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Remembering Afghanistan's Herat Uprising

Twenty-five years after the Soviet withdrawal, those who took part in the Herat Uprising look back.

Last updated: 13 Feb 2014 10:17
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A roundabout in the centre of Herat city commemorates the five-day uprising of 1979 [Ali Latifi/Al Jazeera]

Herat, Afghanistan - Mohammad Yousef Qaderi still remembers the rush of people, their echoing chants against Afghanistan's communist government filling the air.

Thousands of people in Herat province clenched their fists in the air, or waved the black, red and green flag of Afghanistan. Some carried guns, others had only pitchforks and sickles. "Whatever was in people's hands, they would grab and join in the wave," Qaderi recalled.

Qaderi said all of his pent-up frustrations were awoken as he too joined the march to Herat city. 

The protesters saw themselves as part of a people's movement demanding a return to Afghan ideals. The so-called "Herat Uprising", which lasted from March 15-20, 1979, was considered to be the first major people's-led insurrection against communism in Afghanistan.

Now, 25 years after the last Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, those who took part in the Herat Uprising look back on its impact and the decades of conflict that have followed. 

Too much, too quick

When the uprising broke out, nearly a year had passed since the Saur Revolution, in which the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan took over the government. But many Afghans saw only negative change with the new regime, said Gholan Mohammad Mashan, who later became a commander in the armed resistance against Soviet occupation.

At first, Mashan said, the communists "constantly referred to the farmers, to the poor, so people were happy and ready to work with the government". But the goodwill didn't last long. Mashan said the government's affronts to Islam were what led him and thousands of others to march to Herat. 

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"They changed the education. Suddenly, even the basic literacy curriculum was inundated with communist propaganda. How could we allow people who called all religion 'the opiate of the masses' to teach our children?" asked Mashan.

Qaderi recalled: "They wanted our girls to be taught by men. We had no problem with girls being educated by female teachers, but male teachers was just too much at the time... These weren't just men, these were young men, not much older than many of their female students."

The push for educating girls, Qaderi said, showed how little regard the communists had for Afghan customs. Religious leaders began to lash out against the policies in their sermons, eventually calling for a protest march to the provincial capital. 

"The elders and religious scholars called for 'death or success'. There were no other options," said Qaderi.

Education wasn't the demonstrators' only complaint. "They were taking people's land and parcelling it off into bits. All they did was create anger between the landowners and the farmers. They promised to help the poor, the farmers, but all they did was create more divisions," Qaderi said.

Cardboard boxes and oil drums

Once in the city, the protesters used whatever objects they could to target the army's 17th division. Qaderi and Mashan said everything from cardboard to oil drums were used to stop the armed forces as they tried to regain control of the city.

Though Qaderi insisted that neither rioting nor looting took place - "just shouts of Allahu Akbar!" - many remembered the Herat Uprising very differently. The city, according to locals, was looted and people believed to be un-pious were singled out by the protesters. 

Qaderi said the protestors paid a high toll when a week later an aerial bombardment, as part of an effort to recapture the city, left what some in Herat said was up to 25,000 dead. "I just remember the sounds of the planes. I don't know if it was napalm or what, but suddenly I looked around and saw bloodied bodies everywhere.

The news of the uprising quickly spread throughout the country. Qayoum Kochai, who was one of thousands of people imprisoned at Kabul's Pol-e Charkhi prison for allegedly inciting anti-state activities, still remembers when he heard about the uprising. "It emboldened everyone to see that ordinary people could bring the Khalqis [the communist faction ruling Afghanistan] to their knees."

Soviet withdrawal 

Ten years later, in February 1989, Qaderi and Mashan saw their ultimate goal realised when the final Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan. "I just stood there and said to them, 'Look at the pride with which you came and the humiliation you are leaving with'. Now you know the Afghan people," Qaderi said.

Mashan described the Soviet troops as "unwelcome" intruders, whereas the foreign forces in Afghanistan today have been here at the "approval and request" of Afghanistan.

Qaderi said the Khalqi and Parchami communist forces made two mistakes the government of Hamid Karzai and its foreign backers have been careful to avoid. 

"They would kill or bury people alive as Islamists", Qaderi said of the Afghan communists, adding that they were "too quick to make changes which went against the attitudes of the times".

Qaderi believes that NATO, on the other hand, has been "smarter". "The communists decapitated us with swords. The US has at least put a layer of cotton down." These factors, they said, could be one reason why Afghanistan has not seen similar civilian rebellions on the scale of the Herat Uprising since.

Today, Qaderi said he believes Afghanistan has little choice other than to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that would keep thousands of US soldiers in the country beyond the planned December 2014 withdrawal of international troops. "Within weeks the government will collapse and we will become another Iraq" if such an agreement isn't signed, Qaderi worries.

After the Soviets withdrew, the regime of Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist president of Afghanistan, managed to hang onto power for several years. "The Russians provided the government with arms, oil, everything," adding that they "left everything behind" when they retreated. By contrast, "the US is taking everything ... the US just gave us dollars. They can easily take that with them." Qaderi has little faith that the Karzai government, or that of his successor, would be able to maintain control over the country without foreign support.

Mashan believes Karzai's own words have already alluded to the international coalition's failure in Afghanistan.

"With each passing day, Karzai seems to be taking a more negative stance on their presence, so if they haven't been to Karzai's own benefit, how can they be to ours?"

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Al Jazeera
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