There had been a downpour that day in May: balmy Kabul weather. I had opened my windows and watched the shower. Across me was a large, old pine tree – singular, standing tall and strong. I wondered what all this tree had seen. I invited a friend to dinner. Life was restricted due to safety concerns. Work was cut into bits and pieces with curfews, lockdowns and text messages asking us to stay away from this place or that, following distant booms, almost every day. Bomb blasts, IEDs, complex attacks. Sometimes the booms were closer, rattling our windows and our peace of mind – yes, till this day there was some peace of mind. Little did we know what was to come.
This was 2015 in Kabul. As we ate, a shot rang out. I stopped and looked at my friend. “No, it’s not a gun shot,” she said. She had barely said it when a burst of Kalashnikov fire tore into the night. It was very, very close. I ran to lock my door and we started putting off the lights. We crouched near my bed, for we couldn’t get under it. This was the start of a five-hour ordeal in a Kabul guesthouse, during which about twenty people were killed. We lay there, holding hands, praying. Talking in low tones to those responsible for our security, messaging those concerned. At one point I said to my friend, “We are not going to make it.”
“Don’t say that,” she responded, “we have much to live for.”
My Afghan friends messaged me non-stop. One contacted the security forces responsible for the ensuing operation, which started about halfway through the attack. Another wanted to come to us, but obviously couldn’t as the roads were blocked with military vehicles: Norwegian, American, Afghan and maybe other forces. We lay silent on the ground, waiting for whatever was in store, as a few bullets came through the window. We were lucky. Then came the sound of explosions. I was sure the building would collapse on us.
All the while, I wondered what I would say if the terrorists came into my room. He would be a young Pashtun Talib, no doubt. Would it make a difference that I am Pashtun? Of course not! So, what could I say to shame him before he shot us? What curses would I use? A parting shot – literally! The consistency of the shooting, the darkness, the total lack of human sounds. A fear gripped us. Somehow, we remained calm. A text message from an Afghan friend: “Are the terrorists inside?”
“Yes, they are.”
A message from my cousin in Mardan: “Is everything OK?”
“Yes, all well,” I responded.
Soon, my family would see it on TV, but now it was pointless to say anything. Whatever happens, they will find out. I either live to tell the story or go home in a box.
Having been put in touch with the security forces by an Afghan friend, they finally came to my room after four hours. We heard footsteps, crushing glass. And there they appeared, like a child’s video game. Large men with night-vision goggles and huge guns. “Get up. Lift your shirt!” came the command. “Excuse me!” I instantly replied. Then came an apology “Sorry, lift it a little.” I lifted my shirt till my knees. “Ok that’s enough.” English, they spoke English. “Who are you?”
“What?” he said.
“Who are you, where are you from?”
“Oh! We are Norwegian Special Forces.”
In the corridor were the Afghan forces. I asked them how many people were dead. “None,” they said. Obviously, what else were they meant to say? It was still going on. There was a long, deathly silence. No shots, no human sounds. We spoke in low voices. How would we get out?
“Stand in the middle,” they said. “We will form a circle around you. You walk in the middle. Right! That’s it.”
We had to pass by the dining room where the terror started. I had visions of us running helter skelter as we got shot at. “Let’s go!” – we started. We got out. Downstairs a young Afghan security man was carried out, shot in the leg. The balmy night had become a night of terror. For some reason, God saved us.
Every day is a question: did he save me for this day?
It took many weeks to get over this incident. A break at home and then we were back. People were shocked. “You came back? You are very brave, Khanum.”
All the while, I wondered what I would say if the terrorists came into my room. He would be a young Pashtun Talib, no doubt. Would it make a difference that I am Pashtun? Of course not! So, what could I say to shame him before he shot us? What curses would I use? A parting shot – literally!
No, I was not brave, I simply knew this was our collective life and our collective resistance. I had come across the border where the same things happened. The terror is one and its perpetrators are one. The resistance to terror and violence is to keep going. Life was now in God’s hands – I was free. Whatever happens, happens. The same ‘faith’ that allowed the poor terrorists to kill, gave me the strength to continue. An Afghan colleague walked into my room when I returned to office and was having a panic attack: “Hey, we have a lot of work to do. Let’s go out there and do it!” Always, he gave me strength and hope. His gentle soul always showed on his face, smiling, softspoken like so many Afghans are.
This was life for the Afghans: let’s continue living.
In the northern mountains of Takhar, the mist formed a haze. Chakhchashma village was enveloped in a cold that chilled the bones as we walked up the mountain. A dialogue with a village. My colleague joked: “If they come through this mist, we will not see them till they are near us!” We laughed. The group of handsome Uzbeks sat in a long, narrow room. Red carpets covered the floor. We sat down. Which language do I speak in? Pashto, certainly not Urdu, and certainly not English – my Dari was non-existent. “OK – Pashto,” they said. Here I was, a Pashtun, Pakistani woman, talking to Uzbeks in Pashto about community work. It’s an experience I will never forget – simply fabulous.
People are the same everywhere. People respond positively everywhere.
“What can you do to improve your lives – something you already do but which you can improve upon? How can you improve it? Because you have the potential – but you also know your constraints. It’s up to you, really.”
They listened carefully.
“So many things we can do but we need money.”
“OK, so, you are already organised into small savings groups. If you cluster your groups, we can give you a fund to revolve and lend it interest-free to each other. Islamic lending. And since this will be your fund, you will have to decide, collectively, who will use it and for what – and you will have to catch those who default. Because if people run off with your money, you will all suffer.”
Questions were asked. Back and forth. The dialogue proceeded. A Qari spoke up. He had understood. “Where is he from?” I had asked earlier. He looked like someone out of a Peshawar madrassah. Yes, he actually was. Every nook and corner of Afghanistan has them. I hoped he was OK to deal with. I wondered about his history. But he seemed ‘ok.’ After all, most Afghan refugees in Pakistan had been taught in madrassahs.
Then came a meeting with women: sprightly, noisy, but when we started there was silence. Curiosity. The dialogue was translated from Pashto to Uzbek by a colleague. The same responses: “Of course we can do this work. We will start.”
The process began. I went to this village after a four-month lapse. This was the life of an expat in Afghanistan: go to a village and then disappear for months and then re-appear. I was an expat who felt quite at home. None of it made sense to me. My family laughed at me often: “You are a Pashtun and an expat in Afghanistan?”
In January 2022, I found out that many of these community groups still exist, that they are using the fund. I was amazed. Because nothing else existed now. And that is why it was done like this: remote areas, conflict areas, small communities, huge distances, huge mountains, lack of access in winter – this is the only way development can take place.
You organise locally and work through self-help, with the least external support. Lending was happening to target household needs. These were small loans, but at least there was money at a time when banking had stopped, donors had frozen funds, staff was laid off and sanctions descended Afghanistan into starvation.
On the 15th of August 2021, as I watched the news, I was broken. Key districts had fallen to the Taliban like dominoes and now they had taken Kabul.
Today, I realise that this was indeed always the plan. The plan of the Americans, and of their regional rentier states. Of the world, really. The people who saved me, my friends, my colleagues, are now uprooted, their dreams shattered. One by one I called them. The days stretched into weeks and months: a grief that tears at my stomach. The women, the proud women friends, committed, professional, capable – hiding in the homes of others. Soon they would have no jobs. Yes, these were friends in Kabul. But Takhar was not Kabul. There were professional women there, there were educated women. They made huge strides as opportunities came their way for two decades. They had grown up during those two decades – only having heard stories of the atrocities of the Taliban. Now the Taliban were back.
They had breathed freely, they travelled, they worked for their people. Now, each day is a nightmare for those who remain. But I know few who remain. Everyday I watched the news of flights taking off from Kabul, of the mayhem at the airport. I wondered which friend would be on it. Before they took off, a silence – and I would know they did not want to say anything, yet.
“I have reached Qatar now, on my way to America.” “I have reached Australia.” “I have reached the UK.” “I am in Turkey, but I don’t know where I go next.” “I am in a huge military facility in the US – dormitories with thousands of Afghans.”
Beautiful homes left behind. Maybe one relative stayed behind to look after the homes, as the looting started.
Many came to Pakistan. Some across Chaman, some across Torkham. Some with visas, some having paid the Taliban and the Pakistani border forces to cross at Chaman. Some hid with relatives, some booked guesthouses, rented places. Most were in transit, having filled various asylum papers to various countries.
They are living in cold space with only mattresses, some blankets and a few dishes. “We are sorry, we cannot be more hospitable,” they said, as they placed the green tea and toffees before me. “We didn’t live like this you know, we had a proper house – but we had to run.”
“They came and insulted me for making coats which kafirs wear.” “They came and asked why I gave women legal advice because it broke up families.” “They said my daughter should be shot, because she wore jeans under her long shirt.” “I am hiding because I play the rabab.” “They burnt musical instruments, they blackened posters with women, they shut secondary schools for girls.”
Messages came pouring in: “We have lost our dreams, we have lost hope.”
And then came the honesty from a few – an honesty that exists only between good friends.
“You have done this to us, it is your country that has done this.”