Having fled as a child, Mitra Qayoom describes returning to Afghanistan after twenty years and what war and repression have meant for the country.
I left Afghanistan in 1991 when I was only six years old, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the civil war.
I still remember the day we left. We got in the car and headed to Mazar-e-sharif, spent a couple of nights there, and then left for Russia.
We left all our belongings behind. There was $2,000 in my dad’s pocket. I asked my mum why we were going to Russia and she replied “we don’t want to move too far as the war will be over soon and it will be easier to come back to Afghanistan from Russia.”
The war never ended. We continued to move from one country to next, further and further away. I never saw my country, my family and friends again, until this year.
Sitting, feeling nervous and excited on the plane from Dubai to Kabul, I noticed us approaching Afghanistan because looking down all I could see were these beautiful mountains. At Kabul International Airport I was welcomed by a sign: ‘Welcome to the land of the brave’. It made me smile and think how true it is – all the empires that have failed to conquer Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British, to the Russians.
Alexander the Great himself said, in a letter to his mother, “I am involved in the land of brave people where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldiers. You have brought one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called an Alexander.”
Outside the airport I was greeted by family. I could not hold back the tears when I saw them. I hugged each one and called them by their names to let them know I still remembered them. My dad’s cousin, who is in the army, brought his bodyguards with him to make sure we reached home safely due to numerous threats my dad was receiving before our departure from London.
It felt so unreal. I was in Kabul sitting in the car, once again, with the people I said goodbye to twenty years ago, but this time crying tears of joy and telling them about my life in London.
On my first day in Kabul, I noticed there was no space to walk; people were walking on the roads with drivers shouting from their car windows to move them out of the way. There were no footpaths and no traffic lights. It was very overcrowded. Kabul, a city designed for a population of one million, is now home to six million people.
I saw new apartments being built to accommodate the large influx of people into the city, but these buildings are all private and the poor cannot afford them. People have also taken over the hills and started to build homes there.
It made me think: how can people build tall, private buildings but no one has put any money into fixing the roads? Also, where is all the money that’s coming into the country going? Certainly not to the poor and where it is needed most.
There is so much pollution in the city because there are now more cars than ever, and every evening there is a dust storm. As a result the number of people diagnosed with lung conditions has also increased.
Life in Kabul continues despite these conditions. I saw people cleaning the streets and planting trees, girls walking to school in their uniforms and women driving cars. This put a smile on my face as it showed that the city is rebuilding itself after years of war and destruction.
When I reached Lessay Mariam (a shopping area) I was amazed at how modern the shops were and the variety of merchandise available. However, it was very expensive. I was told the prices had gone up since Karzai came to power.
I noticed beggars everywhere: old men, women and children as young as six years old. My cousin told me not to give money to any of them because they operate as part of a black market and they are pretending to be beggars. But I just could not watch kids run after our car begging for money so I opened the window and handed them money.
Civil war and Taliban
I spent most of my first week in Kabul interviewing family members and the locals. I wanted to hear the other side of the story from the people who lived and survived the civil war of the 1990s, the Taliban (which seized power in 1996), and since 2001 the US/NATO occupation.
“The Taliban closed all the schools; girls especially were not allowed to attend them, so I remained uneducated. But there were underground schools and I didn’t want my daughters to grow up like me so I would send them there, always in fear of getting caught.”
“Women were not allowed to leave the house without a Chadari (veil) and her husband or brother. However sometimes the Taliban would still stop women even if they were accompanied, and say “we don’t believe this man is a relative” and they would beat the man until they got prove he was related to the woman. We were not allowed to listen to music or watch TV in our homes either.”
“During prayer times people would leave their stalls and shops unattended to quickly get to a nearby mosque because it was a crime not to pray. Some people would not even have Wudu (washing ritual before praying) but still pray due to fear.”
“If the Taliban saw even a little bit of your body exposed, for example your ankles, they would take out a wire and hit you with it until your ankles bled. Women have suffered so much in this country, we have been traumatised and still live in fear. Some of us are still scared to stop wearing the Chadari no matter how uncomfortable we feel underneath, due to fear of getting caught by the Taliban and being stoned to death.”
Another person told me this, her experience from the civil war time:
“Rockets and bullets were flying in every direction in Kabul. One rocket hit our home and everything got destroyed. I grabbed my children and some flour and rice and headed for the hills on foot. There, we camped with a few other families we had met on the way. I always feared that snakes or lizards would bite my children as these are found in large numbers in the hills.
A few days later we ran out of our food supply and spent a couple of days hungry. My children were crying from hunger. One day one of the boys came and said, 'Aunty, we found a deserted school'. We packed our belongings and headed there.
Each family took a classroom to live in. The men went to the town (what was left of it) and brought back food supplies with them. We lived there until Kabul was a bit safe to return too.
We have now returned to Kabul and rebuilt our home, but if you go outside you still see bullet holes in the walls. Like us many families were made refugees and still are. Some didn’t even make it to safe places and were murdered on the way, their women raped, children kidnapped and the men killed.”
After interviewing this lady, I went to have a look at the bullet holes. I saw holes scattered everywhere on the wall. I ran my right hand across the wall and suddenly I was taken back twenty years. I saw my mum and me walking home when a car full of Mujahideens holding their guns in the air drove past us.
This was the first few days of the beginning of the civil war when the Northern Alliance occupied Kabul. My mum grabbed my hand and said “walk faster Mitra, I don’t have a scarf on. If they see me without one, they will shoot me.” Scared for my mum’s life, I started to walk faster and prayed that God helped us reach home safely.
Now I think to myself: how could my own my people do that to each other (and still do)? There is no unity between the people of Afghanistan. It’s bad enough that the country is getting bombed and looted by the Westerners from every direction but when your own kind shows no love and sympathy for its own people, it is the worst crime of all. I felt heartbroken by this thought.
It was amazing how every smell and every touch took me back to my childhood and brought back so many happy and painful memories.
2001-present: NATO occupation
I continued to interview people. This is what people told me about what they thought of the US/NATO invasion:
“We all know why the Westerners are here, they don’t care about the innocent people of Afghanistan. There is a lot of wealth in this country, so everyone wants a piece of it. We have gold, diamonds, minerals, and let’s not forget the Poppy fields, yet our people are starving.”
“Why is Afghanistan receiving its electricity from Tajikistan when we have enough resources in this country to provide heating and electricity for ourselves? I tell you why, we are being robbed.”
“Since the US/NATO occupation, the number of babies born with deformities has increased. This is due to the chemicals used in their weapons and the trauma they cause pregnant women during their raids. More and more people are now falling ill either by drinking tap water or eating fruits and vegetables imported from abroad.
Nothing is natural anymore. We never used to fall ill by drinking tap water. People are suspicious that they (the soldiers) are putting chemicals in our water.”
“The Americans fake attacks and then you see their soldiers come and fight the so called insurgents so that people think of them as heroes. They don’t want Afghanistan to have peace because that would mean that they are no longer needed here and would have to leave.”
“I saw it with my own eyes, two US soldiers giving permission to a car filled with four Taliban to enter the American embassy. The Afghan police officer wanted the men’s IDs and was suspicious they were Taliban. Then two soldiers quickly came and took over and told the officer to let the men through and take a walk.”
I asked people what they thought of Afghanistan’s current president Hamid Karzai. This is the response I got: “He is corrupt.”
“What is he doing with all the money that’s coming into the country? He is a thief.”
“I don’t care much about politics, I just want to live peacefully but I’ll say this much, they are all corrupt”.
I visited Paghman, which is a town situated in the Western part of Kabul. Paghman is also the birth place of the late king Amanulah Khan who built the famous Tag-e-zafar (Paghman Arc) in 1919 after the independence of Afghanistan from the British. It’s a nice rural area and famous among tourists who visit the Arc and the Paghman gardens.
I also visited Salang, which is a district of Parwan province situated in Northern Afghanistan, on the road between Kabul and Mazar-e-sharif (two hours drive from Kabul). Parwan province has a fascinating history. Many conquerors of Afghanistan have been defeated here.
I was amazed at the breathtaking sites I visited in Paghman and Salang. It was then that I understood why Afghanistan was once called the ‘Paris of Central Asia’ but I was saddened by the thought that none of this beauty is ever shown to the rest of the world. Had Afghanistan been left in peace, I truly believe that today it would have been one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations.
On the way to Paghman I saw a large refugee camp. I was told people who have fled from Helmand and Kandahar provinces live in these tents. I wanted to talk to some of these people, but unfortunately I never got a chance to go back to visit this camp.
Opposite the refugee camp there was a US military camp, which extended all the way up the mountain. My uncle turned to me and said, “They will never leave, look at the size of that camp.”
I also visited a couple of shopping centres in Shar-e-nau. Before entering the centres I was taken to a small room where a woman searched me and my bag. This was new to me; previously I have never been searched entering a shopping centre. However, these centres are under constant threat from attackers and in the past suicide bombers have entered and blown themselves up, killing the innocent and destroying shops.
The next day I visited a girls’ school: Lessay Bibi Sara. I saw on one of the walls, in the hallway, a map of Afghanistan painted – and, on the wall opposite it, the work of a student who had drawn a picture of two birds holding a flag of Afghanistan. Above the birds it was written ‘In the name of Allah, Freedom’.
The classrooms were very crowded with four students sharing one desk, not even enough space to move their arms. I sat through lessons and was fascinated by how intelligent these girls were. One girl was called to the front of the class and asked to recall what they had learned during previous biology lessons. She knew everything by heart.
During break the girls gathered around me and wanted to find out more about me. One girl said to me that I was very lucky I was living in London. I told her: you are lucky because you live in your own country, speak your own language amongst your own people. Do you know how many times I’ve been called a terrorist and been told to go back to my own country? Do you know how much I’ve been bullied in school for being darker than the other students and having an accent?
I felt so at home, as though I have never been away. I left the students with this message: “Study very hard, get your education and nothing will be impossible. You are the future of Afghanistan. Be proud of who you are and rebuild your country because if you don’t no one else will.”
Malcolm X once said “Educate a man and you educate one person. Educate a woman and you educate and liberate an entire generation.” This is so true and also makes sense why women are oppressed in so many parts of the world.
I saw the slums of Kabul, a completely deprived area. One family invited me into their home; it was made of mud with two small rooms for a family of ten. They told me they’ve been homeless since the Taliban time:
“We have been moving from one province to the next. We have been living in Kabul for nine years now but recently we have been threatened that if we don’t move our home will be bulldozed. They want to build private properties here and want us all moved.”
I had two thousand Afghanis in my purse and gave it to the family. I wished I could have done more but like our beloved Prophet Mohammad once said “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.”
Women in occupied Afghanistan
I am passionate about the mistreatment of Afghani women. This is why I really wanted to visit a women’s shelter home or prison in Kabul to find out why these women were there.
The Afghan Women Skills Development Centre provides shelter for women who have escaped from their abusive husbands and families. They receive all their funding through donations. I was taken to the house; a security guard searched me before allowing me in. Once inside the house I was taken to the living room and offered a seat.
Then I saw the women come in one by one - there must have been twenty of them. Some of the women were shy and did not want to tell their stories in front of everyone. I asked them to sit next to me and talk to me one to one.
These are some of the stories I heard:
“When I was thirteen years old (she is now twenty years old) my father died and my step mother could not look after me. She decided to get me married off and got me engaged to a much older man without me knowing. Of course I was not happy and refused to marry him but in the end I was forced to marry him.
I was still a child (tears started rolling down her face), he would rape me and then beat me up for not getting pregnant. Finally when I was fifteen I got pregnant with my first child. Then came the accusations - he would constantly accuse me of having affairs with other men and stopped me leaving the house. He would continue beating me, raping me and accusing me of things that weren’t true.
I got pregnant again and gave birth to a baby girl. One day my daughter went out to get ice cream and I ran out to get her and saw this as an opportunity to escape. I grabbed her and ran away, went to the police and they sent me here. I’ve been here for three months now and my case is in court. I want a divorce but he won’t give it to me and I know he will never give me my son either. I miss my son so much.”
Another woman told me:
“My dad forced me to marry this rich man. I never found out what he did for a living. He would always beat me up when he got drunk. One day I went out to do some shopping, three men grabbed me and kidnapped me. They put me in a dark room and everyday they would come one by one to rape me. This went on for two weeks until the police found me and arrested two of the men, the third escaped. The police are still searching for him.
My father believes my husband had links with the kidnappers and he has taken him to court. Because of my father’s accusations my husband got even more abusive towards me and would beat me till I became unconscious. One day when he was out I ran away and came here. He keeps sending threats that if I don’t return he will kill my family but my dad tells me to stay here. I don’t know what to do, I can’t forget what those men did to me, and I can’t sleep at nights.”
Most of the cases included girls who had been forced to marry against their will. One woman told me she came here because her son’s life was in danger. Her husband was addicted to drugs.
“Every time he smoked weed he would blow the smoke in my son’s face and say it’s good for him and that he wanted our son to grow up like him. I was scared that one day he would even inject heroin into my son so I escaped with my child”.
My time was up and I had to leave. Feeling overwhelmed from the stories I heard, I couldn’t hold back the tears. One of the women came up to me and put a bracelet that she made around my wrist and said it was a gift from all of them, something to remember them by.
I was also feeling very angry and the quote “Paradise lies beneath your mother’s feet” kept running through my head. If this was true then how can men treat women this way? How can a man hit a woman who carries his child for nine months and then spends sleepless nights raising it?
My time in Afghanistan came to an end. I still want to visit Laghman province where my dad grew up. I want to visit Bamiyan, where the statue of the giant Buddha once stood (destroyed by the Taliban in 2001). I want to go back to Mazar-e-Sharif and pray in the big beautiful mosque there like I did as a child. I want to fly a kite on the roof of my grandmother’s house and play marbles (toshlah bazi) like I used to as a little girl with my cousins.
They say home is where the heart is. I left my heart in Afghanistan; actually I think my heart has always been there and never left with me, which may be the reason why I have been feeling so lost and restless all these years.
To the rest of the world we may be terrorists, but before judging others hear the other side of the story. I can’t sit and watch people suffer, especially women and children, not just Afghans but wherever the victims may be from.
Remember empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that. Don’t let yourselves belong to that category. Please don’t forget your roots and your history. “A Nation Falls When its Culture and Traditions are No Longer Practised”.
Mitra Qayoom is an Afghan activist and writer. Mitra is a member of Afghans for Peace, an alliance of Afghans from various ethnic, religious, socio-economic, cultural, and political backgrounds with a united vision for a democratic, all inclusive, just and peaceful Afghanistan.