“I don’t want to be buried in Afghanistan.
My grandfather’s piercing blue eyes glazed over, belying the certainty of his voice.
His request before his death in 2011 may have seemed unusual coming from a proud Kandahari, a former Afghan diplomat turned prolific Pashtun scholar.
But for me and my family, we knew it came from a place of deep pain. The kind of pain a lover feels for his beloved when he has wandered off and no longer resembles the person he fell in love with.
No, he wanted to be buried in his home of the last 30 years, America, although he did not share the ground with the ancestors who preceded him. Because, as he told me, the Afghanistan of today was not the Afghanistan he knew.
He much preferred basking in the sunshine of his good memories. At a time when, to him, his country seemed prosperous, human rights and good education were about to be reborn, and religion was being used as a source of ethical and principled living, not as political capital.
For decades, the people of Afghanistan have experienced war: from the Soviet invasion in 1979 – when my mother and her family moved to the United States – to civil wars, and American invasion in 2001. Millions of people were killed, maimed and made refugees.
A year ago, the Taliban regained full control of the country in a move that very few saw coming – as quickly as it did, anyway. Since then, the group has faced attacks against the people it governs. They also fought for their legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
But at the heartbreak of this story are the real, lived experiences of Afghans struggling to feed their families, to rebuild their country after so many years between two fires, their lives uprooted or worse.
Now the stories we most need to tell are the human stories.
Not like a tragedy for fun, not like the chorus of a sad song we’ve been singing for years about Afghans, with the same depressing lyrics. But as a responsibility to put the people at the forefront of the Afghanistan narrative, not just the political leaders.
Stories like, what has it meant to smart, emotional young men and women with their own dreams, to be the punctuation marks of failed policies, torn apart by those who don’t even know their names ? Being dismissed as “collateral damage” by alien forces, as if their existence never mattered?
Or for the children who fall asleep one night lulled by the soft whispers of their mother and father, only to wake up the next day alone, deprived of the only family they have ever known. What happened to them?
The war may be over, but its damage remains. And rebuilding isn’t easy when the rest of the world abandons you, almost overnight.
We remember the surreal images last year of Afghans clinging to a US Air Force plane in what can only be described as desperation personified. They didn’t know exactly where they would end up, or even if they would make it, but they clung to a belief that was much bigger than fear: they knew they didn’t want to be home anymore.
I recently met someone who arrived in the United States from Kabul airport last year: an adopted son taken in by a relative of mine. Ali (name changed to protect his identity) was 12, one of 10 children, and his family chose him to literally take a leap of faith in what might be.
As a mother of three, I can only imagine the buried pain and facade his mother must have projected as she said goodbye to her son, knowing full well that it could be many years before she don’t see him again. And that’s if she’s lucky.
In the few times I interacted with Ali, some things were clear: he was doing his best to hold on and be tough. In fact, he wasn’t hard. He was tender and vulnerable, as he is a boy who has been charged with the responsibility of saving his family from a life of poverty. It is a heavy weight to bear.
He missed his family so much it hurt, made worse by the times he couldn’t reach them via WhatsApp video call. He was afraid and his sense of identity was declining.
There are so many stories like this. We don’t talk about it enough.
There’s a story we told last year that I still can’t get out of my mind. These were thousands of Afghans fleeing violence before the Taliban took power. Ghulam, a rickshaw driver from Kunduz, told our correspondent: “Our beautiful house is gone. He’s covered in flames now.
Elsewhere in the room, a mother named Samia rounded up her seven children in the middle of the night and fled to Kabul. She said, of the reasons she was forced to flee her home: “Both sides just shoot without looking at what they’re hitting.”
My grandfather was lucky enough to find a viable way to escape the war and to have the choice between returning or remaining comfortably in another country. Although he no longer lives in Afghanistan, I know that Afghanistan lived within him, and he devoted decades of life in the diaspora to serving his country with his pen rather than his physical presence.
Millions of Afghans have not been so privileged. So we have to ask ourselves:
What are we going to do to rebuild the beautiful house of Ghulam?
How will those in power support children like Ali? Or mothers like Samia?
And what about young Afghans living under the Taliban who were not alive when they were in charge before? How do they feel about it?
Afghans have more at stake than anyone else, and they want real and lasting peace more than any internal or external actor speaking to the world through a microphone.
They should have a say in their country, rather than being taken care of. We can give them more voice.
They deserve that from us.
Here are some examples of stories that do just that – families so desperate for money they sell their daughters to the Hazara mother writing to the son she gave birth to the day the Taliban took over Kabul.