For nearly 20 years, the legendary Afghan resistant Massoud led his people, first against the Russians, and later against the Taliban, in order to liberate his country. Fifteen years after his assassination on September 9, 2001, this is my tribute to a man of rare intelligence and profound sensibility.
It is, at first, a face-to-face encounter in 1985, followed by a glimmer of mutual recognition, a game of chess in the Panjshir Valley, a handshake, an embrace, a discussion, and a promise to meet again. It is seventeen years of foiled attacks, observations, intense discussions, and poetic verbal jousting until dawn. It is access to the liberated city of Kabul and a visit to the only enclave yet to fall under Taliban control. It is the memory of these peaceful daydreams, a longing for freedom, and yet a duty to resist.
— 1985 —
Still reeling from the recent invasion of the Russian army, Afghanistan was supported by a puppet government.
The formidable and much-dreaded Russian army, a hundred thousand-strong, had invaded cities and villages, cut off roads and rivers, bombarded all places of resistance. Put to fire and sword, the whole country seemed prostrate, mourning its dead. Yet, in a most absolute discretion, resistance organized itself. Willing to face the countless Russian soldiers, a young civil engineer, Ahmad Shah Massoud, had walked from one village to another, gathering together one hundred loyal men who would overcome the invading force, just as he had assured. Trained by Massoud, these Mujahedeen then transmitted what they had been taught to hundreds of others, therefore forming a strong army..
Massoud loved playing chess. He loved attaining a psychological victory against his opponents. The day we first met, I offered him a chessgame. He said to me, in a humorous manner, “Do you consider yourself as a potential opponent?” To this provoking question, I answered in the same tone with a poem written by Ferdowsi, “Bring everything of force that you have before starting the fight,” and we started playing. This was just the beginning of a very long and profound friendship.
As the years of our friendship went by, I was able to observe Massoud on many occasions. A man of rare intelligence and profound sensibility, he possessed an extremely acute sense of justice. His sense of honour had led him to join the resistance in order to defend his country.
Massoud loved his people, and his people loved him. He listened and remembered every single detail, every name, and every query. Seeking to reach perfection in all of which constitutes a society, Massoud refused to gain or control all of the powers. To a man who wished Massoud to intercede on behalf of his son convicted of treason, he answered, “Justice is the only way to freedom. What right does the leader have to decide the fate of the guilty? In front of a judge, the leader has no power.”
On this rocky trail, the day had already commenced. We were awoken by the cool air of the mountains. Massoud prayed. He went for a walk alone, to meditate, wrapped only in a traditional Afghan blanket to protect him from the cold. Leaving his shelter behind him, he departed alone with no defence. “Massoud” means “lucky” in Farsi, and for twenty years my friend was very lucky. Until September 9th, 2001.
For a very short period of time, as the sounds of gunfire were silenced, it seemed as though the war was far away. Massoud sat alone in a house in his small village, and read. Through the reading of the Quran, the philosophy of Hafez and Rumi, literature works and writings by Mao, Napoleon and De Gaulle, he was cultivating his thoughts and curiosity.
— 1990 —
For nine months in 1990, I worked as a consultant for the United Nations in Afghanistan. My mission was to implement a wheat route, in order to feed the population of the Northern provinces. Nine months of direct actions for a suffering people. Sometimes, in the course of his life, a photojournalist comes across such a dilemma: to bear witness in order to inform the people and attempt to change the course of history, or to leave the camera behind in order to offer a helping hand. Yet, after nine months, I went back to images when a senior official of the United Nations told me that we had chosen to get involved in the humanitarian actions after having seen one of my photographs in a magazine.
— 1992 —
In April 1992, just before giving the assault on Kabul, Massoud was in the village of Bagram, surrounded by, to his right, his aide-de-camp Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, who became the chief of the national afghan army’s staff, and to his left, two militaries from the ‘Regular Afghan Army’. Massoud formed an alliance with many of his former enemies.
On the plains that surround this village, six hundred tanks and armoured vehicles were patiently awaiting. I approached the barracks which were your headquarters. I was looking for you. In a dark room, where the windows had been covered with paper, you were sitting in a chair, surrounded by three wisemen with long white beards. You were having bread, cheese, and tea for lunch.
As you saw me, you stopped your lunch and got up from your chair. You embraced me, saying, “I knew you would do everything you could to find me. We have one hour until we need to depart”. You invited me to sit down next to you, and you shared your bread with me.
Far from thinking about the preparations to seize Kabul, you questioned me, driven by your curiosity about the world: “So tell me, what did you do? Where have you been?” And then, as always, your face suddenly froze. For some long minutes, you were pondering. You finally got up, tapped me on the back, and said, “Let’s get out of here”.
On the jarring road connecting Bagram to the city of Kabul, we were sitting side by side on a tank. The noise was deafening, and it was often impossible to see through the dust billowing in front of us.
Just before the departure, Massoud had decided that the six hundred tanks and armored vehicles would make a U-turn and follow the longer route. As if we were still playing chess, he said: “You must always surprise your enemy when he is least expecting it.” His decision turned out to be worth it. On the road, neither his enemies, nor the journalists, were waiting for us. We entered Kabul at night fall.
Once in the city, the generals of the government’s army welcomed Massoud, standing at attention. In a great surge of humanity, he embraced them, remembering the name of each man. He could also remember the war exploits of every one of them, and those who had been his enemies alongside the Russians.
With his subtle and witty humor, he did not fail to remind these men who had just surrendered, of the stratagems that they had once used against him. At the government’s army headquarters, you see Massoud, his men and the generals gathered around a general-staff map. After thirteen years of war, Massoud and his men were finally in Kabul.
Upon his arrival, the “lion of Panjshir” had only one obsession: “to do his utmost to bring a long-lasting peace to his country, in the name of civilians, the innocent victims, and to rebuild a devastated country.”
Besides the ethnic confrontations, the opposition of Pakistan against the implementation of an independent and democratic Afghan government constituted another obstacle to reach the people’s cohesion. That day, in the hall of the Kabul Hotel, he gave a long talk in front of commanders who came from all provinces. He had the allure of a prophet.
At first, working day and night, Massoud attempted to organize an ideal Afghan society. He wished that the Afghan people, freed from their tribal rivalries, would elect their government. However, neither Pakistan and Iran, nor the Western powers wanted this independence. As he had confided to me in 1985, the urban struggle was subject to political criteria.
— 2000 —
In 2000, National Geographic Channel decided that they would like to produce a documentary on Massoud: the legendary Afghan figure who had been resisting the Taliban since 1996, from his land in the Panjshir Valley. Sebastian Junger, the famous writer, joined me to go and meet Massoud. The documentary was called “Into the Forbidden Zone”.
I had been waiting for Massoud to arrive for a few days. I knew that he would come by surprise, as usual. I was driven towards a river. In the distance, I saw a rather original watercraft: a tractor that had been transformed into a boat. Massoud was there, along with his men. When he arrived to the shore where I was standing, he came to embrace me. It was a very beautiful reunion, both silent and moving.
During this visit, I observed as Commander Massoud, chief of the Northern Alliance, received delegations of Afghansâ€Š—â€Šamongst them Hamid Karzai (on the right), who become the president of Afghanistan in 2001, and had come to Massoud to ask for a great counsel of national unity to be held on Afghan land.
From Shafagh’s bunker, Massoud had just given coded instructions for an offensive that he was planning against the Taliban. As I arrived, he was deep into a collection of poems published in the Panjshir Valley entitled “At the Dawn of Hope”. In the quiet of that Ramadan night, poetry and rhetoric games allowed us to escape the cruelty of the war.
For nearly 20 years, Massoud led the resistance, in order to liberate his country. Despite the harshness of the fighter’s life, one could perceive a great gentleness, a bright humanity and deep inner joy in him.
A Letter to the Bearer of Light
You were killed, blown up by a bomb. Not long before your death that we had all dreaded, you said to your son Ahmad, in front of your relatives: “If I am to die for the principles and ideas which I have been fighting for all my life, I do not want you to cry or your heart to tremble.”
But how can one not be overwhelmed with sadness when a man of truth is assassinated? In this world of selfishness, perversion, economic interests, conflicts over power and greed, there seems to be little room for the bearers of light. They disturb the established order, or rather, they disturb the “disorders” of the world. Didn’t Socrates and Gandhi die in the name of truth that went against obscurantism?
As a child who grew in a rich and little-known culture, you were one of the few ones who place their thoughts and actions at the service of humanity, at the risk of awaking the animosity of the established powers.
A poet at heart, you were forced to wear the disguise of a war chief in order to drive back the Russian Army which had come to crush and destroy your people under its boot, to the detriment of your country’s independence. You were the one who was able to fight against the Russian war machineâ€Š—â€Šthe same that was so much feared by the West, when the Cold War was at its peak. You were the one who shook the Berlin wall which had divided the world in two, before it tumbled down; a year after the last Russian soldiers had left the country. As for the Westerners, they did turn their back on you, shamefully.
But, for the very last time, let’s look more in depth into the facts. I am once again living this moment. We were both kneeling over a map of the region spread out on the floor. I can still hear your words: “U.S. oil companies want to control the oil and gas pipelines reaching this new el dorado of energy sources on the Caspian shores. As they cannot trust Iran that has fallen into the hands of the Mullahs who have overthrown their vassal, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, they do need Pakistan and Afghanistan. The CIA and the Pakistani army have conceived a specific military program for the children living in the refugee camp in Pakistan who grew up in extreme poverty, war and exodus. The power of those who are called the Taliban is based on the indoctrination and propaganda of a dominant and conquering Islam, far from the mystic and spiritual Islam of Molana. Always keep in mind that Bin Laden was a CIA agent. He received many weapons and information from this governmental institution. The funds was coming from a major U.S. allies; Saudi Arabia.”
Between the Russian Empire at the twilight of its influence, which felt hurt and affronted by its own failure and a Western bloc that had sold out to economic interests, you tried, once again, alone, to do the impossible, to establish not your own power, but the peace and independence of your country.
How many times did you call for help? How many times did you hear only the echo of your own words, bouncing back from mountain walls?
Life is beautiful, my friend. I strongly believe it. One can kill a man, break his body, destroy his flesh, but one can never kill his thoughts or ideas. You are the noble soul who had a dream for your country, and for the world. “I see a free and independent Afghanistan, a country whose people will choose its own ‘council of wisemen’â€Š—â€Šthe Loya Jirga composed of hundreds of representatives. I see a country whose government will be democratically elected, and where weapons will be laid down. I see the Mujahidin fighters set up a “reconstruction army” and an “education army”. I see girls going to school, just like boys. I see our traditional agricultural systems finally restored. I see our cultural and historical heritage, protected and appreciated; it is our collective memory. And at last, I see all the children of Abraham living in peace on this land.”
He went on, looking pensive and sincere: “This is what I have started to build in Panjshir. Someday, I will help spread it throughout all of Afghanistan. And maybe the world will be interested in such an ideal.” And when I naively said, “Democracy exists in the West, with similar principles and organizations.” You replied to me, and said, “No, those are not real democracies. A real democracy does not help the Taliban seize power and betray its own principles in the name of economic interests. You have to imagine a true democracy in your mind and put it into practice.”
You were the light along the difficult path to peace. My friend, I truly believe that life is beautiful when I see other ‘bearers of light’ following the path that you have shown us.
“The world is my field of vision. From war to peace, from the unspeakable to the moments of poetry, my images are testimonies of humankind.” – Reza
Photography is not just pursuing a form of art. It’s not just chasing a passion. It’s an armament that can bring about a change. It’s a language that speaks for all and is understood and spoken beyond borders. Photographers do not just capture moments that are beautiful. They understand their responsibility and deliver.
Reza is one such stalwart who captures the sufferings of mankind that are beyond imagination. He captures truth that can shake us from the roots. But he captures them with a ray of sunshine. He brings it to us wrapped in sensitivity. His optimist eyes find joy running hand in hand with despair and harmony with conflict. Reza believes in the victory of life above all things. Thus, in the deadly debacles, he finds humanity hitting the winning stroke. His photographs bear the essence of life. In the midst of helplessness and dismay of humankind, he sees culture, tradition and history bringing back hope that nurture the new. Through his frames and his works Reza talks about hope for a better world.
A philanthropist, an idealist and a humanist Reza studied architecture. But his passion drove him to take up the camera. Eventually he went on to become a renowned photojournalist, who for the last three decades, have been working all over the world.
His prime engagement has been with National Geographic. Travelling over a hundred countries, he has witnessed humanity’s conflict and catastrophe. Other than series, books and documentaries for National Geographic, his works have been featured in Time Magazine, Stern, Newsweek, El Pai`s, Paris Match, etc.
Since 1983, Reza has been committed to volunteer for training of youths and women from the conflict dominated areas, the language of images. Here he made a mark different from that of the others. He delivers his responsibility of being a human by putting his skill into use for the benefit of others.
In 2001 he founded Ainaworld in Afghanistan. Ainaworld is a new generation NGO which trains in information and communications through development of educational tools and adapted media.
He believes in spreading the power of photography and thus continued to conduct workshops on the language of images, both on site and on line through his association Reza Visual Academy. His area of focus includes refugees, urban youths in Europe and others from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Reza’s monumental works have been appreciated and acclaimed across the globe. Here is an account of his works and their exhibition:
M`emoires d’Exile (Memories of Exile) shown at the Louvre Carrousel in 1998.
Crossing Destinies shown on the grills of Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
One World, One Tribe in Washington DC and in Parc de la Villette in Paris.
War + Peace at the Caen Memorial and on the banks of the Garonne in Toulouse.
Hope in Doha (Qatar).
Windows of the Soul in Corsica.
Soul of Coffee has been shown in 250 photographic exhibitions throughout the world including major installations on the banks of the Seine, Kew Gardens in London.
Land of Tolerance at the UN Headquarters in New York, the European Parliament in Brussels, UNESCO in Paris.
Azerbaijan: the Elegance of Fire presented at the Petit Palais In 2014, revealed less known people with an ancestral culture turned towards modernity.
A Dream of Humanity, the giant panorama, was featured along the banks of the Seine during the summer of 2015, showing portraits of refugees around the world taken by Reza and photographs taken by refugee children in Iraqi Kurdestan who were trained as “camp reporters” at the workshops organized by Reza Visual Academy.
“I aim to recount, denounce, touch, witness and make laugh or cry, thanks to the universal language of photography.” – Reza
Reza is the author of twenty nine books, and is recipient of many awards:
Fellow (2006 – 2012) and Explorer of the National Geographic Society since 2013.
Senior Fellow of Ashoka Foundation.
World Press Photo recognized his works.
He received the Infinity Award from the International Centre of Photography.
The lucy Award, an Honorary Medal from the University of Missouri have been bestowed upon him
He received the honourary degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from the American University of Paris.
France has also appointed him a Chevalier of the National Order of Merit.