Julie Reimer remembers her idyllic childhood in Kabul, where her father worked at the eye hospital. As her 50th birthday approached, she published this elegy for the beloved land of her birth which has not known peace for many decades.
I have had an ominous, haunting feeling around my 50th birthday that has nothing to do with this milestone age. It is because my beloved Afghanistan has been at war for almost my entire life with no end in sight. I was born during a summer dust storm in the US Consulate clinic in Kabul. While visiting the destroyed building and city in 1996 on a sobering pilgrimage, we heard rockets being launched into Kabul by a little-known group called the Taliban, one of the many factions vying for control of the country during its civil war. Kabul was conquered just a few months later.
And now, like a virus that just won’t go away, the Taliban is back and ravaging yet again. How can this country ever recover when so few remember how to live in peace? When healing from PTSD can only happen when there is a “post”? When it gets knocked down by others and itself over and over and over again?
I find myself somewhere between the frozen, silent protection of shock – and horror, tears, and prayers. How do I put into words what this country means to me? And how do I connect you with this distant place?
I suppose I will take you back in time to see Afghanistan through my eyes. I was born in 1971 when it was a relatively peaceful kingdom. Well, they did have three coups when we were there, and it has always been wild and rugged, but there was hope. Lots of it. Kabul was bursting with life and growth, and my earliest memories were of gorgeous springs where blossoms and kites dotted the cobalt sky, blankets of snow in the winter fulfilled the proverb, “Better is Kabul without gold than without snow”, sentinel mountains surrounded the city, cups of hospitality and tea waited around the corner, bazaars overflowed with items that both thrilled and terrified me, Kabuli pilau and Afghan food delighted our senses, and tales of Mullah Nasradin – the accidentally wise mullah – were spun.
How can this country ever recover when so few remember how to live in peace?
My days were filled with playing in our haven of a yard, going with Mom to the hospital to hand out “sheer (milk) with cheer”, running to greet Dad in the evenings for a hug and a piece of the steaming naan he brought with him, going on adventurous outings into the countryside trying desperately to keep up with my crazy brothers, attending the international school I where I first decided I wanted to be a teacher, and spending time with a wonderfully rich community of both Afghans and foreigners.
The only thing I really remember noticing as “different” was the fact that my mom and I were the only females in the bazaars which led to my famous quote, “I’m a guwl in a man’s wuwld” (I’m a girl in a man’s world).
Signs of the communists seemed welcome at first to my young self. After all, they had lots of pretty red flags and the “Soviet Party” sounded kinda fun. But as the tanks rolled in, the helicopters buzzed the top of the trees, suitcases stood packed by the door, curfews were enforced (at the end of a Kalashnikov once for us), and my small ears picked up whispers of the news. I grew to understand that this was no fun at all. I left a piece of my heart in Kabul when we were forced to leave by the communists in 1979, a few months before the full Soviet invasion.
I left a piece of my heart in Kabul when we were forced to leave by the communists in 1979.
We moved to Pakistan a few years later. Although I learned to love that country as well, at first I was only there because it was Afghanistan’s neighbour and a stepping stone to get back to my heart as soon as it was peaceful again. We rode the shock waves of war in the border city of Peshawar through the 1980s. Dad’s eye hospital treated the refugees and war-wounded by the droves, and sometimes he was called to the Red Cross hospital where he would have to remove a mine-blasted eye while the other doctors removed limbs all in the same surgery. The images of the carnage in those wards haunted me for years.
Dozens and even a hundred refugees came to our gate every day where Mom would triage them – sending them off with a note, a prayer, a piece of naan, and some soap to the appropriate doctor or service. The constant demand and stories took their toll, and she began to have heart problems.
Trains that rumbled past our house carried tanks and ammunition, giving us a barometer of the level of fighting going on “next door” as we called Afghanistan. Sometimes the attacks from the front were so close that the blasts would rattle our windows and shake our hearts. Pakistan was good to the millions of Afghan refugees who spilled into their land, but it was a heavy burden. Peshawar itself had already been an unruly border city before, but now with the weight of all the refugees and its own political unrest, even the city of “refuge” had frequent bombs and kidnappings. But somehow, life continued for the Afghans as they struggled to live in the barren refugee camps during the boiling summers and cold wet winters. And amazingly, they would manage to make us huge feasts in their tents when we visited, humbling us with their generosity.
Our house? The hospital? The clinic? Our schools? All bombed. All destroyed.
In 1989, the long-awaited news reached us that the Soviets were finally pulling out, adding to the lengthy list of superpowers who had tried and failed to conquer this fiercely proud and independent people. Little had the Soviets known that their fancy maps and war strategies were no match for the infinite toughness of the Afghan people who knew the rugged land like the back of their hands.
But the celebration didn’t last long. All those alliances between ethnicities and tribes that had held the country together against its common enemy dissolved, and the country descended into chaos as the momentum of battle still raced through the mujahidin veins and propelled them into years of civil war.
The civilians trying to go back and make a new life were caught between the bullets of their own brothers, and Kabul, which had been mostly preserved during the Soviet era, was destroyed by its own people.
It was towards the end of this period when we were finally able to go back to the United States. As we drove into Afghanistan dodging mine-laden tracks of road, dipping into the dry creek beds to avoid bombed-out bridges, and finally pulling into the ruins of Kabul, the horror of the past 17 years was overwhelming. Our house? The hospital? The clinic? Our schools? All bombed. All destroyed. But Kabul’s spirit could still be felt. Flowers broke through the rubble. Mujahidin casually hanging out with their weapons offered us tea on the side of the road. Was there hope or just anarchy?
People often ask me if I’ve read books by Khalid Hosseini, but you see, I cannot read this fiction when the reality is already too much and too close.
It was into this power vacuum that the Taliban stepped, claiming to bring order and peace. But in the months that followed our visit in 1996, we were horrified to hear of the Taliban’s rule. What is more vicious than an outsider’s attack? A brother’s torture and torment of his own people. People often ask me if I’ve read books by Khalid Hosseini, but you see, I cannot read this fiction when the reality is already too much and too close. We knew this group wasn’t new. We had seen some Afghans grow more and more fanatical during their fight against the Soviets. And years before in the 1980s, we had driven out of a refugee camp at night when our headlights had fallen on a whole row of boys, about ages seven to 17, all holding Kalashnikovs. We were disturbed at how young they were and wondered why they were training at night in a place that had no electricity. I wonder now if we had seen some beginnings of the Taliban. And those from other countries such as Saudi Arabia who had come to fight the infidel Soviets had stayed and made Afghanistan their ideological playground, fuelling the early fires of fanatical groups. After all, it wasn’t their land or people, and the end justified the means in their eyes.
September 11, 2001, brought a shocked United States to its knees. I remember slipping into a church near our house the day after, joining them in our nation’s prayer groanings for our country’s deep loss. In the back of my mind, I knew the Afghan people would suffer for this, and so I raised my shaky voice to pray aloud for our supposed enemy. I dearly hoped that our churches would wait and pray before opening their mouths. I prayed my country would study history and culture before acting. Afghanistan was no normal country to step into. Just ask the Soviets.
But on October 6, 2001, the US entered Afghanistan. I was so confused. Was this purely retaliation for 9/11 on a strategically located scapegoat to satisfy the wrath of the American people or a sincere effort to liberate the Afghan people? And if it was to satisfy wrath, how could Christians justify such actions? Were we the enemies or the heroes? Was my country attacking my country? Or was it helping? Were the Afghans freedom fighters or guerrillas? How is it that semantics change depending on what side you support and fund? Could the US and international troops tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? Did they know you can’t turn an eagle into a dove? Was a troop increase helpful or harmful? Was an eventual pull-out a relief or a catastrophe?
In the shadows lurked the Taliban like lions kept at bay by a campfire, but the war-weary will of the Afghan people was for peace.
As the years rolled on, I did see signs of the international community developing a soft spot for its complicated ally. The country did rebuild. Kabul did become strong again, and the people of Afghanistan did begin to rise again. In the shadows lurked the Taliban like lions kept at bay by a campfire, but the war-weary will of the Afghan people was for peace. Just last year I moved the shell and shrapnel I kept out to remind me to pray for peace in Afghanistan into a box. I thought that maybe, just maybe, this tenuous peace could hold.
But those lions are back. And they care nothing for the people of Afghanistan but only about their power and ideologies. And I have to wonder if they even know who they are. Do they remember who they were as a people before war? Do they know what it means to be Afghan? Do they remember their pride and honour balanced by overflowing hospitality? Do they even know where their hearts are? Or have they lost them altogether?
“Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here? Why is there no healing for the wound of my people? Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.”
Although sometimes I am tempted, I will never give up praying and hoping for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, you are in my heart.