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After over a decade of war, do only the blast walls, concrete and sandbags hold the memories of those killed?

By Saba Imtiaz

It is a quiet, wintry day in Herat, and the sons of Haji Sultan Hamidy are busy at work. There’s banter and cups of tea, visitors popping into Hamidy’s store to say hello, and a young helper is told to dust off the most familiar item in the store: hand blown glass.

There are piles of it, heaped up in boxes and on shelves, molded into cups and goblets, jars and tumblers. The aquamarine colors come to life as the dust is cleaned off. Khalid Hamidy, Haji Sultan Hamidy’s son, is all smiles and hellos, as he tosses a box of hand blown glass items into the air to show off how well it’s packed.

The elder Hamidy isn’t in the store on this day, having traveled to India for medical treatment. But his sons are continuing the family trade in his absence, taking pride in the traditions associated with it that are now being forgotten.

For seventy years, Haji Sultan Hamidy and his family have been making hand blown glass objects. Generations of Hamidy’s family, his son Khalid Hamidy says, have taken up the work. As an insurgency movement against the Communist government and Russian troops engulfed the country in the 1980s, Hamidy decided to dedicate the glasses to the memories of those fallen in war.

A decade ago, the elder Hamidy explained the ‘secret’ behind the glass to Christina Lamb, a correspondent for the UK’s Sunday Times: “Each glass is individually made,” Sultan Hamidy said at the time. “We used to say a line of poetry for each one so that it would have its own soul. You see them there in the grains of sand trapped in the glass. Then when my first son Rahim was killed by the dushman [Russians] in 1979 I whispered his name into the glass as I blew it over the flame; Then we did the same every time a son or brother or neighbor was made shaheed [martyr] but we could not keep up – you see how many glass pieces we have made but there were hundreds, thousands of dead.”

This quiet act of remembering the dead found its way to the bereaved families. “The major commanders would often come and they would take these glasses to the families whose sons had died,” Hamidy’s son, Khalid, told me when I visited the store in December.

“It is an amazing thing that this glass is all over Afghanistan now,” he said, comparing it to a national tradition of sorts.

But he admits that this ritual no longer exists.

Now Hamidy’s sons also run a small stall on the Herat airbase, selling the hand-blown glass to foreign troops serving in Afghanistan. Sales at the Herat shop have also dropped, even though more expensive copies of the glass are sold in Kabul’s antique and handicraft shops. “We make four to five hundred glasses a week,” Khalid says. “And we sell maybe four to five in a week. About five or six years ago, we would sell five to 10,000 glasses a year.”

The Hamidy’s continue to produce the glass to sell to the foreign troops and to stock their own store in Kabul. There are a few old family photos in the store of Haji Sultan Hamidy, whose photo is printed on the business cards that the Hamidy sons eagerly pass on to customers. Three people work in the store, but there aren’t any customers – not for the glass, or the jewelry and collectibles, the old Soviet currency and antique helmets that fill the Hamidy’s store. Khalid recalls, with a tinge of wistfulness, that about a decade ago a Frenchman placed an order for 10,000 glasses, which he then sold around the world in return for donations to the “poor people of Afghanistan.”

“That was the last big order,” he says.

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Hand-blown glass at the Hamidy’s store in Herat. Photo by Saba Imtiaz. All rights reserved.

The Hamidy family’s remembrances of an earlier conflict in Afghanistan stand in stark parallel to the lack of remembrances of the current battles in the country. While Afghanistan has been mired in conflict and war for several decades now, there is little now to remember those killed in the most recent war in Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom, mounted by the U.S. and foreign troops after Sept. 11, 2001.

A transitional justice plan envisaged memorial sites and a war museum but these never came to fruition. So memories and remembrances exist in the form of anecdotes, but no one is buying the glass, as Khalid Hamidy tells me, to remember those who have been killed since 2001. As is the case in every city that has seen sustained bombings over the years, people in Kabul point out landmarks that have been bombed—once, twice, three times, more times than they can remember—and streets where it was once unsafe to travel.

Portraits of Ahmed Shah Massoud—the resistance fighter from the Northern Alliance who was killed in 2001—hang from fortified public buildings that glisten with new paint. But plans to build a memorial to Massoud have been scuttled. “I believe they got to the stage of commissioning a sculpture in the roundabout that now bears his name, a public space, but it absolutely couldn’t get through,” Michael Semple, former Deputy to the EU Special Representative for Afghanistan, told the Revealer by Skype.

After over a decade of war, do only the blast walls, concrete and sandbags hold the memories of those killed?

Perhaps memorialization is easier when the battle lines were far clearer, as they were in the 1970s and 1980s: then it was the Communists and the Soviets against Afghan fighters, known as the mujahideen. It was a war supported by the U.S., a fight that was exalted in the foreign press. But the conflict that ensued—of former Afghan fighters battling with each other, the takeover by the Afghan Taliban and the post-9/11 war by the U.S. and allied forces to oust the Taliban government—doesn’t have that same degree of clarity. This is, perhaps, reflected in the lack of memorials to those killed since 2001, while there are markers to the wars predating it.

Semple recalls the “first minor memorial” dating to the Kerala massacre in Afghanistan’s Kunar province in the spring of 1979. “For me [the massacre] holds a great significance for its part in laying the foundation of this bitter, bitter conflict. The mass summary execution of civilians was a deadly example of early Communist era revolutionary excesses,” he told the Revealer. “The first minor memorial was simply a walled garden enclosing the mound which contains a communal grave from the massacre. It is thus a cemetery dedicated to victims of the massacre and is located in the village – what I would call citizens’ space. More recently, one of the provincial governors built a small concrete ‘minar’ (pillar) as a memorial to the victims. This is located in the gubernatorial compound – government space.” Semple noted that “perhaps one of the reasons the Kerala massacre can be memorialized is that the episode is now seen as politically straightforward, a long-gone brutal communist government vs. civilians. The politics of post-1992 inter-mujahideen conflict is more difficult because some of the protagonists are still around.”

“War memorials reflect a nation’s desire to portray stability after crisis,” Manan Ahmed, a historian of South Asia told the Revealer in an email interview. “They showcase triumph or portray adversity but the message to the citizen is that the Nation has persevered, that it has endured. Hence, after 9.11, there was such intense desire to immediately begin the process of memorialization by building the new WTC [World Trade Center].”

The idea of memorialization may also emerge from the fact that the “war” has no clear winners. There is no ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner hanging on the streets of Afghanistan; many Afghans and foreigners question what the war achieved after all. That moment of clarity—as  Ahmed puts it, the “perseverance” of the nation—has not arrived for Afghanistan as yet.

This may be why the only memories that exist in Afghanistan relate to the war that was clearer in its purpose and achievements: the war against the Soviets. That seems to be the driving theme behind the Jihad Museum in Herat.

A large sign proclaims why it was built: “to preserve and appreciate the attempts, sacrifices and memorials of the rightful Mujahideen […] so that our next generation may visit this historic and remarkable memorial building and will remember it for the rest of their lives.”

The “Jihad Museum”—a brainchild of Ismail Khan, a former mujahideen commander and governor of Herat province—is hoping to preserve memories of the 1980s. But it doesn’t just serve as a memorial site; it’s also as a way to cement the reputation of men like Ismail Khan on the battlefield, and in Afghanistan’s governance. Tanks rest innocuously on the lawn of the museum. The exterior is designed like a shrine, the walls inlaid with traditional blue tiles inscribed with poetry.

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Diorama at Herat’s Jihad Museum. Photo by Saba Imtiaz. All rights reserved.

It’s a memorial to the war that plagued Afghanistan for a decade, a war that only springs to memory when it pops up in a Tom Hanks movie or a rerun of a Rambo installment. At the museum, glass cases hold meticulously labeled “artifacts”: “.82 mm, anti-tank bullet, fire from shoulder, made in China”, “mortar bullet, fire from cannon, made in Soviet Union”, “P2 anti-tank mine, made in Pakistan”. The curator and co-founder of the museum Syed Abdul Wahab Qatali leads visitors through the exhibits. The glass cases give way to a gallery of portraits of martyrs, painted from images and memory and lit with fluorescent bulbs.

But the museum’s biggest attraction isn’t the tanks on the lawns or the Kalashnikovs displayed in the cases. It’s the surreal 3D model reproduction of scenes of battle set in Herat against a backdrop of Herat city, a sight that is far more powerful than grainy images of the war that are sold as postcards in the streets. A guide points out models of Afghan intelligence agents arresting a man. There’s an axe-wielding men standing victoriously over the body of a fallen soldier, tanks rolling through the streets, a burqa clad woman cheering fighters from a house rooftop, a man carrying an injured fighter on his back, a woman—presumably shown to be dead—lying in the rubble of a house, designed in such vivid detail that it features ripped Suzani curtains. Signs spell out the scenes: “Subject: Place where Mujahidin defend against the Perod government for 14 years and Targhondi street is the exit Wat (sic) of Soviet union soldiers from Afghanistan.”

Other rooms in the museum house stacks of images of mujahideen leaders, photos of those killed, and images of war commanders. Images of Russian soldiers presumed missing during the war hang on one wall. A visitor at the museum – a tall, bearded man wearing sunglasses – points to one of the black-and-white photos. “This is me,” he says. The man is Bakhretdin Chakimov—now known as Sheikh Abdullah—presumed dead for 33 years until he was discovered living in Herat last year. Abdullah says he is advising the museum on the Soviet-era remnants exhibited there, and wanders off to look at more war memorabilia with a group of visitors. Chakimov’s presence underscores why it is important to remember wars: it is not just for the sake of a country’s history, but also for personal stories as it fits into the backdrop of the war in the 1980s.

But not everyone in Afghanistan has heard of the Jihad Museum’s attempts to memorialize the war, including Akbar Agha, a veteran of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s who went on to become a key Afghan Taliban leader. Agha says he did not believe in the idea of recording these events for posterity in the past, and is still vacillating on it now, even though he has recently authored his memoirs.

The reluctance to record feats on the battlefield also came from the rank and file, Agha says. “A foreign journalist wanted to cover a mujahideen front and all of the mujahideen were very angry [at this],” he tells me, during an interview at his residence in Kabul. The commanders had to explain why the journalist was there.

In Afghanistan, there were attempts to record the events of the 1980s, but Agha says he scuttled one such move. “At the end of the 1980s, there was a big shura [joint meeting] in eastern Afghanistan attended by [Jalaluddin] Haqqani and very senior people. It was a big gathering and it was meant to be photographed,” he recalls. “But I opposed it and got other people to oppose it too.”

“People didn’t like it because they wanted to carry out pure jihad. If you start talking about it, you boast about it and take away from it [the spirit],” Agha said.

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Diorama at Herat’s Jihad Museum. Photo by Saba Imtiaz. All rights reserved.

 

Semple and Ahmed, the historian, disagree with this perspective. According to Ahmed, “I do not think attitudes to Jihad etc. are behind the non-presence [of memorials]. From friends and visitors, I have heard of many Soviet tank carcasses which were left prominently as visual reminders of that war. These “temporary” memorials function just as well, absent a politically stable country. Hence, for Afghanistan most prominently, that state of stability has never arrived. To build a monument or a memorial, you need a political and economic will.”

Semple, who has researched grave sites in Afghanistan, notes that one of the things that struck him in Afghanistan was the lack of protected graves. One village in Kunduz Province has been renamed Qatl-e-Aam, or Massacre village, in memory of a bloody assault conducted by Soviet forces in 1984. “Every single person now living there can talk you through the massacre, showing compound by compound, who was killed where,” Semple said. “Rags of colored cloth fluttering on flimsy poles in back gardens and melon fields mark some of the places where the village’s martyrs fell. But there is nothing solid. It will all pass with the next generation.”

There may just be an easier explanation than delving into the idea of religious motivation: Agha, who hasn’t visited the Jihad Museum in Herat, declares that people in Herat had the money to spend on building war memorials. “In Kandahar (where Agha led fighters), we were so poor,” he says. “All of the money was spent on guns, ammunition, tanks and we were occupied with battles. There is no evidence because we didn’t spend money on photos.”

The Hamidy family’s glass-blown tumblers and jars may be this evocative evidence. The traditions may have been muddled with the discourse on war, but Haji Sultan Hamidy’s store continues to occupy a space in Herat; and for those who take the aquamarine objects home, they serve as a subtle reminder of a war that once killed hundreds.

 

Saba Imtiaz is a freelance journalist in Pakistan and the author of ‘Karachi, You’re Killing Me!’ (Random House India, 2014) and No Team of Angels (First Draft Publishing, forthcoming). She reports on politics, culture, human rights and religion and is currently working on a book about the conflict in Karachi. Her work is available on her website, http://sabaimtiaz.com and she can be contacted at saba.imtiaz@gmail.com.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.