SCMP Friday, October 5, 2001

War turns childhood playmates into worst of enemies

HENRY MEYER of Agence France-Presse in Sinjeddara

Once they played childhood games together. Now Khademudin Sinjeddarah would unhesitatingly shoot dead the Taleban commander from the neighbouring village if given the chance. Squinting through the sunlight into the distance, he radios his enemy, just a few hundred metres away, to harangue him as he does from time to time. But, in the oppressive afternoon heat, there is only deafening silence from the jagged mountain peaks above, resounding across the dry and dusty plain.
"When I was a child, we met all the time. I know his mother, but now he is my enemy. If I capture him, I would kill him, like any Taleban soldier," says Mr Sinjeddarah. In charge of 300 men holding the front line for the Afghan opposition in a cluster of villages north of Kabul, the commander looks much older than his 26 years, with his tanned, leathery face and thick, black beard.
Only five years ago, his life was a world away: he was studying to become a computer technician in Pakistan after learning English at school there, having fled his native Afghanistan at the age of 12. But with the fall of Kabul in 1996 to the fundamentalist Taleban, he was called back to his birthplace in the Shomali Plains to take command of local forces fighting the religious theocracy.
Following in the footsteps of his elder brother and cousin, he acts like a feudal lord in his personal fiefdom, from which he takes his name. As he drives in a swirl of dust to Sinjeddarah's main square, white-haired village elders line up to shake his hands respectfully.
The village is a shadow of its former past, devastated by years of conflict, first during the 10-year Soviet invasion and then in the subsequent civil war. Abandoned baked-mud houses line the narrow maze of streets, along which Mujahedeen fighters pick their way carefully in single file, Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders.
"Every day, we think about why there are no people here. We are fighting against the Taleban and the terrorists to make our village good again so people can return here," says the young commander.
Tragedy blighted his life early. When he was 12, Soviet troops arrested and shot dead his father, a local businessman, because his elder brother commanded the local Mujahedeen guerillas. He was sent to safety in Pakistan to start afresh, but his brother never recovered from the experience. According to Mr Sinjeddarah, his brother became increasingly violent, executing his own men as often as killing the enemy, and he had to be replaced by a cousin. Mr Sinjeddarah took over the mantle when he reached the age of 21, and he has visibly earned his men's respect.
Two years ago, the commander led a successful operation across enemy lines to rescue a large group of fighters who had become trapped during heavy fighting on the Shomali Plains. He says in the past he often tried to persuade Samillah - the enemy Taleban commander from Rahesht, the neighbouring village - to switch sides.
But he has vengeance in his heart now that General Ahmad Shah Masood, the opposition's military leader, was assassinated last month by Arab suicide bombers linked to the Taleban.
"I prayed on the grave of Ahmad Shah Masood that I will kill all the Taleban," he says. "They killed someone we can never replace."
The prospect of imminent United States attacks against the Taleban for their refusal to hand over their guest, Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect for the September 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, fills him with satisfaction. "It's very good for us that the Americans now understand these terrorists are as dangerous as the communists were."