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Last Updated: Sunday, 7 August 2005, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
From mujahideen to mountain guide

By Andrew North
BBC correspondent, Kabul

The trainees were taught basic skills such as abseiling
How to turn a veteran Afghan mujahideen fighter into a mountain guide.

That is one of the goals of an Italian-run course in the peaks north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

"I have lots of experience in these mountains fighting the Russians," said Commander Rahim Khan, one of the former mujahideen fighters, who handed in his weapons earlier this year.

We want to open again the door of the Afghan Hindu Kush to mountaineering
Carlo Pinelli
Mountain Wilderness

"Now I can use this for peaceful reasons."

For centuries, Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains have served mainly to keep out would-be invaders - from the British to the Russians.

The hope is the peaks could now work the other way - attracting climbers, trekkers and other visitors, amid tentative efforts to exploit the country's potential as a tourist destination.

Untapped potential

It's early days. Because of security concerns, serious tourist dollars remain a distant prospect - not least because the US and many other governments still advise their citizens against visiting Afghanistan.

No one doubts the potential is there though - especially in its mountains, some of the highest in the world and many of them unclimbed.

Walking up the slopes
Afghanistan has some of the highest mountains in the world
That's why the Rome-based organisation, Mountain Wilderness, has started training people as guides, "ready for when they start arriving," explains the group's energetic leader Professor Carlo Pinelli.

Twenty-two would be mountain guides - including 2 women - were signed up for the first course.

Nine of the trainees are former mujahideen fighters, selected by the nationwide UN-backed DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration) programme responsible for disbanding militia groups.

The plan is also getting support from the Aga Khan foundation and the US Agency for International Development.

Mountaineering Mecca

Before heading to the mountains in the Panjshir valley, north of Kabul, the students were put through classroom sessions on safety and hygiene.

Three years ago, I couldn't even leave my house. Now I have climbed a mountain
Rohina, female student
There were classes on the geology, flora and fauna of the region, as well as environmental awareness.

The group says that's a key concern, as it seeks to encourage visitors in.

Three decades ago, Afghanistan was becoming something of a new mountaineering Mecca, as climbers sought out new, un-scaled summits.

But war closed that all down.

"We want to open again the door of the Afghan Hindu Kush to mountaineering," says Mr Pinelli, who first climbed here in the 1960s.

He began that effort two years ago, organising an expedition to climb Nowshak, the country's highest peak at almost 7,500 metres - the first time it had been scaled in more than two decades.

Basic skills

The trainees on this course reached heights of over 5,000 metres.

A mujahideen guide
The mujahideen have experience fighting the Russians from these slopes
They were taught essential techniques like crossing snow fields and glaciers, abseiling and the basics of rock climbing.

Rohina, one of the two female students, was enthusiastic.

"Three years ago, I couldn't even leave my house," she said.

"Now I have climbed a mountain."

All 22 students passed the course, but it has only given them basic guiding skills.

By comparison, a guide in the French Alps has to train for several years before being certified.

Despite their knowledge of the mountains, making the transition may be particularly difficult for Rahim Khan and his fellow mujahideen fighters.

None of them speak English, crucial for dealing with foreign visitors.

"This is a first step," Mr Pinelli acknowledges.

He is hoping his trainees will build on their skills by guiding trekking and walking groups.

But he admits "it will be some time before there are regular clients to guide".

Next year, he plans to run a more advanced course in the Wakhan corridor, where the country's highest peaks are found.

A new era of Afghan mountaineering may be about to begin.

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