|Meeting with Madame Massoud - Interview
(ELLE N° 2906 du 10 Septembre 2001)
Translated: M.E. Clarkson - November 2001.
Meeting with Madame Massoud
For the first time, a journalist has been able to meet S-., the spouse of Commander Massoud.
Marie-Francoise Colombani has not been authorised to reveal the name or the face of this woman, who is constantly threatened with death by the Taleban; and who categorically refuses to wear the Chadri as a sign of resistance. In her new house in the Panjshir, S-., surrounded by her six children, recalls her childhood under the bombs, and her marriage to the man who fights to liberate his country.
Six little brown heads, all in a row, bob about behind the window: the children of Commander Massoud know that their mother is going to have a visit and, like children all over the world, they are curious to find out who has been invited. From the pathway, one cannot see the house hidden amongst the mud dwellings, on the front of which are drying the cow pats which will be fuel for this winter. All around are the arid mountains, the dust and the sun. Below is the Panjshir river, clear and bubbling, bordered by mulberries which cast a dappled shadow. Some days previously we landed at a military base not far from here. The only means of rapid access to the valley is a helicopter upon which the bullet holes have been sealed with adhesive tape. Three hours flying time from Dushanbe, the capital of Tadjikistan, four days by road. On arrival, one of the Mujahiddin, detached himself from the group of men armed with Kalashnikovs and lifted the engine cover. A few turns of the screwdriver later, the vehicle was ready to leave again.
Massoud's house has only recently been finished. It is huge and airy, and they have only lived there for four days. Prior to this, they lived in a little mud hut near to the side of the road. A long flight of steps climbs up, crossing several terraced gardens. Halfway up the path is a little spring-basin in which, just this afternoon, Commander Massoud, representing the only armed resistance force against the Taleban, played with his children. An exceptional event for a man of war for the past twenty years. On returning, one notices in the river; in the ditches and the length of the road, the half submerged Russian Army tanks, turned on their sides or thoroughly parked out of the way; the derisory cemetery of a true bankruptcy. In fact, at the entrance to the Panjshir valley, seventeen soviet offensives failed during the '80s, like those of the Taleban, just two years ago.
Today, the front is about twenty km away. And all the world knows that, if they return, the Taleban will massacre all the population - including women and children - to punish them for having dared to resist the most cruel regime. One now hears the gay and animated voices of the children in the house. A close associate of the Commander confided to us that more than thirty types of flowers have been planted in this garden.
The love of the Persians for flowers is legendary. Now & then, one can see between the debris the appearance of geraniums or sunflowers, as if to remind one of the beauty of which this world would be if the war were to cease. Has Mme Massoud chosen the plants for her garden? Modestly, the man answers that, effectively, it is the work of 'the family'. Nobody, out of respect, would venture to speak directly of the wife of the 'Chief' - as they call Massoud here. And moreover, the protocol demanded us to quote only the first initial of her forename, 'S'. But, apart from convention, the most important thing remains the ever-present problem of the security of the family, prime and permanent target of the enemy. Thus we were asked to take no photos, neither of the location nor the occupants. Therefore we were astonished when the object of our interest opened the door herself. S-. is a pretty young woman of 29 years, with chestnut hair and green eyes, to which six pregnancies has left a slight roundness. She has a beauty spot above her lip and wears a lightly sequinned, long, black dress. Her heeled shoes reveal her lacquered toenails. In the rest of the country, occupied by the Taleban, this would suffice to result in a flogging. There are magic slates and soap bubbles for the children, who scatter around in play, laughing with pleasure.
Mme Massoud looked thoughtfully at them. "They are so happy to be here, to see their father every day, and to play in the garden" she explained. "We have an air-raid shelter, but, unhappily, it is not 100% safe and I tremble every second for my children. It is necessary to say that the Taleban bombard as soon as the family is in the Panjshir valley. At first they started to aim at one particular house in the village of Bozorak, and then, it was ours!" To our question who lives in this first house, the young woman answers "My parents. The last time, six months ago, the bomb fell on a refugee camp just at the side. Thirty people were killed. You could find hair even hanging right up in the trees. It was horrible." For a short time now, the children - a boy of 11 years and five girls of 3-10 years - have lived with their mother at Dushanbe. For their security, but also for that of the population.
Only during the holidays do they return to the valley. "When they are in Tadjikistan, their father is calmer, knowing that the people do not take any risks because of us." Explains S-. "As soon as the children arrive here, they are terrified. This year, the first day they did not even dare to go outside into the garden. So their father told them: 'Do not be afraid, we have arrested the spy who gave all the information to the Taleban. He is in prison. He is being watched and nothing can happen'. As this was not true, my heart was pounding, watching these children playing in all innocence." Unlike her husband, who is from Kabul, S-. was born in the valley, at Bozorak to be exact. Her father was a merchant in one of the wooden stalls in the main street, which is still today lit with paraffin lamps. She went to school with the youngsters of the village until the invasion of the country by the Soviets. When one asks questions about her childhood, she smiles " You really want to cry? Because from the age of 9 years onward my life was atrocious." Her headscarf has fallen on to her shoulders, and she does not replace it over her hair. On a cloth laid on the ground, she has placed some raisins, pastries, dried fruit and green tea. At the end of the room, on the bookshelves, is a collection of teapots, ewers and samovars. From time to time she interrupts to speak gently to one of the children. Her phrases always begin with "My pretty heart", My little love"," My dear adored one".... The night is beginning to fall, but the generator which produces light for some hours a day, is not started immediately. It is in this twilight that S-. begins to retell her life.
In 1979, her father, Koko Tadjeddin, was one of the first to support Massoud in the resistance. She is the third of four children. Very rapidly, the family was flung from one hiding place in the mountains to another, because Tadjeddin was following the commander, whom his wife treated like a son, like a shadow. "We walked for hours, with nothing to eat, under the bombs which never ceased to fall. All my energies were taken up with protecting my little brothers and sisters. We went from one hovel to another, and when one could, one hung on to the tail of a donkey, in order to avoid falling asleep 'en route'. It was the life of all Panjshiris, but since my father was fighting at the front, we were also the prime target of the Russians. And because of spies, they always knew exactly where we were."
Five brothers and sisters were conceived during the few night-time hours when her father came to see them. "I remember my mother giving birth in a cave, and continuing the following day, with her baby in her arms and her 3-year-old child, hitched across her back. I see again all the bodies which we had to pass by. One day, at the very beginning of the resistance, during a bombardment, my aunt had commenced labour, her other baby with her. My uncle had left to put my cousins in a shelter. A bomb fell on my aunt. The next day, it was me who collected the remains of her body. I was 9 years old." Another time, S-'s mother and her children just had time to hide in a hollow gap in the mountain, normally used by animals, when a landslip blocked the entrance. Nobody thought there would be any survivors, When they did get out, they could not stop counting themselves , marvelling at their escape. Only S-. had been wounded on that day. She will always carry a scar on her forehead. Her brother Ahmad Shaed, a year younger then her, remembers the incredible courage of his sister. One night, whilst listening to the sound of on-going combat their pregnant mother asked the other women to take guns and follow her to fight at the side of their menfolk. All the children began to cry to keep them back.
Except for S-. who knew how to handle firearms. Ahmad Shaed says that he will never forget the vision of his sister, on horseback, galloping at full speed under the bombs to rescue and hide the children. At night, everybody left their caves and returned to their homes to prepare some food. Sometimes, Massoud would appear in this valley of Parande, with about sixty of his Mujahiddin. All the women and young girls would set themselves to cooking around the two great casseroles. "Some of them had eaten nothing for days", explained S-. They killed a sheep, thinking that these men would perhaps themselves be killed the very next day. So we put all our energies into preparing a meal." Massoud? Of course, he was her idol. As a trained engineer he was full of compassion for all these children who did not even know school. So when he had the time, he gathered them around the fire to inform them a little of poetry and arithmetic. S-. remembers it well. But at the time Massoud, at 37 years of age, was the chief and not even in her dreams could she imagine the future. The rumour was that he was in love with another woman in the valley of Khost, in the north of Afghanistan, but the war against the Russians had not left him the time to declare this, and now it was the mullahs who were urging him to marry soon within his own people. He could have well stayed unmarried, like a warrior monk. But it was necessary for him to give an example. Contrary to the tradition which dictates that it is the women of a family who make the approach to ask for a marriage, Massoud went on his own to ask his trusted aide de camp for his daughter, who was 17 years at that time. This was his way to show his intimacy and friendship. A choice sometimes criticised even today by his close relations who feel that she was not sufficiently educated, but always willingly defended by Massoud, a man obviously very attached to his wife. "It is strange that I can still recollect with precision the scenes of bombing but I have completely forgotten the details of that day" explains S-. without any coquetry. "What a shame that the happy memories fade! I only remember that my parents asked me solemnly my opinion, and that I answered formally 'It is for you to decide'. But in my heart I was in the seventh heaven of delight." An arranged marriage then? She replied that in the Panjshir, this had always been the custom, and further, as young men and women did not see each other, it was not possible to meet and even less to fall in love. Three months later, without having known that delicious time of 'engagement', was the marriage. For reasons of security, only four people were present. "My own brother was not there, but the Russians, yes. Two days later they marked us and took aim at us." And once again, it was flight to the mountains, the hovel, the hiding and the fear. The only change was that she was not following her father, but her husband. He had promised to come once in a fortnight, but sometimes it was up to six months, and once it even was a whole year that he was unable to leave the front.
Thus he was unable to be at the birth of his children. In 1992, the resistance came back to power and installed themselves in Kabul. But the peace was of short duration since very quickly war broke out between the different factions. "During the next four years I never saw my husband so sad. His disappointment was immense and every day I perceived that he became a little more withdrawn. And for me, I understood that the hope of tranquil happiness had once more fled my life. I no longer had any bearings." S-. and her children never stay more than one year at the same place. Thrown from a tent to a military house in Panjshir; Kabul; or today in Tadjikistan; for twenty years she has known nothing but flight and bombardment.
The only respite was for some months, passed at Djabalsaraj in the province of Parwan. The couple decided on the cultivation of the garden and, above all, installed their first library, for Massoud is fond of poetry. S-. wishes that this spot will become the site of a women's association.
Today, at last, for the first time in her life she lives in a real house of her own. Yesterday Commander Massoud arranged the furniture like any husband and father of a family moving into his new home. He could not even believe it himself and declared jokingly that it is never too late to discover a new talent. "In this pretty house, we resemble a real family, but everything could be taken away at any minute. The firing of rockets, the attempts at assassination of the father of my children, the escapes, the people massacred,...... but enough talk of me!" S-. gets up to change her youngest daughter Nasreen into pyjamas. Does she sometimes wear the Chadri, like some women one sees on the road walking between two villages? She is indignant: "Never!, nor does my mother. This situation is one of the direct consequences of the war against the Taleban. I do not possess one myself, and if you wish you may verify this in my cupboards (US = closet/wardrobe).
She remembers without any sadness - and one imagines, behind the anger of the woman, the determination of the small girl who rode beneath the bullets. "The suffering of the Afghans is immense. Here I receive twenty, thirty a day. Widows who have lost their husbands, mothers who have seen their sons dying, refugees who have fled Kabul leaving everything behind.... Pakistan is trying to kill us. Demand that French women put pressure on this country which could not afford to be banished by the international community. It has to stop arming the Taleban. Here the situation is horrible for all women." She places a little kiss on the hair of her little daughter who has fallen asleep against her, and continues with great sadness: "They have too many children, dying in childbirth or from exhaustion. Even the mullahs encourage them to limit their families. But how? Too many women perish from haemorrhage after terminations of pregnancy... Do you know that here they perform abortions by putting huge stones on the womb? If one could construct a clinic to take care of them and teach them about birth control!" At that moment, the generator starts up. One hears its purring outside. The oldest son has left the room. The smallest daughter is asleep. Fatima, Mariam, Zora and Aicha, who wants to be a journalist, have not missed a word of the speech of their mother. A violent wind starts up. We are women together, in the heart of the Panjshir, in the free zone of Afghanistan, a country abandoned by the entire world...
Marie-Françoise Colombani avec Chekeba Hachemi (ELLE N° 2906 du 10 Septembre 2001)
Translated: M.E. Clarkson - November 2001.