It is rare for a sitting diplomat to write a book, leave alone publish personal memoirs. But then Ambassador Masood Khalili is no ordinary diplomat. Currently Afghanistan’s ambassador to Spain, Khalili has donned many different hats in his life — diplomat, freedom fighter, negotiator. Now with the launch of his book, Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet Invasion, in New Delhi, where he once studied and later served as ambassador, he dons a new hat — that of a writer. Not really surprising considering that his father, Dr Khalilullah Khalili, was Afghanistan’s poet laureate. The book is not just the memoirs of an Afghan man involved in the liberation of his country from foreign forces. In letters to his wife Sohaillah, he writes of his journey through the treacherous Himalayan range, accompanied by a team of foreign journalists.
Khalili, 69, is physically fragile with many pieces of shrapnel still lodged in his body, a constant reminder of both Afghanistan’s tragedy and resilience and Khalili’s own intimate involvement with it. “Just imagine, I was high in the mountains of my country, alone at night, writing to my wife. We had been married for seven years by then. She and my two sons were living in [the] neighbouring country of Pakistan then as refugees. I had three notebooks — one was political, one was military and this one was letters to my wife. In it, I was noting down the whispers of my people — the very ordinary men, women and children of Afghanistan,” he says.
His quest for freedom was not consciously planned but was rather thrust upon him. In April 1978, when Khalili was in Delhi and about to embark on his PhD programme, he received an unexpected call from his father, then Afghanistan’s ambassador to Iraq. His father told him that Communists had taken over the country with Soviet help, and it was but a matter of course before the Russians took over. He then suggested to Khalili to go back to Afghanistan. “Join the war of liberation, join your people. Get your PhD from the mountains of Afghanistan,” his father said. Those words determined the course of Khalili’s life. He went back to Afghanistan and became the political officer of the Jamiat Islami Afghanistan party.
“So I joined the party and Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud [who was to later head the Northern Alliance faction in Afghanistan] was also there. I was not a fighter with guns. I thought the best thing for the liberation of Afghanistan was to mobilise people. If you mobilise people you win the war. If you don’t, the enemy mobilises them and you lose the war.” His years of study in India — where he learnt of the country’s struggle for freedom against its colonial masters and the mass mobilisation by leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru — was a source of inspiration. So armed with this wisdom, his sleeping bag and his notebooks, he travelled all over Afghanistan 13 times — sometimes on a donkey, sometimes on a horse and sometimes on foot. “It would often be either very hot or freezing cold. Often I went for two or three days without any food, no medicines,” he grimaces as he recalls those difficult days.
“What I had was only my people, and the memory of my beloved wife,” he says. His two small sons remained with his wife at a time where there were no cellphones, no email, and it was into his notebook that he poured his heart out to his wife at the end of each gruelling day. “I didn’t know the importance of this notebook then. Of my three notebooks, this one was the dearest, something to fill my heart with,” he says. “There on the mountains, about 10,000 feet high, full of snow, no near or dear one around you, seeing only refugees steadily streaming out, leaving the country, small kids crying…” he reminisces, “And I write, and in that situation one cannot lie.”
Today, he’s happy that all these stories of his experiences are reaching out to a wider global audience through his book. “I was mostly writing about the life of the people. I was talking about their tears, their laughter, their smiles, their pain, their anger, their generosity, their love of freedom, their sacrifices,” he says.
Khalili filled 40 notebooks with his personal observations of which Whispers of War is only the first.
“I came from the city, from a well-known family. And then off I went to the very interior of my country, the villages and hamlets of Afghanistan. I actually discovered my country,” he explains. “At one village I asked if there was a pharmacy, [and] the villagers wanted to know what a pharmacy was!”
When people saw the scion of such a well-known family riding on a donkey, in dirty clothes, eating the simple food that the villagers could offer, they began to relate to him. “Then they get closer to you, and when that happens you earn their trust and can give them your message,” he says. But mostly it was the great poverty and the fabled generosity of the Afghan people that he discovered.
He shares one of his most impressionable experiences in a village in the mountains which had been bombed by the Soviets. He walked up the hill and discovered a kind of open class under way under the trees. “I began interacting with the boys, they were happy to see me with my donkey. And I asked them to write ‘freedom’. Only two of them did.” So Khalili told the teacher: “Please don’t waste their time, they are 11 and 12 years old. They should know how to write.” The teacher replied: “Khalili sir, all of them are talented. They can all write, believe me. But we have only two pencils in the entire class.” Later that night Khalili wrote, “I was ashamed of my ignorance of the poverty of my own people.” But that also gave him hope. “I saw freedom at the tips of those two pencils. After all, it’s not just the gun, but the pen too that wins you freedom.”
Khalili has his wife, who allowed the letters to be made public, and son Mahmud, who translated the memoirs into English, to thank for these personal stories finding a wide audience. His wife Sohaillah’s father was mayor of Kabul before the Communists took over. Khalili and Sohaillah were married during the war in the United States quite suddenly although they had been in love for years. They were married in the only mosque in Manhattan in a simple ceremony which remains for Khalili “the most beautiful wedding ever.”
In 2001, the night Ahmad Shah Massoud, more famously known as the ‘Lion of Panjshir’, was assassinated by men impersonating journalists, Khalili was with him. Though he survived the attack, he was badly injured, losing an eye and hearing in one ear. “After Commander Massoud was killed and I survived but was injured so badly, I told my wife that I wanted to bid goodbye to the past. I said I did not want to see these notebooks again.”
But one night in Spain, he woke up to find that his wife was not in the bedroom. He went to look for her and heard voices in his residence at the embassy in Madrid. “So I heard my wife reading something and my son Mahmud typing away on his laptop.” He listened quietly and realised that it was an incident from his personal notebook from the war.
“So she’s happy and pushing for the publication of the other notebooks as she says it’s not just my story, it’s a part of history and [the] story of my land and people.”
Knowing the land and the people and participating in the liberation war also taught Khalili some of life’s biggest lessons. “The need to be a good human being was the greatest,” he says. “The second most-important thing I learnt was patience. A villager once told me ‘patience is sour, but it has a sweet fruit.’ And the third lesson — in the midst of darkness to keep dreaming of the light.”
That is why perhaps of all the people he met and befriended and interacted with, Massoud lingers in his mind. “He was five years younger than me but what passion, what love for his country!” He recounts an incident when he and Massoud had retired to a cave for a night’s sleep. “It had been dark inside but beautiful moonlight flooded the mountains. I asked Massoud whether he really thought we could win a war against a superpower with our meagre resources.” Massoud held out his hand into the moonlight and told Khalili: “Do you see how dark it is inside? And do you see the light on my hand? If this is true, then so is our freedom.”
Though the fight was against the Soviets, Khalili sees Russia today as playing a positive role in Afghanistan. “During the past 26 years, since we defeated the USSR and entered Kabul, the Russian role has not been negative. They have actually been trying to help and to admit that what the Communist regime and Soviet Army did was wrong, because I was in the first negotiations of the Afghan Mujahideen in Moscow. After all, Afghanistan was a very small and friendly country to them. They were blaming the Communist regime in Kabul that forced them there. Also they blamed their own understanding of Afghanistan and miscalculations about its history and the feelings of its people. They somehow forgot that those like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timurlane, the Mughals — they all crossed this region but were unable to rule it. They have tried to compensate for what they did and I hope they continue to do so and not start the great game in Afghanistan again.”
He concedes that had the Soviets been given a chance to stay on, they might have delivered as they did in other Central Asian republics like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. “But you know the love of freedom amongst Afghans was greater than the love for roads and hospitals,” he says.
He rues the corruption currently plaguing Afghanistan, and its high rate of illiteracy. “We have presidents, ministers, diplomats, but we do not have a leader. Look at the corruption. People have to stand up against it as they did for their freedom. But I don’t blame them. They are poor, uneducated. Maybe it is our fault too. We have won the war but lost the peace.”
Aditi Bhaduri is a freelance journalist based in India.