For four years, Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, the man whose build and notorious temper earned him the moniker gow – “the bull” – was contained in a small room in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
The last communist president of Afghanistan had only a radio and television to drown out the sounds of the civil war raging around him. As fighting for control of the nation raged on, Najibullah busied himself translating Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game into Pashto.
From 1992-96, Najibullah remained in a United Nations compound, waiting for the UN to negotiate his safe passage to India. But leaders of various factions fighting for control of the country demanded he be handed over for trial.
On September 27, 1996, the arrival of a Toyota pickup truck – carrying fighters from a group known as the Taliban – brought an abrupt end to negotiations. The fighters entered the compound.
The final moments of the man who had risen from student activist to president proved less than presidential. The Taliban castrated Najibullah and dragged his bloodied body behind their truck through the streets of Kabul. It was then hung from a pole, where it remained for more than a day.
Afghanistan’s bull had been left out to dry.
Millions of Afghans were relieved by the demise of the much-feared leader. “They thought finally, after a decade of war, major change would come. [They thought] things would get better,” says an aide to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who asked not be named since he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Symbol of lost opportunity
But 16 years on, the mood among Afghans has changed.
The image of the nation’s seventh president, once synonymous with the sound of Soviet tanks rolling into city streets, now adorns books, calendars, audio-cassettes, and DVDs in the streets of Kabul.
|Khan Agha sells prints of Najibullah and other famous Afghan figures in Kabul’s Mandawi open-air market [Mustafa Kazemi/Al Jazeera]|
In Mandawi, the capital’s busiest open-air market, Khan Agha sells pictures of famous Afghans. Najibullah sits beside Karzai and Ahmad Shah Massood, a central figure in the resistance to Soviet occupation. He says there is a definite interest in Najibullah now, as he displays images of the former president – in a suit, wearing a turban, holding his hands in prayer and standing in front of a microphone.
For many Afghans, the man they once feared now represents a lost opportunity for peace.
“His trademark was that he was very strong and brave… a man who made decisions,” says Daoud Kaiyan, who as the former director-general of a state-owned media agency had a 45-year professional and personal relationship with Najibullah.
In 1980 Najibullah was appointed head of Khedamat-e Etelea’at-e Dawlati (KhAD) – the Afghan secret police.
For six years, Najibullah served as minister of state security, which was ” known to Afghans for house searches, arrests, torture, and execution “, says Mohammed Hassan Kakar, a Kabul University history professor arrested in 1982 for opposing the Soviet occupation. Felix Ermacor, UN Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan, said KhAD ” regularly practiced torture “. But Najibullah’s tenure there earned him the respect of the communist government in Moscow.
In his time at KhAD, Najibullah would earn another moniker: kashok – ” the spoon” – in reference to his alleged fondness for gouging out eyes with the aid of the utensil.
But Kaiyan, who insists there is no documentation to prove the accusations against Najibullah, says whatever extraordinary measures he may have taken were in line with the times. “Every government has to provide security. The United States has the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security,” he says.
However, the accusations against Najibullah were not limited to his time at KhAD. Najibullah’s government was also accused of corruption, theft and bribery.
In 1989, four days after the Soviet withdrawal, his government introduced a state of emergency, arresting 1,700 intellectuals in one month. In Najibullah’s final years in power, Human Rights Watch says forces loyal to him were implicated in “numerous war crimes” and human rights abuses.
In his final years in power, Najibullah tried to reunify the nation after a decade of conflict. In 1986, the National Compromise Commission was established to contact rebels for reconciliation talks. The next year, a new constitution abolished the one-party system.
Then, in 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan. Though scholars say Najibullah feared his military would collapse without Soviet support, many Afghans now credit him for the Soviet withdrawal.
“We used to study until 2am. Everyone else would go to sleep, but Najib would stay up reading the Quran and wake us all up at 4am for morning prayer.”
– Pashtunyar, on critics who say Najibullah “faked” his religiosity
In 1990, the year the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) officially renounced Marxism, Islam became the official state religion once again and the country’s schools were de-Sovietised.
This was a startling move from a man seen as “a Russian puppet that would fall as soon as the Soviets left”, says David Greig, a playwright who wrote about Najibullah’s final days for the stage adaptation of The Great Game .
But few Afghans were convinced by Najibullah’s effort to rebrand himself. Heela Najibullah, the former president’s daughter, attributes the doubts Afghans had about her father’s reconciliation policies to his affiliation with the PDPA.
This created a situation where those who did negotiate with Najibullah did so cautiously. “No one wanted to be seen with the man who lost all credibility,” says Assem Akram, author of Afghanistan: An Approach to Issues of Society, Religion, Power and Conflict .
But with passage of time, the public opinion about Najibullah has dramatically changed.
“I am often told his predictions of the future wars and destruction came true – that Afghans had paid with their blood and honour in name of religion, as he had foreseen,” says Heela.
For young Afghans, Najibullah’s premonitions are particularly striking in their ability to foresee what they would experience in their lives, says the Karzai aide. These events – the civil war, the rise of the Taliban, and their association with Arab fighters – took an unprecedented toll on Afghans.
A YouTube phenomenon
The once-feared Soviet-installed leader is today lionised on YouTube videos , blogs , forums , and Facebook pages dedicated to “the real son of Afghanistan“.
For Heela, who was 10 years old when her father took office, Najibullah’s new-found popularity fulfills his prophecy .
“He often used to tell us with time people will understand what he stood for and believed,” she says.
“When you are alone you can be broken easily, but when you unite no one can divide you.”
– Heela Najibullah recounts the moral of a story her father used to tell
But Akram warns that this phenomenon must be put into historical context. Much of the talk about Najibullah today centres around his final years, almost to the complete exclusion of his time as head of the secret police, says Akram.
“The speeches that do get uploaded are ones with very reconciliatory tones,” he says.
The well-viewed videos and prints on the streets contributing to Najibullah nostalgia derive from this period. Like the man himself, Akram says “Najib’s government, for good or bad, was viewed as strong”.
It was a strength, Kaiyan insists, that was exhibited until the dying days of his government, when it was “able to deliver food and security to the people” – two things neither the Taliban nor the Karzai government have been able to do.
“He was able to bear the weight of that difficulty on his shoulders. Today, though, a coalition of 40 nations cannot manage to maintain control, even in Kabul,” says Kaiyan.
His regime, says Akram, looks normal compared to everything that came after.
“The guy was a murderer, but the last thing the people remember is when they had some semblance of normalcy in their lives.”
See photos of Najibullah memorabilia below: