I loved growing up abroad and experiencing a part of the world that was different from my “home” country. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience overall, and I hope that my writing reflects this. There were times however when it certainly was not positive. One of these times was a particular day when I was 13 years old in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Mom’s fingers trembled as she picked up the walkie-talkie radio. It was Dad. “There is a United Nations evacuation convoy leaving in half an hour. Pack our bags.”
This wasn’t entirely unexpected, but nevertheless it was a shock. The Taliban had appeared on the scene in Afghanistan a couple of years previously and had already taken over Kabul. Mazar had been ruled by the Uzbek strongman General Dostum while we lived there, but in a shock betrayal, one of his commanders had made a deal with the Taliban. Dostum had fled and the Taliban had entered the city. The tables turned again, and in a 15-hour gun battle, the commander who invited them as well as other militia forces and armed civilians turned on the Taliban and slaughtered several hundred of them. Now people were already expecting a Taliban counter-attack.
We left our breakfast half-eaten on the table and hurriedly threw some clothes into suitcases. I went outside for a final walk around our yard to say goodbye to what had been home for the last four years. My beloved chickens and other pets including a donkey and a dog, the mulberry tree, the skyline of the city with its mud-brick and domed roofs, the neighbors with whom we had flown kites and thrown snowballs.
Dad arrived and we climbed into the vehicle. We drove through the eerily quiet streets of Mazar one last time, taking our place in a convoy of UN and other vehicles. We rolled out of the city and into the desert leading to the Amu Darya (or Oxus) river that forms the border with Uzbekistan.
My home of four years wasn’t the only thing I lost that day. I also lost a degree of innocence. As we drove down the road I saw the bodies of dead Taliban fighters being loaded into Red Cross ambulances. Mom and Dad had tried their best to distract us from seeing this. But I did see it and what I saw that day could never be un-seen.
Before that day I had of course been aware that there was war in Afghanistan. But the men with guns and the occasional sight of a tank, the tracer bullets lighting up the night sky and the bullet shell collections that I compared with those of my friends were all part of a grand adventure. That day the sheer ugliness of war became a reality. And on that day a significant part of my childhood died.
We arrived in Hairatan on the Afghan side of the river and border. The border guards were in no hurry to process our passports. As we waited, one official with piercing green eyes came to chat with me. Despite the events of the last few days, he appeared to be bored and the foreign kid who spoke Farsi was a way to pass the time. He asked me about my life in Mazar and how long I had lived there. With a thoughtful look, he then asked if I would ever come back. But then he answered his own question, “no, you won’t come back.” I was surprised by the flood of grief and anger that welled up in me as I emphatically replied that yes, I would be returning. The reality of leaving was too much for me to process.
One of the journalists in the evacuation convoy came and gave oranges to me and my sister. He then helped me to carry my large duffle-bag across the “Friendship Bridge” that spans the Amu Darya. His name was Tim McGirk. A few weeks later we bought a copy of Time magazine and read his account of the events that had led to our evacuation.
From Uzbekistan we traveled to Pakistan where Lima was studying in a boarding school. It was an emotional reunion as we had not been able to communicate with her during our travels and the news she had received about the events in Mazar had been limited.
Life moved on after that. But the words of the border guard “you won’t come back” echoed in my memory for years. I did in fact go back to Mazar, but only ever to visit. During these visits I heard first hand the haunting stories of local friends who had not had the luxury of leaving when we did. Their courage and resilience inspires me to this day.