Why Was 'Afghan Star' Winner Nearly Killed?

A masked gunman ambushed him after a performance.

May 20, 2012, 10:51 AM

KABUL, Afghanistan, May 20, 2012 -- Three weeks ago, Navid Forogh was on top of the world.

The winner of "Afghan Star," the war-torn country's version of "American Idol," had just released a slate of new singles, had big ticket performances lined up across the region, and millions of young, adoring fans willing to line up for hours to score tickets to see him in person.

In short, the 23-year-old Afghan had defied the odds.

With a golden voice and boyish good looks to match, he'd become a pop culture celebrity in a country where pop culture barely exists.

His impressive "Afghan Star" win, broadcast to millions of Afghan homes on the country's privately owned TOLO-TV, was about more than just a simple contest.

It was about hope, showing ordinary Afghans that despite nearly 30 years of war, Afghanistan was still a place where dreams could come true.

"I couldn't go outside without people stopping me," Forogh recounts from his living room. "I was an ordinary person, then suddenly I became a star."

And a star, he was. Fans wanted his autograph.

Girls rushed on stage looking for a kiss.

And posters of Forogh started popping up in music shops across the country.

The new-found fame meant Forogh could finally afford new clothes, for himself and his family and even a new car. He was invited to perform in Dubai, Russia, Tajikistan, and elsewhere.

And each time while on stage, the twinkle in his eye let everyone know: this was just the beginning.

Then came the bullets. And everything changed.

Three of them, in quick succession put an end to Forogh's career, and leaving him so depressed he now sits alone in an empty house, wondering if she should kill himself.

This is not the Afghanistan he dreamed of.

Forogh had been receiving anonymous threats online since shorly after he won the reality show.

He believes they were linked to a song he wrote about Ahmad Shah Massoud, a famous warlord who fought the Taliban for years before he was killed by a suicide bomber in September 2001.

For the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun from southern Afghanistan, Massoud was public enemy no. 1.

"I didn't take the threats seriously," Forogh said. "I thought it was something normal. It's a free media, anyone can say whatever they want."

But one fateful night in April, on his way home from a performance in Kabul, he was ambushed by a masked gunman. Hiding behind a tree outside Forogh's driveway, the gunman fired the three shots that changed Forogh's life forever and put an end to his once promising career.

The first bullet ricocheted off the hood of his car.

The second whizzed past his ear.

And the third pierced his shoulder, sending Forogh sprawling to the ground, in a pool of his own blood. When his brother found him 15 minutes later, he thought he was dead. Had any of the bullets been mere inches closer to their target, Forogh would have been.

"He fired the bullet to hit me in the head," Forogh said. "But thanks to God, He protected me."

NATO currently has 130,000 troops in Afghanistan, fighting a growing insurgency that has shown no signs of abating.

NATO commanders routinely praise the Afghanistan's Army and National Police for the strides they have made in keeping the country safe.

Just a week after Forogh was shot, the Taliban launched a major offensive in Kabul, laying siege to several diplomatic and military targets for nearly 18 hours. The operation to clear the militants from the city was conducted entirely by Afghan forces. NATO routinely cites the incident as proof that Afghans can protect their own.

Except when it comes to Forogh, it seems.

"Killing a person," Forogh laments, "has become as easy as killing a bird."

To this day, he doesn't know who tried to kill him. He suspects it was either the Taliban, who were notorious for their loathing of any pop culture with even the slightest connection to anything Western, or, in a more sinister scenario, a Pashtun government official who took issue with his praising of Ahmad Shah Massoud, himself a non-Pashtun.

Since the attack, Forogh doesn't go outside anymore. This is the first time he's spoken to a reporter about what happened.

"I don't do interviews because I want the people who shot me to think I'm not here," he says, his voice conveying a clear sense of defeat. "I'm afraid they might attack me again."

That fear has led Forogh to give up the one love of his life: Music.

"I can't do it anymore," he says, using a famous Afghan proverb to rationalize his fear: "When water goes through a channel once, it will go through that same channel again and again. It means if they attacked me once, they can attack me again."

Even Forogh's boyish looks -- the same ones that made him a heart-throb to millions -- are now gone.

He's grown a big beard, keeps his hair unkempt, and has abandoned western clothing for the traditional Afghan shalwar. He looks more madrassah man than musician.

"I can't take risks," he says. "If they know I'm alive, they will attack me again. That's why I can't even leave my own home."

For many here, what happened to Forogh embodies all that has failed in America's mission in Afghanistan, from the ethnic fault lines that still divide the country, to the inability of local police to catch criminals.

After all, many wonder how Afghanistan can possibly be safe when one of the country's most famous musicians -- somebody who embodied hope for a better future -- could be gunned down in the capital city, with the killer on the loose?

Security in Kabul falls under the jurisdiction of the Afghan National Police. Thousands are scattered throughout the city, manning checkpoints at major intersections, patrolling the streets, and riding in scheduled convoys providing logistical and other assistance to NATO forces.

As the United States works towards withdrawing all its combat forces by the end of next year, the size of the Afghan police force is expected to grow. But Forogh says that thinking about the NATO withdrawal is what scares him the most.

"The government is run by the mafia, there's no safety," he says, repeating the widely held view that the current Karzai administration is rife with corruption.

"I swear the day that ISAF forces leave, it will get even worse," he says. "It will come to the point where people will start eating each other."

But Forogh's harshest words are for the international community.

When "Afghan Star" launched in 2004, western analysts heralded it as a breakthrough for the conservative nation. Television news networks flew in reporters to document and showcase the show's popularity.

Forogh had hoped America's commitment to Afghanistan meant foreign agencies would come rushing to his aid after the attack.

But so far, they haven't

"Nobody cares," Forogh says. "Everybody's busy making money for themselves."

For now, Forogh seems destined the notion that his singing days are over.

Sitting cross legged, with a harmonia, a traditional Afghan accordion-cum-keyboard, at his fingertips, he seems lost, like a soul without purpose.

"This is my first, and my favourite song," he says, before offering a soft, emotional rendition of his hit single "Aan Gumshuda," meaning "When you Lose Your Lover" in his native Dari language.

This is what's left of Forogh's lifelong love for music: Performing alone in his living room. No microphones, no throngs of cheering fans, no one to ask his autograph.

Just a broken man, fearful for the future of his country.

Aan gumshuda, indeed.

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