Female Militia Chief Keeps Peace in Helmand District

Hajiyani Abeda. Photograph: Guardian
Veteran fighter has years of experience leading men into combat, besides being a mother of nine.

It is obvious how much respect Abedo, a paramilitary commander in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand region, commands. Walking through the bazaar in Marja district, laughing and joking, the diminutive figure is greeted by tradesmen and shopkeepers, some of whom step forward to kiss the commander’s hands.

What makes 70-year-old Abedo an exceptional warrior by Afghan standards is that she is a woman. She set aside the traditional roles assigned to women in Pashtun society, and pursued a long career as a muhajedin fighter.

Dressed in male attire and with a yellow Helmand cap on her head, she now controls security in her home areas, leading a force of 30 paramilitaries.

The mother of nine recalled how her military career began shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She fought side by side with her mujahedin husband until he was killed in battle eight years later.

“My husband was martyred during the early years of jihad and although it was difficult for me, I continued fighting,” she said.

After his death, she changed from female clothing and dressed like an Afghan man, and went on to command a 200-strong band of mujahedin. Although she escaped serious injury, she says she killed and wounded many enemies.

“There were many battles at that time and we would fight for several days without stopping,” she said. “My men would be martyred and many enemies would also be killed. Those are the demands of war.”

She says the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 was the high point in her life.

“When the Russians left Afghanistan, I couldn’t sit still, I was so happy,” she said. Laughing at the memory, Abedo said, “Being a leader and commander was enjoyable, especially when I gave orders to my mujahedin and they obeyed me. We’d attack the enemy and I would feel I was greatly honoured.”

Feeling that right had been done, she laid down her arms and tried to build a normal life with her four sons and five daughters.

“I waged jihad to satisfy God,” Abedo said. “I didn’t pursue jihad as some others did, to obtain positions and property in this world. Those who misuse the name of jihad took advantage of it to loot and steal from people. Their efforts have been futile – they will receive nothing in the next world.”

After years living in relative peace, Abedo was moved to take up arms once more when her business was threatened by conflict between the government forces of post-2001 Afghanistan and their Taleban opponents.

“The police would tell me not to sell to the Taleban, and the Taleban would tell me not to sell to the police,” she said. “Finally, the Taleban torched my shop.”

Refusing to be cowed, she called up ten young men from her village, formed them into a paramilitary unit, and was contracted by the government to maintain stability in the area.

“I will fight against anyone who wants to disrupt the security of my village and district,” she said.

Her stance naturally soured relations with local Taleban leaders, so she now takes precautions to avoid ambush – varying her movements, visiting the district centre only occasionally to attend council meetings, and living away from her own home.

Local officials are impressed with their ally.

“Besides being a very brave woman, Abedo has a very sound understanding of the tactics of war,” Baz Gol, who is in overall command of pro-government militias operating in Marja district. “In addition, the people very much support her. She works with us to in ensuring security and we are happy with her achievements.”

Abedo insists she has always prized her independence, so although she currently works with the Kabul government, she has no political or factional alliances.

“During the jihad, weapons and ammunitions were brought in from Pakistan independently, in my name, and I would give them to the mujahedin here. I was independent then and I am now,” she added.

Her record and current position means that Abedo is held in high esteem by members of her tribe and village.

“Abedo is a brave, unique and gracious woman,” said Nek Mohammad, a resident of Marja. “She should be counted as a hero of Afghan history. “During the jihad era, we witnessed some male mujahedin commanders signing deals with the Russians to stop fighting. Abedo fought bravely until the last moment, when the Russians left the country.”

Mohammad Sadeq, a resident of Lashkar Gah, recalled Abedo’s influence in the mujahedin war against the Soviets.

“I wanted to go to Marja district, but the mujahedin were in control of the area. There were checkpoints everywhere,” he said. “I knew Abedo and got a signed and stamped letter from her ordering the mujahedin not to touch me. I went on my journey with some trepidation, and when the mujahedin stopped me and started interrogating me, I showed them the letter. They said they would have killed me if I hadn’t had the letter, because I had come from the town and looked like a spy to them – but no one could ignore Abedo’s orders.”

Abedo said her militia members are registered and trained by the authorities, receiving 110 US dollars a month, and abiding strictly by official rules of engagement.

One of her men, Mirza, said, “Abedo is a woman who knows more than many men. If we face a problem, we act on to her advice and perform well because of it.”

Asked what she would do if her soldiers misbehaved, Abedo said, “I don’t allow my militia to do that. I don’t even want children complaining about them.”

Familiar with a wide range of weapons, she said her long experience gave her an edge over many others, even in the Afghan security forces.

“Modern-day youngsters in the police and army don’t have experience, and it’s easy for them to get killed in combat because they don’t know how to fight,” she said dismissively.

She has even greater contempt for cowardice, saying, “Those who are afraid of war cause others to be defeated. And liars, too, are marked for defeat. I hate them both.”

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