Kabul, Afghanistan – In July, after 28 years in Iran, Tahera Karimi went to obtain an Afghan national ID card in Kabul, the capital.
In place of the ID card she sought, Tahera was greeted by a question she has been unable to answer since 1979. “Where’s your husband?” a gruff man asked.
“I don’t know. He’s missing.”
Though it had been more than three decades since his forced disappearance, time had done little to ease the sting of a question she herself has been asking ever since.
Each Eid that passed, each knock on the door and each day as a refugee in an Iranian carpet-weaving factory were stained with traces of the day in 1979 when Muhammed Abdul Hadi never returned home.
Abdul Hadi, at the time a 26-year-old watchmaker, knew that the short-lived governments of Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin – the communist leaders who ruled Afghanistan from 1978 to 1979 – were tracking him. But he would not allow the surveillance of the notoriously brutal regimes keep him from providing for his family.
A simple worker, Abdul Hadi was far from a resistance leader. In their seven years together as husband and wife, Tahera saw no signs of political aspirations or Islamist tendencies in her husband. However, the Khalqis – the Communist faction ruling Afghanistan at the time – quickly earned a reputation for the forced disappearance of thousands thought to be a threat to the state.
Even if they come for each of your three children, you must hold fast to your Muslim faith and not let them defeat you.
Knowing that criticising the government could be just as dangerous as picking up a gun, every time Abdul Hadi left their west Kabul home, Tahera would ask, “Why?” His answer was always the same. “Even if they come for each of your three children, you must hold fast to your Muslim faith and not let them defeat you.” For many Afghans, regardless of their religiosity, the most powerful form of protest against a “godless” government in Kabul was religion.
The walk to Abdul Hadi’s shop was just 10 minutes, but Tahera always wished for her husband’s safe return. This ritual was finally broken on the day when an apprentice came to the family’s home. “They took Abdul Hadi. Hide your books and Qurans – the Khalqis will come to search this house,” he said.
The Khalqis never came.
For more than a year, Tahera made near daily visits to Pol-e Charkhi, the prison outside Kabul where Khalqi detainees were being kept. When she would inquire about her husband, the Khalqis would say, “he’s not here, he went to see Khomeini”, referring to Iran’s supreme leader. The time Abdul Hadi had spent in neighbouring Iran was given as proof of his alleged Islamist ties.
“Every morning I would arrive before the prayer with his clothes in my hand, hoping they would call Abdul Hadi’s name,” Tahera said. But each day, with her youngest son asleep in her arms, Tahera would return still clutching her missing husband’s clothes.
Despite Abdul Hadi’s insistence that Tahera find courage in God, the 21-year-old mother of three could not summon the strength to keep a positive attitude. His advice brought little solace each time Tahera had to answer her childrens’ questions of “Where is Baba?” with “In prison”.
After a year of waiting outside Pol-e Charkhi, the loneliness and responsibility of Kabul became too much to bear. She moved her family to Iran, where she lived in the homes of her parents and brother-in-law for 28 years.
‘Five thousand martyrs’
After three decades of waiting, a headline in the 8am Daily newspaper on September 18 finally provided the Karimi family with the answer of what happened to Abdul Hadi. “Disclosing the names of 5,000 martyrs”, the front page read.
Shafiqa Mohseni, the wife of Abdul Hadi’s eldest son, first learned the news when she saw the 8am Daily headline in the Kateb University library. “It was the last newspaper to arrive that day. When it came at 3pm, the guy said, ‘8am is here. Wait until you see the headline.'”
Shafiqa, who for years had heard about her father-in-law’s disappearance and helped the family organise prayers for him, was overcome. “I was in shock. I couldn’t remember if he was taken in 1978 or 1979, but how could I ask my husband?”
As the weight of responsibility set in, Shafiqa found herself frozen. A call from her husband, Syed Jamaluddin, brought her out of a daze. “I read on the BBC Persian website that 8am released the names,” he said. “Do you have it with you?”
Shafiqa paused, knowing she would have to open the newspaper. “Yes, but should I look in ’78 or’ 79?” she said, trying to gather her composure.
“1979,” he told her.
Her hands shaking, Shafiqa turned the page and there it was, in black and white. “Muhammed Abdul Hadi, 26, watchmaker, ‘ikhwani‘”.
In shock, Shafiqa dropped the phone. When it rang again, there was only a single question on the other end: “Is his name on there?” Shafiqa let out a meek “yes”, and Jamaluddin immediately broke out in tears.
“I’ve heard him speak about his father countless times over the years,” she said, “but I had never heard my husband cry like that. It was like nothing I had heard before in my life”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Jamaluddin said the news did little to allay his decades-long anxiety and fear. “It was as if I had lost him all over again.”
Her husband’s reaction only heightened Shafiqa’s unease about telling her mother-in-law. “Her youngest son was about to be engaged. After so many years of suffering, the last thing I wanted to do was spoil that,” Shafiqa said.
For days, they tried to hide the news from Tahera. Each time she inquired about their sadness, Shafiqa and Jamaluddin said it was due to work troubles. After several days, repeated calls by Jamaluddin’s older sister in Switzerland led Tahera to ask for the truth.
Khalqis killed him
“They published the list of names, and Baba’s was on it,” Shafiqa finally told her. Suddenly, the questions surrounding the defining moment of Tahera’s life had an answer. Khalqis had killed her husband. There was no longer a chance that Abdul Hadi might walk through the door of their home in west Kabul. There was no chance that he had been sent to Russia, as many of the Khalqi party’s captives were said to have been. He was dead.
Like the families of the other 4,999 names, the Karimis felt conflicting emotions upon the list’s publication. “I don’t know if it is our fortune or our misfortune,” Jamaluddin told Al Jazeera.
The list did, however, give names to some of the first victims of Afghanistan’s more than three-decade-long conflict. Most importantly, though, the names meant that no one – including the man at the ID office – could ever again tell Tahera that “such an event never occurred in the history of Afghanistan” when trying to answer questions about her husband.
Jamaluddin, who was three years old at the time of his father’s disappearance, said his family has only one expectation from the Kabul government: diligence.
With controversy surrounding many of the leading players in the conflict – communists, warlords, Taliban and the Karzai government – the Karimis know seeking legal justice for their father’s death will do little for their country.
“We have made a life for ourselves, thank God – we don’t need anything [monetarily] from them. What we do want is for them to follow up,” Jamaluddin said.
For Tahera, who despite immense challenges tried desperately to keep her family together, the list had an unexpected impact. It made her feel less alone.
At a September 29 memorial outside Kabul’s Darulaman Palace, Tahera found an unexpected community in the 200 people holding placards with the names and faces of their loved ones.
Surrounded by the glow of candles outside the palace that both Amin and Taraki were killed in, Tahera saw for the first time that she “was not alone. I had hundreds of other brothers and sisters who went through the same thing”.