Living in Afghanistan means losing people. It’s a steady trickle. Usually not close enough to uproot your life, but there are all these people whom you have gotten to know over the years, whom you have become fond of, who you have to admire for how they managed to preserve sanity and dignity and humour, who you enjoy listening to and talking to. And now they’re gone.
It is the experience of anyone who has spent time here, going through phone lists and noticing how many of the people are dead. It eats at you, slowly.
Yesterday, as I was sending out sms messages congratulating friends and contacts for Eid al-Fitr, I found out there were two more.
One of them had been a provincial police officer, a brave and frustrated man – although I doubt he spoke up much against what happened around him. Brutality, violence and old(er) age teaches people to keep their head down. He had been terminally ill and for a while already I hadn’t been able to reach him. Now his son called, sounding so much like his father that I thought it was him, wanting to know who I was. When you’re father dies you probably need all the contacts you can find, suddenly being the head of the family.
The other, a former provincial council candidate, angry and outspoken, was blown up when a motorcycle rigged with explosives detonated, as he got in his car to go to work. I had known his family for over fifteen years. The son, who used to be a small boy, returned my message: “God bless my father, the Taliban killed him by a bomb attack.” The attack had been claimed by the Taliban, but they were at the same time still trying to find out who was behind it. Or as Afghans say: under the bowl there is another bowl. Killings are often not as straightforward as they seem and there is usually something personal and nasty going on.
So as I went through my phone numbers yesterday, I passed the names of several people now gone, remembering them. The fearless newspaper editor who was killed by cancer years ago; the young cleric who had developed a brain tumor, they say because of a piece of shrapnel lodged there for years; an MP killed in the Baghlan bombing; a parliamentary candidate kidnapped and later found dead; a police officer ambushed as he left the station; a tribal elder shot down as he left the mosque; a local commander dragged from his car, while on his way to the provincial capital, Dan and Tom killed for no reason in Badakhshan. There are so many. And they all leave behind this empty space.
Living in Afghanistan also means almost losing people. Phone calls from local elders, nervous they will get in trouble for telling you, but so-and-so has been detained and we are afraid they want to kill him. Friends whom you haven’t heard of for a while, turning up after having been held by local Taliban commanders for weeks, released only because someone they knew intervened – one of them still limps from the beating he received. People you know (or people they know) being arrested by NDS, Anti-Terrorism, Special Forces and you have no idea what is going to happen to them. Friends who were at the site of a bomb attack, surviving only because they were sheltered by a tree or had just turned the corner. Friends with trembling voices, because their children have been kidnapped for ransom and they don’t know what to do.
Living in Afghanistan often means feeling very powerless.
It means getting a taste of what most Afghans have been going through for decades.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020