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An Artist in Afghanistan

The violations of human rights in Afghanistan continue to drive major cultural figures from the country. One such refugee in 1985 was Ghausuddin, Afghanistan’s leading painter and graphic artist. In an interview with a representative of Helsinki Watch in Islamabad on August 28, 1985, he described the many pressures that finally forced him to flee Kabul on foot last April. He is seventy-three years old and suffers from the aftereffects of a heart attack.

—Jeri Laber, Helsinki Watch

I am seventy-three years old. I studied in Afghanistan at the Afghanistan Industrial High School under Afghan and foreign teachers, starting in the time of King Amanullah Khan [reigned 1919–1929]. When I was a student at the Industrial High School, Amanullah, the king at that time, came to the high school. He was leaving for Europe. He sat at our high school, and I painted a picture of him. Then he gave one hundred golden coins to his son, and his son gave me the coins as a gift. They gathered all the able boys from all over Kabul, and Faiz Mohammad, who was the minister of education, gave me the coins in the presence of the son of Amanullah. In 1933 I graduated from the school with the highest honors.

My father was the head of the Kabul Museum and also a good artist. After graduating from high school, I was employed as a teacher in the same school, but when my father got sick, the government hired me as my father’s deputy in the museum. This was in 1939.

Two years later I was again hired by the Industrial High School as a teacher and also as vice-principal. I taught theater and painting. Then the Ministry of Information and Culture of that time decided to establish a museum and a theater called the Educational Theater, and I was the founder of this organization.

Then, at the government’s request, I was sent to Kandahar to paint historical pictures of Afghanistan. At the same time I taught in the Ahmad Shah and Mirweis high schools in Kandahar. I painted about twenty pictures there. The present government of Afghanistan has collected my paintings from the Kandahar museum as well as some paintings from the home of the previous king of Afghanistan, Zaher Shah, and they have made a national gallery. Two rooms are of my paintings. Still I don’t know what they have done with my paintings since I left Kabul, if they are broken, or if they have been kept.

After three years I returned to Kabul. There they sent me to the museum of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. I worked there for three years and designed many postage stamps. For six years I worked in the Arg [royal palace, today the House of the People]. I taught King Zaher’s family, his children, and in addition I painted a portrait of his family.

Then I was transferred again to the Industrial High School as a teacher and also became the principal. In 1970 I had a heart attack, and the government retired me. For two years I didn’t work, but then I started a private school of painting for Afghan students. After I opened this school, I also taught on the faculty of fine arts at Kabul University for four years.

About two years ago, after the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, I was informed that a Russian artist was coming to my home to see my pictures. He was the vice-chairman of the Soviet Artists Union. His name was something like Solokhov. He came to my house accompanied by six armed guards. They circled my house and he came in. He looked at all of my paintings. After seeing the pictures, he left my house, and two weeks later I was summoned by the Central Committee. There they had gathered many artists from different places. Some of them were my students. We were told that the government was going to establish a fine-arts association and that they needed people to work for it—music, theater, cinema, architecture, and painting. And they had chosen me to be chairman. But I did not accept it—I said I was ill—because I felt that the Russian who had come to my house had appointed me. The Afghans, including my father and myself, have never accepted being the slaves of others, and we can never accept being the slaves of others. And as the present government of Afghanistan was installed by the Russians and is a puppet government, I never liked it.

I waited for the opportunity to leave Afghanistan. [Last February or March] I asked to go to India under the pretext of seeking medical treatment, but I was told by [Prime Minister] Keshtmand, “If you go to India, you won’t come back.” The Indian ambassador to Afghanistan had agreed that I could go to a military hospital in Delhi for treatment, but this was refused by Keshtmand. He told me, “Instead you can go to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany.” My wife was also sick, and we were going to go together. I have two children [boys aged nine and eleven], and the government said, “We will send your children to Parwarishgah-e Watan [the Fatherland Training Center], and they will go to the Soviet Union and stay there for ten years.” *

On the other hand, I also have a son who worked at the US embassy in Kabul, and the government had wanted to arrest him. He was informed, and he escaped to India; from there he went to the USA. At the same time, I was told, “Your son works for the CIA, and since you are his father, you must also work for the CIA.”

Another time I was summoned by Dr. Najib, the head of KHAD [the security service]. One day I was at a friend’s house and I wanted to go to the bazaar to get some medicine, because I was sick. My friend was an engineer working for the air force. He sent his nephew to the bazaar to bring me the medicine, but later on we were informed that he was arrested by the soldiers and sent forcibly to military service.

The engineer went to find out where he was. He was sent to Khost. As soon as he landed at the airport, mujahedin attacked the airport, and he was killed. He was brought to Kabul, and at his funeral ceremonies everyone was angry. I couldn’t control myself and said various things, maybe against the government. Among the people there are spies everywhere, members of KHAD. They recorded what I said.

Then I was summoned by Dr. Najib. He told me, “You are speaking and acting against the government.” I said, “Maybe I have done so, and maybe not, but you mistreat the people and treat them very cruelly. Just because someone goes out, he doesn’t deserve to be sent to the military service just because of his age. But you forcibly arrest him. And how should he fight against his Muslim brothers?” In response to this Dr. Najib said, “Ostad [teacher, a term of respect], I strongly request you to keep your hands off it.”

What troubled me so much was that I was informed, “Today such a village was bombed, today so many people were killed.” I even heard some members of the Central Committee proudly boasting, “I killed such a number of people, bombed such and such a place.” That troubled me so much that I even cried for hours and hours in my home.

And besides hearing about the bombardment and killing of the people, what troubled me the most was the torture of prisoners in the jails. A neighbor of mine was released, and he said various things that strongly affected me. He talked of different kinds of torture, of pulling out the nails and pushing skewers into the prisoner’s body, and there were instruments they put up the anus of some prisoners. These were electrical things. And they would put a stake in the ground, bring a prisoner, tie his feet closely together, and get a hammer and another stick and hammer it between his feet. They put prisoners on the ground and then soldiers beat them with shoes, hitting them on the face, hands, belly. In Pol-e Charkhi, I was informed that some of the prisoners after being beaten for many days were taken to the place of slaughter. Their eyes were blindfolded and their hands bound, and they were buried alive by tractors. This was in Amin’s time and also up to the present. Although they released some of the prisoners [in January 1980 just after the Soviet invasion], they have filled the prisons again and again.

My wife, who was a teacher in Ariana High School and is also an artist, was told to join the Party. She didn’t accept. Then in Hamal [March-April 1985] Karmal decided that the people who were not members of the Party should join it, and if someone refused, he would be severely punished.

I was sent a letter, but I refused to join. I said, “How can I join? I am an old man.” I got the letter, and the person who had brought me the letter told me to sign [the application for Party membership], and so I said, “I am sick, I can’t.” He told me to write in front of him, as you are writing now. Then he asked me for one of my pictures. I gave him one, and he left. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. I left the letter on a table in my home, and we left everything. By ourselves, my wife and I and two children left the house with just a few things: my paintings and some belongings of my wife. Then we went to Kot-e Sangi [a neighborhood in Kabul] and stayed there that night. Then we went to Logar, and in ten days we reached Pakistan, on the 25th of Hamal [April 14, 1985].

My wife was paid 2,500 [afghanis per month]. I was paid 10,000 by the university and 6,000 from my pension. Besides that I painted many pictures and sold them for a lot of money. But I left everything. Every day I was hearing that such and such a person was killed, such a village was bombed, such a person was arrested, so I couldn’t help it, I had to leave my country. It affected me so much that at the age of seventy-three I left Afghanistan and came to Pakistan on foot. I am an old man with white hair, and at my age I didn’t want to sell out and be considered a reactionary.

On our way to Pakistan I was even more affected, because what I had heard I saw with my own eyes. I went to a house that was half-destroyed. I sat in a room where I saw a vase with flowers in it, and another one in which I saw some barley. And I saw some clothes, covered with blood. And on the other side of the room I saw a piece of the Holy Koran which had been used as toilet paper.

When we reached Musavi, there was someone crying. I asked, “What happened?” He said that there was someone who had been going to Kabul; from the other direction a Russian convoy was coming, and the Soviets stopped his bus. During the search a Soviet uncovered his wife’s face. As she had gotten married recently, they laughed at her and took her away from her husband. Her husband tried everything he could to get her back, but they told him, “Tomorrow at eight o’clock we’ll bring you your wife here.” The boy went home and informed his parents. The next morning, he went there with a big knife, waiting for the Soviets. When the tank arrived, the woman was set down from the tank. She was injured, and her face was bruised. She told her husband, “I have lost everything. I have lost face. Kill me.” He started to kill her. The Soviets fired at him with Kalashnikovs. His father was holding an axe in his hand but his parents could not take revenge. Instead they were shot dead by the Soviets. All were buried there. Peace be upon them.

I saw something that was really strange. On my way I saw many different villages that were bombed, destroyed, some of them burned. When I came to Jaji Maidan [Paktia province], where the military post is, there was firing, and I saw the bullets hitting the ground all around me, but I recited verses from the Holy Koran and I was not affected at all.

There were a few young boys who asked me, “Why don’t you ride a horse?” I said, “Because I am tired from riding horses, and my feet have gotten so swollen I can’t ride it.” But they made me mount the horse, and they made it run. My wife came on foot, and she lost some of her toenails.

When I reached the border, taking leave of Afghanistan, I cried and picked up a handful of Afghan soil, and I told my family that wherever I die, they should spread this on my grave.

I saw the camps of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. These are the people who have lost their homes in Afghanistan. They live under very miserable conditions. It affected me more and more. But I am grateful to our good neighbors [in Pakistan] who are helping us and letting us come and live in their country.

And now my final desire as an artist and an Afghan is to show the people of the world by painting the misery of the Afghans with the tip of my brush, to show the people of the world how a poor country is fighting a powerful country. You know, when writers write, it affects some people who are educated and know how to read, but paintings affect the educated and also the uneducated. My only desire is to keep the history of Afghanistan alive. I pray to God to give me much strength to spend in service of the mujahedin and the salvation of Afghanistan.

  1. *

    This is one of many stories of parents being pressured to send their small children to the Parwarishgah-e Watan and thence to the Soviet Union. Further information on this and other practices of the regime appeared in the Helsinki Watch report To Die in Afghanistan, published in December 1985.—J. L.

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