On the other side
By Abu Taha
4 March 2016
A boy gets more than he anticipated when trying to prove his manhood in Kabul.
My parents didn’t force me to go to the ‘other side’ of town that morning. I wanted to show them – mostly my father – that I was a grown man. It was 1994, I was ten years old, and a full-scale civil war had been ravaging my country for two years.
The pale sun had barely risen when I left home. It had snowed the night before, and my eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the brightness, even at that hour. Aside from a few stray dogs, the streets were empty. I shivered as a cold wind hit me in the face. I buttoned up my coat and plunged my hands deeper into my pockets, walking as fast as I could towards the bus station.
I recalled the events of the previous day that had prompted me to take this excursion. Over lunch, my father had slapped me and shouted “You son of a dog!” as I chewed on a piece of bread that my mother had baked in the tandoor. My habit of eating messily had angered him, as it often did. I thought about how formal our relationship had always been, and how he never called me ‘son’, how I never called him ‘father’. I hated Burhan, my older brother, because he was my father’s favourite. Father likes him because he works and makes money, I thought, or perhaps because he is a man and I am a boy. A wave of hot anger rushed to my head, and despite the cold my face felt as though it was burning. He doesn’t beat him because he is a man! I thought. I’ll prove that I’m also a man, that I can work, and that I deserve his respect.
My father’s friends would come to our house to ‘talk politics’. Over steaming cups of green tea and white Russian sugar cubes they argued for hours about ethnic warlords and their territories. Sometimes I sat and listened to them talking about the price of food in our part of Kabul compared to the other side, which was controlled by the opposition militias. Uncle Janan, my favourite amongst father’s friends, said that the militias were cutting our food supplies to pressurise the government. He scorned them for calling themselves Muslims while denying us food.
Father and Burhan told stories about how people smuggled food from the other side to sell downtown. I hated hearing my brother talk about how he would carry a small sack of flour for a couple of kilometres without taking a break. I would stand up to leave but my father would pull me down and make me sit. “Listen to your brother,” he would say angrily. “Learn something.”
When I insisted – or rather pleaded, crying – he would tell me horrifying stories about how boys my age were taken from their fathers and abused. I was not moved by his stories
I too had been to the other side a couple of times, but not to smuggle food. I had gone there with my friends, because we were curious. We wanted to see the smuggling routes that aided an entire underground business. Although I didn’t have an adventurous mind or spirit, assiduously avoided minefields and took cover from occasional gunfire in ruined houses, the smuggling routes quite intrigued me. Telling my father that I had gone to the other side would have been suicidal. I had begged him to take me with him a couple of times, but he refused. When I insisted – or rather pleaded, crying – he would tell me horrifying stories about how boys my age were taken from their fathers and abused. I was not moved by his stories. I had seen boys I knew carrying sacks of food alongside their fathers and brothers. I envied the smiles on their faces as they counted their money after selling the food.
On that day, I was determined. I needed to prove to him that I was a grown-up.
Before leaving home I had tip-toed into my parents’ bedroom and stolen some money from my father’s pocket, what I thought would be enough to pay for the bus ride and some flour. I grabbed a small snack from the kitchen – an onion, a pinch of salt and a piece of the same bread that I was slapped for dropping from my plate – before quietly closing the door behind me.
By the time I reached the bus stop, my cheeks and the tip of my nose were numb from the cold. I was afraid. Afraid because I had not told my parents where I was going, and afraid of where I was going. Most of all, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be allowed on the bus, thwarting my mission before it’d properly begun. As a child, catching the bus was always difficult. The drivers and their assistants assumed we would run off without paying. That day I got lucky as a tall, middle-aged man with a grey beard agreed to pretend to be my father.
Sitting quietly on the bus next to this man, I thought about how angry my real father would be when he found out I was missing. I pictured his livid face as he searched his pockets and realised that some money was missing, along with his youngest born.
Before getting off the bus downtown, the bearded man kindly offered to pay for my ride. I thanked him, and he replied with a smile and a wink. The free ride made me happy, and my heart’s pounding subsided. With every step my courage increased. A free ride meant that I could buy lunch.
As I approached the centre of the city, I noticed a crowd. As a skinny child, it was not difficult for me to jostle my way to the front. I saw blood on the ground, a familiar sight that didn’t scare me. Just the week before I had accompanied my father to a neighbour’s house that had been struck by a rocket.
I asked him about it one day. “Because I’m not sure if I’ll return home alive,” he explained with irritation, expecting me to already know that
For a long time I had not understood why my father would kiss the hands and feet of my old grandmother – who was bed-ridden and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s – and ask for her forgiveness before leaving the house. He knew she wouldn’t respond. I asked him about it one day. “Because I’m not sure if I’ll return home alive,” he explained with irritation, expecting me to already know that.
As I squeezed closer to the front of the crowd and noticed the human flesh amid the blood, I wondered if those people had kissed their parents’ hands and asked for forgiveness before leaving home that morning. Regret washed over me as I realised that I hadn’t kissed my mother’s hands.
I continued on towards the bus station. It was getting gloomier. The streets were empty and shops were closed. Only a few people walked in the same direction as me, because everyone was trying to get home before the snow fell out of the dark clouds. I hesitated as I wondered whether I should wait to go to the other side on a nicer day, when the sun was shining. But then I remembered that slap. Stop being a coward! I continued walking.
Getting the next bus was not difficult. The driver made me pay in advance. The drive from downtown to the Pul-e Surkh bazaar, on the other side, was short. We passed the once-famous Kabul Zoo. Before the war, my father had brought my family to see the exotic animals there. My favourites were a couple of grey wolves that ran up and down in their cage. There was something in their eyes that put a spell on me. Maybe what I saw in them was the anger of entrapment, but they were captivatingly beautiful. The rest of my family would go from one animal enclosure to the next, but I preferred to stay watching the wolves.
As the bus passed, I tried to peer inside the zoo. I could see through the low fences that the wolves’ cage was empty, the door open. My dad had told me that the animals had either starved to death or had been killed in the crossfire between militia groups.
As we drove through empty neighbourhoods, I noticed the ruined houses with collapsed roofs. I thought about the people who used to live in them, and those who had fled towards Pakistan in the first year of the war. Over dinner, my parents would lament the loss of friends from their lives.
I was deep in thought when the bus pulled into its last stop. Mountains of food lined the narrow, pot-holed road that cut through the Pul-e Surkh bazaar. I had heard stories about the enormous quantities of food at this bazaar, and now looked upon the stacked tins of cooking oil, firewood, sugar and flour myself. I hadn’t seen so much food in one place since right before the war had started. My father, predicting war, had taken me and my brother to a market to hoard as much food as we could buy.
I don’t remember how much I paid the shopkeeper for 14 kg of flour, a bottle of cooking oil and one kg of sugar, but I did check the prices in a few shops first. I also bought several loaves of warm bread from a bakery. I warmed my hands and face with their steam.
I wanted to walk from one end of the bazar to the other and take in the huge variety of food so that I, like my brother, could tell stories about the abundance on the other side. But I had to start my long journey home. As I got ready to leave, it began to snow. In a few minutes the ground became covered with a white sheet. I heard a bus driver calling for passengers for the downtown bus. I knew I couldn’t catch this bus because I could be caught with the illegal food at any of the dozen checkpoints between the bazaar and the frontline. From my previous visits to Pul-e Surkh I knew that my only option was to take the back streets that cut through a ruined neighbourhood, between the food market and the frontline, to get downtown. But with this heavy snow, it seemed like an impossible task. I wished I could take the bus.
I lost all traces of courage. The market was almost empty. A few people wrapped in woollen shawls rushed through their shopping before the market closed. I felt alone and far from home. I will freeze, I thought. The little sack of food felt too heavy for me now. I forced myself to move.
As I walked through the ruined neighbourhoods my legs began to ache. I passed closed shops, empty streets and silent houses. Smoke rose from the chimneys of a few houses and I wished I was at home, sitting close to the wood stove, drinking my mother’s sweet green tea. A lump formed in my throat and my eyes brimmed with tears.
You wimp! I chastised myself, and continued walking.
I reached the T-intersection that connected the main road with the ruined neighbourhood, and stopped. A sign in red lettering read ‘Danger: Mines’, with an arrow pointing towards the ruined neighbourhood. I didn’t know whether to continue or turn back. I looked towards the houses and then back to where I’d come from.
I started to think about returning the food, getting my money back and sneaking home. I started in the direction of the bazaar, but all the shops had closed. Even the bakery, which never closes during the day, had covered its front window with a large tarpaulin.
I didn’t know what to do. I looked around, hoping to spot a familiar face, but of course there was none. I looked up at the sky, desperately, and pleaded with God to give me a sign.
The bus driver was still calling for downtown passengers.
I had two choices: I could leave the food, lose the money and just go home. Or, I could try my luck and see if the driver would let me on his bus with my food. I decided to take the bus. I approached hopefully, attempting to blend in with the others boarding the bus, but the driver wouldn’t let me get on. When I tried, he pushed me back and I almost fell from the steps. I knew I had to get on, no matter what. I started to cry and beg.
“Please, uncle,” I implored as my eyes overflowed with genuine, hot tears. “It’s snowing, my hands are numb.” I showed him the backs of my hands, which had turned purple. “If you don’t let me on I will die.”
“I don’t care,” he said, indifferently. “I don’t want to get in trouble. If they find out that we have allowed food in our bus they’ll beat us.”
Already crying and begging, I didn’t know what else to do, so I brushed his hand aside and I tried to push onto the bus. He shoved me back so hard that I lost my grip on my sack, as well as my balance. I fell hard onto the snow-covered ground, screaming and cursing.
“You bastard! You are not a Muslim! A Muslim does not treat a child like this!” He was not moved.
I looked to the people sitting by the window, hoping someone might intervene. It worked. An elderly man came to the door and shouted to the driver, “Fear God, brother! Have mercy on the child. Let him in. I will take responsibility if they find his food.”
A few other passengers raised their voices and protested the way the driver had treated me. The driver was reluctant at first, but gave in, shrugging and pulling me onto the bus.
“God bless you, uncle,” I said happily. “He is watching your good deeds, uncle.” Quickly, I hid my food sack under one of the seats, as everyone was watching.
As we waited for the bus to fill up so we could begin our journey, I tried to avoid eye contact with the driver, who anxiously eyed me through the rear-view mirror. I kept my gaze turned out of the window. I prayed that it would snow even harder. I thought the faster and heavier it snowed, the smaller the chance that the militiamen would stop our bus.
We drove through at least five abandoned checkpoints. Each time we passed through a check-point, the nice uncle and I would exchange a smile. I could see that he was worried. He may have showed courage at the bus station, but facing an actual militiaman was something else entirely.
We almost made it out of the opposition-controlled area when the bus came to a screeching halt.
“What’s happening?” someone asked.
“The last checkpoint,” our driver said, looking at me in the mirror.
“They search cars very thoroughly here,” another passenger said.
Everyone looked at me. My heart dropped into my stomach. I looked to the nice uncle for encouragement. He forced a smile.
“Don’t worry,” he said, kindly. “Have faith in God.”
The driver opened the door and a young militiaman, swinging a pointy kebab rod, stepped in. He was covered in a stained woollen shawl. He scratched his patchy beard as he looked around at the passengers. He smiled and combed his fingers through his long black hair, coming towards the middle of the bus, where I was sitting.
He whistled an old Bollywood tune as he searched the shelves above the seats. Then he probed under the seats. As he moved from one seat to the next he spotted my little sack. He pulled it out from its hiding place and stuck his kebab rod into it, jerking it back and forth.
“Who does this food belong to?” he asked, very calmly. I hesitated. He looked at the driver and asked again, louder and more angrily this time.
“It’s mine,” I ventured, my voice cracking.
“Didn’t you know that smuggling food is illegal?” he shouted. His dark, skinny face turned crimson.
I started to cry. “Please, uncle! It is only some flour and some bread. It’s not much,” I begged.
“Grab your sack and follow me!”
Without saying a word or looking at each other, we followed him to his outpost. As we walked towards a large two-story house, I snuck quick glimpses at the faces of the other boys. They looked cold and scared.
“I am not your uncle. I am your sister’s husband,” he replied aggressively, and poked me on the shoulder with his rod. I’d heard that phrase before but it had never been directed at me. It was the first time I had winced at the words. I thought of my little sisters at home, and what this fighter was implying.
“Please, young man!” entreated the nice uncle, on my behalf. “Have mercy, he is a child. It is snowing and cold outside. This poor child…”
Before he could complete his sentence the young militiaman slapped him across the face. “It’s none of your business,” he shouted. “Yallah, grab your food or I will shoot you right here.” He brought out his Kalashnikov from under the blanket and pointed its barrel at my face. I looked around and hoped that someone else would intervene. No one did. Even the nice uncle was now looking the other way.
I stumbled out of the bus, trembling but holding fast to my food sack. The cold air hit me in the face and jolted me from my thoughts of what might happen next.
There was already enough snow on the ground to cover my ankles. Five or six other boys, all my age or younger, stood a few metres away with their sacks of food. They had hidden their hands inside their sleeves to protect them against the cold. At first I was happy to not be alone; then I felt sorry for them, for all of us.
“Follow me, bastards!” the young militiaman shouted.
Without saying a word or looking at each other, we followed him to his outpost. As we walked towards a large two-story house, I snuck quick glimpses at the faces of the other boys. They looked cold and scared.
The militiaman knocked on the gate of the house. Another young man opened the door.
“What have you brought us, Reza?” he asked.
“Smugglers,” Reza answered. “And you know what the punishment is for smuggling?”
We were led out onto a lawn, covered with ankle-deep snow.
“We have a party for you motherfucking rats!” Reza snarled.
We were instructed to kneel in the snow and hold our hands behind our heads. We all obeyed, silently. The sky was still pouring snow and I regretted asking God to make it snow faster.
Reza went inside and soon returned with a small boy, who couldn’t have been more than five years old. I smiled, because for a moment I felt that the presence of another, younger boy meant that we would be safe. He noticed, and smiled back shyly.
“Here, take this,” one of the militiamen told the boy, holding out his Kalashnikov for him to take. “Beat every single one of them.”
The boy tried to grasp the weapon but it was too heavy and slipped from his fingers. He was embarrassed, and picked it up again with a show of effortlessness. He walked behind our kneeling row. I could hear his heavy breathing and the sound of his steps on the snow. He paused.
I thought he was struggling to decide whether to beat us or not, but then I felt a blunt jab to my upper back, and fell on my face. Writhing, I bit down on my screams.
The little boy watched me twist like a snake. He then walked to each boy, stopping only to strike them between the shoulders. When he had beaten the last boy, he dropped the weapon and ran towards the building. When he reached the entrance he stopped and looked back at us. I could see regret in his face; I was still in pain and was sure he could see that. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and he smiled before he disappeared inside.
The men told us they would let us go, but without our sacks of food. But just as we prepared to leave, Reza was beckoned inside the house. He re-emerged a few minutes later, and told us that we must finish digging the half-dug ditch that connected the two sides of the main road.
I was ready to dig all the ditches in the world for my freedom. We were given some shovels and pickaxes. I volunteered to dig first, renewed by the prospect of freedom as soon as we were done. We took it in turns like this for what felt like hours, but the digging kept us warm. As our trench reached the other side of the road it was getting dark. The gutted houses all around were silhouettes. Occasionally, a car would pass on the road and would be stopped at the check point. I thought about home and knew that my mother would be at our front gate, looking for me.
Our hands were numb, our clothes were wet and covered with mud, but nothing could keep us from digging. My heart beat fast, but this time from happiness as I felt so close to freedom. I could tell from the other boys’ fast work that they were happy, too.
I shovelled my last piece of dirt and climbed out of the ditch. “We are done, boss. Can we go home now?” I asked Reza, excited.
“Not that soon,” Reza replied. “The night is still young and the party hasn’t yet started.” The men laughed.
We were ordered to carry our tools and follow the men to a nearby house. We walked in a line, as we were ordered. One militiaman walked at the front, the other followed from behind, to make sure we didn’t run away.
The house we were led to had a collapsed upper floor. Reza kicked the door open and ordered us to go inside. We were instructed to put our shovels and pickaxes in one of the rooms, and to follow one of the men into the cold, dark basement.
It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. The stench of stale human faeces clung to the damp air. It had stopped snowing, but the wind could be heard, howling like a wounded animal against the buildings.
We were ordered to stay where we were, so I whispered to the boys that we should huddle together to stay warm. I remembered my mother telling me that whenever I was in trouble, I should recite specific versus from the Quran. I closed my eyes and began to murmur the Arabic words. A couple of the other boys followed. One began to cry, sobbing that he wanted to go home. I wanted to be with my mother, too. I asked for God’s help.
We heard heavy footsteps approaching. The door was opened and the basement was flooded with a yellow light. Reza and his friend came in, carrying a large oil lamp. We were ordered to stand in line. The lamp was brought close to our faces. The man holding it smirked, and I could smell the hashish on his breath mixed with the smell of the lamp’s oil. The look in his eyes terrified me, and a cold shiver that had nothing to do with the snow or wind travelled through my body. The stories that father told me about young boys being snatched from their fathers were true after all.
“You, come with me,” Reza’s friend ordered. It was impossible to see who he meant, and I feared he was talking to me. I felt dizzy but stepped forward. But he hadn’t meant me.
“Not you, I want him.” He grabbed the boy beside me. He screamed, and tried to step away. He was grabbed again, and dragged kicking and screaming upstairs.
I didn’t know how to react. I was happy that it hadn’t been me, but I felt scared for the boy who was taken. As the door was kicked closed behind us, we were too scared to cry or pray. We were completely silent as we listened to the fading screams and thudding footsteps upstairs.
I knew it had been foolish to believe that we would be let go after we’d finished digging the trench.
Reza shouted after us, laughing: “You will remember this night!”
In the darkness I felt a small, shaky hand grasping me on the arm. The smallest of the boys was shaking, so I pulled him closer in an attempt to comfort him. He grabbed onto me so hard that the shaking of his body transferred to me.
We sat there like that in the dark for a long time, trying to stay warm and comfort each other without words. Suddenly, we heard a burst of laughter approach and the door was flung open. A beam of yellow light entered the basement. The boy who had been taken was shoved inside. The door was slammed and we were locked back in again.
He stood still, in silence, for a few seconds. Then he covered his face with his hands and began to cry. We surrounded him, arms outstretched, trying to calm him. We kept him in the centre of our circle to keep him warm. Nobody said a word. The only sounds I could hear were the blood flowing in my ears and the boy’s sobbing. I wondered who would be next.
Minutes passed and there was no further sign of our captors. I started to think that they were going to keep us for the night, if not forever. Eventually, footsteps approached again and Reza opened the door, alone. He didn’t enter, but stood by the door and lowered the lamp so we were all illuminated. He told us that we were free to go. I couldn’t see his face, just his shadow in the threshold. His voice shook, as did the lamplight, from his shivering.
We did what we were told, eagerly but with suspicion. Were we really being let go now? We clambered up the stairs after Reza. As soon as the last boy stepped out of the house Reza slammed the gate shut and jammed it shut with a big rock. We were told to leave and not look back.
“I will shoot you in the face if you try to look back,” Reza’s friend warned, and waved his gun in our direction. “Run! Now!”
We ran. Reza shouted after us, laughing: “You will remember this night!” We did not know where we were running, but I remembered that we had been brought from the east, so I told the boys that we should head east.
We eventually made it to the main road. It felt very late as the sky was completely black, but at least the shining stars meant that there would not be any more snow for a while. We shared the road only with a few stray dogs. The boy who had been assaulted was in pain and couldn’t run any further. Some of the boys suggested that we should continue to walk towards the downtown area. I didn’t think we should leave the injured boy alone, and suggested that we wait for a car to pass. We waited, but many cold minutes passed with no sign of a vehicle, so we decided to walk after all.
I volunteered to be the first person to carry the injured boy on my back. I had had no breakfast, lunch or dinner that day, but the thought of being free and seeing my family again filled me with energy. We walked in silence. The only sounds were the barking of dogs and our footsteps crunching against the snow and ice. I was determined to get home soon and wake from this nightmare. The other boys must have felt the same.
The boy on my back began to cry, silently. I knew because I felt a warm tear drip down my neck. I tried to start a conversation, but he refused to tell me his name. The only thing he said was that he lived close to the airport.
When we arrived at our destination, two of the boys left without even saying goodbye. I didn’t blame them. The rest of us couldn’t decide what to do with the injured boy. We decided to wait again to see if a car would pass. I had some money left, and the other boys pitched in so that we could pay for a taxi if we could find one. But there were no cars on the streets. I cursed the wind, the cold and the darkness. I was ready to take the injured boy home with me.
Eventually, a bicycle approached through the darkness. We became excited. I ran towards it and called out for the rider to stop, but he wouldn’t. Perhaps he thought we were a group of street boys up to no good. I ran and tried to grab the back of his bicycle. It dragged me a couple of metres as I clung on, but then, came to a halt.
The cyclist shouted at me. “What do you want, you bastard?” He was angry. I told him what had happened to us. But he thought we were trying to steal his bicycle. I asked him to come and take a look at the injured boy, to see for himself. He was reluctant, but agreed. “You’d better be telling me the truth,” he warned.
We approached the circle of boys. When the cyclist saw the blood of the injured boy he realised I was telling the truth. He agreed to take the boy to his home on his bicycle. We sat him on the back, told him where to hold on tight, and he peddled away into the night.
My mother was still awake when I knocked on the door. Indeed everyone, except my two little sisters, were awake and waiting for me. Patience and faith can be very powerful. Much later, my mother told me that because of her patience and faith in God, she knew I would return.
My father’s reaction was as I had imagined it would be. He pulled me inside and beat me. I did not cry. I did not shed a single tear. I enjoyed this beating because I was happy that I was back home, among my siblings and parents. I used to always feel antagonised after beatings from my father. This time, when he tired of beating me, I ran after him and hugged him from behind. I told him that I was sorry and burst into tears.
After the excitement and anger of my return had settled, everyone else went to bed. I couldn’t sleep. I tiptoed to the door of my parents’ room and listened to their snoring and heavy breathing.
“Thank you God, for bringing me back home,” I whispered into the darkness.
I brought my blanket and lay down in the corridor outside my parents’ room because I wanted to be as close to them as I could. That is what I would do whenever I was scared and could not sleep. I closed my eyes to tried to sleep but remembered to assaulted boy. I wondered what would happen to him. Did he make it home? Where was he now? Would he recover from the physical and emotional trauma? What was he doing or thinking about? What if they had taken me instead? I realised how wrong I had been about my father. There was a reason he did not want me to take the risk, I told myself. There was plenty of time to be a man, later.
~ Abu Taha is a Kabul-based journalist and fiction writer.