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City of Hope

By Khaleeq Ahmad

 

Last week I traveled with President Hamid Karzai to the historical province of Qandahar.  I was born in Qandahar and spent the first seven years of my life there until I became a refugee in Pakistan and later the US. 

My earliest memories of Qandahar are still strong.  I remember being young and running for cover when the Mujahideen would start pounding the city with mortars.  My first toy was the remains of an RPG that hit my house.  I remember that night very well. We were sleeping outside as most Qandahari's do during the summer, mortars and rockets started shelling the city center and our parents woke us up to run for cover in the basement.  Half asleep and dazed, my sister and I ran upstairs instead of the basement and took cover under the blankets of our parents' king sized bed. 

We could hear our mom shouting for us to come downstairs, until my uncle ran up to get us.  Just as we took the basement steps, a huge explosion shook our house and threw us to the middle of the room.   Thankfully, aside from some minor cuts and bruises, no one was badly hurt. I guess faith is something you can never fully understand. 

One day I was walking back home from school with my brother and Ahmad Shah, a friend who lived across the street. It was around lunch time, and suddenly mortars and rockets started pounding all around us. We had been taught to stand by a tall wall, take cover and not run. Finally it stopped and we started walking home. When we reached our street, we heard shouts and screams from Ahmad Shah's house. His face turned deathly pale and he suddenly collapsed. We picked him up, got him some water and walked him to his house. When we got there, the bad news we were afraid to hear was awaiting us. Ahmad Shah's father was killed by one of the mortars.  He had been an electrician and while working on a power line, he was hit by a mortar right in the face.  He lay dead in the middle of the room with half his head gone from the explosion.

Those types of days were common in Afghanistan. It was something we understood we had to do. We were at war and trying to defeat the Soviet Union, and so we accepted the suffering and misery that came with it.  I returned to Qandahar four and a half years ago and saw how peaceful things were. Most of my relatives who were refugees in Pakistan or Iran had returned and were fixing their farms, houses and starting businesses. 

On my first night in Qandahar during the President trip last week, I had dinner at my aunts' house. It was the house that my mom was born in and I remember going there when I was young and spending time with my grandfather.  The house looked very different. They had built modern bathroom fixtures, bedrooms and a living room.  The dinner reminded me of my mom's cooking and my childhood days in Qandahar.  After dinner, we started talking about the security situation and how their lives were going.  Most of my relatives returned to Qandahar straight after the Taliban lost power in the city.  My family led successful, middle class lives in Afghanistan, so it was very difficult for them to live as refugees in Iran and Pakistan. In Iran, my cousins were working as tailors to support their families by running a business from their basement whilst younger cousins stood guard in front of the house to look out for Iranian officials. If the Iranian government found out they were working, they would get thrown out of the country and forced into refugee camps.  When they found it too hard to live in Iran, they moved to Pakistan and their lives improved as they were no longer harassed, received access to education and worked without the fear of being deported.  Over the last five years in Afghanistan, their lives have improved drastically. My aunt's husband got his old job back and now walks proud after being unemployed for more then ten years. My aunt went back to teaching and my cousins started their own garment shop and now own two stores. They also operate one of the most popular internet café's in Qandahar.  All my cousins are married and bought their own house. They now have passports to travel around the region. My younger cousin is currently in the US on a training course at Nebraska University.  Yet, with so much progress and achievement, they are still afraid to walk out of their houses each morning. Any passing taxi or motorcycle is a threat, and the presence of NATO security forces reflects the dire security situation of the country.

Five years after the new government and the fall of the Taliban, their biggest worry is suicide bombers.  That night at dinner, they were all asking me when the violence would end, when the suicide bombings would stop, and when will innocent people stop getting killed? 

They feel unprotected because the enemy which was once invisible to them is now an obvious threat. These enemies are the ones who've killed many innocent civilians including people who work to make the lives of others' better: killing teachers, doctors, women activists, mullahs or anyone who wants Afghanistan to progress and become the country every Afghan wishes it to be.  My aunt had been a teacher for forty years and has recently resigned, and most of my cousins and other aunts are also teachers.  They are afraid of being teachers yet, they all continue to teach because if they don't, they are afraid of the fate that could await their children - life as refugees.

The next day I was at Ahmad Shah Baba High School listening to the President give a speech to more then a thousand students and youth. His voice started quivering at one point and I could sense the sadness in his heart when he started talking about Afghans needing to defend their own country and on their own power, and stating that being martyred for the sake of learning is better then being illiterate and slaves of others. 

I started to think about the words of my relatives from the night before and their commitment to this country and their hope for a better future, particularly my aunt who said that she will not let her children become refugees again.  I know that this country will prosper, we will see the bright future that we all hope for, and not just from the efforts of the government but it will become prosperous from the strong will and commitment of its people, its government and its leader. 

Khaleeq Ahmad is the Deputy Spokesman on International Affairs to President Karzai and can be reached for comments on khaleeq.ahmad@gmail.com

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