Grisly Afghan museum honours anti-Soviet jihad

Dioramas show contested memories

Published on 26 April 2010

Author(s): Reuters/Golnar Motevalli

Type:  News

Grisly dioramas show horrors of 1979-89 war when the Mujahideen fought a Anti-Soviet battle but they forgot to show the Afghan civil war that followed

The bloodied corpses of Soviet soldiers slumped over an armoured tank. Burqa-clad Afghan women on a roof, cheering on fighters as helicopters burn in the sky above their heads. These are scenes from a panoramic pastiche of Afghanistanís war against the former Soviet Unionís invading army, brought to life by plaster of Paris figures for the centrepiece of the countryís first museum dedicated to the Mujahideen.

"This is for the future generations so they can understand and see what their fathers did to defeat the invaders," said Sayed Abdel Wahab Qattali, the founder of the Peopleís Museum, or Manzar-e Jahad, in Afghanistanís western Herat city. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and propped-up Kabulís communist government until 1989, when the Soviets were overpowered by Afghanistanís armed resistance - known as the Mujahideen - and retreated. "I was in the war, I saw a lot of dead Russian soldiers. It was a very hard time ... when youíre compelled to fight, you may be compelled to kill," Qattali said.

The tribute is a stomach-churning reminder of the fact that Afghanistan continues to be plagued with insecurity and is still hosting tens of thousands of foreign troops. A long, well-lit corridor holds portraits of about 50 dead commanders. The final scene is a 360 degree diorama re-enacting the Mujahideenís triumph over the Russians in the city of Herat, with fighters marching down one of its central boulevards. The history ends with the Soviet pullout and does not go on to illustrate the brutal civil war that followed, in which competing Afghan factions fought each other, killing thousands of civilians in the process.

Qattali was himself a Mujahideen fighter in Herat and at age 19 joined the legion of mutinous ethnic Tajik Afghan-army- commander-turned-militia-leader Ismail Khan, who recaptured Herat after the Soviet Unionís defeat, becoming its governor. The museum is partly funded by Khan, but Qattali, who lost eight members of his family in the war, has paid for most of it using earnings from his own construction and security companies. In one large room, Qattali has diligently displayed a huge collection of photographs of other fighters and commanders.

The familiar faces of Khan and anti-Taliban Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masood - who was assassinated by al Qaeda agents two days before the Sept. 11 2001 attacks and is revered by many Afghans - are easily identifiable. "I have many memories. For 10 years I was with the jihad to make sure we could keep our country. I want to make sure that Afghanistan does not go in that direction again," Qattali said, standing before a picture of himself as a fighter in his early twenties with a bullet belt and an AK-47 rifle -- a contrast to the two-piece suit and crisp white shirt he now wears.

"Iím sad and concerned that all the forces that are here now canít seem to have the same power that the Mujahideen did. Itís not so much that the Taliban have more power now but that the government is so weak," he said.


Rows of Russian rifles, clusters of grenades and an impressive collection of plastic land mines fill glass cases in the museumís foyer. "The Afghan security forces today donít even have this level of equipment," Qattali joked. The gardens of the museum display some of his most prized memorabilia: Russian helicopters, fighter jets and rocket launchers, all captured by the Mujahideen and on show, framed by well-kept rose bushes.

The museumís groundskeeper, Saeed Hassan Moussavi, was also a fighter in Khanís militia. He is still haunted by the destruction he witnessed and the fighting he took part in. "They are very bitter memories. It was a very difficult time. I became a refugee and fled to Iran," said Moussavi, wearing a traditional Afghan turban.

Human rights groups have accused militia leaders such as Khan of human rights abuses, especially during the civil war that followed the anti-Soviet uprising. Qattali defends Khanís record. "In Herat there were no such problems. Ismail Khan always had respect. The Mujahideen had its own system, its own schools and it taught respect," Qattali said.

Although the museum will not be open to the public until next year, visitors, particularly officials and foreigners, are welcome to take a tour of its gardens and unfinished exhibits. The museumís guestbook contains messages of thanks and gushing admiration from U.S. congressmen, as well as the deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, British Lieutenant General Sir Nick Parker. "The forces that here now are here to help," Qattali said. "But the ones that came from Russia, they came to hurt us and damaged the country."
(Editing by Megan Goldin)

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