HERAT, Afghanistan — It’s not often a de-mining crew is called in to clear a museum, but the unusual project is an illustration of how dangerously authentic Herat’s Jihad Museum was until recently; before the de-miners came, flash photography was prohibited for fear of setting off the live explosives in the building’s display of ordnance from the Soviet-Afghan War.
Now that the explosives have been defused by the U.K.-based HALO Trust, the intricately tiled building is a bit safer. But a recent attack on the nearby U.S. consulate brought the current war dangerously close to a museum that depicts the successful but costly resistance to the Soviet Union, which lasted from 1979 to 1989 and left roughly 1 million Afghans and about 15,000 Soviet troops dead.
The consulate attack on Sept. 13 — which included suicide bombers, rocket-propelled grenades and a gun battle — happened a few hundred meters from the museum. Explosions shattered museum windows and busted doors, and the museum closed for more than a month for repairs.
Amid an incongruously peaceful scene of colorful flowers and meticulously trimmed bushes, the museum’s well-manicured grounds showcase a variety of captured materiel, including artillery, a Soviet attack helicopter and a MiG jet. Built in 2002, shortly after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban regime, it’s a call for peace more than an homage to war, museum director Sayed Abdul Wahab Qattali said.
This is an especially urgent message as Afghanistan approaches 35 years of near constant fighting, Qatalli said.
“It has very important lessons for visitors — it tells them why we fought, why the country was destroyed,” he said. “It tells them not to gravitate towards war in the future.”
Inside the main building, adorned with memorial tiles bearing short biographies of mujahedeen commanders killed in the Soviet War — or “The Jihad,” as many Afghans refer to it — the museum has glass cases full of weapons used by the anti-Soviet insurgents. There are old British Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles, modern AK-47s, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, mortars, rockets (now with HALO stickers certifying their safety), and a variety of small-arms ammunition.
Hallways bear portraits of both mujahedeen commanders and soldiers killed in the war, which devastated the country and sent millions of refugees fleeing to neighboring Pakistan and Iran (where many still reside decades later). A highlight is the 360-degree diorama depicting key moments in Afghan resistance to Soviet forces. It’s an unflinching look, with dead, bloodied fighters from both sides, families killed in their homes by airstrikes and gritty scenes of battle. MiGs swoop from the sky, attack helicopters hover, and triumphant mujahedeen scale a captured tank with the body of a Soviet crewman hanging off the front.
Herat was a key battleground in the war, with famed commander Ismail Khan (now a prominent politician) leading local forces, and the depictions focus on the fighting in the historic western city, including one battle museum officials say cost 24,000 lives in a single day.
School groups and scholars flock to the museum for both field trips and research. In addition to its function as an educational resource, the museum serves as a repository for wartime documents and statistics.
Museum staff talk solemnly about keeping alive the memory of a fight that left a generation of Afghans with deep scars, both mental and physical.
“The people of Afghanistan gave their sacrifice,” Qattali’s nephew, Museum cultural affairs director Sayed Omar Qattali, said. “They should not be forgotten.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.