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186 NURISTAN •• History



The fateful telegram ‘Can you travel Nuri- stan June?’ that kicks off Eric Newby’s travel

classic A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

continues to inspire travellers with dreams of high peaks and wooded mountain slopes, and villagers claiming descent from the troops of Alexander the Great. Sat hard against the Pakistan border, Nuristan was a crucible for the anti-Soviet resistance and sadly remains an important centre for anti- government elements, making it an ex- tremely dangerous region. In a peaceful Afghanistan Nuristan could be heaven for trekkers, but for the foreseeable future all travel is to be avoided.


When Alexander the Great passed through Nuristan en route to India in 327 BC, he was amazed to find a city called Nyas, founded by Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, or so the occupants claimed. This they proved with their groves of ivy and grapes, and copious jars of wine. Alexander celebrated with a party that granted them independ- ence, as well as leading to the mother of all hangovers. The region remained aloof for most of Af- ghanistan’s history and resisted all attempts


Of all the mujaheddin leaders to emerge in the 1980s, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is undoubtedly the nastiest piece of work. Ironically, this ruthless Ghilzai Pashtun fundamentalist used to be the darling of the CIA in their fight against the Soviets. Hekmatyar (Afghans call him Gulbuddin) was a firebrand student at Kabul University in the 1970s,

where he gained a reputation for throwing acid in the faces of female students; he later fled to Pakistan after his murder of a Maoist student leader. After the Soviet invasion, the ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency) found him the perfect pliable stooge. Although Hekmatyar lacked any grassroots support, the ISI bankrolled his Hezb-e Islami party to further their own Afghan agenda and encouraged the USA to do the same. Hekmatyar received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and plenty of Stinger missiles – many of which he sold immediately to Iran. Instead of fighting the Russians, he spent his time attacking other mujaheddin groups and assassinating moderate Afghan exiles, thus pursuing his own ambition for power. In 1992 Hekmatyar failed to capture Kabul for his Pakistani handlers and took to raining rockets down on it instead, leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead in the rubble. In a move of depressing Afghan irony, he even briefly served as prime minister while ordering the bombardment. Pakistan eventually dropped Hekmatyar in favour of the Taliban, who exiled him to Iran in the

late 1990s. He returned in the aftermath of their removal, vowing to fight the American ‘Crusad- ers’. At the time of writing he was still at large, with his renamed Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin party exploring links with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

to subdue it. Islam failed to make a dent and the old pantheon of gods continued to hold sway. The steep passes and valleys aided Nuristan’s isolation. Now known as Kafiris- tan (‘Land of the Unbelievers’), even Timur gave up his campaign here in the 14th cen- tury. It wasn’t until 1896, when Abdur Rah- man Khan launched a bloody invasion, that the region was brought to heel, completing the map of modern Afghanistan. Islam was brought at the tip of a sword and Kafiristan was renamed Nuristan (‘Land of Light’). Inaccessibility kept Nuristan isolated

throughout most of the 20th century, with barely a road to its name. In 1978 the re- gion was one of the first to rebel against the Afghan communist government, re- sulting in its heavy bombing. During the Jihad, Nuristan’s proximity to the passes to Chitral in Pakistan made it a major arms conduit for the mujaheddin – traffic heavily taxed by the locals, who declared a quasi- independent state, heavily influenced by the Arab-Afghans. Local warlords grew rich on clear-cutting local forests. Nuristan and neighbouring Kunar prov-

ince have remained awkwardly independ- ent and an important base for followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and elements of Al- Qaeda. The writ for the government is very short here, with little reconstruction work possible and regular US army firefights.


Nuristan remains ethnically and cultur- ally distinct from the rest of Afghanistan. Nuristanis speak their own language and are frequently blonde or red-haired, with blue or green eyes. Their own stories as- cribe this to their ancient Greek roots. Modern theories are more sceptical, but recent plans for DNA testing have sadly foundered. Wood carving holds an important place in Nuristani culture. Houses frequently have elaborately carved posts and shutters, and chairs are an unusual feature in a coun- try where most people sit on carpets. Ech- oes of their pagan roots can also be found in a penchant for raised wooden coffins. Islam graves were also once marked with carved effigies of gods and ancestors. An important collection remains in the Kabul Museum ( p88 ). The tradition of winemak- ing also appears to have disappeared due to Quranic strictures. The drawing of the border in the 1890s split Kafiristan in two. Against the odds,


© Lonely Planet Publications

Culture 187

three valleys in Pakistan have clung to their traditional religion and culture, their inhab- itants known as the Kalasha.


Nuristan’s main town is Kamdesh, linked by a fair road through Asadabad in Kunar to Jalalabad. A second road leads into Nuristan via Mehtarlam and Daulatshah. There are few other roads – mountain tracks are the order of the day. Three main rivers drain Nuristan: the Pech, Alingar and Kunar. Important passes include the Chamar Pass (4570m) leading towards the Panjshir Valley and Mir Samir, the moun- tain that was the target of A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Others such as the Ustai lead into Pakistan. The presence of insurgent groups such

as Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, and frequent fighting with the US army (who have a base in Kamdesh), make Nuristan an extremely dangerous destination, to be given a very wide berth. No international NGOs cur- rently operate in the area.

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