Afghan Capital Deserted as Celebration Canceled

By Pamela Constable
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

KABUL, Afghanistan — The streets of the Afghan capital were deserted Tuesday in a tense, silent observance of an annual holiday that evokes an era of patriotic heroism for some Afghans and a period of brutal, devastating civil war for others.

For the first time in 16 years, there was no military parade through city streets and no cheering throngs of retired mujaheddin donning pie-shaped pakul hats and faded combat jackets in memory of their triumphant guerrilla fight against Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s.

The national stadium and mosque were prepared for the occasion with multi-colored banners and posters of the Afghan holy war's fallen heroes, but the public ceremony was abruptly canceled in favor of a small private remembrance held inside the heavily guarded presidential compound.

Although the government said it changed plans because it preferred to use the parade funds to help victims of a recent earthquake, it was widely assumed that officials were concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack. The area around the empty stadium was patrolled by hundreds of police and NATO troops.

Last year's ceremony erupted in mayhem when heavily armed attackers, hiding on a nearby rooftop, opened fire on the reviewing stand where President Hamid Karzai and other dignitaries were singing the national anthem. One member of parliament and two other people were killed, and Karzai was hurried to safety.

Some Afghans, especially veterans of the grueling 10-year war against the former Soviet Union, saw the cancellation of the public ceremony as an unforgivable slight to the millions of Afghans who were killed, injured, displaced or orphaned by the conflict, which helped speed the demise of Soviet communism.

"I am very disappointed. Many people sacrificed a lot in the war, and this is the only day we have to honor them," said Mir Agha, 47, a former fighter whose legs are paralyzed from a shrapnel wound. With a young boy pushing him in a wheelchair, he slowly circled the empty parade ground Tuesday.

A few patrolling police, virtually alone in the wide boulevard between the stadium and the mosque, paused to snap photos of a huge portrait of Ahmed Shah Massood, the famous anti-Soviet guerrilla leader who was assassinated in 2001.

Naeem Farahi, a legislator from the United Front party that includes many former mujaheddin, said the cancellation was a national disgrace and a sign of the government's weakness. "I lost 18 family members in the war, and I feel shame for the souls of all the martyrs," he said. "With thousands of foreign troops here, can't they protect one event?"

Most years, National Mujaheddin Day has been a festive occasion full of martial pomp. In 2005, newly trained Afghan National Army troops paraded while American and Afghan officers watched side by side. Karzai, addressing the crowd, urged all Afghans abroad to come back and "live a happy, comfortable life and participate in the reconstruction of their country."

This year Karzai is running for re-election amid a violent Taliban insurgency and is actively seeking the support of ex-mujaheddin leaders such as former Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, making the cancellations politically embarrassing as well.

But many Afghans approve of the decision not to publicly honor the aging freedom fighters, whose heroic entry into the capital 17 years ago was followed by a chaotic conflict among various armed militias that destroyed much of the city and sent many thousands of residents into flight.

Today, after five years of extremist Taliban rule and seven years of democracy, numerous senior leaders of the old, anti-Soviet militias hold positions of political and economic power. None has ever been held to account for the death and destruction of the early 1990s, and some are reported to have become wealthy through drug trafficking and smuggling schemes.

"To me this is the day that destroyed everything," Abdul Aziz, a Justice Ministry official and university professor, said Tuesday. "There are two dark days in the recent history of Afghanistan: the day the communists came, and today."

Safia Saddiqui, a legislator from eastern Afghanistan, said the only reason the holiday continues to be held is because so many ex-freedom fighters still retain powerful posts. "If they weren't in the government, I don't think the people would want to celebrate," she said.

The occasion was also awkward for those caught between two versions of history. One was Abdullah Abdullah, a former aide to Massood and later a foreign minister under Karzai. He now plans to challenge Karzai for the presidency. Once, Abdullah would have been a fixture at Mujaheddin Day. This week, when asked his views on the controversial holiday, he instructed aides to say, "no comment."

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