Masood Khalili was all set to pursue a PhD at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College in the 1980s when he got a call from his father, then the Afghan ambassador to Iraq. Khalili recalls his father’s words: “Do you know the Soviets have taken over? I want you to go back home and be part of the freedom movement. You will get your PhD from the mountains of Afghanistan now.” Khalili went back to his homeland and spent the next few years going from village to village, hill to hill, mobilising people, fighting a war for freedom. During his travels, he carried three notebooks with him. In one, he jotted down political developments, in the second, military ones, and in the third, he wrote notes to his wife. The third notebook was his dearest; in this he wrote the stories of the people he met, their resilience and fortitude. During the course of the long war, he filled 40 such notebooks. In Whispers of War, he has compiled stories from just one of these notebooks.
Speaking to THE WEEK, Khalili recalled visiting a remote village somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains, where, under the shade of a willow tree, a teacher was conducting classes for a group of schoolboys, even as the war raged on. “I was impressed,” he says. “I asked the boys to write an essay on freedom, and two of them began scribbling immediately, while the others sat still. The teacher, seeing my amazement, said that the other boys were as proficient and eager to write, but they were waiting for their turn because there were only two pencils between all of them.” The experience shook Khalili. “I was ashamed, I didn’t know the poverty of my people. But when I wrote to my wife Sohailla, I said that on the tips of those two pencils, I saw the freedom of my people.”
From a two-pencil class, today there are around 50 universities in his country, says Khalili, who was ambassador to India during 2001 to 2006. There are over three million girls studying in schools in Afghanistan.
Khalili never forgets that day in September 2001 when he and his commander Ahmed Shah Masoud were approached by two men by the Oxus river in north Afghanistan. Even as they were talking, the men triggered a blast, which killed Masoud instantly and left Khalili on the brink of death. Within hours, Al Qaeda attacked the twin towers in New York. Khalili lost an eye, and the shrapnel from the blast are still embedded in his flesh. “I wish I had died and Masoud lived,” he says. “Our country needed him more.”
Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s
Account of the Soviet Invasion
By Masood Khalili
Published by Sage Publishing
Price Rs 495; pages 300