Wounded four times, tortured and exiled again - but Abdulsalam keeps on smiling

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In 22 years of war, Abdulsalam Jamalzai has lost count of the number of times he has fled Afghanistan.

As a schoolboy of 14, he watched the first Soviet invasion troops arrive in Kandahar to struggle, so he was told, against "international terrorism''. He was wounded four times in his country's army while fighting what his officers called "terrorism''. He was even tortured by the Afghan communist government for disobeying an order to fight pro-American "international terrorism''. And now he has arrived back in Pakistan with his wife and eight children after fleeing America's war against "international terrorism''.

Abdulsalam's smile when he tells his terrible story is both infectious for his family and shameful for us. He hopes to return to Kabul. His older sons – born during the Soviet occupation – grin broadly. Perhaps they understand the irony.

Perhaps, like Abdulsalam's 35-year-old wife, Nahid, they are just brave. While Abdulsalam rotted in a military prison after fighting on the Panjshir front line against Ahmed Shah Masood's guerrillas, Nahid wrote a letter to her husband: "I pray to God that I will see you in jail rather than Panjshir.''

Abdulsalam's father, Abdulkarim, was a soldier who supported the Afghan communist regime. The family didn't join their neighbours to protest against the Soviet invasion by crying Allahu Akbar (God is great) from the rooftops of Kandahar. "I first saw Russian soldiers in 1979 when they were on their way to the airport,'' Abdulsalam remembers. "They were big men on tanks with furry hats with a star on the front and huge coats. They were overthrowing the despotism of Hajibullah Amin and we thought that with Babrak Karmal things would be better. The Russians had come to defend him. The Russians had come to rescue our people from dark times."

Or so Abdulsalam thought. He married Nahid when he was still a 17-year-old schoolboy; she was chosen by his parents. Nahid's father had been arrested by President's Amin's intelligence services and never seen again. Within a year, Abdulsalam had joined the police academy. "It had always been my dream to be of service to may people,'' he says now, as innocently as he must have said it when the Kabul academy was placed under the intelligence ministry, and as innocently as he must have thought it when he was told he had volunteered for a three-year training course in the Soviet Union. But when he reached the Soviet army base at Tashkent, he found he was being groomed as an army commando.

"They taught us how to use small arms, Kalashnikovs, tanks,'' Abdulsalam says with some residual astonishment. The course lasted just six months. "When I got back to Kabul, I started work in the Interior Ministry court because I was a police officer. Then they said I was in the army. I said I was a policeman. They said, 'You have no choice – you have to fight terrorism.' What could I do?" Within a week, he was defending the copper mines of Messaynak in Logar province, watching his first killing as a comrade was shot in the face by the American-armed Afghan mujahedin five feet from him.

Back in Kabul, Abdulsalam's first child, Shehsar, a boy, was born. Ordered by his officers to undertake a one-day pursuit of Kabul bank officials who'd absconded with the day's takings, he found himself on a convoy to Panjshir to fight Masood's men. "I don't think there were any bank robbers," he says. "It was a lie to get us to Panjshir. I didn't go home for three months."

When he did it was as a prisoner on a military helicopter. Sergeant Jamalzia, as he then was, had disobeyed an order from a Russian advisor to take a position with his men 500 metres up a mountain which would have exposed him to mujahedin fire. "This is our decision and no more questions," the Russian had told him. When Abdulsalam eventually climbed the mountain, he found the guerrillas had turned it into a minefield. Then he refused to betray his new position by firing flares into the sky. "One of my soldiers," Abdulsalam says, "was a spy for the Russians and told them I had disobeyed the order.'' Freighted back to Kabul, Abdulsalam managed to call his father before incarceration in the Centre for the Directorate of the Revolution where he was tortured with electricity for "wanting to join the mujahedin".

Two more children were born – Ahmadshah and Zohra, a daughter. His wife and family lived with his father, now retired, and mother. The scars of the electrodes are still on Abdulsalam's fingers. So are the livid wounds of three bullets and a shell burst from his subsequent battles in the army. When shrapnel pierced Abdulsalam's leg and shoulder, his blood sprayed over his colleagues of the 3rd Battalion in the Pagman Valley. "My heart stopped beating for 11 seconds,'' he says.

In a Kabul hospital Abdulsalam was told Nahid had given birth to his second daughter, Sahahbanah. "I had been in the ward for just two days and then they told me about the new baby and I forgot everything else in my life." Army friends arranged for him to convalesce at home. "They were very kind to me," he remembers. Others were not.

"When the Russians left, Dr Nadjibullah was our president but I saw the people didn't trust him. The mujahedin did not accept the 'national peace' he had proclaimed. Sometimes I thought of joining them but they were not organised."

The government split between the Parcham and Khalq parties. "The Parcham people thought the intelligence ministry, for whom I worked, was Khalqi. The Khalq thought anyone with a bit of an intellect was a Parcham. My officer thought I was a Parcham and threw me out. I was put under house arrest, then a friend in the Ministry of the Interior warned me to get out of Kabul." Abdulsalam was sent back as a soldier to Logar province. Then the mujahedin took over the Afghan capital. "I thought I knew them,'' he says. "Things were calm. Prices went down. Everyone thought they had a beautiful future. Then the mujahedin started fighting between each other. It was the beginning of a new tragedy. I had no money. All I could do was walk among the people in the city and be a witness to history." Abdulsalam found himself trapped in a relative's house in the Kabul suburbs.

Guerrillas of the Hezbi-Islami heard he'd been in the army and tried to arrest him. "They said: 'We must arrest the communist.' My relatives took me back by a small road to Kabul."

The family fled to Pakistan. When they heard there was a ceasefire a month later, they returned and hung on for six months. "It was a terrible, cold winter. We had no money. Our house was burned. We lost everything. We returned to Pakistan." But they went back to Kabul again, this time to a cousin's house. But Gulbudin Hekmatyar's guerrillas fired their American-supplied rockets into the city. Abdulsalam's elderly father was badly wounded. The family set off for the north, to Mazar-e-Sharif.

Back in Kabul, Abdulsalam and his family began to sell their remaining furniture to survive. They had three more children now, Muska and Laima – twin girls – and another daughter, Sadia.

"On 26 October 1996, the Taliban arrived and they brought peace and we no more heard the sound of explosions,'' Abdulsalam says. "But then they put my father in jail. The Taliban gave no reason. I pretended to come from the Taliban 'capital' of Kandahar because I could speak with a Kandahari accent. I got to the Taliban base and said 'my father is from Kandahar.' But they said: 'your father says he's from Mandoushah'. So I said: 'No, it's my mother that's from Kandahar.' Amazingly, they freed my father. But for us, it was the end.''

Abdulsalam's brother was sent illegally to Moscow to earn money – enough to send their parents to Pakistan. There was no money for Abdulsalam and his family. He worked as a trader in Kabul. "Then the Taliban came to the house – we are not Pashtun like them. My wife had been teaching some girls – but the education of women was now forbidden. So the Taliban claimed we were trying to convert the women to Christianity.'' After an explosion at Kabul airport, many of Abdulsalam's friends were arrested. They sent word that he was next on the Taliban's arrest list.

Leaving his family behind he fled to Pakistan for a month. He was back in Kabul when he heard of the attacks on New York and Washington. "I thought that if bin Laden was blamed, Afghanistan would be attacked. People were panic stricken. I called my father in Peshawar and asked his advice. He said it would be all right, that I should stay.

"He was wrong. When the American attack started, I listened to 'comrade Bush' on the Voice of America and he said the attack would continue, that his target was clear. I remembered my children and wife who were very frightened and three nights later we fled again." Turned round by Pakistani guards at the frontier and by a Taliban soldier they went back once more to Kabul and then, as American planes streaked over the city, returned within 24 hours to the frontier, this time on a mountainside. They reached Peshawar.

"I criticised this attack," Abdulsalam says now. "Osama [bin Laden] is one person and his organisation is in every country. These countries are all round the world, not just Afghanistan. What can we do? Now they are destroying our ruins. I would like to stay here for now. But if it's better maybe we should go back to Kabul.''

It looks as if Abdulsalam Jamalzai has forgotten all of the "international terrorism'' he was asked to fight against. Or maybe he'll remember how the Russians were first to claim to rescue his people "from dark times''.