Afghan officials, Soviets at bay
Ruka, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan — The prisoners -- Afghan government officials, teachers, students, officers, and the director of a large cement factory -- are obediently lined up against the stone walls of the jail's inner courtyard.
As several armed guerilla guards look on, the prisoners stare at the visitors with glum contempt, unease, or faces totally devoid of expression.
The prison commander is a bulky former Afghan Army officer, polished pistol at his side, who has defected to the mujahideen guerrillas. He fingers one of the inmates, a blue-jeaned engineering student, as a rancher might poke at a steer.
"We have a special Islamic court to judge people like this," he declares loudly. "Depending on their crimes, they may get four months' imprisonment, or a year, or we'll keep them until the communists are finally kicked out of our country. Then the people will decide what to do with them." A broad, toothless grin indicates what he expects their fate will be.
This stone prison tucked into a side valley of the Panjshir is one of many indications of the antigovernment guerrillas' hold on huge swaths of this rugged country -- and of the demoralization of the pro-government forces.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Afghan resistance commands almost the entire countryside. True, the dull roar of a pair of Russian MIGs occasionally echoes over the mountains. Or a bearded partisan points to a distant hilltop and says: "The Russians have a base up there, but they don't dare come down here any more."
But in most parts visited by this correspondent during a 700-mile trek through several Afghan provinces there is little sign of the Soviet presence. Rural life continues under guerrilla rule much as before the 1979 Soviet invasion, with farmers cultivating their fields and women performing traditional household chores.
Even in the towns the Soviet and Afghan government forces exercise only tenuous control. In contrast to the early stages of the Soviet occupation, for instance, when Russians could still openly amble through the streets of Kabul, life there also has become one of constant insecurity. While the city functions as a capital during the daytime, the resistance takes over at night.
Russian soldiers now patrol only in armored vehicles or in heavily armed groups. Both diplomats and afghan residents report sporadic shooting almost every night. And afghan communists live in well-justified fear of being assassinated or kidnapped by the mujahideen (Muslim fighters).
"The communists know we can get them if we really want to; the atmosphere in Kabul has become one of nervousness and fear among party members," says Haji Safert Mir, a former Tourist Office guide who recently left his job to join the resistance here in the Panjshir. "Government officials rarely travel by bus between towns -- if possible, only by plane."
Resistance sources also report a growing panic among communist officials that the Soviets might eventuallt pack up and leave. "There will then be nothing for them to do, but to go and live in the Soviet Union," remarks one mujahideen, Fiaz Muhammad Haqi Panjshiri. "There will be no room for people like that in a new Afghanistan."
The Afghan Army itself is largely ineffective and unreliable. Defections continue at an enormous rate. Efforts to recruit new conscripts as well as reenlist former soldiers (by lengthening military service and offering financial incentives) are producing few results. The Army's numbers have now dropped to roughly 20,000 compared with 100,000 before the Soviet invasion. Furthermore, numerous officers in the Afghan armed forces are actively cooperating with the resistance.
Russian convoys come under constant attack along the highways that link Afghanistan's major towns. In some areas, particularly in the northern provinces bordering the Soviet Union, supplies can be brought in only by air. The latest reports suggest that the partisans are beginning to redirect their strategy toward a more aggressive warfare against both towns and military bases.
Until now, the Soviets have tried to contain the resistance by seeking to control the main population centers and communications arteries, and by launching specific operations against heavy guerrilla concentrations. In the countryside, massive retaliatory raids against civilians believed to be actively supporting the resistance have also been part of their tactics.
In addition, according to the Afghans, Soviet helicopters still drop mines along the border areas as well as along the main caravan routes in order to terrorize inhabitants and discourage the resistance from trafficking supplies between Pakistan and afghanistan.
On two occasions during his month-long trek this correspondent came across graphic reminders of this Soviet tactic, a cruel contrast to the apparent pastoral tranquility of cows grazing in highland pastures or golden stalks of wheat billowing in the evening breeze. Shortly after the weapons-supply caravan which I accompanied crossed into Afghanistan, a young partisan stepped on a booby-trapped watch or compass -- it could not be identified. The explosion blew off his left foot. Three days later, an 8-year-old boy in an isolated mountain village lost his hand while trying to pick up a plastic antipersonnel "butterfly" mine lying along a goat track.
We reached the guerrillas' Panshir Valley jail by climbing a steep, rocky path weaving precipitously above the thundering waters of a mountain torrent. At a distance, it looks like a group of desolate farm shelters. Consisting of three solidly constructed stone and concrete buildings, the prison has been purposely tucked away in a narrow side valley to avoid detection from the air.
Although Afghan guerrilla groups elsewhere in the country are known to keep communist prisoners in makeshift jails, ranging from barricaded bombed-out houses to locked rooms in downtown Kabul, the Panjshir prison is thought to be the largest and most organized of its kind.
Captured Afghan communists used to be kept in guarded mountain caves in the resistance-controlled Panjshir Valley. Today this prison, built in July 1979, harbors some 80 inmates, the majority of them in their late teens and early 20s. A limited number are allowed out during the daytime to collect firewood or work in the fields. The more important prisoners such as the cement factory director , who is also a senior official in the Communist Party, remain permanently confined.
Several communal rooms have been set aside for sleeping, eating, and cooking. The graveled, tree-shaded yard, barely larger than a basketball court, is used for fresh air and exercise.
Although this correspondent was not permitted to visit the living quarters, the interior of the prison appeared remarkably clean, much cleaner than the average Afghan farmhouse, and the prisoners well fed. Two Khalq (ruling People's Party) doctors captured two years ago, provide the prisoners with basic health care; they also run a small dispensary under resistance supervision in the Panjshir.
According to the guerrillas, a substantial number of the prisoners were captured during various rounds of fighting. Many of the teachers and students were soldiers conscripted by the Kabul government. Normally, most captured recruits are questioned about their political affiliations and released within a few days if proven to be anticommunist. They then either join the resistance or return home to their families. Party members, on the other hand, are retained.
"Captured senior officers tend to be party members," said Muhammed Yahya, a former veterinary student from Kabul University now in charge of political and Islamic instruction at the mujahideen training school in the Panjshir Valley. "But most Afghan soldiers are quite simply miserable country peasants or schoolboys who have been forced into uniform by the communists. Often they have little choice and are pushed into battle with Russian guns pointing at their backs."
But some prisoners are also kidnap victims -- members of the Communist Party seized by the mujahideen and brought to this and other "jails."
There are estimated to be fewer than 5,000 Communist Party members in Afghanistan. Most of them have long since left their homes in the country for the rapidly diminishing safety of Kabul and other towns. The resistance keeps close tabs on who is who and where. Constantly updated lists of communist collaborators are compiled by the guerrillas. Professional town photographers, for example, pass on duplicates of party members who have come to have their pictures taken.
Both Western diplomatic sources and resistance groups have reported a rise in assassinations and kidnappings in Kabul over the past few months. Between 20 and 30 communists are believed to be killed every week by various guerrilla groups. A similar number are kidnapped.
"We just go for the party members, not their families," says Massoud, the guerrilla commander of the Panjshir Valley. "We don't believe the family should suffer if they are not responsible." Some communists are also assured survival by paying a "protection" tax to the resistance.
Russians captured by the partisans are rarely allowed to live. There are no Soviet prisoners in the Panjshir jail. But some guerrilla groups are rumored to be holding captured Soviet personnel.
Earlier this year, for instance, a shot-down Russian pilot was brought to Pakistan by the Younnis Khalis faction of the Hezb-i-Islami. although photographs and Super-8 movie footage were released to the news media to prove his existence, the Pakistani government was concerned about possible embarrassment and he was never actually presented to the international press as had been originally intended. So great was the Pakistani pressure that the Afghans were forced to release the pilot within 10 days. He was eventually handed over discreetly to the Soviet authorities by the Pakistanis.
The knowledge that there is little hope of survival if captured is said to have had a severely detrimental effect on the morale of the Russian troops. Tales of brutal torture at the hands of guerrillas apparently abound in Soviet camps. On the other hand, similar tales of communist torture are recounted among Afghan circles.
The mujahideen report cases of injured Russian soldiers committing suicide or shooting each other rather than face bitter Afghan wrath. There are also reports of Soviet helicopters purposely machine-gunning or bombing encircled Russian soldiers who could not be rescued. The Geneva Convention appears to hold little sway on either side in this ruthless guerrilla war.
Educated Afghan leaders are aware of the propaganda value of capturing Soviet soldiers alive. "But there is little we can do," remakrs Massoud, who obviously finds the question of Russian prisoners of war purely academic. "Hatred for the Russians is just too great. Many mujahideen have lost their families or homes through communist terror. Their first reaction when coming across a Russian is to kill him."
Numerous ID cards, letters, and photographs taken off the bodies of Russian soldiers attest to the increasing number of Soviet casualties. The smiling faces of young men clutching girlfriends, posing for family portraits, or horseplaying among fellow recruits are tragically reminiscent of innocent-looking American draftees in the Vietnam war.
Many observers now believe Moscow may have to decide whether to beef up its estimated 100,000 troops and directly confront the guerrillas on their own terrain or seek a diplomatic solution that will permit them to leave, if possible, without losing face.
As things stand now, the guerrillas cannot hope to physically remove the Russians from Afghan soil. But neither can Moscow suppress what is to all intents and purposes, one of the most popularly supported anticommunist revolts of this century.