EJAN, Afghanistan — When Abdullah Jan stole the Kalashnikov from the body of a Russian soldier 18 years ago, he could see it was in bad shape, dirty, battered, in need of love and care.
The rifle was so neglected it had lost its power to protect the anonymous Russian soldier, who died so far from home in the razor-backed peaks of the Salang Gorge in northern Afghanistan.
Abdullah took the gun home. He took it apart, cleaned it fastidiously, oiled it, whispered sweet words to it.
"You are my friend," he murmured softly. "You are my friend, and I will take care of you."
After that, it never let him down.
Abdullah, 45, was a young moujahedeen warrior when he scampered to retrieve the prize in the fourth year of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Now the Kalashnikov is the most treasured object in his household. It hangs on his bedroom wall, always in easy reach. Both he and his second son, Kodratullo, 25, use it to fight, shooting at Afghanistan's radical Islamic Taliban.
In their village, you sometimes see a young boy wending down the road with a schoolbook in his hands. But far more common is the sight of teenagers toting Kalashnikovs, their faces set in hard expressions, as they imagine a fighter should look.
In Afghanistan few boys can read or write, but nearly all of them can shoot. As well as inheriting their fathers' guns, Afghan boys absorb their desire for vengeance, their hatred of their enemies, and their fatalistic view of war and mortality.
And the Kalashnikov is at the center of Afghan society: a symbol of manhood, a symbol of freedom, a symbol of victory.
Decades of war have militarized the society, left thousands of widows and fatherless children, and spawned thousands of boys with grudges to repay, on both sides of the country's civil war.
A few weeks in Afghanistan and you develop reflexive Kalashnikov blindness: You forget to be surprised by the sight of them everywhere.
In Afghanistan's bazaars, men carry Kalashnikovs, slung over the shoulder. In the teahouses, guns lean propped against the walls like thickets of dead branches, or they lie beside a man's plate as he eats. At prayer time, guns are kept within reach, placed on the ground in front of the prayer rug.
From the age of 5, Afghan boys play with crude toy guns fashioned of wood. But by 10, their childhood over, they are learning how to fire a real Kalashnikov.
Boys here dream of being moujahedeen commanders, in a society where the richest, most powerful and admired men are the generals. The "holy warriors" successfully resisted Soviet invaders in the 1980s, and now many fighters in Afghanistan's north have adopted the mantle in their battle against fellow Muslims in the country's ruling Taliban.
They join the moujahedeen when their fathers tell them it is time to fight. Describing their first time in battle, none admits to fear. They describe only their excitement and joy that they were trusted as men.
Weapon Is 'Both Freedom and War'
When an Afghan man hands a gun to his son in a ceremony of manhood, he explains the weapon's significance. The oldest man in the family says a prayer.
"It means he has become a man. The boy should understand he is trusted to fight and defend his country," Abdullah explained.
"When I gave a weapon to my son, I said, 'Son, this is a gun. This weapon is both freedom and war. With the help of this weapon, you can preserve your freedom. But to have freedom, we need sacrifice.' "
He reflected sadly on the results of Afghanistan's 22 years of war: "In other countries of the world, they teach their children to do something, to be engineers. In our country, we teach our children to kill people. But it's not in vain. It's for freedom."
In the Salang Gorge, Abdullah cannot think of a single father who did not teach his sons in the ways of a warrior. Boys begin training at the moujahedeen base in the gorge at age 10 to 12.
An innocent-faced 15-year-old, Mullayasin, joined the moujahedeen at 10 and was fighting by 14. Two months ago, he learned to use a grenade launcher, which seems to dwarf his slight body.
"My father told me, 'My son, terrorists live in our country. They don't leave us in peace. They'll get us. We must make sacrifices, and that's it.' "
Mullayasin has seen little of life and knows almost nothing about the world outside his valley. But without a second thought, he would sacrifice himself in the war against the Taliban.
"Why should I be afraid of death?" asked the boy, who last year survived a fierce front-line battle near Bagram, north of the capital, Kabul.
For Mullayasin, worse than the possibility of death was the fact that the older moujahedeen had told him the fighting there was too fierce for him to join in. "I was crying and begging them to let me go. I cried because they didn't trust me. They didn't treat me as a man. It was humiliating," he said. "All the same, I joined them. We were surrounded. The enemy was firing all kinds of weapons at us and bombing us. I wasn't afraid. I didn't care."