Children of Kabul
Photo : Flickr / Mark Knobil
(Image is for illustrative purpose only)
Children of Kabul Photo : Flickr / Mark Knobil (Image is for illustrative purpose only)

On the other side

A boy gets more than he anticipated when trying to prove his manhood in Kabul.
Children of Kabul<br /> Photo : Flickr / Mark Knobil<br /> (Image is for illustrative purpose only)
Children of Kabul
Photo : Flickr / Mark Knobil
(Image is for illustrative purpose only)
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."
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