At Kandahar’s Arab cemetery, victims of the US “war on terror” are revered by many as shaheed (martyrs) and their graves are believed to possess miraculous powers.
Each day, hundreds of sick people visit the graves of more than 70 Arab and other foreign fighters and their family members who were killed in US bombing in the southern Afghan city in late 2001.
Soon after their burial, a cult developed around them and the graves became centres of pilgrimage for many in the area.
People started seeing them as miracle workers, healers and intercessors for others before God.
Six years after US-led troops ousted the Taleban, devotion to these “foreign guests” is still alive.
“Most of the visitors are sick people seeking blessings from the dead while others come hoping their social or financial problems will end,” says Sangeena, a woman in her 50s who lives nearby and looks after the graves.
For the past several years, Sangeena has come to the cemetery every day. “They are martyrs and it is my duty to serve them.”
‘Curing the incurable’
Among the dead are Arab women and children.
Many believe that these foreigners were “innocent” people who “died for Islam” when the US and others sent troops to Afghanistan after the attacks of 11 September, 2001.
For many, these graves are holy, and touching them will cure illnesses.
In the first couple of years, thousands of people visited the cemetery daily.
Surprised by the response, local authorities sent armed policemen to discourage people from visiting.
But the cemetery’s fame has reached many remote areas of Afghanistan and even the border areas of neighbouring Pakistan.
“People get cured here, that is why they come to the cemetery,” says Samad, one young visitor.
Many people talk about miracles that have happened in the cemetery.
Some say many sick people who had lost all hope of recovery were miraculously cured within moments of their first visit.
“Several paralysed people have left the cemetery walking on their own two feet,” says Sangeena.
The “cure” is simple – each visitor takes a pinch of salt from one of the many small bowls and eats it. It is believed that the salt has a special connection with the dead and will cure any illness.
Respecting the dead
The graves of Arab fighters who helped sweep the Taleban to power in the 1990s are part of the main cemetery at the edge of the city.
They are clearly marked and neatly built with white stones covering them and green flags fluttering on bamboo poles. In one mass grave, about 20 bodies have been buried together.
“The security situation didn’t allow for digging separate graves for each one of them,” says a resident of the city.
“As Muslims, it was our duty to bury them with respect.”
A few metres from the main mass grave is the tomb of an Arab woman where women tend to go and pray.
From a distance, I could see an ill woman lying there next to the grave.
Veneration of saints, both male and female, and pilgrimages to their shrines and graves to seek blessing, represent an important aspect of popular Islam in many Muslim societies, including Afghanistan.
People visit the Kandahar cemetery to pray quietly and contemplate – and hope for the best.
I am told that in the summer, some visitors from remote areas even spend the night at the cemetery, sleeping under the open sky.
Gul Khan, a university graduate, says the cemetery’s popularity also has to do with the fact that most people are poor and have little or no access to health facilities.
“Generally people in this area believe in such things. Once the fame of a shrine or a person having ‘miraculous powers’ spreads, then more and more people are attracted to that.”
Since the Soviet invasion in 1979, fighting has destroyed much of Afghanistan’s basic infrastructure.
Post-Taleban reconstruction has made little or no impact in many remote areas.
In a country with high unemployment and low literacy rates, it does not seem surprising that shrines are still the only hope for many sick and needy people.