Tuesday 13 August 2002

Victory Tour

I wrote this article from Mazar-i-Sharif for TIME magazine, which ran it on 13 August 2002.


Entering the 19th-century fortress complex of Qala-i-Jangi on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif in north Afghanistan, you would never suspect this place was the center of world attention just a few months ago. The tranquility of the enormous inner courtyard is a surprising though welcome retreat from the fourth-world hustle and poverty outside the massive mud walls.

More surprising still, at least initially, is that they let us in at all. A handful of journalists showing up unannounced at a military facility is not usually given a friendly reception. And given that the security situation in Mazar-i-Sharif is still fragile and tense—with one warlord, Mohammed Ustad Atta, controlling the center of the city and another warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, controlling the outskirts—we expected to be quickly repelled at the main gate as suspected spies or worse.

But on this day at Qala-i-Jangi, we were immediately received with warmth and even assigned a smiling general as a guide to the complex. Dostum's general led our team of Afghan trainee journalists and me through the gate and showed us around the newly refurbished fortress with an obvious pride that he was on the winning side of December's battle.

In late November 2001, with America's "war on terror" at its hottest, Qala-i-Jangi became the scene of a bloody prison uprising of 400 captured Taliban and al-Qaida fighters. It took three days of vicious fighting, including the use of tanks and U.S. air strikes, to quash the rebellion. What some later asked was where the prisoners got the weapons they used to start the rebellion in the first place.

Some said Dostum's men simply didn't search their prisoners closely enough. Others suggested that they might have been given easy access to weapons so that they would rise up and give Dostum an excuse for a slaughter. There were also allegations that some prisoners had been shot with their hands tied behind their backs, and Amnesty International and other human rights groups called for an inquiry into the event, which in the end left the fort strewn with the blood and body parts of some 500 dead.

None of this is evident today from the look of the main courtyard, the size of perhaps six football pitches. From the fresh coat of paint on the main gate, to the recently built mud walls, to the luxurious facade of Dostum's residence itself - nothing here suggests any sign of violence whatsoever. The strong fragrance of flowers all around only emphasizes the peace of this inner sanctum.

Then our general leads us through another gate to a smaller courtyard, and here evidence of the battle is all too obvious. He shows us the building and underground corridors where the Taliban and their foreign cohorts made their last stand. The re-enforced concrete roof is collapsed in several places, a fragmentation grenade rests on floor, and a Talib's black turban lies unraveled and matted on the ground. This is more like what we expected to see; this is what we've seen on television.

Yet there is something wrong here. The single fragmentation grenade is still whole. The unraveled black turban, kicked disdainfully by our general, is the only thing on an otherwise swept floor. When we spot the huge piles of unexploded ordinance, shell casings and other war rubbish about 30 meters away, it becomes obvious that these few perfect examples have been put here in this building deliberately.

We start to get a bit suspicious and ask the friendly general more about the uprising: what really happened here? How did the prisoners get the weapons to start the uprising? Some of them clearly had a few grenades hidden on their persons when they were locked up here, he says, not budging form the official line.

The answers to other questions were equally unenlightening, and we came to realize there was nothing to see here anymore. Half of this battle site has been renovated beyond recognition into a flower garden; the other half has been turned into a museum. A key clash in the Afghan war is now a guided tour, complete with friendly tour guide and set script. The souvenir shop won't be far behind. What started as an intriguing look behind the walls of history only ended up as a reminder that history is written by the winners.

Andrew Stroehlein helps train journalists in Afghanistan for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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