x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

New model mujaheddin: a museum tribute to the fighters in the Afghan-Soviet war

A new museum in Herat is dedicated to the local militia members who fought and died in the Afghan-Soviet War.

Nasrallah Sarway, the head artist at the Manzar-e-Jahad Museum does touch up work on the diorama he helped create.
Nasrallah Sarway, the head artist at the Manzar-e-Jahad Museum does touch up work on the diorama he helped create.

Afghanistan often feels like a fabric of anachronisms. In downtown Herat, you can be driving on a modern road and see a man in the capital city of the province with a rope and a bucket drawing water from a well built into the middle of one of the city's pavements. In the outlying villages, farmers live in mud huts where basic glass windows would seem a major technological innovation, yet these same men all have mobile phones.

All these scenes dot the road to the Manzar-e-Jahad Museum just outside Herat, a tribute to the mujaheddin's defeat of the Soviet army in the 1980s. Like the museum, surrounded by little that seems of the present, the mujaheddin stand out as an undiminished element in the nation's fractured history: their victory over the Soviets has attained the status of myth, and a number of former fighters have now climbed the ranks of Afghanistan's current government or secured lucrative security or reconstruction contracts from international forces. So, in many regards, the museum is a tribute to one of the few constants in this turbulent nation's history.

But in a country mired in seemingly endless war, there are bound to be questions about the construction of a museum that pays tribute to the violence of the past. "There are still lots of problems, and our history still faces thousands of questions in the minds of people today," says Yama Salik, a civil activist and independent political analyst in Herat. "We should be more focused on modern issues and think about how we can tie them with our history."

Afghans, Salik says, should be wary of displays of overt militarism, especially those - like the new museum - that lionise certain groups or factions. But according to its founders, the museum is simply a reminder of the great sacrifices made to overthrow an unjust government supported by a foreign occupier. "This museum will let future generations know about the war, that we defeated an unacceptable government, and what happened during the time of the Russians, especially here in Herat," says Sayeed Hassan, the museum's acting director and a former mujaheddin. "I hope the young generation sees what happened in the past and now sees that war should be stopped."

After nine years of construction, the Manzar-e-Jahad Museum is scheduled to open to the public this autumn. Ismail Khan, the current minister of energy in Afghanistan and a former high-level mujaheddin commander, is its most noteworthy sponsor - he is featured in almost every artistic rendering inside the museum. Most of the funding, however, has come from Sayed Abdul Wahab Qattali, another former mujaheddin commander who now runs construction and security companies.

Nearly everyone who works at the museum played a role in the fight against the Russians. Though there have been photographic exhibits and other artistic tributes to the war against the Soviets, the museum's curators say that this is the first ever museum dedicated entirely to the mujaheddin. The scene of brutal conflict during the Soviet occupation, Herat is now one of the most peaceful areas in Afghanistan. The museum is built into a hill overlooking the city and several landmarks from the most violent days in the province, like the old fortress which has been fought over by the Persians, Turks, Mongols and Uzbeks - and, more recently, where the mujaheddin squared off against the Soviets. The Jumah Mosque, which stands a short distance away, became the largest place of worship in Herat after the British Indian army blew up a bigger mosque in 1885 to stop the Russians from using it as a fort. Small houses and shops sprout out around these two prominent landmarks and gradually dissolve into the surrounding farmland.

The gardens around the museum, with their coloured tiles and mosaic work, offer a tranquil contrast to the surrounding area's history. Swan paddleboats float on a small lake, while the decommisioned helicopters and artillery cannons dotted around the lawns and flowerbeds seem like harmless ornaments. However, the Manzar-e-Jahad's outer walls tell a different story. The structure, which incorporates elements of traditional Islamic and local architecture, is etched with the names of 2,100 men and women from Herat who were killed during the Soviet-Afghan war.

Inside, the museum's main lobby hosts an extensive display of rifles, shoulder-launched rockets and other small arms. Hassan, the museum's director, points to a few of the weapons and offers his praise for Iran and China, whom he credits with having supplied the mujaheddin. The hallway that leads to the museum's centrepiece - a massive diorama that wraps around the edge of the entire building - is lined with portraits of famous mujaheddin commanders, illuminated with coloured lights.

A collection of more than 20 life-size ceramic mujaheddin stands guard outside the diorama; as I walk past with Hassan, an artist is applying some finishing touches to the statues. He seems oblivious to the horrific scenes of war being played out behind him. The diorama is made up of one-half-scale figurines and chronicles the entire Afghan war against the Soviets in gruesome detail. Afghan statuettes beat Russian soldiers to death with farm tools, a woman passes a rifle to her husband on the roof as he fights off the invaders, and finally the victorious mujaheddin enter Herat city after executing Afghan communist collaborators. The figures blend into a mural that covers a wall nearly two storeys high. This makes the diorama seem even larger than it actually is. Though children and families will likely visit the museum, its creators spared no gore. The dead and injured litter this replica battlefield, scarlet-painted blood oozing from their every wound.

The museum's curators have also managed to collect more than 3,000 photographs of people wounded in the fighting: amputees, bloodied men in hospital beds and other images that would have rarely appeared in the western media. It also hosts another 18,000 pictures of mujaheddin fighters - posing with their weapons, relaxing in their camps, or even just simple passport-style photos of individual men. To build up the collection, the museum advertised on television and radio for people to bring in photographs, and even visited a number of villages beyond the reach of media broadcasts. The museum has carved 300 of the more prominent photographs into stone and made copper engravings of another 100. Its curators have also collected just shy of 200 personal letters and correspondences from mujaheddin fighters.

For Nasrallah Sarway, the Manzar-e-Jahad's head artist, the displays are simply a reminder of a time of war that he hopes will ensure future peace. Though he was a colonel in an Afghan army unit that supported the mujaheddin during the Soviet war, he says that as a humanitarian he attained the Afghan equivalent of conscientious-objector status and spent the war as an official military artist. "People should see this museum and think about humanitarianism and brotherhood," Sarway says. "Now people should think about development. This is the age of technology. We should not be like wild savages, fighting and killing each other."

He adamantly denies that his graphic displays of the mujaheddin fighters defeating the Russians and meting out violent deaths to the vanquished could encourage a new generation of Afghans to take up arms against the foreign forces currently in his country. "First of all, they came here to support and help us. If this proves true when they leave, we will be happy," he says. "If not, we will build a museum like this for them."

Tom A. Peter is a freelance journalist who covers Afghanistan and the Middle East.