Jamaluddin Aram is a documentary filmmaker, producer and writer from Kabul. He lives in Toronto.
“There comes a day when your one eye will laugh and the other will cry.”
The wildly implausible premise makes this Afghan proverb underutilized even in Afghanistan, where taxi drivers, poets, politicians and housewives trade aphorisms so readily you would think it is their only mode of communication. Yet when I turn to these words on the second day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they seem tame against reality.
On this February day, the Taliban, who have been killing with a sense of duty, who never trusted in intra-Afghan peace talks and who took power by military force, issue a statement calling on Ukraine and Russia “to resolve the crisis through dialogue and peaceful means.” Besides expressing concern about civilian casualties, the statement demands attention to the safety of Afghan citizens in Ukraine. I allow this to sink in. It does not.
The majority of Afghans in Ukraine, as elsewhere in the world, who have left Afghanistan in the past 2½ decades have fled the nightmare of having to live under the Taliban. They sought safety from a brutal conflict that the West and the regional countries mainly paid for in dollars, rupees, rials and rubles, but that Afghans have paid for with their lives: 47,245 civilians and 66,000 Afghan police and army were killed during the 20-year war, according to The Associated Press.
But the Taliban’s record before the war began is darker and more unforgivable.
Consider this example: It is 1998. After losing an estimated 2,000 fighters a year earlier, the Taliban are readying a second offensive to try and capture Mazar-e Sharif, the city known for its annual red-tulip festival. Its Blue Mosque and white pigeons are visited by the sick, the barren and victims of unrequited love seeking a miracle. (It is also where my uncle, Mamad, was last seen working in an oil refinery six years prior.)
The news comes that auxiliary forces from all over the country are headed to Mazar – not to make a wish, but to kill. Some of the men are seeing this part of the country for the first time. Some, their vision blurred by revenge, do not look at the landscape; others feel their impatience stirred by their terrible love of war. It does not occur to the Sunni Taliban fighters that the people they are en route to kill – the Shia Hazaras associated with the militias of Hezb-e Wahdat, an armed group deemed responsible for the Taliban’s defeat in 1997 – worship the same God.
On Aug. 8, 1998, as the Taliban enter the city, Mullah Manan Niazi, the Taliban governor, calls Hazaras kofr – infidels: “You either accept to be Muslims or leave Afghanistan,” he says. His rhetoric goes back to the earliest days of Islam after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, when disagreements over who should lead the newly established Muslim community resulted in the Shia-Sunni split.
Even before this hate speech airs on the radio and through the mosques’ loudspeakers, the bloodbath is under way on the streets. A witness, who would later speak to Human Rights Watch, sees someone running and another man pulling a cart. A Datsun pickup truck full of Taliban comes down the street, and the soldier inside shoots the man who is running and then goes after the second man and shoots him as well.
Another witness sees three Hazaras standing at the eastern gate of the Blue Mosque. Several Taliban step out of a Toyota Hilux and shoot them in the head. On the same day, a 13-year-old boy, a carpet factory worker, is shot on his way home. “We came to Mazar to survive, and now I’m going to die” are among his last words, relayed to his grieving mother by those who tried in vain to take him to the hospital.
Then the house-to-house search begins. In some parts of the town, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens risk their own lives and hide their Hazara neighbours in their house. But across this city in which the temperature rises above 37 C during summer days, every heart is not as kind and every hand as warm. Hazara men and boys are killed at their doorstep or dragged to the city jail. When the cells overflow, prisoners are packed in shipping containers and driven to other cities.
Imagine 150 men in a container with no ventilation in such heat. On two occasions when the trucks arrive in Sheberghan, a city 130 kilometres west of Mazar, no prisoner climbs down. Day labourers are hired to unload the containers into dry wells and ditches on the outskirts of the city.
On the streets of Mazar, women who manage to identify their sons and husbands are stopped by the Taliban and told that the bodies have to lie in the open “until the dogs ate them.” The corpses lie in the sun and bloat and rot. Soon there is no air to breathe and the heavy stench of the dead fills the lungs. The bodies are removed from the streets only when concerns of widespread disease become imminent.
At the time, my family and I live in Kabul and hear the news on my father’s radio in the evening when he comes home from the small shop where he sells used car parts. The inflation is so high that my mother and my sisters turn our living room into a seamstress studio and make clothes all day, and continue to work by the glow of an oil lamp when dusk falls. In the vestibule, my brothers and I weave carpet from early morning until late at night, except the hours we go to school.
We do not get enough sleep and this does things to my mother’s heart. You can see it on her face. Then there is the new looseness around the corners of her mouth ever since she has heard of the massacre of fellow Hazaras in Mazar. “God knows what has become of Mamadak,” she says to herself, thinking about her brother, Mamad, while threading a needle to stitch a button. There are no telephones, my uncle does not know how to write a letter and perhaps he does not want to write one. So our only source for news of him is word of mouth that hardly ever comes.
I can only imagine the horror that passes through my mother’s mind, but I cannot imagine my uncle lying face down in a ditch. In our family album, there is a picture of him from before he went missing, when he worked as an assistant to my father who drove a cargo truck between Mazar and Kabul.
In the photo, my uncle cannot be more than 15. I look at him standing with that immediate innocence on the terrace of the Blue Mosque, a white pigeon perched on his shoulder and a second one landing on his wrists intent on the bird feed in his cupped palms that he holds out in front of him as if in prayer. He is squinting at the camera, his head tilted slightly over his right shoulder, and the cold autumn sun warming the boyish smile on his chubby face. Behind him, out of focus, is the turquoise dome of the shrine blurred by a cloud of mid-flight white birds.
One night, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, my uncle walks through the door and we regard him as if he is returning from the world of the dead. He looks nothing like the boy in the photo. His hair is greying, and his cheekbones seem to cut through his dry skin. My mother is crying with joy – she is seeing her little brother, whom she thought she would never see again.
My uncle sits with that faraway-ness about him, caused by things he has seen and heard that no human should. He does not talk about the killing frenzy, the women and girls who were raped or abducted, or about the similar massacre in Yakowlang in Bamiyan where, per Amnesty International reports, 300 civilians were killed. He looks tired and wouldn’t care to listen if someone explained to him that we Afghans had nothing to do with this Shia-Sunni schism, that it was a seventh-century Arab tribal conflict we somehow got caught up in.
My uncle is mostly quiet. When he speaks, he speaks of pain. Without an education and the privilege of knowing the exact words to name his many layers of suffering, he points at his feet in the two pairs of thick winter socks he is wearing one over the other even in the summer. His bones feel cold and empty, he says, sitting on the veranda in the sun, talking quietly to my mother as she mends his clothes. Like a broken truck, his joints move in one thousand and one directions, he says. He cannot wear shoes or smell the damask rosebushes that are in full bloom in front of him in our courtyard. All he can smell is his memory of those days in captivity and the darker days that followed.
He remembers working in the refinery, when they arrest him and take him to the jail. They kick him, punch him, slap him. They hang him from the ceiling with his legs up and lash the soles of his bare feet with electric cables, asking for a gun he never owned and confession for murdering Taliban fighters he never killed. He recalls every second of it. He cannot feel his feet once they let him down on the floor and bash him with rifle butts because he fails to follow orders and walk. They almost ship him to a different prison.
What saves him is his raised hand when his captors ask who knows how to drive. He and the other drivers follow the soldiers through the prison corridors and out into the courtyard and onto the bed of pickup trucks. They go to a place where brand-new Toyota trucks are parked in neat rows in the open. Each driver picks one and they trail the soldiers into the city. From kilometres away, he can smell the stench of bullet-riddled bodies littering the streets in different stages of decay after the stray dogs had their share. It takes his stomach hours to get used to the work and not retch every time he lifts up the dead with his bare hands and piles them into the passenger seat when the backseat and the bed are full.
With legs and torsos dangling from the rolled-down windows, he drives through the streets and out of the city onto the highway, and then gets off the asphalted road onto a dirt path, heading into the plains. In the evening, he scrubs himself for hours in the hamam, the public bath, but the smell does not wash off. He realizes he won’t be able to smell anything but that rank smell of the dead, even after the city is cleaned and he is used as a normal driver – even when the Taliban regime collapses and he is sitting in Kabul by a bed of perfuming flowers, talking to his sister.
Like my uncle, if you are an ordinary Afghan, regardless of your ethnicity or religious belief, the odds are always against you; the past is always present and does not let you walk away from it. If you are from a working-class family with no connections, you could get eight years, or however long the judge feels like that day, for being a witness to a manslaughter. Afghan prisons were full of such cases, as well as young men and women serving time for crimes such as love and sex.
The rule, however, does not apply to our oppressors and occupiers. For them, the past is past. They can do what they want because the strong do what they have the power to do, as Thucydides, the Greek historian and general, said, and the weak accept what they have to accept.
On Aug. 29, 2021, a U.S. drone strike killed 10 Afghans, including seven children in Kabul. An investigation into the event, according to John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, found no grounds for penalizing any of the military personnel involved in the operation, as reported by The New York Times.
While we are left searching and piecing together the shattered bodies of our loved ones, the Americans can leave the killing ground, wash, put on a fresh shirt, go to a pub with friends, order a beer in a chilled glass, and watch the Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl. They do not have to worry if their action and poor judgment have left scores of Afghan civilians dead and their families ruined forever. Those are not war crimes they have committed, but rather “breakdown in process,” “collateral damage,” “confirmation bias” and “righteous strike.”
Safe in their trust in the powerful justice system that has their back, the Americans can bang their palms on the table every time there is a brilliant play or a touchdown. They can order more beer and contemplate food and copulation after the game.
The Taliban do not have to worry, either. They can do whatever they want because they have God on their side; He is stronger than any justice system the world can ever create. He, too, is accountable to no one. So with impunity blessed upon them by the divine, the Taliban can pick up where they had left off in 2001.
With the return of the Taliban to power in August, the country suddenly sinks into déjà vu. The new rulers split cabinet seats and government positions among themselves as if these were spoils of war. Other ethnicities are not only excluded from decision making, but also persecuted. The massacre of Hazaras continues. The Taliban confiscate personal property to redistribute between their sympathizers. They go after the employees of the former administration, abduct and imprison women activists, torture and kill journalists, rape female prisoners, run over citizens on the streets, and shoot the youth for listening to music.
They commit these atrocities with such devotion as if they were making an offering to Him – He who gave them the strength of heart to kill so freely and for so long, and at the end rewarded their cruelty with victory.
Triumphant, the Taliban leaders attend dinners dressed in crisp ironed clothes and silk turbans. On their hands there is the blood of the innocents, and all around them are entire villages where men and women sell their kidneys to feed their families. In some provinces, parents arrive at the impossible decision to put one of their daughters up for sale to give the rest of their children a chance at life. Such facts mean nothing to the Taliban officials. Their thirst for power and their belief in the fiction of the afterlife have made them oblivious to the immediate reality surrounding them.
Speaking at a ceremony on March 5, Abdul Salam Hanafi, the Taliban’s acting second deputy prime minister, tells the graduating officers of the Afghan National Police Academy that “there’s no problem in this country.” Mr. Hanafi seems to be blind to the problems, especially to the one sitting next to him: Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network and the de facto interior minister. Until this ceremony, no one outside his inner circle knew what the man behind some of the most complicated suicide attacks in Afghanistan looked like.
Mr. Haqqani, who calls himself the Caliph, reveals his face despite the U.S. State Department’s US$10-million bounty. He opens his speech at the police academy with a verse from the Quran – the book from which he draws legitimacy for his actions – and gets it all wrong. But that does not matter. Those who trust in him and are ready to die for him do not have an accurate understanding of the Quran themselves. They have eyes and ears, however, and are aware of the glory that awaits them should the opportunity arise and they get to drink from the cup that is death. If any doubt ever flowers in their hearts, the Caliph replaces it with a promise of paradise.
At an appreciation luncheon in October at Kabul’s iconic Intercontinental Hotel, where three years earlier Mr. Haqqani had orchestrated carnage, he calls on the audience to remember the suicide attackers as heroes of Islam. Who does not want to be a hero? One thousand and fifty men from his network alone perhaps asked themselves that question and put the explosive vest on and marched down that one-way road. Another 1,500, according to Mr. Haqqani, are ready to join the caravan of martyrs.
Since no one comes back from the afterworld, the Caliph can continue making such unverifiable claims that not only renew hope in volunteers who felt despondent when the last American soldiers left the country and took away their chance of martyrdom, but also encourage new recruits to enlist in the rumoured special “suicide squad” being established as part of the defence forces.
Despite these actions, the Taliban leaders fly on chartered flights and sometimes their plane lands in Europe to a red-carpet reception, as if they were the cast and crew of Suicide Squad arriving at the world premiere of their film.
In response, Afghan activist Horia Mosadiq, speaking at the European Parliament in February, has a simple question. She has to fill a visa application every time she wants to travel to Europe. She has to confirm that she is not a terrorist, that she has not been trained in a terrorist camp and that she has not participated in acts of genocide and war crimes.
“When the delegates of the Taliban came to Oslo,” Ms. Mosadiq asks, “what did they write in their visa application?”
The answer never comes. The silence echoes the credulity of Western politicians and their lack of understanding of the enemy they fought for two decades. They think the Taliban have changed.
“We had hopes,” Ross Wilson, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told Minnesota Public Radio, “that the [Taliban] might rule more reasonably than they had in the 1990s.”
Afghans never shared that optimism, not even for a second.
And so, the nightmare that was feared is now a reality people live in. Despite their own promise, despite the women and girls protesting in the streets, and despite international pressure, the Taliban have remained adamant to not allow girls to attend classes beyond elementary school. There is drought, unemployment, inflation and the complete collapse of the financial system. A United Nations report suggests that 95 per cent of Afghans are not getting enough to eat.
“The Emirate didn’t promise you [the people] food,” says Mullah Hasan Akhund, the de facto prime minister. Providing food is God’s responsibility, he says. If there is poverty, then it must be a trial from Him. The Islamic Emirate, he believes, is a blessing. The nation should not be ingrates.
Mr. Akhund offers the Taliban’s mercy and compassion as an example, pointing to the pardoning of Afghan servicemen who tortured and killed the Taliban fighters for 20 years. According to him, such mercy remains unparalleled in the history of mankind. But The New York Times’ findings show the contrary: Close to 500 men and women who served in the army, police and intelligence were killed. And the killings continue. So does the Taliban’s barbarism.
Mr. Akhund claims that it is under the Islamic Emirate that women have finally attained their rights. Women now feel secure, their dignity is intact and you cannot find a single man across the country who can gaze at a woman leeringly.
There is some truth to that. Not that men have become pious overnight, but because women have been forced out of the public realm. Women cannot travel more than 72 kilometres or board an airplane unless accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. Women cannot go to school, they cannot protest and they cannot return to work, as employment priority is given to Taliban fighters.
In March, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation fired eight female employees and replaced them with men close to the Taliban. The same ministry also treated 17 high-ranking officials with university degrees in a similar fashion – the new appointees are reportedly incapable of fulfilling basic bureaucratic tasks, as most of them only have battlefield experience.
So how do you run a country when you have nothing but an army of incompetence? You go back to the old playbook. You outlaw knowledge to allow darkness to reign in the nation’s conscience. You intimidate, suppress, kill. You beg the infidels you fought against for help. And you tell stories. Fables from the Quran. Accounts of miracles. Dreams someone had dreamed centuries ago.
Like many Afghans, I refuse to believe in such dogmatic narratives or the person that tells them. I believe that the tyrant’s torch does not stay aflame forever. One evening, dusk will settle over the Islamic Emirate, and the following day, the sun will rise and shine on our physical and emotional wounds. Until then, we will carry our scars like my uncle has carried his.
For our scars are a reminder that if death is fierce, so is life.
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