At the al-Qaeda Cemetery

They are honoured as saints. Beneath the grey mounds of dust and dried mud lie the “martyrs” of al-Qa’ida.

Here, among these 150 graves, lie the three men who held out to the end in the Mirweis hospital, shooting at the Americans and their Afghan allies until they died amid sewage and their own excrement. Other earth hides the bodies of the followers of Osama bin Laden who fought at Kandahar airport in the last battle before the fall of the Taliban.

They are Arabs and Pakistanis and Chechens and Kazakhs and Kashmiris and all–if you believe the propaganda–are hated and loathed by the native Pashtun population of Kandahar.

Not true. For while the US special forces cruise the streets of this brooding, hot city in their 4x4s, the people of Kandahar visit this bleak graveyard with the reverence of worshippers. They tend the graves in their hundreds. On Fridays, they come in their thousands, travelling hundreds of miles.

They bring their sick and dying. For word has it that a visit to the graveyard of Mr bin Laden’s dead will cure disease and pestilence. As if kneeling at the graves of saints, old women gently wash the baked-mud sepulchres, kissing the dust upon them, looking up in prayer to the spindly flags which snap in the dust storms. The Kandahar Kubrestan–the place of graves–is a political as well as a religious lesson for all who come here.

“Foreigners are advised to stay away from the al-Qa’ida graveyard,” a Western aid worker announces with ceremony. “You may be in danger there.” But when I visited the last resting place of Mr bin Laden’s men, there was only the fine, gritty winds of sand to fear. It crept into my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my ears. Many of the men around the graves kept their scarves around their faces, dark eyes staring at the foreigner in their midst. The local authorities have put two Afghan soldiers on duty to control the crowds, but all they do is watch the visitors as they put bowls of salt on the graves and take pieces of mud from the graves to touch with their tongues.

An old man from Helmand was there. He had put stones and salt and mud on the tombs–he shook hands with me with salt on his fingers–and he had come because he was sick. “I have pain in my knee and I have polio and I heard that if I came here I would be cured,” he said. “I put salt and grain on the graves. Later I collect the grain and eat the salt, and take the mud from the grave home.” Khurda, the Pashtuns call this, bringing salt to the tombs of saints.

A second, older man had travelled from Uruzgan with his mother. “My mother had leg and back pains and I brought her to Kandahar so she could see the doctors. But when I heard the stories about these martyrs’ graves–and that they might cure her–I also brought my mother here. She is happier here than going to the doctor’s.” I watched his elderly mother on her knees, scraping dust from the mud tombs, praying and crying.

The two soldiers at the graveyard appear to have succumbed to the same visionary trance as the worshippers. “I’ve seen for myself people who get healed here,” a young, unbearded man with a Kalashnikov rifle on his shoulder told me with a smile. “It’s true. People get well after visiting the graves. I’ve seen deaf men who could hear again and I’ve seen the dumb speak. They were cured.”

This is not the time–and definitely not the place–to contradict such conviction. The sand blasts over this graveyard with a ruthlessness worthy of Osama bin Laden. The city cemetery is much larger–there are square miles of tribal graveyards within the perimeter. But it is the al-Qa’ida dead who attract most mourners. Attracted by what, the foreigner wonders? By the rumours and legend of healing? By the idea that these men resisted the foreigners to the end, preferred to die rather than surrender, that the non-Afghan “martyrs” had fought like Afghans?

Perhaps it’s as well the American special forces boys don’t drop by for a visit. They might see something that would–and should–worry them.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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