Hitting Close To Home
When the situation in Afghanistan affects the ones we love.
Mother and child at a refugee camp in Jordan.
CREDIT: Joan Erakit
I sit across from a man who is trying to stifle his sobs.
Out of respect, I try not to look at him directly, so I fumble over my keyboard thinking of the right things to say.
My office mate is from Afghanistan, and I need not look any further for the reality of what is currently happening “out there.” None of us can turn on a TV or scroll through social media without the harrowing images coming out of Afghanistan. It’s uncomfortable, stressful, and unsettling. I am a proud American, but I am not a naive one.
The decision by the United States government to leave the middle east country after 20 years is by far one of the most callous, and it will go down in history as a detriment to the Biden Administration. As we point fingers at each other and try to offset consequences, the people in Afghanistan face a terrifying future.
“It’s worse for him than it is for me,” says another man that I know who is also from Afghanistan, particularly from the same Pashtun tribe that is coming into power under the Taliban. He stands gingerly, pointing to our mutual friend, and says, “it is a very tough thing for him right now, and he will tell you why.”
When I was working at the United Nations many years ago, many of my colleagues were from Afghanistan. Some of them had been refugees to Europe or the United States before beginning their careers as aid workers. Their stories of life after 9/11 would color my perception of my own country — often leaving me embarrassed and shocked. It never felt like we did enough to mitigate the destruction that we had caused in retaliation to the attack on our country, and if I’m honest, a lot of what I heard within my professional circle felt like lip service.
A few days ago, the Security Council met to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and released a statement shortly after saying that, “a sustainable end to the conflict in Afghanistan can only be achieved through an inclusive, just, durable and realistic political settlement that upholds human rights, including for women, children, and minorities.”
Do the members of the Security Council actually believe these words? Are they looking at the new Taliban government with fresh eyes and hopeful hearts? Do enemies actually sit at the same table and draft agreements to treat humans like humans after years of mistrust?
The man sitting across from me who is visibly shaken is a good human.
Soft-spoken and full of awkward glances, he has become the person I enjoy posing critical questions to, the person I know will laugh his way through every answer. He came to Italy as a refugee a few years ago and has taken every course or workshop needed to maintain his residency in the country. He’s worked, cooked pasta for lunch, made friends with locals, and lived a quiet life just like everyone else.
He’s also a father of two beautiful kids — a boy and a girl — and husband to his wife, who misses him. All three are still living in Kabul, bracing themselves for what is to come under Taliban rule.
“It is hard. I think of them all the time, but what can we do?” he says nervously, checking his phone.
He walks over and shows me a few pictures, his hands shaking. He is proud of his babies, that I can tell, and he’s always very worried. We sit together and talk more about his upbringing and the events that led him to flee his country to seek a better life. This story is very familiar to me, yet still, it breaks my heart to hear it.
“Look at this,” he says pointing at a photo. “This is in Kabul right now — it’s the Taliban and a woman.”
The image is striking. A group of men with AK-47’s stop a woman walking down a street and ask her why she is not wearing a burqa. She is covered everywhere, except for her hands and her face. He tells me that things are changing rapidly and that women and girls will bear the brunt of this change.
Wars in other countries are always wars in “other” countries. We often find them to be cumbersome, and when there is a humanitarian crisis caused by these wars, we donate where we can, we repost horrendous images to bring awareness to our friends, we comment on Facebook posts. That is all good and well, but what happens when there is someone in your life who is directly affected by war? By a loss of security? Someone who is up all night wondering if his wife will be handed over to another man to be “married” and someone who must think of his children, specifically the fate of his young daughter.
I don’t think donations, likes, or re-shares can settle this man’s heart, and that prospect is daunting.
Later, I sit watching the very first Taliban press conference given by Zabihullah Mujahid. “Afghanistan will be a strong Islamic government. Values will be protected and we will serve our people,” he says. The room seems tense and unpredictable — much like the Taliban themselves — as journalists scour their notes to ask questions.
To me, the press conference feels contrived and prepackaged to show the rest of the world that the Taliban is now different after 20 years, ready to play nice with the other kids. For a country that is shaped by “fragility and aid dependence,” (according to the BBC) it seems likely that a press conference to pacify the fears and misgivings of the international aid community would make sense. I notice how throughout the press conference, Mujahid repeats to his staff to allow the “foreign journalists” to ask their questions. Imagery is everything, even for the Taliban.
A day later, I ask my friend how he’s doing — if there’s anything that I can do in any capacity though I am well aware that my efforts would be too little to make an impact.
He shrugs uncomfortably and says, “We are waiting to see what happens.”
I can’t begin to imagine what life feels like for him with his family halfway around the world, in a state of chaos. He tells me that in some villages, the Taliban are going door to door, knocking and demanding women to cook for them. One poor woman (whose story I find plastered all over the news) was killed because she didn’t have any food to cook. Such a story doesn’t seem like something happening “over there” anymore. It hits close to home because I know that this man is thinking about the day that the Taliban will knock on his wife’s door.
I have no words, and so I look down at my shoes and take a deep breath.
For some, the idea that this is not our war, and that everything is over and we had no choice but to leave, is the justification that allows them to sleep comfortably without any nightmares.
For others, that well-known nightmare has just proved to be a real thing, and it has come to stay.