Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

An April Day that Changed Afghanistan 2: Afghans remember the ‘Saur Revolution’

Kate Clark 27 min

It is forty years, today, since the coup d’etat which brought the leftist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) to power. That event has had far-reaching consequences, plunging the country into a conflict from which it has yet to emerge and changing the course of almost every Afghan’s life. AAN has been speaking to a range of people about their memories of that day and how the coup affected them personally. They include students and workers, PDPA cadre and those who went on to become mujahedin or refugees, those who rejoiced at news of the coup and those whose close family members were subsequently disappeared (interviews by the AAN team, compiled by Kate Clark).

A day after the PDPA took power, soldiers guard the Arg where Nur Muhammad Taraki is the new president (1978). Photo: Cleric77, Wikipedia - Creative Commons 3.0A day after the PDPA took power, soldiers guard the Arg where Nur Muhammad Taraki is the new president (1978). Photo: Cleric77, Wikipedia - Creative Commons 3.0

This is the second in a special series looking at the Saur Revolution and its consequences. Part 1 describes the events, causes and consequences of the coup – An April Day That Changed Afghanistan: Four decades after the leftist takeover. Part 3 will look at the war crimes of the pre-Soviet invasion PDPA regimes and Part 4 will look at the relationship between the PDPA and the Soviets.

Also today, AAN is publishing its 18th Thematic Dossier “The PDPA and the Soviet Intervention” which brings together our writing on the coup, the Soviet intervention, the war crimes of that era, and the PDPA and its leftist descendants.

AAN team members interviewed eight Afghans, five men and three women, who remember the Saur revolution, asking them the same set of questions. Not all of the interviewees answered every question.

Do you remember the spring of 1978? How old were you and where were you? What were you doing at that time?

1 Schoolboy, Takhar

I was 15 years old and in 11thclass in Rustaq district, Takhar province. My brother (who is now in Canada) and I used to cycle to school every day (a half hour bike ride, saving us a two hour walk).

2 University student, Kabul

I was around 20-21 years old, a student, newly admitted to Kabul university

3 Schoolgirl, Kabul 1

I was 11 years old, in 5thgrade at Malalai School which is opposite the old Ministry of Interior in Kabul.

4 Islamic Activist from Kabul, in Tehran

I was around 20 and in Tehran in Iran. I’d finished school and done the university exam and was waiting to study sociology there, but that never happened. I was also already an activist and associated with an underground Muslim organisation in Kabul.

5 Carpet seller, Kunduz

I had my own business, selling rugs, at that time.

6 Surveyor, Helmand

I was in Gereshk district in Helmand province. I was 23 years old and an employee of a survey group in the Kajaki Dam project.

7 Civil servant and PDPA activist, Kabul

I was about 22, working at the National Academy of Science in Kabul and responsible for maintenance and procurement.

8 Schoolgirl, Kabul II

I was 14 years old, in class seven.

When did you realise/first hear that the Saur coup had taken place? Did you, personally, see or hear anything, either on the day or immediately before or just after? Did you do anything? What did you think about the coup at the time? 

1 Schoolboy, Takhar

Each morning, at 8 o’ clock, the school took an attendance register. We’d sing the National Anthem and then go into class. On 7thof Saur 1357 (27 April 1978), we all stood in line as usual, but neither national anthem was sung, or register taken. Instead, the school principle, Abdul Hadi Khan, (1) and the other teachers stood in front of us, delivering propaganda: “Today is the revolution,” he said, “The dictatorial regime of Daud Khan had been overthrown.”

We could hear Radio Afghanistan from a window in the school playing revolutionary songs and a repeated statement from Aslam Watanjar [the army general whose troops took control of Kabul and who announced the revolution]: “The Revolution of 7thSaur has been victorious and the armed forces of the country are in control. We congratulate the people of Afghanistan.” The teachers told us to clap and then go into class. We didn’t learn anything that day. After only a few hours, we went home. My father asked why I’d come home early and I explained it all to him. “God bless us,” he said. “The future is not good.”

2 University student, Kabul

I heard about the coup on the radio. When it happened, I was happy, but things didn’t turn out the way we expected. We had felt suffocated during Daud Khan’s rule, even before [Mir Akbar] Khyber [editor of the Parcham newspaper, he was assassinated on 17 April] was imprisoned (see footnote 2 and part 1 of this series of dispatches. People felt there was a spy in every family. Their voices were strangled in their throats. When the Saur coup d’etat happened, we were happy. We thought it would bring about social change in favour of the poor strata of society – Afghanistan had farmers, but not a working class in the sense that Khalq and Parcham conceived of them. [There were fewer than 100,000 industrial workers in the country at the time.] But the country was occupied by the Soviets and in Kabul, we had a puppet regime. I became a member of the Students Association, which was an anti-Soviet movement and included students from different tendencies (both Ikhwani and leftist).

3 Schoolgirl, Kabul I

Classes were dismissed a little earlier, I think, but I cannot remember all the details.

When I got home, our main worry was my father because both of my brothers and I were already home from school. My father was an army officer, the head of the logistics department of the Ministry of Interior and my mother was very worried until he came home – very late. I suppose that, being kids, we didn’t understand the details until later.

In the following two days, things became clearer and our parents, especially my father explained the situation. We understood that President Daud whom we liked and loved (because my Dad used to talk well of him all the time) had been killed savagely, along with his family. The entire family was basically slaughtered by ‘the atheists’, we learned – those who didn’t like Islam and were against all Muslims was what we were talking about at school. None of my friends at school spoke well of them.

Since President Daud was well-liked by us all, we hated what was happening and also scared for our lives. President Daud had been famous for his achievements during the five years of his presidency. And on the other side, President Taraki, a man from rural Ghazni, was going to reside in the Presidential Palace. How sad.

Islamic 4 Islamic Activist from Kabul, in Tehran

As usual, I’d gone to buy a newspaper. [The coup] was headline news and Afghanistan was on everyone’s lips. [That day] some were worried, some interested and some were looking happy. I bought a couple of papers and returned to my room and turned on my radio.

In a strange way, I was not unhappy at all. Afghanistan had been suffering from one-family rule for so long. Politically speaking, in those days, everyone was thinking of and waiting for fundamental social change. Constitutional monarchy had failed and the first republic had done no better as Daud was an infamous dictator. Economically and politically, Afghanistan was in a bad shape. People hated Daud, but no-one new how to get rid of him or how the change might take place. 

5 Carpet seller, Kunduz

Before I left the house for work, my father told me he’d heard that the Khalq Party had overthrown Daud Khan. I immediately went back to my room and switched on the radio. Radio Afghanistan was broadcasting unusual programmes. All my family gathered together to listen. We found out that Daud Khan was no longer in power. When I went out, I saw groups of people around our area, all talking about the revolution and how Nur Muhammad Taraki had come to power.

6 Surveyor, Helmand

I found out about the Saur coup that same day in the afternoon. There were many anthems on Kabul radio. I went with one of my friends to the district centre to find out what had happened. When we got there, people told us there’d been a coup and President Daud Khan had been martyred. Maalim Zaher, a Khalqi, had been appointed as district governor. The Khalqiswere happy. They were dancing. Me and all my friends were very sad, though, and thought, “The country is gone.”

7 Civil servant and PDPA activist, Kabul

I well remember the day of the Saur Revolution. I wrote two poems, one for the republican flag and this one, for Republican Day:

These are republican days, full of happiness

I cannot sleep because of happiness and delight

Everywhere, there is dance and music

What beautiful nights they are when you see others free

Young people are making efforts for the wellbeing of the country

They are dancing and laughing, delighting in their happiness

Wake up [the poet tells himself, mentioning his own name] and burn down the house of ignorance

See! Every youth competes with the other 

8 Schoolgirl, Kabul II

I was going to go to school in the morning with my four sisters when our neighbours’ daughters told us they were staying at home. Their father had told them to – giving no reason – and told them to tell us to stay at home too. He was working in the government and after the Saur Revolution, he got a big position in the government, which means he was pro-revolution, but we didn’t know if he was Khalqi or Parchami. My mother hesitated, but kept us at home.

At the end of that day, about 4 o’ clock, jets flew very fast and violently over our house – we were living in Tapa-ye Bibi Mahru. It was the first time I’d seen such fast aircraft. They made a terrific noise. We all went up onto the roof to see what was happening. The jets disappeared and then, after a few minutes returned, both times flying over the Presidential Palace, the Arg. The third time they flew over the Arg, there was a big boom. It shook our houses as well as the nearby areas, but we didn’t know they were targeting the palace. Then, things became calm again. When my older brother got home that day, at the same time, Kabul Radio stopped broadcasting. This left us in confusion. No-one had known anything beforehand and nor did we understand what was happening, but it was actually the start of the coup.

Had you been aware of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan PDPA (or Khalq) before the coup?

1 Schoolboy, Takhar

In school, over the previous few years, there’d been four parties recruiting among the students: (PDPA) which included Parcham and Khalq, Shola-ye Jawed Party (Eternal Flame – the Maoists), Settam-e Melli Party (Against]National Oppression Party, which was pro the rights of non-Pashtuns) and Ikhwan ul-Muslimin (Muslim Brothers – a colloquial name for Jawanan-e Muslimin, later Jamiat-e Islami). Settam was particular active.

I wasn’t a member of any political party, although I was interested in the Islamic party because one of my teachers, Sayed Abdullah who taught physics and maths, was Ikhwani and he was very intelligent and had high morals. He was later arrested by the Khalq and executed in Pul-e Charkhi. All of our teachers were members of one the other parties, but they didn’t have good morals. They insulted God in public and said he didn’t exist. They insulted our fathers, ancestors, elders and scholars. They had no respect for Afghan culture.

I didn’t go to listen to Sayed Abdullah’s lessons about the Muslim Brothers because my father was against political parties. He thought that both the Islamists and the leftists were harmful and would ruin Afghanistan; they didn’t know how to govern the country, he said, and they were cruel, the mercenaries of foreigners. He’d gone to Kabul several times because his nephew was an army officer and he’d had friends high-up in the Zaher Khan and Daud Khan governments, including the ministers of education and defence. My father knew them and had a clear view of politics. I acted on my father’s advice and right up to the end, I did not become a formal member of any political party.

Some months before the coup, my father had come from Kabul, saying his nephew said the Khalqis had decided to mount a coup. He was worried about the future and that his nephew would be killed.

2 University student, Kabul

Yes, I was aware of the PDPA before the coup. I had studied in Aysha Durani High School and that area, Pul-e Bagh-e Umumi, was the epicentre of demonstrations waged by different political parties such as Khalq and Parcham and Islamic groups. I came to know about the PDPA through their demonstrations.

4 Islamic Activist from Kabul, in Tehran

Of course I was. From very early on, probably from when I was 14 or 15 years old, I had been associated with an underground Muslim organisation in Kabul, the Sazman-e Mujahedin-e Melli (National Mujahedin Organization) (3). It was not as famous as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan ul-Muslimin). People like Qasim Akhgar [a writer, political and civil society activist and a freelance journalist from Wazirabad in Kabul] was also a member. Our house in Kabul was one of the few centres of political activities. Perhaps, it was the first of its kind as my father was also involved in politics and had experienced Deh Mazang prison in Kabul. You could meet many famous figures of the day in my home such as Allama Sayed Ismail Balkhi, a religious scholar, poet and revolutionary theorist from Balkhab district of Sar-e Pul province, who’d begun his activity against Zahir Shah in 1935 (1314).

Of course, we knew a lot of PDPA people and [had seen] its two branches fighting each other in the streets of Kabul. Years before the coup, we’d heard rumours and predictions that some kind of change was in the air. As Muslim activists, we were concerned that the possibility of a communist coup was much greater because the PDPA had cooperated with Daud in his ‘White Coup’ of 1973. Because of all this, I was not surprised at all when the coup happened, but still it was hard to digest. I thought the Soviet Union had interfered.

6 Surveyor, Helmand

I was well aware of the PDPA. We had been discussing materialism and idealism every day in school and even in the classroom. There were rightest and leftists both among teachers and students.

7 Civil servant and PDPA activist

I knew various people who later became incredible members of the revolution and part of the government. I had close links with the Central Committee of the revolutionaries and was part of the group around the committee, although I held no position. The people I knew would later get leading roles. They included Anahita Ratebzad, Babrak Karmal, Suleiman Laeq, Muhammaddin Zhwak, Barak Shafeyi, Nur Ahmad Nur, Zahor Ufoq and Saleh Muhammad Zeray.

I also remember the murder of Mir Akbar Khyber, whom we called Ustad (teacher) whose death played an important role in igniting the revolution against Daud Khan. [He describes finding Khyber’s body and helping carry it to his home in Microrayan, taking part in the funeral despite government threats. For more detail, see footnote 2.]

What did you do subsequently? 

1 Schoolboy, Takhar

After the coup, at school, we were only taught for maybe about five hours a week. The rest was all marching and shouting slogans. Experienced teachers were sent to jail and less experienced ones appointed, non-professionals, party cadres – some were illiterate. Anyone who joined the PDPA youth organisation could pass the exams. No merit was needed, only youth organisation membership. The level of education deteriorated to a very low level. The enthusiasm and passion of the pupils for education gradually faded away, and in the end, completely disappeared.

There were also weekly and monthly dances with school boys and girls and teachers; many people gathered to watch. The boys had to wear trousers. It’s a very traditional rural area, but there were five girls from Kabul who danced and also some of the local girls. I didn’t dance. I was too shy.

Land reform began, and people’s private property was given away and distributed. Dissatisfaction increased day by day. Teachers and students, scholars, elders and landlords were arrested and taken to prison. My father was scared of imprisonment. This didn’t happen, but they stole our property and gave it to others. He sold his animals and flocks at cheap prices and hid the money because he was afraid his animals and flocks would be confiscated and given away. At night, my father cut down his trees and sold the timber at cheap prices because he was afraid the government would take it too. People who got land were more pro-government.

There was no radio in our village or the neighbouring village. One and half hour’s away, my mother’s cousin had a Japanese radio. We went there two or three times a week to hear the news, listening to it at night to get information about the political situation: news from Kabul, but more often BBC news and sometimes news from Iran and Pakistan. Later, listening to the BBC and other non-state radio was made a crime you could get imprisoned for. That is why we listened to my mother’s cousin’s radio at night and with the volume turned low.

The PDPA government set up committees in the villages, a peasants’ committee and a party committee, which had a secretary and three members. They acted as spies and people were very much afraid of them and hid their secrets. The atmosphere was suffocating.

The three main officials in Rustaq district after the coup were Abdul Majid Eshchi, secretary of the Khalq Party (most powerful), Muhammad Jan from Logar, the chief of police, and Abdullah Basharyar, the district governor. In late 1357 (winter of 1978/9), they tried to rouse the people by saying the Shia in Hazarajat and some of the border areas, in Pul-e Khumri, Dara-ye Suf and some parts of Kunar, had been incited to rebellion by Iran. We call on you, they said, the Muslims, to help the national army fight these rebels. 3000-5000 people were gathered in the district centre, including us school children. We stood there for two to three hours – we’d been forced to go by the principle to swell the crowd.

A great number of people decided to go and took up arms against the Shia. I saw four of the big trucks used for carrying stones, each full of people – 40 or 50 each – leave Rustaq. Bandits and criminals had believed the government officials’ message: the Shia are kufar [unbelievers] and it is valid for you to take their property, but their heads should be brought to the government.

In late 1358 (1979/80), it was also reported that the people in the districts of Ragh and Shahr-e Bozorg in Badakhshan were rising up and killing the Khalqi people. Muslims had freed these districts. Our district neighboured them and, in turn, Rustaq was freed in one night. The district governor, police chief, a number of soldiers and a girl who was an active member of the PDPA were all killed. And the people set fire to the district headquarters. The number of insurgents reached about 1000 people that night.

My father and I were with the insurgents, but we were not involved in the night attack because the battle had ended by the time we got to the district centre. When I arrived, I saw the flames coming out of the government offices. Party secretary Eshchi and Police Chief Muhammad Jan had been killed. District Governor Basharyar had escaped. His house was far from district centre. Someone said he’s at his home, so they went  – about 3000-4000 people – and got into his house. He was hiding in a barn, but they killed his son, who was still a boy and couldn’t speak. I saw the people with axes, pickaxes and spades kill him. I had a sword from the English times – Dad had three along with an antique rifle, but I didn’t use it.

Then, in three days’ time, they organised the uprisers into six groups of several hundred each and they went to Chah Ab, Yang-e Qala, Dasht-e Qala and Khwaja Ghar districts. I didn’t go because my father didn’t let me, but some of my classmates went and told me what happened, how one after another, those districts fell and then even the provincial centre. The uprising reached Kunduz province, but at that time the Russians had flown into Afghanistan and also brought tanks through Tajikistan to the Amu Darya river and Sher Khan Bandar – but nobody knew. It was winter.

One of my classmates, Mumin, who was later killed, saw the Russian tanks hidden under rice straw and branches near the Amu Darya. When the insurgents approached them, they were massacred. It was in the area of Qatar Balagh in Emam Saheb district. 360 people only from my district were killed, along with a large numbers of others, including from Badakhshan. They are still buried in the area.

Within a week, the Russians, in collaboration with PDPA’s Khalq and Parcham had taken the areas lost to the insurgents. The people fled to mountains. Armed war began. I had stayed on at school for almost two years after the Saur Coup, but when the Russians came to our country on 6 Jadi (27 December 1979), I went to war against them. I was a commander. I never had a membership of any faction. I was just a military commander of the jihadist parties.

 2 University student, Kabul

We were living in Khair Khana in northern Kabul at that time and I remember that, one day, around one year [sic] after the coup when the Soviets invaded the country, I was going to Kabul University and saw the Soviet tanks, in the Juy-e Shir area. I was a fearless and intrepid girl and hurled stones at the tanks. We waged a lot of demonstrations. [This apparently refers to the 3 Hut (22 February 1980) uprising in Kabul – see this AAN dispatch.]

Five people, including my fiancé and brothers, were imprisoned in raids on our home. My little brother was beaten and released after just a week because he was so young. My older brother was released only after a year.

3 Schoolgirl, Kabul I

We were more careful in how we talked at school because we knew the new regime and the political party in power were already listening and trying to identify their enemies and punishing them very quickly. The prisons were full of people, families, children – mainly the elite of Kabul. But, together with thousands of other school pupils, I became active in joining and at times helping the demonstrations against the government and holding strikes inside school.

My father was suspended from work, so he was at home for a few years until he asked for early retirement. The government had asked him to work for them, but he didn’t want to be part of such a government.

Some of my relatives and a few close friends of my dad were arrested and disappeared. A few years later (under Babrak Karmal when Dr Najib was in charge of the Afghan intelligence agency, the KhAD, from 1980 to 1985), my older brother, who was 17 years old, was imprisoned. He was a member of Jamiat-e Islami, studying in the Amani school. He was leading a group of 24 other students. For that, he was given six years in prison, but since he was a minor, they reduced it to three. He wasn’t a real mujahed. They were just kids meeting and talking against the government.

For the first time in my life I saw my father crying, seeing his young son in the prison he’d built. (He’d earlier been the commander of the Public Works Department of the Ministry of Defence which had built famous dams of the country and any other large government structures, including the Pul-e Charkhi prison.)

When they imprisoned my 17 year old brother, he denied membership of any political party, but they used horrible types of physical torture on him, some of which he told us about later. He was told that if he didn’t confess, they would come and rape his sister – me – and then kill all of his family. He is still suffering from that trauma. He lives in [names country] now and has never visited Afghanistan again and never will do.

Women that were imprisoned were tortured, raped and then either killed or released. Some of them talked about it and some we would heard from other people. The staff of the KhAD prisons were also bragging about it in public. Quite a lot of those women either died as a result of torture or later killed themselves.  A young woman I became friends with at university, much later, when Dr Najib was president, told me a little. She would go quiet and start weeping quietly every time she touched on her time in prison. She never told me the details, but one day she didn’t come to university and her relative told me she’d killed herself. The family didn’t even hold a large and proper funeral for her. They buried her quietly. She was very strong when she spoke to me. She was trying to recruit me to their political party because she had seen me talking in public and arguing with the KhAD people at university. I was threatened a few times and then I was afraid, so I knew how far I could go – only as far as they would not imprison me.

5 Carpet seller, Kunduz

Khalq Party supporters started to promote the red flag and deliver speeches in schools and in pro-Khalq gatherings in the city. Shortly after, red flags were put in government offices. It was calm, but everyone was worried about insecurity. Some people in our area (east of Kunduz city) didn’t allow their kids to go outside or even go to school for some days. After a few weeks, Khalq members, together with the police, started to search particular houses. I remember a few influential people from our area were arrested and accused of opposing the revolution. After that, the house searches, arrests and detentions continued until the end of Babrak Karmal’s regime.

6 Surveyor, Helmand

A week after the coup, they started arresting people. Senator Habibullah Khan from Helmand, along with 12 other khans(tribal elders), was arrested and taken to Kabul by plane. They never arrived. Instead, they were thrown from the plane and were killed. The Khalqis immediately started distributing peoples’ lands, especially those of the khans. Farmers, who were organised Khalqis, got six acres of cultivable land. The same month, Mawlawi Khateb captured Musa Qala district and killed many Khalqis. Later, Kajaki district also became restive.

One of my old classmates who was a Khalqi, Hassan Folad, – we were calling him “Tor” (black in Pashto) – became the manager of Customs and Revenues. He married a girl by force. One day I went to his office and called him “Tor,”to his face and he got very angry with me, “You do not understand humanity,” he said “You think you’re a Sardar(a khan) but you’re perfidious.” I told him “You deceive yourself. You think this Khalqi government will prevail. There is still a long way for you to reach your goals.”

The next day, a friend who was working for AGSA [the name of the Khalqi intelligence agency] told me to disappear or I would be arrested. I went to Kabul, but was so bored I came back to Helmand after a month. I told my father I should become a soldier in the government because there was no other alternative – my father was a khanand we were being targeted.

I became a soldier in Paktia province. There, I spoke against President Hafizullah Amin [Taraki’s deputy, who seized power on 14 September 1979]and was put in prison. They sentenced me to death and I was waiting for my turn. One day, a person, a telephone operator, came and told me that someone was on the line for me I thought it was the end of my life but when I held the telephone, the other person said “Salaam.” It was good news. I was to be released. I was in shock. Still to this day, I do not know who that man was. I was released the next day.

7 Civil Servant and PDPA activist

I remember that when [President] Taraki went missing, people complained about why he had disappeared. They wanted to know the hospital where he was supposedly under treatment. People said that it was when Amin and his government came under pressure from the people that they killed Taraki.

After this, different news spread from person to person: some said Taraki had been killed in an underground room of the presidential palace; some said Amin supporters had put a pillow over his mouth and he suffocated – all sorts of different stories.

I remember that, after his death, the government people brought his body at night and buried it in an area called Qul-e Abchakan in Kabul. I went there myself and saw a place where people had been doing some work. I saw a newly dug grave. Later, the rumours were that Taraki’s body had been moved to Ghazni [his home province: he was from Nawa district]. But no-one knows clearly whether his body was moved or not. From then onward, Amin did a lot of brutal things to local people including with the help of the then chief of intelligence, Assadullah Sarwari. (4)

Later, when Hafizullah Amin got into power, the Russians suspected him of having relations with the Americans. That was the reason they brought Babrak Karmal back from Russia and made him president. I remember that day. There was a lot of Russian firing and shelling in Kabul. I was in the Pul-e Kheshti area and the Russians fired several rockets at the city. When Karmal got power, my friends and I went to the presidential palace to congratulate him on his new position. His supporters had him on their shoulders, most of them Parchamis, and very happy. When they got the power, they started arresting Khalqis. In Karmal’s government, Suleman Laeq was appointed head of the central bureau and I went to work there with him.

8 Schoolgirl, Kabul II

After the coup, the communists named the Arg ‘Khana-ye-Khalq’ (the House of the People) and opened it up for visits. Daud Khan’s family and many others had been killed there during the coup, but it was like a park at that time and anyone could go and look around. After a couple of weeks, I went, along with my sisters and other relatives. We didn’t see any dead bodies, but we could see signs of blood in various places. The trunks of trees were tainted with blood. Daud Khan’s bathroom was also badly destroyed, maybe with rockets. On most of the walls, I could see bullet holes. There were crowds of people and most of those I saw were very sad about the situation, seeing the bullet holes and other signs of destruction.

There was a smell in the Arg, a smell of blood or… I cannot name it specifically. The atmosphere was silent and everyone was terrified. Some people were crying. I was scared because I’d never witnessed such destruction in my life before.

Some months after the coup, things calmed down and everyone was going to school again and the government officials were back at work. The communists had announced their new cabinet and system of government. But slowly, the situation became terrifying because people were being hunted down and suppressed. Government people were following people, scrutinizing who was with the government and who against. Most of the investigations were taking place in schools, universities, government offices, mosques and madrasas. They had spies everywhere.

One of my two brothers, Ibrahim, was in fifth class at Kabul Polytechnic and in the students’ union. He was engaged to a girl, but not yet marred. He was young, about 28-29 years old and emotional and hot-blooded. After the coup, he took part in the protests against the government. The government people identified him and started following him. My oldest brother told him to be careful because the communists were ideologically committed and expert in pursuing people. He told Ibrahim, “Don’t speak everywhere and in front of everybody. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’ll be targeted.”

Ibrahim was not alone – there were other students who shared his thinking. He would stay for longer on Thursday evenings at the university cafeteria. One day, about five months after the Saur Revolution, he left home a bit late and asked my mother for some money. He said as it was a Thursday, he might return a bit late. My mother asked him to come and do some work at home and Ibrahim said that he would do it on Friday. She gave him 100 Afghanis. He said goodbye to her. And that was his last goodbye. That evening, we waited for him till late. He always came home, or if he was going to stay with friends, he’d let us know beforehand. That Thursday, we waited for him till late in the night, but he didn’t show up.

The next day, a neighbour knocked at our gate and came in. As soon as she entered, she said her husband Anwar, who worked in the government, had also not returned the previous night. My mother said, “You’re worried about Anwar and we are waiting for Ibrahim.”

My elder brother and other relatives went several time to different prisons of Afghanistan, but our efforts were in vain. We failed to find any clue about my brother.

We never saw Ibrahim again.

It was not only him. About six families in our neighbourhood lost family members and they are still missing. They included Anwar, our neighbour, who left behind his wife and their children.

Two months after that, so seven months after the coup, my uncle, my mother’s brother, in Kunduz also went missing. He was also an activist. We also lost a cousin on my father’s side – he was in an officer in the Afghan government and the brother-in-law of my elder sister. In total, four members of our family went missing and never returned. We call them the unknown martyrs.

After some time, I don’t remember when, the communists declared a general amnesty and some prisoners were released from Pul-e Charkhi jail. [There were two amnesties and mass releases of prisoners, in September 1979, after Amin took power, and after the Soviet invasion, in early January 1980.] Thousands of people went hoping to find their relatives, including my sisters and I. Mostly it was people like tailors and bakers who were freed. My brother was not among them, nor our other kin.

I think the communists had taken my brother and my other relatives to the Polygon and killed them en masse with other prisoners. These were the toughest conditions we lived under. We were so sad.

Meanwhile, I started studying at Aryana High School and would see girls who were members of different communist party groups, such as the Organisation of Modern Youth and the Pioneers(Pesh Ahang,in Dari). They went from school to school, recruiting anyone who showed interest or had talent. I had no interest in joining them and my family wouldn’t have allowed me to join if I had. Some classmates did though.

Four of my classmates also had missing brothers. One day, one of them stood up in class and started shouting at these girls who were recruiting new members. “You are promoting music and dance and concerts,” she said, “but other people are suffering from grief and sadness because their beloved ones are missing.”

The daughter of Hafizullah Amin was also studying in our school. Her name was Malalai and every morning when school started, she’d give speeches. She’d say that we have come into the power and we will bring a lot of changes and the country will go to a prosperous future.

Did the coup change your life – if so, in what way?

 1 Schoolboy, Takhar

I had been the number one pupil in my school. Under Daud Khan, the education system was really good – the university students were better even then now. When the Khalqis came to power, it all went downhill, as I explained earlier. My father had been an orphan and was not able to study, so he really wanted us to be educated. He had a vision for us. He’d gone to Kabul, a year before the coup, and got advice about my future from two friends. One, the defence minister, said I should become an officer, but the education minister said I should study medicine or economics or agriculture and he would help get me a scholarship in a foreign country. My father returned happy. He’d been deprived of his education, but we would not be. But my future was very different: I fought the Soviets.

I lost people in the jihad – two cousins and two uncles were martyred. All three of us brothers were imprisoned and two of us sentenced to death, but we all managed to escape. My father was arrested and beaten (in Karmal’s time) and was left injured. He could not be treated and he died after a long illness.

2 University student, Kabul

It changed my life in good and bad ways: the negative side was that it led to war, insecurity and a period of strangulation. But it awakened the people, including myself to knowledge about different regimes. This influenced me. I completed my university studies and stayed in Kabul until the Taleban took over.

Like any other revolution and changes that have their slogans, the Khalq and Parcham slogan “Kar, dodey, kali”(‘house, bread and clothes’) didn’t come good. They were problems with how they wanted to implement that slogan. The Khalq and Parcham waged a revolt, but didn’t understand the society well and failed to move slowly and gradually. Since then, the mujahedin and Taleban have said Islam is their motto and justice is central – but justice didn’t prevail.

3 Schoolgirl, Kabul I

The coup made me grow up, as I learned about the political situation and how oppressed we became and how evil the communist regime was. It affected my life directly and I can never forget that. I see the entire problem of this country due to the events of those days. It changed the course of the history of this country in a very bad way.

After describing the torture suffered by her brother and the sexual abuse suffered by female detainees – see earlier section – she added:

This is the reason I am so against most of the leftists, especially the Parchamis and Khalqis, because I probably know more details about what happened than people who are younger than me. Many people have only seen what the Taleban or the mujahedin did and they put up pictures of Dr Najib in the city, disrespecting the people of this country who suffered under him when he was head of KhAD. I have not heard of anyone worse than him in running KhAD in the history of the country. He had no mercy.

Remembering what this country has been through and is still going through is hard to bear. There is not a single family that has not been affected in some way.

4 Islamic activist, in Tehran

The coup not only changed my life, but the lives of the whole population, both the winners and the losers in the game. I was forced to surrender to my fate as a refugee, which took the best part of my life forever. I could not see my family. Some I never saw again. I was not able to see my dear friends again. As one of the Palestinian poets says: “I lost the face of the sun.”

 6 Surveyor, Helmand

The coup changed my life from very good to the very worst. Still, my life is not good.

7 Civil Servant, PDPA activist

There have been different effects of the revolution on my life and my family. When the Khalqis were in power, they arrested me because I was with Suleiman Laeq. I was sentenced to one year in jail, but Laeq freed me when the Parchamis got into power. I didn’t do anything against the government, but since I was not Khalqi, they arrested me and sent me to prison.

As a result of the revolution, I also lost one of my cousins, Khyal Muhammad, who was a Khalqi, with Aslam Watanjar. He’d been the driver of the first tank to attack the Arg. The guards fired back and killed him, in front of the presidential palace. The communists named him as the first martyr of the revolution. I found his grave only six months later. It’s in Tapa-ye Maranjan, where King Zahir Shah and his father are buried. But when I found the grave, the police were not allowing anyone to see any of the graves of the martyrs [because they were worried opponents would cause trouble]. I was deeply disturbed by this.

It was not a good revolution, I think, because it resulted in a lot of differences between Khalqis and Parchamis. Supporters of both parties killed, not only [non-PDPA] people, but also each other when they got into power and arrested each other.

In the early days of the revolution, it had a good effect on my life. I had a coupon card and the government provided me with all the daily necessities of life – rice, sugar and all the other stuff I needed. We were not supposed to buy anything because the coupon card was everything for us. Like everyone else who worked in government, whether they were low or high level officials, they benefited from the coupons a lot. But this good effect and good situation was only for short time.

8 Schoolgirl, Kabul II

Obviously, we all feel so much sorrow, still about my missing family members…

We also became refugees. My elder brother decided we should go to Pakistan four years after the coup. He said he couldn’t take care of his sisters and protect them in Kabul, because the situation was bad and anything could happen. There had been some protests and arrests and there were also restrictions imposed on the citizens and then some security forces broke into a neighbour’s house – although they had already fled. He also thought the government would force us his sisters to wear miniskirts and ban them wearing headscarves.

We went to Peshawar, then Rawalpindi. One of my sisters became a teacher at an Afghan school there. I started working at a tailoring factory and then at a clinic for Afghan refugees. Life was cheap in Pakistan and we could feed ourselves, but we missed our country.

I got married in Pakistan to a man I didn’t see before the wedding. It was a very small ceremony and we only invited a few relatives who were living in Peshawar. There was no music or gifts exchanged in the way you see now in Kabul. We missed my brother too much to enjoy a wedding. If Ibrahim had been alive, it would have been the happiest of weddings. Now, my children ask me, “Why do you have no pictures of your wedding?”


Interviews conducted by Fazal Muzhary, Rohullah Sarush, Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Kate Clark, Jelena Bjelica, Ali Yawar Adili, Ehsan Qaane and Obaid Ali.



(1)The interviewee said that, despite being a Parchami, Abdul Hadi Khan prospered, becoming the governor of Badakhshan and later Takhar when he is alleged to have killed many people. The interviewee said he is still alive and living in the Netherlands.

 (2) Khyber was the editor of the Parcham newspaper, from which his faction of the PDPA got its name. After his burial on 19 April 1978, an estimated 15,000 PDPA sympathisers demonstrated in Kabul. Daud ordered a crackdown of the PDPA leadership which may have prompted it to launch the military coup.

The PDPA activist was an eye-witness to some of these events:

Khyber had an office in Zarlasht Market in front of Kabul municipality. I used to go to him there and take secret documents from our office, hiding them in newspapers. It was one of the meeting places for all the leading leftists.

 One day I took a book to the Afghan State Printing House, in the Shashdarak area of Kabul when a friend Assadullah Ludin came and told us that a dead body was lying in the ground nearby. Ludin and I were the first people who saw the dead body. It was Khyber.

 The government spread warnings, banning anyone from taking part in the condolence ceremony of Khyber. But on the second day after the death of Khyber, other leftists swore to each other that we would take revenge. Leftists took his body to Microryan. I was with those carrying the body. Others were Ratebzad, Karmal, Barak Shafeyi and Suleiman Laeq. The central committee people didn’t allow anyone else to get closer to Khyber’s body.

 They said all his followers should come the next day for the burial and bring flowers. Despite the government ban, I went. One of his relatives said he wanted to bury the body in Logar that was where he was from, but others told him that he was Ustad of us all and should be buried in Kabul.

(3) My group was initially (late 1960s to 1973 called Pasdaran-e Islami-e Afghanistan(the Afghanistan Islamic Guard), but after 1973, it developed into a more disciplined, underground organisation and changed its name to Sazman-e Mujahedin-e Melli (National Mujahedin Organisation). After the coup d’etat, it again changed its name to Sazman-e Mujahedin-e Mustaz’afin-e Afghanistan (Organisation of the Mujahedin of the Disenfranchised of Afghanistan). After 1992, it merged with Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami. I was a member up to 1978. Then I left it for good as I no longer believed in the armed struggle.

(4) The Taraki-era Afghan intelligence service was called AGSA (De Afghanistan de Gato Satelo Edara, in Pashto, the Bureau for the Protection of Afghanistan’s Interests) and headed by Sarwari. Under Amin, it was renamed KAM (De Kargarano Ettela’ati Muasesa, in Pashto, the Workers’ Intelligence Organisation). A close relative, Assadullah Amin, was its head. After the Soviet invasion, the agency was renamed KhAD (Khedmat-e Ettela’at-e Daulati, in Dari, the State Intelligence Service)

For more on Sarwari, see  this AAN dispatch.


Communist History PDPA Saur Revolution Soviet Union