Praying for a miracle at the shrines of al-Qa'ida

To the Americans who killed them, they were terrorists. To the fundamentalist faithful they are saints whose remains may have healing powers. Nick Meo reports from the Afghan equivalent of Lourdes
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From his vantage point at the entrance of the half-built shrine to the al-Qa'ida martyrs in Khowst the caretaker and his mentally retarded friend watch quietly as dozens of diseased and desperate pilgrims stream in every day from all over the Taliban-supporting borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From his vantage point at the entrance of the half-built shrine to the al-Qa'ida martyrs in Khowst the caretaker and his mentally retarded friend watch quietly as dozens of diseased and desperate pilgrims stream in every day from all over the Taliban-supporting borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

They come to pray over the rudimentary graves on the outskirts of the Afghan city, seeking the holy powers of the dead to heal the living or to conceive new life, or just seeking the martyrs' blessings before a journey or at the start of a business enterprise.

In the graves lie the earthly remains of nearly 40 Arab and Pakistani fighters not far from where they were blown to bits by a laser-guided US bomb as they prayed the night before a battle three years ago. Nobody really knows who built the shrine; it wasn't planned, it grew up spontaneously to become one of the most famous holy sites in eastern Afghanistan.

Cars full of Pushtun tribesmen arrive constantly during the day. On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, a torrent of people flows through this place. On Saturdays the shrine is reserved just for women but, every day, barren women in blue burkhas - desperate to conceive - visit with their husbands to pray for a child at the martyrs' gravesides.

So do the lame, the blind and the sick, making the shrine the Taliban equivalent of Lourdes - and a headache for the anti-Taliban authorities in the scruffy border town trying to purge support for the defeated fundamentalist movement.

Many of the ill or handicapped are carried in the arms of brothers or fathers, wide-eyed with expectation after journeys by bus or car, travelling for hours or even days over rough roads.

Caretaker Noorwali Khan recounted the latest miracle: "A nomad with legs that didn't work any more came here a few weeks ago. His family carried him and they prayed together over one of the graves for a while.

"When he left he could walk! Now, to show his thanks, he is digging a well so pilgrims can quench their thirst here. That man said 'they were true Shaheeds, they healed my legs'."

Mr Khan, an underemployed farmer with a sprig of mint tucked jauntily into his cap, was squatting at the shrine's entrance where he spends most of his days. A traveller who had stopped to pray at the shrine, a few miles outside town on the main road to Kabul, pitched into the conversation. "My friend lost his right hand in an accident but the power of the martyrs stopped the terrible pain he was in," the man said. "Truly they are holy. They are in the highest place in heaven. Everyone knows the renown of this place."

Ironically, the mainly Arab and Pakistani al-Qa'ida fighters who are so venerated in death by the people of Khowst were widely hated when they were alive and living in the town. They were Osama bin Laden's men, jihadis who had arrived from all over the Islamic world to prepare for a holy war in Khowst's terrorist training camps. The camps were handy for Pakistan, an hour's journey away with its connections to the outside world, but the foreign fighters never had much support in the area, which was always ambivalent about the Taliban, unlike some other Pushtun towns.

Some of the fighters may have escaped death in the cruise missile strikes ordered by Bill Clinton in 1998 after the US embassy bombings in east Africa; many must have personally known Bin Laden, who had a base in the town. But local people remembered them mainly as strutting and arrogant, a superior clique who didn't disguise their contempt for Afghan culture, which they saw as a decayed form of Islam riddled with superstition.

They died in November 2001 as the Taliban government crumbled, the night before they planned to counter-attack a US-allied warlord who had just driven them out of Khowst.

As they prayed together in their mosque a precision bomb hit, called in by spies with exact intelligence - collapsing the ceiling in on them.

The next day, the surviving Arabs and their families abandoned plans for a fight. They just wanted to get out over the border to Pakistan. Before they could do so, a mob of townspeople arrived to confront them, eager to hand out revenge to the Arabs and rob them while they had a chance.

After a couple of hours a Taliban commander came and took them to Pakistan. "That was the last anyone saw of them." They abandoned their homes and possessions, and they left behind their dead. In death they became Shaheeds - Islamic martyrs who died at the hands of infidels, doubly holy because they were praying in a mosque on the second day of the holy month of Ramadan at the time of their deaths.

A bearded man called Bahran was one of those who dragged out the body parts and corpses from the rubble of the Matachinah Mosque, loading the grisly cargo on to a truck for the short journey to the simple village graveyard.

"We dug a grave with a tractor and buried the Shaheeds," he recalled. "We went through their pockets to try to find documents so we could put their names on their graves." Those who could not be identified were labelled simply "Arab Shaheed" or "Pakistani Shaheed" according to guesses at their origins. One grave, smaller than the others, contains just a severed leg. The inscription reads: "Tomb of the leg of an Arab martyr."

In one grave, number 39, are the mosque's two Holy Korans, their covers shredded by shrapnel. A glass-fronted container holds bloodied clothes the dead men were wearing.

Money was quickly collected to pay for the material for the walls to be built. Bahran ducked the question of whether he supported the Taliban and said he was not anti-American.

"The Americans are needed here, if they go, the warlords will start fighting each other," he said.

Above the graves, hundreds of knotted scarves were flapping in the breeze on ropes crossing the shrine, entwined with tinsel, offerings left by pilgrims.

Some flags were elaborate with bright patterns and Arabic inscriptions.

Green banners, the colour of Islam, flapped in the breeze. CDs of Islamic chants were tied to the ropes, rotating gently. The names of jihadis were displayed on neat signs. One read: "Shaheed Mohammad Anwar from Karachi", another "Mohammad Wakhar from Karachi". A rare Afghan was Hamidullah, from the northern province of Badakshan.

At the entrance to the shrine were clay jars containing salt, traditionally eaten at the graveside, and lentils to feed the shrine's white pigeons, essential for any self-respecting Afghan pilgrimage place. High above the shrine a white flag fluttered inscribed in Arabic; God is Great.

So far only walls have been built with pilgrims' donations; the town's authorities banned construction of a roof earlier this year when they became alarmed at the popularity of an al-Qa'ida shrine as a focal point for fundamentalists. Khowst's governor Merajuddin Pathan believes the shrine issue must be handled carefully, and insists that its popularity does not necessarily mean that those who visit are pro-Taliban.

"In our culture, religious martyrs are very important and the people respect them," he said. "Stories of miracles will always come out at these places." The governor, a modern man dedicated to building his nation and who speaks fluent English, once drove a taxi in Washington DC during winters, returning in summer to fight the Soviets occupying his country.

"I wanted to come to Khowst to be governor because this is the front line against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida," he said. "They must be defeated here, we cannot allow fundamentalism to once again destroy Afghanistan." Mr Pathan believes support for the Taliban is limited in the area. The giant US base in the town, Camp Salerno, helps provide security, he believes, but frequent attacks on government forces leave an almost weekly death toll.

In Khowst city, few will admit to supporting the Taliban. Many of the people hated the bizarre, oppressive rules imposed on them - hand-painted signs for Khowst's butchers in the bazaars still depict cows with no heads and hens half-hidden behind sheaves of wheat. The fundamentalists decreed that depictions of animal heads, as well as human heads, were unIslamic.

Some support the guerrillas, however, or the attacks would stop.

Similar shrines have grown up in Kandahar, once the spiritual heartland of the Taliban, in Waziristan in Pakistan where most of the Arabs fled, and in Tora Bora, near Jalalabad, all at sites of battles in which foreign fighters died.

The Tora Bora shrine is deep in the mountains where al-Qa'ida fighters held their last big stand on Afghan soil in November 2001, resisting US forces with unexpected ferocity perhaps because Bin Laden himself was directing the battle.

Set against a backdrop of spectacular snow-capped mountains four hours' drive from Jalalabad, a journey there is a major undertaking. Yet hundreds flock to it, not seeking to disguise their Taliban allegiance.

The shrine grew up after villagers found the bodies of three Arab fighters lying dead on the battlefield following heavy American bombing raids; they had no idea who the fighters were.

But they were shaheeds, like in Khowst, so a spontaneous shrine grew up under a canopy of gaily coloured flags. The devout believe if they make seven journeys to the Tora Bora shrine they will recover their health.

Not far away from the Khowst shrine is the rebuilt Matachinah mosque, constructed with US money since 2001. "The US destroyed it and the US rebuilt it," joked a police guard at a nearby checkpoint.

Inside, the mosque's main prayer hall still smells of paint. Outside is a cluster of metal rods bent out of shape by the force of the explosion, once the foundation for the mosque's minaret.

"Half the people were angry that America bombed a mosque, but half of them were pleased to see an end to the Arabs," a villager said.

The mosque was first built by the Taliban for the next-door madrassa, a religious school.

Ironically the strict Wahabi Arabs buried at Khowst and the other shrines were opposed to Afghan burial customs they considered idolatrous. One of the reasons they were so hated in Afghanistan was their habit of tearing down flags and decorations on Afghan graves in fits of iconoclasm.

They would surely have hated to think that, in death, with an obsession for jihadis, they would be invested with magical powers and be prayed to by the superstitious tribesmen they looked down on in life.