He Battled the Communists and Was Tortured By the Taliban. Will Europe Take Him In?

A militant rebel leader left everything behind to flee Afghanistan for Greece. Now he and his family live in limbo while his violent past continues to haunt him.

He Battled the Communists and Was Tortured By the Taliban. Will Europe Take Him In?

A portly, bespectacled man dressed in a casual tricolored jacket, a woolen sweater and gray jeans is busy blowing his kid’s nose with a handkerchief. On this beautiful January day, they’re at a crowded cafe in Victoria Square, a plaza in the heart of Athens, Greece. There’s a mug of coffee for the adult, fresh orange juice in a stemmed glass for the youngster. The dad is stern and stolid, his movements around his son, who has a chunk of gelled hair sticking straight up, tender all the same. It’s not the picture one might expect of a former Jihadist commander who says he has taken part in an assortment of violent transgressions, like killing a healthy number of “atheist communists,” and burying forty of his own dead soldiers’ bodies on orders from the Taliban, at gunpoint.

Mir Abdul Rahim Mohammadi, 44, was a leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami military faction in his native Afghanistan. The group was originally founded as a Muslim political party with a communitarian ideology based on Islamic law, but became militarized during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Mohammadi for many years called himself a Jihadist, but asserts that the real meaning of Jihad is much different from how many Westerners see it. “Jihad means to fight the evil in yourself or the society,” Mohammadi says. “Jihadists don’t kill, Muslims don’t kill. If somebody attacks your country, you will defend it.”

Mohammadi stands with his son in Victoria Square.
Mohammadi stands with his son in Victoria Square.

Hailing from the Kapisa province in the Northeastern region of the country, Mohammadi brought his wife – of whom he doesn’t speak about much, though he disclosed she is also his first cousin – and four children, age eighteen, sixteen, fifteen and four, to Greece ten months ago. Their arrival came shortly after the peak of the refugee crisis in Greece, when the country took in about 9,200 people, on average, each day. To get to Europe, Mohammadi gladly sold off his Kapisa property, and denounced a lifestyle he had devoutly stuck to for most of his life.

Mohammadi has stripped himself of the khet partug – traditional pantaloons and body shirt – and the perahan turban he wore back in his days as a militant. He’s also cut the long locks of hair he once sported, though a thick mustache remains.

“The real terrorists are the Taliban, Daesh, and Al-Qaeda, who pretend to be Jihadists,” he goes on. “They orchestrated the 9/11 attack.”

Born into a traditional farming family, Mohammadi’s formative years were shaped by labor and the insecurity that came with Afghanistan’s perpetual political turmoil, as well as a hatred of Soviets deep enough to be traced in almost every Afghani man of his generation.

In April 1978 Afghanistan’s centrist government was overthrown by left-wing military officers. The new government reportedly made alliances with the Soviet Union, silenced dissidents, and engaged in extensive land and social reforms. One year later, thirty thousand Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, aiming to annex it.

“Russians, these communists and atheists,” he begins, quietly irate. “I once saw them burn dozens of houses… They killed my uncle and cousins, they killed sheep, chickens. I was a kid, but I fired back, I killed many of them.”

A tattoo on Mohammadi’s hand, from his time as a Jihadist.
A tattoo on Mohammadi’s hand, from his time as a Jihadist.

The overwhelming majority of Muslim natives abhorred the new regime. The rise of the anti-Soviet mujahideens – those who wage holy war, the jihad – was fated. These disjointed and uncoordinated tribal groups proved competent warriors, able to frequently neutralize Soviet air power through the soldiers’ use of shoulder-mounted, U.S.-supplied anti-aircraft missiles. The Soviet Union suffered heavy casualties and eventually signed a peace accord with the U.S., Pakistan and Afghanistan, withdrawing its troops in 1988. By 1989, Afghanistan was independent again, and the ferocious mujahideen groups were hell-bent on wearing down the last communist forces that remained. Mohammadi joined the Jamiat-E-Islami Afghanistan faction, his country’s most elite mujahideen group.

The first thing the then-seventeen-year-old aspiring Jihadi warrior learned was how to use various killing tools. There were mundane weapons like knives or sickles, and more high-tech ones like rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), pika guns – Russian-made belt-fed weapons with a detachable barrel – and Kalashnikov rifles. Guerillas also learned how to box; the judo arts; how to aim a rocket launcher skyward, find a target and shoot it down; and the exact points of the human body where a knife strike deals a fatal injury.

Mohammadi soon exhibited remarkable martial skills and mettle. Four years after he enlisted, he got the order to command thirty soldiers. At 23, he was selected to become a proud commander of Jamiat, in charge of a troop of 150 men initially, and later many more. He was also responsible for forging close ties with the French, Americans and British, who, through dispatching money and weaponry to Pakistan, helped mujahideen rebels stave off the Soviets. In retrospect, Mohammadi says that some of the friendly countries gave certain promises in public and conflicting ones in private.

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan left a political vacuum. A new movement was promising to bring peace and Sharia law to the war-torn country, something forceful mujahideen soldiers like Mohammadi had failed to do. They were the Taliban, which translates in Urdu to “the students.”

But these would-be heroes soon became tyrants. A medieval sense of justice with public executions and amputations, the banning of television, music and cinema, and prohibiting girls aged ten and over from going to school were only some of the new tactics the rising fundamentalists employed.

By 1995, the Taliban were fast advancing on Kabul. Ahmad Shah Massoud, a leading military and spiritual figure of Jamiat, hailed as the Afghan who won the Cold War, strongly rejected the interpretations of Islam followed by the Taliban, defeated them in many fronts, and managed to join fragmented mujahideen forces under the umbrella of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan.

Then, he was murdered two days prior to 9/11 – some say by Al-Qaeda.

“He is the only man for whom I would die,” Mohammadi says. “If Massoud told me to give him my son, I would do it in an instant.” Mohammadi had the chance to meet the secretive and charismatic leader thrice in his life. “If he were alive, Afghanistan would be safe and the Taliban dead.”

Mohammadi still craves the Taliban’s destruction. The commandante says in one breath: “The Taliban have no target; they want to exterminate the human race. Anybody who is a Taliban, I will kill him.”

At times he finds himself entangled in a baffling quandary: “Who do I hate more, the atheist Soviets or the evil bearded men?” The needle is tipping toward the bearded Taliban, as he says he likes Vladimir Putin’s modern Russia, but the trauma of years of inhumane imprisonment in a Taliban cage will never escape his memory.

During a battle in defense of Kapisa, the then-26-year-old was taken from the barracks and thrown into a Taliban prison in Kandar for four years. He spent the first eighteen months chained to a chair. Every night someone from the Taliban would flog him with a stick from nine p.m. until four in the morning. A sturdy Taliban guard felt crotchety one day, so he broke Mohammadi’s ankles with a pipe, resulting in a gait that is still unsteady.

“They had me subsist on bread and water for three years and a half,” he says. “They gave me a tomato afterwards and it felt like heaven.

“They gave me a shovel and demanded that I bury forty of my dead soldiers, one by one,” he continues. “I withstood the tortures, the lack of medicine… They shoved me out of the jail, chained my feet, and forced me to walk through a minefield.”

Mohammadi was eventually exchanged for a Taliban commander. Upon his release at age thirty, he resolved to live off the radar. He became a businessman, traded in cars, and focused on his family. That didn’t mean that the mujahideen spirit had died down. Every time the Taliban’s fighters approached Kapisa, the businessman would transform and command his garrison against them. “Many lives, I killed many,” he imperturbably confesses.

Today, he says, the Taliban are still after him.

The refugee camp at the Elliniko airport.
The refugee camp at the Elliniko airport.

In 2015, locals who make money as low-level fixers in the wider smuggling network – known as “fixer-smugglers” – began spreading the message about the benefits refugees enjoyed in Europe. People were fleeing Afghanistan en masse for Europe. Mohammadi gathered forty-five thousand euros – enough to pay the smugglers to take his whole family. They fled first to Iran, then Turkey, and onto a dinghy boat to Lesbos, a Greek island in the eastern reaches of the Aegean Sea.

After Lesbos, Mohammadi planned to use the so-called “Balkan route,” through Serbia, Hungary and then Austria to reach the U.K. He was unlucky, however, for the European Union, aghast at the inconceivable numbers of refugees and migrants seeping into the continent, shut down the Balkan route in March 2016, and signed a deal with Turkey to return new asylum seekers.

In the wake of the deal, the Mohammadi family and other Afghanistan refugees did not cross the Balkans, but were rounded up in the Elliniko detention camp in the southern suburbs of Athens, in April 2016. The Greek authorities asked the 1,800 dwellers of the camp to choose a leader who would speak on their behalf. The residents selected Mohammadi. Honored, he accepted, but dealt with the logistics of the camp in hiding, out of fear that Taliban agents were “lurking by.”

He would wake up at three a.m., sweating, panting, and hallucinating a Taliban silhouette looming over his tent. In his worst nightmares, the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Syria. Then, they landed at Turkey and came to Greece to cut his throat.

Though he’s resolved to apply for asylum in Greece – a process that will take at least six months – Mohammadi constantly asks himself: “If the Taliban were behind 9/11, won’t they be able to locate me in Greece, a home without doors now?”

Nonetheless, about two weeks before that day he enjoyed the January sun with his boy at the Victoria Square café, things started looking up. The family moved to Victoria, a decaying Athenian district, but at least away from the tents of a squalid detention camp. The Mohammadis are among the few lucky ones to be given temporary housing.

The commander with the piercing eyes and the anxiety that the Taliban is after him has simmered down a bit lately. In the months leading up to his second interview for asylum, his older son and daughter will be learning Greek, and he will be asking around increasingly about Greek job prospects. He will do anything to give his children a proper education. He hopes that one day his oldest son will become President of Afghanistan, a successor of the beloved Massoud.

“I am not a fugitive, but a fighter,” he says. “I fight for human rights. If you find respect for human rights in today’s Afghanistan, I will jump back onto a boat to Turkey now.”