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Sebastian Junger on Afghanistan's Slain Rebel Leader
In November 2000 Adventure sent contributing editor Sebastian Junger and photojournalist Reza (see photo gallery) to profile Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. The resulting article (read an excerpt) appeared in our March/April 2001 issue and has just been reprinted in Fire, a collection of Junger's journalistic work.
On the morning of September 9, 2001, guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud sat down with two reporters at his base in Khvajeh Baha od Din, in northern Afghanistan, to give one more interview about the unending civil war in his country.
The two men were apparently from North AfricaAlgeria, Morocco, or Tunisia, no one seems to know for sureand said they worked for an Arab news agency. They had been at Khvajeh Baha od Din for more than a week, keeping to themselves, eating the rice and mutton provided for them, waiting for Massoud. They had a TV camera, but no one thought to inspect it, and they came recommended by people within Massoud's own government.
Just before noon, with Massoud seated before them, they started the interview. Seconds later everyone in the room was either wounded or dead.
The attackers had packed the camera with explosives and blown themselves up. Nothing remained of one but his legs; the other was killed as he fled.
Massoud was horribly wounded but still alive. His men tried to rush him to a helicopter for the short flight to Tajikistan, but he survived only 15 minutes.
Ahmad Shah Massoudhero of the war against the Soviets, implacable foe of the Taliban regimepassed from this life in the back of a battered Land Cruiser, racing through the mountains of Afghanistan. It was a sadly fitting end for a man whose life had been entirely dominated by war.
PRECURSOR TO THE U.S. ATTACKS?
I found out about Massoud's death as I walked into the small, walled garden of photographer Reza's house in Paris. It was a week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and I was en route back to New York. I had called Reza from the airport and said I'd like to stop in to see him.
Reza knew Massoud well from the war against the Soviets, and he and I had spent a month together with Massoud last year.
I'd seen the reports of an assassination "attempt" on Massoud just two days before the U.S. attacks. But I'd also been told that he was going to survive. It was a lie, thougha desperate effort by Massoud's Northern Alliance to retain control of the situation.
Reza stepped out of his kitchen to greet me; his face was broken with grief, and I knew. For a few minutes there was nothing to say. "We have many works to do," Reza finally said. "There is too much to be done."
It was a terrible moment. Thousands of people had died in the rubble of the World Trade Center, victims of the same extremist perversion of Islam that Massoud had been fighting.
Like all Americans, I was worried about further attacks. And I was saddened that the most powerful military in the world was contemplating a campaign against one of the poorest nations on Earth. The irony was that there appeared to be no Afghans among the 19 hijackers.
It seemed to me that Osama bin Laden had ordered the attempt on Massoud's life before going ahead with his attacks on New York and Washington. He would not have dared provoke the United States the way he had, I believed, were Massoud still alive to make use of the military aid that might have finally been offered to him.
"AN EXTRAORDINARY MAN"
Reza and I sat at his kitchen table with a bottle of wine. Someone had sent him an e-mail that day that said, "You must be a happy man to have met Ahmad Shah Massoud." And in fact we knew we'd been incredibly fortunate to have met him.
Massoudwho loathed the extremism of the Taliban as much as he did the totalitarianism of the Soviet Uniononce told me he was fighting not only for a free Afghanistan but for a free world. There was something about himthe slow nod of his head as he listened to a question, the exhaustion and curiosity engraved on his handsome, haggard facethat made it clear we were in the presence of an extraordinary man.
I found it impossible not to listen to Massoud when he spoke, even though I didn't understand a word. I watched everything he did, because I had the sense that somehowin the way he poured his tea, in the way his hands carved the air as he talkedthere was some secret to be learned.
Reza and I talked for two hours. It was a windy day, and we finally put on our jackets and got ready to face the memorial service being held across town. Before we left, Reza called a close aide of Massoud's in Tajikistan to express our sorrow.
"I'm calling to find out that the terrible news is not true," Reza said.
"It is true. But it is OK," the aide said. "Now we are all Massoud."
Photograph by Reza