My Project "The Afghans"

 

Chapter 1

Holidays were over and the schools were again in session. Bilal had not done his home-work. Yesterday he was busy entertaining his friends from the neighbour-hood. They played, talked, cycled on the streets, and then had cookies and milk and went home. Bilal had a lovely time with his friends but he had forgotten to do his home work.  It was first day in school and he was staring at the empty pages of his exercise note book and would not look up for the fear of catching the teacher’s eye; who might ask him about his home work.

He was still in a state of confusion when suddenly he heard loud bangs, and a deafening sound of a tank shell.      Some-body was screaming and then there was another blast with a loud explosion. He looked around and saw that his class room was hit by the tank shell and one section of it was burning. Thick smoke was every where and bright orange flames were flickering on the wooden desks and chairs in one corner of the room.  Every-body was screaming now; and so was he. In panic his class mates were trying to run out of the burning class room, but the only door that could let them out was a wooden door and it too had caught fire

Children were panicking and Bilal was so shocked that he was rooted to his desk and could not move.  Then to his horror he saw his best friend’s clothes catching fire and in no time the boy was engulfed in flames.  Bilal was crying and the thick smoke was hurting his lungs. He could not breathe. In desperation he called for his mother, Bibi Gul. “Mama, mama.” And then blissful darkness engulfed him and there was no more pain for him to endure.

Bibi Gul was feeling very restless today. Her husband Rasheed Khan was at the office and her two sons Bilal and Saleem were at school.

‘Why am I feeling so low?’ She wondered.

‘May be she thought, its time of the month that is giving me the blues.’

She looked out of the window at her beautiful garden. There was a tennis court and a playground for children, and a very nice rose garden in front of the house. Her husband Rasheed Khan was a good tennis player and at times invited his friends for a friendly game.  The house also had a high boundary wall around it. Many houses in Kabul have high and thick boundary walls. These walls have outer layers of mud bricks to stop bullets from piercing them.  It was a clear day and her four year old son Abid was busy running after a big bright butterfly in the garden and her one year old daughter was sleeping peacefully in her push chair.  Suddenly she heard loud piercing gun shots that echoed though the walls of the house. There was a lot of noise and her servants were running and shouting about something. She was a little confused as to what was going on. She was worried and called her son.

.“Abid----Abid come here, and stay indoors with me.”

He obeyed but he would have preferred to see what was going on out there.  She picked up Marriam and got hold of Abid and went to the safety of her back rooms.

Bibi Gul was a beautiful woman.   She was tall, about five feet eight inches, had light brown heir, and sparkling blue eyes.  She was an educated young woman, with a master’s degree in Physics from Kabul University, and had taught in a college for a year before her wedding.  She married Rasheed Khan and led a very happy life.  She was familiar with guns. She was a remarkably good markswoman.  She had learned to fire hand guns while practicing with her brothers when she was young.  In Afghanistan almost every one knew what guns were and how to use them.  It was common practice to carry guns.

Suddenly Bibi Gul heard footsteps of someone approaching her. To her relief it was her driver Wahab Khan who came running in the room and said.

“Bibi Gul lets go to your father’s house.”

“Why! What is the matter?” she asked.

 She could hear the noise of gun shots. These sounds were not new to her ears. She had experienced many tribal skirmishes before.

“I don’t know what is going on, but ever- body is running and taking shelter. We must go too.” Wahab Khan said.

“No! No!” she said. “Where is Rasheed Khan? Find out where he is! Call his office”.

She was beginning to panic.

“I called his office, and many other numbers as well, the news is not good. All our employees and domestic servants have run away. We should leave the house; I want to take you to your father’s house, where you will be safe. Then I will go to my village to look after my family.”   Wahab said.

“What about my children? Please, I will pack a few things…you go and get the boys from school.” Bibi Gul was worried for her two sons.

“There is no time for packing, please try to understand. Take only your jewellery and cash if there is any in the house. I have parked the small car at the back of the house.”

 He said breathlessly as if he had been running for miles.

“Please Bibi Gul come; we will try to get Saleem and Bilal on the way if we are lucky.”

Wahab implored.  She picked up one-year-old Marriam, some milk and food for the children, some cash and jewellery and came to the back door of the house. As she was going out towards the door she could hear the pounding on the main door and shots being fired.

Wahab was a faithful servant; he had locked the main gate after taking out the small car and parked it on the street a little away from the back door. He had heard about the disturbance in Kabul and as a precautionary measure took out the car, so that he was ready to take Bibi Gul and her children away.  She ran towards the car with Marriam in her arms and Abid running with her.  They just managed to get out of the house when with a thud the main door came crashing down from its hinges.

They had managed to leave the house just in time. Wahab, her faithful driver was now driving as fast as he could, to her father’s house and promised her that he would go back to school to get Saleem and Bilal.  Bibi hugged Abid and Marriam to her bosom and pleaded with her driver.

“Please drive fast; you can drop me near the village. I will walk from there to my father’s house; do go back quickly and get my children.”

 “Yes---yes---I know ---I know,” Wahab kept on driving.

Bibi Gul’s father, Sardar Allah-Yar khan, was a tribal chief and was very well respected. Wahab dropped them very near Sardar’s house and all three ran towards the main gate.

Wahab drove away towards the school to get the children and they reached the big gate of the house. The village was calm and nothing extraordinary was going on there. Bibi banged the front door, crying, which frighten Abid. After a little pause someone asked from inside the house.

“Who is there?”

“Open please”.  Bibi managed to whisper in her sad voice.  The door immediately opened, as one of her father’s gunmen recognized that it was Bibi Gul.

“Bibi Gul! What is the matter? Where is your car? Where is Rasheed Khan?” He was shocked to see her like that and asked many questions in one go.

“Oh! I don’t know?”

 She passed him and went running inside the house.

“Oh! Agha Jan---where are you?”  She called her father.

“What happened?”  Everybody in the house came running to her, she was in the house now and a servant took Marriam from her arms and she collapsed on the sofa.

Sardar Allah-Yar came from his outer office, which was known as Divan-I- Aam.

“What is going on? What is this noise? What is happening?”   He said in his gruff voice.  Every one became silent. He was a regal man who commanded a lot of respect and awe. He was loved by the members of his tribe and his household.  He was their Chief, their Sardar, and their tribal head.  He came into the room.  He was tall, about six feet four inches, and weighed about two hundred and twenty pounds indeed a very handsome man at seventy.

 “What is it?” He asked again.

“Oh! Agha Jan,” Bibi got up from the sofa.

 “Some terrible things are happening in Kabul.”

Sardar Allah-Yar kept quiet, as he wanted to know more.

“My house has been vandalized by the hooligans.  I do not know the fate of my husband or of my children.”

 She started crying again. Sardar Allah –Yar pulled her towards him and hugged her.

 “Sh---Sh---calm down and tell me everything.” He said.

After a little while Bibi Gul was calm enough to relate how her driver was intelligent enough to put one of the cars out of the house and how they had barely managed to escape.

“Where is Rasheed?” He asked.

“I don’t know, Wahab rang his office many times but there was no reply. All my servants had run away and there was no time to waste, so we left the house and came here”.

She sobbed.

“Okay! Okay; I will ask some one to contact Rasheed to find out what is going on in Kabul. You get some rest; everything will be all right.”

 He turned and went back to his outer office.

Bibi knew that every thing would not be all right as her father had predicted. How could she rest when her husband and two of her sons were missing?  She had no mother to comfort her.

Sardar Allah-Yar’s wife had died of cancer five years ago.  He had not remarried.  He had one daughter and three sons. Two of his sons were married and worked with him.  They had small departmental stores in their area and also across the border in Pakistan.  These stores were in Landi Kotal and in Peshawar’s Baara Bazaar only a few miles from Peshawar city. These areas were known as Tribal Belt. In this area Government of Pakistan had very little control. The law was the local self governments known as Jirga.

The tribal people were very good businessmen, they were also smugglers and gun runners. The Government of Pakistan had no jurisdiction over them. The tribal people would not observe any border formalities and could cross the borders with impunity.  In winter thousands of Afghans would come down from the rugged hilly areas of Afghanistan to Pakistan. They would pitch tents in Pakistan to live for four months of severe cold and would go back in April when the weather

became tolerable. Many tribal lords had their businesses in the tribal belt. They had their second house in Peshawar and some of them lived permanently in Peshawar.   Allah-Yar’s sons had four stores there.  Nobody paid excise tax on imports and could, therefore, sell the goods at much lower prices.  In these stores smuggled goods were openly sold.  People would come from all parts of Pakistan to buy those goods, which included imported fabrics, cosmetics, electrical appliances, and electronics.

Sardar Allah-Yar called Rasheed Khan’s office but there was no reply. He tried many phone numbers and finally someone answered the telephone. The person knew Sardar Allah-Yar as he belonged to the same tribe.

“Malik Sahib,” he said. “Everything is finished here. I have heard Hafizullah Amin has been taken prisoner by the Russians. Please Malik Sahib, take care of yourself, there are Russians everywhere.”

“Where is Rasheed Khan?”

Sardar Allah-Yar asked, his gruff voice seething with rage; this was the seventh telephone call he had made to know the fate of his son-in-law.

“Malik Sahib—I don’t know for sure but I have heard that Rasheed Khan’s office was one of the first few that were attacked by the Russian Army and in consequence many people were killed. I do not know if Rasheed Khan was among them. Things are not good here;   I am leaving for my village to see what I can do to save my family. May Allah be with you? Goodbye.”  

Then the petrified man hung up.

Allah-Yar was now really worried about Rasheed khan and his grandsons. He was also worried about the political situation of Afghanistan.   He was a prominent politician and his son-in-law Rasheed Khan was a minister in the government.

Wahab was driving very fast, he was in a great hurry to reach the school to get Saleem and Bilal from there, after dropping the children and Bibi Gul at the village.

At that time the whole of Kabul was in an unprecedented uproar and commotion.  Many buildings were burning, people were running and screaming.  There was pandemonium and turmoil in the streets.  One could see Russian tanks and armoured cars everywhere. It was a chaotic mess.

Wahab took a turn to find a narrow lane, and tried to take a shortcut to the school. That lane was deserted and all the shops were closed.  People had either gone home or taken shelter behind closed doors.  He turned left, but unfortunately it was a dead end. It took him ten minutes with his expert driving skills to turn back. He avoided the big roads and main streets and reached the school following a dirt track.  As he reached, he saw that there was a lot of confusion and chaos in the school. Some parents had managed to take their children away; others were trying to find them. A tank shell had hit the outer wall of the school. Two classrooms and the office were hit; thick black smoke was spewing out of the rooms. Orange flames could be seen from afar.  Wahab rushed inside Bilal’s classroom--it was empty.  He felt helpless as he had promised Bibi Gul that he would get the boys from school.  Now he could not even find them.  The courtyard was full of army personnel, rudely interrogating the school’s Principal.  They wanted to know the names and addresses of the children of high ranking government officials. The Principal was trying to avoid questions in the hope of not giving any information regarding the parents of his students.

“There are more than four hundred boys in this school; I do not know every boy’s or his parents’ name.” the principle said .

“Yes, but you have the records of their admission. Where is your secretary?” A Major asked.

 The Principal looked at the secretary who was looking with blank eyes at him, standing behind the intimidating Major.

“He is on sick leave.” he lied.

The secretary was either intelligent enough not to refute him, or was too afraid to speak.

“Where are your records?” again the same Afghan Army Major shouted at him.

“Look at the state of the school! Look what you have done to it.”

Again the principal started a fresh subject, to avoid giving a direct answer.

 “Why not come tomorrow and get the information you want? The building is on fire, the children are scared; please put out the fire.”

He was not afraid of the young major, he knew his family, but there were two Russian officers who were speaking very quietly and ordering the young Afghan Major in their own language. This Major had lived in Russia for more than two years, on an exchange program and was fluent in Russian.

Wahab lost interest in the conversation. He had to find Bilal and Saleem quickly .The Principal was a good man.  It was his sacred duty to protect the children and not to give any clue about their background.  In all this confusion most of the children were frightened and running around.  Wahab got hold of one of Saleem’s friends Khalil.

“Have you seen Saleem anywhere?” he asked.

 “No! Please take me with you Wahab Lala.” The little boy cried

“Yes, come with me.” They ran back to their car and as they approached the car they saw a child behind a trash-can, and Khalil cried,

“There is Saleem, look!” Wahab went to the boy.

“Saleem Khan?” He called. It was Saleem, who stood up when he saw his driver and his best friend, and came running towards them.  His clothes were black with soot and he had been crying.  His face had streaks of tears mixed with black soot.

 “Come, let’s go!”

Wahab was happy that he had found at least one of the boys. They ran all the way towards the car. Behind them there was the deafening noise of bombs and gunfire.

“Where is Bilal?” He asked Saleem as they reached the car.

“I don’t know Lala. I was trying to find him but I could not.”  He said, and started crying again.

“Never mind. Do not cry.  Everything will be okay. We will come back later for him.”

After dropping off Khalil, whose house was nearby, Wahab drove the car towards his village. Wahab was worried about Rasheed Khan and Sardar Allah-Yar Khan. He knew that they were very close friends of president Hafizullah Amin. Though Sardar Allah-Yar was not an active member of the government, he remained an advisor of sorts to President Hafizullah.  When Saleem realized that he was not going towards his house he said.

“I want to go home Lala.”

“Look, I have dropped Bibi, Abid and Marriam to your grandfather’s house. You have to stay with me for the night because things are not good in Kabul and it’s not safe to go there.” What else could he tell a ten-year-old boy?  Who was traumatized and terrified by the attack on his school.

Saleem always thought that after his home, the safest place was his school.   Today he had a terrifying experience. He wanted to go home to his mother. He thought that his driver will take him there, but instead Wahab took him to his village and introduce him to his family.

He had two sons: Shahab and Rubab. They were much older than Saleem. They all tried to calm him down, as he would start crying at short intervals.

“Please Lala, take me home!” requested Saleem.

 He would ask Wahab again and again.

 “Okay, we will go back first thing in the morning, now do not cry.”

His wife and both his sons were trying to calm Saleem down, and after great difficulty he drank some milk, ate a few biscuits and finally slept. He had been too drained of energy to continue crying.

Wahab Khan went out to see his village elders; he wanted to discuss the news of turmoil in Kabul.  He reached the village square where the elders would gather in front of a teashop to discuss the day’s events.

“Hafizullah Amin is no more in power and Soviet troops are everywhere.”  One man said.

“No! No! It’s not possible. Where did you get this ghastly news?” replied another.

“It’s true.”  The first man continued.  “My brother is in the Army. He called me a few minutes ago with the news.”

“Then it must be true.”  Another man interrupted.

“But Amin had also misused his power by throwing out and killing the previous president Noor Mohammad Tarkie.”

The Afghans were discussing their future.  Wahab kept quiet but was very much worried about Rasheed Khan.  He knew that if all the rumours were true, Rasheed Khan was in mortal peril, as he was a close friend of President Hafizullah Amin.

“What will become of Hafizullah?” One man asked.

“It is the fate of our country which is at stake, not Hafizullah Amin. He is just one man. I have heard that Soviet forces have surrounded Kabul. They have tanks and armoured cars while we have rifles only.”

“All this talk of Russian invasion seems like a fantasy, but I am a witness to all that.”

 Wahab joined in the conversation.  Every one looked at him.

“What do you mean?” Some one asked him.

“I was working at Rasheed Khan’s place; I saw the invasion with my own eyes.  When the Afghan army with Russians came to raid Rasheed Khan’s house I evacuated his family to Malik Allah –Yar’s house.”

Every one was eager to know more and started to pull their chairs towards Wahab’s table. They wanted to know what was going on in their country.

“You saw the Russian soldiers?” One man asked.

“Yes, and it was scary. I went to get Rasheed Khan’s children from school and I saw them there also. They were every -here. They were behaving like conquerors of our land. They were interrogating the Principal of the school and it was not a friendly chat.”

“What will happen now?”   One man asked.  None of them had an answer.

“Why is this happening to us?”  A man said with a lot of emotions.

 “It is our own fault, we ousted King Zaire Shah and since then we are having a lot of trouble.”  One of them said.

“Yes, he was a good king. Look how, only after five years of king’s removal by Mohammad Daud, he was assassinated by Noor Muhammad Taraki, who was later replaced by Hafizullah Amin..”  The other man said.

Wahab was worried and said.

“We are discussing politics as if it is happening some where else, and not in our own country.  I am telling you I saw Russians, and they were behaving not as a friendly force but as conquerors, and it is not a good sign.”

Everybody was silent.

“What shall we do?”  A young man asked.

“There are not going to come to the villages----are they?”  It was not a question but a worried observation.

“Why not. Who is going to stop them?”

“What shall we do?” The same man asked.

“I don’t know about you, but I think I will take my family to Pakistan if there is too much trouble.” one of them said.

Many others agreed with him, and Wahab was also thinking along the same lines.

He was worried for Saleem Khan and his parents. He suspected that Saleem’s father Rasheed Khan had been killed. He did not know what to do with Saleem. He was unable to take him to Allah-Yar’s village, because he had to cross Kabul city to reach their village.  He did not want to go through Kabul until things settled down