Village in eye of the storm
Bazarak, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan
In this tree-lined village halfway up the Panjshir Valley, the war seems far away. Farmers thresh knee-deep mounds of ripened wheat with teams of plodding bullocks. Shawled young women, carefully concealing their dark beauty from passing strangers, harvest stalks of oat and barley in terraced fields. Shopkeepers offer baskets of fresh melons, grapes, and tomatoes in the village bazaar, while scampering schoolboys steal apples and peaches from irrigated roadside orchards.
"Last year the Russians destroyed much of our harvest through bombings," said Massoud,the young resistance leader of the Panjshir Valley. "WE only hope that we can gather enough food this year &gt;Please turn to Page 12&gt; &gt;Continued from Page 1&gt; in case they attack again."
The shattered remains of houses, mosques, and schools -- as well as the twisted wrecks of Russian tanks and trucks -- are grim reminders of the repeated communist onslaughts that swept through the Panjshir in the early days of the Soviet occupation. But the Afghans here have succeeded in establishing a surprisingly normal existence despite the constant threat of further attack.
Throughout this winding 70-mile-long valley hemmed in by the rising mountains of the lower Hindu Kush, the Panjshir's estimated 80,000 primarily Tadjik inhabitants have demonstrated their determination to resist what they consider to be the "infidel" repression of the Soviet-backed Kabul regime.
Freshly plastered mud walls and brightly colored window frames of reconstructed houses emerge among the ruins. Strings of young boys sit in the shade of walnut trees reciting Koranic verse or scrawling arithmetic problems on black slates. (At least a dozen primary schools have recently reopened in the valley.)
At the French-operated hospital of the Paris-based Aide Medicale Internationale (AIM), mothers are taught to provide their children with balanced diets in order to reduce the semimalnutrition that pervades much of Afghanistan.
Despite the physical blockade of the Panjshir by a 6-foot-high communist-built wall across the mouth of the valley, the Afghans here still manage to keep themselves replenished with goods from the outside world.
The local bazaar stalls sell not only locally grown produce ranging from eggs to beef and string beans, but also imported flashlights, cigarettes, chewing gum , biscuits, cotton fabrics, and even transistor radios. Other forms of basic commerce such as bicycle repair shops, shoemakers, and tailors continue to give the valley a sense of functioning normality.
A constant stream of horse and mule caravans as well as foot travelers and merchants trek the mountain paths leading out of the valley to supply the Panjshiris with goods from both Kabul and Pakistan.
Battered buses and repainted Army trucks regularly ply the potholed dirt road that runs the length of the valley.In the event of an assault, local residents can mine the road effectively at short notice. Gasoline is taken from attacked Russian convoys and transported in cannisters into the Panjshir.
Massoud, too, has a captured Russian jeep that serves as his command vehicle. The jeep enables him to keep in touch not only with villages up and down the Panjshir, but also with battle zones near the mouth of the valley.
Although he can no longer afford to engage in active combat, Massoud insists on visiting the "front" every few days to review conditions, talk to his men, and plan strategy. He considers it important to maintain close contact with the local population and regularly stops to chat with inhabitants along the way.
The ingenuity of the Afghan resistance to exploit whatever happens to be available cannot fail to impress. Heavy weapons from destroyed communist helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and tanks are immediately dismantled and carried back. They are then repaired and reoutfitted by local mechanics.
At one hidden mujahideen base overlooking a narrow mountain gorge, this correspondent was shown a rocket pod from a downed helicopter. The local guerrilla commander, a former Afghan Army officer, explained that although the resistance lacked the proper firing equipment, they could easily make do with a set of batteries and two connecting wires.
As for another more readily available Russian projectile fired from a special launching mechanism, the commander took a hammer and without ado struck it on its base. Despite the crude firing mechanism, a loud explosion among the rocks on the other side of the gorge attested to its efficiency.
Few inhabitants of the Panjshir Valley have sought refuge in Pakistan. But many live and work in overcrowded Kabul. A small minority, mainly government officials and intellectuals, left because their Communist Party affiliations made them vulnerable to reprisals if they stayed in the valley. Others went because bombardments had destroyed their homes.But the majority left to seek work.
"This is a major problem. The war has left many people unemployed," explained Mira Budin, a high school student now engaged as a volunteer male nurse at the AMI hospital. Educated at the French-language Lycee Istiqlal in Kabul, he was forced to leave at the beginning of this year because of communist attempts to press-gang young men into the Army even before they finished their baccalaureates. "In my home village up to half the families or part of their families have gone," Mira says. Remittances are sent back to support relatives.
The war has disrupted the studies of many other students. Mujahideen ranks in the panjshir boast a large number of educated young men. The women are less visible, but this correspondent was assured that some are active in the resistance here.
Many students speak of their former teachers, some of them American or British, and dream of eventually returning to high school or university to continue their studies.
"But the tragedy is that this fighting could go on for years," observed Muhammed Yahya, a veterinary student. "When peace comes, we will have a desperate need for trained and educated people."
To a certain extent, the Panjshir Valley is run like a semiautonomous state dominated by the Jamiat-i-Islami, one of the seven major Afghan resistance groups. The valley's political ties with the Peshawar-based organization, however, are loose and undefined with much of the decisionmaking influenced by Massoud.
The resistance council in the Panjshir operates its own finance office to collect taxes, a cultural and propaganda office to deal with information, and a defense office to coordinate guerrilla activities.
Ironically, in a strong, traditional society that used to be governed by venerable tribal chiefs, feudal lords, or mullahs, an increasing number of the guerrilla leaders are young, educated men like Massoud.
And a surprising number of the aging traditional leaders have shown themselves wiling to accept and respect these guerrillas instead of the Marxist-inspired intellectuals and administrators of the Khalq (People's Party) or Parcham (Banner Party) who tried to force their will on the country.
Not anyone can join the fighting mujahideen. "We have to be selective," Massoud says. "First, we have not got enough weapons. Second, we have to ensure that enough people are available to run the economy, the farms, and the administration. There is a role for everyone. But if it really comes to the crunch, then everyone will be ready to fight. during the last Russian offensives we had women firing guns at the enemy."
Although the small handful of antiaircraft guns that have been strategically placed around the valley's more heavily populated areas provide a greater sense of security than a year ago, the prospect of devasting Soviet bombardments remains a constant worry for the resistance.
Every morning like clockwork during this correspondent's visit to the Panjshir, a pair of Russian MIG jets from an airbase to the north roared toward the Kabul plain, where Afghan guerrillas had been struggling to hold back the Soviet Union's fourth attempt to take the valley. But they flew high and the locals scarcely raised an eyebrow as they passed.
"If they dare come in, we'll shoot them down," proclaimed Haji Saddadim, a prominent Bazarak citizen, in a thundering voice.
Despite such open confidence, residents have hidden emergency caches of food and other supplies. They have built stone shelters and dug caves in the Panjshir's rugged side Valleys.The French doctors have also made contingency plans to quickly evacuate patients and set up relief operations in the mountains.
What the resistance feared might happen appeared to materialize this month. Despite the failure of the most recent offensive, there were reportedly heavy bombardments in some parts and numerous Afghans were forced to seek refuge in the mountains. [After correspondent Girardet left the region, Soviet and Afghan forces briefly occupied Bazarak and the neighboring village of Ruka but were then forced to retreat, say diplomatic sources monitored by Reuters in New Delhi ].
But Islamic resistance fighters as well as local residents made clear to this correspondent their determination to persevere: "Even if they destroy everything , we will keep on fighting, for we have something which the Russians have not got: faith."
Next: Keeping supply lines open to the outside world.