Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 24 September 2020

Assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud: 'It's my duty to remind people,' says survivor

On the anniversary of the Afghan politician's murder, aide Mohammad Dashty recalls the 'national hero'

Afghan opposition commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, second left, talking with aides in 1990. AFP
Afghan opposition commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, second left, talking with aides in 1990. AFP

Mohammad Fahim Dashty was about 7 or 8 when he first met Afghan resistance leader and politician Ahmad Shah Massoud nearly 40 years ago.

“It was at a family wedding, he was there visiting his aunt who was related to my father," said Dashty, 47, a journalist and political activist.

"I can’t say we became friends then, I was so young, but I was deeply inspired to become his follower."

Back in the 1980s, Massoud was already part of the mujahideen struggle taking place across Afghanistan to overthrow the Soviet occupation.

A decade later Dashty would join him in the United Front, popularly known as the Northern Alliance, which resisted the Taliban.

Massoud was known as Amir Sahib, a Dari-language title meaning commander.

On September 9, 2001, Dashty survived the attack that killed Massoud, a national hero, when Al Qaeda operatives posed as journalists and then blew up their camera.

“It hurts me a lot whenever I am asked talk about that day, but as a witness to such an important historical event I feel it is my duty to remind people of what happened,” he said.

“The two terrorists had entered our territory some 10 days before, but could not reach Amir Sahib until September 9. "They had been seeking to interview him for some time."

As a young reporter in the resistance, Dashty had been given the job of documenting the group's activities, following Massoud as he performed tasks and placing him in the room on that fateful day.

“We were in the Khwaja Bahauddin district of Takhar province in the north-east," he said.

"There was a small building that we nicknamed the 'foreign ministry', since those of us working there were responsible for maintaining our relations with foreign allies and receiving foreign guests. This is where the two terrorists were brought."

There were three other members of the United Front in the room that day: diplomat Massoud Khalili, chief of intelligence Arif Sarwari and Massoud’s secretary, Jamsheed.

Dashty was standing behind the two assailants, who were pretending to interview Massoud for a documentary.

“They said they were part of an Islamic research centre in London and were documenting Islamic countries," he said.

"One of them was reading out questions to Massoud Khalili, who was translating it to Amir Sahib, while the other was preparing the camera.

"Nothing seemed unusual but 10 minutes into the interview there was a deafening explosion.

Afghan opposition military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud with his followers. AFP 
Afghan opposition military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud speaks to his followers. AFP

“I was conscious but I didn’t know what was happening.

"I felt an extreme burning sensation in my hands, face and legs, yet my first thought was that I should leave the room since Amir Sahib was in an interview. I was disoriented.”

The suicide attackers had detonated a bomb hidden in the camera and battery pack, fatally injuring Massoud, who was rushed to a military hospital across the border in Tajikistan but succumbed to his injuries.

Asim Suhail, who managed the United Front’s foreign ministry, also died.

Dashty and Mr Khalili were grievously injured and to this day carry the physical and emotional scars of their loss.

Massoud’s killing, two days before the 9/11 attacks that prompted the invasion of Afghanistan, led many, including Dashty, to believe there was a strong connection between the events.

Investigations into the assassination revealed that Massoud’s murder was probably a payback from Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden to the Taliban for providing support in Afghanistan.

“They killed Massoud because the United Front was the only resistance against the Taliban, stopping them from taking over all of Afghanistan," Dashty said.

"Soon after the attack, they launched many more on the United Front.

"The attack on the United Front and those on the US are tied together, and the US would not have made the gains it did towards overthrowing the Taliban without the help of the United Front."

Massoud’s assassination also solidified his status as a national hero.

Photos of him in his pakol, the traditional Afghan headwear, can be found on billboards, shop windows, car windshields and even in remote police checkpoints across the country.

Massoud is an inspiration to those continuing the struggle.

As Afghanistan prepares to engage in peace talks with the Taliban, his followers remain cautious of placing their trust in the group.

“It is too early for us to judge if the Taliban have changed," Dashty said.

"They have shown the will but on the ground they are still killing, looting, terrorising Afghans and indulging in extremist ideology.

"If they have changed, they have to show us.”

Dashty said that Massoud was in favour of talks.

“Amir Sahib always fought for peace in Afghanistan," he said.

"He never missed an opportunity to negotiate, whether it was meeting the Taliban in Maidan Shar before they captured Kabul, or later in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the UAE and Switzerland.

"He grabbed every chance to solve Afghanistan’s problem with dialogue and diplomacy.

“He was always in favour of a deal that would preserve Afghan national interest and not compromise on our values of human rights and women’s rights."

Dashty said that if Massoud were around today, he would have “favoured a peace deal but not a deal that will facilitate the return of a terrorist group to power".

“Amir Sahib resisted the Taliban because of an independent and sovereign Afghanistan was important to him,” he said.

“He would say, ‘I will fight [for a free country] even if all that is left is a place as small as my pakol'."

Updated: September 11, 2020 03:47 AM

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