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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 March 2006, 03:10 GMT
Afghanistan's feared woman warlord
By Tom Coghlan
In the Darisujan Valley, Baghlan province

Bibi Ayesha, Kaftar
Kaftar has fought the Russians, the Taleban and many local rivals (Photos by Ash Sweeting)
Amid the brooding mountains on the borders of Baghlan province, Afghanistan's only female warlord clings to her remote fiefdom.

But the years are catching up with Kaftar, "The Pigeon", as Bibi Ayesha is known, and the Afghan government and its international backers want her to hand in her guns.

"My eyes have become misty," says Kaftar, complaining that she can no longer shoot straight.

But she has lost none of the enthusiasm for violence that fed her reputation for cruelty during Afghanistan's wars.

"I am still wishing for a fight," she said, dismissing any notion that women's roles in Afghan society would preclude front-line battle service.

"It makes no difference if you are a man or a woman when you have the heart of a fighter."

Her only concession to social mores is that she insists that a male relative accompany her into battle, in line with Afghan tradition for women outside the home.

Disarming 'the Pigeon'

At the end of a bone-juddering two-hour drive up a river bed from the nearest settlement, Kaftar's fortified house clings to the steep valley wall.

Inside the 55-year-old sat flanked by her four surviving sons; tough looking men who are her loyal lieutenants. Two others have been killed in battle.

She has fought the Taleban, the Russians and many a local rival in the mountains of Narin district, which is dotted with the wrecks of old Soviet and Taleban tanks.

She claims to have 150 men under her command, while the UN estimates that she has weapons for at least 50.

Now the officials of the UN Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups programme (DIAG) say they are hoping to begin disarming her in the coming months.

Like many of the estimated 2,000 illegal armed groups in Afghanistan that are still resisting the call to disarm, Kaftar is unlikely to give up her weapons easily.

She insisted she has already given away all her guns, apart, she added, from the Russian Makarov pistol that hung in her shoulder holster.

An old tank in Narin district
Old abandoned tanks are witness to power struggles in the area

She said she was particularly upset about giving up an ancient British Lee-Enfield rifle in a previous disarmament drive.

It was the weapon of choice across the region before the arrival of the ubiquitous Kalashnikov.

The DIAG inspectors are sceptical. Many a commander has attempted to fob off the disarmament campaign with ancient or unserviceable arms, whilst hiding their stocks of up-to-date munitions.

The home of one supposedly disarmed commander in Baghlan disappeared in a massive explosion last year, taking much of the surrounding village with it.

A stock of unstable ammunition hidden under the house was the cause.

"Zar, zan, zamin"

While the neon lights, internet cafes and mobile phone shops in Kabul point to a rush towards modernity in Afghanistan's cities, in remote rural Afghanistan the old feudal order persists; an often violent culture of blood feud and local justice where the reach of central government is weak or non-existent.

"Zar, zan, zamin" - gold, women, land - in the words of the old Afghan proverb provide the motivation for the violence that underpins local life.

"People get killed over little things, water and land," said Kaftar with a shrug. On the way up to her house we asked a local man if Kaftar was at home.

Qari Alam
Mr Alam, a former commander, who disarmed last year

"She's up there alright," he replied darkly. It transpired that the man's brother had been killed by one of Kaftar's sons and the feud was unresolved.

"Once you give away your guns people don't care about you anymore," said Qari Alam, 50, who used to have command of a number of bands in the Northern Alliance that fought the Taleban, including that led by Kaftar.

He voluntarily handed in his weapons, including a number of tanks, a year ago and now helps to negotiate between the government and the many still armed commanders in the region.

"The commanders are afraid to disarm because they have so many enemies," he said, "and many people fear the return of the Taleban. Kaftar was a cruel commander. She has a great many enemies."

Bandits prey upon travellers in the area.

The most notorious, Abdul "Awal" (Abdul "Number one") is a second generation brigand; his uncle was caught and had his arm and leg cut off by a local commander as a warning to others.

But Abdul continues to ply the family trade regardless. Kaftar says she has no fear of him.

"The bandits are afraid of her and her sons, not the other way round," said Qari Alam.

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