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by Saima Alvi
17 August 2002 14:58 UTC
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At the al-Qa'ida Cemetery, People Kiss the Earth Above
the Honoured Dead

by Robert Fisk
The Independent

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. 


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