IN ENGLISH, the Afghanistan town into which Soviet tanks rumbled at dawn one day last September is called "The Resting Place of the Comb."
I learned this two weeks ago at the end of a long interview with five members of an Afghan resistance group. The comb was incidental to the chief thrust of their tale -- which was about a Soviet massacre in their town -- but the village mayor told of the legend behind the name as if to emphasize just how much died that day.
The legend was brief: A man in India lost a sacred comb, and it traveled by magic subterranean currents until it surfaced in an underground stream near the little village, 30 miles south of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.
The importance of a stream in an arid, mountanous land explains the mysticism attached to it. The stream is the village water supply. It runs 40 feet below the surface and is tapped by well shafts at regular intervals along its course. It surfaces at the edge of the village, where it irrigates a vineyard. In the center of the village, a stairway has been cut through the stratified clay so people can descend to draw water for cooking and washing.
For more than 100 years, the village elders say, the townspeople honored the legend by keeping sacred fish in the eddies of the ankle- deep flow in the hand-cut tunnel. Now the fish are dead, the village elders say -- and so are 105 men and boys who fled to the tunnel and refused to come out when a Soviet garrison commander ordered them to do so on Sept. 13, 1982.
The villagers say the Soviet commander, identified only by his reddish complexion, ordered his troops to pump gasoline into the tunnel through a well shaft. Soviet soldiers, they say, then ignited the gasoline with incendiary bullets as 11 villagers were rounded up and forced to look on.
Hundreds of soldiers from the 7,000-man Russian garrison, stationed little more than a mile away in a fort on the road south from Kabul, stayed in the village most of the day as the explosions shook the ground. They waited to see whether anyone would emerge. Six helicopters and two jet fighters provided air cover against roaming bands of guerrillas in the countryside. At 3 p.m., the diesel engines of the tanks groaned and carried the Soviets back to their fort.
It took seven days, the villagers will tell you, to drag all of the bodies out of the tunnel, using a makeshift hoist. The town mayor, Habib-ur-Rahman Hashemi, carries a carefully folded list of 61 dead that he compiled from family identifications and missing persons reports. Many of the dead were his relatives, and he wrote down his inventory in Persian. The list denotes the name of each victim (verified or presumed), his father's name, tribe or ethnic group, his native village, age, trade and political affiliation.
Ten children were among the dead, according to the list.
What happened at that little village of Padkhwab-e-Shana 30 miles from Kabul?
The Soviet-backed Afghan government says counterrevolutionary elements were crushed there. But a group of scruffy Afghan peasants are traveling through Europe and the United States this winter to tell about a massacre of unarmed men and boys.
Early this month, they were in Wasington to be photographed with President Reagan. The month before they were in New York for interviews, "photo opportunities" and live talk-show testimony. In December they were in Paris testifying before a "People's Tribunal," styled after the Bertrand Russell hearings of the late 1960s that took America to task for its involvement in Vietnam.
The Afghans' purpose is twofold: to tell the world about Soviet atrocities against their people and to solicit support from the United States for the Afghan mujaheddin insurgent movement.
It is three years since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the network of resistance fighters who wage a guerrilla campaign against superior Russian air and ground forces fears that the outside world has forgotten them.
American public attention has clearly waned. President Reagan rescinded the Soviet grain embargo ordered in 1980 by President Carter in retaliation for the Russian invasion. The current oil glut has taken the urgency out of concern that the Soviets might be setting up a strategic perch just north of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The State Department's evidence of Soviet chemical weapons use has had little impact on world opinion, and U.S. policies have failed to blunt the fulfillment of Russian objectives in Afghanistan.
But on a personal level, the story told by these villagers is compelling and credible.
Gol Mohammad, a 40-year-old "elder" from Pedkhwab-e-Shana, says he lost his brother in the fiery tunnel explosions. Mohammad wept when he told his story before the television cameras in New York at a press conference organized by Freedom House, a nonpartisan human rights organization whose patrons include Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security assistant to President Carter, and former Sen. Clifford Case.
Mohammad says he was at the village store near the stairway to the water course the morning of Sept. 13 when Soviet soldiers came in and took him and the other elders gathered there to the head of the stairway. The helicopters and jets arrived overhead by 7 a.m. Many of the men and boys from the village had fled to the tunnel, Mohammad said, fearing they would be impressed for military service.
Two of the elders were told to go down the steps and tell the people in the tunnel to come out. But Mohammad said the two men who descended returned and tried to bluff the Soviet commander by saying no one was there. Moments later, a man from a neighboring village named Sayyid Hassan ran out of the tunnel and up the stairs. The Russian commander chastised the elders for having said no one was below. Hassan protested, said Mohammad, and returned to the tunnel shouting that there was just one other person there and he would retrieve him.
Hassan disappeared back into the tunnel and didn't return.
The Soviet commander issued orders and two tanker trucks backed up to the well shafts a little ways upstream from the stairway. As one tanker's pumps droned, the air was filled with the smell of gasoline, Mohammad said. A second tanker pumped what Mohammad described as a yellowish white liquid (believed to be kerosene) down a shaft 12 meters upstream from the first. Other soldiers wearing protective suits and masks carried bags of white powder down the stairway and poured it into the stream, Mohammad said. (He had never seen a gas mask, and he described the soldiers as having covered their faces to look like beetles.)
When the smell was as thick as the anxiety of the village onlookers, the soldiers fired their weapons down the stairway, Mohammad said.
Most of the well shafts had been plugged with dirt and rocks, so when the series of underground explosions went off, Mohammad said, the flames and fodder were fired into the sky and the debris rained down on the village.
The tunnel was stoked with the liquids twice more during the day, Mohammad said. The soldiers waited around for a while and then left. When it was safe, the women came out of the houses, he said, and cries went up for children, brothers, uncles and fathers who had been hiding in the tunnel.
"The smell was nauseating," Mohammad said through an interpreter. "We were only able to get four bodies out that afternoon, and one of us fainted from the smell." Nightfall came, but the village of 2,800 households was kept awake by its grief, Mohammad said.
On the morning of the second day, Sayyid Mortaza returned to the village with some of the 2,500 armed guerrillas he says he commands in a harrassment campaign along the asphalt road north to Kabul. Some of his men set up a perimeter around the town to guard against a Soviet return, and others helped the villagers construct a hoist over one of the well shalla campaifts to raise the dead from the tunnel.
Mortaza said that the faces of some of the charred bodies had been preserved where they had fallen face down in the stream. The men greased themselves with Vaseline and mouton fat, Mohammad said, because the chemical residue in the water burned their feet. Someone suggested that the villagers throw a burning bicycle tire into the tunnel to counteract the smell and the chemical residue, but the burning tire set off a new series of explosions and delayed the recovery task.
On the second day, 30 bodies were recovered, Mortaza said, and there was so much confusion in identifying the blackened shapes that in some cases different families claimed the same corpse. Mohammad said he identified his 35-year-old brother by the watch he was wearing. Mohammad displayed the watch during the interview.
On the third day, men arrived from neighboring villages and helped complete the hoist. They worked in teams of four men, each team bringing up a quota of 10 bodies before being relieved, Mohammad said.
Sixty-eight bodies were recovered on the third day. They were laid out near the cemetery in neat rows with the others. Four bodies were claimed by neighboring villagers and taken away for burial. The mullahs said their prayers in shifts. They also had to be relieved, Mohammad said.
Radio broadcasts monitored by the villagers announced on Sept. 17 that "counterrevolutionary elements" had been crushed at the village of Padkhwab-e-Shana. On Dec. 8, when some of the villagers traveled to Pakistan to tell their story at a press conference, Radio Kabul denied that anything had occurred in the village. "The broadcast said that not even a nosebleed had occurred in the village," he added.
During the Paris tribunal hearings, the Afghan embassy denounced the villager's testimony, saying the diameter of the irrigation tunnel was too small for anyone to have taken refuge there. But the tribunal's investigators countered that they had inspected the tunnel in November and found that it averaged more than four feet in height.
The State Department says it has received independent reports of the massacre at Padkhwab-e-Shana, and it supports the story told by the villagers.
Michael L. Barry, 34, certainly believes it. The son of a New York newspaperman, he is a Princeton graduate and now a graduate student in Middle East studies. He speaks the languages of the region fluently and helped organize the tribunal investigation into what happend at Padkhwab-e-Shana. Barry says he has spent the past 31/2 years in and out Afghanistan.
As one of three investigators sent by the Paris tribunal last November, he slipped into the village in the dead of night, saw the charred irrigation tunnel and helped another investigator scrape blackened samples from the walls as Afghan scouts watched for movement from the nearby Soviet fort. Barry says he saw the fresh graves over which the mullahs had prayed in shifts because the smell was so bad. Later he interviewed villagers at way stations and in refugee camps across the border in Pakistan.
In December, Barry accompanied the Afghan peasants to Paris for the tribunal hearings and then to the United States to publicize their story and act as their interpreter.
In all, Barry says he and Riccardo Fraile, a professor of international law at the Sorbonne in Paris, interviewed more than 50 residents of the village in several locations where they had been scattered. Without being asked, Barry offers that it would take a massive propaganda orchestration for such diverse testimony gathered in different locations to be faked.
Next month, some of the villagers will return to Pakistan, others to Afghanistan. Mortaza, the guerrilla commander, said he will return to his men and the gun running that sustains them. Armeddwith Russian automatic rifles and Chinese anti-tank weapons, Mortaza said small forces like his control 80 percent of the countryside.
"We are afraid of the helicopters, but the tanks are afraid of us," he said.