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Afghan Diary

IN spite of the likely international perception that Kabul is a city under siege, many aspects of life for the three million residents here go on as normal.
There were huge weddings before the start of Ramadan at glitzy, neon-lit, industrial-sized reception halls than can hold up to 5,000 guests. Kids are out regularly flying kites all over town. And many people go out of the capital for picnics on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

One of the most popular picnic destinations is the Panjshir Valley north of the city.

Ten days ago I hooked up with some folks, and we all drove up there to have a look.

Sixty kilometres north of Kabul, past the fertile Shomali plateau, the road splits at the town of Jabal ul Saraj. The right fork heads northeast, and after 10 kilometres, you enter a narrow gorge that is the entrance to the valley.

The 100 kilometre-long Panjshir Valley, mostly inhabited by ethnic Tajiks, gained fame during the 1980s as an area that the Soviet army could not subdue. They assaulted the valley from the air and on the ground on at least nine occasions, taking enormous casualties, but never took full control for long.

When entering the valley, it's easy to see why. The road is literally carved into the side of the rock face, with a raging river ready to engulf anyone who takes his eye off the mark. It was easy for mujahideen to hide in upper cliffs and harass the Soviets every inch of the way.

The gorge eventually opens up and reveals a long, winding series of flatlands astride the river with orchids and rice under cultivation. Scattered villages hug the slopes. The scenery is magnificent, with peaks rising above 4,500 metres on both sides.

There's also heaps of destroyed Soviet military hardware - tanks, APCs, artillery - in the river, in fields or just stacked up as scrap. At one bend in the road, picnickers now stop for the proverbial happy snap sitting atop a lined-up row of mangled tanks, recently adorned with election campaign posters.

Frustrated by their inability to conquer the valley, the Soviets eventually decided to make it uninhabitable. Whole villages were razed and their roofless stone shells still remain empty as a testimony to the troubled past.

Ahmad Shah Massoud is the most famous Tajik to hail from the Panjshir. He led the resistance to the Soviets, and then to the Taliban in the '90s. An al-Qaeda suicide bomber posing as a cameraman killed him two days before 9/11.

His people are now building a huge shrine at his tomb halfway up the valley, which sits proudly on a promontory offering expansive views up and down the river. Those wishing to pay their respects and tourists alike now regularly visit the site.

We found a place along the river that served up hot lamb kebabs, rice pilaf, bread, yoghurt and sliced onions. Young boys splashed in the river and families sat along the embankment enjoying the cool breeze.

It was a world away from the war with the Taliban in the south and elsewhere.
Expect more periodic dispatches from former Post publisher Michael Hayes as he travels through Afghanistan.



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