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Afghanistan: The ‘undefeated’ Panjshir Valley

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Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, 2019

Several thousand anti-Taliban fighters are reported to be holding out against the Taliban in a remote valley with a narrow entrance – little more than 30 miles or so from the capital Kabul.

It’s not the first time the dramatic and imposing Panjshir Valley has been a flashpoint in Afghanistan’s recent turbulent history – having been a stronghold against Soviet forces in the 1980s, and the Taliban in the ’90s.

The group holding out there now – the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) – recently reminded the world of the valley’s strength.

“The Red Army, with its might, was unable to defeat us… And the Taliban also 25 years ago… they tried to take over the valley and they failed, they faced a crushing defeat,” Ali Nazary, the NRF’s head of foreign relations, told the BBC.

Short presentational grey line

Short presentational grey line

The long, deep and dusty valley stretches about 75 miles (120km) – south-west to north-east – to the north of the Afghan capital Kabul. It is protected by high mountain peaks – rising 9,800ft (3,000m) above the valley floor. They are an imposing natural barrier – protection for the people living there.

There is only one narrow road in, which winds its way between large rocky outcrops and the meandering Panjshir River.

“There is a mythical aspect to the entire area. It’s not just one valley. Once you get into it there are at least another 21 sub valleys connected,” says Shakib Sharifi, who lived there as a child, but left Afghanistan after the Taliban took control.

At the far end of the main valley, a trail leads up to the 4,430m (14,534ft) Anjoman Pass and heads further east into the Hindu Kush mountains. The armies of Alexander the Great and Tamerlane – the last of the great nomadic conquerors of Central Asia – both passed this way.

“Historically, the Panjshir Valley was also known for mining – including semi-precious jewels,” says Elisabeth Leake, associate professor of international history at the University of Leeds.

Map of Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan

Map of Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan

Today, the valley has hydroelectric dams and a wind farm. The US helped in the construction of roads and a radio tower that receives signals from Kabul. The former US airbase at Bagram – originally built by the Soviets in the 1950s – is also a short distance from the mouth of the valley.

‘Brave’ people

Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are reported to live in the valley. Most speak Dari – one of Afghanistan’s main languages – and are of Tajik ethnicity.

The Tajiks make up about a quarter of Afghanistan’s population of 38 million people – but the Panjshiris don’t look towards Tajikistan, one of Afghanistan’s northern neighbours. Instead they have their own local identity.

Mr Sharifi – who until recently was the director general for planning at the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture – describes the Panjshiris as brave, “perhaps the bravest in Afghanistan”. He says locals are irreconcilable with the Taliban – and have “an element of belligerence – but in a positive way”. Historical victories against the British, Soviets and Taliban simply “emboldened people further”.

Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, 2011

Greenery on the valley floor gives way to steep, rugged terrain

After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, the valley was promoted from a district to a province. It’s one of Afghanistan’s smallest.

“The decision to make it a province in its own right was controversial,” says Dr Antonio Giustozzi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Panjshiri fighters had a lot of power in the early 2000s, he explains. They had helped recapture Kabul and became “number one stakeholders”.

Panjshiri leaders were given prominent positions in the government and military. The valley became autonomous and was the only province in Afghanistan where local governors – rather than people from outside of the area – were appointed.

“Normally, governors had to be seen to be more loyal to the government than the local population,” says Dr Giustozzi. “Panjshir was a special case.”

Strategically significant

According to Dr Giustozzi, there are “probably hundreds” of similar valleys in Afghanistan. But it’s the valley’s closeness to the main road north from Kabul that “gives it great strategic importance”.

The valley entrance is not far from where the main highway from Kabul leaves the flat plain and rises high into the mountains towards the Salang Pass – a tunnel taking traffic to the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces personnel. Panjshir province, Afghanistan, August 2021

Anti-Taliban fighters in Panjshir Province, August 2021

Mr Sharifi says Panjshir’s significance is down to a potent combination of factors.

“It’s not just because of dozens of remote fighting positions in the valley, it’s not just because of the mountainous geography, it’s not just because of the immense pride the people of Panjshir take. It’s all of them. Individually, these factors could apply to many places across Afghanistan.”

In this latest standoff, the valley is believed to also be home to large stockpiles of weapons. Fighters based in the valley were meant to have disbanded over the past 20 years and hand over their arms. “But there are still stockpiles there,” says Dr Giustozzi.

“Afghan officials with connections to Panjshir also moved more guns there because they were worried about presidents’ Karzai and Ghani, but in the end it was the Taliban they needed to be worried about.”

The man heading the anti-Taliban force in the valley is 32-year-old Ahmad Massoud – son of revered resistance leader from the 1980s and ’90s, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

A portrait of Ahmad Massoud, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, September 5, 2019

Ahmad Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, 2019

Massoud has said his fighters have military support from members of the Afghan army and special forces.

“We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come,” he wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post.

His father, nicknamed the “Lion of Panjshir”, was a mujahideen commander who thwarted both Soviet and Taliban forces. Panjshir itself means “five lions”.

The son of an Afghan army general, Ahmad Shah Massoud was born in the valley. His portrait can still be found in many places throughout Panjshir Province and in Kabul – from monuments to billboards and shop windows.

Because of him, the Panjshir valley become a centre of anti-Communist resistance, after the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) won power in 1978 – and the Soviet Union moved in forces a year later.

“He became the public face of resistance in the Soviet-Afghan war,” says Prof Elisabeth Leake from the University of Leeds. “He had charisma and actively engaged with Western media. He was also one of the main resistance leaders with whom the Soviets were willing to negotiate – which made him so significant.”

Portraits of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, 2009

Portraits of Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, 2009

For that time, says Dr Giustozzi, Massoud was different from other rebel leaders. “He was educated, could speak French, talked softly and was charming. Other commanders came across as rough, illiterate and gung-ho.”

He was assassinated in 2001 by the al-Qaeda terror group, two days before it attacked the United States on 9/11, and declared a national hero by President Hamid Karzai.

However, some say the mujahideen leader was a war criminal. According to a 2005 Human Rights Watch investigation, “Ahmad Shah Massoud was implicated in many abuses” carried out by military forces under his command during the wars in Afghanistan.

Unconquerable?

Between late 1980 and 1985, the Soviets launched at least half a dozen assaults on the valley – on the ground and from the air. Russian fighters had little experience of the terrain and were often left exposed to ambushes.

The Soviets “received a thousand wounds” from the left, right and centre – says Mr Sharifi. One man – known as Mr DHsK after the Soviet machine gun he touted – used to hide under a rock and shoot at them, but they could never find him “and that drove them crazy”.

He says some of the current commanders were around at the end of that era. “They were trained to stand alone at outposts without proper communication from headquarters. They knew how to wait it out and inflict pain.”

Rusting helicopter from Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, 2015

Rusting helicopter, photographed in 2015, from Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979

Dr Giustozzi says the Soviets did manage to secure a stronghold in the valley for a time – but it didn’t last long.

“The Russians couldn’t see the point of staying and keeping an army there was quite a challenge,” he says. “They wanted to protect the main north-south highway, but fighting just broke out in other areas nearby.”

Weapons, tanks and aircraft were left to rust in the Panjshir Valley – legacies of the Soviets’ failed military campaigns.

The successor

Ahmad Massoud was 12 when his father died. He studied in London, and trained for a year at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

“He has his father’s charm but he is untested as a military leader,” says Dr Giustozzi. “He also needs the skills to negotiate any potential power-sharing deal at a national level. Because he’s a new figure and doesn’t have much to lose – unlike some older government figures – he could be more demanding in discussions.”

What will happen next in the valley is hard to gauge, says Prof Leake.

“He is obviously very aware of his own heritage and his father’s historical significance – we can see him continuing on this legacy of international engagement.

“But this time, the story is different. The Taliban has taken major cities and towns nearby – and supply chains have been disrupted. That changes the balance.”

Ahmad Massoud, arrives to attend and address a gathering at the tomb of his late father, Panjshir province, Afghanistan, July 5, 2021

Ahmad Massoud at the tomb of his late father, July 2021

Massoud himself has asked for backup.

“If Taliban warlords launch an assault, they will of course face staunch resistance from us… Yet we know that our military forces and logistics will not be sufficient,” he wrote in his Washington Post article.

“They will be rapidly depleted unless our friends in the West can find a way to supply us without delay.”

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Russian Troops Dead After Getting ‘Treated’ to Poisoned Meals, Ukraine Officials Say

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Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine’s Defense Ministry / Facebook

In a show of hospitality, Ukrainian citizens in the besieged region of Kharkiv have reportedly been “treating” Russian troops local delicacies—laced with poison.

At least two troops from the 3rd Motor Rifle Division of the Russian Federation died immediately after eating stuffed buns served by the residents of Izium, a town about 80 miles southeast of Kharkiv, the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine wrote Saturday in an announcement posted to Facebook.

Another 28 Russians are being treated in intensive care from eating the contaminated treats. The condition of these poisoned invaders has yet to be confirmed.

According to the Intelligence Directorate, several hundred Russian soldiers have also suffered severe illnesses from drinking poisoned alcohol while occupying the region. Ukrainian officials said that the Russian military is “writing off these cases as so-called ‘non-combat losses.’”

Though Russian troops have reportedly retreated from the capital of Kyiv. The New York Times reports that insurgent forces are still fighting to gain control of Izium, despite the locals’ culinary efforts. Control of the eastern town would allow Russians to strategically secure access to the occupied Donbas region.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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Massive ship called Ever Forward is stuck in Chesapeake Bay

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Despite two failed attempts to free it this week, a sister container ship to the Ever Given that got stuck in the Suez Canal last year has been lodged in the Chesapeake Bay for 21 days — and now cargo holders have to pay to help free it.

Why it matters: The Ever Forward (yes, bask in the irony) is the largest ship to get stuck in the Chesapeake Bay and it’s carrying 5,000 containers of … stuff.

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What’s happening: The ship’s owner — Evergreen Marine Corp. — has invoked a maritime law dubbed “General Average,” under which people whose belongings are on a ship must share in the cost of freeing it.

Zoom in: It’s unclear what’s in the thousands of containers aboard the Ever Forward, but at least one cargo holder — a Bloomberg journalist who recently moved from Hong Kong to New York — has been sharing her experience waiting on her furniture.

  • “The entire contents of our apartment, all of our furniture, lots of books, things of sentimental value are all in a container stuck in the Chesapeake Bay,” Tracy Alloway told NBC Washington.

  • The U.S. Coast Guard, which is handling Ever Forward’s PR, per the Port of Baltimore, told Axios that “general cargo” is on the ship and referred further questions to Evergreen.

Zoom out: The Ever Forward has been idling near Baltimore, en route to Norfolk, since a wrong turn leaving Baltimore on March 13 ran the boat aground in shallow water (24 feet of water — when it needs 42 to float, per NBC Washington.)

  • The Ever Forward has been stuck thrice as long as its sister ship sat marooned between the Mediterranean and Red seas last year.

  • The ship is not disrupting trade — or blocking passage out of Baltimore Harbor, William Doyle, director of the Port of Baltimore tweeted.

  • Tuesday and Wednesday were the first attempts to refloat the boat using tug boats.

  • A third attempt will be coming soon, “using two anchored pulling barges from the stern and five tugs,” Doyle wrote on Twitter.

The big picture: You can stay informed on the progress via istheshipstillstuck.com, a website that went viral last year during the Suez fiasco.

  • The boat has become a tourist attraction and Downs Park (there’s a $6 entry fee) in Pasadena, Maryland is apparently the best place to see it.

By the numbers: Comparing giant, stuck container ships.

  • The Ever Forward — currently lodged in Baltimore en route to Norfolk for 21 days and counting — 1,095 feet long, 117,340 gross tons. Ran aground due to a wrong turn in the Bay.

  • The Ever Given — stuck in the Suez Canal for 6 days – 1,312 feet long, weighing in at 224,000 gross tons. Ran aground due to a large wind gust.

🗞 This article is by Axios Richmond’s Karri Peifer! Subscribe to the Axios Richmond newsletter (launching soon).

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California has $600M in unclaimed can, bottle deposits

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California is sitting on a $600 million pile of unclaimed nickel and dime deposits on recyclable cans and bottles and now wants to give some of that back to consumers.

To get the state’s nearly 40 million residents to recycle more and send more deposits back to them, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration unveiled a plan Friday to temporarily double to a dime the refund for a 12-ounce (355 milliliters) bottle or can. California already pays 10 cents on containers over 24 ounces (709 milliliters), and that would temporarily double to 20 cents.

The move would make California among the highest-paying recycling programs in the country. Rachel Machi Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, said the effort would help California again become the recycling leader it was 35 years ago when it started its cash refund program.

When someone in California purchases a regular-sized soda, a 5-cent charge is applied that can be recouped if the container is brought back for recycling. Under Newsom’s plan, the deposit charge would remain the same but the return amount would double. The goal is to raise the recycling rate for beverage containers from 70% to at least 80%.

Oregon and Michigan already offer 10-cent refunds and advocacy groups say that amount for each glass or plastic bottle or aluminum can has been enough for consumers to recycle at least nine of every 10 containers.

The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog’s President Jamie Court, a frequent critic of the recycling program, called the plan “a very positive step” and “a bold proposal to give people their money back.”

“That money isn’t doing anybody any good sitting in the bank,” Court said. “We need a complete structural fix, but this is a good interim step.”

California’s proposal feeds the latest national effort to boost recycling as beverage distributors face increased pressure to include higher percentages of recycled material in their containers, National Stewardship Action Council executive director Heidi Sanborn said.

Just 10 of the 50 states have deposit programs now, but many are considering them — potentially creating a confusing patchwork and beverage labels crowded with different states’ deposit amounts, something she said distributors want to avoid.

California’s doubling of refunds would be temporary — a duration for the change has yet to be decided — and is expected to cost $100 million. If approved by the Legislature the refund increase would take effect sometime during the next fiscal year that starts July 1.

It’s uncertain if any boost in recycling would last once the higher price ends, Sanborn acknowledged, but she hopes instead California will decide to make the increase permanent. She’s also hopeful pressure from states will spur attempts by U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon to craft a national bottle bill.

Newsom’s plan also attempts to ease a bottleneck that began years ago as more neighborhood recycling centers closed and Consumer Watchdog said many grocery stores also were refusing to take back empties in-store as required.

To increase access, Newsom’s administration proposes spending $100 million on grants to add about 2,000 automated recycling machines, also known as reverse vending machines, at high schools, colleges and retailers. Consumers dump their empty containers into the machines, which issue a refund.

Another $55 million would go for state-funded mobile recycling programs in rural areas and other places with few recycling options.

Consumers are very upset that “they are unable to return their bottles and cans and get their money back as promised,” said Sanborn, who also heads California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets & Curbside Recycling.

Sanborn blamed the closure of many California recycling centers on the state’s failure to quickly adjust its complicated payment formula to meet changing market conditions.

Many of California’s recyclables go to China, which toughened standards in 2017 on accepting contaminated material, including plastics. The move “totally slammed the recycling industry” nationwide, said Kate O’Neill, a University of California, Berkeley, environmental science professor and author of the 2019 book “Waste.”

The U.S. market is recovering now with the addition of domestic recycling facilities, but there still is a problem matching supply to demand, O’Neill said.

Recycling officials had expected beverage consumption to drop during the pandemic, as it does during most economic downturns, Wagoner said. Instead, container sales in California increased by 2.5 billion over three years, to 27 billion last fiscal year, meaning a record number of deposits flowing into the state’s recycling fund.

The number of refundable containers recycled in California meanwhile hit a record high of more than 18.8 billion in 2021 — but that still left plenty of money on the table.

Repeated attempts to improve the state’s recycling system have struggled in the Legislature, even as California tries to boost its recycling rates, minimize food waste, and work toward a circular-use economy.

Wagoner said Friday’s proposal is an interim step while the administration continues talks with lawmakers over permanent fixes.

Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski said he tried a bill last year with proposals similar to what the administration is now suggesting, “and they didn’t want to hear about it.” He anticipates people now hoarding their recyclables until the double redemption period, then facing long lines once it begins.

His proposal this year would put more responsibility on producers to recycle their containers.

“It has a little gimmicky nature to it,” Wieckowski said of the state’s plan. “We have 45 Band-Aids on this program, and sometime you have to get out of the Band-Aid business.”



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Fort Lauderdale police arrest Black hotel clerk who called for help

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New body camera video released by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department shows officers pushing a Black hotel employee before arresting him. The employee, Raymond Rachal, was the person to call the police after an incident in the lobby where Rachal claims a man was yelling racial slurs at him.



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Police investigating ‘appalling’ incident recorded inside a Wilmington High School bathroom

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Police and school officials in Wilmington are investigating a “serious and disturbing physical altercation” inside a boys’ bathroom this week that left the superintendent of schools “appalled,” not only because of the incident, but because some students recorded video and posted it online.

The video is difficult to watch.

In a letter to the school community dated March 30th, Superintendent Glenn Brand said the incident happened on Tuesday and investigators are working to identify the students involved.

The recording sent to Boston 25 indicates a student was picked up inside the bathroom and had his head forced into a toilet inside a stall in the bathroom. The video below has been blurred due to the ages of those involved.

“I am truly appalled by the actions of these students which are unacceptable and do not represent the core values of this educational community,” said Supt. Brand. ”It is my expectation that each and every one of our students has the right to attend a school that is safe and supportive. While I recognize that the vast number of our students consistently make appropriate choices to support such an environment, we will have zero tolerance for those that do not.”

“The Wilmington Public School prioritizes, above all else, the safety, well-being and respect of all of our students and staff,” said Supt. Brand.

“It is therefore with tremendous disappointment that I write to inform you of a serious and disturbing physical altercation that occurred in one of the boys’ bathrooms (Tuesday),” said Brand. “Not only is the incident itself concerning, but also that some of our students recorded the altercation and posted this online.”

“All students who are found culpable will be held fully accountable and appropriate disciplinary action will be taken as well as the removal of appropriate privileges that are afforded to those students,” said Supt. Brand. “I assure you that we will pursue relevant legal actions should such be deemed warranted following the investigation.”

The superintendent also alluded to other recent trouble at the school.

“This incident comes in the wake of a number of other concerns recently involving troubling student behavior. Everyone has an obligation to help foster the type of school environments that our students deserve, including our staff, families and most importantly, our students themselves,” said Brand.

A statement posted to the school’s website on Friday by the Wilmington High School Student Class Officers, called the incident “horrific.”

“If a picture is worth a thousand words then a video is worth a million, yet many of us were left speechless by the thoughtless actions of others that transpired earlier this week in one of our school bathrooms,” according to the statement. “These horrific actions perpetrated by an embarrassing group of individuals do not represent who we are as a student body. We are honor roll students, college bound-career focused seniors, varsity athletes, robotic champions and so much more. Our image should not be clouded by these individuals.”

Boston 25 spoke with Wilmington Police Chief Joe Desmond about the incident.

“Obviously there were a lot of kids in the bathroom and this young man was taken and physically dragged into the bathroom,” said Desmond.

The chief says the students pick the student up and lower him head down into the toilet. “It clearly looks like an assault as far as where I come from,” said Desmond.

Police are also looking to see if this incident rises to the level of a hate crime or civil rights violation. Chief Desmond says they have at least three recordings and they are working with the school to identify everyone involved.

“Kids should be able to go to school and feel safe and feel supported and not worried about being picked on or God forbid this incident is horrible. That poor kid” it’s terrible,” said concerned parent Roberta Biscan.

The school superintendent is scheduling bystander training that will be mandatory for all students. According to police, the case is moving quickly and charges are likely to be filed.

Watch for updates on Boston 25.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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Why this huge catfish was released by a fisherman who didn’t even bother to weigh it

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Ivan Garren from Cleveland, Tennessee caught a huge catfish Thursday while fishing in Wolftever Creek.

Garren, who used skipjack as bait, was fishing in a depth of about six feet when he hooked the monster.

He did not weigh or measure the fish but estimated it was about 38 pounds. He wanted to get the fish back in the water as soon as possible after taking a couple of pictures.

More: A 500-pound black bear made its home near a Tennessee college. Here’s how TWRA relocated it

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

“I release all big fish for other people to enjoy,” Garren said.

As big as the fish was, Garren said he has caught bigger.

Wolftever Creek is located in Hamilton County near Middle Valley, Tennessee. It is known for having a large population of catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass and crappie.

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

Ivan Garren caught this big catfish in Wolftever Creek in Hamilton County.

Reach Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee fisherman releases huge catfish without weighing



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The Judds reunite for CMT Music Awards performance

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Judds, one of the most successful duos in country music in the 1980s, are reuniting to perform on the CMT Music Awards, their first major awards show performance together in more than two decades.

The mother-and-daughter duo of Naomi and Wynonna will perform their hit “Love Will Build a Bridge” on the awards show on April 11, airing on CBS and Paramount+, during an outdoor shoot in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.

It’s a fitting backdrop for the five-time Grammy winners, who will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in May.

“It feels both surreal and what a thrill it is. What a thrill to finally get her back on the stage because she’s been waiting for 20-plus years,” Wynonna told the AP of her mother, Naomi. “As a daughter and as an artist, it’s a win-win.”

Originally from Kentucky, Naomi was working as a nurse in the Nashville area when she and Wynonna started singing together professionally. Their unique harmonies, together with elements of acoustic music, bluegrass and blues, made them stand out in the genre at the time.

The Judds won nine Country Music Association Awards and seven from the Academy of Country Music and had more than a dozen No. 1 hits, including “Mama, He’s Crazy” and “Grandpa (Tell Me ’bout the Good Old Days).”

In 1990, Naomi Judd announced her retirement from performing due to chronic hepatitis. Wynonna has continued her solo career and they have occasionally reunited for special performances.

“To have all the incredible opportunities that I have had, being reminded of all that, just makes me very humbled and I just want to bask in the moment,” Naomi Judd told the AP.

This is also their first ever performance together at the CMT Music Awards. Country star Kacey Musgraves will introduce the pair prior to the performance.

“Music is the bridge between mom and me, and it it bonds us together. Even in the not easy times,” said Wynonna Judd. “We show up and we sing because that’s what love is about, right? So what a beautiful celebration.”

Hosted by country singer Kelsea Ballerini and actor Anthony Mackie, the fan-voted awards show will also feature performances by Ballerini, Kane Brown, Miranda Lambert, Luke Combs, Maren Morris, Cody Johnson, Little Big Town, Keith Urban, Carly Pearce and more.



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