The Day the Taliban Came to Town
Abdolah remembers the day the Taliban came to town.
It was an unremarkable day. Just like all the rest. He arrived at the school where he taught around eight o'clock that August 11, 1998, morning. Most residents of Sar-e Pol didn't believe the Taliban would ever infiltrate their northern Afghanistan city. The Northern Alliance forces in neighbouring Mazar-e Shariff were strong. There was nothing to worry about.
Or so they thought. "It was absolute normally day," the new Vancouver resident recalled. From inside the school they heard the nearing gunfire and it was apparent to all what was happening. There was no other explanation. Everyone wanted to go home, naturally, so they piled out onto
the street. But the fighting was too close. It wouldn't be safe. Back inside they went. A few minutes passed before gunmen took over their school, shooting in the air. Two or three to a class. Staff and students were told to get on the floor. No talking.
"The children, they cry," he remembers. "They cry and the people from Taliban hit them. 'Don't cry! Quiet!' Hit the kids with the gun. I try to tell the kids to be quiet and he hit me. 'Don't speak!' The moment like a shock. Everybody shocked. Nobody says something."
After approximately twenty minutes, everyone was forced outside. It was from that vantage point that Abdolah saw fire and smoke coming from the principal's office. Some of the teachers and older students were marched off to prison. After a night in jail, Abdolah was interrogated.
"I went to some office with a bearded guy who start to ask me some question, but in Pashto language." Abdolah learned Pashto in high school the way we learn French. He understands bits and pieces, but speaks Dari (Afghan Persian) and German.
"He was too fast. I didn't understand," he says. "He cry, 'Why? You Afghan! You have to speak Pashto!'" And so the interrogation continued in Pashto.
"Who do you work for? For which group?"
"I work for nobody. I'm a teacher. I taught in the school, that's my job," he replied. In Afghanistan, in order to bypass military service, you can opt to teach for six years instead. So Abdolah, a math and physics major in university, taught math and phys ed at a local boys school.
"I know you taught Communist ideas. You are a Communist," he was accused.
"I'm not Communist. I'm teacher. I taught everything."
Abdolah, a clean-shaven non-practicing Muslim, was then questioned on his appearance.
"Why are you shaved?"
"I'm a teacher. I have to be shaved. You have to be clean."
"You are not Muslim because you don't have a beard!"
After some more questioning, Abdolah was sent back to prison. There he met two other teachers, some government workers, store owners, and not one knew why there were being held. Their families didn't even know where they were. Whenever someone would ask why they were there or what they did, they'd get smacked with a rifle. Abdolah was a quick study.
"I didn't ask, but I want to ask why I'm here," he said. "Know my family that I'm here? What happened on the outside? What's the government? We don't know. I see that the people have a question, nobody answer and they hit you. I think, okay, I don't need to ask because I ask and they hit me, too. And I didn't ask. Never."
Day turned into night. Over and over again. Everyday they got a little bit of food but never enough. And every morning it was early to rise for bathing and prayer. "Actually, I don't know how I prayed exactly," he said. "But I did the same how the other guy did, you know?"
Months passed. Four, five, six. After that length of time, prison life becomes your reality. You stop thinking about life on the outside and worry only about that night's sleep, your next meal.
"You think about sleep. How can I sleep a little better?,” he recalls. In a small cell with 15 or 20 other men, it's impossible to all sleep at the same time. “Or how's about tomorrow? Maybe good food? You think just that; not about [going] home. You forget it."
There were only five or six thin, filthy blankets. But so many people squeezed into such a small area had its advantages. Sort of.
"We are just happy to close the door and [with] all the people in the room, it is warm,” he says. “It is not air, but it's warm. It stink, too."
But these were just inconveniences compared to the other thoughts that wouldn't go away. "From beginning you think, 'They kill me, they kill me.' But after you see that everything was bad – no food, no sleep, and everything – and you think it's better if you are dead than this life here. I was scared. I was scared they kill me. But later I was not scared. I was not scared."
His mother, in fact, was convinced her youngest son had been killed, as had her oldest boy and her husband, a doctor, who heard the firing of guns the day Abdolah was arrested, grabbed his own firearm and headed outside to investigate. The Taliban saw him and shot him dead.
By chance, a local store owner who was briefly jailed with Abdolah, ran into Abdolah's uncle. They started talking, and the store owner mentioned being in prison with the nephew. This was joyous news to his family.
"The people don't know I'm in jail," he says. "The people think I'm dead. It was a surprise to my uncle to believe I'm still alive. And he told my mother and everybody's happy."
And then one night they came for him. After 22 months locked away, a guard came in, handcuffed him, and led him to a waiting car. "I thought hundred per cent they kill me today. But I was not too scared." Sitting amongst four guards, Abdolah, now with a beard down to his stomach, is blindfolded for the first two kilometres of a 24-km journey to the other side of the
city. Nobody says a word.
Nearing a small village, they stop the car. The guard up front orders Abdolah's handcuffs removed. This is it, he thinks. He is convinced he will die. Figuring he was as good as dead no matter what, he hatches a plan. "I think now to find a chance to take the guns from one guy. I try
to take the gun from him and shoot all of them. Really. In this moment, I'm not worried, I think just like this. It's a chance like this sometime takes in the movies. We have the chance, we can do that. Why not? If I do or not, they kill me."
But it doesn't come to that. The guard up front says he's free to go.
"Why I'm free?"
"Don't ask. Thank your uncle for that. You can go."
At first, he thought they'd let him walk five metres before shooting him in the back. But when he heard his uncle mentioned, he knew something was up. And it was. His uncle had bought his freedom.
The guards drive off. And for the first time in almost two years, he's a free man. Abdolah walks quickly to the village where people are waiting for him. He's told that if the Taliban attacks this village, and they find him, they'll kill him immediately. So after an hour's time, they walk to
another village in the mountains where the Taliban won't go. He is weak from his captivity, but was more than happy to walk. And walk. Which is a good thing, considering. He is told everything is arranged for him to go to Pakistan. On foot.
So off they go, six adults and two children. Thirty-three days later, through the snowy mountains of middle Afghanistan, they arrive and separate. It is in Pakistan where he meets his uncle, who sets him on his way to Canada.
He is met at the Toronto airport by two men and he can finally exhale.
"I'm in Canada," he remembers thinking. "Nothing can happen with me in Canada." They drive non-stop to Vancouver, where they deposit him at Immigration.
At Immigration, he finds out exactly how lucky he is to be alive. A United Nations team, he is told, found a gravesite containing the bodies of 188 teachers killed in one day by the Taliban.
As part of his personal philosophy, Abdolah immediately starts to integrate into Canadian society. He registers in English classes. Soon he gets work painting. A hobby magician, he hires himself out at children's parties. He eventually starts his own painting company.
"In each corner in the world where you are, be open-minded is very, very important," he says. "And accept the culture from the country."
While he loves his new city, there's no place like home. He wants to go back as soon as possible and help in Afghanistan's rebuilding process. With American bombs blasting away his homeland, it's somewhat surprising to hear his opinion on the war. He bristles at the suggestion by some that the Americans shouldn't be there.
"Yeah, but who care about Afghanistan since Taliban kill million people and the Russian military killed the people? Nobody has said that is good or bad." He believes now is Afghanistan's best chance in a long, long time. His opinion of war is strictly utilitarian. Innocents will be killed, but if their deaths provide a greater good for the greatest number, it's a sacrifice he's willing to make.
"Some Afghan people don't like [the war], too. For me, it's okay. Russia killed a lot of people. They bombed each cities in Afghanistan. After fight, after war, they did nothing. [Later], the Mujahadin and the Taliban did the same. They killed the people, too. They killed million people. But I think if America went there and kill the people now this time, it's different. A lot of the people from the Taliban, they are bad for Afghanistan; they are bad people. You have to kill them. If they kill some other people, children, woman, okay. That is war. That, to me, is war. If
they kill 20,000 civilians, that's 15 or 20 million Afghan have a nice way of life after. That's okay."
Of course, he, like most of us, can't understand why the Americans haven't found bin Laden yet. He reasons that the US has satellites that can see inside the earth and find oil and uranium, so how hard can it be to find a guy in a cave?
Sometimes cynicism gets the best of him. "I know where bin Laden is," he'll suck in a friend, before offering up the punchline: "I think sometimes he drink whiskey with the Bush together! Believe me!"
Abdolah figures he'll spend at least six more months here before moving back home. In six months, he predicts, the Afghan people will have fully comprehended that the Taliban is gone. The bombs from the US will have stopped. And companies from all over the world will come to help out.
"Then it is time to go and work with them together," he says. "And then if the people have a job, if the people busy, nobody think to fight or do something. Everybody is like before. You go to your job, come back home, your family. The young people, they live for 20 years in a war. They don't know without fighting. That is the problem in Afghanistan."
He's not sure yet what he will do, but he knows he must do something. And rather than his next meal, sleeping arrangements or his imminent death, Abdolah has other, more pleasant, thoughts these days.
"I think all the time, what is the best for me to do in Afghanistan?" His answer: "To help the people and to make money, too.
"Each country want to do something in Afghanistan," he says. "There's a lot of job now, a lot of hard work. You know, all the street is broken. And the bridge. The construction of Afghanistan need a lot of job."
You can't help but feel his excitement when he talks like the president of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce.
"Canada, America, Europe, Japan, Iran, all country, they want to help to Afghanistan. If they really give the money to work in Afghanistan, I give you guarantee that after five year, Afghanistan is nicer as Hong Kong. Believe me."
President of the Chamber of Commerce? How about president of Afghanistan?
"No, I don't want that. I want to be alive for a little longer, you know?!"