Raised in Conflict
Thursday night was my favourite night of the week because my parents came home from work mid-afternoon and Mum would prepare a special meal of Afghan delicacies that I would eat after I finished a neighbourhood soccer match. I would go to school in the afternoon and finish at five. One particular Thursday I could not wait to finish school because there was soccer against a team from Kocha-e-Dash the street behind from our house.
We were excited. They had challenged us by saying ‘We are going to win.’ And as everyone knows, saying this to boys anywhere across the world in relation to soccer will always merit a competitive game!
Saqeb, my best friend and the captain of our team was in good form. Everyone listened as he prepared us for this important street match.
We all played hard and when the ball fell into the street gutter filled with grey water it was called out. That day I retrieved the ball from the gutter at least a dozen times without worrying about hygiene. I knew I had to focus fully on my play. To me, this match was the most important match of my life.
For the neighbours however, they were not happy about the match because we were very noisy. The match would stop as a car passed through. Yet, due to the lack of playgrounds and parks in our City, the street was the only place we could hold our matches.
During the first half, we played hard and scored a goal. The second half was dramatic because the other team equalised. This meant we needed to work harder.
Saqeb kept hollering out the strategy as our noble coach and we focused. Khalil saved us in the last five minutes by scoring another goal. Ecstatic about our win, we rushed to the mosque and gulped down water from the only available tap in our street and washed our hands and sweaty faces. We kept bragging about our win. Saqeb took us all to a milk shop where we enjoyed hot milk and roat – Afghan sweet soft bread.
Thursday was the only night that there were movies on the television and we all discussed what would be on that night. We rushed to the electrical junction and asked if it was our turn to get power. We were in luck. The operator said this Thursday was our allocation for electricity so I rushed home.
As I got closer to my home, I could smell the Bolani my mother was cooking, which was my all-time favourite dish. Mum was the best cook. We ate it with yogurt mixed with cucumber and dried mint.
As I walked in the door, dad said ‘Bismillah let’s eat’. This is an important saying to us because everything starts with the holy name of Allah, to show our grace and humility that for all He provides us.’ While we ate, I spoke to my three sisters about the soccer match and our exciting win against those who had teased and challenged us. My oldest sister was not so interested and said we were too noisy during the game. My younger sister congratulated me as she continued eating. We ate in the dark but the feeling on family and good food supported us to feel safe.
I couldn’t wait for the power to come on at eight thirty and everyone cheered as the lights came up. I was so excited that we would see the movie tonight!
My family knew that we would have to sit through the boring government reports before the movie began so we kept washing our faces with cold water to help us stay awake. Finally, at nine thirty, Murch Masala started.
This movie was a grave disappointment because there were none of the action and fighting that excited me. The film was long and tedious and the film did not have even one action scene. Tired from the day’s exploits and excitement from winning soccer, I fell asleep before the movie ended.
I was in a deep sleep when a loud bang woke me. I looked around and soon saw Mum and Dad at the west window. My sister woke in shock.
The explosions got louder and closer. Dad took the ladder and climbed onto the roof to see what was going on and I followed. Red, green, orange and yellow explosions lit the western sky. The noise got closer and intensified. The smell of smoke filled the air. I could taste sulphur and the ground shook. I looked around to see neighbours on each roof. All faced west.
Children cried and whimpered and the adults shrieked and yelled ‘God help us!’
I became more and more afraid. It felt like the bombs were exploding on our street.
Dad climbed down and called us all inside. The windows trembled with each explosion. My heart raced and my mouth was dry. My little sister cried and Mum soothed her but also cried out, ‘Khair Khudaya – God bless us’
The fire trucks shrieked as they rushed towards Qargha and my aunt and uncle rushed in to our house. Their faces were filled with fear. Their house was right next to the ammunition dump and they had run for their lives as their windows shattered and the roof began to fall on them.
The explosions continued and the noise raged for many hours but the night grew darker with only an occasional burst of light to the west. At four thirty we were still aware because of the noise. By five thirty am it had become quiet except for the occasional siren of ambulance or fire truck in the distance.
Our house was full and there was nowhere to sleep, which was fine by me. My heart was still pounding and I was too afraid to sleep. As the sun rose on Friday, our day of rest, we huddled together and talked about what had happened.
Later, we went to my uncle’s house to find all the windows shattered. Everything was covered in dust and it smelled of sulphur. It was still and deserted. People all looked on from a distance to survey the damage.
On Saturday morning, before dawn, I was woken from the sweetest sleep by the squeak of Russian tanks and trucks carrying ammo back to Qargha depot.
I was eight years old and will never forget either the intensity of joy at winning at soccer, the delicious food Mum made that night or the extreme fear of the night that followed. The extreme emotions I felt that day as a young boy have stayed with me for almost four decades.
I was born in Kabul in the mid-1970s. The Soviets invaded in 1979. I was raised in war and conflict; I don’t remember a time in my life when my country was not at war. As a kid, I developed resilience and the strategy to enjoy my life in the middle of a conflict, so we did things like other kids. We played soccer in the streets, we had friends, we had fun. I was a known as a very cheeky child and adolescent to my neighbours. I was a bit of a troublemaker. However, once the Mujahedin came, things really changed. From the day they arrived, every night we experienced aerial shots. Every night thousands and thousands of bullets were shot in the air.
Society changed. Schools never opened because of the security situation. Street fights started because of the stress to our people due to the civil war. I remember we would be playing and honestly, we could hear bullets in the air but we continued to play. We just never thought that the bullet could hit me or could hit my friend. Of course, they did.
When I was growing up. Kabul was a modern and open society. My teachers wore skirts. It was so normal for us. In the villages, people were conservative because of the influence of Mujahedin outside major cities. But in 1992 when Mujahedin came, all women had to cover their heads and skirts were not allowed. That was the time when we moved to Pakistan. My dad said, “For now I don’t think this is a place for us.” I was 15 years old.
We thought it would only be for two months, so we left most of our belongings behind, locked in our house. We drove. We went to Jalalabad, the border city, for one night and then took the bus. There was a lot of roadside mines so we were lucky we made it. We went to Peshawar and stayed in a hotel. From there we rented a place and stayed until 2003 – 11 years. We thought it was temporary, that things would change and we could come back but it never changed, it became worse.
In 2003, I returned to Kabul after the collapse of brutal Taliban regime. I started working with local communities in the areas of peace building and conflict transformation. I worked for eight years in Afghanistan and Pakistan in community peace building and education. I led a team responsible for designing programs addressing issues of local conflicts through asset-based community peace building initiatives in partnership with other local organizations. The program provided capacity building initiatives targeting key community leaders and members to become peace ambassadors and establish local peace councils to act as mediators in a situation where local conflict existed. The program was implemented across 16 provinces of Afghanistan. I loved my job. It was empowering to be a part of rebuilding peace and a stable country. It gave me a great opportunity to work with communities where I could apply strength-based approaches to building peace at local level in different areas of Afghanistan. I was always amazed at the strength of local communities to get to the bottom of complex situations and transform these situations into opportunities for collaboration.
In 2009, I came to Australia. A fresh chapter of my life started in a new society – different from the one I had to leave. I have been so lucky that my life has never stopped teaching me new and beautiful lessons.
Once in Australia, my career as a peace builder and community development worker entered a new phase. I started working with people seeking asylum. I was privileged to be witnessing amazing stories shared by people who escaped from persecution and eminent danger. Their stories were of hope, courage, resilience, optimism, separation and bravery. I was honoured to mentor and support them to develop and share their story as a powerful tool for change in their communities. I also mentored traumatised young people seeking asylum and their families to navigate the Australia and United Nations systems comfortably and with dignity. In line with this, I have provided voluntary translation and interpreting support for those in need, knowing the veil of language can be a limiting factor in driving and promoting peace in our communities.
Unfortunately, on 15 August 2021 Afghanistan fell to Taliban which put an end to 20 years of hard work for millions of people from all walks of life including the civil society sector. Afghanistan still faces an uncertain future after 4 decades of war and conflict.
Essan Dileri – Afghan/ Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 31