A RAY OF LIGHT IN A SUFFOCATING DARKNESS

A RAY OF LIGHT IN A SUFFOCATING DARKNESS

It’s hard to believe that it was 11 years ago, as I was holding tight from the doorframe, I hesitated for a long time, thinking once I leave this door, when I return home, I will be motherless!

I still remember the voices screaming in my head, “you won’t have a mother anymore, she will be gone, you’ll lose the unconditional love you ever had in your whole life….”

My sweet mother!  She will be gone forever…

It was a gloomy night. A cold, snowy, sad February night that seemed like the entire world had been frozen.

I was laying down in bed in the dark, counting the clock’s tick tock, trying hard to block the sad voices in my head.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…

As the time passed by, the tick tocks got louder and louder and sounded like someone was hammering the walls.  I held my ears and screamed “stop, stop it” and cried, pushing my head down into the pillows to make the sounds go away….

I had spent the last two nights with Mom and had just come home to take a shower and cleanup before heading back to Mom.

Earlier today, before I left Mom, I looked around, most of my siblings and their families were in Mom’s living room, pretending to have a normal talk, trying hard to hide their fear and pain from each other.  Kids were playing around quietly and cautiously, not to disturb Momma.

My youngest sister Shala and her husband, Dan, were preparing dinner for everyone.  As I was leaving the house, I overheard Shala saying:

“Everyone, family, this is Mom’s favorite dish, come and enjoy.”

Nobody said a word.  Nobody looked up to see what dish she was talking about.

“it will be the last turnip dish, the last one that you’ll ever have… that is made by Mom….” Shala said, stretching the word ‘ever’ a few syllables, her voice shaking.

The hot spicy aroma of sautéed turnip with ginger and garlic had filled the house.  The two most important ingredients that Mom never failed to use.  Garlic and ginger, a must-use in all of her dishes, and this was the aroma that always gave me the warm feeling of ‘home, sweet home.’

Tonight, our home was far from being sweet.

I felt like I had been drained from everything that I had in life. As I buried my head under the pillows, I drifted away all the way to October 1980 and before….

Everything changed after a bloody coup of April 27, 1978, when the Soviet-backed Afghan communist group took control of the government.

It was a pro-soviet coup that quickly shattered Afghanistan, leaving thousands of innocent people dead, wounded, and jailed.  Ten days before the coup, on April 17, 1978, people were shocked to hear about the assassination of a senior official of the communist party, Mir Akbar Khyber.  He was a leader of the Parcham group of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

Khyber’s burial that was two days after his death, wasn’t a regular burial. His assassination was followed by a surge of protests around the city of Kabul. Ten to fifteen thousand PDPA sympathizers poured into the streets and continued protesting for days.

Mom was worried about me asking me, repeatedly, “Don’t join the protests.”  My uncle, Khan Kaka, an older man with strong opinions warned me:

“if I ever find you at the protests, I will drag you home,” leaving me thinking, how would he find me protesting if he doesn’t protest himself?

The riot and the protests against the government escalated as the police force confronted the demonstrators.  Many of the demonstrators were beaten and hurt. Police were yelling at people and repeating, “Anyone who resists the police, will be arrested and punished.”

Mom was worried a lot, often time when she was watching the protests on TV, she was turning to me asking, making sure I wasn’t joining the protestors, “you don’t go on the streets, right?”

I assured Mom, “I don’t,” and wondered how come nobody asks Mezhgan the same question?

Neither Mom, nor Uncle Khan would bother to ask my older sister, Mezhgan, to stay away from the protestors. I knew Mezhgan was protesting religiously. Every night she came home with injured toes because of walking too much. Her big toes were so swollen they could hardly fit into her regular shoes and yet, she would continue to march on the street day after day. Mezhgan was telling me about the protests and how she was marching up and down the streets and chanting together with her friends, supporting the communist government.

Mom’s anxiety and worries grew bigger every day as she was hearing more disturbing news about the events. Lately, every time I saw her, I found her more anxious and fearful for our lives. One evening, as she was talking with Uncle Khan who had come to check on us, she expressed her fear, saying:

“it’s not getting any better,” referring to several Communist leaders, including Babrak Karmal and Noor Mohammad Taraki, who had been arrested following an antigovernment demonstration.

Mom was right, the arrest of these leaders of the PDPA brought a thick air in the skies of Kabul. We knew it will not go away quietly. We all had speculations of what will happen next.

“Nothing good,” my friends were telling me, “Nothing good to expect, there will be bloodshed everywhere.”

Soon, all these demonstrations and protests lead to the assassination of Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan, who was the President of Afghanistan since 1973. That night people could hear shootings and explosions all over the city.  Nobody had a clue about what was happening.  We all witnessed many parts of Kabul was burning throughout the night.

It was the afternoon of April 27, 1978, when the Kabul Radio went off the air as well. It was like a shockwave that electrified everyone. It had never happened before; Kabul Radio was always running.

Hours later when the radio came back, we all rushed to the radio. They played the national anthem over and over without any announcements.  Finally, the national anthem stopped, and we heard a man’s voice:

“the enemy of the people, Daoud, has been overthrown.

“WHAT?” Mom looked at us and repeated, “WHAT happened?” surprised and shocked.  Nobody said a word, but we all looked back at Mom with wide-open eyes.  Words had been frozen in our mouths.

Is Daoud Khan really gone?  Does it mean that King Zahir Shah and his family’s kingdom had ended for good? Nobody thought they’ll ever be gone.

There were all kinds of rumors about how it happened, and whether Daoud Khan was still alive but soon, we all learned that there was a brutal strike on the presidential palace. Daoud Khan refused to surrender so the fighting between the presidential guard and the PDPA supporters lasted throughout the night. It ended in killing Daoud Khan along with almost his entire family members, many women and children included.

It was a pro-communist coup.

The announcement was a confirmation of an end to the King Zahir Shah and his family’s kingdom. The military revolutionary council had the power. The dynasty of King Nadir Khan was over in such a tragic way.

The day after the coup, the radio headquarters kept announcing that everything is under control, peace and security has been established and the country is back to normal.

In reality, nothing looked normal anymore.

Phone lines were still dead, cars were being searched every few blocks and the drivers were stopped and harassed for no reasons. We found walking and bicycling to be the only transportation options to get around the city without being harassed.

Mom was worried about all her kids especially about Roya, my older sister, and her husband, Saleem, who worked at the army base. As they were living a few miles away from us, Mom asked my brother, Jaan, to walk over to their house and make sure they’re fine.

Jaan left immediately but two hours later, he came back, looking pale and scared. Jaan was never scared of anything, it must be something awful that had terrified him. I was standing behind Mom, Shala and Nasir were watching from a distance. We all stared at Jaan who had a hard time talking. He opened his eyes wider, his lips trembling slightly. I was holding my breath and praying until he finally whispered, more like he was talking to himself,

“Saleem didn’t come home last night….. nobody knows where he is.”

Mom couldn’t make sense of what Jaan said, “What do you mean he didn’t come home?”

Jaan tried to explain, telling Mom that Roya waited all night for Saleem, when he didn’t come home. The next day, early morning, she drove to his office to see what was going on but she was repeatedly stopped and questioned by the police. In the end, they didn’t allow her to even get close to the Army base to Saleem’s workplace.

“He hasn’t been back since he left yesterday?” Mom wanted to make sure what she heard wasn’t a bad dream.

Jaan played with his mustache nervously and nodded, “yes,” as if it was his fault, and continued,

“I’ll try to go to the Army Base again, with Roya, and maybe we will find where he is.”  He looked for a reaction from Mom, but she was too upset to say anything.

Saleem had vanished overnight.  Word spread in the family fast. Everyone in their part, tried to ask around and seek for help but there was no news about Saleem’s whereabouts. All we knew was that he went to work as usual in the morning of the coup and never came back. He was gone, leaving behind Roya and their three kids.

This resulted to bring a deep sadness in the family on top of all other miseries. There was a thick layer of grief covering our faces.

Every night after the curfew hours begun, people were feeling vulnerable and helpless, praying that no one would break into their houses to take someone away. The sounds of gunfire and bombing had always intensified as the night grew darker and lessened as the daylight broke.

Countless nights, as I laid in bed, all I saw out of the window was the orange and red flashes of the explosions that ripped through the sky in different parts of town. Before the coup, laying in bed, I always looked for the stars, especially for the ‘seven sisters,’ the Pleiades star cluster, watching them sink deeper into the sky as the night grew darker. Being one of the seven sisters myself, I named all seven stars. Watching them had always brought me joy.

Two days later, on Saturday, April 29, 1978, the government announced that everyone should report to schools and go back to work as usual. Some of the roads were still closed and people were still being stopped and searched. The encounters between the civilians and the army personnel continued in full force and showed no signs of normality.

The streets of Kabul looked much less crowded than before. A dark shadow of terror and anxiety had covered people’s faces.

As we were cautiously walking around, it was hard not to notice that some parts of the streets were still covered with blood and some walls were painted with blood spatters, making horizontal lines dripping down. There were countless bullet holes visible on the walls.  Everything was a sign of the horrific truth of whatever had happened here the night before.

We pretended like we saw nothing and kept going.

April 30, 1978, Nur Mohammad Taraki

Protests and demonstrations had erupted in violence and continued around the country until the members of PDPA established a new government in Afghanistan on April 30, 1978.  Noor Mohammad Taraki, the head of the Afghan Communist Party, was introduced as the new President.

In the skies of Kabul, we could see huge planes flying, dropping bombs somewhere close to Roya’s house. Every time we heard something, Mom and my siblings Shala, Sophia, Nasir and I ran upstairs to get a better view, watching a funnel of fire and smoke rising high above in the air.  Later, we were told they bombed Rishkhor Army in Darul Aman among many other places.

The sounds of the gunfire and bombs were increasing, getting louder, echoing throughout the city.  Mom was worried about everyone especially because the phones were down and she couldn’t call anyone. Driving wasn’t safe, either, since most streets were closed and the cars were stopped and being searched everywhere.

The torture, killing, and arresting innocent people didn’t stop after Taraki took over. Members of the PDPA group and those who were educated in Russia, had taken charge and authority over everything in the country.  They were walking up and down the streets of Kabul like the whole world belonged to them. Almost each one of them were proudly holding a gun.  They were searching the cars and people, ordering them at gun point to get out of the car, handcuffing some men and taking them away.

It was the most oppressive political environment in Afghanistan that we had ever seen.  The streets were heavily patrolled by the military personnel.  Hundreds of innocent people were taken from their workplaces and homes every night.  They were called the ‘enemies.’  Enemies were those who did not belong to one of the two groups of “Khalq,” or “Parcham.” Enemies were those who had been graduated from an American college and those who didn’t care for the Afghan-communist government. Most educated people, doctors, lawyers, teachers, college students and employees resisted joining the new government and became a target of harassment and discrimination. If they were not a part of the PDPA group, they were the enemies.

The communist government observed the enemies closely.  They were spied on, questioned, jailed, and tortured for no other reasons than opposing the government. The majority of those who were arrested, never came back home. Rumors were, every night, hundreds of men were executed and buried in mass graves and rolled over by bulldozers, leveling off the ground. Some were saying, people were buried alive while they were still screaming for help.

At work, we were being questioned by the members of the PDPA why we haven’t joined the party.  We were being threatened and warned not to say anything bad against the government.

Life wasn’t getting any easier for Roya, she feared for her life and for the safety of the children. Every morning as she left for work, she wasn’t sure whether she’d be arrested or she’ll be able to come back home.

In September 14, 1979, the political situation in Afghanistan changed again. Taraki was removed by the Prime Minister, Hafizulla Amin, from the power. Amin was a ruthless Khalq leader who brought terror, purges, and arrests of hundreds of people throughout the country. He was described as a radical Marxist and was responsible for the harshest punishments in this new government. He ordered mass killings and executions of thousands of innocent people. Fortunately, Amin had a short-lived presidency of just about three months but in this short period, he had made thousands of innocent people disappear without a trace.

Because of his brutal method of eliminating his enemies and because of his ties with the United States as he had graduated from a US college, he was not trusted by Moscow. Even though he was their ally, they considered him as someone who could not be dependable. There were also rumors that Amin was planning to build relations with Washington DC.

On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union leadership had already established ties with Babrak Karmal and assumed it is time for their evil plan invading Afghanistan with the help of the Afghan communists.

The soviets carried a massive military airlift into Kabul throughout the night.  Nobody slept that night. We were all listening to the non-stop military aircrafts roaring in the skies of Kabul. It was another long, frightening night.

During the next few days, as we woke up every morning, we witnessed more and more of the tank units set up positions around the city.

On December 27, 1979, the shocking news of Amin’s assassination spread around the country.

At the Tajbeg presidential palace, Amin was first poisoned by a KGB agent who pretended to be a cook. The Russian doctors immediately took charge and saved Amin’s life, not knowing that the KGB wanted Amin dead and it was one of their agents who had poisoned him. As Amin was still in the hospital room, resting and recovering, the KGB Special Forces rushed into his room and shot him dead.

The news of Amin’s assassination was soon followed by Babrak Karmal’s installation as the new leader of Afghanistan.

With almost 100,000 Russian soldiers taking control of major cities in Afghanistan, a new group was formed, the mujahedeen, a group of guerrilla opposing the invading of Soviet forces. They received attention from many countries including Pakistan, Iran, China and the United States.

The killing and torturing of innocent people continued under Karmal’s leadership.

Russians treated the rebels with extremely harsh punishments to put an end to their resistance. They were bombing an entire village to destroy the rebels’ save havens.

As time passed, most of our family members became a target of harassment by the new government and were hounded every day. Soon, it wasn’t only the government, but the Mujahedeen also started assaulting our family members.

One evening as I came home, I found Mom terrified.  She was sitting in the kitchen with the lights off. The reflection of the street lights on her face was brightening her profile, showing a horrendous fear and pain on her face. As soon as she heard me, she turned around with vivid glow kindling her beautiful face. She asked me softly, “you are late, I was worried.”

As I was putting down the grocery bags, I said,

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

She got up, opened the bag of cilantro and green pepper but didn’t say anything. Something horrible had happened. I knew it by the look on Mom’s face that something was bothering her.  I asked her again,

“what’s wrong, Mom?”

She shook her head and said, “nothing,” as she was leaving the kitchen door. I walked after her, worried to death, ‘Mom, what’s wrong?”

Finally, she took a deep breath and said,

“The mujahedeen have kidnaped Sahel,” and waved her hands with despair, saying it louder,

“they have taken Sahel.”

I couldn’t even talk; my mouth had suddenly dried out with fear. What is going on? What is happening to us?

Mom continued talking, as Nasir and Shala who had heard us, rushed towards the kitchen but stopped in the hallway, without saying a word.

“They lured him out of the house, showing him some ducks that looked like the ones they had in their backyard and dragged him in a car and left,” Mom said.

“Oh, Mom, this is horrible, he’s only a little boy,” I panicked.

“Who? What are you guys talking about?” Nasir asked but nobody answered him.

Mom continued,

“a neighbor told Laila that he saw this from behind his store windows, by the time he ran out of the store, they were gone.’

We were all listening to Mom, frightened and worried, Sahel is a little kid, why are they terrorizing our family?

Sahel was six years old and one of my sister, Laila’s four sons. They lived in Herat, as Laila practiced medicine. She loved her job and enjoyed helping people. Her patients were not only from the city of Herat but from all surrounding cities as far as Kandahar, over 500 miles away.  After the coup d’état, she was harassed by the government regularly.  They were asking her to join the PDPA group and stop helping the mujahedeen. Laila refused,

“No, these people need me here,” knowing that she was putting herself in danger by refusing to become part of the communist government.

As he was fussing with a pile of papers on his desk, he was trying to avoid looking at them.

Laila ignored his attitude.  She pleaded for help, showing him the ransom letter that they had received.  He listened for a minute as he was looking at a piece of paper and then he raised his head, telling her, “It’s a son, let him go, people lose an entire family, this is how it is now, we have no time to look for somebody’s son.”

Laila and Wali left the office, devastated, and overwhelmed with disappointment.  Their son was kidnapped but instead of getting help, they were reminded with a harshness and cruelty that they will have no protection and safety if they’re not a part of the communist government.

They had no one to go to. If they go to the higher places, they’ll hear the exact same thing. Join PDPA or don’t ask for help.

Laila started searching for Sahel, herself, wearing a burka and going town to town, neighborhood to neighborhood, questioning if anyone had seen her son. One day, as she was showing Sahel’s picture to someone, a woman in burka, rushed to her, grabbing her arm, “I have something to tell you,” and kept walking.

It took Laila a few seconds to realize that the woman was talking to her. She followed her, immediately.  The anonymous woman was walking ahead of Laila giving her some names and addresses for the people who had kidnapped Sahel. As they reached the end of the block, the woman said, “You didn’t hear it from me,” and walked away.

Laila thankful, finally, she had enough information to find the people who had kidnapped Sahel. She decided to go there by herself. She drove about half an hour and reached the address. It was a huge place surrounded by tall muddy walls. The entry door was giant, made of a combination of wood and metal with extra protections. In the center of the giant door, there was a smaller wooden door with huge locks and chains hanging but the door was half open. Laila entered without knocking or hesitations, burka on, she marched around and screamed, “Where is my son?”

A few men who were sitting on a pile of dirt, smoking and talking loudly, stood up immediately.  They were caught off-guard.  Laila yelled again, “Where is my son?”

The men still standing where they were, ordered her to leave. Laila didn’t want to leave, she wasn’t afraid of them, she wasn’t intimidated by their authority. She walked close to them, close enough to look them directly in the eyes, while uncovering her face, she yelled again, “I’m not leaving. I want my son.”

One of the men told the others, ‘it’s okay,’ and pointed to a far corner of the yard,

“there’s your son, your son is having fun,” and he laughed viciously.

She looked the way he had pointed to find an older man and a few kids holding guns. She found Sohel among them. He looked happy, but Laila was terrified to see that he, too, was holding a gun.

She pleaded, “What is going on? What are you doing with him?”

The guy told her, “Relax, that’s how we train a boy to become a man.”

Laila was shocked to find Sahel willingly holding a gun. “He was six years old, what kind of animals are those people?” she asked Wali.

Wali comforted her, “We are relieved to hear that he was okay, we will get him, soon.”

“I tried to take him with me or at least to talk to him but they didn’t allow me,” Laila said.  She was angry, “we have to pay the full, huge sum of money that they’re asking for before they release him.”

 August 25, 1980: secret planning

With Saleem still missing. Sahel being kidnapped. Nasir and my younger nephews being enlisted in military. Children being brainwashed and bringing home communist propagandas from school. Most of our family members being considered as antirevolutionary agents and we were all labeled as the enemies of the new government. We reached to the conclusion that there was no tomorrows for us in this country. We had no guarantees for our safety and security.

The excruciating fear that had shadowed our lives for almost two years was being replaced by a new anxiety. There was a new notion running through everyone’s mind in our family. Words were not spoken out loud but the waves going through our brains, were connecting us all together, taking us to a new direction. We had to leave.

One day we all gathered at my older sister’s house, Farida. I thought it was a usual gathering, but I noticed something very unusual. At the dining room, my siblings, some of their spouses, and Mom were all sitting around the dining table, the way that people play cards, except that they were not playing. They all had pens and papers in front of them. Their elbows on the table, their heads pulled towards each other as far as they could. They were looking tensely into each other’s faces but every time I entered the room, they stopped talking, pulling their elbows away from the table, pretending like it’s a normal conversation. They did the same thing when Nasir walked in to say hello to everyone. I was sitting in the sunroom right outside the dining room, reading a magazine. Nasir came out, a little annoyed, “what’s wrong with them,” pointed to them. I also noticed that they stopped talking and changed topics when MadariHamida, their cook, walked in and out with tea pots.

Shala was playing with my little niece and nephew in the front yard.  MadariHamida, saw me sitting there, looking puzzled. I asked her, “MadariHamida, is something wrong there?” pointed to the dining room.

MadariHamida was a middle-aged woman, who never went to school but she was a smart woman. She was living with her teen-age daughter, Hamida, on the other side of Farida’s house. Mother and daughter were both hired to do the cooking and cleaning and babysitting the three kids. We never knew what MadariHamida’s real name was. Everybody called her MadariHamida which meant, “Hamida’s mother.”

She laughed at my question, saying,

“wataan gandah shouda,” the country has rotten, “Nothing wrong in that room,” and walked away.

It turned out that that was the very first secret meeting my family had, planning to leave the country. It was a matter of life and death if the communist government had found out that we were planning to escape. Therefore, except for them who were involved in making the big escape’s plan, no one else was to hear a word.

Farida had given a heads-up to MadareHamida, to make sure that she has a plan for her future after we leave the country.

Before the coup, as Farida and her husband, Duran, both worked at the radio and television station, they enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle. They had many influential and prominent friends including the most popular Afghan musician, singer Nashinas. I spent a lot of time at Farida’s house and enjoyed the end of the week parties that always started with a fabulous dinner and ended with Nashinas’ majestic voice.

Everything changed since almost two years ago. The parties had stopped. Farida and Duran were forced to spread the Russian propagandas and praise the Afghan-communists regime. They were both doing their job, but the local people didn’t see it that way, threatening their lives for supporting the communists’ ideology.

Today, we had a different kind of a gathering, a family meeting that included certain family members who were seriously talking about something I didn’t know.

It was Mom who had put us all together and suggested to have a joint meeting at Farida’s house.

Jaan being a police officer, didn’t have much of a safety himself. Before the coup, he had arrested and punished dozens of people for the crimes they committed. With the new regimen, most of those people got elected in higher positions, holding a grudge against Jaan, trying to harass him whenever they could.

Secret meetings among my older siblings, their spouses and Mom continued at Mom’s house. Sophia and her husband, Daryus, were joining the group occasionally. They were newlyweds and lived a few miles from us. She looked so young, with those big, brown eyes, she almost looked like a little girl. Sophia was a straight shooter; her honesty was to the point that most often it was becoming intimidating especially to those who didn’t know her well. Daryus on the other hand, was easygoing, calm, and laid-back with bushy eyebrows and hazel eyes.

Meetings happened mostly during the late hours of the evening. Private talks, serious faces.  Mom was the center of all gatherings and an active participant in decision making. I wasn’t included in these meetings along with my younger siblings, Shala and Nasir. All we knew was to be prepared for the escape and we were warned repeatedly not to tell anyone about it.  We were reminded of how important it is for all of us not to trust anybody. The communist government had banned giving passports to almost all Afghans.  It was clear to us that escaping the country could have harsh consequences.  If anyone gets caught escaping the country, that person’s life with his or her entire family would be in jeopardy and most likely they will be jailed or executed without a question.

Most of my siblings and their spouses were visiting Mom more often than usual. I heard them often talking in groups, thinking of making plans to leave the country!

Roya wasn’t included in the gatherings.  She was still searching for Saleem.  In addition, her daughter, Sahar, had developed a neurological disorder that the doctors didn’t know what was causing the illness.

My older brother, Khalil, and his family also didn’t join the meetings. They had separate plans to leave in a later date.

I heard that some of our relatives had left the country already. Uncle Khan was still in town. We loved him. Every time he came to see us, we were happy to sit around him and listen to his stories. He was tall and skinny. When he walked, he held one shoulder slightly lower than the other and bent his shoulders a little towards the front. One day, it was a nice afternoon in late August when he arrived to see us. Uncle Khan talked about the uncertainties and the fear of everyday living in the country saying that a lot of people left including some of those that we knew. We listened and agreed with him about the fear of living in Afghanistan.

An hour later, mom asked him a question that shook him deeply,

“If we leave, you are going to be all by yourself, if we leave, would you leave with us?”

Mom asked him with deep concerns and sympathy. We were all that he got. Uncle had no children and never remarried after his first marriage ended.

Uncle Khan got up from his seat and walked back and forth a few times. We were sitting outside on the balcony. He had both hands on his hips, his long jacket hanging over his shoulders. His reflection on the big living room windows merged with the orange-reddish color of the sunset and seemed like a giant bird flying in a slow motion.

Shala and Nasir were standing behind the window, watching us. Uncle Khan seemed fidgety. He was extremely sad, his eyebrows twitching. A few minutes later, when he returned to his seat, he managed to stay calm, saying, “you are not going anywhere, if you do, that would be the end of my life.”

A cloud of sadness and sorrow loomed over mom’s face. Her eyes filled with tears but she didn’t give up, “But if we do, will you go with us?” she insisted.

My beautiful, kind, tenderhearted, sweet mother. She wanted to make sure that everyone was safe and in a good place before she left.

Clearly, Uncle Khan didn’t want to answer Mom, so he ignored the question and yelled at Shala,

“Come on over, I want to see you, come out here.”

Nothing was confirmed about our escape but I could see it visibly that the day will arrive soon for us to leave.

The secret family meetings became a normal thing. I knew that we were forced to flee our own country but the country that we loved so much, wasn’t safe for us anymore. It no longer seemed to be our country. There were communist soldiers all over the city, mostly young Russian men, barely 20 years old.  You’ll see them everywhere. The propagandas and praises for the communists on TV, radio, schools, workplaces and everywhere else could be heard day and night.

Before the coup, we had a comfortable life. It was peaceful and predictable. Years ago, when Dad was alive, our family included my Mom, Dad, and my siblings, six sisters and three brothers. We also had a family of three people staying at our property who were working for us.  They were living in the opposite side of the courtyard, away from the main building. The husband, I still don’t know his name, was called “Mullah,” perhaps, because of his long beard or the turban that he was wearing. He was working somewhere else but had a part-time job with us as a gardener. His wife, Golshah, a small woman with a hunched back and a distinctive voice.  She was always happy and nice to us, kids, and was hired to help Mom with cooking, laundering and other household chores. Their daughter, Ghulsoom, a beautiful teen age girl, with green eyes and almost blond hair.  She was tall and skinny and was hired for cleaning the house and doing some grocery shopping.

Dad was an English professor most of his life. He loved to teach and enjoyed his work greatly. There were some people who wanted Dad to get a different job that pays more, but Dad didn’t care about the money, telling them that teaching is a worthwhile profession, reminding them that teachers shape the lives of the next generation.

Often, he advised people “if you want to succeed in life, you need to learn another language, a language that opens up your eyes and shows you the world.” Dad had chosen English.

He encouraged everyone to go to school and get as much education as possible. I remember Dad telling my older sisters, “you can get married to anyone you want but in one condition, you have to get at least a bachelor’s degree before you do so.”

At least a bachelor’s degree! In Afghanistan, getting a high school degree was hardly possible for most people but for us, all my siblings, including myself, it was a requirement and so we all earned a bachelor’s degree, some of us even higher.

Unfortunately, Dad passed away from a sudden heart attack at a young age of 53, leaving behind two married daughters who were living a few miles away from us and eight other kids from 18 years of age to a one-year-old.  Mom had suddenly faced raising 8 kids all by herself. She had enormous difficulties, economically and emotionally but still, she never complained.

After Dad passed away, it was Mom who helped us to fulfill Dad’s dream of all of us earning a college degree.

Mom helped us become what we are today, she never gave up on us and she never asked any of us to get a job after graduating from high school to support the family. Even though college was free, but most people took jobs after high school graduation and never went back to get a college degree. Mom didn’t want us to do that, instead, she encouraged us to go to college. She put herself through excruciating difficulties to make ends meet.

I never really understood how my mother raised us. It seemed like we had everything. We never had anything less than other people, we never looked any different than those who were rich and wealthy. We had inner strength, integrity, and courage that we all got it from Mom. I always looked at Mom and saw in her such an incredible example of how a mother and a woman could be.

When I look at my sisters, I see Mom’s strength and resilience in each one of them.

Mom was born in a wealthy family, telling us the story of how she had to marry Dad at a young age of 13. Her mother had died over childbirth. Mom was left to be raised by her dad but soon her dad got re-married, making Grandma angry.  He left with his new wife and lost contact with grandma. She raised Mom. When Mom was 12 years old, her grandma became very ill. Being an extremely wealthy woman and having no other relatives, she was afraid of leaving her wealth to a young girl who had nobody to depend on. The only thing that she thought of, was to find Mom a nice man to marry her, and so, she found my Dad. A handsome, kind, caring man who had just graduated from college. Mom says that when they got married, for many months, Dad was bringing her gifts and sweets, trying to make her feel comfortable and at ease with her new life. Even though we admired Dad for what he did for Mom, we always felt sad to hear our own mother was a child-bride.

Roya wasn’t doing any better, she felt physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

I felt terrible for not being able to help her. She was always there for me, throughout my life, making me feel like I was one of her own kids.

When I was seven years old, she took me to school every day before going to the University where she studied. I’d sit on the back of her bike enjoying the ride.  I was told to hold tight not to slip down. Her bike didn’t have a seat or anything, it looked more like an aluminum rack to me. One day, after she picked me up from school to take me home, half-way through, she hit a bump and I fill off the bike like a bag of potatoes. I didn’t run after her, I didn’t call her, I didn’t do anything but to sit there, in the exact same place as I fell, and cry.

She went home, got off the bike, and looked in the back.  I wasn’t there.  Imagine her panic. She looked around and ran to the street and looked as far as she could but found no traces of me. Too afraid to go home and face mom, she rode the bike back following the direction that she had come. I can’t imagine how frightened it was for her, not knowing what had happened to me. Last thing she remembered was that she picked me up from school and saw me sitting on the bike before she rode home.

She drove straight back the route and she found me sitting next to the same bump that she had hit. I was still sitting there and crying.

She was relieved to have found me but started yelling at me, ‘why didn’t you call after me, why didn’t you say something?’

That wasn’t the only time I had scared her. She went through so much more pain for me again. When I was nine years old, I walked to school with a friend every morning. One beautiful spring day, I remember it clearly that my friend, Halima, and I were walking over the bridge. She said, ”

“Oh, look, the water is so muddy, and it’s so close to the bridge.”

I looked down to see the water but I felt dizzy and disoriented and fell in the water. That’s all I remember. I had fallen off the bridge into a flooded river.  The flood took me away.

Again, it was Roya who had heard the news first-handed from Halima,

“Nash fell in the water, she’s gone…”

Roya was still going to college, but she was teaching a class in my school as well. Halima had walked straight to my sister’s class and told her that the flood had taken me away.

Roya almost fainted hearing the bad news.  She called her fiancé, Saleem, who had two brothers living close to the river that I had fallen in. The search begun in minutes.

The local people had started searching for me already. I’m not sure how far did the water take me but a guy who had been beaten by two of my brothers over some teenage quarrel the day before, had risked his own life to save me. He said that he was on the bank of the river and saw a bag floating on the water. He jumped in the water and grabbed the bag and was shocked to see me holding onto the bag while unconscious.

He pulled me out of the river and started yelling for help.  People gathered around him and somehow they saved me. Rumors circulated around town, saying that they found a girl in the water who had her bookbag in one hand and a quarter, her allowance, in the other. Long after the incident, people were coming to our house to see me……

September 1980 

Roya was in the process of getting their passports to take Sahar to India. Doctors had confirmed that Sahar’s treatment was impossible in Afghanistan.

Sophia, my younger sister was working at the American embassy was also considered an antirevolutionary element.  She was told to spy on people who visited the embassy. Sophia wasn’t surprised hearing those words but the blatant, shameful way of ordering her, was something that she didn’t take it easily. Words blurted out of her mouth,

“You cannot bring me down to that level, no, I will not be the one to help you spying innocent people.”

“If you expect to work here, you’re going to learn how to be helpful for the progress for Afghanistan, for the people,” she was barked at, harshly.

Sophia didn’t hold back,

“You mean the communists,” and knotted her eyebrows, spitting words onto his face, “I’m not betraying my country to your communist bosses.”

Sophia felt good, relieved and pleased with herself but she was concerned for her safety as well as her job.

Soon, she lost her job but not her pride. She knew well not to let anyone make her do something she didn’t like. Thanks to my parents who taught us how to stand up for ourselves.

Mizhghan’s story was different. Not everyone was lucky enough to get qualified for a passport but Mizhghan was.  She had obtained a passport from the ministry for higher education and had left for India where she had received her master’s degree a year ago. At least there was one good news after all, perhaps, it was the injured toes that brought her luck.

My 18-year-old brother, Nasir, a freshman at the engineering college was enlisted for military. A massive military recruitment operation collected any age boys who looked 18 or older, my nephews who were tall and looked older than 12 and 13, were among them to be taken away.

Nobody felt safe. We had to leave the country.

The government constantly tried to brainwash young people and condition their thoughts. They also tried to influence the educated people’s thoughts with their propagandas and aimed to spread the communism throughout the country.

People like our family who resisted the influence of communism, faced intimidations and daily pressures.  We were constantly asked to join the PDPA, if we don’t, we will face harsh punishments as consequences.

The mood in the family had completely changed. There was an anxiety, uncertainty, and fear in the air. Nobody was sure of what will happen the next day. Most of my older siblings were whispering to each other. I didn’t have to offer them any teas or drinks anymore. They had no time to drink or eat, no greetings anymore, no jokes, and no laughter. It seemed like everyone was walking faster, coming, and going all the time, meetings in the evenings, whispering words into each other’s’ ears, nodding, questioning, and leaving before the nightly curfew starts.

It was the first time that I realized our escape is getting real when Mom decided to sell the house.  We had a house that Mom was present at the construction site almost every day to make sure that everything was done as best as she wanted to.  She had paid the builder extra money, asking for this house to be built strong enough to last for many decades to come. Alas, we didn’t even make the first decade. It had to be sold. The house was her castle. She put her heart and soul into building it but now she had to sell it. Mom seemed heartbroken.

Selling a house was another issue if you were escaping the country. As soon as someone put the house on sale, the government officials would keep them under observation, assuming that they are planning to escape the country. Mom was cautious, she thought she should sell the house to someone that she knew, a family friend, and perhaps with the half of the actual value of the house. That’d be the only way to be safe and avoid the government’s attention from advertising.

How did we find Akbar? And who was this mysterious man?

Akbar appeared in our lives in the middle of the night during a mandatory curfew. He showed up at Laila’s door in Herat, where she was practicing medicine.  

Herat is a province located in western part of Afghanistan, sharing a border with Iran. She loved her work. Her priority was to make sure that all her patients get the care that they needed, even those who couldn’t afford to pay her for the treatment. Soon, her reputation spread throughout Herat and the surrounding cities. As the only female gynecologist in town, she had patients visiting her from hundreds of miles away. They called her by the first name and admired her, “when Doctor Laila touches a patient, the patient heals.”

They made influential friends including the general council of Iran. When she was not working, they were attending parties with popular afghan singers playing live music.

After the bloody coup, everything changed. The government tried to make Laila work with them and asked her to join the PDPA group.  Laila turned their offer down and instantly became the target of harassment by the authorities. People who didn’t cooperate with the communist government were taken in the middle of the night at gunpoint. They return home only if they were lucky but for most people, once they leave home, it would be the last that time their families had seen of them.

It was a little past midnight. Everyone in Laila’s family were sleeping. Suddenly, they all woke up with loud banging on the front door. The knocking was loud and non-stop. The live-in cook, Rahim, a young man with dark curly hair, jumped out of bed, rushed to Laila and Wali, her husband, to ask what was happening. He found Laila, Wali, and all little kids standing in the middle of the hallway, staring at each other with blank faces. Nobody knew who could be behind the door.

As the banging continued, their fear and anxiety escalated. The kids were crying, the adults were terrified.

“Should we open the door?” Rahim asked with a shaky voice.

Laila assumed it’s the government who has sent for her arrest.

She took a deep breath and told Rahim, “open it,” and turned to Wali asking him to take the kids away. All four little boys were shaking and crying.

“If they take me away, don’t worry, I’ll be back, don’t worry,” said Laila and held them tight for a few minutes before they were sent to the other room. Laila wondered if she’d ever be able to see her kids again.

As the knocking on the door got louder and louder, it echoed throughout the house like a passing train. Laila looked at Rahim and pointed to the door, “Rahim, open the door,” almost like a whisper.

Rahim was reciting all the prayers that he could, closed his eyes and put his hand on the doorknob and opened it slowly, picturing a group of armed forces. He prayed that they’ll not take anyone away……. .

What they saw behind the door was anything but the government officials.  A tearful man, holding an unconscious woman in his arms, begging Laila, “please, please help my wife.  She’s dying, please save her, she’s dying…”

They were relieved to see a patient instead of facing men with guns pointing at them but wondered how was he allowed to drive here while the city was under a heavy curfew?

That night, Laila spent countless hours, in her home clinic to save the woman and the baby.  It was a complicated childbirth, but she got lucky since the woman didn’t need a surgery and there wasn’t a severe blood loss to require a blood transfusion.

Hours later, as Laila was leaning on the wall, she knew that the mother and the baby were going to make it.

As she walked out of the room.  Wali and Rahim were sitting outside with the patient’s husband. They were all praying. Laila happy to have saved someone’s life, gave them the good news and smiled, “everything is okay now.”

Her patient’s husband jumped out of the chair and screamed with joy, “Thank you, thank you,’ and with tearful eyes, bowing repeatedly, saying, “You saved my family,” and rushed into the room to see them. Minutes later, while Laila was still talking to Wali, the man came out of the room, all smiles and gratitude, telling Laila, “you saved my family, ask for one thing, anything, tell me what can I do for you? I’ll do it.”

Laila knew if the guy was able to drive while there is a mandatory curfew for everyone, he must have the power she needs to get her out of the country. Wiping the sweats off of her forehead, exhausted and tired, she told him, “Save my family, I saved yours, you save mine.”

I saved your family, you save mine!

The mysterious man who had showed up behind Laila’s door in the middle of the night, had given Laila only his first name, Akbar. It seemed like he had some ties with the government and also he was a leader of a secret underground freedom fighters’ group.  Laila wasn’t sure if he’d ever come back again and if he does, would it be safe to trust him? A few days passed, no signs of Akbar but one day, he surprised Laila when he showed up at her doorsteps, asking if they could discuss the details for the plan.

Laila was on the phone with Mom who was worried about my youngest brother, Nasir, 18 years old, an engineering college student, who was asked again to join the army. Laila was saying, “It will be horrifying if they take him away, we need to do something.”

I was visiting Laila for a week, as she was listening to Mom, I saw a man entering the guestroom, directed by Khalil. She said in a hurry, “Maddar jaan (dear Mom), I know, we need to get out, we will, don’t worry,” and said goodbyes before dashing to the guestroom, greeting the tall man.

It was Akbar, the man who had promised to help us flee the country. He had a large nose with small almond-shaped eyes. His bushy mustache looked like it was chopped off in a hurry, but he had a nicely trimmed beard. He was wearing a traditional outfit with a nice jacket on top.

“You came, thank you,” Laila told him and added, ‘this is our only hope,’

Akbar said, “Yes, Doctor, I came to discuss the details for the plan,” and nodded repeatedly, with a grin on his face.

Laila took a deep breath and told him, ‘as you know, the government has banned travel out of Afghanistan, we have to get out but we can’t get any passports.”

She looked into his eyes, trying to read his mind.  He kept nodding but said no words. Laila continued, “We need to leave, can you help us with this without telling anyone?”

Akbar stopped nodding, “How soon?”

Laila whispered, her eyes pleading, “As soon as we can,” and added, “They kidnapped my son, I paid a fortune to get him back, they may take my other sons, my own life is in jeopardy… please.”

Akbar took a deep breath and slightly smiled, “Yes, I gave you my words, I’ll arrange it for you,” and asked for the list of names for her family.

Laila gave him the list that she had worked on during the countless family meetings. She waited for his reaction, holding her breath.

Rahim came into the room with a tray full of cookies and a pot of steamy, hot green tea.  The unique, warm cardamom aroma filled up the room immediately.

Akbar looked at the list and raised his eyebrows with a surprise, “how many?” Laila said, “twenty-two.”

He looked at her directly and asked softly, “Doctor Laila, I thought the plan was for your family?”

Laila clutched her hands together and took a deep breath before saying, “I know, and this is my family,” smiling vividly, “we must be together,’ she said.

Akbar, dressed in a traditional white outfit, tunban pairan, and was wearing a modern tailored black jacket over it, sat back in his seat and sipped on the green tea. He wasn’t nodding or smiling, instead he held the cup of tea close to his nose and said, “It’s a good tea,” and then nodded a few times in approval of his own comment. Laila said nothing. Waiting for his words, praying inside.

A few more sips of the green tea and a bite of the sugar cookie, he confirmed, “I can take you all out of the country, but I need more time, a group of twenty-two people certainly changes the plan that I had for you.”

“Of course,” Laila said.

She knew that arranging for 6 people to flee the country in oppose to 22 people does take more time and different planning. Deep down she thought Akbar may never come back. This was too much to ask for.  Helping 22 people to escape, safe and unharmed, from a communist government where the Russian militias controlled every single street of the country, seemed impossible. She had a chance to leave with her husband and the kids, but she chose not to and preferred to take a risk and leave together with all of us. It was especially hard for her to leave without Mom and the younger siblings.

Rahim walked in with apologies, saying, “patients are waiting, should I ask them to…”

Akbar didn’t let him finish, he stood up and said, “We are done” but before he leaves, he took his hat off, rubbed his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand and managed to say it more like a whisper, “You saved my family, doctor, I will do anything to save yours, I promise.”

Laila shared the news with Mom and other family members. Even though we were not sure whether Akbar would come back, the decision had been made already, we must leave.

We didn’t rely totally on Akbar, in case he doesn’t come back, we had to find other ways to leave. Wali tried to find other sources to help us escape. A hush hush atmosphere had surrounded everything that we did. We were told strictly not to say a word to anyone.

“Make sure nobody leaks a word to anyone, say nothing about our plan, we need to keep it to ourselves, Okay?” Mom asked us.

In a week or so, Akbar came back, wearing a designer jacket over his tunban pairan (the traditional outfit). This time he visited us in Kabul at Mom’s house. It was a late evening, the dog started barking as Hussain was leading Akbar to the guestroom. Akbar met with Mom, my married siblings and their spouses.

Hussain carried a tray full of tea cups, a plate of cookies and a box of chocolate. He got in and out a few times but everyone else stayed put and carried on with their meeting. Several hours later Akbar left. It was dark, the mandatory curfew time had already started but Akbar wasn’t worried about violating the curfew. It was obvious that the curfew didn’t apply to him for whatever position that he was holding.  He seemed comfortable and fearless.

“It’s impossible to guarantee your safety,” Akbar said while shaking Laila’s hand, and added, “but I promise to do my best, doctor, I promise.”

As he was about to leave, Mom blurted out, “Curfew.”

Akbar turned around, bowed slightly, placed his right hand on his chest to show his gratitude and left the house quickly.

No one else left. No one could. The curfew hours were mandatory. If you go out, you will get shot at or arrested.

We all gathered in the family room. I was hearing words like, plane tickets to Kandahar City, semi-truck, pickup trucks and Spin Buldak, Pakistan and …. but the worst words that hit me like a hammer on the head, were, “We have 50-50 chance of crossing the border alive…  with the kids, mom…. ” Wali said this to Laila, his eyes bulging out with panic.

Suddenly, I felt difficulty breathing. I gasped for air and dashed out of the room. I felt nauseous and lightheaded.

My family had just signed a contract that had 50/50 chance of living or getting shot at for all 22 of us.  We had no other options left. This was our only chance.

The next day, it was around 5pm that I got home. Hussain and my sister, Sophia, were helping Mom making dinner. Soon, I saw my siblings showing up one by one. An hour later, my siblings, their husbands and Mom gathered around the dining table, pens and papers in hands. They were going over the plan again, carefully and cautiously, step by step. In the end, they all stressed on making sure nobody says a word to anyone outside the family, trying to hush hush the whole thing.

I knew that our trip was full of danger and it included extreme risks and threats. It was the abundance of the uncertainties and the unknowns that was making me nervous. As soon as we leave town, we will be handed over to people that we didn’t know at all. We only knew of the rough plan but nothing about the details. Akbar had clearly told Laila that “my men will sacrifice their own lives to protect yours, just let them do what they need to do.” Meaning, don’t ask too much about the details, just trust these men and do whatever they ask you to do.

that was our only way to survive, if we were lucky, we will make it. A date was set, October 2, 1980.

The plan to escape, included 22 of us, four of my sisters, two brothers, and their families. Roya and her family wouldn’t leave with us. Her daughter, Sahar, was sick with some neurological disorders and the doctors in Kabul couldn’t do much for her.  Sahar had to be taken to a specialist in India and was trying to get a passport for herself and the children.

My oldest brother, Khalil, and his family also wouldn’t be in the plan to escape with us.  His wife, Sanam, working at the American Embassy, had been promised to fly her along with her two children to Washington, DC.  Khalil assumed leaving after his family flew out.

Meanwhile, the killings and kidnappings increased. Government people were searching houses every night, taking young boys away to military. My brother Nasir and my young nephews Ali and Omar were hiding among the tree branches every night in order to avoid getting caught in case the house was searched.

My bedroom was on the second story of the building and had big windows on both sides, north and west. All night long, I was staying up in bed, listening to the roar of tanks and the military machinery passing by our house, just steps away from my bedroom.  Sometimes, I was peeking outside from the east side window, watching the Soviet armored vehicle rolling on the street below. Just watching all those made me shiver deep down to my bones.

During the daytime, I was watching mom from the north side window, as she was always up early in the morning, doing things, walking in and out of the kitchen door, talking to Hossain, the young man who was working for us, and giving orders to him, what to do.

As soon as Mom decided to sell the house, she started giving our belongings to the neighbors. Often, standing behind the window, I watched the neighbors picking up everything that Mom was giving to them. To avoid attention, it was safer to do it over the wall than to carry them from the doors.

Mom had a light blue scarf hanging around her neck, the wind was playing with her scarf and her beautiful hair, making shapes of soft waves in the ocean. I kept looking at Mom and admired her strength and courage.  She never complained of anything, never felt tired or exhausted, she was like a machine, kept going. How did she raise all of us? All by herself after Dad passed away when we were all little.  From 22 years old to a baby of just a few months old.  Ten kids all together.

Our servant, Hossain, with a wide grin saw me behind the window and waved, “salaam.” He had climbed on the ladder, halfway up, taking items from Mom, passing them on the other side of the wall to the neighbor. Dishes, silverware, Mom’s expensive china, silver teapot, and boxes of unopened, brand new kitchen stuff. Mom loved those things, she always bought the best and the most expensive things, assumed, she’ll use them for many years to come.

October 1, 1980, The day before the escape,

If everything goes well, we will be leaving tomorrow October 2nd. This is what I had heard from several of my siblings today since early morning. I trusted my family and believed that they had carefully planned the escape but deep down, I was terrified,

 Is this really a good idea for us to escape, all 22 of us at once? What if we don’t make it? Would Mom be ok? Would Sophia be able to make it? She was only 21, married and 8 months pregnant.

Our lives looked like a huge jigsaw puzzle. It seemed impossible to put the pieces together. Our journey, our destination, our future, everything was unknown, but we had to wait and see.

I was standing in the middle of the hallway, blocking the kitchen door. Jaan tapped on my shoulder, “Move,” bringing me back to the reality.

Tomorrow is going to be the most important day in our lives! If everything goes as planned, we will start our mysterious journey early morning before dawn. Today, we all had to go to work or school as usual, not to raise any suspicions.

With a heavy heart and a head full of thousands of questions, I got ready to go to work. I touched my bedroom curtains for the last time, the curtains that I had spent months to find the right shade of blue, the right material, and the perfect fit for the windows.

Who would be in this room next week? Who would sleep on my bed from now on? Would she/he ever look at the stars? 

The person who bought the house, asked Mom to leave the curtains and the bed as they were. I decided to leave everything untouched and intact. My clothes, my shoes, my purses, my books, and my hairdryer. My noisy, Russian-made, orange-colored hairdryer that was louder than a lawnmower machine, was placed in a basket on the table. It reminded me of the happy days of sharing the room with my sister, Sophia, a few years ago. Having different schedules, I was getting up an hour early while she was still sleeping. Every time I used my hairdryer, after a minute or two, she’d jump out of her bed like a spring, ordering me, “turn it off,” but I wouldn’t. Mostly because I wouldn’t hear her. Soon, she’d chase me all around the yard, running and screaming, “I’ll break your stupid hairdryer, if you use it one more time, I’ll break it in pieces…” I was running faster to avoid her grips, the hairdryer still in my hand. Mom never got involved but sometimes I could get a glimpse of her standing behind the window, laughing at her adult kids who were acting like children.

Who would use my hairdryer next week?  Thinking of everything that I had to leave behind, along with my memories, upset me in a big way.

I got down from the stairs and saw Mom sitting in the middle of the living room with at least a dozen boxes with different sizes, surrounding her. She was going through each one of the boxes, checking items that she had kept for years. She looked sad, pensive, and down. I wished I could comfort her but knowing Mom, I knew she’d tell me that she’s fine, she’s ok. So I said a quick goodbye to Mom and left.

The company bus was waiting outside. I got up on the bus and took my usual seat next to Shaima. We used to talk and laugh all the way to the company (Central Statistics), but it had been a while since we laughed the last time. I knew she had lost both of her parents in a bombing while they were at a shopping bazaar, and she knew that I had lost my brother-in-law during the ‘HaftE Sour” coup.

A sad song of Ahmad Zahir, a famous Afghan singer, was playing on the bus radio, “Imshab DelE mann Ghussa Daarad,” meaning my heart is grieving tonight…

We all had our own pains and miseries, and we were all mourning inside, quietly, our hearts were bleeding. Shaima out of the blues turned to me and said, “Let’s say something funny and laugh, even if our hearts are grieving.”

I said, “No, I can’t. I have to be happy to say something funny and to laugh.”

She didn’t say anything, held my wrest for a few seconds and nodded, Okay.

We both cried quietly all the way to the company. That was the last time I saw her. Short, curly hair with happy, black eyes; always dressed nicely. She liked purple and had all kinds of purple shirts. I wished I had laughed with her that day, it would have been our last laughter together.

The bus was half empty, so many people were arrested or killed. So many others had lost loved ones and were mourning. And so many more who were PDPA supporters, had left the company.  They were carrying guns now, showing off, being proud to be working with the communist government.

At the office, I looked at my coworkers, thinking this might be the last day that I’m seeing them.  My best friend, Pashtoon, was suspicious of me leaving. It had been a week or so that she was giving me sad smiles, whispering into my ear, “I know you’re leaving us.”

She knew that something was going on but never asked me anything directly. I wouldn’t have told her the truth, anyway, because I knew that she would start crying and will give me in a deep trouble. I stopped telling her a lot of thing, especially after what had happened a few months ago. As most Afghans were depressed with the new government, I, too, felt sad and unhappy. Most of the times I was overwhelmed with the grief and anguish. It was hard for me not to express frustration against the new government. One morning, I felt very ill but still managed to go to work. It was in the middle of the day when I felt nauseous with a burning pain in my stomach. I rushed to the bathroom. Pashtoon followed me. She was extremely worried and kept asking me if I ate something that made me sick. I said, “No, I just took some aspirins.”

Next thing I know, my boss and some of coworkers were hauling me into the company van taking me to the hospital. Everyone was giving me very, very sad looks.  I was too sick to ask what was going on but when the doctor came into the room, he told me that, “you were brought here for a suicide attempt.”

“A what? Suicide? No, I only took 2 aspirins.” I was stunned to hear what Pashtoon had told my boss.

For a long time, I was mad at Pashtoon and didn’t talk to her. I was hurt, but more, I was embarrassed of the thoughts of what people would think of me. She continued apologizing and crying that she made a mistake, but it took me a very long time to get over that.

Pashtoon was beautiful.  She looked like “Kate Jackson,” from Charlie’s Angels’ show.  She had the exact same hair style and smile. An extremely kind and caring friend to all of us at work. Days that she knew one of us hadn’t eaten breakfast, she’d offer her own breakfast. She was an extraordinary woman who loved me unconditionally. That was true that she was wrong with the assumption of ‘suicide,’ but it was only because she cared too much about me.

Among my coworkers, there was one guy by the name of Jamaal who loved me and had proved his loyalty to me. When I introduced him to Roya, she liked him a lot and told me that he will be a good choice for me if I decide to marry him.

That day, when I had a private moment with him, I told him that he’ll not see me again. I couldn’t tell him anything about our family plan in fear of the government having had our offices bugged.

He didn’t ask any questions, but he knew the day might come soon that I’ll leave the country. He gave me a sad look and promised

“wherever you go, I will find you.” We didn’t hug, we didn’t hold hands, and we didn’t say goodbyes. We took a moment and looked into each others eyes without saying a word.

It was hard for me to work that day. My heart was pounding nonstop. I was extremely nervous and anxious. It was a long day and seemed like it would never end. When it was a few minutes before five o’clock, I left the office, knowing that it would be my last day at work but unsure of our futures. Would it be the last day of our lives, too? We were told that we could all get killed, crossing the border.

On the way to the company bus, I looked around, most people were talking about ordinary things, trying hard to pretend that everything is normal.  We knew that every office, every class, every corner of the street, and every home had a spy. One wrong word you say, you disappear overnight. Without a trace.

As I was getting closer to the bus, I saw Jamaal driving by me, slowly, a soft music playing in his car radio. He loved to show off his little car and his motorcycle. He looked cute with the afternoon sun making a halo around his curly brown hair. He whispered through the open window, repeating “I will find you, wherever you go,” his green eyes glittering with tears. When he tried to force a smile, he made those dimples around his mouth that always gave him an instant innocence.

It was sad to think that I won’t be able to see him again. I had a choice to marry him and fly to Germany with him as he had promised, or to take the risk of fleeing the country with my family.

I chose my family and I’m glad that I did.

I liked Jamaal; I enjoyed his attention especially when almost all the girls in our company had a crush on him, but he only cared about me and tried to win my heart. Even though, he was the very first boy that I found interesting, I didn’t love him enough to choose him over my family.

Many years later when Jamaal finally found me through some mutual friends and came to visit, I realized how much we had fallen apart. I felt sad and guilty, but it was impossible for me to love him.

***************************************

It wasn’t a question of being happy anymore, we were questioning ourselves whether we’ll still be alive tomorrow.

I felt like sitting on a roller costar, going up and down and turning right and left without having a slight control over it. When I was overwhelmed with depression and grief, I would see a dark tunnel that was sucking me in deeper and deeper. I was unable to scream or to take off, surrendered to its twists and turns, waiting to see where it would stop.

It had been over two years that we lived with such terror and anxiety.  With everything happening so fast and around-the-clock, it was hard to think back how everything started and how did everything get so terrifying.

Mom seemed to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. Just looking at Mom and her struggle to take care of everything and everybody was crushing me down.

One day, I was sitting in the front yard, watching Mom talking to Hossain as he was peeling potatoes, “Hossain, I worry about you and your family.  What are you going to do when we leave?” Mom had trusted Hossain and had shared our plan with him. She didn’t want to surprise him and leave him just like that.

Hossain cleared his throat and told mom with a broken voice, ‘if you leave, we’ll go back to Hazarajat, Kabul is not safe for us.”

Mom looked at him with deep concerns,

“Do you have enough money?” she pointed to the house and continued, ‘Do you want to take something from here with you? Take anything you want.”

Hossain put the knife down, sat on his knees, held his head with both hands and sobbed like a baby, “I thought we will grow old with you and your family, I thought I will be here for as long as I live…” he moaned like an injured animal and cried for several minutes.

Mom was tapping on his back, trying to calm him down, “its ok bachaim, ‘son’ you will be ok, it will be ok,” but god knows how horrible Mom felt inside. She wasn’t in a comfort zone herself, but she was thinking of everyone else and was trying to take care of them before leaving.

Hossain was right, Kabul was not safe anymore. The Soviet-backed Afghan communists took control of the government in that bloody coup and shattered our peaceful lives, taking our freedom away.

I couldn’t see Hossain crying like that anymore. It was also hard for me to see that Mom carrying everybody’s heavy weight on her shoulders. I dashed to my room, faced down, dropped myself on the bed and sobbed myself to sleep. Even though I didn’t have any responsibilities except for keeping my mouth shut and getting rid of my extra stuff, I found myself more broken than ever before.  I was mentally and emotionally drained.

Our escape, tomorrow, wasn’t as simple as to hope on a plane and land in a safe place. We had a lengthy, complex, and full of danger journey ahead of us that included several unexpected events that each one of those events could result in our captivity or deaths.

We assumed that our guide is truthful to us and capable of taking us out of the country as he had promised.  We hoped that his men, those who’d help our escape, won’t turn against us and report us to the government.

Even though our guide, Akbar, promised to help, he told us that there were possibilities of us getting killed or captured. “We are aware of the risks,” Laila told him. We know of so many innocent families with women and children who had lost their lives trying to cross the borders.

I assumed everything would have been set already for the next day to flee Afghanistan but in reality, we faced many unexpected problems. It was beyond our imaginations.

Wali couldn’t find 22 tickets on the same flight from Kabul to Kandahar. He was freaking out from a week ago, constantly warning Laila it may not happen. We knew that there weren’t too many flights to Kandahar on daily basis, but we remained optimistic. As days went by, our optimisms changed to fear and despair.

Late afternoon on October 1st, most of my siblings had gathered at Mom’s house. As I was hearing from them, everything was done except for our flight tickets’ confirmation and Mom’s house to be sold. Mom had a deal for the house, but she had to go to the court early tomorrow morning to finalize the deal in front of a judge.

The two big problems, the tickets, and the house. We either had to solve the problem or leave the problem if we had no choice. We were more nervous about the tickets than the house. If worse comes to worst, Mom would just have to leave the house, but we needed the tickets to fly out of Kabul.

It seemed like everybody was walking around in Mom’s house, aimlessly.  Room to room, hallway to hallway, exchanging small talks but nothing major. They were too restless to sit down somewhere. Roya was the only one with a purpose, she was checking the rooms and was expressing her worries, “Mom, the whole house is still intact… you didn’t get rid of anything?”

Mom looked lost, “I gave away a lot of things to the neighbors, but I couldn’t sell anything, not enough time.”

Mom looked so innocent. I knew she had tried hard to get rid of things, but it would be impossible to make things that she had collected for years, disappear in a period of less than a month.

​Laila was walking back and forth, waiting for Wali to call her.  She was yelling at her kids from time to time, “stop running around.”

We were all nervous, knowing that Wali was doing everything he could to get the tickets. Our last option was to bribe the travel agency and ask them to bump some of the passengers and find room for us.

​Finally, Laila got the call. We all rushed around her and watched her panic-stricken face, not knowing what was going on. She hardly said anything on the phone but after she hung up, she sat down, looked at us with no expressions whatsoever. Nobody said a word. We all expected to hear the worse but as soon as she fixed her eyes at Mom, she grinned and said, “We got the tickets.”

​Screams of joy and cheers filled up the room. We all knew that our lives had depended on these flight tickets. The first step to freedom.  Our journey to an unknown future had just begun.

​Two hours later, right before the curfew, we all left Mom’s house to go to Roya’s house. The plan was to spend the night there and then leave for the airport to catch our 11am flights. Mom had to be at the court by 9am along with Jaan to finalize the house deal.

​By the time we reached Roya’s house, it was dark. Mom was worried about Farida and her family asking everyone, “Did Farida know she was supposed to meet us here? Did anyone talk to Farida?”

Nobody knew for sure. Mom’s worries escalated, “The curfew starts in a few minutes,” Mom talking to herself, and then yelled, “Hossain, bachaim, my son, leave the door open in case we don’t hear the doorbell.”

​Soon, Farida and her family dashed into the house. She was holding Seela, the younger kid into her arms while the other two, Noor and Hoda were following her.

Farida seemed out of breath and anxious, “salaam, salaam…” She had pinned her hair up but the strings of hair fallen around her face, made her look prettier. She reminded me of Sophia Loren in her movie “A Special Day.”

​Duran was following Farida, “Sorry, sorry, everyone, we are late, it was hard to find a taxi.”

Mom, with a sigh of relieve, saying, “Everyone is here now,” and walked into the kitchen to check on Roya’s cook how far the dinner was.

That night, we all had to try on the Kochi clothes that we were supposed to wear the next day. Kochi is a style of hand stitching Kandahar clothing that are nomadic and are made from thick material with textiles that use wools and thick needles. They all have bright colors and very similar designs. I tried the dress on and thought I can wear it for a day or two.  Little that we know of we will have to wear this same heavy, nomadic clothing for the next many days to come.

In addition to the tribal clothing, women and girls were also supposed to wear burkas to hide identity. Burqa is called ‘chadaree,’ in Afghanistan and it covers the entire body from the top of the head to the ground.  There’s only a 3 by 6-inch mesh screen in front of the eyes that allows a woman to see outside.

We never had to wear burkas before and so we needed to practice wearing these things that instantly made us lose identity and turn into faceless, walking ghosts. Even my little niece, Hoda, who was 11 years old had to wear a burka.

Guys had to wear the traditional Khawmaak doozie hand embroidered version of tunban pairaan (pajama-like outfits) with special nomad slippers.

I tried to fit the burka on my head but the hat part of it was too stiff and hard. It immediately made head hurt. I threw that away and screamed, “I can’t breathe, how are we ever going to wear these stupid bird-cages?”

My brother’s wife, Nadia, laughed at me loud, “Haa Haaa Haa,” and picked up the burka and tried to help me fix it on my head, “here, here, it’s not forever, you can throw it away as soon as we cross the border.”

​Duran was taking pictures, asking Mom and Sophia along with Farida, Laila, Roya, and Nadia to line up for the picture, “You all on the couch,” and then asking a few more to “stand in the back,” and the rest of us, “sit on the floor.”

​As usual, he was trying to take the best pictures, making sure everyone looked good. “Shala look at me, Wali stand tall, Seela on Farida’s lap….Nadia pick up Meeno,….”

​It was hard to fit us all in one photo but he was doing his best. Then he took some individual pictures and some more of the group pictures, while the bombs had already started exploding in a distant part of town.

We certainly missed Saleem’s presence among us.

I looked around the room, we all looked so different in Kochi clothing. I had never imagined we would ever wear anything but our modern, European-style outfits. It wasn’t a taboo in Kabul for women to get their inspirations from Europe and wear the designer outfits, miniskirts, or pantsuits as they wished. Local parts of the country had their own choices, but nothing was mandatory.

​While Duran was keeping us busy with photography, Roya’s cook had prepared dinner for us. The delicious fragrant of a freshly made Qabley Palaw (rice with meat, covered with a layer of raisons, shredded carrots and pistachios) made my stomach hurt. I didn’t even change back to my normal dress and rushed to the table fill my place with food.

​Minutes later, we were all sitting around the table, eating. There was an eerie silence that had settled in the room. Even the children were not making a sound. I looked around; Mom didn’t have the satisfying smile on her face tonight. Every time we had a gathering, Mom would always show her happiness. She’d smile and would look at us with a feeling of being proud and pleased.  Not tonight. The cloud of anxiety and worries had covered her beautiful smile. Deep down in our hearts, we were all thinking of the exact same thing, would this be our very last dinner together?

​Before we go to bed, I saw Mom going through some bags of things that she had brought for Roya, “here, you can use this,” opening a carton of sun-dried tomatoes.

​Roya didn’t seem to be listening, but she kept looking at Mom with sad eyes.  She knew that it will be extremely difficult for her and her kids to see everyone gone the next day.

​There were bags of dried fruits on the kitchen counter, bottles of juices, cans of food and among all these things, there was a big box marked, “baby stuff,” that Sophia had bought for the baby who was due in one month. She thought she could take the clothing with her, but Akbar’s men told us not to take anything with you. So, she left it there.

Momentarily, we had forgotten our pain and suffering as we had each other so close together. We were all here, except for Khalil and his family and Meszhgan who was in India, everyone else was here at Roya’s house.

​I heard Nadia laughing in the other room. As usual, she had found something funny to laugh about and make everyone around her laugh with her. I walked over the piles of pillows and blankets that Roya had brought us to use tonight. Children were playing in the living room along with little Sahar who was still sick and looked skinny and pale.

In the next room, I found Nadia cutting a t-shirt in large squares that looked like giant pockets. I didn’t understand what was so funny and what were they doing. Mom saw me entering the room, she looked at me and said, “Look what they are doing to me,” and laughed nonstop. I loved Mom’s laughter. It had been a very long time that I hadn’t heard her laugh like this.

I asked, “What is it?” and had to ask repeatedly what was going on before I get an answer from Roya,

“we are making pockets in Mom’s undergarment to hide the money, and this is the only way you guys can take some money out.”

They thought nobody would search Mom, so the money will be safe with her, but dear Momma, how could she ever wear such an uncomfortable undergarment for several days, sitting in the cars, walking, sleeping, it was unbelievable.

My sweet, dear mother. As sad as it was, I noticed that Nadia, like usual, had found a little humor in this darkness to make everyone around her laugh.  Mom loved Nadia and enjoyed being with her, when she was brushing her hair, when she was clipping her eyebrows, or when she was singeing for her, Mom always enjoyed it.

​That night, the sounds of bombing and explosions were the heaviest of all times. A few times the whole house shook with the explosions nearby, but we didn’t get up to see how close the areas that got hit were.

Every time there was a loud noise, I heard Wali’s praying from somewhere in the living room where most of us were sleeping, “Besmellahe Rahmane Rahim, Yaa Khuda ….”

​His prayers continued throughout the night, given me, in a way, peace and comfort in the midst of these horrific circumstances.

​Around midnight, there were some gunshots followed by a man’s scream right outside the house. Nobody moved. I held my breath and waited a few minutes to see if anyone would jump in the house and search for men to take them away. A shadow came down from the upstairs and startled me.  It was Roya’s older son, Omar, tip toeing in the living room to check whether we were ok.

Omar was a young boy but with his father still missing, he assumed more responsibilities and matured faster than his age. I couldn’t have imagined how it would be for them to see us all leaving tomorrow. Jaan, especially, was close to Roya, accompanying her throughout her search for Saleem. I worried about Roya.

The bombings and the shootings continued, it seemed like there was no stop to it. I started thinking of the worst, we may never make it to tomorrow.

​Luckily, we survived to see the daylight of October 2, 1980.

​*********************************************

October 2, 1980: fleeing the country, leaving behind Roya, Khalil, and their families along with life as we knew it.

Early morning, before dawn, we woke up with the smell of breakfast. Toast and eggs, goat cheese and sweet bread. Farida was already up, feeding Seela while monitoring Hoda and Noor, “you must eat something, eat this,” offering a piece of bread and butter, making sure that they won’t be hungry.

I passed by the kitchen as I was looking for Mom and saw Sophia.  She took a baby bottle out of the “baby stuff” box and stared at it silently. I wondered what she was thinking at that moment. She had purchased the best baby stuff for months and was anxious and hopeful, but she had to leave everything behind. It made me so sad, I wanted to hug her and say something to make her feel better but before I say anything, she darted a look at me and said, “What?”

I said, “Nothing. Where’s Mom?”

She said, “Oh, Mom and Jaan left to get something from the house before going to the court.”

Roya had to go to the University and report her attendance as it was mandatory for all professors to check in. She said she’ll go to the court after that to say goodbye to Mom and Jaan.

It was a chaos in the house.

​Mom’s nomad cloths and her burka was on the couch next to Jaan’s tunban-pairan. They were going to the airport straight from the court and had forgotten to take the cloths they had to wear on the trip. I wondered if she had the undergarment.

Nasir was looking for his shoes, “I could swear it was here last night,” and then asked me, “What did my shoes look like?”

I didn’t have time to find him his shoes, “just wear one that fits you, they are all alike,” I said and walked away to get my dress. I saw Shala picking up and dropping the dresses back on the pile looking for the dress that she was supposed to wear, “Which one is mine?”

​There were pants and shirts and socks all over the house.  Everyone changed wherever they could and most of them left their stuff wherever they changed.

​I saw a bag of something heavy on the table.  As I was trying to clean up a little before we leave, I picked up the bag, it looked strange. I poked it with the tip of my fingers but couldn’t tell what it was, so I asked, “What’s this?”

Laila jumped out of her chair and grabbed it from my hand, “my jewelry,” she said.

“Are you going to take it with you?” I asked.

“Yes, quiet,” she said.

I was surprised to hear that she was taking a bag-full of jewelry with her. It was as big and heavy as a 5-pound bag of flour.

“I have talked to Akbar’s men already, they are ok with it,” she said, with a big grin on her face. I’m freaking out, “these men could kill us just to take the jewelry, are you sure it’s safe to take it?”

​She shushed me and whispered, “They don’t know how much jewelry I would take, don’t worry.”

I knew Laila loved jewelry. Every time I visited her in Herat, she bought me an expensive piece of jewelry. In fact, the only thing that I take with me is a ruby ring that she had bought me a few years ago.

 
Time was running out fast. We looked like ants constantly moving around and looking for things.

Duran was rushing us, “hurry up, let’s go everyone ….tayaar shudain? ‘Are you ready?”

He was all dressed up in a beige tunban-pairan, Kochi slippers and a hat that made him look more like someone from Nuristan who are light-skinned and have light brown hair color. He had thrown a long, brown shawl around his shoulders. My nephew, Noor, with his curly hair looked adorable, wearing a similar outfit as his dad, Duran, but no hat or the shawl.

Shala was struggling to wear the Kochi dress. She’s a tomboy who grew up with the boys in the family, Nasir, Omar, and Ali. She engaged in games and activities that were considered unfeminine in Afghanistan and she never, ever had a dress in her entire life. I remember once Mom bought her a dress on her 12th birthday and asked her to try it on. Shala refused to wear the dress as much as she could. Finally, when she gave up resisting and put the dress on, she was crying like a baby, “I don’t like it, I hate it…”

Some of us had already put the burkas on and seemed ready to go. I put Mom and Jaan’s cloths in a plastic bag to carry with me to the airport. Wali saw me and started yelling, “No, no, no, you can’t take anything with you.”

I had to explain it to him what it was and wondered if he knew that Laila was taking a bag-full of her expensive jewelry with her.

Everyone was rushing to get the last-minute things done. Sophia is all ready, standing at the hallway, watching Nadia picking her kids’ socks and shirts off the floor and talking to herself, “I’m done, I’m almost done.”

Laila was trying to get the boys ready and needed help, yelling at Wali, “Come and help them put their shoes on.”

Among all voices, I heard someone announced that, “Our rides are here, the taxis are all waiting outside.”

It was Duran again rushing us, “let’s go, our rides are here, don’t make anyone get suspicious on us,” calling us by name, “let’s go, let’s go.”

Everyone left one by one. The house was almost empty. Roya wasn’t back, yet, from the University. Her kids, Omar, Ali, and Sahar who were 15, 14, and 10 years old were all standing behind the living room windows, looking at their loved ones leaving. I had no idea what they were thinking at that time but they all looked extremely sad. I went closer to say goodbye to them. Omar looked at me and tried to stay strong and calm. Ali looked miserable, his eyes filled with tears, it seemed like he had cried a lot. And there was sweet, little Sahar who instantly broke my heart in pieces. She was crying softly, sobbing and sniffing as she was repressing tears. Her shoulders shaking a bit with every breath.

I felt miserable. After their dad went missing, we became very close to them and spent a lot of time with them. It hurt me to think what was on their minds as we were leaving them one by one, taking a journey without a known destination.

Did they get a chance to say goodbye to anyone? I wasn’t sure.

Someone angry pulled my arm and yelled, “Are you coming?”

It was Nasir who was sent back to see who was missing. They had a headcount before getting in the cars and found one head missing.

I looked around; everyone had left already. I threw the burka on my arm and rushed outside, taking the last look at those beautiful souls watching us leave with despair.

That picture hunted me for a long time. The three little kids, alone, standing behind the windows, witnessing their loved ones disappearing.

I would never forget the despair and agony on their faces as we were leaving and abandoning them.

The taxies were packed already. Doors shut, ready to go.

I was trying to see which taxi had room for me. As I peeked into each one of them, I found all four taxies full. There was a moment of sheer panic when I realized that there may not be any rooms for me. Fortunately, I heard Farida calling me, “Nash, here….over here.”

She was in the very last taxi, looking out of the window, waving at me. I ran over and squeezed myself inside and sat almost on her lap while Seela was sitting on her other lap. With my bulky, heavy dress, I had taken Farida’s entire space, and had been sandwiched in between but she didn’t even complain.

As the car was about to drive, I heard Wali reciting his usual prayers. I didn’t even know that he was in the same car as me until I heard his voice. It made me feel better to hear him, knowing that my courage and strength would no longer do anything for me. We needed a lot of prayers.

All taxi drivers were told to follow each other. We didn’t know what would happen along the way, but we wanted to be together in case one was flagged down. It was a busy time of the day in Kabul streets. People were jaywalking with no fear of the cars, making it hard for the cars to pass. Men on bicycles were no better than the pedestrians, riding their bikes inches away from the cars. The traffic was jammed packed, some streets were blocked, and as a result, we heard a lot of honking everywhere.

While our cars were driving slowly, it gave me a chance to look around and see the familiar places that I had seen and been there a thousand times before. This time I was looking at them differently, trying to tattoo some of the memories in my brain. It could be the last time that I was seeing them.

A cluster of half a dozen or more military and police officers were seen guarding some government buildings. Everywhere we looked, we saw armed men, Afghans and Russians, standing alert. There were numerous tank units that had set up positions around the city.

After 40 minutes of an extremely uncomfortable drive, we reached the airport. No one had flagged us down. I took it as a sign of good luck.

As soon as I stepped out of the taxi, I realized that my left leg was completely numb because of sitting in one position for too long. With burka on my head, it seemed like I was dancing on one leg, as I was trying to hold onto something to keep my balance.

I heard my brother in-law, Daryus, all freaked out, “what are you doing? Everyone is looking.”

I yelled, “I don’t care, my leg has fallen asleep, I can’t walk, it’s tingling all over.”

Daryus tried to calm me down, while holding Sophia’s hand as she couldn’t see her steps with the burka, he lent me his left arm, “Just don’t jump so much, hold onto my arm,” he said.

I snapped at him, “It is not a joy-jumping!”

Sophia heard me and said, “Stop it you guys.”

As we walked a few steps further, there it was, a big sign, “Kabul International Airport,” and a smaller sign on the far end of the building, “Domestic flights.”

Duran took charge, as he was leading us to the terminal, he looked back all the way to the end of the line and said, “Before we enter, we need a head-count again.”

He stood on the sidewalk and as we walked to the airport, he counted the heads and reminded us, “If anyone asks you where you are going, you say that we are going to a wedding, remember, we are going to a relative’s wedding in Kandahar.”

He was nervous like everyone else in the group.

The airport security seemed extremely tight. It was hard to ignore the number of Russian soldiers walking around the airport. They had outnumbered the Afghan soldiers. Most of them stood alert and watched people as they entered the security check lines.

We were directed to stand behind a very long line of people.

Wearing burka, I felt humiliated. It had made me disappear from my own self. I can’t even tell who’s who in my family. All I saw were burkas in different shades of blue and blinking pairs of eyes from underneath the mash part of the burkas. The only uncovered thing from head to toe were our shoes.

The shoes. We were allowed to wear our own shoes as long as they were flat. Some of the shoes were familiar, so I started looking down. It was extremely hard to see from behind the burka. As much as I could see, I couldn’t see Mom’s shoes. I knew she’d wear her most comfortable shoes and they were not among us.

Nadia was holding Meeno who was crying nonstop. It made it easy for me to find her. I went to her and asked with desperation, “I can’t tell from the burkas which one is Mom, I don’t think she’s here.”

Nadia freaked out, “You didn’t take her burka with you?”

I suddenly remembered that I was holding her burka in my hand which frightened me even more. It was almost 10:30am but Mom wasn’t here, yet.

The news of mom being late to arrive to the airport spread like a wildfire among us. Everyone started asking, “What are we going to do now?”

Nobody had an answer. We all knew that we couldn’t leave without Mom and Jaan.

All we knew was that Mom and Jaan were not back from the court. Our flight was scheduled to board at 11am.

Duran and Wali split in different directions and started looking around for them.

One-year old Meeno was freaking out, crying hysterically and pulling the burka off of her mom’s head.  She had never seen a burka before and didn’t know why her mother would be wearing that. We all tried to circle around Nadia and Meeno to calm her down, but it scared her even more.

While we were standing behind a long line, I looked at the far corner of the terminal and saw someone familiar. It was hard to see with the burka covering my view, but it looked like Khalil, standing afar, watching us. As usual, Khalil looked like a fashion model with his stylish clothing and his true elegance that made him stand out among the crowd anywhere he went. He couldn’t come to say goodbye to us in fear of someone recognizing him.

I elbowed someone standing next to me and said, “Khalil is there, I see Khalil.” I heard Sophia saying, “I know, he came to make sure that we get out of here safe and will pass on the news to Roya.”

Moments later, Wali came back, out of breath and nervous. He looked like a typical Kochi with his dark black eyes and mustache and thick eyebrows. His grey tunban-pairan looked a little too small on him but the black shawl around his neck looked alright. He went to Laila, “good news and bad news,” he said.

We are all waiting. He is trying to decide which news should he give first, but Laila snapped at him, “Bogo, bogo dega,” just say it.

Wali rubbed the palms of his hands together repeatedly before saying, “We have no idea how soon Mom and Jaan would arrive, but the good news is that the flight has delayed an hour.”

Nobody said a word. Wali continued torub his hands together with extreme anxiety.

I was worried whether they were ok, questioning myself, did they get into an auto accident, did they get caught? Picturing Mom and Jaan being caught at the court sent a chill down to my spine. It horrified me instantly and made me shiver with fear.

The line was moving extremely slow but the clock was ticking fast. I set my eyes at the entrance where I thought Mom would enter from and prayed for their safety.

Another 15 minutes passed. No signs of Mom and Jaan.

Half an hour later, we reached the front of the line while Mom was still not here. Everyone whispering, “Do you see them? Is Mom here, yet? Do you see Jaan?”

I was standing almost towards the end of the line while some of us had already boarded the plane or walking up the plane stairs to get in. Duran kept a track and counted each head as they entered the plane… 9, 10, 11….”

And finally, I recognized Jaan from a far, wearing jeans with a blue dress shirt and Mom wearing her beautiful grey dress with the lacy white collar. “Mom is here, they are here.” We passed the good news around and almost cried with joy. They were safe.

As soon as Mom got close to us, one of the Afghan soldiers looked at Mom and wanted to say something but Mom darted an angry look at him that stopped him right there.

Mom doesn’t say much when she’s angry, but she has the look. Many of us have admitted that we rather hear Mom yelling at us instead of giving the look. Jaan gets the ‘look’ more often than the others and he says, “Mom’s look is definitely more like a weapon of mass destruction.”

There was no time for any of them to change clothing. I opened the bag and picked Mom’s burka for her to wear but she just grabbed it from me and held it under her arm. The kochi dress along with Jaan’s clothing were still in my bag.

The airport screening was heavy. Chances were high to stop us here or to find something wrong with our paperwork. We were nervous.

Since no one else had a bag or luggage with, the check-in went faster than expected. My heart was pounding when Laila was questioned and screened for security. I didn’t see her jewelry bag in her hands and wasn’t sure where had she hid it. I started praying she wouldn’t get caught. She was questioned and searched but she passed the security check and entered the plane.

Sophia was ahead of me. As she was being checked by the woman security, I saw that idiot poking on her belly making sure that she’s not hiding anything.

It was my turn, she asked me something I didn’t understand, my voice was shaking so badly, I could hardly talk. She felt sorry for me, saying, “boro, boro, khala jaan, taair show,” go, go, aunty, you can pass.

She called me ‘khala jan,’ which means ‘dear aunty,’ referred to old women as a sign of respect. With my voice shaking so badly, she assumed I was an old woman.  She didn’t poke my tummy and didn’t search my bag for anything. I passed the security check smoothly.

We got on the plane, walking down the aisles one by one, as the flight attendants were showing us our seats. The burkas were catching into our feet, we had a hard time to walk.

Minutes later as we all settled into our seats, the cabin door closed. A skinny Afghan woman with a nasal voice and beautiful hair piled up on top of her head, stood at the very front of the plane and smiled at us. She was wearing a uniform that nicely fitted her and matched her elegant high heels. I thought of the burka that had trapped me like a bird in a cage and almost cried. I hated the burka once again.

The nasal voice overtook the passengers’ chit chat and got everyone’s attention with, “tawajoh, tawajoh,” meaning attention. She started reading the safety instructions from a chart that she was holding.  Another flight attendant stood up in the aisle, next to her and demonstrated with hands and arms, showing us how to fasten the seat belt and how to reach the oxygen supply overhead…

I didn’t listen, rested my head on the seat’s head-rest and felt safe, sitting next to Mom. Since the doors had been closed already, I took a sigh of relief, assumed that the airplane was ready to take off. I thought for sure that we made it out of Kabul and anticipated our adventure to start.

I was wrong.

The flight attendant who was giving us the safety instructions, suddenly stopped talking. We heard the Captain’s announcement that came over the loudspeaker, “there is a delay, stay calm, don’t leave your seats.”

A dreadful silence filled the aircraft as the fear crept into our hearts.

I thought for sure that they were looking for us. Inside the plane, there were dozens of other passengers besides us but all I could hear was an eerie stillness broken only by a little baby’s hiccups and someone’s ‘shhhhhhh,’ trying to stop the baby.

As we held our breaths, we expected for the worst.

The cabin door opened; an Afghan militant jumped in with his gun pointed straight at the passengers. A Russian soldier stood behind him. Another man showed up from behind the Russian and called someone by name. No answer.  He called again and repeated a few times in Farsi and Pashto, “if you’re here, stand up immediately.”

Not any of us. We didn’t know that name, neither did anyone else on the plane because nobody stood up or said anything. The afghan soldier walked through the aisle and looked into each one of the guys’ faces. It was an extremely tense moment. My heart was pounding, I could hear my own heartbeat.

Moments later, without saying a word, as they had jumped into the plane, they walked out without finding the person that they were looking for.

A sigh of relief.  I thanked god for the cabin door when it closed again.

The flight attendant picked up the chart again, her voice visibly shaking as she started over, “make sure to fasten your seat belts, there are designated seats for the smokers …”

Finally, as the cabin door remained closed. People started talking again as soon as the flight attendant finished instructions. She smiled at us and pulled the curtain across the aisle to separate the first-class seats from us and disappeared behind a curtain.

Soon we felt a slight vibration from the plane’s wheels. I almost cheered with joy as the engines pushed the plane and it started moving on the ground.

Moments later, the plane went upward, up in the sky. I looked down from the window, we were flying out of Kabul airport. All 22 of us, together.

Sitting next to Mom was like being in heaven. It gave me a great feeling, I wanted to hug her so bad but noticed that she was hot as she uncovered her face. The burka had trapped the air and made it hard for her to breath. The flight attendant was walking by, I asked her, “Do you have ice-cold water, anywhere?”

She stopped and looked at me as Mom elbowed me. I suddenly remembered that I shouldn’t have talked in Farsi. I didn’t know Pashto well-enough to talk, so Mom took over and asked her in a fluent Pashto to bring her some water.

Little mistakes could cost us our lives. I felt horrible for not being careful.

The woman came back with water and stared at Mom’s fancy dress with lacy collar. She seemed suspicious, asked Mom, “So I hear that you are all going to a wedding?” Mom said, “Yes,” and tried to cut it short.

The woman asked again, “whose wedding is it?”

Mom with a stern, firm voice that gave her an instant cold shoulder said, “A relative.”

That was enough to put a stop to her curiosity. She wrinkled her nose and walked away. Something bothered her and I was afraid to know what she’ll do next.

I craved for the fresh air and had to uncover my face. It was impossible for me to tolerate the burka trapping my own breath any longer. I never knew that I would exhale that much hot air with every breath that I take.

The heat of my own breath was grilling me. To have only a small gap in the fabric allowing women to see and breathe, was insane.

A few minutes passed before the flight attendant came back. As I heard her coming, I leaned back and closed my eyes instantly before she reaches our seats. Even though she saw that my eyes were closed, she asked, “Do you want water?”

I didn’t want to talk to her and pretended to be asleep. I took some deep breaths and exhaled slowly through my nose while making hissing sounds.

I heard Mom answered her, a little kinder this time than before, told her “She doesn’t, but thank you for asking.”

The woman laughed loud and told Mom, “She looked nervous, I think this is her first time on the plane.”

Mom laughed, too. Her beautiful laughter, it didn’t seem normal today. Mom never had anything fake in her entire life. If it takes to stop the woman’s questions, Mom will fake a laughter. I loved my mother more than ever before.

Our situation was completely uncertain, we smelled the danger surrounding us without a doubt. Mom and I both felt the tense situation with that woman and found her excessively nosy and sneaky.

Luckily, the woman left us alone and didn’t come back again. A huge sigh of relief.

As I sniffed Mom’s perfume, I felt lucky to have been sitting next to her. It is Shala who always sits close to Mom and looks inseparable from her.

Mom was sitting quietly, holding her water cup in hand, staring at the lonely ice-cube that was melting fast.

I tried to ask Mom why they were late to get to the airport but she shushed me, “passaan, later.”

Mom had a very long day, today. An exhausting, torturous, long day.

I stayed quiet and listened to the voices that came from the surrounding areas. I could tell Farida and her kids were behind us and Sophia with Daryus were sitting in front of us. I could hear Laila’s voice from a few rows away, talking to her boys. Meeno was crying off and on but aside from that, there were no one else’s voice that I could recognize.

A man, sitting on the left, was laughing hysterically, bragging about his new position in Kandahar that the communist government had assigned him, “I got this job because I can tell who’s who, Kee Watan Parast Ast, Kee Naist, who loves the country and who doesn’t.”

I envied him for being so carefree and relaxed. He seemed like he had nothing to worry about in the whole world. For us, every step we took, was full of danger and risk.

I had my eyes closed and was listening to the roar of the plane engines. I found it soothing and relaxing and thought it could easily put me to sleep.

Hearing some shuffling from the aisle, I looked up and saw Shala, smiling. Her face uncovered while the burka was still covering her head, she was holding the tail of the burka wrapped around her arm like a fashion model holding a shawl, walking down the runway.

As soon as mom saw her, she bloomed like a flower.  They exchanged hugs and kisses, “muaaah, muaah, muaah,” both of them smiling with joy.

I told Shala, “sit with Mom, I can go to the back,” but Shala said, “No, I wanted to make sure that Mom is ok,” asking her, “Mommy gak, dear mommy, do you want more water?”

Mom said she’s ok as they exchanged more hugs and kisses before she left.  The burka tail still wrapped around her arm, she blew a last kiss and winked.

Shala is mom’s bodyguard. She’s tough and strong.  She’s only 14 but she’s so much more than her age.

We always laughed when we heard the stories of Shala being hard on the renters at our rental properties. It was Nasir’s job to collect the rent at the end of each month.  Nasir is about 5 years older than Shala. Every time the renters denied to pay the rent or asked for extra time, it was Shala’s turn to go and get the rent from them. She wouldn’t leave empty-handed and wouldn’t buy their excuses. A few times, the renters had pleaded with Nasir not to send Shala and promised that they’ll pay the rent soon.

As soon as we got close to the destination, we heard that nasal voice of the flight attendant, “We will arrive Kandahar airport in a few minutes, pick up your bags, make sure not to leave anything behind and stay put until we land.”

We didn’t have any bags to worry about but we were restless to get out of the airport safe and unharmed. There was a big chance of us to land and face the authorities telling us that they know who we are. It wouldn’t be a simple returning us back to our homes, they’ll punish and jail us for committing a criminal act of trying to escape the country.

After flying 288 miles and about 50 minutes, we landed in Kandahar.

Kandahair airport was designed and built by the United States in early 1960s but it was now occupied by the Soviets and used heavily by their forces to fly the troops and to carry the supplies. The Soviets also used the airport as a base for launching airstrikes against the Mujahideen.

Holding our breaths, reciting all the prayers that I knew, I stepped off the plane and looked around. Dozens of Russian soldiers along with the afghan soldiers were monitoring us intensely but no one stopped or questioned us for anything.

It was amazing how we all walked with burkas swiftly and fast to get out of the airport. Shala and Hoda had both picked up the tail of the burka in one hand to walk without catching their feet, I heard Duran freaking out, “bachaim, daughter drop it, Shala drop your burka,” meaning let the burka down not to raise any suspicions.

Immediately outside the airport, we were surrounded by bunch of men, who instructed us to stay quiet as they were lead us into pickup trucks that were already waiting for us. Duran wanted a headcount, but the men told him, “Go, go, get in,” and gently pressed his shoulder and showed him a truck, “We do the counting.”

From this point on, we were completely in hands of Akbar’s men. The lead-man looked like an actor from a French movie that Sophia had seen last month and so she named him SheeriBibi.

We had no idea what will happen next and what had SheeriBibi planned for us.  Akbar had told Laila, “don’t ask too many questions, trust these men, they will sacrifice their own lives to save yours.”  But could we trust?

Kandahar Hotel

After 20 minutes of drive, we reached a decent-looking hotel. The words “Kandahar hotel” was written in bold letters on top of a several stories building. We all stood at the lobby as Sheeri-Bibi and his team checked us in and gave us the keys to our hotel rooms. Four rooms on the third floor.

I was exhausted like everyone else and craved for a hot shower. We all settled in quickly but Laila was restless, “something bothers me about this hotel,” she said and repeated this again as she threw her burka on the sofa, “something is not right.”

Most of us had gathered in the room where Mom was. Some of us sat on the bed, some on the floor, but most were standing, trying to find out why is Laila so certain that this is not safe for us to stay.

Wali is frustrated, “Laila jan, dear Laila, if there is something that you know, tell us, why are you trying to freak us out, just tell us.”

Laila didn’t have anything in particular to say but she was clearly bothered. As she shook her head she said, “I don’t feel safe here, something is wrong.”

Kids were running from one room to the other, some of them were hungry and asking for something to eat, some were just too tired and needed a nap. Meeno was crying again, her voice was echoing in the hallway.

Laila sat on the bed next to Mom and said, “I didn’t like the way those policemen looked at me, I think he recognized me.”

Jaan laughed at her, “Are you kidding? Even I can’t tell who’s who under these bird cages, how would anyone know you from underneath a burka?”

Laila didn’t even look at him but said it sharply, “I worked with these people for years, I had a lot of patients from Kandahar, they know me burka or not.”

Nobody took Laila’s fear too seriously, minutes later, we all forgot about her fear and tried to get some rest. Mom was the only one who was concerned and asked her to tell SheeriBibi what you told us.

Sophia walked in from the other room, “where’s Mom?” found her on the bed, “Mom, what took you so long to get to the airport, we were worried sick, what happened?”

Before Mom said anything, Jaan replied, “We had to sign a lot of papers, and then the buyer made us watch him count the money before receiving the keys.  We had a pile of bills that covered the judge’s desk, almost as tall as his head.”

Mom shaking her head, “If we wouldn’t have to sign the papers, we would have left.”

“So, what did you do with the money?” I asked.

Jaan said, “We were lucky to see Roya walked in to say goodbye to us. Mom told Roya to put the money in her purse and take it home,” he was laughing.

“She needed several bags to carry the money home, I don’t know what she did, we just left.”

Mom was sad, “we couldn’t even say goodbye to her.”

Suddenly, our door burst opened without any knocks or anything and SheeriBibi barged in, yelling at us, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s leave, they are searching the hotel.”

SheeriBibi’s men rushed us out of the hotel from the backdoor and piled us up in pickup trucks and drove off. We had no idea where we were being taken.

After a half an hour of drive through mostly destroyed and damaged houses, we reached to an old, fort-like house with very tall walls and a door that had locks and chains. They told us, “Men, all men and boys go up front of the house, women in the back.”

We walked through a narrow passageway to the back of the house. The tall, puddled mud walls stretched on both sides, made the passageway look much smaller that it was. In the middle of the courtyard, we saw a few women who had started cooking chicken and rice over the wood-fire grills. They all stood up and smiled at us, greeting with extreme kindness and compassion.

When they separated men from women, I was scared for a few minutes not knowing what their intention was but seeing kind, smiling women cooking for us, calmed me down.

They were all speaking in Pashto. It was Mom again, speaking fluent Pashto, went to them and talked to each one of them and thanked them for their kindness.

Someone came and took us to a huge, square room with a dozen toshaks spread on the floor next to the walls (Toshak is a narrow mattress used instead of chairs in most Afghan homes). Sitting down felt comfortable.

I felt safe at least for a few hours. For the remaining part of our trip, I feared their planning. Thinking about the hotel and Laila’s concerns made me think that if Laila’s face was covered, her four kids were enough to give us away. Most Kandahar patients visited Laila at her clinic. Her clinic was next to her house. The kids went in and out of the house and the clinic often. How unsafe of Akbar’s men to neglect our safety and take us to a hotel which was guarded by a police officer?

An hour later, the dinner was served. It started with special rituals. Two women walked in, one carried a jug of water while the other holding an empty basin with both hands and a clean, white towel thrown on her left arm.

They started with Mom. A sign of respect for the elders to be served before the others.  As they went to each one of us, they poured water on our hands and offered the towel to dry out.

You could smell the aroma of food, baked itself in their clothing and hair. An instant promise of something delicious on its way to be served.

A couple other women spread a large sheet on the floor and covered it corner to corner with food. The delicious chicken, freshly baked flat bread, a variety of vegetables, along with chutney and home-made yogurt seemed unbelievably generous. We were smiles ear to ear.

They all stood back against the wall and smiled at us. The older woman who seemed to be in charge, kneeled next to Mom and asked,

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

Mom thanked her and tapped on her shoulder, telling her in Pashto,

“this is more than enough, forgive us for the trouble we may have caused,” and smiled at her before they all walk out of the room.

I looked around, my family was safe, at least for the time being we looked happy and safe.  I was starving.  I ate as much as I could.

Nobody knew when and where would be our next meal.

Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

TO BE CONTINUED: From Kandahar to Pakistan to India to Seattle Washington and all the countries in between…. and my journey with Hillary Clinton, my life in my new HOME…