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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 12 November 2018

The Afghan military's death-defying exception

She's been widowed, imprisoned, fired upon and poisoned, and a faulty parachute once put her in a free fall with moments to spare before death. Khatool Mohammadzai is not just Afghanistan's only female general - she may be its first indestructible one as well.
Mohammadzai wears her army uniform adorned with medals in the 1980s.
Mohammadzai wears her army uniform adorned with medals in the 1980s.
She's been widowed, imprisoned, fired upon and poisoned, and a faulty parachute once put her in a free fall with moments to spare before death. Khatool Mohammadzai is not just Afghanistan's only female general - she may be its first indestructible one as well. Words and photographs by Sergio Ramazzotti

General Khatool Mohammadzai is a parachutist who has made 572 jumps and has been wearing the Afghan National Army uniform for almost 30 years. But most notable of all, the general is a woman.

During her long career, she has faced death more than once, spent years confined at home during the Taliban regime and buried her husband, killed during the Soviet war shortly after their son was born.

Yet she has climbed the ladder, becoming the highest-ranking female officer in the Afghan army. Resented by many, Mohammadzai, 45, has survived more than one attempt on her life. Today, she has a desk job at the Ministry of Defence in Kabul, and is responsible for the army's female sport teams.

But when she goes home at night, she changes into civilian clothes, puts on a veil, buys groceries at the bazaar, and cooks dinner for her 20-year-old son and her nephews.

That Mohammadzai has got where she is is a kind of miracle in today's Afghanistan, where, despite what they tell you, there has been little progress in women's emancipation even after a decade of the latest war.

It remains a country in which women - with a few exceptions - can show themselves in public only if they're covered by a regulation burqa.

Yet Mohammadzai, the only female general in the country, has never owned a burqa (although she does wear a veil), and it's difficult to imagine who could force her to wear one. Besides having a black belt in three martial arts, she's a trained commando and dangerously skilled in pistols and automatic weapons. Not exactly the stereotype of an average Afghan housewife.

Thirty years ago, Mohammadzai wasn't a typical Afghan adolescent, either. While her contemporaries, if not married to men old enough to be their fathers, were confined at home learning the hard art of being a housewife and the even harder art of submissiveness, she went to arenas and practised sport of every kind (mainly judo, karate and tae kwon do). From time to time, unheard of in Afghanistan, the "real tomboy", as she defines herself, even got into fights, brawling with the local tough guys. In the meantime, she also managed to enrol with the law faculty at the Jamal Mena University in Kabul, and later, still not even 20, she was able to use this to enlist in the army, with the blessing of her parents.

There's a photo from the 1980s showing her on parade in full uniform, with a forest of medals pinned to her chest, an incredible mane of brown curls cascading over her shoulders, and hands ending in spectacular, highly polished, long red fingernails. It is, like all photos, only a partial representation of the truth because, at the time, Afghanistan was being devastated by war. Even if Mohammadzai never participated in combat, the conflict had already carried away two brothers and her husband. "He died when our son was exactly 40 days old," she remembers with chilling precision. She, herself, was thrown into the middle of the street the day a missile ripped her house apart.

in the years that followed, things got worse (as it did for most Afghans). When the Taliban seized power, Mohammadzai was locked up at home - the same home she still lives in. Though it has since been repaired, it still bears the scars of the missile attack on the living room ceiling. Confined within four walls, she says the one thing that made her suffer most was "not being able to wear my uniform and go to the barracks every morning".

So what did the future general (she was then still a colonel) do for those long years? Although a woman, her rank still meant she had power and the ability to use it. Plan a coup d'état? An attack on Mullah Omar? Launch an assault on the palaces of power with her faithful commandos?

No. While she admits "I felt I was dying with frustration", she brought up her son, and also developed a passion for poetry and design. Judging from the fine calligraphy that hangs on the walls, she succeeded in making some refined works of art.

Mohammadzai returned to service only in 2003 after the fall of the Islamic regime. Despite the years spent locked away, she worked with more determination and vigour than ever. It is still plain to see as one of her subordinates washes her hair; her eyes are two steely slits, her mouth contracts into a kind of snarl, her index finger points like a gun and every trace of femininity is swept away with the fury of a sergeant major drill instructor from the marines.

The president, Hamid Karzai, promoted her to general, gave her the Japanese off-road vehicle (second-hand, truth be told) that she uses as a service transport, and put her in charge of the women's army sport teams, with an office at the Ministry of Defence in Kabul. She has decorated the office with photos, a poster with the words "Men reach paradise from the wombs of women", and two enormous, incongruous bunches of flowers.

When I walk in, Mohammadzai comes over and shakes my hand (a rare event in Afghanistan) with a disarming smile that in some ways clashes with her khaki overalls, the medals and decorations pinned to her chest, and the fact that she had lost everything in life - family, husband, house, job - only for some of them to be handed back in instalments.

The first thing the general does, as is normal in Afghanistan, is tell her orderly to prepare us tea. The second thing is to show me, one after the other, her scars.

"This," she says with a high, almost childlike voice, but one that she is able to transform into that aforementioned snarl, "is from a time that, on opening a parachute, a defective piece passed through my throat to the palate. And this," she raises the sleeve of her uniform to reveal where her forearm was "broken twice". She continues. Broken leg: three times. Then the head. Banged around often. A dislocated thumb. Innumerable fractured ribs. And the day when, while in free fall, her main parachute didn't open and her emergency chute unfolded completely only three seconds before she hit the ground.

"Nowadays," she says, "for me every day is a gift."

There also are the three times someone tried to kill her right here, inside the ministry complex: twice by poisoning her food (the orderly now tastes it first), and once by placing a poisoned nail inside the boots she had left outside her door.

"In the army there are many who envy me for the simple fact I am a woman, and have made it to the rank of general: some to the point of wishing death upon me. Others limit themselves to calling me 'that ugly lesbian'. Afghanistan," she says bitterly, "was much more civilised 30 years ago, there was none of this ignorance among the political classes, and women still counted for something. Today I have the feeling that those women who want to become like me, and there are many, are being put off."

This irritates her. Mohammadzai is a committed feminist, and is all too aware that neither weapons nor commando tactics will guarantee Afghan women victory in their quest for equality. Her knowledge that she is destined to die without winning the campaign seems to render her more vulnerable when she's at home. The apartment, three rooms in a dilapidated condominium in the district of Makrorian, is a temple to her fight, crammed like a warship with memorabilia, photos, gilded plaques and acknowledgments from the armies of half the world.

Mohammadzai climbs the stairs, becoming less and less military step by step, enters the bedroom, removes her uniform and puts on a traditional dress and a veil, as if - now in civilian clothes - she suddenly feels the need to hide from her western guest the sight of all that hair that until a moment ago she was showing off under the red beret. Animated with unexpected vanity, she looks in the mirror, and complains she appears older than she is.

"Like all Afghans," she says, "it happens to you when in life you've not done nothing but suffer."

Sometimes her 20-year-old son or her nephews stay for supper and spend the night here. At other times, Mohammadzai says, she "is fundamentally single". And if the house is a temple, and a complex monument to nostalgia, the greatest altar is a blown-up photograph: a parachutist - the general - a few moments before touching down in a precision landing, holding in her hand the national flag and a copy of the Quran. The location is Kabul national stadium, and the occasion a day of festivities to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the new constitution, in 2006. Mohammadzai was one of six members of a squad of "Afghan Heroes" who flew over the capital that day. Needless to say she was the only woman. It was her last jump: with the deteriorating situation in the country there have been no such gala events since.

Under the photo the general sighs and says: "Only one thing would make me truly happy: to be able to go back and throw myself out of an airplane again." to general, gave her the Japanese off-road vehicle (second-hand, truth be told) that she uses as a service transport, and put her in charge of the women's army sport teams, with an office at the Ministry of Defence in Kabul. She has decorated the office with photos, a poster with the words "Men reach paradise from the wombs of women", and two enormous, incongruous bunches of flowers.

When I walk in, Mohammadzai comes over and shakes my hand (a rare event in Afghanistan) with a disarming smile that in some ways clashes with her khaki overalls, the medals and decorations pinned to her chest, and the fact that she had lost everything in life - family, husband, house, job - only for some of them to be handed back in instalments.

The first thing the general does, as is normal in Afghanistan, is tell her orderly to prepare us tea. The second thing is to show me, one after the other, her scars.

"This," she says with a high, almost childlike voice, but one that she is able to transform into that aforementioned snarl, "is from a time that, on opening a parachute, a defective piece passed through my throat to the palate. "And this," she raises the sleeve of her uniform to reveal her forearm,"broken twice". She continues. Broken leg, three times. Then the head. Banged around often. A dislocated thumb. Innumerable fractured ribs. And the day when, while in free fall, her main parachute didn't open and her emergency chute unfolded completely only three seconds before she hit the ground.

"Nowadays," she says, "for me every day is a gift."

There also are the three times someone tried to kill her right here, inside the ministry complex: twice by poisoning her food (the orderly now tastes it first), and once by placing a poisoned nail inside the boots she had left outside her door.

"In the army there are many who envy me for the simple fact I am a woman, and have made it to the rank of general: some to the point of wishing death upon me. Others limit themselves to calling me 'that ugly lesbian'.

"Afghanistan," she says bitterly, "was much more civilised 30 years ago, there was none of this ignorance among the political classes, and women still counted for something. Today, I have the feeling that those women who want to become like me, and there are many, are being put off."

This irritates her. Mohammadzai is a committed feminist, and is all too aware that neither weapons nor commando tactics will guarantee Afghan women victory in their quest for equality. Knowing that she is destined to die without winning the campaign seems to render her more vulnerable when she's at home. The apartment, three rooms in a dilapidated condominium in the district of Makrorian, is a temple to her fight, crammed like a warship with memorabilia, photos, gilded plaques and acknowledgments from the armies of half the world.

Mohammadzai climbs the stairs, becoming less and less military step by step, enters the bedroom, removes her uniform and puts on a traditional dress and a veil, as if - now in civilian clothes - she suddenly feels the need to hide from her western guest the sight of all that hair that until a moment ago she was showing off under the red beret. Animated with unexpected vanity, she looks in the mirror, and complains she appears older than she is.

"Like all Afghans," she says, "it happens to you when in life you've not done nothing but suffer."

Sometimes her 20-year-old son or her nephews stay for supper and spend the night here. At other times, Mohammadzai says, she is "fundamentally single".

And if the house is a temple, and a complex monument to nostalgia, the greatest altar is a blown-up photograph of a parachutist - the general - a few moments before touching down in a precision landing, holding in her hand the national flag and a copy of the Quran.

The location is Kabul national stadium, and the occasion a day of festivities to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the new constitution in 2006. Mohammadzai was one of six members of a squad of "Afghan Heroes" who flew over the capital that day. Needless to say she was the only woman. It was her last jump. With the deteriorating situation in the country there have been no such gala events since.

Under the photo the general sighs and says: "Only one thing would make me truly happy: to be able to go back and throw myself out of an aeroplane again."