Afghan couple’s tale of Soviets and holy war

On the 25-year anniversary of Soviet forces’ withdrawal, writer tells of his parents’ choice not to return.

Twenty-five years ago, as a young immigrant boy in California, I thought as soon as the “Godless” Russians left we would return to Kabul. In my six or seven-year-old mind there was no question that my parents who only ever bought “four plates and never a fifth” because we would soon be returning to Afghanistan, would put us on the first plane back to our homeland.

But February 16, 1989, the day after the final Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, did not turn out as I had envisioned.

I remember waiting for days for my father to pack us into the old Cadillac he named aros, or bride, so we could head to the airport.

Instead, it would be 22 years until I would see the city of my birth again.

Escape to Pakistan

Though my young mind often wondered why we didn’t return, it wasn’t until I was back in Kabul that I truly understood the reason why the Soviet withdrawal alone wasn’t assurance enough for my parents.

“We had three children and nothing to return to”, my mother said of having to sell many of our belongings, including our houses, to pay for the kachakbar-ha, smugglers who took us to Pakistan.

“Who do you think would give us a job, how would we feed you three?”

It was a practical answer from a nurse who had gone from being the stylish daughter of the former military chief of staff to being told to sweep the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.

But the reason wasn’t solely practical. There was of course, a very clear political component.

“The Russians left, but it was still a Communist government. There was no way we would live in a Communist Afghanistan”, my father said of then President Mohammad Najibullah’s leadership.

It was the Communists after all, who had jailed and tortured my grandfather along with three of his brother-in-laws after falsely accusing them of plotting a coup d’état.

It was also the Communists who put constant pressure on my parents.

“Every week I was taken in by KhAD [intelligence] for not supporting the Communists. Your mother too, would constantly be dismissed in the hospital, and each time we had to have someone intervene to get her job back.”

Perhaps the biggest fear for my parents, though, was the mandatory military conscription in effect at the time.

“We didn’t know how long the Communists would be in power, but the last thing we wanted was for you and your brother to be on the frontlines of their battles”, my father, himself a doctor and son of a former cultural attaché at the Afghan embassy in Egypt, told me.

‘Holy Warriors’

A few years later, when the men once known as Mujahideen, or holy warriors, took over, my parents watched from afar as things went from bad to worse.

“These men used to be heroes. People gave them bread, money, even their children to fight in what we thought was their righteous battle”, my father said.

Even he, who had always eschewed politics, originally found himself swayed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

“If they [intelligence] knew what I was doing for him. How much I helped him, they would have killed me for sure. I used to think he was a real Muslim hero.”

My father’s love of the anti-Soviet commander who would go on to found Hezb-e-Islami, the second-largest armed opposition movement in the country, lasted until he found himself in Hekmatyar’s notorious Peshawar prison while trying to meet us in Pakistan.

It was only once they took power that the similarities between the Communist Kafer, or infidels, and the Mujahideen became evident, my parents said.

As two Herati men who took part in the Herat Uprising of 1979 told me, there were some in Afghanistan who were willing to give the Communists a chance.

“They were educated, when they were in the parliament their constituencies were happy with them, but it was the [1978] coup d’état that ruined them”, my father said.

Initially, my parents said they had hopes that the men who said they were fighting for Islam would restore order and re-establish a unified Afghan nation. Instead, they said, what transpired was the opposite.

“We saw who Rabbani was. We saw who Sayyaf was. We knew it was Massoud who sent the rockets into Kartei Seh that ruined your childhood home”, my mother said of men that once were revered as defending Afghanistan’s Islamic honour.

“When we left Kabul most of the city was intact. It wasn’t the Soviets or even the Communists who destroyed Kabul, it was the Mujahids who partitioned the city”, my father said of the battles that chipped away at what hope of return they had.

In the end, what became clear was that it was the inexorable march of history that kept my family from returning to Afghanistan after the Soviet forces that led to their exile left. My parents, it turns out, had no additional information. No super powers for telling the future. They merely examined the situation on the ground – in California and Kabul – and used that to face the realities of their lives.

To the little immigrant boy who used to wear Batman pajamas to bed, the answer to why we didn’t return to Afghanistan may be underwhelming, but to the journalist now in Kabul, any other answer would be unnecessary and illogical.