My holiday with the Afghan mujahideen


In the late 1970s, John England, from High Wycombe, was befriended by his neighbour Rahmatullah Safi, originally from Afghanistan. In 1988, Rahmatullah invited John to visit a war zone in his home country and they embarked on an unconventional trip.

image copyrightJohn England
image captionRahmatullah sits with the Mujahideen

John kept a diary and took photos of his three-week trip with Rahmatullah, self-publishing them in an e-book called Going Inside, for posterity and for his family and friends. The photos show a unique glimpse into life in Afghanistan 30 years ago.

The two neighbours met when Rahmatullah moved into John's street in 1978.

John was deputy head teacher of a primary school. And Rahmatullah worked in a plastics factory in High Wycombe.

Rahmatullah had been a colonel in the Afghan army special forces and his wife had been a lawyer.

But all that changed in 1973, when a coup ousted the king, Zahir Shah.

Six years later, the Soviet Union invaded the country.

And Rahmatullah became a general in a mujahideen group, before being granted asylum in the UK with his family.

John's diary documents his travels around Peshawar, in Pakistan, where Rahmatullah had a house, and across the border into Afghanistan, to near the city of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province.

Travelling with Rahmatullah, who was greatly respected by the mujahideen, John observed and interacted with Afghans, all men, that he met along the way.

image copyrightJohn England

The photos he took show a landscape with fertile valleys and desolate plains, burned-out Russian vehicles and bombed buildings, with roads full of huge holes.

image copyrightJohn England

Transportation in Afghanistan at that time was either brightly painted trucks, often Russian-built, or Toyota "jeeps".

image copyrightJohn England

John found that the mujahideen were keen to be photographed, usually with their weapons, and especially if they were about to go off into battle.

image copyrightJohn England

Many of the photos were processed by John in Peshawar, with the colours fading over the 30 years. Careful scanning and retouching has helped preserve his photos.

image copyrightJohn England

In his travel diary, John recalls a night in a camp at Jaji, near the border with Pakistan, in which a dinner of meat, rice, huge pieces of naan bread and melon was followed by the men singing and dancing, not the behaviour John expected among mujahideen fighters.

image copyrightJohn England

The locals John met were intrigued by him. They had never seen a passport before, were amazed at the cost of things in the UK, and found the notion of toilet paper quite bizarre.

But despite their differences, they were all familiar with the BBC, with Rahmatullah being a regular World Service listener.

John discovered that many people carried a gun, often an AK-47, "the mujahideen's favourite".

John wrote about the town Dara Adam Khel, 40km south of Peshawar, in his diary: "Nearly every shop is either making or selling guns and ammunition.

"You can buy machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, Mausers, Lugers, AK47s - any type of gun you want."

Looking back on his unusual holiday, John says: "What made my time in Afghanistan so memorable was the generosity, hospitality and kindness of all those Afghans whom I met.

"Despite entering a war zone, I felt quite safe most of the time. It's an experience I'll never forget."

image copyrightJohn England
image captionThe photographer poses on a tank

Photos by John England.

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