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The Afghan President (To Be) Who Lived A Secret Life In A Czechoslovak Forest


The entrance to the Czech village of Sindelova, located near the German border

KRASLICE, Czech Republic -- In the winter of 1978-79, Afghanistan's communist regime deployed a hit squad to find and kill Babrak Karmal, the high-profile ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

Fearing for his life, Czechoslovak authorities secretly hid Karmal and his family in a remote hunting lodge in the dense forests straddling the border with East Germany.

The family-of-six lived covertly for a year under the protection of the StB, Czechoslovakia's notorious secret police. To ward off the assassins, they were relocated to a sanatorium in a secluded mountain village and then an abandoned villa that was once used by the Soviet Army.

Czechoslovakia's Warm Welcome For A Communist Afghan President
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These are the remarkable revelations within the 370 pages of top secret StB files that were recently declassified by the Czech government. The documents for the first time reveal details of Karmal's secret life in Czechoslovakia and the dramatic events that preceded his rise to power in Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union installed Karmal as president following its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, shortly after he left Czechoslovakia.

Karmal ruled for seven years during Moscow's disastrous, decade-long occupation that set Afghanistan on a course for decades of conflict.

'Arrest And Possible Execution'

Karmal's ascent to power appeared unlikely when he arrived in the Czechoslovak capital, Prague, in July 1978 as the new ambassador.

Months earlier, communists in Afghanistan had seized power in a bloody coup. As one of the heads of the leftist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), Karmal was named deputy leader.

But infighting soon broke out among the two rival PDPA factions -- Khalq and Parcham.

President Noor Mohammad Taraki of Khalq instigated a purge against Parcham, led by Karmal. Hundreds of Parcham members and supporters were jailed or executed while its leaders were sent abroad as ambassadors.

Soon after arriving in Prague, Karmal planned a coup to topple Taraki but the plot was uncovered. Karmal was dismissed in early September and ordered to return to Afghanistan. But he refused, fearing for his life.

This was when the StB categorized Karmal as a "person of interest."

"He stated that he was at risk of arrest and possible execution and that he wanted to ask the Czechoslovak authorities for political asylum," said a StB file from September 1978.

Babrak Karmal
Babrak Karmal

Karmal's request placed Czechoslovak authorities in an awkward position.

Prague backed Taraki's government, which demanded Karmal's arrest and extradition on charges of attempting a coup.

Czechoslovak Deputy Foreign Minister Dusan Spacil reached out to a diplomat from the Soviet Embassy referred to in the files as "Novikov." Spacil told the Soviet official that he "looked forward to the disclosure of Moscow's position" on what to do with Karmal, according to a StB file from September 1978.

With the apparent green light from Moscow, Karmal and his family were granted asylum in Czechoslovakia.

In a dispatch sent to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Kabul, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia justified the decision by falsely saying that Karmal "suffers from heart problems that require long-term treatment" and "we could not refuse Karmal's request."

When the Czechoslovak ambassador in Kabul informed Taraki of the decision, the Afghan president said "Karmal's illness was fictitious and that he should be returned as a warrant had been issued for his arrest," according to a telegram sent by the ambassador to Prague.

'Carry Out His Physical Liquidation'

At the end of September, Karmal, his wife, and four children were secretly taken around 160 kilometers west to a remote hunting lodge just outside the village of Sindelova, near the town of Kraslice, nestled in the forests of the Ore Mountains.

The hunting lodge where Karmal and his family lived in secret for several months in 1978-79.
The hunting lodge where Karmal and his family lived in secret for several months in 1978-79.

The StB made Karmal's safety a high priority and issued instructions to its agents to secure the lodge and monitor the ambassador's movements.

"According to information from Kabul, three people were allegedly sent to Czechoslovakia whose task was to find out the place of Karmal's stay and to carry out his physical liquidation," said StB files from January 1979. "The new Afghan ambassador to Czechoslovakia also supposedly received information about the operation and he was expected to provide financial and other support."

The file said the assassins could pose "as students, businessmen, or tourists." The StB tasked officers to screen all Afghan nationals residing in Czechoslovakia, to monitor the arrival of Afghan nationals to Czechoslovakia, and to immediately strengthen security at the lodge. The secret police also recommended that Karmal and his family be moved to the portion of the soaring Tatra Mountains that hugs the border with Poland.

The StB also carried out a deception operation.

Karmal was instructed to write two postcards in which he mentioned that he was leaving Czechoslovakia. The postcards were sent with the intention that they would be intercepted and seen by the Afghan Embassy.

During their stay, the family went for walks in the surrounding forests, visited nearby lakes, and frequented the Favorit Chateau, which was located next to the lodge, for meals, the StB files state.

The Favorit Chateau, located near the village of Sindelova in the western Czech Republic. Karmal and his family often went to the chateau, now derelict, for meals.
The Favorit Chateau, located near the village of Sindelova in the western Czech Republic. Karmal and his family often went to the chateau, now derelict, for meals.

The family was taken care of by Jiri Jelinek, the state forest director of the Kraslice region.

Jelinek, a longtime member of the Communist Party, organized Karmal's accommodation with officials from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the files said.

Cenek Jelinek recalls how he worked with his father and met Karmal and his family.

Karmal (second left) with Jiri Jelinek (right), the state forest director for the Kraslice region, near Sindelova in 1978-79.
Karmal (second left) with Jiri Jelinek (right), the state forest director for the Kraslice region, near Sindelova in 1978-79.

He told RFE/RL that they looked and behaved "normally" and were dressed in a "European way." Karmal was "wearing a black coat and a hat" and often went on walks, he said.

"My father went [to the lodge] from time to time to ask what they needed," Jelinek told RFE/RL, adding that female foresters sometimes cleaned and cooked for Karmal's family.

Karmal's stay at the lodge was "supervised by the StB," said the 67-year-old, adding that he suspected the "StB was wiretapping our family's phone."

'Giving Them Away'

At the end of January, Karmal's location was compromised. His phone calls were likely intercepted. The StB ordered the family's evacuation.

The StB relocated the family to a spa resort in the village of Sklene Teplice, located at the foot of the Stiavnica Mountains, more than 600 kilometers away. On their way they spent a night at the Hotel Slavia in the city of Brno.

A "legend" was created that the family were the "personal guests" of the director of an aluminum factory that managed the spa, the StB files said. The resort appeared to be for the exclusive use of factory workers.

Days after Karmal's arrival at the Nocne Sanatorium, the StB gathered intelligence on the would-be assassins. One of three hit men who had left Kabul was a man called Kalekani, who was said to be "aged around 40, tall, with dark hair and skin, and of unpleasant behavior."

Karmal and his family kept a low profile at the spa resort. Two of his children attended school in a nearby village and his younger son played for a local soccer team.

"Babrak leaves his place of residence only once a week when he travels with our permission to Ziar nad Hronom," the closest town to Sklene Teplice, according to the files, which added that he made phone calls to Parcham members exiled in France, Yugoslavia, and West Germany.

Lubomir Melis, the mayor of Sklene Teplice, was 17 when the Karmal family lived in the village. He said they were "nice and pleasant people" who became "part of the character of the village."

"Karmal was always with a big, burly man whose name was Abdul," Melis told RFE/RL. "It was obvious that he was the family's bodyguard. He was moving around with him all the time. Karmal went on walks in the village. He would greet people. But this happened rarely. But when he went out to public places Abdul always accompanied him."

Jozef Zeliar, a former mayor of the village, said Karmal would mostly "remain inside the sanatorium."

"He studied something all the time," Zeliar told the Slovak daily Pravda in 2008. "Only from time to time did he go out and have a beer at a garden restaurant. He was always accompanied by bodyguards."

Karmal had an agreement with a Czechoslovak publishing house to translate into Dari "The Lessons Of The Development Of A Crisis," the official document released by the Czechoslovak Communist Party to justify the Soviet invasion in 1968, according to a high-ranking party official in Prague.

Zeliar said Karmal's wife, Mahbouba, appeared in public more often than he did.

"Back then, she was 44 years old and is remembered as quite a pretty woman," Pravda wrote, based on the interview with Zeliar. "Alongside her was an unknown female assistant. They were usually doing some shopping for the household."

Karmal and Jelinek (center) in the spa town of Karlovy Vary in 1981 after the Afghan returned to Czechoslovakia as his country's president in 1981.
Karmal and Jelinek (center) in the spa town of Karlovy Vary in 1981 after the Afghan returned to Czechoslovakia as his country's president in 1981.

Richard Kafka, a former engineer at the aluminum factory, described the Karmal family's time at the sanatorium in a personal blog post written in 2012.

Kafka wrote that the factory workers receiving treatment at the sanatorium remembered "the mysterious looking foreigners accommodated in several rooms" on the top floor: "one woman, two men, and three children."

"The children freely moved among other guests," wrote Kafka. "Back then, it was already possible to have quite a coherent conversation in Slovak with the boy. Their darker complexion was giving them away as foreigners."

The factory workers came and went from the sanatorium without knowing the "names or the identities of the adult foreigners."

Margita Urgasova, a former employee at the sanatorium where Karmal's family stayed, said "they were a very nice and modest family."

"[Karmal] told me how he wished that the people in his country could have decent lives [like people in Czechoslovakia], that children could go to school, and the economy could develop," Urgasova told the Slovak daily Novy Cas in 2017. "His wife, Mahbouba, was also a very pleasant woman, also educated like him. She often looked worried because she did not know what would happen to them."

'Anywhere You Choose'

The Karmal family was only meant to remain at the sanatorium for three weeks.

But three months had passed. Karmal had run out of money and wanted to move.

In April, he penned a letter to a high-ranking official of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in which he expressed a desire to return to "golden Prague" so he could communicate with his "comrades" from the Parcham faction for "information and consultation, to send and receive letters, and sometimes to meet them here or abroad."

A house on Prague's Turkovska Street where Babrak Karmal was hidden in the 1970s.
A house on Prague's Turkovska Street where Babrak Karmal was hidden in the 1970s.

Around the same time, Karmal wrote a letter addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Karmal condemned Taraki and his deputy, Hafizullah Amin, for their "inhuman" and "extreme" policies. He urged Moscow to secure the release of "thousands" of jailed Parcham members and supporters. The ambassador also suggested that, if he was president, he could solve the "current problems" in Afghanistan.

Karmal proposed a face-to-face meeting "anywhere you choose." He received a response to his letter but the contents were not disclosed.

'500 Rounds Of Ammunition'

In June 1979, a local StB officer said the manager of the sanatorium had issued a deadline of July 1 for the family to leave due to unpaid bills, growing suspicion among the other guests, and because the rooms they occupied were needed by the factory workers.

The following month, the StB searched for a new residence for the family. By September, officers prepared to relocate the family some 50 kilometers northeast to the city of Banska Bystrica, where they would stay in a villa that once housed the regional Soviet Army command.

It is unclear exactly when the family was relocated to Banska Bystrica, and there is a time gap of three months in the files.

The three-man hit squad sent from Kabul to kill Karmal had been "neutralized" by that point, according to Russian historian and investigative journalist Vladimir Snegiryov. But there is no mention of this in the declassified Czechoslovak archives.

In early December 1979, the StB reported a new threat: Mohammad Yasin Bonyadi, the Afghan ambassador who had replaced Karmal.

The StB files said two of Bonyadi's sons residing in Czechoslovakia "have weapons and are showing interest in Karmal's liquidation."

The StB discovered that the Afghan Embassy had recently purchased "six pistols, two rifles, two shotguns, and 500 rounds of ammunition."

In response to the new threat, the StB recruited an Afghan national living in Czechoslovakia to carry out an act of deception.

The agent was instructed to deliver the following fabricated story to a staff member at the Afghan Embassy: After work he went shopping in downtown Prague where he incidentally met Karmal, who told him he was ill and currently seeking medical treatment in Prague. Karmal told him that he "gave up all his political activities because he is only interested in his family and health," said the StB instruction.

Later that same day, the agent delivered the information to a diplomat at the Afghan Embassy who expressed "great surprise," according to the StB files.

The diplomat told the agent to avoid "Karmal's company" and not to ever talk to anyone about it.

In mid-December, the StB reported that officers had taken measures to seize the weapons and neutralize the threat.

'Instructions Of The KGB'

In late December, Karmal's face appeared on television screens around the world, much to the shock of those in Czechoslovakia who had seen the secretive, cane-carrying man in Sindelova and Sklene Teplice.

Melis, the mayor of Sklene Teplice, was shocked when he saw Karmal on state television.

"I was like: 'Wow!'" he said. "This was the person who was staying here! So that was when we realized that he was here in hiding and then they installed him [in Afghanistan as president]."

On December 27, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and installed Karmal as the new president.

Karmal shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (center) on a visit to Moscow in 1985.
Karmal shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (center) on a visit to Moscow in 1985.

When precisely Karmal left Czechoslovakia remains unknown. The last mention of him in the StB files is in September 1979. Karmal's family members remained in Czechoslovakia until at least February 1980, the StB files state.

Karmal "illegally returned to Afghanistan in October 1979 and established contact with the healthy forces within" the PDPA, according to internal documents written by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

According to secret materials provided by KGB defector and archivist Vasiliy Mitrokhin, KGB chief Yury Andropov was authorized on October 10 to bring Karmal from Czechoslovakia to Moscow.

Karmal and six other "future rulers of Afghanistan were taken to Moscow" in November and "together they set about absorbing the instructions of the KGB," according to the files.

The KGB files said the seven were in Moscow from November 2 to December 12. "They were then moved close to the [Soviet] border" with Afghanistan.

'Fraternal Assistance'

On the evening of December 27, Soviet special forces and KGB units seized key government buildings and assassinated President Hafizullah Amin and members of his family after a bloody battle at Tajbeg Palace in Kabul.

Later that evening, a prerecorded speech by Karmal was broadcast by Radio Kabul from Tashkent in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic: "Today is the breaking of the machine of torture of Amin and his henchmen, wild butchers, usurpers, and murderers of tens of thousands of our countrymen."

Months earlier, Amin had ousted Taraki, who was allegedly jailed and suffocated to death on Amin's orders.

Karmal, who arrived in Kabul the following day, called for the Soviet Union's "fraternal assistance."

In justifying its invasion, Moscow said Afghanistan had "turned to the Soviet Union for aid and assistance in the struggle against foreign aggression" and it decided to "send a limited military contingent to Afghanistan."

Thousands of Soviet troops and hundreds of planes and tanks crossed into Afghanistan in the days following the invasion. At the height of the war, some 115,000 Soviet troops were fighting in Afghanistan.

The United States and Saudi Arabia bankrolled the mujahedin, the Islamist groups who fought the communist government in Kabul and then the Soviet Army. Neighboring Pakistan armed, trained, and advised the rebels.

Karmal enacted reforms and freed thousands of people jailed by his predecessors. But the government instigated its own purges and remained weak and heavily dependent on Moscow.

The Soviets soon found themselves bogged down in a costly military quagmire.

In an attempt to turn the tide of the war, Moscow replaced Karmal in 1986 with Mohammad Najibullah, the head of the notorious secret police. But in 1989, the Soviet Union pulled its troops out of Afghanistan after an estimated 2 million Afghans and at least 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed. Millions of other Afghans were displaced, living mainly as refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

Najibullah's regime survived until 1992, when the mujahedin toppled the communists from power. Within months, a devastating civil war erupted among the warring mujahedin factions, paving the way for the rise of the Taliban, which seized control of Kabul in 1996.

By then, Karmal was settled with his family in Moscow, where he died of liver cancer in December 1996 at the age of 67.

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