FOCUS: Forty years of war in Afghanistan. This extract is published in our 2018/19 Winter Edition of Global Geneva. It is also part of Global Geneva’s ongoing series on Afghanistan.
It is now 7:20 pm. We have crossed the difficult and exhausting Kotali Zard or Yellow Pass and reached here about an hour ago. I am in the village of Korpay Taw, in the house of someone called Tooran. Do not ask me how I feel. I am so tired and exhausted that I cannot even put my sour feelings into words. After walking for more than thirteen hours, of which I rode my horse for only five, we arrived here at 6:30 pm. The last section of the pass took me an hour and a half to climb and cross. It was not that difficult but since there was little oxygen and the air was very thin, I ran out of breath. It took us about 5 hours from the top to descend to the bottom.
On the way, before reaching the first summer pasture, we ran into a group of internal refugees who were heading toward the Panjshir valley. There were men, women, elders, and children. Those misfortunate people seemed miserable but greeted Daad and me as we passed. I noticed that the children were running up and down beside their mothers and grandmothers, playing with whatever stones or pieces of wood they could find. The weather was freezing cold. I could see that the children did not have clothes warm enough to stave off the bitter cold and realized that their playing was probably more to keep themselves warm than for enjoyment. Maybe it was both.
A young man asked, “Sir, do you have any medicine to give? I have a few people who are very sick.” I did not have any medicine but in order to give him some hope, I told him that I would go to see them myself. We walked for five minutes until I saw a very old woman, a child, and a young man lying under a large boulder. Even from a distance, you could see they were sick. Perhaps they were related.
When the old woman with long white hair saw me, she pointed toward the child and the young man and said, “Please give them some medicine. They really need it.” When I moved the blanket from on top of the young man and little girl, I saw that the one’s leg and the other’s arm were injured. Thank God, their injuries were not so serious. I could do nothing more for them but give them the few painkillers that I had left. When I gave them to the young man, he immediately handed them to the old woman and said, “She is very sick and has a high temperature. She needs it more.” I searched in my pocket and gave the only pieces of candy I had to the little girl and left.
We passed the refugees and I decided to sit on a small boulder to rest a little. Just as we had gotten comfortable, two helicopters circled around above us and disappeared. As we searched the skies, we saw that they were circling back around. Looking at the refugees, I prayed to myself that they were not the targets because there were so many that it would be hard for all of them to find refuge. At this moment, I ordered Daad to quickly run and tell the refugees to take shelter just in case the helicopters decided to attack the convoy.
Anything was possible with the Soviets. Before Daad had time to get back to me, four attack helicopters appeared on the horizon. They swooped down in formation like dragons waiting to unleash their fiery breath. The noise from the four helicopters as they flew closer rose to a deafening and terrifying din. They were camouflaged but were flying so low that I could easily see the pilots inside the cockpits. These awe-inspiring dragons of destruction, circled the area around us as if they were marking their territory and getting ready to let loose their sinister arsenal. I took my rucksack from my horse and headed toward the closest boulder I could find. I had not quite reached it, when the first of the rockets hit, making the ground tremble and roar. Since I had gone ahead and run further up the track in order to take refuge, I unfortunately had a perfect view of the refugee convoy further down. Another helicopter fired a few more rockets in our direction. Out of four, only two of these dragons commenced their attack. It was already too much. One rocket hit the ground not more than 50 meters from where I had taken shelter. As I looked up, waiting for more rockets, the dragons started to circle again. They seemed even more sinister now than they did when they first appeared on the horizon.
All of a sudden, they spun their tails away from us and disappeared, probably heading toward Bagram airbase. I stayed in my place for another fifteen minutes just in case they returned. I could see nothing but plumes of smoke and fire. The gut-wrenching noise of screams and cries coming from those innocent refugees had replaced the thunderous sounds of the Soviet killing dragons. I could not take it anymore and rushed toward the smoke and screams.
When I reached the scene, my body stopped of its own accord, faced with the carnage in front of me. I do not have words for the hell that the world had become. An old man was covered in blood and a young girl’s injuries were so severe that I dare not describe them to you. A boy of about ten years was crying and bleeding profusely. Four or five other women were sobbing, weeping, and grabbing handfuls of earth and throwing it on their faces in an act of heart-wrenching sorrow. They were screaming, “Why, O God? Why has this happened to us? We leave our homes to find shelter from war, and the devils bring war upon us! Why has this happened?”
The little children who were playing before were now crying loudly from their meager sanctuaries behind small and large boulders. Some sheep and goats were lying dead. A horse was neighing intolerably in excruciating pain from his injuries. The earth all around us was black and burnt. Some pillows and mattresses the refugees had been carrying before were still burning. I was in a sort of shock as I walked along the path, looking at horrors that I could only imagine could be fashioned in hell. I could not even think of anything else, my mind and body were numb from what I saw. The dirty smell of burned earth and flesh disturbed my senses even more.
I had to act and called out to the men to form a group in front of me so that we could see what we could do, when at that moment, Daad appeared. I was happy to see that he was still alive but what could any of us do? There were no roads, no hospitals, and no forms of transportation or communication in the immediate area. I thought, as I looked around that the whole universe was bleeding and that the screams and tears of these innocent people could be heard throughout the world. For me, this scene was the real face of war. I did not see any way of helping these people when, suddenly and fortuitously, a group of young freedom fighters appeared. They all knew me and I knew them.
Their commander came to me and as we shook hands, I told him, “It is good to see you. Please do what you can for these poor people of ours.” He simply replied, “This is why we are here, Khalili Sahib. It is good that you are alive and not injured. We will do what we can for them.” At this moment, I remembered the sick old woman, the young man, and the little girl. I decided to go see if they were still alive. Thankfully, they were still lying beneath that same boulder, alive and free from further injury. I looked at the little girl. She was in a real state of shock. She stared with her big eyes at me and as I patted her on the head, I noticed that she was still clutching tightly one of the candies I had given her. I smiled, rummaged through my pockets, and thankfully found one more piece of candy to give to her. I left them once again and moved on.
I told Daad to try to find my horse and get ready to continue our journey. I walked slowly toward the next village. In about five minutes, Daad had found my horse, and was once again at my side. The screams and bloody images of children and innocent civilians were still fresh in my mind. It took about half an hour to reach the village where I am now. I was thinking to myself as I walked, what is the meaning of life, when a verse of my father’s came to mind: “That moment which you call life is nothing but frustration, sadness, burning, pain, and suffering.” This verse kept ringing in my mind but I concluded that despite all of these realities, one should still have hope.
Now listen to what happened as I was entering a sweetly bucolic summer pasture. A little boy of about six years, who was sweeter than a sugar cube, was playing with his goat. The women were working in and around their pasture. I called out to the small boy, “Where is your father, boy? Whose son are you?” He stopped playing, looked innocently up at me and said nothing. I asked again, “What is the name of your father? Where is he? Call him please to come and help us to find something to eat.”
Again, he innocently looked up at me but kept quiet. I felt that maybe the little boy is mute or deaf and again I asked louder, “Tell me son, where’s your father? Go and call him.” I could see that tears had now filled his beautiful eyes. It then seemed as though he was about to say something. Almost in a whisper, he said, “He has been martyred. I have no father but I am a good boy. Do not harm me. I am a good boy. Do not harm me please.”
My dear, you cannot imagine what a burning pain gripped my soul. I thought entire mountain had dropped on my heart, telling me to cry, and I did. I went closer to him, took him in my arms, and warmly kissed his cheeks and small hands. At that moment, his friendly-looking grandmother appeared and in beautiful Paryani Farsi asked, “Would you like some tea?” Without waiting for a response from me, she kindly brought a cup of tea. In my rucksack, I had some homemade biscuits, which I shared with the little boy. I asked the grandmother what happened to the boy’s father. She said, “The communists came one day, attacked our home, pulled his father outside, and after some shouting back and forth, they shot him dead in front of this poor son of his. One minute, he was playing with his father; and, the next, his little hands were covered in his father’s blood. Since then, he has been afraid of any men who are unknown to him.”
I patted the boy on the head as he sat next to me listening to our conversation. Thank God, somehow he has started talking to me a little. The boy’s name was Mutalib and his martyred father was Abdul Qadir. He loved his father. I talked a bit with the little boy. He told me, “Thank God, my mother now has three goats that my martyred father always wanted to buy for her. She is working day and night to make me happy. She wants me to go to school, if possible.”
I filled his pockets with the all the raisins I had. I also gave him a little money. He ran to his mother. His mother called from afar, “Why did you give him the money? A poor traveler should not do that. Whatever we have belongs to the freedom fighters of this land.” Not even a few minutes had passed when Mutalib, the little boy, ran back to me and brought two big pieces of quroot, dry yoghurt balls. As I departed, I repeated twice under my breath what he wanted me to believe of him; “I am good boy, I am a good boy.”
Masood Khalili is currently Afghan ambassador to Madrid. His 2017 book – Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet War – is published both in English and French. Khalili also inspired the title of Edward Girardet’s “Killing the Cranes” book on reporting 30 years of war in Afghanistan.