Killing along the Roads
One result of the military operations was an increase in the number of military posts, mainly in provincial capitals, their surrounding districts, and along the main roads, which the Soviets manned. For example,by December 1980 about forty posts had been set up along the main Kabul-Jalalabad road. The Kabul-Kandahar road was left unguarded, while the road passing through Salang was guarded very tightly. Obviously, this differential protection demonstrated the Soviet intention to pacify the land by establishing control over the main arteries and also by undertaking military operations. Hoping to reduce the number of attacks on the posts, the Soviets abandoned, although not completely, their practice of unprovoked shelling of the inhabited areas. But if the mujahideen fired at either the military posts or Soviet troops elsewhere, the invading forces adopted scorched-earth tactics. Tanks and helicopter gunships would furiously shell targets in regions from which shots had been fired. Often other areas were also shelled at random. For example, on or about 18 December 1980 a group of mujahideen somewhere near Alishang town in Laghman destroyed a Soviet tank with an officer in it. In retaliation the town of Alishang, the nearby village of Barzay, and the town of Islamabad were bombed. In Barzay alone sixteen persons perished.
The assailants did not bother about who and how many would be killed by their rocket attacks. To deal with the elusive mujahideen, the Soviets intended to frighten the civilians, who would then pressure the mujahideen not to attack the invaders. If the mujahideen disregarded the people’s requests, they would be estranged from them. If they accepted their request, the regime would increase the posts, which, along with other measures, would lead to the pacification of the country. On requests from the locals the mujahideen often desisted from attacking the invaders, but the Soviets still massacred civilians. Apparently, their mission was to loot and kill in order to establish the regime.
The Soviet strategy made the mujahideen cautious, but it was impossible for them to remain spectators. This would have been the end of their mission. Encounters were still common, and retaliations, whether by the Russians or the regime’s forces, became widespread. The mobile mujahideen could anticipate retaliation and escape. It is impossible to give even an estimate of the number of civilians killed in the clashes, which were sporadic and irregular. The frequency of notes on the subject in my diary is depressing to read.
As a by-product of the policy of guarding the main roads, a disaster of a different kind befell the people. Of the main roads, the roads of Kabul-Jalalabad, Kabul-Gardez (via Logar), and Kabul-Hairatan (via Salang) were especially important, since the first two lead to Pakistan and the latter to the Soviet Union. Among other things, control over the first two meant some control over the movements of the mujahideen as well as the materiel and weapons they brought from Pakistan; control over the last meant the maintenance of undisturbed transportation between Kabul and the Soviet border. As already noted, along the Kabul-Jalalabad road about forty military posts had been manned by the Soviets. To control the roads, the Soviets had to ensure that the districts through which they passed were clear of mujahideen. The two roads leading to Salang and Gardez passed through densely populated districts. It was hazardous to set up military posts along these roads like those along the Kabul-Jalalabad road. Instead, the Soviets chose either to bomb villages close to the roads or shell them by guns and submachine guns from tanks stationed on mounds. The bombing of these villages was comparable to the bombing of the districts around cities, particularly Kabul. The attacks on Logar, which suffered more than any other district, will be described in the next chapter. An unknown number of men, women, and children either perished or moved out of their homes because they lived near roads, the outward symbol of civilization.
This was, however, not the end of the plight of the inhabitants of the areas. Even before the major operations had begun, the plan for making the main roads safe was on the agenda. For some time in July 1980 a major military force destroyed houses, orchards, and other constructions as well as trees along both sides of the Logar road. Helicopter gunships hovered over the ground force. Whatever lay within about 150 meters on both flanks of the road was scheduled to be destroyed. The idea was to make the military convoys on the roads safe from rocket attacks by the mujahideen, who often concealed themselves in nearby villages. How precisely the order was carried out is difficult to determine. The setting up of permanent posts along the Logar road was risky; instead, expeditions were undertaken frequently. The destruction must have been tremendous, since in some places the road passed close to main villages. In mid-December groups of tanks were stationed here and there along the road, and the nearby villages were searched. The plight of the people affected by this act can be guessed from the reaction of an old man who lost an apple tree near his home in Mohammad Agha. After his pleas with the regime men failed to be effective, the old man leaned on a wall, looked to the heavens, and cried, “Oh God, where are you? Do you not see?” For a devout old Muslim to utter such words, he must have been at the height of despair. But he was lucky to have lost only his tree, not his life. Many others in his district lost their lives. On one day alone, 9 October 1980, the Russians killed forty pedestrians along the Logar road in an effort to make the road safe for their convoys.
Similar measures were taken to secure the road going through Shamali. The bazaars of Qarabagh and Saray Khoja through which the road passed were burned, and houses and villages near the road were destroyed. Huge trees on both sides of the road, which had pleasantly distinguished it from those in the rest of the country, were felled. But the manning of roads by groups of Russian soldiers created new sorts of problems that were staggering to the Afghans.
The incidents happened along the Salang and Jalalabad roads, which were, unlike all other roads, manned by Soviet soldiers. Instead of maintaining the security of the road for which they had been commissioned, the Russians began looting passengers and even killing them. For a brief time they looted consignments from trucks passing along these two roads, the busiest in the country; they would then sell the stolen goods, as well as a wide variety of state goods in their possession, to other drivers at low prices at gunpoint. They would also force the drivers to sell them marijuana (chars). Most drivers provided the soldiers with the drug with a view to making them addicts. Judging from the frequency of exchange, the number of the addicts must have been considerable. But at times this trade led to violence. A group of Soviet soldiers had been taking marijuana somewhere near the Wood Factory in Samarkhel to the east of Jalalabad. In August 1980 a soldier intended to enter a house near the factory to steal either marijuana or money. When stopped at the door, he suspected a trap and began firing at random at the inhabitants. All but one member of the family died in the initial assault, and the sole survivor died later in the hospital. It was said that to hush up the story the authorities arranged to do away with him. Party activists gave out that the tragedy was the work of the “rebels.”
More serious were the incidents when Soviet soldiers fired at passenger buses without provocation. Apparently they were killing human beings for the fun of it or for revenge on innocent passengers for the men they might have lost elsewhere. Such tragedies were many. In December 1980 eleven persons died and many others wounded in an attack along the Jalalabad road; drivers refused to drive on the road for two days thereafter. Earlier (8 November 1980) two bus drivers close to the Salang Tunnel were killed for no apparent reason. Drivers protested to the Ministry of the Interior and refused to drive for days. In Ounduz, Soviet soldiers walked across the flat rooftops of the houses at night and fired through the openings at the people inside for no apparent reason. The common Afghans called the Russians barbarians (wahshi).
Despite all the killings, the Soviets failed to establish control over the roads. Frequently the roads leading to Kabul were closed. On such occasions the city was deprived of the essentials of life, food and fuel. Along these as well as along other roads, armed mujahideen also checked transport vehicles. In certain places they operated within sight of the Soviets without being molested. Close to Kabul beyond Khair Khana the mujahideen checked transport vehicles. The Soviets and the mujahideen had accepted a modus vivendi.
It is now time to survey the Soviet operations in areas visited by foreigners during the period covered by this work. Pal Hougen, chair of the Norwegian Committee for Afghanistan, states that three of his fellow countrymen who had visited Afghanistan in the summer of 1980 “brought home pictorial documentation of bombarded farms, destroyed villages and the destruction of Kamdesh, the central town in Nuristan. Much of what I had heard and read was not to be believed, even [though they] were reliable persons and journalists.” He then made two trips himself in the summer of 1981 and 1982, the first to the upper part of the Kunar Valley, and the second to the town of Bashgul in the same valley.
Hougen states that the people of Bashgul “were still living in the mountains, unable to go back to their farm and cultivate their soil.…It was dangerous for men and cattle to stroll around the passes, and passes as well as the forests had every day and every week to be systematically examined for small booby-traps-butterflies [small antipersonnel bombs shaped somewhat like butterflies].” If these people returned to their homes, they were bombed without provocation. Hougen writes, “Two days after, when part of the population had returned, the town was attacked from the air and set on fire. The result was that the entire population of the town and of the neighboring districts emigrated to Pakistan, a total of 3,000 people.”
During my two visits, I had to admit that the reports were true. I did not only see ruined dwellings, observe terror bombing myself, but I found a society where all ordinary functions were disturbed, even the basic ones: the production of food, the supplies from outside of salt, sugar and tea—other items of trade as I mentioned. The infrastructure in this society was broken down, not [torn] into pieces, for no single piece of the former modest modernization was [left] intact, there was no trade, no school, no medical care, the water supplies were disturbed, the irrigation system severely harmed.
Hougen describes a fellow Norwegian’s experience in Kandahar Province in 1981: “In the autumn [of] that year, he stayed in the outskirts of Kandahar where he daily experienced air attacks, bombing and mining of civilian dwellings.” The situation in the province of Paktia was no better. Hougen comments on the experience of a nurse who stayed in a village in Paktia for three weeks in September 1982: “She reported about air attacks a year earlier which had ruined 50 percent of the houses, how the villages on the plains had been attacked by tanks—in units with 200 and 400 tanks—and the houses had been destroyed. According to her accounts, the attacks were entirely directed against the civilian population.” The people of the Jaghori district of the Ghazni province had dug bunkers to save themselves from the hazards of bombardment. According to Tone A. Odegaard and Jame Reitan, two Norwegian women who stayed with them for a week in September 1982:
They [the Hazara inhabitants of the Jaghori district] are accustomed to air attacks and every family had their own shelters—one for each person—dug as small holes outside the house, as they [Vietnamese] did it in Vietnam. All children were instructed how to behave when the next attack would come and how they should escape for the mountains after [the] attack. There can be no doubt that the air attacks were aimed at the civilian population and took place regularly.
One of the most striking descriptions comes from Nicolas Danziger, a British lecturer in art history and one of the authors of A Report from Helsinki Watch. In describing “this image of Hiroshima in Herat,” Danziger writes:
We went along the asphalt road from Iran to Herat. The desert on the Iranian side was absolutely covered in track marks, the hooves of horses, of camels, footmarks, bicycle marks,—you name it. By the time it was about nine o’clock in the morning, there were people in droves, a man with a camel; he had lost all his family, and all his possessions were on top of the camel. There were some young boys who had been orphaned. Then there were some numerous donkeys with women riding on them with their husbands next to them. All of these people were on their way to Iran. I stayed in a village where they claimed there had been 5,000 inhabitants. There remained one building intact in the whole village. I did not see more than ten inhabitants there. To destroy this place the bombers came from Russia. And there were craters everywhere, even where there were no buildings, so there was no pretense about, “we are trying to hit the mujahideen.” It was a complete blitz. All the way from there on into Herat there was no one living there, absolutely no one. The town that I stayed in, Hauz Karbas, looks like Hiroshima. And there had been tremendous amounts of vineyards there, and they were just reduced to gray dust. It really sums up everything that exists in Afghanistan to-day.