Maiwand Banayee came to Ireland from Afghanistan in 2004. He spent over three years in direct provision and learned English while living in Ireland. After receiving permission to stay here, he attended IT Carlow, graduating with a degree in Physical Therapy. He writes about war in Afghanistan from his direct experiences and is currently writing a memoir.
“This Too Shall Pass”
(A Persian adage)
By Maiwand Banayee
Lockdown (Day Thirty-Six)
My wife moans again: ‘No toilet rolls. I told you to buy plenty, but you never listen’. As I stroll towards the nearest supermarket in Kilkenny city to buy toilet rolls, I see the streets eerily vacant and the city deserted. Here and there I catch glimpses of solitary figures striding along the pavements, some wearing masks and some wearing gloves. Every now and again I hear the buzz of an odd car passing through. Inside the supermarket I observe people keeping a distance from each other, wary of contact.
When I return home I hear my little daughter crying herself into a frenzy about missing her Irish Nanny living in Dunmore and my wife trying to calm her with ‘Gardaí stop the cars. It is dangerous to visit Nanny now. We will visit her once the Corona is over.’
I found this odd for it looked so unlike the Ireland that I had migrated to fifteen years ago from Afghanistan. Memories took me back to the war in Kabul.
For the past two months, rival forces had been pounding each other. We were sheltering inside our four-bedroom house, my parents, my sisters, my brother and his wife and children. The indiscriminate shelling from the mountaintops hit every moving object in our neighbourhood of Kote Sangi. Any minute a missile could fall on our heads like a Coronavirus so no one dared to step outside.
Then a short ceasefire provided a chance for escape. Hastily we stuffed anything we could grab into sacks. My paralysed sister, Gul, was chained to her rope bed unable to move any of her limbs. She needed constant attendance and care. Dad screamed: ‘You all leave. I’ll stay with her. She can’t make the journey, and I need to guard the house, or the Hazara will loot it.’
I was eleven at that time. It was a scorching summer’s day. On the way out I saw a lot of people fleeing. Wounded children were being carted in wheelbarrows, people were piggybacking their essential belongings like rags, mattresses, cooking pots. Children were wailing while the elderly were reciting verses from the Koran. I saw a lot of dead bodies, swollen and smelling of dead and rotting rats.
We exited the dusty alleys of our neighbourhood, entered Kote Sangi Chowk, a roundabout, where smoke and gunpowder smell still permeated the air. Entire blocks of shops and schools were turned into rubble. And out of nowhere, I heard a heavy firing and then a rocket explosion. I saw men and women rushing across the road and falling in the street. I saw a man dropping his disabled grandmother from his back to escape shooting.
We were the lucky ones who made it alive to the Company area. We paid a dust-stained lorry driver to get us to my uncle’s house in a village in the Maidan Shar Valley.
We boarded the hand-painted rusty lorry already laden with goats. As the lorry’s tyres screeched on the cobblestones the goats made a strange sound like a human cry. The bumpy white road simmered in the heat and the car ahead of them left a big cloud of dust after it. The faster the car travelled the more dust was raised and the more jolts we received. Along the road I saw scraggy landscapes with sun-baked bushes, derelict villages, and the brown peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains shimmering in the blazing afternoon sun.
After five hours of being and choked with dust and scorched by the sun we arrived. Maidan Shar had been a war zone for the past ten years ever since the invasion of Russia. The scars and wounds from the Soviet war still lingered everywhere: bombed-out mud houses, rusty corpses of Russian tanks, walking trails littered with shrapnel and shards from metal, the trees lining the riverbank burnt out and ash-coloured.
Now that the war was over in rural areas and moved to Kabul life was flourishing again inside the village. People were rebuilding their mud houses, arranging irrigation canals and tending to their plots of land for agriculture.
My uncle like many other people had fled from the war to Pakistan, returning to the village only a few months back with his extended family of two wives and seven sons. Three of his sons were married with kids. Their mud walled house had been half destroyed with only four rooms standing functional so we lived nine to a single room and at night slept like rows of sardines stuffed inside a can. My older sister was asthmatic, feeling breathless at night and in order to give her more space and air my older brother, Farouk, and myself slept on the rooftop.
Like everyone else in the village uncle Jamal’s family lived in dire poverty for all the agriculture and livestock had been destroyed during the cold war. They used lanterns for light and cooked meals on pit fires. Housewives woke early in the morning and swept and sprinkled the courtyard with water to keep the dust down, kneaded the dough for bread, set the fire in the tandoor, baked bread, milked the cows, fed the animals and prepared breakfast for the men before they started manual labour.
With so many people living in an overcrowded house, quarrels were bound to happen. There were moments of bickering, jealousy, blaming and then there were moments of guilt, apologies and compassion. My younger cousins taunted me about living in their house on their bread and water.
After a short stay in Maidan Shar the warring guerrillas called a truce in Kote Sangi. Emboldened by the truce Farouk decided to visit Kote Sangi to find out about Dad and Gul, despite mom’s disapproval. In those days, the journey there was a dangerous venture because it was occupied by Hazara forces, a rival ethnic group in war with my tribe of Pashtun. At that time, Pashtun detained Hazara and Hazara detained Pashtun.
As Farouk was leaving I cried to accompany him for I missed dad in Kabul but he refused to take me with him. I begged him several times and he refused several times but when I told him that I resembled Hazara people due to my small eyes and flat nose he agreed! Perhaps he thought my facial features would save him from interrogation at Hazara checkpoints.
So, we left for Kote Sangi in the mid-afternoon. Our hearts trembled when we neared the front line. We strode past Kabul Zoo which lay in ruin. Then we entered the Dehmazang area, a Hazara controlled jurisdiction. The streets and roads were entirely deserted. No one could be seen except for armed guerrillas. The asphalt road from Dehmazan to Kote Sangi had big craters from rocket falls. Side roads were littered with concrete blocks from pulverised buildings, shards of glass and burnt out cars. The trees lining the roadside were burnt, shop windows turned to ashes and all the electricity poles collapsed onto the ground.
When we arrived at the Kote Sangi roundabout the scale of devastation was horrendous. There were offensive smells of burning and some buildings were completely flattened, while others were charred and riddled with bullets standing like scarecrows. By the time we reached our neighbourhood, the sun was going down and not a single soul was to be seen. The silence was ominous. Here and there I caught glimpses of solitary figures who had come to see the ravaged remains of their houses.
We heard rumours that guerrillas had slaughtered many people in their homes and tossed their dead bodies into wells. The thought of Dad being killed and thrown into the well of our house kept crossing my mind. To our delight we found him and Gul alive, thanks to our Hazara neighbours who had given them protection against the Hazara Guerrillas. Later in our alley we met four other elderly Pashtun men who had remained in the neighbourhood to safeguard their houses. They all now lived at the mercy of our Hazara neighbours.
The old who had remained loved their gatherings. Whenever boredom loomed, they went out to the alley, spread a mattress beneath a wall and sat for a chat. In the early morning they spread the carpet in the sunny corners, in the afternoon at the shadowy side and in the evening again at the sunny corners.
A few weeks after our arrival the truce was broken and then everything became bullets and rockets. The ubiquitous shelling from the mountaintops resumed. Bullets hissed over our house and rockets rained like hailstones. Several rounds of mortars landed on our neighbour’s house, shaking the earth, swinging our doors open and pelting the debris into our yard. With every explosion our hearts thumped.
It was a terrible time. As the first ray of dawn appeared, artillery and rocket launchers came to life and shelled the entire neighbourhood as a single unit. Some days rockets fell without interruption, other days at random. Sometimes the noise was earsplitting while there were days when the artillery rumbled like a distant thunder. Often, we woke to a quiet dawn which was a relief from the drumming and humming of artilleries. At times of shelling we stayed in lockdown, which often led to quarrels between Farouk and Dad. They snapped and yelled at each other like lunatics.
The bombing went on for days, then for weeks and then for months. At one stage we ran out of most food supplies and foraged for it in the nearby deserted houses when there was a lull in the rocket firing. One day we cooked wild vegetables to supplement rice. Other days we ate shamrock leaves with salt.
The summer had gone and the winter took its place but the war continued unabated. With the onset of winter Gul’s condition began to deteriorate. Poor Gul! She had been suffering with pains for most of her life, ever since she had developed a malignant lesion above her eyebrow. This later metastasized into her brain, causing swelling and inflammation. At first, she faced problems with walking and then every trip to the latrine became an ordeal. In the end all her limbs lost their function and she became a prisoner of her own bed.
She had been bedridden for months and needed to be turned from one side to the other side every few hours. She moaned and cried with pain and we had no painkiller to give her, no diapers to change for her with ease and no hospital to make her comfortable. She lay on an Afghan rope bed beside the mud wall and we would place a cushion against the wall when propping her up for feeding. At night we took turns attending to her and sometimes her moans and cries mingled with the sounds of artilleries.
One day she stopped eating and began lapsing in and out of consciousness. Then she stopped drinking, her breathing became fast and she gasped for air. But we had no ventilators and no access to the hospitals. I noticed her skin turning blue and then suddenly silence prevailed and she finally got released from the prison of life.
On the day of her death rockets landed like an avalanche. Elderly men of the alley enveloped her in a white shroud and kept her body inside the room until the fall of night because they couldn’t bury her in the daylight for fear of shelling from the mountaintops. She was then buried in the far corner of our courtyard in a pit grave under the cover of darkness, without a coffin and without a funeral.
So, my story represents many stories of suffering that people endure daily across the world. Now remember how privileged you are to have a fridge stocked with food, to have hospitals with beds and ventilators and have access to phones and social media.
But don’t forget we are at war with the Coronavirus. There may be tough days ahead. We may run out of food. We may lose our loved ones. We may stay in lockdown for months on end but remember no storm lasts forever – “This too Shall Pass”. At the end of it all even if we are battered, bruised and our economies crushed we will emerge a more resilient, wiser and kinder people.