‘How fortunate we were to leave when we did’
Joel Heard: Badakhshan, Afghanistan, 2021 (Unsplash)
From World Literature Today:
I was six years old when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Overnight, Kabul was transformed from a bustling city to a silent prison yard as tanks and soldiers lined its streets and an ominous cloud settled over the city. We were free one moment, occupied the next. I was a child one moment and caught in a nightmare the next. A palpable panic and terror filled the city, though its occupants moved about silently and gingerly. Fear permeated every action, every spoken word. From what I remember, the bombings and disappearances began immediately. And each day brought a new horror, a new loss. Our world contracted. Our reality was turned upside down. In my immediate family, it was my father whose life was imminently in danger; he worked at the US Embassy. All around him, his family, friends, and colleagues were disappeared, tortured, dismembered, buried alive. It was only a matter of time before they came for him. We were some of the fortunate few who were able to escape early in the war. My parents, my four sisters, and I immigrated to the US and settled in California. We’d escaped danger, but the war clung to us and shaped our lives and outlook moving forward.
Throughout my life, I’ve come back to this sentiment: how fortunate we were to leave when we did. What followed our escape was another forty years of brutal violence as one after another force, most foreign or foreign-funded, vied for control of Afghanistan. The war we briefly experienced was the first in a relentless series of wars and occupations. Since then, multiple generations have been born into war, suffering one occupation, one famine, one bombing, one loss after another, never knowing peace. As the years advance, I think how fortunate I am to have had a glimpse of a peaceful Afghanistan. I came to the US with memories of those first peaceful years of my life intact. My cousin who recently joined the Afghan military had no such memories when he was killed by the Taliban a few months ago. As a small child, he lost his own father to a rocket strike. His entire life was shaped and circumscribed by war. Yet he fought for peace.