Afghan warlord's grandson moves on from family's bitter past

  • Obaidullah Baheer, has put his family's bitter past behind him and set his sights on a future of peace and reconciliation
Published July 7, 2021

KABUL: As a child he 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 Obaidullah Baheer, 31, has put his family's bitter past behind him and set his sights on a future of peace and reconciliation.

"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, told AFP in an interview.

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 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.

Former Afghan warlord Hekmatyar returns to Kabul after 20 years

While speaking at a recent conference in Kabul about his childhood in exile, a woman blamed Hekmatyar for the killing of her father. "There is nothing I can say or do, except say 'I'm sorry, it wasn't me'," Baheer said.

Hekmatyar and Baheer's father, Ghairat Baheer, have also faced Washington's wrath for opposing the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

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.

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 people Baheer said were CIA officers.

Ghairat, who married Hekmatyar's daughter, was imprisoned for years at several locations in Afghanistan and tortured, including being held for months in solitary confinement, said Baheer.

'I'll tell the truth'

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," he said.

"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."

For Baheer the road ahead is clear for Afghanistan -- one of peace and reconciliation -- although past efforts have largely failed.

The latest peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government have also been deadlocked for months as fighting rages across the countryside.

For Baheer, the future involves a new relationship with the United States by joining the American University -- and letting go of his bitter childhood memories.

At the same time, the tall slender man with glasses refuses to hide his affection for his grandfather: "How do you stop loving your family?"

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."

Baheer returned to Kabul in 2018 after Hekmatyar's return from isolation following a peace deal with President Ashraf Ghani.

"Hekmatyar is very proud of his grandson," said Victoria Fontan, Director of the American University of Afghanistan, who was instrumental in getting Baheer to the institution.

"Yes, he is proud," Baheer agreed, adding Hekmatyar often jokes that he should not say bad things about the family at the university.

"I told my grandfather I'm a political analyst, I'm a lecturer. I'll speak my mind and tell the truth".

But hopes of reconciliation aside, Baheer does fear what may come next: "The system may very well collapse. We could be even more at risk of a new civil war."


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