Recent images from a trip to Afghanistan, 2011

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Returning to Afghanistan, twenty years later – an experience shared by Mitra Qayoom

I left Afghanistan twenty years ago (in 1991) when I was only six years old, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Civil War. I still remember the day we left; we got in the car and headed to Mazar-e-sharif, spent a couple of nights there and then left for Russia. We left all of our belongings behind with $2000 in my dad’s pocket. I asked my mum why we were going to Russia and she replied “we don’t want to move too far as the war will be over soon and it will be easier to come back to Afghanistan from Russia.” However the war never ended and we continued to move from one country to next, further and further away. I never saw my country, my family and friends again, until this year.

Sitting, feeling nervous and excited on the plane from Dubai to Kabul I noticed us approaching Afghanistan because looking down all I could see were these beautiful mountains. Finally the plane landed at Kabul International Airport and I was welcomed by a sign that said ‘Welcome to the land of the brave’ which made me smile and think of how true it is and all the empires that have failed to conquer Afghanistan, from Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the British, to the Russians. Alexander the Great himself said, in a letter to his mother “I am involved in the land of brave people where every foot of the ground is like a wall of steel, confronting my soldiers. You have brought one son into the world, but everyone in this land can be called an Alexander.”

Outside the airport I was greeted by family. I could not hold back the tears when I saw them. I hugged each one and called them by their names to let them know I still remembered them. My dad’s cousin who is in the army brought his bodyguards with him to make sure we reached home safely due to numerous threats my dad was receiving before our departure from London. It felt so unreal; I was in Kabul sitting in the car, once again, with the people I said goodbye to twenty years ago but this time crying tears of joy and telling them about my life in London.

On my first day in Kabul, I noticed there was no space to walk; people were walking on the roads with drivers shouting from their car windows to move them out of the way. There were no footpaths and no traffic lights.  It was very overcrowded. Kabul, a city designed for a population of one million is now home to six million people.  I saw new apartments being built to accommodate the large influx of people into the city, however these buildings are all private and the poor cannot afford them. People have also taken over the hills and have started to build homes there. It made me think, how can people build tall, private buildings but no one has put any money into fixing the roads, also, where is all the money that’s coming into the country going? Certainly not to the poor and where it is needed most. There is so much pollution in the city because there are now more cars than ever, and every evening there is a dust storm. As a result the number of people diagnosed with lung conditions has also increased.

However life in Kabul continues despite these conditions. I saw people cleaning the streets and planting trees, girls walking to school in their uniforms and women driving cars. This put a smile on my face as it showed that the city is rebuilding itself after years of war and destruction. Once I reached Lessay Mariam (a shopping area) I was amazed at how modern the shops were and the variety of merchandise available.  However it was very expensive. I was told the prices had gone up since Karzai came to power. I noticed beggars everywhere, old men, women and children as young as six years old. My cousin told me not to give money to any of them because they operate as part of a black market and they are pretending to be beggars. However, I just could not watch kids run after our car begging for money so I opened the window and handed them money.

I spend most of my first week in Kabul interviewing family members and the locals. I wanted to hear the other side of the story from the people who lived and survived the Civil War, Taliban time, and now the U.S/NATO occupation.

Stories I heard about the Taliban:

“The Taliban closed all the schools; girls especially were not allowed to attend them, so I remained uneducated. But there were underground schools and I didn’t want my daughters to grow up like me so I would send them there, always in fear of getting caught.”

 “Women were not allowed to leave the house without a Chadari (veil) and her husband or brother. However sometimes the Taliban would still stop women even if they were accompanied, and say “we don’t believe this man is a relative” and they would beat the man until they got prove he was related to the woman. We were not allowed to listen to music or watch TV in our homes either.”

 “During prayer times people would leave their stalls and shops unattended to quickly get to a nearby mosque because it was a crime not to pray. Some people would not even have Wudu (washing ritual before praying) but still pray due to fear.”

 “If the Taliban saw even a little bit of your body exposed, for example your ankles, they would take out a wire and hit you with it until your ankles bled. Women have suffered so much in this country, we have been traumatised and still live in fear. Some of us are still scared to stop wearing the Chadari no matter how uncomfortable we feel underneath, due to fear of getting caught by the Taliban and being stoned to death.”

Another person told me this, her experience from the Civil War time:

“Rockets and bullets were flying in every direction in Kabul. One rocket hit our home and everything got destroyed. I grabbed my children and some flour and rice and headed for the hills on foot. There, we camped with a few other families we had met on the way. I always feared that snakes or lizards would bite my children as these are found in large numbers in the hills. A few days later we ran out of our food supply and spent a couple of days hungry. My children were crying from hunger. One day one of the boys came and said aunty we found a deserted school. We packed our belongings and headed for there. There each family took a classroom to live in. The men went to the town (what was left of it) and brought back food supplies with them. We lived there until Kabul was a bit safe to return too. We have now returned to Kabul and rebuilt our home, but if you go outside you still see bullet holes in the walls. Like us many families were made refugees and still are. Some didn’t even make it to safe places and were murdered on the way, their women raped, children kidnapped and the men killed.”

After interviewing this lady, I went to have a look at the bullet holes. I saw holes scattered everywhere on the wall. I ran my right hand across the wall and suddenly I was taken back twenty years. I saw my mum and me walking home when a car full of Mujahideens holding their guns in the air drove past us. This was the first few days of the beginning of the Civil War when the Northern Alliance occupied Kabul city. My mum grabbed my hand and said “walk faster Mitra, I don’t have a scarf on. If they see me without one, they will shoot me.” Scared for my mum’s life I started to walk faster and prayed that God helped us reach home safely. Then the flashback was over. Back in the car, I thought to myself, how could my own my people do that to each other (and still do)? There is no unity between the people of Afghanistan. It’s bad enough that the country is getting bombed and looted by the Westerners from every direction but when your own kind shows no love and sympathy for its own people, it is the worst crime of all. I felt heartbroken by this thought.

It was amazing how every smell and every touch took me back to my childhood and brought back so many happy and painful memories.

I continued to interview people. This is what people told me about what they thought of the U.S/NATO invasion:

“We all know why the Westerners are here, they don’t care about the innocent people of Afghanistan. There is a lot of wealth in this country, reason why everyone wants a piece of it. We have gold, diamonds, minerals, and let’s not forget the Poppy fields, yet our people are starving.”

“Why is Afghanistan receiving its electricity from Tajikistan when we have enough resources in this country to provide heating and electricity for ourselves? I tell you why, we are being robbed.”

“Since the U.S/NATO occupation, the number of babies born with deformities has increased. This is due to the chemicals used in their weapons and the trauma they cause pregnant women during their raids. More and more people are now falling ill either by drinking tap water or eating fruits and vegetables imported from abroad. Nothing is natural anymore. We never used to fall ill by drinking tap water. People are suspicious that they (the soldiers) are putting chemicals in our water.”

“The Americans fake attacks and then you see their soldiers come and fight the so called insurgents so that people think of them as heroes. They don’t want Afghanistan to have peace because that would mean that they are no longer needed here and would have to leave.”

“I saw it with my own eyes, two U.S soldiers giving permission to a car filled with four Taliban to enter the American embassy. The afghan police officer wanted the men’s ID’s and was suspicious they were Taliban. Then two soldiers quickly came and took over and told the officer to let the men through and take a walk.”

I asked people what they thought of Afghanistan’s current president Hamid Karzai. This is the response I got:

“He is corrupt.”

“What is he doing with all the money that’s coming into the country? He is a thief.”

“I don’t care much about politics, I just want to live peacefully but I’ll say this much, they are all corrupt”.

 Interviews conducted 06/09-10/09/2011

I visited Paghman, which is a town situated in the Western part of Kabul. Paghman is also the birth place of the late king Amanulah Khan who built the famous Tag-e-zafar (Paghman Arc) in 1919 after the independence of Afghanistan from the British. It’s a nice rural area and famous among Afghan tourist who visit the Arc and the Paghman gardens.

I also visited Salang, which is a district of Parwan province situated in Northern Afghanistan; on the road between Kabul and Mazar-e-sharif (2 hours drive from Kabul). Parwan province has a fascinating history; many conquerors of Afghanistan have been defeated here.

I was amazed at all the breath taking sites I witnessed in Paghman and Salang. It was then that I understood why Afghanistan was once called ‘Paris of Central Asia’ but suddenly I was saddened by the thought that none of this beauty is ever shown to the rest of the world. Had Afghanistan been left in peace, I truly believe that today it would have been one of the worlds most visited tourist destination.

On the way to Paghman I saw a large refugee camp. I was told people who have fled from Helmand and Kandahar provinces live in these tents. I wanted to talk to some of these people; however I was very ill on that day and was unable to do so. Unfortunately I never got a chance to go back to visit this camp. Opposite the refugee camp there was a U.S military camp, which extended all the way up the mountain. My uncle turned to me and said, “They will never leave, look at the size of that camp.”

I wanted to do some site seeing in Kabul. I visited the beautiful Mughal garden of Babur (Bagh-e-Babur). Bagh-e Babur was built by the Mughal emperor Babur in 1528 and it is located on the slopes of Kuh-e Sher Darwaza, southwest of the old city of Kabul. This is also the final resting place of the emperor.

I also visited a couple of shopping centers in Shar-e-nau. Before entering the centers I was taken to a small room where a woman searched me and my bag. This was new to me; previously I have never been searched entering a shopping center. However these centers are under constant threat from attackers and in the past suicide bombers have entered and blown themselves up, killing the innocent and destroying shops.

The next day I visited a girls school, Lessay Bibi Sara. I was made very welcomed by the principle and the rest of the teachers. Then I was given a tour of the school. I saw on one of the walls, in the hallway, on my right, a map of Afghanistan painted, and on the wall opposite it, the work of a student who drew a picture of two birds holding a flag of Afghanistan. Above the birds it was written ‘In the name of Allah, Freedom’. I noticed the classrooms were very small and very crowded with four students sharing one desk, not even enough space to move their arms. I sat through lessons and watched how the students were being thought. I was fascinated by how intelligent these girls were. One girl was called to the front of the class and asked to recall what they had learned during previous biology lessons. She knew everything by heart, amazing.

During break the girls gathered around me and wanted to find out more about me. One girl said to me that I was very lucky I was living in London. I looked at her and said, no, I’m not. You are very lucky because you live in your own country; speak your own language amongst your own people. Do you know how many times I’ve been called a terrorist and been told to go back to my own country. Do you know how much I’ve been bullied in school for being darker than the other students and having an accent. I’ve been away for twenty years and have travelled from one country to next but I cannot explain how natural being here feels. I feel so at home, as though I have never been away. Don’t be ashamed of who you are and where you live because you will never be accepted anywhere in the world as who you are apart in your own homeland.

I left the students with this message: “Study very hard, get your education and nothing will be impossible. You are the future of Afghanistan. Be proud of who you are and rebuild your country because if you don’t no one else will.”

Malcolm X once said “Educate a man and you educate one person. Educate a woman and you educate and liberate an entire generation.” This is so true and also makes sense why women are oppressed in so many parts of the world.

I came across the slums of Kabul, a completely deprived area. One family invited me into their home; it was made of mud with two small rooms for a family of ten. They told me they’ve been homeless since the Taliban time. “We have been moving from one province to the next. We have been living in Kabul for nine years now but recently we have been threatened that if we don’t move our home will be bulldozed. They want to build private properties here and want us all moved.” I had two thousand Afghanis in my purse and gave it to the family. I wished I could have done more but like our beloved Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) once said “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.” And this is a saying by which I want to continue to lead my life.

I have always been aware of the mistreatment of Afghani women rights, a topic I am very passionate about. This is why I really wanted to visit a women’s shelter home or prison in Kabul to find out why these women were there. The organisation I was going to visit, were initially hesitant about me coming. However despite the resistance, my uncle who had links convinced the director of ‘Afghan Women Skills Development Center’ to allow me to interview the women. This organisation provides shelter for women who have escaped from their abusive husbands and families. They receive all their funding through donations. I was taken to the house; a security guard searched me before allowing me in. Once inside the house I was taken to the living room and offered a seat. Then I saw the women come in one by one, there must have been twenty of them. I was introduced to them and they were asked to tell me their stories. Some of the women were shy and did not want to talk in front of everyone. I asked them to sit next to me and talk to me one to one.

These are some of the stories I heard:

“When I was thirteen years old (she is now twenty years old) my father died and my step mother could not look after me. She decided to get me married off and got me engaged to a much older man without me knowing. Of course I was not happy and refused to marry him but in the end I was forced to marry him. I was still a child (tears started rolling down her face), he would rape me and then beat me up for not getting pregnant. Finally when I was fifteen I got pregnant with my first child. Then came the accusations, he would constantly accuse me of having affairs with other men and stopped me leaving the house. He would continue beating me, raping me and accusing me of things that weren’t true. I got pregnant again and gave birth to a baby girl. One day my daughter went out to get ice cream and I ran out to get her and saw this as an opportunity to escape. I grabbed her and ran away, went to the police and they sent me here. I’ve been here for three months now and my case is in court. I want a divorce but he won’t give it to me and I know he will never give me my son either. I miss my son so much.”

“My dad forced me to marry this rich man, I never found out what he did for a living. He would always beat me up when he got drunk. One day I went out to do some shopping, three men grabbed me and kidnapped me. They put me in a dark room and everyday they would come one by one to rape me. This went on for two weeks until the police found me and arrested two of the men, the third escaped. The police are still searching for him. My father believes my husband had links with the kidnappers and he has taken him to court. Because of my father’s accusations my husband got even more abusive towards me and would beat me till I became unconscious. One day when he was out I ran away and came here. He keeps sending threats that if I don’t return he will kill my family but my dad tells me to stay here. I don’t know what to do, I can’t forget what those men did to me, and I can’t sleep at nights.”

Most of the cases included, girls who had been forced to marry against their will. One woman told me she came here because her son’s life was in danger. Her husband was a junky.

“Every time he smoked weed he would blow the smoke in my son’s face and say it’s good for him and that he wanted our son to grow up like him. I was scared that one day he would even inject heroin into my son so I escaped with my child”.

My time was up and I had to leave. Feeling overwhelmed from the stories I heard, I couldn’t hold back the tears. One of the women came up to me and put a bracelet that she made around my wrist and said it was a gift from all of them, something to remember them by. I hugged each woman and thanked them for sharing their stories with me and left the house feeling very emotional. I was also feeling very angry and the quote “Paradise lies beneath your mother’s feet” kept running through my head. If this was true then how can men treat women this way? How can a man hit a woman who carries his child for nine months and then spends sleepless nights raising it? How can a man take away a woman’s right when God has given men and women equal rights in Islam? My dad has always told me that God will allow women to enter Paradise before men. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) has also said “God enjoins you to treat women well, for they are your mothers, daughters, aunts”. So why is this not practiced but suicide bombing is?

All I can say is, Women of Afghanistan, I SALUTE YOU.

Interviews conducted 14/09/2011

My time in Afghanistan came to an end. I never got a chance to visit hospitals and orphanages as I planned to. There is still so much I want to do in Afghanistan. I want to visit Laghman province where my dad grew up. I want to visit Bamiyan, where the statue of the giant Buddha once stood (destroyed by the Taliban in 2001). I want to go back to Mazar-e-Sharif and pray in the big beautiful mosque there like I did as a child. I want to fly a kite on the roof of my grandmother’s house and play marbles (Toshlah bazi) like I used to as a little girl with my cousins.

As the plane took off tears started to roll down my face, I was already missing my family so much and once again I had to say goodbye to my homeland. They say home is where the heart is. I left my heart in Afghanistan; actually I think my heart has always been there and never left with me, which may be the reason why I have been feeling so lost and restless all these years. The stories I heard and the things I saw will always stay with me and I will do my best to work towards ways to contribute to my country as much as I can. My beautiful Watan I am hopeful that you will see peace and freedom one day. That your children will no longer be orphans of war and poverty, your women no longer abused and oppressed, and your refugees (both in the country and abroad) no longer homeless.

To the rest of the world we may be terrorists but I actually feel sorry for those of you that have been brainwashed by the deceiving Western media. Before pointing fingers and judging others, hear the other side of the story. Terrorism comes in many forms. Stop believing everything you see and hear. I am not saying that our own people are angels because if they weren’t corrupt Afghanistan would not have been in this state. They are selling the country piece by piece.

To my fellow Afghans in the UK or wherever you may be, it’s up to us to re-build our country. More than half of the Afghani population is uneducated. We are the educated ones and with our skills we could do so much over there. So please stop talking and start putting your words into action. I am tired of always being one of the few Afghans attending demonstrations and anti-war meetings regarding Afghanistan; it’s actually kind of embarrassing. I would love to see an Afghan give a speech in the middle of Trafalgar Square. I would love to see an Afghan initiate a charity event to raise money for the street kids of Afghanistan. I would love to see more Afghans fight for Afghani women rights.  I can’t sit and watch people suffer especially women and children, not just Afghans but wherever the victims may be from. Remember empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that. Don’t let yourselves belong to that category. Please don’t forget your roots and your history.

“A Nation Falls When it’s Culture and Traditions are No Longer Practiced.”


 Mitra Qayoom 

Recent Images

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‘My Veil’

Have you seen my veil?

Without it I cannot leave my house

Without it I will be beaten and punished

Without it men will see me as a piece of meat

I was once a woman with a respected job

I had my own office

Today I have no job or a voice

I sit on the corner of Lessay Mariam and beg for money to feed my children

I feel suffocated at times under my veil

But before exposing my mouth and nose to gulp air

I am reminded of the last time I did that

I was beating with a metal cable until I bled

I see times have changed

Many women walk on the streets of Kabul with a small head scarf

But I still live in fear

My veil has become my security blanket

It’s time to put on my veil

I feel invisible and disconnected from the world

I am a living woman who cannot be heard or seen

I am one of the many ghosts of Kabul city

Under my veil

Poem by ~ Mitra Qayoom