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Grandson of 'Butcher of Kabul' seeks forgiveness, peace

Obaidullah Baheer believes higher education helped him reconcile with his family's bitter past and move forward

Obaidullah Baheer, the grandson of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, wants to move ahead of his family's bitter past. (AFP)

As a child Obaidullah Baheer saw his father dragged out of their home in a midnight raid, while his grandfather - feared warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar - was accused of killing thousands during Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s. But Baheer, 31, is attempting move beyond his family's bitter past, and seeks peace and reconciliation.

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"We have to let go, we have to choose a point of (new) beginning," Baheer who now teaches a course on transitional justice at the American University of Afghanistan.

Born right before Afghanistan's brutal civil war, when anti-Soviet militant factions fought one another after defeating the Red Army, Baheer grew up in Pakistan.

His maternal grandfather, a former prime minister and founder of the Hezb-i-Islami militia, earned the "Butcher of Kabul" nickname after laying siege on Kabul, when multiple power players were vying for control of Afghanistan. Attempting to take the capital from forces led by then defence minister Ahmad Shah Massoud, who gained folk hero status after his 2001 assassination, Hekmatyar's forces battered the city with rockets that left thousands dead and wounded.

Decades later, victims of that assault still confront Baheer. While speaking at a recent conference in Kabul about his childhood in exile, a woman blamed his grandfather for the killing of her father. "There is nothing I can say or do, except say 'I'm sorry, it wasn't me'," Baheer recalls telling the woman.

Hekmatyar and Baheer's father, Ghairat Baheer, have also faced Washington's wrath for opposing the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. His father, who headed Hezb-i-Islami's political bureau, was detained at Bagram's prison after he was dragged from the family's home in Islamabad by CIA officers, Baheer said. Hekmatyar was designated a terrorist at the time but has been included in recent Afghan peace talks.

The US military last week handed over their main Bagram Air Base near Kabul to Afghan forces, effectively completing the withdrawal of its troops after two decades of military involvement that began after the September 11 attacks.

Baheer with Afghan warlord and his maternal grandfather Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Kabul.
Baheer with Afghan warlord and his maternal grandfather Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Kabul. (AFP)

Baheer acknowledges he used to hate the Americans but that perception has changed over time. "At a point of my life, I realised it's not common American people who did that. It's people that don't know me who hate me... that's why our fighters hate the West because they don't know the West," he said.

For Baheer the road ahead is clear for Afghanistan - one of peace and reconciliation - although past efforts have largely failed. The future involves a new relationship with the United States and letting go of his bitter childhood memories, he said.

Higher education in Australia helped him onto the path of reconciliation - although even there he had to listen to shocking stories about his grandfather in classroom discussions.

"Before we move forward, I want to tell you I'm Hekmatyar's grandson," he told one of his teachers, who served in the Australian army and was deployed in Afghanistan. "He was shocked, but his only concern was for me not to be biased," he said. Inspite of the atrocities metted out by his grandfather, Baheer has a soft corner for him, "How do you stop loving your family?"

Baheer returned to Kabul in 2018 after Hekmatyar's return from isolation following a peace deal with President Ashraf Ghani. Hopes of reconciliation aside, Baheer does fear the system may collapse. "We could be even more at risk of a new civil war," he said.

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  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    07.07.2021 | 03:45 PM IST

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