What It's Like to Meet Your Family's Killer

Decades after Ahmad Wali Rashidi was maimed and his family members killed in attacks in Afghanistan civil war, he returned to confront the former warlord.
March 12, 2021, 5:33am
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-e-Islami group in Afghanistan
Ahmad Wali Rashidi and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (sitting in the middle) during their meeting in Kabul in February 2021. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Wali Rashidi.

Ahmad Wali Rashidi was five-year-old when he lost his left leg to a rocket attack on his house in Kabul. “I remember hearing a zooming sound, Rashidi, now 29, told VICE World News. “When I turned my head, I saw a green metal tube and then everything went black.”

In 1995 the civil war in Afghanistan was at its peak. Rashidi’s neighbourhood had come under attack from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the mujahideen leaders vying for control of Kabul after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces in 1989. Hekmatyar’s indiscriminate bombing of the Afghan capital had earned him the title the “Butcher of Kabul.” 

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Over the subsequent year, Rashidi’s father and brother were both killed by rockets that he believes were fired by Hekmatyar’s militant group, Hizb-e-Islami. 

The trauma of violence never left him, says Rashidi, who was in pain for years until he travelled to Germany for treatment with the help of a nonprofit and finally granted asylum in Denmark. He grew up there from the age of 10 and found it hard to move past his memories and his hate.

One particularly recurrent memory was of his grandmother who used to pacify him during bombings. “We would run to the basement. ‘Oh, it’s just a party happening upstairs’, she would say to distract us,” said Rashidi. 

In 2016 when the Afghan government was negotiating a peace deal with Hekmatyar to end the decades-long impasse, it refreshed Rashidi’s memories of the man.“His face was all over the news,” Rashidi said. This time, Rashidi knew he had to meet this guy. “I wanted to look him in eye and let him know how he hurt me, but also I wanted to forgive him.” 

It wasn’t until January 2021, when Rashidi took a trip to Kabul to set up Free Movement, an NGO to support victims of war, that he got in touch with Hetmatyar’s office for a meeting. To gain their trust he lied and told them he had been impressed by their leader, whose speeches he’d watched online. It isn’t uncommon in Afghanistan for citizens to seek heroes among former Mujahideen leaders.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-e-Islami group in Afghanistan

The house in Kabul where Rashidi spent his childhood. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Wali Rashidi.

“But before seeing him, I wanted to be sure that it was indeed him who turned my life upside down. Without any evidence, there were chances of him denying it,” explained Rashidi. 

To obtain evidence, he visited the site of his childhood home where he talked to neighbours. He then cross-referenced the memories he received from his neighbours with information on who controlled which parts of Kabul during the civil war at the Ministry of Interiors. “They all confirmed it was indeed Hekmatyar’s rockets that were raining that day.”

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With this information, Rashidi continued to pursue the former warlord’s staff to obtain an audience with the Hizb-e-Islami leader. 

Finally, on February 6, they invited Rashidi to their office—a spacious compound in west Kabul. He was waiting in a room when he suddenly found himself shaking with rage. Just then, Hekmatyar walked in and addressed Rashidi, “He said, ‘Salam Alaikum’ and the next moment, I was normal. I saw him old and frail and felt pity for him,” recalled Rashidi.

He was surprised by how short and delicate the former mujahideen fighter was. “He had a calm energy about him, and a very trance-like voice—the kind that puts you to sleep or can brainwash you,” described Rashidi.

Right after they exchanged greetings, Rashidi revealed to Hekmatyar who he really was. “I told him that I lost my leg during the civil war and I had proof it was his rocket that hurt me.”

Hekmatyar was silent, perhaps rattled by the unexpected confrontation. 

“I have been raised to hate you and call you a murderer but I haven’t come here to discuss that. I have come here to forgive you for the sake of Allah and to liberate myself,” Rashidi told Hekmatyar.

Hekmatyar was in denial. “I am sorry for your loss, but it wasn't me. I bombed many parts of Kabul but not your neighbourhood,” he said. 

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-e-Islami group in Afghanistan

Rashidi (right), a para athlete has started a nonprofit to help war survivors in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Wali Rashidi.

Rashidi smiled because he had expected this response.

Hekmatyar continued. “A lot of people lost limbs in Afghanistan but many others acted wrong too.” 

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That, for Rashidi, was as close to an apology as Hekmatyar could render. “I accepted it,” recounted Rashidi.

Rashidi left the meeting with a sense of closure he had sought all his life. “I wanted to come out of this cycle of hate by forgiving my attacker,” he said.

Looking back, Rashidi admits he felt a strong sense of fear. He was overwhelmed about meeting this strong personality who held a lot of importance to Afghanistan through its wars. “I guess being a war child and my Danish stubbornness helped me overcome those fears,” said Rashidi, adding that he was pleasantly surprised with the interaction. “He let me finish my sentence and was very interested in my life and personality,” he said. 

“I am glad that I was able to give one last salute to my past.”  

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