National Geographic - 100 Best Pictures
StoriesAfghanistanSicilyBeautyPersian Gulf
Read All About It
Along Afghanistan's War-Torn Frontier
Photo: unknown Afghan refugee girl

I WILL NEVER KNOW this woman's name.  Among Afghan villagers it is the
villagers it is the custom for women not to tell their names to strangers. On this cold November night she is busily preparing food for the six mujahidin, Afghan freedom fighters, who have escorted me across the Pakistani border to Afghanistan’s embattled Paktia Province and into this small village in the Jaji region.

But in the darkness and snows of December, sometime around the fifth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, she will give birth to her tenth child. If the child comes in the safety of the night, it will be born here, in this earthen house warmed by an iron stove. If her baby comes in the day, she is likely to be in the damp bomb shelter hewn into the ground under the fields outside the village, her birth pangs accompanied, perhaps, by the roar of jets and bombs.

She pauses to pour me a glass of steaming black tea. “When the planes come, I can’t run very fast to the bomb shelter any more,” she says. “I am too big and heavy. What can I do?” She speaks in a lilting accent, the rhythms of her native Pashtu carrying over into the Dari, or Afghan Persian, that she learned in Kabul before the war.

Few families remain in this region, where frequent bombings have destroyed both villages and crops as the Russians attempt to close this important route to the interior. Most of those who remain share food and shelter with the mujahidin (“holy warriors”) who pass through, many from across the frontier in Pakistan.

When an April 1978 coup brought a Marxist regime to power in Kabul, armed resistance began within months. The conflict was both nationalistic and religious, but devout Muslims regarded it as a jihad, or holy war. By December 1979 the central government was in danger of collapse, and in a three-day operation beginning on Christmas Eve, thousands of Soviet troops invaded the country, claiming to have been invited under the terms of a 1978 friendship treaty. While the invasion was still in press, President Hafizullah Amin was executed and replaced by Babrak Karmal, a political rival Moscow summoned back from Czechoslovakia, where he had been sent as Afghan ambassador.

Soviet troops, estimated at about 80,000 in 1980, now number more than 100,000. They have mounted frequent offensives to stamp out resistance, at great cost in lives to Afghan civilians. The economy has also been damaged. The 1984 harvest in eastern Afghanistan was less than half that of 1978, and prices of many staple foods have tripled.

BUT THE MOST VISIBLE effect of the war has been the flight of the Afghan people, a multilingual population of mixed tribes and ethnic groups, from their homeland. One-quarter of Afghanistan’s prewar population of about 15 million has been forced into exile in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. At least another million are “internal refugees,” driven from their homes by bombing and other military action. An unknown number have been killed or wounded.

After more than five years the war remains in a violent stalemate. The mujahidin claim to control as much as 80 percent of the countryside, while Soviet troops and an army of Afghan conscripts defend parts of major cities, a few main roads, and fortified posts in some rural areas.

Abdul Wahed (not his real name), husband of the pregnant woman in this Jaji village, comes in out of the cold and darkness, letting in a gust of icy wind. The light of his lantern reveals the graceful geometric designs his children have daubed on the walls with the red earth of the mountains.

“This house we have built new in the past two years, after our other house was bombed,” Abdul Wahed explains. “This area is free as far as the Communist post at Ali Khel, but the planes come and bomb the villages nearly every day. They are trying to drive us all to Pakistan, so no one is left to feed the mujahidin.” Rolling up the sleeve of his long shirt, he shows me a deep puckered scar on his upper arm: “I was wounded two years ago and was three months in a hospital in Pakistan. By the grace of God I recovered, and now my brother and I take turns going out to fight.”

After dinner Abdul Wahed’s wife sits down next to me, adjusts her veil over her shiny dark braids, and pours me another glass of tea. She is happy to talk to me, as it has been a long time since the family has had a female guest. Around me the children prepare for the night. A fluffy gray kitten slumbers under the stove, and for a moment I forget that we are in a land at war.

JUST AFTER DAWN the rumble of distant artillery fire shatters the frosted crystal morning. To my surprise, no one reacts. They have grown used to the sounds of war. But Abdul Wahed’s eldest son, a handsome quick-minded boy of about 12, begins drawing on the side of the black metal stove with apiece of chalk: a jet, looking rather like a paper plane, and short dashes representing the bombs it drops.

My escorts take a chance, and we cross the open valley by day. Walking through the wide, flat valley is like walking in a bad dream of a deserted land. At this time of year the land is all gray and brown, except where odd patches of snow lie, and the trees are bare but for a few limp yellow leaves. Large bomb craters pock fields that this year bore no harvest. In deserted villages a few houses stand among heaps of rubble.

I walk with the two men who have been specially detailed to accompany me by Syed Ishaq Gailani, a mujahidin commander who has for several years been a close friend of my family. One of the fighters, Bahram Jan, is perhaps 40, a big man with a commanding voice who used to buy cars in Kabul and sell them in Jaji. He is a font of war stories: These ruins were an Afghan government post till the mujahidin took it last year. Over there, in the field, are three tanks the mujahidin destroyed. And don’t step back for that photograph, the area is mined!

His friend Mustafa’s manner is quieter, though at 29 he has been a fighter for six years. He is a Tajik from Jalalabad, a city on the road from Kabul to Pakistan. Until he joined the mujahidin, he was a clerk in a government ministry in Kabul. (Mike Edwards described life in present-day Kabul in the April 1985 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.)

On this dusty dirt road, one of the main supply routes of the mujahidin, we pass several parties of men coming from distant fronts. They exchange greetings with my companions and stop for a few moments to tell news of Kabul, or Kunduz in the north. Near the battlefields the mujahidin seem relaxed, unconcerned with the rivalries and disunity that plague Afghan parties in exile in Pakistan. Later Bahram Jan will tell me the story of Commander Mohammed Naim, from the nearby village of Ali Khel, who one week before had been severely wounded while leading an attack that had resulted in the capture of 50 Afghan government soldiers. Naim belongs to a different party, but, says Bahram Jan, everyone loves the legendary young hero who began fighting when he did not yet have a beard.

Outside a village, near a bomb crater, we talk to a group of battle—weary men from Kabul. The bombing is on the other side of Ali Khel today, one says stoically, but just two days ago this area was heavily bombed. Round a bend in the middle of the road are the fly-encrusted remains of a camel. “See, they are killing even the animals,” says Mustafa angrily, “everything that they see, everything that can feed the mujahidin or carry supplies for us.”

In the refugee camps of Pakistan I had heard reports of destruction of food supplies, and of fears of a famine in the spring. Refugees from the Panjsher Valley, a center of resistance, told me how their walnut and mulberry trees were systematically cut down by the enemy during Soviet offensives. Here in the unplanted fields of Jaji I see the confirmation of these stories.

Farther on, in another village, a gray and-white cat prowls delicately along the top of a ruined wall. In a roofless room a carved wooden chest lies askew on a tilted floor. Under our feet are bedposts, scattered grain, and a single shoe, very small.

The mujahidin climb up a rickety ladder to the upper floor of the ruined mosque. Though the back wall gapes and half the floor is missing, the mosque is still sacred, and someone has strewn fresh straw on the floor. In the shadow of carved wooden columns, the men turn away from the destruction behind them, face the niche that marks the direction of Mecca, and pray.

Later, in a field of grass stubble under an opalescent autumn sky, we find shattered pieces of dull green plastic, one with a detonator still attached. These are the remains of small mines shaped like butterflies, which can take off the hand or foot of an unwary person or injure livestock. Designed to maim, they are scattered from helicopters on inhabited areas and important routes. Many Afghans have learned to explode the mines, usually by throwing stones from a safe distance. But two weeks later, in a Pakistani border town, I will watch a doctor bandage the mangled hand of a scarlet-veiled woman from Jaji who had been unwary enough to pick up the strange green plastic object.

THE SUN is nearly on the edge of the sharp, snow-covered peaks and ridges that mark the far limits of the valley when Mustafa stops and points to a cluster of nondescript mud buildings on a hilltop about a kilometer away. The fort at Ali Khel appears deserted, but inside are Afghan government soldiers and some Soviet officers. Mustafa tells me to stay behind the wall, out of direct line of sight and fire. “Every night the mujahidin attack the post,” he says. “We will be in a rain of bullets. Do you want to go with us?”

After dark we make our way to the house of a man loyal to my friends’ party. Mustafa is relieved that the man’s family has not yet left for exile in Pakistan. At night, he says only half-jokingly, mujahidin factions are less trustful of one another.

A couple of hours later the attack on the government post begins, and Bahram Jan leads me up the stairs to the square tower with a picture-window view of fiery parabolas of tracer bullets arcing from the mountainsides toward the mud fort. The fighting goes on for hours in the frosty night, the mujahidin firing Kalashnikov automatic rifles and a heavy machine gun or two at the solid walls of the fort, the enemy post answering with machine guns, mortar fire, and occasional flares. The 120 rounds issued to each of my escorts will not last the night, and some must be conserved for the journey back to Pakistan. They cannot aim for victory, only for harassment.

Over the past five years 325 million dollars in covert U.S. aid has reportedly been channeled to the mujahidin, mostly in the form of smuggled Soviet-made small arms, along with a few antitank missiles and SAM-7 antiaircraft missiles. But there are questions as to how much of this aid has actually arrived inside Afghanistan. Commander Abdullah of Helmand Province said with more passion than realism: “We fight tanks with Kalashnikovs. Nowhere else in the world do they do this. Send us antiaircraft guns, and the mujahidin, with the help of God, would get the Russians out within one year.” Certainly there are few effective antiaircraft weapons. The surface-to-air missiles are notoriously unreliable. When asked about the SAM-7, Ishaq Gailani grimaced. He and other mujahidin representatives would prefer portable, lightweight British or Swedish missiles.

At 3 a.m. we leave the battle behind and by the light of a crescent moon file silently up a riverbed that cleaves the rugged mountains. At dawn the Muslim call to prayer sounds from the village, now well behind us. The gunfire, which had continued unabated, stops. The mujahidin, and perhaps the government soldiers inside the walls of the fort, are now at prayer.

In this narrow, uncultivated valley some of Afghanistan’s internal refugees have built crude houses of earth, wood, and stone. They live on what they have salvaged from their fields or imported from nearby Pakistan. It is still early when the roar of the first jet fills the sky. Though it is high overhead, we scatter, hiding under scrawny pine trees, covering our heads and bodies with pattu, camel-colored blankets that blend with the earth tones of the land. The noise of bombing echoes through the brown and snow-whitened hills. Beside me, Mustafa’s face is grim and set.

IN THE LATE AFTERNOON we reach a house high in the mountains. I am invited to sit with the men, and I join them in the nightly ritual of listening to the BBC World Service for news of the outside world and news of their own war. Entering the separate women’s world when it is time to sleep, I read, in Persian, a poem called “Autumn of Blood,” by Afghanistan’s Ustad Khalilullah Khalili:

Each red leaf in the meadow
Reminds me of those killed for
the homeland....

When I return to Pakistan, I learn that the United Nations General Assembly has passed yet another resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union has ignored five previous resolutions, claiming that they constitute interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

In a refugee camp at Sateen, not far from the Afghan border, I find some of the last people to flee from Ali Sangi, the village where the gray-and-white cat walked along the ruined wall. Against the counterpoint of a nearby wedding, where women chant and bang hand drums, the survivors recount their stories.

Hazrat Bibi is probably in her 40s, but her face is thin and worn with grief and the trauma of her journey with six children into exile. She breaks into tears at the memory of her husband, killed only a month before.

As the men gather, she turns away toward the wall, hiding her face from them but always watching me. Akbar Khan, a middle-aged man who used to be a farmer and a driver in Kabul, speaks for himself and his village. “We came here about a month ago. Now there is not a single family living in Ali Sangi. Everything was destroyed, everything inside the houses, our clothes and possessions buried under the earth, our children buried under the earth.”

PESHAWAR, capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, homeland of the Pashtun, or Pathan, tribes that inhabit the border areas of both Afghanistan and Pakistan, has two faces. The old face is that of an exotic crossroads, a wild frontier town near the foot of the Khyber Pass. The modern face is that of a noisy, congested, polluted city that is estimated to have doubled in size in five years since the Soviet invasion.

Some say that Peshawar is now the largest Afghan city outside Kabul. Most of Pakistan’s refugee population of about three million is concentrated in this province, though refugees are settled in a long crescent from Chitral in the rugged Hindu Kush range of northern Pakistan to the deserts of Baluchistan Province.

In August 1984 all mujahidin party offices were ordered out of Peshawar because of an escalating climate of violence, including bombings of the offices and attempted assassinations of prominent Afghans. Mujahidin and Pakistani intelligence sources blame much of the violence on the Afghan government intelligence service, but it is also true that there are ongoing feuds between mujahidin factions, some of which occasionally spill over onto the battlefield. Now based just outside the city limits are a number of political parties regarded by Western observers as moderate. Its leaders, though seeking an Islamic government for Afghanistan, have closer ties to the West than the opposing group of fundamentalist parties.

Many disillusioned mujahidin say that the parties fail either to supply arms or to achieve political unity. “I will join whatever party gives me arms,” said one fighter in Baluchistan. “I am here in this refugee camp only because no party will give me arms.” Some mujahidin look hopefully toward leadership evolving inside Afghanistan, such as the loose “internal alliance” of young regional commanders who communicate and coordinate by courier.

Beyond the refugee camps that fringe Peshawar is the Khyber Pass, the historic passage between the uplands of Central Asia and the plains of the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent. Today the Khyber, except for a strip 50 feet (15 meters) wide on either side of the road administered by the Pakistani government, remains under the control of local Pashtun tribes. Tribal areas are generally off-limits to foreigners, but photographer Steve McCurry and I get special permission from the governor. We are accompanied by two local officials and an escort of 15 khassadars, members of a tribal militia. The officials grow increasingly nervous as the afternoon wanes. They inform us that if we do not reach the settled districts by dusk, the government cannot answer for our safety.

On the way through the pass, on a winding dirt road beyond the limits of government control, a pickup truck bounces along in a cloud of dust, while a train of camels lopes on unconcerned. They may be smuggling cloth, untaxed cigarettes, whiskey, or raw opium to be processed into heroin. Pakistan, despite government efforts to reduce poppy growing, is among the world’s major exporters of heroin. (See “The Poppy,” by Peter T. White, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, February 1985.) Much of the opium, 400 metric tons in 1983, comes from beyond the border in Afghanistan, where it is the most profitable remaining cash crop. Before the Islamic revolution in Iran, most opium was exported to Iran. With that market restricted, growers have set up labs in Pakistan, and more recently inside Afghanistan, to make more profitable heroin for export to the West. According to the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration, most of it passes by the town of Landi Kotal, near the head of the Khyber Pass.

Poppy cultivation is a tradition in certain families, and a source of income tribesmen are reluctant to give up. In previous years, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistani tribal areas, I saw fields of poppies, which many here referred to jokingly as “tulips.”

THERE IS A CHANGE in the air in Peshawar this year, and I sense a turning point. Pakistan is saturated with refugees, and compassion is drying up. Pakistanis, who opened their country in the name of Muslim hospitality and the Pashtun tradition of panah, or asylum, are now faced with the largest refugee population in the world.

Despite the number of refugees and their length of stay, there has been little tension between refugees and locals. These refugees are the freest in the world. They are allowed to come and go, even to work and trade, as long as they own no immovable property. Nonetheless, there are anxieties about the long-term effect of so many refugees on the culture, economy, and security of Pakistan. The administration of 2.4 million registered refugees, at a cost of a million dollars a day, is an enormous undertaking. The Pakistani government says it pays nearly half the cost of refugee assistance, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other countries and international agencies absorbing the rest. The United States is the largest contributor to the UNHCR program in Pakistan (some 20 million dollars in 1984).

Each refugee is supposed to receive a daily ration of 500 grams of wheat, 30 grams of edible oil, 30 grams of dried skim milk, 20 grams of sugar, and 3 grams of tea. Each family is allotted 20 liters of kerosene monthly. In theory, a cash allowance of 50 rupees (about four U.S. dollars) per person per month is also provided, though in fact it is rarely received.

Most who arrived before 1984 have been officially registered and receive close to their allotted rations. Older camps have become sprawling villages as refugees have built houses out of earth, as in their native villages. Though idleness still plagues the camps, where there are many farmers without land, shepherds without flocks, and shopkeepers without shops, some men have found work on the roads, in refugee-camp bazaars, or driving three-wheeled taxis leased from Pakistanis or buses and trucks brought from Afghanistan.

At the time of my visit, in late 1984, new arrivals typically faced delays of as long as four months in registration and issue of rations. The reason for the delay, according to Pakistani refugee officials, was the process of recounting previously registered refugees. For example, on the theory that children are too guileless to exaggerate the number of family members, teams of checkers questioned children from each family. They uncovered cases of double registration and instances in which more family members were claimed than actually exist.

New arrivals, hungry and dazed from their long and dangerous journey across the border, often could not comprehend the reason for the delay. A group of 150 families from Baghlan, in Afghanistan’s north, had walked for more than a month. Now they camped by the huge Kachaghari refugee camp outside Peshawar under makeshift tents made of blankets. For another month they waited until the provincial Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees sent them to a camp for newcomers. In Munda camp, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Peshawar, 380 families from Baghlan and Kunduz shared 180 tents. At Khapianga, on a desert hillside in Kurram Agency, 700 families from Jaji camped in borrowed tents or bought ragged ones, their only water source a tiny spring that was in danger of drying up.

Poverty does not diminish Afghan hospitality. In Munda, refugees offered to kill and roast a sheep for us; in Khapianga, I ate flat wheat bread and tasteless spinach with an impoverished woman, who then offered to cook me an egg; outside Peshawar, I drank weak, sugarless black tea with a group of women who had arrived from Kabul the night before and were camped on the bare ground among the mattresses, blankets, and pots that were their only remaining possessions.

THE GREAT MAJORITY of Afghan refugees in the North-West Frontier Province are Pashtuns, a robust, handsome people. In the camps of the north, near Chitral, are light-skinned Tajiks from Panjsher Valley, Badakhshis from the high Hindu Kush, and rugged, sharp-faced Nuristanis. In Baluchistan are more Pashtuns, the Baluch, and the Mongol-featured Hazara. In many camps one encounters Turkic-speaking Uzbeks and Turkomans from the north. One of the best places to see the variety of Afghans is Peshawar’s famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar, the “storytellers bazaar.” Here the tales were once of caravans and trade, of wandering saints, poets, and holy men, but now all the stories, among Afghans at least, are of war and survival.

Near Qissa Khawani, down the narrow lane of the gold bazaar and across from the delicate mosque of Mahabat Khan, is an even narrower lane that leads to Murad Market, the heart of the refugee bazaar. Perhaps half the shops here are rented by Afghans, mostly carpet sellers, silversmiths, and dealers in antique goods. Here young Syed Sher Agha sells antique silver jewelry from his tiny shop. On the wall is a small, framed, formal black-and-white portrait of a young man in a turban—Sher’s eldest brother, a mujahidin commander killed in battle near Jalalabad in 1982, at the age of 20.

One day I accompany Sher and his younger brother to their camp, where I am welcomed by their mother and two young aunts. They have lived here for three years but have been unable to build a mud house because the camp lies on sand. Unable to satisfy the Afghan urge to build, they have satisfied the twin urge to beautify by planting gardens; tall reeds create an illusion of privacy, and marigolds and sweet basil color and scent the refugees’ small plot.

While his young wife cooks outside the tent, pulling her yellow-embroidered black veil over her face modestly, Sher tells me of his wedding, only three months ago, to this girl who lived in the tent next door. “There was no music,” says Sher, “because we are still in mourning for my brother.” Sher’s mother brings out a tattered copy of a mujahidin magazine and shows me a picture of her fallen son. I remember Sher’s words: “There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of this war.”

Abdul Ali, 12 went out to play one morning, stepped on a mine, and lost both his legs at the thigh. He sits in his wheelchair at the orthopedic center of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Peshawar, laughing and badgering me for a picture. Later I hear that he has learned to walk on the two small artificial limbs the center made for him and has returned to Afghanistan.

Simeen Musharaf, widowed mother of four children, is a teacher at a girls school in Nasir Bagh camp. When she was fleeing Afghanistan, she stepped on a mine and lost one leg. She was refused admission to Afghan hospitals on grounds that her husband, then in prison and later executed, was a “terrorist.”

Five teachers teach 350 girls, crowded under a large tent. The mud roof of the school building has fallen in because of heavy rain one night several months before. The colorful maps of Afghanistan and the world, which someone has carefully painted on the walls, are sadly mud-streaked.

AT THE NEARBY widows camp I visit with Noor Jehan, whom I had met the year before. On the orders of the provincial refugee commission, several men are busy building a high mud wall around the camp to screen the widows from the eyes of men. I ask the officials why these workmen are not rebuilding the roof of the girls school instead of a purdah wall, but my question is left unanswered.

Noor Jehan, a sprightly widow with bright eyes, expressive face, and hennaed gray hair, runs to embrace me. “Life is much more difficult this year,” she tells me. “Now my daughter is also a widow, and all her children are here. We are 16 people living on seven people’s rations.” She leads me to her tent and introduces me to Noor Taj, her eldest daughter. Eagerly the women make sweet milk tea for me and insist that I drink several cups. I know this is a sacrifice, using up their precious rations of dried skim milk and sugar, but in courtesy I may not refuse.

Noor Taj has her mother’s strong face and forthright manner: “What could we bring, coming on foot? Nothing but a few things we could carry on our heads. We were forced to come, because the unbelievers come into our houses to take away the boys, and open our cupboards, and take away little girls by the hair. How could we live like that?”

IN A HOSPITAL BED in Lahore, far, from the Afghan border, lies Commander Mohammed Naim, age 22. It is not hot on this late November day, but Naim is sweating with the effort of his body to fight off the effects of its injuries, and his voice is weak and halting. One side of his face is wounded by the artillery shell that took away his left leg and broke his right leg and left arm during an attack on the fort at Ali Khel. He was carried on horseback to Pakistan. “By the grace of God, I had no pain at all during the journey,” he tells me. “Everything I have done, I have done for our faith.”

A few days later I deliver a letter to Naim’s father, Khan Mohammed, who lives in a camp in Kohat District. We listen to a cassette of my interview with Naim, while men and children gather in the small oblong guesthouse. Someone brings in a pot of green tea and a bowl of walnuts. When it is time to go, Khan Mohammed insists I take a sackful of walnuts. “These are from our own trees, in the homeland.” Not long before Naim was wounded, he explains, his two mujahidin sons had gone to their home village and picked as many walnuts as they could, practically under the eyes of the Soviet and Afghan soldiers in the fort at Ali Khel. “When we taste these,” Khan Mohammed says, “we remember our home.”

In a mujahidin training camp near the border I meet two Soviet defectors. Like most of their mujahidin counterparts, Garik Moradovich Dzhamalbekov and Nikolai Vasilovich Balabanov are young, in their early- to mid-20s.

I do not at first recognize them as Russians, as they wear Afghan dress. A mujahidin commander orders them to come closer. I look into their wary faces and sense that they do not want this interview; they have seen too many journalists. They speak Persian but tell me they prefer to speak Russian through a mujahidin interpreter.

Both men were born in Soviet Central Asia. Garik, a light-complexioned, bearded man, is a Tajik from Dushanbe, the capital of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic; broad-featured Nikolai, half Kazakh and half Russian, is from Alma Ata, capital of the Kazakh S.S.R. Eyes downcast, they chain-smoke as they narrate their story. “They said we would fight Americans, Chinese, and Pakistanis,” says Nikolai.

After some months they began supplying weapons to the mujahidin, because it was “a bad war, a dirty war,” according to Garik. They were caught and jailed, but escaped and deserted to the mujahidin.

Under some willow trees by a stream, former enemies sit side by side with me, sharing an incongruous picnic lunch of unleavened bread and a tomato omelet. The two defectors, who speak to me in Persian when we are left alone, have heard that several Soviet soldiers have gone to England and the United States, and they are hoping Canada or the United States will accept them. They have made a cruel and difficult choice, from which there is no turning back. “We were happy as children,” Garik says, “but then we grew up.”

MOST OF THE TRAINEES in this camp are little more than boys. Enthusiastically they run through the dusty obstacle course, climb swinging ladders, rappel down cliffs, scale sheer walls, and run through fire, their plastic shoes falling off as they leap. They are laughing, enjoying this game, but in a moment of quiet they gather round to talk and become serious, speaking of families left behind in Afghanistan and of their commitment to the jihad.

On another occasion, I visit this rugged spot with Ishaq Gailani. At 32, this charismatic young leader is revered by his followers as much for his reputation for honesty and bravery in battle as for his membership in a family of hereditary religious leaders.

Ishaq Gailani has spent much time at many fronts and tells me he hopes to go back again soon. As we watch the men receiving instruction on captured Soviet weapons, I ask him the meaning of the black flag that flies over the camp.

“When the Prophet and his companions used to go to jihad, they carried black flags, because war is not a good thing,” he explains. “When we go to jihad today, it’s not because we want to fight, but because we are compelled to fight for the sake of Islam, and for the freedom of Afghanistan.”

As a heavy dusk deepens over the craggy hills, a muezzin’s voice calls the men to prayer, and once again the mujahidin put aside their study of war. The holy warriors, Ishaq among them, spread their pattu on the ground, their weapons before them, and stand and bow and stand again. In the silence I feel their strong and quiet faith, and wish only for a swift and happy end to the struggle forced upon them.


National Geographic 100 Best Pictures
Only $9.95 - Click here to order!  Get a free 2006 calendar. A great gift - Reserve one today!

Print this story.
See the McCurry Interview about this photograph.
Click here to print Best of America Best of America Click here to order National Geographic's Best of America