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I-was-six-when-the-russians-came

‘I was six when the Russians came’

Farzana and Zarghuna on graduation day

The story of Farzana, translated by her daughter Zarghuna and written up by Maya Evans

When I was six, life was good. I didn’t know anything outside my mother and father’s world. In the village where I lived it was possible to see the mud houses from far away. The Baba Mountains stretched forever into the distance. In spring everything was lush green, the water flowed from the mountains feeding the stream in front of our house, all the time you could hear water flowing. People worked hard on the land every day in the mountains herding sheep and goats or working in the shops at the Bazaar. Women made bread in tandoors. Life in the village of Topi was hard but people were happy.

I had just started school for maybe a month when the war started. The Russians had come to Bamiyan and it was the beginning of war for Afghanistan. When the helicopters started to drop bombs on our village the people fled to the mountains to live in caves. Sometimes two families would live in a cave for two or three months. We loaded food and blankets onto a donkey and crossed the rocky mountain paths to the safety of the caves. During the day the men would go out to cut alfalfa and the women sometimes travelled back to the farms to collect vegetables. I stayed in the cave and played with my dolls and my siblings, an older sister and two big brothers.

It took a long time for the Russian war to end, maybe two or three Presidents passed. It was hard growing up under constant pressure. People were always afraid and they couldn’t travel freely. When I was twelve I got to travel with my grandmother to Kabul when it was under the control of the Russian ‘iron fist’. Although Kabul was full of Russians then, and ‘bad men’ who would beat people, Afghan women wore short skirts and sometimes didn’t wear head scarves. I remember once being on a bus and a woman admired my handmade scarf from Bamiyan. The woman stroked it and said she had never seen a scarf like mine and asked me to bring one back from Bamiyan for her.

Kabul was clean then, not like today. The rivers, which now contain more rubbish than water, were a source of life and leisure for Afghans, with people fishing on the banks and even swimming. The streets weren’t crowded and the air was clean. I remember seeing the Russian tanks leaving to fight in the Panjsheer valley. When the soldiers left they were happy but when they returned they were beaten, carrying their dead and wounded from a battle. This victory made the Tajik Commander Ahmed Sheer Mahsood’s name, forever glorified in Afghan history as ‘The Lion of the Panjsheer’.

After the war people were very poor and there wasn’t much food. Many Afghans became refugees in Iran including my two brothers. One of my brothers travelled on foot in women’s clothing to avoid being forced to become a fighter. Those still living in the village returned to work on their farms, growing potatoes and wheat, and keeping cows. My grandmother and I planned to follow my brothers but my older sister, who had recently married in Kabul, fell pregnant so my grandmother stayed to help her with the baby.

By the time that war ended I was thirteen and it was decided that I should marry. It was autumn when I married. It was an exciting day and although it wasn’t my decision, I realised I had to accept it. My husband Rahmony was around nineteen years old and was handsome and kind. We had grown up in the same village so I already knew him. Everyone knew everyone in the village as there were only around 32 families.

My mother and father-in-law brought candies to the wedding and threw them in the air like confetti. The women played the doryha drum and danced, while they sang a special coming of age song. When I went to live with her husband’s family it was very difficult as it was a big family, he had three brothers and four sisters plus grandparents. One of the brothers had already married so his wife also lived in the house. My husband was gentle and he would sweep the floor and cook. His brother would say he was not a real man but I loved him and appreciated his kindness. Unlike other husbands he never beat me.

Every day I washed the clothes, collected alfalfa off the land and milked the sheep and cows. The alfalfa naturally grew near the potatoes and wheat and we knew that the crops would grow strong if the alfalfa grew. The men were all farmers and would spend the day working on the land.

Then the fighting started again and many of the men joined the Mujahuddin, but not Rahmony, he stayed to work on the land as he didn’t like the violence.

The men would mainly fight each other in the mountains but sometimes violence came to the village. I often saw flame throwers – canisters of gas propelled through the air by a flame. The fighting was between five groups and they would fire at anyone who was walking around. The different groups were drawn up along ethnic lines and were supported by different countries. ‘Nasar’ were helped by the Americans, ‘Harakat’ and ‘Scepor’ were backed by Iran, ‘Jamyat’ were Tajik and Pashtoon and there was also ‘Shora’. They all fought in the ‘Jang-e-dohkhely’ – the ‘war inside’.

I heard from the people in my village that America was a country far away but I didn’t know where. I heard the names of other countries like Iran, Russia and Pakistan, but only when people in the village talked about where the weapons came from.

I was fifteen when my first child Khamed was born. Life was hard because of the Mujahuddin but because of my husband Rahmony I was happy. A year later my second son Lolla was born, then four years later my first daughter Zarghuna was our third blessing.

After the Mujahuddin things weren’t clear. Najibullah became President and I thought he was good for the people. I remember listening to the radio at home, being warmed by the flames of our stove. I heard Najibullah’s voice crackling through the radio, with his message urging for peace and asking the fighters in the mountains to come down, to have peace and life. But they did not listen. I didn’t understand why they continued to fight, maybe it had something to do with the business of weapons, but I don’t know.

By this point my second daughter Karima had arrived, and then my younger sons Abdul and Arif making six. Life for me was the same, I still went out to collect alfalfa for the cows, washed clothes and looked after my family. My eldest daughter Zarghuna adored her father and never liked to be separated from him. Sometimes he liked to sleep outside under the stars and although she was afraid of the worms in the ground, she would insist on sleeping next to him, lulled to sleep by the sound of the stream running past their home. Rahmony was keen for his daughters to attend school. It was he who enrolled Zarghuna at age six and it was him who often fetched her from school.

And then the Taliban came to Kabul.

I had heard from others in the village that the Taliban killed everyone, especially the Hazaras, but I did not believe these stories. Then one day men from the Mujahuddin returned to the village and said the Taliban were coming, and that even they were afraid. At first the Talibs arrived by car and then on horseback. They carried guns and long knives. I realised then that the stories I had heard were true.

There was no time, it was chaos. Rahmony and I collected up all our children, except for Khamed and Abdul who were missing. But the family had to flee for their lives – immediately. During the day we crossed mountains, and that night we saw the smoke of burning houses which the Taliban had set alight. We had nearly escaped to the safety of the mountain tops where the Taliban would not find us.

We were not the only family who were fleeing. In our group were Rahmony’s brother and his family plus two other men. We walked for nearly a day when we became aware of the voices of Talibs close by so we crouched in the shady shadows under an overhanging cliff. Everyone was frozen to their hiding space. Karima said that she was thirsty but still we didn’t move as we could sense danger was near. The women were praying that the Taliban would not see them; we needed to stay hidden for just a few more hours and then dusk would hide our escape into the mountains where we would not be found.

A man whom we didn’t know happened to wander past, he wasn’t a Talib and he did not sense the imminent danger. He could see the group sheltering under the rock and called them to come out. His voice cut the silence of the mountains.

I had dressed my young son Lolla in my own clothing so he looked like a girl, but there was no disguising Rahmony, his brother and the two other men. Zarghuna clung to her father as the Talibs ordered the men out of our hiding place. Rahmony took his scarf and wrapped it around seven year old Zarghuna, his daughter who never liked to be away from him, he told her not to be afraid and that he would always be with her.

Five minutes later we heard the sound of gunfire.

The Taliban told the women and children to return home. The shock left me unable talk and my legs stopped working. I had to go down the mountain by dragging myself along the ground. The next day we decided to try and find Rahmony but it was snowing and very cold. We searched but did not find him.

Rahmony’s Mother realised that the men had been killed so she went out to find the bodies. She discovered them not far from where we had been separated, holes were dug and they were buried at the spot that they had been killed.

Rahmony, my kind and handsome husband was gone.

Now I had to think about the lives of my six children. At first I didn’t want to tell Arif and Karima that the Taliban had killed their father, plus I still had no news about my eldest son Khamed and four year old Abdul. We asked the people returning from the mountains if they had seen them, but they had not. After twenty days the people in the village said that they must have been killed by the Taliban, but finally after forty long days a cousin came to say that they were safe and at an aunt’s house.

Life was nearly impossible without Rahmony. Two of his brothers and his father had also been killed. I asked his remaining family if I could have his share of the land, one of the brothers agreed but the other did not. But I was now the head of a family and like an Afghan man I claimed my piece of land. Security was still bad, the threat of the Taliban still loomed heavily so we sold our remaining livestock and planned to leave. We bought two sacks of flour for bread and loaded up our donkey. I lead my young family as we travelled for weeks; sleeping on hilltops and under the stars, dodging Talibs. Abdul was still a slow walker and Arif had to be carried, but still I kept my family together and safe.

Finally we reached the outskirts of Kabul and found a kind woman who wanted to share her large house with a family which did not have any men. Her husband and father had both left for Pakistan leaving her with three children and the house to look after. The room which we were given was beautiful as the kind woman’s father was rich. Lolla, now eleven, managed to get a job in a local shop and also went to the mountains with Khamed to collect bushes to fuel the tandoor and sell to other families.

We stayed in that house for six months until relatives in Bamiyan told us it was safe to return, that the Taliban had gone. We made the long journey back to our village, though by now it was winter so the journey was extra arduous. We collected wood and bushes during the day to burn at night.

When we returned to our house we found that someone else had been there. The pictures on the wall had been burnt, a box of clothes which we left in the corner had been thrown outside, and on the floor were bullets. My grandmother told stories of becoming a cook for the Taliban. They would call her ‘mother’ and bring chicken for her to cook or flour to make bread. The Talibs who occupied the village were different from the Talibs who first came and killed and beat women for not wearing socks. These Talibs accepted my grandmother and even gave her a new scarf because the one she wore was thread bare.

When the Americans came the Taliban left in cars with camouflage netting stretched across the roofs.

I remember food parcels being dropped from the sky and one of my neighbours running out into the field, unaware of a land mine which someone had planted during one of the many wars. Then foreign soldiers came but the village people did not ask questions. It was a time of peace even though everyone was poor and many people had been killed or had left.

Things were expensive. Khamed worked on the land and Lolla sold things on the street like bubblegum, socks, matches and walnuts – a walnut in its shell was 2 Afghanis (around 2p). Karima and Zarghuna worked at home washing clothes and collecting water from the spring, they also returned to school.

After so much travel and being hungry and scared, we found hope to be alive.

This interview took place when Farzana travelled from Bamiyan to Kabul for Zarghuna’s graduation ceremony. Today the roads from Bamiyan are extremely unsafe as they’re patrolled by the Taliban, ISIS and criminals. If a bus is stopped people say they are travelling to see family or for hospital, if students or government workers are found they are likely to be executed. If foreigners are discovered they will be kidnapped or killed. A white flag on a house signals the Taliban.

Zarghuna is a member of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, she is the first person in her family to become a college graduate, the first woman in her village and one of the first APVs. She translated her mother’s story and added details from her own recollections. Farzana was extremely proud to see her daughter graduate.

This was also written the week a UNAMA report was published stated that a record number of 3,948 civilians were killed in 2016 and 7,920 injured. Since 2009, the armed conflict in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 24,841 civilians and injured 45,347 others.

Being a Woman in Afghanistan

Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing
Darulaman Refugee Camp 2014, photo by Mary Dobbing

by Henrietta Cullinan

On International Women’s Day, we should question whether conditions for women in Afghanistan have improved after thirteen years of the presence of US/ NATO troops in the country. When I travelled to Kabul recently I was able to glimpse first hand how entrenched cultural practices make women’s lives doubly hard, lives that are already made hard by the lack of security.

We hear that even people in power support restrictions on women’s ability to move and act freely in public, that they support to the custom that means that women should only travel when accompanied by a male relative.

This can be interpreted as not being able to take a plane, cross a border, but for some households this means not going out at all.  There are many consequences to not going out, that are dangerous and even life threatening, not just humiliating and unjust. Not going out is not just an issue of inequality but also a barrier to young women’s  livelihoods. I spoke to young Afghan women at the Borderfree Centre talk about the barriers put in their way and to Latifa Ahmadi, founder of Organisation  for the Promotion of Women’s Capabilities.

Latifa Amadi says “The way women in Afghanistan are treated badly puts pressure on us all.’ Her demand is that we campaign for Afghan women’s rights from all over the world”.

Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution
Women from the APV co-ordinate the duvet distribution

For a short time I was a woman in Kabul. I listened to female members  of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and at the APV’s Borderfree centre talk about the restrictions to their movements. The young women I met took on responsibilities in the  humanitarian and educational projects run from the Borderfree Centre. One young woman organized duvet handouts at Darulaman refugee camp. I saw her confidently arrive in the truck, call out names from a clip board as women from a refugee camp came rushing up to collect their duvets. I witnessed another couple of teenage girls organising the local seamstresses who embroider the Borderfree scarves, and checking their work for accuracy. Two young women teach the street children literacy and maths. Another takes charge of the community budget, organising currency exchange and banking the donations.

Travel restrictions had other effects on the young women beside making life awkward. While I was in Kabul, I had my own experience of not being able to go out. In my case the reason was because I was a foreigner. The hazards of not going out were realised one day, when by chance all the young people left us four guests alone. I felt like a child again. I wasn’t even sure how to call a cab.

I hardly knew where I was. It was only when, to avoid the traffic, the taxi driver took a circular route home I worked out the relationship between the river, the mountains, the main roads and our house. I slowly built a mental map of main roads, the market stalls, a  flyover and offices.

We asked the young women at the Borderfree Centre about restrictions on their movements, on not going out. They said under the Taliban it had been much worse; no girl over the age of nine could leave the house. There are still some families that don’t allow their daughters to go out. An example they gave was of a family who spoilt their daughter, loved her very much bought her all sorts of beautiful clothes and expensive treats, but wouldn’t allow her to go out or use a phone. This made her very unhappy. She told them, ‘I don’t care about the clothes or the food.’

Many women live their entire lives in the home
Many women live their entire lives in the home

The girls experienced varying degrees of restrictions. Some were allowed out but had to be back before their father came home. One said she was often hassled in the street, being asked where she was going, what was she doing, does her father know. A relative might see her and tell her father. Another reports not being able to go out if there are men in the house, if their father’s at home. If a woman is not used to going out into society, one girl said, when she does she will not know how to behave and then might put herself in danger. She might behave inappropriately, and be called a prostitute.

If girls cannot go out their education suffers. The girls said confidently 50% of girls in Kabul could have an education if they want to. These particular girls were attending classes, university or school in the city. Whizzing around in our delegation taxi, we often saw crowds of teenage girls outside schools, collecting their exam results, carrying their files and books, rushing to lectures.

Some girls seem to be getting an education. How good an education was a different matter; our friends complained of out of date text books from Iran, a teacher who kept them waiting in the cold, who talked about himself instead of teaching the class. The girls in our community were university students studying for their first year exams. We were told to help as much as possible with the housework and the cooking. They must study hard; they had to do twice as well as the boys to be taken seriously.

Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre
Henrietta talking to young women at the Borderfree Centre

At the Borderfree Centre, the girls explained that fathers don’t want their daughters to ‘show the whites of their eyes’, an Afghan expression. That is intelligent women become bad women by rolling their eyes, being disrespectful towards their fathers and male relatives. So fathers don’t allow their girls to go to school.

Some fathers believe universities are bad for girls, because there are mixed classes and male lecturers.  The fathers don’t allow the girls to come to the Borderfree Centre, for the same reason: girls and boys are mixed together. Some girls come to the centre in secret they said. Others have discussed it with their their father and he’s given permission so they don’t care what the other relatives think. More enlightened fathers are happy to discuss things while others insist the female members of the families are home when he gets home.

Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC
Latifa Ahmadi, Director of OPAWC

Not being able  to go out makes education hard for older women too. Latifa Ahmadi runs an education project at the OPAWC, offering literacy and numeracy classes. The students progress to learning ‘handicrafts’ such as tailoring, chicken farming and jam making so they can earn a living. We met some of the women upstairs in the freezing classroom, everyone in their coats. They held up their text books. I asked them what made literacy hard, expecting the usual answer, spelling. No spelling wasn’t hard. The thing that was hard, was not being able to leave the house. One said she had to lock her children into the apartment. One woman has to come in a burkha.

OPAWC has even had to move its literacy centre because the local ‘warlord’ has created a problem for them. The ‘warlord’ spread propaganda, saying the literacy classes were teaching Christianity. He told the Mullah to tell the women not to come. When she found

Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre
Craftwork by women at the OPAWC centre

out, Latifa showed the Mullah the text book. The syllabus is provided by the government, and covers women’s rights, health, domestic violence, and handicraft.

All the young women at the Borderfree Centre and Latifa Ahmadi at OPAWC emphasised how important it is for Afghan women to know their rights. If women never go out they will not be able to attend classes. If women are not educated they will not know their rights. Girls and women need to know their rights to a life free from violence, to equal pay, to be able to work, to access healthcare. They talked about putting out a radio programme to help women not allowed out of the house. Women need to be able to demonstrate for their rights, to healthcare, to work, to freedom from domestic violence, even if they join a protest ‘hiding’ in a burkha.

Artwork by Afghan woman, as part of an OPAWC project
Artwork by Farida Mohammady, as part of an OPAWC project