Lions and fish in the Panjshir

Last week, on the 9th September, was Ahmad Shah Massoud Day – a national holiday to mark his death in 2001, blown up by the Taliban. Hailed as the Lion of the Panjshir – his birthplace and scene of fierce resistance against first the Russians then Taliban – he’s something of a hero in Afghanistan, or certain parts of it at least. A handsome chap, pictures of him can be seen in shops and cars around Kabul.

I went on an outing to Panjshir recently, a fertile valley flanked by steep mountains that lies a short way to the north of Kabul. It seemed wonderfully prosperous compared to many other places, calm and functioning. We paid the obligatory visit to his tomb and the large complex that’s being built around it like the good tourists we are.

What we found much more fun were the wrecks of Russian military vehicles neatly parked up nearby. Parts of the country are littered with these; hulking scraps of iron all that’s been left of the T 62s destroyed then stripped of all possible materiel. Tank tracks are used for small bridges, their wheels as animal troughs. On one road in the north, there seemed to be the remains of a tank at every bend in the road, under every overhanging cliff; any possible site for an ambush by the mujahideen. Monuments and playgrounds for children, they are part of the landscape.

They are also part of the ‘list of essential things to photograph for foreigners in Afghanistan,’ along with a child flying a kite and an old man with an ‘Old Testament Face.’ Your stay here will not be complete without a snap of you perched atop a tank, preferably wearing a shalwa qamis for added value.

And so we climbed onto the tank and the armoured personnel carrier and posed for the camera. There was something rather silly and distasteful about doing so: a boyish enjoyment of weapons and big machines amongst people who have never been on the receiving end of them, never really experienced the violence and occupation they represent, and yet as ‘humanitarians,’ should know better. So we mocked ourselves as we swung on the gun’s barrel. And to be fair, I would have been almost as interested in poking around an old tractor, trying to figure out how it worked, but it just ain’t the same.

Driving back to Kabul we stopped at the bottom of the valley in a narrow defile and climbed down to the river. I went for a swim. It was bloody marvellous. Over the summer I went for a swim in the river Avon in Bristol, which was bloody cold, and made the Panjshir delightfully warm by comparison. Fast flowing in the middle, I struggled to make progress against it, baggy shalwa trousers (kept on to protect the modesty of the few curious onlookers) billowing in the current.

Inspired, I’ve just forked out 60 dollars to use the UN swimming pool back in Kabul for a month. Doing lengths with all the elegance of an asthmatic fish out of water has made me realise how truly, shamefully unfit I am, and how badly I need to get my moneys worth.



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One Response to “Lions and fish in the Panjshir”

  1. Marianne Says:

    Good luck with the swimming regime- no need to sacrifice your health more than absolutely necessary just for the good of the cause. There will be top tips on that coming up soon (how to stay in basic shape when you are confined to your compound… Frida knows)

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