— When the Taliban took over the Afghan capital, Kabul, in 1997, Latifa was a 16-year-old teenager, listening to Elvis and dreaming of going to college. The Taliban's harsh rule transformed her life for the next four years. Following is an excerpt from her book, My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban — A Young Woman's Story, which she wrote in exile after fleeing the Taliban regime in 2001.
The White Flag Over the Mosque
9 A.M., September 27, 1996.
Someone knocks violently on our door. My whole family has been on edge since dawn, and now we all start in alarm. My father jumps up to see who it is while my mother looks on anxiously, haggard with exhaustion after a sleepless night. None of us got any sleep: The rocket fire around the city didn't let up until two in the morning. My sister Soraya and I kept whispering in the dark; even after things quieted down, we couldn't fall asleep. And yet here in Kabul, we're used to being the target of rocket fire. I'm only sixteen years old, but I feel as though I've been hearing that din all my life. The city has been surrounded and bombarded for so long, the smoke and flames of the murderous fighting have terrified us so often, sometimes even sending us rushing down to the basement, that another night in this racket is just part of our daily routine!
Until this morning.
Papa returns to the kitchen, followed by Farad, our young cousin, who is pale and breathless. He seems to be shaking inside, and his face is taut with fear. He can hardly speak, stammering out words in a series of strange gasps.
"I came...to find out how you were. Are you all right? You haven't seen anything? You don't know? But they're here! They've taken Kabul! The Taliban are in Kabul. They haven't come to your place yet? They haven't demanded that you hand over any weapons?"
"No, no one's been here, but we saw the white flag waving over the mosque-Daoud spotted it a few hours ago. We were afraid the worst had happened..."
This morning, around five o'clock, my young brother Daoud went downstairs as usual to fetch some water from the tap in the courtyard of our building, but came hurrying back up with the basin still empty.
"I saw a white flag over the mosque and another one over the school." The flag of the Taliban. It had never before flown over Kabul. I had seen it only on television or in newspaper photographs.
We knew the Taliban were not far away; people in the city kept saying they were five or ten miles from the capital, but no one truly believed they would manage to enter Kabul. When we quickly turn on the radio and the television to hear some news, there is still nothing, the same dreadful nothing — no sound or picture, nothing since six o'clock yesterday afternoon. This morning my father also tried to reach the rest of the family in Kabul, but the telephone is still dead as well.
I fiddle nervously with the dial of our battery-powered radio, searching through the static. No trace of our local station, Radio Kabul, or the BBC, or the Voice of America, which I try looking for at that unlikely hour, just on the off chance...If Farad hadn't risked racing over a mile on his bike from his neighborhood to ours, we wouldn't have had any information, nothing but the undeniable presence of those white flags.
What Farad has seen is so frightening, so appalling, that he blurts it out all at once.
"They've hanged Najibullah and his brother, on Aryana Square...It's horrible! Horrible!" He turns back and forth from my father to Daoud as he speaks, then gazes at my sister and me in anguish. We've heard terrible things about what the Taliban do to women in the provinces they already occupy. I've never seen Farad in such a panic, never seen such overwhelming fear in his eyes.
"Can you imagine? Najibullah. They've strung him up with plastic tubing! There's a big crowd, the Taliban are making everyone look at the bodies, they're beating people. I saw them." Petrified, the five of us are speechless.
Even after my brother told us he'd seen the white flags, I didn't want to believe the truth. The government forces must have pulled back to prepare for another attack on the Taliban, or else they've taken refuge more to the north, in a suburb of the city. The mujahideen can't have abandoned Kabul. So many times I've heard, read, and preferred to ignore what the government has been telling us about the Taliban: "They imprison women in their own homes. They prevent them from working, from going to school. Women have no more lives, the Taliban take away their daughters, burn the villagers' houses, force the men to join their army. They want to destroy the country!"
Just yesterday, despite the civil war, life was "normal" in Kabul, even though the city is in ruins. Yesterday I went to the seamstress with my sister to try on the dresses we were going to wear to a wedding today. There would have been music, we would have danced. Life can't stop like this on the twenty-seventh of September in 1996. I'm only sixteen and still have so many things to do-I have to pass the entrance examination to study journalism at the university...No, it's impossible that the Taliban could remain in Kabul; it's just a temporary setback.
I hear my father talking with Daoud, but I'm so upset I catch only scraps of their conversation. "Najibullah is a Pashtun, like they are — it's crazy for them to turn on a Pashtun. And they arrested him in the UN compound? They hanged him? That doesn't make any sense." My father is also a Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in the country. Like many others, he had thought that if through some misfortune the Taliban managed to invade the capital, they would certainly seek out Najibullah, not to hang him, but to set him free and invite him to join their new government.
Kabulis don't much care for Najibullah, a former leader of our government and a man capable of switching sides as easily as arms and drug traffickers move across the borders of Pakistan. My father is very critical of him and thinks he is a traitor to our country. Corrupt and criminal, Najibullah directed the Afghan Communist secret police, the Khad,* a sinister clone of the Soviet KGB. During the last coup d'état, in April 1992, when the resistance besieged Kabul, he simply ran away. Army troops caught him at the airport just as he was about to board a plane to escape abroad. When they forced him to stay, he took refuge at the UN compound near Aryana Square, and there he remained until today.
I was only a child when he made a speech calling for reconciliation among the various factions of the resistance, a speech he gave on the very square where Farad saw him hanging. If the Taliban are capable of hunting down an ex-president even in the UN headquarters in Kabul, then terror and chaos have taken over indeed.
Still shaken, my cousin Farad doesn't want to stay away from home too long. "If you must go out, be very careful, Uncle. I've seen some of them flogging people with big whips! They're scary, they dress like Pakistanis in long, loose pants, they drive around in four-by-fours and stop to beat people for no reason...Sometimes they attack men who don't wear beards. And you have no beard!"
Farad doesn't have a beard, either. Do you grow a beard at age sixteen when you wear running shoes and jeans? When you listen to rock music and daydream over sentimental Indian novels, like lots of boys his age?
The Taliban are all bearded. Their edict specifies that men must wear beards as long as a man's hand. They never wear the pakol, the traditional Afghan cap that has become an emblem of the resistance. Besides, we know they're not all Pashtuns, or even Afghans: They're supported by Pakistan, and they recruit followers abroad. Footage on television and eyewitnesses from the provinces they control prove that their ranks include many Pakistanis, as well as Arabs from Muslim countries, most of whom don't even speak our language. My father checks the street from the balcony of our apartment. The neighborhood is rather quiet; the Taliban flag still waves atop the mosque. But our minds are reeling. We look at one another, dumbfounded. Farad gulps down a glass of hot tea. Papa comes in from the balcony, shaking his head: He simply cannot believe the Taliban have hanged Najibullah.
This morning, my father and I will not be going jogging with Bingo, our dog. This morning, my father is silently wondering about a thousand things he keeps to himself so as not to distress our mother any further. She has already been sorely tried by seventeen years of war. War, fighting — that's all I've ever known since I was born on March 20, 1980, the first day of spring. But even under the Soviets, even under the rocket fire of the feuding military factions, even in the ruins, we were still living in relative freedom in Kabul.
What kind of life will our father be able to offer his loved ones? What will happen to his children? I was lucky to be born into a united and affectionate family, one both liberal and religious. My oldest brother, Wahid, lives in Russia. My oldest sister, Shakila, is married and lives with her in-laws, following the custom of our people. She's in Pakistan, waiting to join her husband in the United States. Soraya, who is twenty, is unmarried and has been a flight attendant for Aryana Afghan Airlines for three years now. She came home two days ago from a routine trip to Dubai and was to have left again this morning. Daoud is studying economics. I just passed the first part of a university entrance examination to study journalism. That has always been my dream. My father and everyone else in my family hope to see me complete my studies and become a reporter, traveling around the country, earning my living. Will all this come to an end in a single moment?
I need to see what's going on in Aryana Square, and so does my sister. We want to convince ourselves that the Taliban are really here, that they've really hanged Najibullah and his brother, that the catastrophe I refused to believe in only yesterday has actually happened to us. My brother Wahid, who was a soldier during the Soviet occupation and then a resistance fighter under General Massoud, always used to say about the Taliban, who were moving up from the south, "You can't imagine the kind of foreign support they have. No one in Kabul has the slightest clue: They're powerful, they've got modern equipment — the government will never be able to stand up to those people."
At the time, we thought he was being too pessimistic. Now we realize that he was right. So to convince myself of this new reality, I want to see these Taliban soldiers with my own eyes. My father has the same idea. Daoud will stay with Mama, who is too fragile to see such things, and the rest of us will drive to Aryana Square. Before taking off on his bike, a sturdy Chinese model, Farad warns my father once again: "You should stay home! It would be safer."
But we must see this incredible sight. If I were already a reporter, it would be my duty to go to the square. I've never seen Najibullah, except for a few times on television, and I was so young then. People had been saying lately that he was writing an autobiography, which I was eager to read. Even those who betrayed our country, who supported the Soviets, are part of our recent history. Anyone who wants to be a journalist must learn everything, understand everything, know everything.
I usually wear sweatpants, a polo shirt or a pullover, and running shoes, but today Soraya and I dress prudently in long dresses and chadors, which we wear at home when we pray. Papa goes to get the car, which is parked near the local mosque. Carrying his bicycle on his shoulder, Farad follows us downstairs, where we wait for Papa, who soon drives up. A neighbor calls to us.
"Have you heard? It seems they've hanged Najibullah on Aryana Square. What do you think of that?"
My father signals us discreetly to be cautious. In Kabul, and even in our neighborhood of Mikrorayan, you never know with whom you're dealing. The four modern housing complexes that make up this eastern section of the capital were built by the Soviets and form a kind of concrete village, with its big numbered apartment blocks, its business sector, its school. Many important officials in the Afghan Communist Party lived there, in what were considered luxurious quarters that were more comfortable than traditional houses. Most of the residents are acquainted with one another, and we recognize this neighbor, of course, but who knows what side he's on this morning?
Soraya replies prudently, in her usual calm and pleasant manner.
"That's what we heard, too. We're going to see what's happening."
"My daughter would like to go with you." Farad whispers to Soraya to refuse: "Better not take anyone else-you can never tell what might happen over there."
Farad has younger sisters and a sense of responsibility. The girl pleads with us to take her along, but the answer is no.
We drive off toward Aryana Square. Sitting in the back with Soraya, I think about the wedding we will not be attending. A few minutes ago, when I mentioned the dresses we were supposed to go get from the seamstress today, Mama snapped at me. "Don't you understand what's happening, Latifa? And you're talking about picking up dresses!" "Don't worry," my father assured me. "I'll get them later." I'm well aware that I'm a teenager who is spoiled by her father and coddled by her sisters, and who has grown up in an atmosphere of freedom until now. School, college, Sundays at the swimming pool, expeditions with my girlfriends in search of music tapes, film videos, novels to read avidly in bed in the evening...How I hope the resistance forces haven't abandoned us to our fate.
Along the way, Papa stops the car when one of our friends, a pharmacist, waves to him in recognition. The pharmacist's brother holds an important position in the government. "Where are you going? To Aryana Square? I'd advise against it." "We want to see things for ourselves."
"Well, then, I'll tell you something later on, when you return. Be careful!" The streets are less crowded than usual; we see men, but not many women. The faces I glimpse in passing are strained: People seem to be in shock. Everything seems calm, however. In fifteen minutes we reach the avenue that runs from the airport to Aryana Square, which is already clogged with cars. This great square is the modern center of the city. My father warns us that he's going to make a quick tour of the square and park farther along. We drive past the American Embassy, the television building, the headquarters of Aryana Afghan Airlines. None of their doors are open.
Soraya has tears in her eyes. "Look, that's where I work! Maybe I'll never be able to come here again. Even the television building is closed..."
The car turns a corner of the square by Peace Avenue, the site of the UN compound. Facing us is the Ministry of Defense, where General Massoud had his office. And there, across from the Hotel Aryana, the most luxurious in Kabul, reserved primarily for tourists and Western journalists, stands a kind of watchtower ordinarily used by the police guards on duty to keep an eye on the ministry. Two corpses are hanging from this improvised gallows. Papa advises us to look quickly because he's not going to drive around the square again.
"Take a good look at the faces, so we can be sure it really is Najibullah and his brother." And it really is: side by side, former president Najibullah, in traditional Afghan clothing, and his brother, wearing a Western suit. The first one hanging from a length of plastic tubing wrapped around his chest under his arms, the other strung up by the neck. Najibullah's face is recognizable, but blue, mottled with bruises: He must have been beaten before he was hanged. His brother's face, untouched, has a waxen pallor. The Taliban have stuffed cigarettes into the ex-president's mouth and crammed his pockets full of paper money, letting the bills stick out on purpose to advertise his greed. Najibullah seems to be vomiting cigarettes.
It's a vile spectacle, so ghastly that my sister and I start sobbing, but I can't tear my eyes away. Papa parks the car some distance from the square, to avoid the crowd.
"I'm getting out, but you stay here. Whatever you do, stay in the car! I saw the pharmacist, he wound up coming here too, so I'm going to go speak with him." Soraya and I are left alone, huddled against each other, watching the movements of the mob in the distance.
Farad was telling the truth: The Taliban are brandishing whips-or rather, some sort of wire cables-with which they lash out fiercely at passersby, forcing them to look at the grotesquely dangling bodies. I can't see these whips clearly; Soraya claims they have lead weights at the tips, but I'm not sure about that.
"But they do, look carefully! That one's beating a boy; you see how it's hurting him? A simple cable wouldn't make him suffer that much."
Ten minutes go by. Alone in the car, slumped in the backseat, hiding under our chadors, we both sit in silence, thinking about the disaster that has befallen us and anxiously wondering what lies ahead. So many rumors are flying around. I won't be going to my classes anymore. And Mama? She studied at Zarghuna High School, where she didn't wear the veil; her father had bought her a bicycle, like mine, to ride to school. She knew a time when girls wore their skirts hemmed at the knee, like mine; she received her nurse's diploma, worked in a hospital, earned a degree in gynecology. Even today, at forty-eight, although she has retired, worn out from raising five children and working all her life to provide medical services for women, she still sees patients for free in her home two or three times a week.
Our country needs its women. For years, women have held jobs in the civil service, education, and health care. There are so many widows, so many children, so many preventive measures to be taken, so many medical emergencies to cope with, so many daily battles with people's ignorance of modern medicine. Mama has lived through difficult times, and the Taliban's entry into Kabul will weaken her even more.
In the distance, we see Papa coming back, his shoulders hunched; he opens the car door and slips behind the wheel, shaking his head without a word. We do not disturb his silence. Then he starts the car, pulls away from the curb, and begins to speak.
"I talked with the pharmacist. His brother says that just before Massoud's troops left the city, someone close to the general went to the UN building to warn Najibullah and offer to take him along with them. Najibullah turned the man down. `I'm writing my book,' he said, `and the Taliban will give me another important position. Perhaps I'll be prime minister. I'm staying!"' Many people did indeed think that if the Taliban seized power, the king really would return and Najibullah would rejoin the government. And now he's hanging in Aryana Square. "He remained in the UN compound without any protection," continues Papa. "Around 4 A.M. the head of the Pakistani intelligence service arrived with an agreement — prepared in advance for Najibullah's immediate signature-that officially recognized the current Pakistani border, which includes the entire region of Peshawar that used to belong to our country. The man also wanted him to reveal the whereabouts of all the arms and munitions depots left behind in Kabul by the Soviets. Najibullah wouldn't sign. They beat and killed him, then strung him up on Aryana Square. It's his fault if he died like that. It's his fault. He didn't believe the Taliban would dare invade a building belonging to the United Nations. Well, they dared. God knows what else they're capable of after that."
We believe what Papa has told us, because he knows the pharmacist well, they often play chess together, and each considers the other a trustworthy friend. The man's brother left the city sometime this morning. He has no intention of handing over his weapons. We return to our apartment, driving slowly to take in what's happening in the streets. Women carrying children or dragging them along by the hand walk quickly, heading home after going out in search of news. The city is so quiet that you can hear the patter of their footsteps. A few teenagers have gathered to discuss what they've seen at the square, talking with dramatic gestures, and Najibullah's name is on everyone's lips. We race up the stairs to avoid any questions from our neighbors.
Mama sighs with relief as we come through the door. Her prematurely gray hair is pulled back in a knot; her face is pale, and her dark eyes seem black with anguish. "So? Did you see, is it really him?"
My father tells her about it, while I chime in. My mother suddenly feels faint and sits down. Soraya, who hasn't said much until now, starts talking about the Taliban's whips, but Papa gestures for her to be quiet. Mama cannot stand emotional shocks, and the doctor has advised us to try not to expose her to any stress.
Papa goes off to see our neighbor again but returns disappointed. The telephone still doesn't work, and neither does the radio. My father thinks about laying in a supply of batteries before this evening. The basic provisions-such as rice (the basis of our diet), pasta, oil, and flour (in case the bakeries shut down) — have already been taken care of. Papa saw to that at the beginning of the week, in preparation for what promised to be savage fighting.
There isn't any electricity, but we're used to that. In Kabul, electricity is a fickle sprite, arriving punctually for two or three days, then vanishing, leaving us to our gas or oil lamps. For cooking and hot water, we use a small gas cooker fueled by ten- or fourteen-liter bottles that are easy to find but impossibly expensive. We have a bathroom with faucets that ran dry a long time ago. All the plumbing is inoperative in our neighborhood as well as everywhere else. We press our clothes with an iron heated over a charcoal fire, and if the iron is still hot afterward, we offer it to a neighbor. We share and trade a lot in Kabul: Nothing useful should be wasted. Finally, at 11 A.M., the radio station — rebaptized Radio Sharia — comes back on the air, with a long period of religious chanting, followed by a man's voice reciting a verse of the Koran. Then the Taliban decree:
"The Prophet told his disciples that their work was to forbid evil and promote virtue. We have come to restore order. Laws will be established by religious authorities. Previous governments did not respect religion. We have driven them out and they have fled. But all those who belonged to the former regime will now be safe with us. We ask our brothers to hand over their weapons, to leave them outside the front doors of their buildings or at a mosque. And for reasons of security, we ask that women stay in their homes during this first period of transition." This speech, delivered in a harsh, singsong voice, is followed by religious chanting until noon. Then there is silence again. We'll have to wait until this evening, when we might be able to learn more from the Persian-language broadcast of the BBC or the Voice of America. What can we do in the meantime, except assume the worst, going over and over the awful things we've seen? We even forget to eat lunch.
There's a knock at the door. It's the landlord's agent, following the Taliban's orders, coming to warn my father that he must take his weapons to the local mosque. We have no weapons, aside from two relics hanging on the wall. Papa looks at the old gun, an antique from the 1920s, a souvenir from his father's military service during the struggle against the British. After my grandfather died, Papa carefully hung his gun on our living room wall, and now it is just a decoration. A saber hangs beside it. What use would the Taliban have for such a weapon? Tears well up in my father's eyes, and I can see that he hesitates to part with these mementos. Mama insists, however, begging him to be reasonable.
"Hiding the gun would be too dangerous. They might search the house." Then, with a heavy heart, Papa unhooks the old gun, which leaves a ghostly outline on the wall, just above a magnificent portrait of Mama painted by her brother. It's such a beautiful picture of her. She was twenty years old: Her glossy black hair falls in waves over her shoulders, and her large eyes sparkle with happiness. She is still beautiful, just a little worn by time and its trials.
Papa also unhooks the big saber, silently wrapping it up into a package with the gun. Later he will go off alone to leave his keepsakes at the mosque with the white flag. I feel I'm going to cry. In our family, we try not to show our feelings when we're upset; we all keep our grief to ourselves. What's the use of inflicting on others a distress that will only make them feel even worse? It's a character trait that is typically Afghan — this emotional dignity and discretion on such occasions. We are quite talkative and outgoing about matters that don't hurt us inside, but we hardly ever speak about our sorrows. I think the civil war exacerbated this discretion, this reserve. We survive in a kind of economy of emotions that keeps us from collapsing, from going insane with rage and fear. When the pain is too great, when I feel it threatening to overflow in front of my family, I hide in my room to bury my face in my pillow and lie sobbing, alone on my bed.
On this Friday, the twenty-seventh of September, a day fraught with visions of terror, Soraya and I talk endlessly about what has happened. After Shakila got married, I abandoned my single bed to sleep with Soraya. Until now, she used to talk to me about her trips, tell me stories about her colleagues on the flight crews. We'd listen to music, and she would make me laugh by jokingly pinching my nose to keep me from breathing. That was our way of dealing with the disturbing rumble of the explosions around the city. We practiced something our brother Wahid taught us that he learned when he was a soldier at the front: When there is a violent blast, you must open your mouth wide to prevent any injury to your eardrums.
Our bedroom is a refuge that reflects the passionate interests of my adolescence. On the wall is a poster of Brooke Shields, the American model who became an actress. Soraya has often entertained me by pretending to be a model: Teetering on her high heels, hands on her hips, wearing makeup, she would sashay around our room, posing and pirouetting. Even when I was little, she would dress up for me in our mother's clothes and shoes.
Next to the poster of Brooke Shields is one of Elvis Presley. My favorite music is rock, and I have heaps of audio cassettes. I also have lots of Indian movie videos that Daoud gets downtown from Farad's father, who runs a store that we love.
But today I don't feel like listening to music, I couldn't possibly read; I just need to talk. Soraya is more devastated than I am, more dispirited. Her flight attendant's uniform is hanging in the closet, and there it will stay: She's convinced she will never wear it again. It looks so nice on her! Two days ago, she came home from the Bagram Airport in the long white blouse and turquoise pants of the Aryana Airlines uniform. Soraya takes after my father, and I think she's quite beautiful with her raven black hair down to her shoulders, her lovely eyes, and dark, velvety eyebrows. Like Shakila, she has always spoiled me. Ever since I was a baby, she has taken special care of me, and when I sometimes don't feel like doing my household chores, she does them for me. Soraya is sweet, plump, and affectionate, and she loves good food. This evening, however, she hasn't swallowed even a mouthful of rice.
Over and over again, we review everything we know from the massacres in the city of Herat in the spring of 1995, to what we've heard on the BBC about the Taliban's advance to the gates of Kabul. On television we saw widows, enveloped head to toe in their chadris, beaten with whips and forced to beg in the streets. Today such things are no longer distant images, news flashes on a TV screen: They are here, and they are only too real. Yesterday afternoon was perhaps my last outing in freedom, my last day as a student.
Now, I explain to Soraya why I felt such a need to go to Aryana Square.
"I wanted to see Najibullah, I was even ready to be flogged, to suffer, if necessary, in order to accept reality, to make some sense out of it. Do you see what I mean, Soraya? I wanted to convince myself..." My sister understands. "That image of those men, hanging there-I can't get it out of my head, Latifa, along with the idea that it's all over, that the Taliban are worse than anything I could imagine. Those corpses are a symbol they shoved in our faces to show us that from now on, anyone at all can die at the hand of a talib. Everything is finished for us. My career is gone. I'll never fly again. Did you see the Aryana Airlines building? They closed it, and the TV building too. No woman will be able to work anymore."
"Papa told us that in a few days, a few weeks, it might all have ended. The resistance is somewhere in the north-the mujahideen will come back, and I personally prefer the rockets to the Taliban."
"Papa always tries to give us hope, but I don't believe it. Even during the worst battles, we never saw such things. If you want proof, in 1992, when the mujahideen captured Kabul, no one hanged Najibullah! Or his brother, even though that guy was a miserable creep." When she was still working as a journalist in Kabul, Shakila had told us the sordid story of Najibullah's brother, Shapour, who had an affair with a young girl. Many people in Mikrorayan had suspected as much. The girl's name was Wida, and she lived in one of the housing complexes. She had met Shapour on the main square, and from then on he would see her after classes at her high school. One day he accompanied her home when the rest of her family was out. I don't know who dragged whom into the empty apartment, but everyone has a pretty good idea who was responsible for what happened. Unfortunately, Wida became pregnant, so her lover had to be persuaded to marry her. In spite of her pleading, he wouldn't agree to a wedding, so Wida invited him to her home for one last discussion. When he still refused to marry her, she grabbed his revolver and killed herself. At first no one dared say anything, but then serious rumors began circulating, blaming Shapour for her death. Wida's parents quickly went into exile, because in those days Najibullah's brother was untouchable.
"Whatever his crimes were," says Soraya, "it's a barbaric way to die. His killers aren't Afghans, it's impossible. When I returned from Dubai Wednesday, I told you there were some Afghans on the plane that landed immediately after ours, and the flight attendant told me they had just been expelled from the Emirates because they had no passports, or their visas had expired, I don't remember now. Anyway, my friend was struck by their behavior: They were extremely rude to the women on the crew. I wonder whether they weren't coming in from abroad to help the Taliban."
You never know who's who in Kabul. The only safe rule is not to say what you really think except when you're with your own family. On principle, we stay as neutral as possible. One thing, and one thing only, unites Afghans in spite of their ethnic divisions: resistance against all foreign invaders, be they British, Pakistani, Arab-or Soviet, of course.
The Afghans revolted against the Russian occupation, organizing their resistance as best they could, and to drive out the Soviet army, the mujahideen began a war that lasted through ten bloody years and a series of interchangeable governments that were all under the heel of Moscow.
After the Russians left, the former resistance fighters set themselves up in Kabul in 1992 under the leadership of General Massoud. For years we endured the fighting that pitted him — a Tajik — against the other warlords, beginning with his Pashtun enemy, the ferocious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of the most fundamentalist faction, the Hizb-i-Islami, which was supported by Pakistan. But that wasn't the end of the story. We have just been forced into a new era, under the lash of the Taliban. Today is the most dreadful day of my whole young life. Soraya is crying. She has never experienced the war in this way. The last time Hekmatyar pounded the city with rockets, on January 1, 1994, she was en route to Dubai. The airport in Kabul had already been destroyed, so Aryana's planes were using the airfield in Bagram, twenty-five miles north of the capital. Landing in the middle of the fighting was unthinkable, so the pilot flew on to New Delhi, where Soraya was marooned for six months, miserably watching television all day long in the hotel with her colleagues. Two years ago, on Shakila's wedding day, more than three hundred rockets fell on the city while we were busy celebrating. I remember the proverb our family kept reciting to reassure ourselves: "Joy and sorrow are sisters."
Shortly after Shakila's marriage, Wahid left for India, before going to live in Moscow. While he was still at home I felt both a deep love for my brother and a fear that was difficult to describe. Very strict about religious observances, he was the one who first gave us the chadors we are wearing today.
"Do you remember, Soraya? The day Wahid brought us these chadors? They were much too big for us." "I told him we were going to cut them in half."
Our father did not agree with our eldest brother's insistence on dictating what we wore. Papa didn't want us to be different from the other students at school. In our home, the chador is reserved for prayers made in the privacy of one's room. We didn't wear it in the street, and neither did Mama. But I was ready to obey my brother, because I loved him. He would lecture us about the length of our skirts or the (modest) necklines of our T-shirts in the summer. Shakila and Soraya just let him talk; at the very worst they'd shoot back, "We're old enough to know what to wear, thank you," or "Mind your own business."
I think my parents feared the influence of fundamentalism on Wahid's character, and they advised him, after his military service and all the combat he'd seen, to go live in a country at peace. I wonder what he is doing now, and if he will get married one day. Many eligible young women were recommended to him, but he rejected them all. The army is not compatible with married life. Mama would rather that he live far away, that he no longer be involved in these battles that have already hurt him so deeply, and hardened him so terribly.
Daoud is pacing back and forth in his room. He escaped going into the army, protected as he was by all of us and by an older brother who felt that "one in the family is enough." Will he now have to disguise his identity again to be able to go on working? After his studies in economics, all he could find was a job at the ticket counter of Aryana Afghan Airlines. They say the Taliban force young Afghan men in the provinces to join their army, sending them to the front lines to destroy villages, burn houses.
Daoud decides to go out instead of my father this afternoon to buy some batteries in case the city is besieged. He's not the only one laying in supplies. Returning that evening, he tells us he saw lots of people on the same errand. Mama didn't want him to leave the apartment, and I hear her arguing with her son about the risk he took.
"What if they arrest you? What if they put you in prison, like the Communists did with your brother? Or what if they compel you to kill others?"
My poor father has the entire weight of the household on his shoulders. He's worried about Mama's health, he's afraid the Taliban will take his son, and he fears his daughters will be condemned to live shut up in their home, with no hope of a career. And he has no idea what state his textile warehouses are in-from what he can gather, they lay right in the path of the Taliban as they entered the city. The first time disaster struck was in 1991, during the failed coup d'état led by General Tanai, when rockets destroyed Papa's store on a major avenue, Jade Maywan. The whole shop went up in smoke. That store was very successful: Papa was earning a good living importing fabrics from Japan and the U.S.S.R., and although we weren't rich, we weren't poor, either. That day he lost a considerable part of his assets.
After many difficulties, he managed to reestablish his import business, but a second calamity occurred in 1993, while Hekmatyar was attacking Kabul. My father could not even get near his warehouse on Pole Mahmoud Khan, right in a combat zone riddled with antipersonnel mines. We saw smoking ruins on TV. Finally, three months later, Papa was able to go see for himself. There was nothing left to salvage in the debris scarred by bullets and explosives. Papa went to visit a hospitalized watchman who had survived and who told him about the hell he'd been through. When the wretched man had tried to persuade the attackers not to burn the warehouse with their flamethrowers, they shot him. They even shot the dogs! Seriously wounded, the watchman had played dead until a tank manned by government soldiers picked him up at the end of the day. Why would anyone burn warehouses, shoot civilians and even dogs? It was the bloodthirsty troops of Hekmatyar, desperately determined to defeat his enemy Massoud and retake Kabul. Once again my father had to start from nothing, helped by government loans to merchants who had suffered losses. He was able to revive his business and even to repay much of his loan. He thought he had put his troubles behind him, but after yesterday's fighting, we can't be sure of anything, and if he has a third catastrophe, I don't know how he could get back on his feet financially.
Finally, we listen to the BBC this evening, ears glued to the radio so that the neighbors can't hear us. The newscaster has nothing to report that we haven't heard before. He speaks of fighting between the government forces of General Massoud and the Taliban on the outskirts of Kabul. Well, we already know that the battle is no longer "on the outskirts" but in the capital itself, in our very lives.
And that tonight we must try to sleep in the midst of this nightmare.
Excerpted from My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban — A Young Woman's Story by Latifa (Virago). Copyright Latifa.