When I arrived at the bus to Badakhshan, there was already someone sitting in my seat. I was about to make a fuss when I realized there were at least 10 other people like me whose seats had been sold to more than one passenger. I began walking off the bus to ask for my money back when I saw someone familiar sitting in the very front row, a man I know from previous trips to Afghanistan. They called him Kumandan, “Commander.” I greeted him, and he returned the greeting warmly. “Look, Kumandan,” I whispered, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world today to run into you. For one thing, I am forced to travel on a bus, which as you know is madness for a foreigner in these parts. On top of that, they’ve already sold my ticket to someone else. Do me this favor and sit me next to yourself, and don’t mention to anyone that I’m a foreigner. I have to make it in time to Badakhshan province to do some filming.”
It was obvious that the Kumandan had already used his old rank to get that choice seat in the front. Now he whispered something in the driver’s ear and sat me in his own place. Then he positioned the water cooler between me and the driver and plopped himself down on it.
In time, the bus started to move and the Kumandan began to talk.
I already knew he’d been a commander during the jihad against the Soviets and had a lot of stories about those days. So the stories that he told during that long bus ride were many and unsettling. And none more so that the story he told of a man named Kumandan Qurban.
He said that in those days the Mujahidin had just started showing up in northern Afghanistan to fight the Russian invaders. A lot of these men were good leaders and commanders, but some of them were illiterates, and more than a few were simple peasants who had managed to collect some weapons and gather a few of their own villagers around them so they could extort money from people. The first time he saw Kumandan Qurban was on a day when it was being announced in town that three kafars, infidels, were being executed. He and several of his friends followed the rest of the townsfolk to the place of the execution and saw that the three to be killed were none other than their own teacher and two of their classmates. And sure enough, there was Qurban himself, carrying a gun and telling the crowd that these people were infidels because they were going to school and that they wanted the infidel invaders to rule in this country. Qurban shot all three of them. He then called for axes to be brought and had the bodies chopped to pieces. Whoever was suspected of being literate in those days would be shot and hacked to death by Qurban.
The Kumandan sighed:
“Qurban killed hundreds of students that way. I witnessed this man publicly kill a friend of mine. When Qurban brought the axe on his head, part of his brain flew at my forehead and got stuck there for a moment. I was really in a bad way for a long time and kept thinking that one day I would destroy this Kumandan Qurban. At the same time, I loved going to school and was determined to get my diploma. It was inevitable that Qurban would come after me too. I escaped to our village, but Qurban’s men eventually found me, along with another classmate they had their sights on. They made us march for three hours to a place where two dozen sitting judges would interrogate people and immediately pass judgment.
“Their interrogation began: ‘Why do you go to school? What is the purpose of your studying?’ Afterwards, they quickly passed their verdict – we were to be killed because we were infidels. Soon Qurban himself would arrive to carry out the sentence. Ironically, several of the judges were our former school teachers, but there was nothing they could do for us now.
“I told him that he had wanted to kill me too, but fate had it that I should be the one who killed him instead. He begged me not to.”
“Before Qurban arrived, however, there was a commotion, and a tall young man with a bandolier strapped across his chest walked into the room. The judges shot up in deference to him. The man went to the head of the hall and asked, ‘What news?’ Then his eyes fell upon me and he said, ‘Aren’t you the son of so and so?’ I said that I was. He asked why they’d brought me here. I answered, ‘They say that I’m an infidel because I go to school.’ Without taking his eyes off me he said, ‘You don’t know me, do you?’ Then he reached out and took me in his embrace. I realized he was a student several years older than me who I had known since elementary school.
“He turned to face the judges, ‘What is his crime?’ They repeated that I had become an infidel because I was studying, and that Kumandan Qurban had issued a decree that they should bring people like me in. ‘A curse upon Qurban,’ he spat, ‘the man is killing all of our educated young people.’ He tore up the verdict. took me from the hall, and ordered that lunch should be brought. He was kind to me and suggested that I join his fighting force of Mujahidin, otherwise Qurban was bound to come after me again. I had to decline, though. I was truly determined to finish my education.
“Afterward, I escaped that region and went to Kabul, where years later I applied for the only choice available to me at the time, the military university. Though I was made a commander in Kandahar, I slipped out of the army and became a Mujahid instead and fought the Russians for many years in northern Afghanistan.
“Time passed, and one day I saw that a heavy-set fellow riding a strong donkey and carrying a Kalashnikov and a handgun had arrived from Pakistan and wanted to spend the night in our frontlines before he moved on to another front. I knew right away who he was. ‘Aren’t you Kumandan Qurban?’ I asked him. He said that he was. He had not recognized me. Though disgusted by his presence, I embraced and welcomed him. He told me that he had been spending some years in Pakistan, and now he had come back to take over as commander in one of the fronts in northern Afghanistan. I told him that we’d take him up the mountains during the night and later, after the morning prayer, I would lend him two armed men who would guide him to wherever he was going.
“So Qurban joined us that night in the mountains, drank his tea, and went to sleep. I called to the two armed men that I had promised to lend him. I told them Qurban’s story and emphasized that we’d have to kill him that night. My men were fearful and said that Kumandan Qurban was a well known figure—if we killed him, our entire frontline might be endangered. ‘If we kill Qurban,’ I insisted, ‘all of northern Afghanistan will rest easier, since this man has obviously returned to start up his old habits.’
“We woke Qurban and took his guns away. Then we walked him to the river. ‘We want to kill you because you murdered over a thousand educated young Afghans.’ He was in disbelief and said, ‘Do you know what you are doing? I am one of the famous kumandans of the north. Just go and ask your elders who I am and what I’ve accomplished.’
“I reminded him that he had the blood of hundreds of teachers and students on his hands. ‘But they were infidels,’ he protested. ‘I killed them because they were literate and meant to help the infidels.’ I told him that he had wanted to kill me too, but fate had it that I should be the one who killed him instead. He begged me not to.
“The first shot that I put into him, all my classmates he had murdered seemed to parade in front of me. Then my two men brought a hail of bullets on him and finished the job. We buried him afterward. My comrades were also eventually killed during the long war, and now only I remain of us three to tell this story. I still hear about Qurban and how people continue to thank god that he was killed. People say whoever put an end to Qurban has their prayers of thanks forever.
“All of this that I’ve told you, young man, was a secret until this day on this bus.”
Translator’s Note: Part of this story nagged me for days after Majed had written it down. When the Kumandan was arrested by Qurban’s men while still a student, judgment to be executed had been passed on both him and a classmate. The future Kumandan was saved, but… what had happened to the other kid? I called Majed:
“Remember how the Kumandan said that that murderer, Qurban, had sent for him and another kid in their village?”
“What happened to the other kid?”
Majed said, “I don’t know what became of the other kid. I didn’t ask the Kumandan and he didn’t tell me.”