It was January 1994. The relative peace in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif was shattered as fighting broke out. General Dostum, a local strongman, was consolidating his power. Other parties were not keen to give up their control over parts of the city.
I was a boy of 9. Like General Dostum, I had strategic concerns of my own. Mine involved how I would go about feeding my ducks and chickens when I wasn’t allowed out of the house.
As we had eaten our breakfast, the occasional gunshots – not altogether unusual – had begun to considerably increase in tempo. Mom had sent us down to the basement which was our safe room. We did as much schoolwork as we could, then played games and entertained ourselves. I worried that the ducks were getting hungry as they had missed their morning feed.
As the fighting raged on, our Afghan neighbors, who did not have a basement, came and joined us. My sister Lima entertained as always, retelling stories of Mullah Nasruddin to the laughter of our neighbors. Our little brother Tango sang “found a peanut just now” to everyone’s amusement. They paused to ask what this English word “justnow” meant.
I played chess with the man of their household. I learned that Afghans use elephants rather than bishops in their chess lineup. This made perfect sense to me as I had never understood why bishops would be sent into battle.
Despite everyone’s efforts to remain calm and keep a sense of humour, I could not get one thought out of my head. How long would the ducks survive with no one to feed them? Mom and Dad of course would not hear of me going outside with the risk of being exposed to stray bullets or shrapnel.
That evening however, during a lull in the orchestra of RPG and machine gun fire, Dad slipped out and opened the cages to let the animals out into the yard. It was a risk in that they would be exposed to cats or other predators, but at least they would be able to forage for whatever food they could find.
As darkness fell we tried to catch glimpses of the tracer bullets lighting up the night sky like fireworks through the tiny windows at the top of the basement walls. Mom was never happy with this and made us keep our distance lest a nearby explosion should shatter the glass. I could not shake the fear of cats attacking my ducks as they slept.
The next morning the sun was shining but the dreadful sounds of battle raged on. And yet, from time to time a little band of ducks waddled by the window, quacking defiantly at the gun fire around them. There was something humorous, innocent and even beautiful about these creatures to whom the war was but an annoyance in their quest to find food.