Getting to the Panjshir Valley is a picnic these days. Drive north out of Kabul for a couple of hours on a smooth, tarred road towards the Hindu Kush mountain range, pick your way through the crowded town of Gulbahar, and minutes later you are in a rocky gorge beside a stunningly clear torrent of water.
This is the entrance to what was once the most bitterly fought-over patch of Afghanistan. Many times the legendary "Lion of Panjshir", Ahmed Shah Massoud, the only Afghan guerrilla commander never defeated by the Soviet Union or the Taliban, triggered landslides here to keep his enemies out of his stronghold. My companion, 73-year-old Roddy Jones, who has seen it all before, immediately puts on his bathing trunks and goes for a swim in the freezing Panjshir River, near the rusting remains of a tank.
A former major in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Roddy walks with a stick after seriously injuring his leg in an undercover operation in the Middle East. He is one of a quartet of remarkable British Army officers, all well past military age, who did not fancy a quiet retirement. When they first came to the Panjshir in the early-1990s, and saw that it needed help, they simply got on with it, building clinics and finding employment for destitute widows. Much to his frustration, the leader of this adventurous band, Peter Stewart-Richardson, a former brigadier in the Coldstream Guards, could not come with us, because he needed a hip operation. He is 81.
Back at his home in Norfolk, I asked Peter – known as "Scrubber" to his peers because of the extravagant moustache he used to wear – how he first got involved with Afghanistan. After all, it was one of the few places he never served in during his long and lively military career, which took in everywhere from Malaya to Cyprus, with 15 years on the Arabian peninsula. (Typically, he was wounded during an extracurricular trip to French Indochina, today's Vietnam, where he joined French troops on operations against Communist insurgents. His superiors took a dim view.)
Scrubber explained that his original plan had been to join the Afghan mujahedin in their fight against the Communist invaders – I calculated that he would have been around 60 at the time – but his security clearance was too high for the British authorities to permit it. Only after the Soviet Union pulled out its forces in 1989 could he go to Afghanistan, where he helped to build a hospital. A cousin of Massoud's asked him if he could do the same in the Panjshir, and Brigadier Stewart-Richardson (retired) had a new mission in life.
With Rupert Chetwynd, a former captain in the Grenadier Guards and the territorial SAS, and Nick Gold, a doctor who served with the Coldstreams, Roddy and Peter set about raising money for Afghan women and children from anyone they encountered. They called on old military contacts such as Roger Taylor, a former major in the Royal Engineers, who supplied much necessary expertise for the construction of their first mother-and-child clinic, at the Panjshir town of Rokha. "We built two wards for women and put in solar-powered electricity, hot water and a vaccine refrigerator," recalls Peter. "But first we had to clear the site of syringes and all sorts of clinical waste, wearing only rubber gloves, then destroy it in an incinerator we had built ourselves."
The venture was going for several years before it was formalised with the foundation of a registered charity, Afghan Mother and Child Rescue (AMCR), but it remains resolutely hands-on. Even though the old soldiers are more likely to hire local contractors these days than do their own building labour, they pay their own air fares, supervise the work and pay for it directly. As Rupert puts it, "This is aid at the grass roots, without the intervention of any committees."
The mother-and-child clinics AMCR builds play a crucial role in helping to bring down Afghanistan's appallingly high rates of maternal and infant mortality. In a highly conservative society, where two-thirds of rural women are unable to read or write, it is considered unseemly for pregnant women, or mothers with babies, to mingle with strange men, even at a clinic. Custom also dictates that no-one outside the family should hear a mother's cries during labour. Since local community health centres' delivery rooms are generally cramped and just off a busy hallway, many women, or their husbands, insist the baby should be born at home. Any complications that then develop are often fatal: in the Panjshir, 80 out of 5,500 pregnant women die every year.
By contrast, facilities exclusively for women, usually right next door to the community clinic, have proved their worth. Where they exist, mothers are far more willing to come for pre-natal checkups, have their babies in a clean, spacious delivery suite and bring them back regularly for their progress to be monitored. AMCR has built two such clinics in the Panjshir, with a third nearing completion, and has supplied solar-powered vaccine refrigerators and lighting to several clinics in the valley and in Kunduz province, further north.
This has played its part in reducing the number of Afghan children who die before their first birthday from 191 per 1,000 in 2001 to 165 in 2006, still the second-worst rate in the world after Sierra Leone (the comparable figure in Britain is five per 1,000). The Afghan health authorities ' believe they can bring down infant mortality by another 10 per cent in the next year, but in the Panjshir alone, at least three more clinics are needed; it costs AMCR about £30,000 to build each. The retired military men have travelled to Afghanistan at least once a year for the past 10 not only to build the clinics, but also to launch other projects, such as constructing bakeries where war-widows can earn an income. They have also helped to train others as tailors and supply them with sewing machines.
After Roddy has completed his swim, we continue up the gorge into the Panjshir proper. Although I met Ahmed Shah Massoud 15 years ago, when the Communist regime in Kabul had collapsed and he was on his way to Kabul to help install a new regime, I had never been able to visit his home territory before. Now I can see why he defended it so fiercely, and why Scrubber and his friends cannot resist its pull.
Between bare mountain walls, whose scree-filled slopes testify to the ferocity of the winters, the river irrigates a narrow strip of arable land. A hot sun is hanging in the crystal air, setting the yellowing mulberry leaves on fire in a spectacle to rival New England. Massoud beat back no fewer than 15 Soviet attempts to seize this haven, and everywhere the litter of war remains: cows graze around the wreckage of a tank, its tracks plaited crazily in the air.
On a crag overlooking Jangalak, his birthplace, Massoud's grand mausoleum is taking shape. Though a great warrior, he could not prevent the mujahedin fighting among themselves when the Communists had gone, and in 1996, four years after he took Kabul, he had to abandon it once more to the advancing Taliban. Despite being a strict Muslim, he did not share the vision of these Pashtun zealots, with their hatred of the West, and as they swallowed up the rest of Afghanistan, he kept the Panjshir out of their control. In the spring of 2001 he warned the European Parliament that the Taliban and al-Qa'ida were linked, and that they were planning a major terrorist atrocity, but nobody listened.
That Massoud is not better known in the West is easily explained by the date of his death – 9 September 2001. Killed by a suicide bomber two days before the al-Qa'ida attacks on New York and Washington, he was removed from the scene just as the world belatedly realised what its neglect of Afghanistan had produced. Some say his death was the signal to the 9/11 hijackers to go ahead: whether or not that is true, al-Qa'ida wanted to neutralise the most powerful threat to its Taliban hosts as it prepared its coup against America.
But Massoud's memory was enough to unite Afghans against the Taliban, and drive them from Kabul with the minimum of outside help. The hero's portrait is everywhere, in Kabul as well as the Panjshir, where being able to show a photograph of our meeting inspires reverence on all sides.
In the new Afghanistan, Massoud's home territory has been elevated to provincial status, and has gained its first tarred road, making it possible to go to and from Kabul in a day. For much of the time that AMCR has been going to the Panjshir, however, access was much less easy, both because of the terrain and the state of the fighting. A film, made by Rupert Chetwynd, exists of one trip over the snow-bound Anjuman Pass, which is 16,000ft-high. Peter was on heart medication, and not supposed to spend any time above altitudes of 4,000ft, but did not let that bother him.
On another visit, the Taliban gave the former officers so much trouble that they resolved to come in without permission the next time, entering from the north on horseback. Once, Roddy and Scrubber ran out of money and simply walked out of the valley over the mountains, despite the former's damaged leg and the latter's heart trouble. They were able to blend in with other travellers and approach Taliban territory from an innocuous direction, lulling suspicions that they had just come from Massoud's stronghold.
The irony today is that the Panjshir Valley, once the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, is now the safest. In the rest of the country, there are armed men everywhere, but after 2001 the Panjshiris agreed to give up their weapons. Foreign nations have set up military-civilian provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, around Afghanistan to boost development, but in many areas – such as Helmand, where British forces are in the midst of a shooting war – they are like armed camps. Not here: the Panjshir PRT is the only American-run team in the country whose personnel carry sidearms alone, and travel in civilian vehicles rather than Humvees.
Tranquil the Panjshir may be, but it remains desperately poor. Abdel Sattar, 59, who manages one of AMCR's bakeries, remembers the years when fighting repeatedly drove the valley's people into the hills, and finally to Pakistan. When the Soviet forces left, he returned to his village of Malaspa to find it in ruins, and no sooner had they rebuilt their lives than the Panjshir was under siege from the Taliban. "At least there's peace now, but things are still hard," he says.
Though the new road has improved access, the tar runs out a few miles beyond Jangalak. Our visits to AMCR's newly completed clinic at Safied Chihr, and the clinic under construction up a side valley at Darra, are along bone-jarring dirt roads little better than a riverbed, and the power nature wields here is evident: last June a freak storm hit the valley, triggering landslides, washing out bridges and killing 100 people. When we reach Darra, Roddy discovers that the flood, which cut off the village from the main valley for weeks, has delayed the project. The walls are nearly complete, but winter is looming, and it will be a race to erect a temporary roof, so that heavy snow does not damage the structure.
Next year, however, the Darra clinic will be complete, and Roddy is already considering where the next one should be. One candidate is the high mountain village of Shotol, from where he and Peter walked out of the Panjshir. It has the most basic of clinics, accessible only by a footpath, to serve 30,000 people, but others are even less well off: at Abdullah Khel, 9,000ft above sea level, mothers have to climb a rocky cliff path to see a midwife whose consulting room does not even have a heater during the winter. Or there is Paryan, at the very top of the Panjshir Valley, thousands of feet higher still.
"We're only stupid soldiers," Peter Stewart-Richardson had told me at his home in Norfolk. But as their track record shows, these old comrades are not easily daunted. If they can get the money, they will see that the lives of many more Afghan mothers and children are saved – and, not incidentally, they will win hearts and minds just as effectively as their younger colleagues, still in uniform, who are fighting the Taliban a few hundred miles further south.
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