The Poster Boys of Kabul

Massoud supporters in Kabul. Photo: M. Kakar

Massoud supporters in Kabul. Photo: M. Kakar

[Originally published on OpenDemocracy’s Cities in Conflict section.]

Each year, for one week in September, Kabulis celebrate Martyrs Week. The image war which ensues on the streets, buildings and public spaces of the city is highly political, and has in recent years become increasingly violent.

In 2002 Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) declared the 9th-15th of September a “Week of Martyrs” in honour of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a mujahedeen leader assassinated in a suicide attack on September 9, 2001. Each year, the Martyrs Week ceremonies unearth the same debate amongst city-residents: who really is a martyr, and who a war criminal? To which there is little agreement, one ethnic group’s martyr is another’s war criminal. The disparate meanings of martyr, this perpetual debate, are typically expressed on the streets of Kabul in a form of ‘image war’, a war which over the past two years, has taken a particularly violent turn.

The man on the car window

Each year on the Week of Martyrs, streets, squares and public buildings in Kabul are adourned with posters of men killed in one of the many wars Afghanistan has experienced over the past 40 years. Typically the week provokes groups of men, occasionally armed, to take to the streets with big portraits of their favoured martyr, driving recklessly in SUVs to attract public attention. Since the week coincides with the anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death, his supporters, the Tajiks, tend to dominant the streets. Their ceremonial parades create fear in the city and usually end in bouts of sporadic violence. Last year, these poster-carrying convoys caused a dozen injuries and at least two deaths after armed conflict in the Hazara neighbourhood of West Kabul[1].

This year, according to Afghan news sources and social media, the caravans of cars belonging to Tajiks, careered through the dusty streets of Kabul in belligerent fashion, carrying pictures of their slain leader and the official flags of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (1992-2001), the Mujahedeen government. In addition to some traffic incidents on several spots in the city, they also physically confronted groups of Pashtuns the natural advsersart of their “National Hero”.

The Massoud supporters also attacked Zhwandoon, a Pashtun TV station in Kabul which has recently broadcast documentary videos from the civil war accusing Massoud of committing war crimes during the 1992-1995 conflicts in the capital. According to TV officials, the Tajik men tried to install posters of Massoud on the office building of Zhwandoon TV, coming into conflict with the TV station’s security guards. The conflict was broadcast immediately on TV and showed a loud crowd quarrelling amid the sound of arm fires[2]. The broadcast provoked further conflicts, as a group of young Pashtuns attacked the cars carrying posters of Massoud in the city[3] and began installing pictures of Amanulla Khan, a Pashtun king who was dethroned by Tajik villagers in 1929, on public places.

A country of martyrs

Afghanistan has, at least since 1979, experienced near ongoing war under different regimes, the country’s war victims and criminals are both high in number, and diverse in background. Afghanistan, like many post-conflict countries, has failed to implement a transitional justice mechanism to put try war criminals, or at least, seek some sort of reconciliation. Many of the former communist, Mujahedeen and even Taliban officials remain in power in the current government and some were even elected as members of parliament.

This rather complex situation has turned Afghanistan’s recent history into a taboo. Last year, the Ministry of Education decided to stop teaching Afghanistan’s post-1973 history to school children. In new school books there is no mention of Soviet invasion, communist rule, Taliban brutalities, NATO occupation, nor the millions of war victims and refugees, . Such forgetting of Afghanistan’s recent violent history has served to exacerbate this martyr/criminal complex; such is likely the case for any country with such a great number of ‘martyrs’.

September’s events were just one indication of how this war-weary city is divided on the basis of ethnic and religious grounds. It is not only on occasions like the Week of Martyrs, however, that the city’s hidden tensions surface on the streets. Image war is a permanent in Kabul city.

On the streets of the Afghan capital, it is all too common to see cars decorated with images of different ethnic and ideological icons, such as slain Islamic fighters, Ahmad Shah Massoud (Tajik), Abdul Ali Mazari (Hazara), Haji Qadir (Pashtun) and of course the living powerful such as President Hamid Karzai and his two vice presidents. One interesting trend in car window propaganda is the sight of forbidden faces such as Dr. Najib (1987-1992) murderd by the Taliban in 1996, the last president of the communist regime and once director of its notorious intelligence agency. Seemingly, it is no longer a taboo to show public sympathy for communist ‘martyrs’. Daud Khan (1973-1978) the first president, a Pashtun nationalist who was assassinated by communists in 1978 coup is also a widely visible face on cars, so is his nephew, Mohammad Zahir (1933-1973), Afghanistan’s last king who was dethroned by Daud Khan’s own coup.

The martyrs are alive

Cars have thus become a mobile and emergent means of propaganda, political expression via windshield. However, these car posters have other important functions too: they are used as a pass. In the diplomatic zone of downtown Kabul, most streets are only open to vehicles belonging to high level officials, others are stopped by the Afghan security. In order to pass through the check points, some people who own expensive cars, decorate their vehicles with images of ethnic heroes to indicate they belong to a powerful man or significant political party. There have been a great number of incidents wherein police officers, in attempting to stop these kinds of vehicles, have been physically assaulted by armed men within the cars.

As the international security forces are packing up to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the country is getting prepared for the next year’s presidential elections, deep-seated ethnic rivalries are on the rise again. The pre-election political coalitions so far seem to be clearly formed on ethnic and linguistic lines. The men displayed on Kabul cars, though long dead, are well alive in Afghanistan’s collective conscience and political scene. They still structure the political organisation of the country. The Quran’s poetic metaphor “martyrs are alive” (2:154), is best applicable to these living martyrs on the streets of Kabul. They are the poster boys for a multi-layered conflict which continues to haunt the country.

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