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Home > People

Exiled to Acton

How did Afghanistan get in such a bloody mess? Rumour reached us of a high-ranking Afghan living in exile in Acton, West London. So we put Michael Wale on the no. 207 bus out of Shepherd’s Bush to find General Safi and ask him what went wrong…

20 December 2003

safi.jpg General Safi sits bolt upright in a dining room chair; behind him a neat line of his wife’s colourful watercolours of Afghan scenes.

For 30 years he was a military commander in Afghanistan. But now, at 72, General Safi lives in an upstairs maisonette in Acton, wondering if he will ever see his homeland again. “First of all,” he says, “the mafia in Kabul will have to be removed, otherwise there will be no free, democratic elections, and I won’t return”.

General Safi was Commander of Afghanistan’s Special Forces when the king ruled. An exciting, challenging, outdoor life, which is why he likes to escape from the maisonette where he has lived for the past five years to his allotment around the corner.

“From leading 42,000 soldiers against the Russian for 15 years to an allotment, making barbecue, planting roses,” he laughs and refills the pipe that never leaves his hand. He summons me to the table in front of him, and with his pipe stem he traces an outline of Afghanistan on the back of an envelope. He taps significantly at the eastern border. The border with Pakistan. “In Afghanistan we have the fundamentalists, but nobody drops them in by parachute, you know? They come in through Pakistan. They should shut the bloody door on them.” His fist tightens around his pipe. “They should take those bloody bastard criminal fundamentalists and get rid of them. Send them to Guantanamo Bay!”

Not a big fan of fundamentalism is General Safi. “Those people – they say ‘yes, I am ready to sacrifice myself for my beliefs.’ But listen, I am not ready to do that! If I get a headache, I go to the doctor – I am not ready for suicide. I am not that stupid. God did not create me for suicide. If I am given paradise for my suicide, then I don’t want it. They can keep it!” He roars with laughter like a jolly uncle. It is a knack that Safi has: switching moods in the twitch of an eyebrow. One second he is laughing, the next he is practically in tears at the horror of what’s going on in his homeland. “The people of Afghanistan are suffering and suffering and suffering. All innocent. So much suffering…”

Safi too has suffered in his time. In July 1973, life as he had known it was to end with a military coupe against King Zahir Shah, led by Mohammad Daoud (the king’s cousin and brother-in-law). “I remember, on that first night of the coup, I was taken to a prison cell, and kept there for two and a half years. For the first year, twice a week, we were punished, tortured… electric shocks.” He still has the scars of torture on his legs.

Eventually he was released, put under house arrest, escaped, walked to Iran, made his way to England, and was granted political asylum.

In 1978, there was a Soviet-funded Marxist revolution, Mohammad Daoud was executed, and in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded. General Safi returned to his country, to fight. He joined the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan: freedom fighters who knew the terrain, and were able to cause the Soviets maximum disruption. He was back now as a commander, and set up a school hidden in the mountains. “Step by step it became a national uprising” – one which turned into a bitter 15 year struggle, and in the course of which the Russians killed his Brigadier brother as well as his father: “My father when he was killed was over 80 years old – and even at that age he was a freedom fighter.”

Safi traces the roots of Afghanistan’s current crisis to this period. His anger rises as he recalls. “In the beginning, we were like the fighting dogs of the Americans. Mostly it was Pashtun Moslems fighting. We fight and we fight, and the congressmen, the Senate, everybody, Barbara Bush – President Reagan (I met him several times) – all of them were pushing us to fight, to fight, to fight, but during that time more than 70 % of the aid was given to the fundamentalists – creating the bloody Al-Qaeda. They built a base for them; the American congressmen visit their bases. They created it – the Americans – why?”

safi2.jpg Following the Geneva Accords, Russia pulled out of Afghanistan in the early part of 1989. At which point so too did the Americans. Safi is still amazed at how quickly the Americans vacated his country: “We were absolutely under American dictatorship for 15 years, fighting the Russians. They were all the time with us, their aid was with us, their food was with us, their equipment was with us – but the day the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, the Americans withdrew – never said goodbye, and left us civil war. Bloodshed.”

Eventually, some three years on, the rebels took the capital Kabul. Rabbani was elected President and Safi was rewarded with high office: “I was given three jobs: State Minister, Deputy Defence Minister, Central Corps Commander, and Head of the Peace Mission. Ah yes, you’re right. Four jobs.” Running the Peace Mission meant working with the various warlord factions. But peace never happened, thanks to the endless infighting and corruption. “I failed,” admits Safi, frankly. “During the four and a half years under Rabbani, the city of Kabul was washed off from the face of the earth. According to the United Nations, 50,000 innocent people were killed. Looting, raping, killing – that was absolutely routine.”

Kabul fell again 1996. This time to the Taliban. The Taliban were backed at the outset, says Safi, by America, the Saudis and Pakistan. It was a movement that he felt quite sympathetic towards at the beginning: “But then Bin Laden came to the surface. At first, the Taliban were peaceful and wanted to re-unite the country. Several times I contacted them to get rid of that motherfucker Bin Laden. I didn’t succeed, why I don’t know. Bin Laden was a very small, little man. It was the Americans who made him a prophet. I don’t know why.” He seems genuinely baffled. “Would you like tea? Coffee?” He trots off to make me a coffee, returns with a steaming cup, and pauses halfway across the room to utter the dark and frightful words: “September 11th.”

“Unforgettable and unforgivable crime has been caused by Bin Laden. Unforgivable. But why and how did that man come from nothing to everything? The answer is the Americans. He was the creation of the Saudis and the Americans.” He takes a deep breath. “So then, the Americans and the British came to kick the Taliban out.” And for the second time in his lifetime, the Americans rode into town to save the day. But once bitten…

“The Americans, they never get you to the end of the road. They leave you when they have achieved their aim. Then they tell you; piss off.” He is angry now. “What was it we were told? That the Americans will stay, and get rid of the wrong and bring the right – peace and democracy – but where are they? Peace and democracy? I wish to see them. I wish myself to see them. Ask Mr Bush where they are! Ask Mr Bush!” And he glares at me so fiercely that I think perhaps I should pick up the phone and put a call through to the White House. Get George to explain himself.

But surely there have been good signs. What about the return of King Zahir Shah, who was deposed back in 1973 and exiled to Rome? Can’t he impose some sort of order on Afghanistan? Not according to Safi: “The King is a very old guy. A very nice man, a gentle man, but he is too old for that job.” Safi flexes a sturdy forearm: it’s the size of a small dog’s torso. “In Afghanistan if you’ve got strong muscle you are in charge.”

Safi is feeling pumped. His shoulders are squared, defiant. The fire of democracy burns fiercely in his eyes; he fixes me in their blaze, and declares: “I am announcing myself as candidate for the job of President of Afghanistan.” It was like one of those moments in films where courtiers drop to their knees and acknowledge the true and rightful leader. I was a bit too low down in the settee to get up and kneel, so I just nodded vigorously – hoping to hit the perfect balance between encouragement and respect. “ If there were fair elections and security, I would be the only person to win over the majority of the people. I’m in touch with Afghans here and in America. For me the only danger would be in Kabul. The countryside is safe for me. It is all ex-freedom fighters: twenty million of them. They were my own people.”

The greatest barrier between Safi and the presidency of his country is the mafia. “The man who has been appointed President by America, Mr Karzai – he is not in power. The real power is organised crime, run by the defence minister – not Mr Karzai. The criminals are Northern Alliance. They are friends of Russia, friends of Iran. They want to divide Afghanistan, north and south. But no, we will not allow them.” But how will he stop them from a maisonette in a West London suburb? Safi fixes me with his best SAS-trained stare. “We will not allow them, believe me.” I believe him.

General Safi has a bearing, a charisma, which cannot be circumscribed by the walls and windows of an Acton drawing room. He has a strength which belies the fact that he has had surgery within the last two years for bone cancer. It was successful, but it had an effect upon the planning of his allotment. Whereas before he grew a variety of vegetables (especially a lettuce-like Afghan speciality), now he concentrates purely, and proudly, upon roses. They are easier to look after, he says. And, of course, there is his beloved barbecue. It has been quite a summer for barbecues.

I should like one day to see General Rahmutallah Safi, the former leader of Afghanistan’s Special Forces, in charge of a barbecue. Blowing on the charcoal. Getting the temperature just so. It must be a sight to behold. And I pity the poor chap who shuffles up and tries to give advice on coal stacking. “Have you not thought about a pyramid formation, General?”


“General – put down the tongs.”

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