Começou a combater contra os soviéticos. Lutou ao lado de Ahmar Shah Massoud. Agora enfrenta os Talibã. Os homens começaram a chamar-lhe “Comandante Pombo” – pela forma como se movia e a elegância com que matava os inimigos. A jornalista Jen Percy passou uma noite no seu acampamento – e conta a história na The New Republic.
By Jen Percy
’d been living in Afghanistan three weeks when my guide, a young Afghan named Sharif Sahak, showed me a photograph of the country’s only known female warlord, Bibi Ayisha, nom de guerre: Commander Pigeon. It was late 2013, the Americans were preparing to leave, and Sharif had heard that the commander was training a new militia of female jihadists to fight the Taliban. In the photograph, she looked to be about 200 pounds and 60 years old. A large woman with black eyes made small by folds of skin. A beaked nose protruded from a wide flat face. She held her machine gun against her bosom like a bouquet of roses. A few girls dressed in bright loose tunics holding AK-47s stood at her side, with ammo wound like gold pythons about their necks. “Hot chicks with AKs,” Sharif remarked.
Everybody in Kabul knew about Commander Pigeon, but no one agreed on a narrative. The Afghans accused her of robbery and murder. A few suspected she worked with Taliban commander Mullah Dad-e Khuda, who escaped from Bagram prison in 2008, and a local warlord called the Green Imam. Together they supposedly controlled all the drug-trafficking routes in the north. One person told me, “She has many houses in Kabul but prefers to live in the mountains among the animals.” She didn’t have any of the usual warlord stories. No acid throwing or biting off chicken heads, or leaving prisoners in vats to die. She was not like Commander Zardad who kept a human dog on a chain to maul and sometimes eat people. She was a woman and she killed men—while wearing a flowery dress.
According to locals, Commander Pigeon was born in the village of Gawi, and her father was named Haji Dawlat and he had seven wives, and his second wife had ten children, and of these children, Commander Pigeon was the most loved. She carried a gun at age 14, the same year she married Shad Muhammad, a businessman whose reputation was said to suffer because he allowed Commander Pigeon to wear pants. He died of a mysterious illness. Then, in 1979, the Soviets swarmed her mountain and murdered her son. She turned to jihad. She killed the commando, organized a militia of 150 men to fight the Soviets, and rode alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance. They called her Commander Pigeon because she moved and killed with the elegance of a bird.
When the Americans arrived in 2001, the northeast was a mess of insurgent groups governed by warlords like Commander Pigeon. The United Nations started a program called the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG), and by 2006, DIAG disarmed about 60,000 militants. Then the government faced a second problem: unemployed combatants. The United Nations invested in more programs, including business courses for ex-combatants, focused on job skills. But most of the warriors, like Commander Pigeon, didn’t want to disarm. Once the Americans left, factional fighting would start up again. They needed their weapons. Commander Pigeon already regretted giving up her vintage World War II British .303 Lee-Enfield rifle.
This year, an Australian security consulting firm conducted a survey on inspirational Afghan women, and their research led them to Commander Pigeon. On her public Facebook page, one fan wrote: “She has proven to the world that women of Afghanistan are not victims; she’s more stronger then any women in the world today.” She certainly sounded very different from any of the Afghan women I had met or heard about. I’d been talking to women in shelters, victims of domestic violence, or kidnapped girls working as sex slaves for commanders. One of them, a teenage girl, said Commander Pigeon was a hero. After all, since 2001, Americans have invested in infrastructure allowing women to attend school or gain positions of power. But the month I arrived, Afghans shipped 30-year-old Setara to Turkey to get her lips and nose sewn back on after her husband cut them off with a kitchen knife. A pregnant schoolteacher named Malalai was hanged and her body dumped near a foreign base. No one could save Negar, the top female police officer in Helmand, after she was shot in the neck by men on motorbikes. And yet no one has managed to kill Commander Pigeon. For 34 years, she has commanded a group of armed fighters from her stronghold 250 miles north of Kabul in Baghlan Province, the same region where the British said Afghans sliced the stomachs of Russian soldiers and left them to die so that their organs might bake in the sun.
Sharif, a clean-shaven 28-year old, was friends with the newly appointed police chief of Baghlan Province, a man named General Amarakhail, and he said he could help arrange a visit.
“I think she’ll like you,” Sharif said.
ome Afghans believe cannibalistic females haunt the Hindu Kush. They are simian and boar-tusked and have long, floating hair. They eat corpses. Commander Pigeon lived on the other side of the Hindu Kush, over a pass called the Khotal-e Salang. According to the Afghan Analysts Network, Baghlan Province has between 2,500 and 3,000 Taliban, inhabiting an area about the size of Connecticut.
On a Sunday morning, Sharif and I, along with a driver and a photographer named Lorenzo, packed into a small Toyota Corolla with a prayer rug and headed north out of Kabul on Highway 1. We left just as the first winter snows were falling, and Sharif told us about the avalanches of 2010 that killed hundreds of people on the pass. “There are more ways to die in Afghanistan,” Sharif said, “than anywhere else in the world.” The Salang pass, at its highest, skims 12,723 feet. It’s a tight, twisting section of potholed road, clogged with Pakistani jingle trucks, scattered with memorials. A Soviet-built tunnel cuts almost two miles through the heart of the mountains.
Snow fell and the roads darkened to mud. The men put on chains and I put on a burka. Sharif said it looked strange. He explained: Don’t talk. Don’t smack gum. Don’t lean your elbow against the window like you keep doing. Cover your legs. Don’t get out of the car. Be a good girl. Most importantly, cover the hair. Hide your passport. We are a Tajik rock band and you are the singer going to sing for Commander Pigeon.