other way to gain freedom from the clutches of a powerful and cruel enemy but war? I wish there was.”

A heart full of love

Khalili makes a promise to his wife:

“I will do my best to take you along with me, base-to-base, village-to-village, pass-to-pass, river-to-river, mountain-to-mountain, and even heart-to-heart. I shall hear many things, unpredictable and unprecedented. After all, listening to the stories of the common people requires a lot of patience.”

And he keeps to that promise. While he fills his notebook with stories for his wife, he is also filling his heart with love – for his wife, his children and for the Afghan people he encounters. With an empty heart, this would have been a meaningless and aimless journey.

He recounts his conversations with farmers, refugees, ordinary village folk, children, resistance fighters, horsemen, mule drivers and the ever-changing Afghan landscape. Khalili travels with meagre resources and is helpless in dealing with the immediate problems of the people he meets. He instead pours his sorrow into his diaries.

He writes about how people cope with death, mutilation, ill-health and poverty, as they fight for liberation from Soviet occupation. There is a particularly moving episode of a father carrying his adult son on his back for treatment over a mountain pass. Only after the pass is crossed does he start to wail and his co-travellers realise that the father had kept his son's death a secret on the upward climb so as not to demoralise others.

A radio to drown out the gunfire

Khalili writes his diaries sitting in makeshift shelters, caves and roadside teashops – sometimes daily, and sometimes once in five days. However, he rarely writes about himself. It's all about the people he meets: someone wants to buy a radio for his fiancée; someone is distributing bread as khyraat or charity on being blessed with boy; someone stones Khalili's horse to keep it from grazing on her vegetables, and yet others want to go to jail with their loved ones because they have been taken prisoners by the resistance forces.

From a teashop in Nooristan he writes:

“By the way, I am writing down these adventures from the roadside tea tent of Abdul Jabbar. He is a good man. He told me he would get married soon. He is around 22 years old. He did not know his age. I just guessed. The girl whom he will marry is one of his cousins. I asked him what he really wants to buy for her if he could.

“He scratched his neck and said, 'A radio'.

“I laughed loudly and asked him, 'Why a radio?'

“He responded, 'Lala (big brother), it is very difficult for you to understand. If she had a radio, she would sit on a big rock and listen to Hindi songs without any worry or problem. The freedom fighters only know boom-boom and that is it.

“I laughed to myself at his description of gunfire but I knew he was not totally right because this is a war and with war, you will always have boom-boom. Hopefully we can end it sooner than later.”

'Live like an eagle, even if for one night'

He describes himself on the hard journey:

“My dear, just a minute ago, I saw a mirror. Do not ask me to write how I look. I look more than horrible. The skin on my cheeks and on my nose has come off and looks awful. My head is injured. My beard is dirty and full of everything, even dead flies. My hair is indescribable. My eyebrows have become at least four times heavier than before with dirty mud. My lips are swollen. My eyes look like black eggs. My eyelashes are sticking to each other like spider webs and my ears seem like two frozen mice.”

He describes the mountains, valleys, trees, flowers and the birds of Afghanistan in great detail not forgetting to tell what his father had told him – “Son, live like an eagle, even if it is for one night. Do not live like a crow even if it is for 100 years.”

His descriptions of ordinary folk are entertaining and insightful, like the maulvi who “has a special way of looking at the ceiling while talking.”

He describes their clothes, their health and their idiosyncrasies in great detail. He does not spare even his wife's granduncle, called Kaka Malik or Uncle Malik who he tells his wife “is not at all crazy but also not entirely of this planet”.

The old man flies into a rage when Humayoon, a visiting representative of the resistance based in Paris, tells him that he hopes to bring foreign tourists to his beautiful village after the war was over.

“Kaka Malik being a very traditional, religious person, did not seek to attract any foreign tourists, raised the hem of his shirt and showed his private parts to Humayoon and said, “Oh yea? Why don't you take a picture of this right now and show it to them, instead of waiting for so long?"

Two pencils for the whole class

Khalili records the deprivation around him:

“There are no shops. Here people have no schools, no hospital, no clinics, no roads, no grocery stores, no postman, no bakery, no barber, no butcher, no electricity, no proper water channels, no transportation, no telephones, and no administration. People also do not expect much.”

And he is moved to tears when he visits a school in Sabz Dara village, in Badakshan.

“After lunch I went to visit a boys' school of this village. They were sitting under a big old poplar tree. I tied my donkey to a rusted nail on its giant trunk. The boys were of 10 to 12 years of age. They were excited, but I did not know of what, my donkey or myself. It was again a painful sight to see. Blood fills one's eyes seeing the poverty of these boys. Their shoes, their shirts, and their overall appearance were very poor. Some of them were barefoot. Their clothes were full of patches.

“My dear, now listen to what happened while I was in the small and poor class.

“I proudly told the cute boys, 'Write azadee or freedom for me'.

“Only two boys started writing.

“I abruptly asked the teacher, 'Why are only two of the boys able to write'?

“While poor eyes of the boys were focused on me, in a soft voice, the teacher said, 'Mr Khalili, they can all write but in the whole class we have just two pencils'.

“I was ashamed of my question.

“My dear, when we gain our freedom, it will not only be with the barrels of guns, firing their thousands of bullets at the enemy, but also with tips of those two pens. I pray that one day millions of kids have schools to attend and endless pencils to write.”

Gentler side of a guerilla commander

The book reveals the gentler side of the 'Lion of Panjshir', Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Can you imagine a guerilla commander in the middle of Soviet bombardment telling his friend and Political Officer: “In the next few days, we will have sufficient time to talk about war and politics but for now, Khalili Sahib, let us read poetry. That is what relaxes us and fills our heart with joy. Politics never ends, life does. Let us take care of the second first.”

A brief conversation between the author and Commander Massoud in the book sums up the problem of Afghanistan today.

Khalili asks Massoud about what would happen once the war against the Soviets had been won. Massoud replies: “It will not be easy at all. Every post-war situation is harder than even the war itself, especially in Afghanistan with its strategically difficult location. Undoubtedly the fight for freedom is difficult but when you finally win freedom, you need stability and stronger leadership.”

Unfortunately, Al Qaeda assassinated this great leader of Afghanistan. With the turmoil created by the Taliban, one wonders when Afghanistan will get such political leadership so that it is peaceful once again and the heart of its people is filled with poetry and joy.

First published: 8 April 2017, 20:42 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.