Chicago US, May 2019
“Nothing but hope sustains life,” my eyes shifted from my hands to my therapist who sat across the table, composed and intense. He nodded. In all of the last 9 years that I have known him, he has been absolutely patient with me, dealing with my eccentricities, my phobias, my anguish, my fears and insomnia. I personally believed, I did not require visiting him anymore. But the wise old man that he was, he knew better. I needed to let go.
“Even as a child, I was never vocal, you know Dr. Schneider. I always thought why would anyone want to listen to what I have to say. And so I never expressed anything that I felt. I wouldn’t know any better then.”
This was obviously not the first time that the doctor was hearing this but he kept nodding and making notes. Over these years, the sessions had simply become clinical but with every session, there was a layer that he discovered which needed peeling off. He was almost certain if I could just cry once, a part of me would be healed. I barely could.
My high-pressure job of a real estate broker with a spearheading company in the city was also the cause of my stress levels that were usually shooting off the roof. Therefore, the company had mandated a monthly session as well.
It was reasonably pleasant this evening when I walked out of Dr Schneider’s office and returned home. Home. The blank space devoid of any sound except mine, especially when I’d be screaming at the television listening to the news, or possibly while having a ‘conversation’ with my Google assistant. Or even face-timing with my mom, every evening, who lived in the country.
“I thought you’d go out with friends today,” I knew she said this only to enthuse me to.
“I never go out with friends, mom,” I droned.
“But you must. Go out. Enjoy. Meet new people. Meet men.”
Her list of things that I must do went on and on.
“Mom, I keep so busy. I have no time,” I finally said.
“I worry, darling. Don’t let your break-up pull you down anymore. It’s been three years already.”
“It’ s not that, mom. I just don’t feel the need to be anywhere anymore.”
Her continuous attempts at cheering me up kept failing. But she was not one to give up. I felt guilty for not being the perfect girl she had known when I left home years ago. At close to 40 years now, it seemed like I had nothing to look forward to anymore. No one to reach out to. No place to belong to.
I placed my supper on the table in front of the TV. Chomping my meal, I surfed the TV from one news channel to another- news from the local channels to news from across the borders, and beyond. A panel discussion on the future of America, a news anchor analyzing a hurricane, another explaining the whale extinction, a reporter engaged in conversation with the parents of kids affected by malnutrition in Africa. Oh how much the TV had turned into a dismal and dreary manifestation of truth. On one channel the sound of azaan* made me pause briefly.
Barak (Logar) Afghanistan, August 2004
The azaan from the nearby mosque had just finished indicating that it was time for me to return home. It had been almost two years that I had been here as a part of a small team sent by UNAMA*. A part of my duties as special advisor Human Rights Unit was to protect the civilians in the armed conflict and mainly work on aspects of children’s and women’s rights and enabling their participation in the public sphere.
Walking out of my office, I heard a familiar voice from the loudspeaker of the mosque. “Anyone who visits the hospital or even intends to seek any medicines from the hospital will have to face dire consequences.”
This was not the first time I was hearing such threats. But for over a year, this voice had not been heard in the vicinity. This voice echoed with a ring of an impending calamity. I turned towards my colleague, Gloria, and immediately realized that my fears were not unwarranted. Her ashen face and scared eyes reiterated my dread. Our feet picked pace, even though we realized that any sudden movement would be quickly noticed and recorded.
“It’s quite strange that we would hear Mullah Omar’s* voice out of the blue today,” Gloria shared her concern as we unlocked the door of our humble one bedroom apartment provided by the UN Aid.
I plonked myself on the couch, concerned that Taliban that had been evicted almost completely since the last three years would show up every now and then just to maintain the scare. Regardless, their spies were almost everywhere so it was never completely safe in the area.
Gloria quickly reported the same to the supervisor over a brief call and took notes for the next day’s assignment.
“Do you think it is the hospitals they’re going to be targeting now?” Gloria hung up and turned towards me. She most possibly gave words to the obvious.
“Let’s call Dr Rafia,” I immediately picked up the phone and dialled the number.
“Are they insane?” Dr Rafia reacted. “What are the women and children to do if they need medical aid? Was it not enough for them to have bombed the school days age when innocent children lost their lives? 132 injured children are still struggling with getting basic facilities. Wasn’t it enough that they keep stopping medical aid from reaching the hospitals that now they are threatening the public not to visit the hospitals as well?”
Dr Rafia’s frustration was valid. She had done enough and more to establish some sort of normalcy in the area, tending to patients often requiring critical attention in a hospital that was always short of medicines, equipment and staff.
“They can do whatever they wish to. I am not giving up,” she finally declared as she hung up.
We heard her out and retired to bed after a small supper. Sleep evaded but we had another challenging day ahead, so we forced ourselves to catch a few hours of sleep.
At the city hospital, the next day, we entered following the painful cries of a young woman who was being attended behind a screen by Dr Rafia and two nurses. We were told that she had been dragged to the centre of the market and punished with 100 lashes. Her offence was that she left her home without being chaperoned by her husband, two days ago. As common as this scenario was, every time such a thing would happen, we would question humanity.
“Monstrous display of power,” Gloria’s teeth-gritting reference to the act was the stark truth in that dimly lit room. “How shameful is this,” she admonished, knowing pretty well that our desperate reproach was no match to their atrocities.
“I wonder if they even have a single human bone in their body,” Dr Rafia continued, as she tended to the bruises and cuts on the woman’s back, who continued to sob and wince at each of the tender touches. After the procedure, the woman lay on her stomach while her obnoxiously swollen bare back raised questions at our whole existence.
That afternoon, after lunch, while Dr Rafia was away on her lunch break, we again gathered around the women and children in the ward to share a few stories of hope and a few hopeful stories. Gloria pulled out her little black copy of the New Testament and read out a passage of which I recall-
Ezekiel 34:12– As a shepherd looks after his flock when he is with his scattered sheep, so shall I look after my sheep. I shall rescue them from wherever they have been scattered on the day of clouds and darkness.
She concluded that human life would be saved by only love. I noticed half of the children were asleep by then and the women, cradling their young, smiled at them peacefully. Gloria was the mother they all needed the care of. A stressful day came to a calm end, hoping no calamities befall the next day.
The next day Dr Rafia was pleased to let 83 children return home with the basic medical aid that was provided to them. Mostly because the parents were scared of having their children stay at the hospital, owing to the announcement two days ago. Now that they were fit enough to continue medication at home, the hospital was only too glad to let them go. Though the children were pleased to return home, there was a common melancholy that they would not get to see the face of their school. Not in the immediate future, though. Amidst this commotion, the ones who were severely injured and some other patients were undecided as to what should be their action plan, considering the present threat. The hospital staff was in a dilemma.
That afternoon, Gloria and I were to visit the UN Aid office to check the medicines that had arrived a week ago, but the difficulty of transporting them to the hospital had delayed the process of auditing them. All this while the hospitals continued to be funded by the NGOs for basic medication. Our supervisor suggested that the audited medicines could at least be distributed at homes if the patients decided not to visit the hospital anyway.
We parked our jeep behind the small office, dotted with various tents in its premises, and walked in.
“You’re here after about a month, I guess,” stated Farukh, who worked at the UN Aid office, as he escorted us to the room full of medicine cartons.
“Did you miss us, my love,” Gloria teased.
“Of course, I did. At least I get to smile some when I look at your lovely faces,” his failed attempt at flirting was met with our careless guffaws.
We scanned through the cartons, ticking away the lists and checking the expiration of the medicines, which took us well over three hours. After a hot cup of coffee offered by the office, as soon as we were about to leave, Farukh shared the dreaded news, “the hospital at Barak has been bombed.”
“What!?” Gloria was visibly pained. So was I.
“Yes, a team has been mobilized, but it’s too dangerous to be anywhere close to it, presently,” he informed.
All our toil, all our work, all our emotions were brutally splintered to pieces by the blasts recently, previously in the school and now at the hospital. Working with the locals was not an easy task, yet we managed to have rebuilt the school, the hospital, the marketplace and created avenues for men, women and children to move about freely. Yet, it was getting tougher by the day. We had hoped that the death of Osama bin Laden* will automatically shut down the insurgents but they seemed to be getting their hold back now. This was not good news.
As we steered our jeep back home, Gloria and I did not exchange any words, just common grief. The death of about 80 people in the hospital was no big achievement for the perpetrators but was valuable to many others in the area who had hopes pinned on to them for a safer, healthier future.
As soon as I got on the phone with Dr Rafia that night, she burst into an uncontrollable yelp. Her helpless wails were piercing. As if she had thrown herself in my arms and let herself out.
“All my life I had dedicated to this town. All my life…” her voice trailed off as she hung up. The echo of her voice kept ringing in my ears for hours as I tried to make myself sleep that night. The young 28-year-old Rafia had no other dreams but to see smiling, healthy, happy children roaming freely in her birthplace. She loved her land, in spite of all that it had spiralled down to. The last couple of years had been a continuous disappointment.
Gloomy and sad, the next morning broached another challenge. The supervisor advised that we make visits to the bereaved families and take a stock of all that was required henceforth. Medication, food, anything. Two commandos were assigned to us who were to meet us at the town gates.
I called Dr Rafia in the morning to join us, “Meet us close to the hospital, then. We’ll pick you from there. See if there is any staff nearby who can assist in tending the injured.”
“Okay, sure. Another 20 minutes?” she asked.
“Yeah…we’re just about to leave,” I responded.
“Where’s Gloria? Is she coming too?” she asked.
“Yeah, of course. She’s almost out of the door now. Am gonna pull the jeep out and bring her along, okay?” As soon as I hung up, I heard loud gunshots in the alley. I quickly jumped out of the door and saw Gloria down on the floor, groaning in pain, blood oozing out of her shoulder and stomach. I leapt to pick her up and saw the Isuzu drive past me with men sloganeering, “Go back to your land, kafir*.”
Soon enough Gloria’s body was covered with blood when I picked her and somehow managed to get her in the jeep. I tried to maintain my composure as much as I could and drove straight to Dr Rafia’s home. I met her midway. By the time, she checked, Gloria had left us. In spite of my continuous pleads, ‘please, please, please,’ she was not to return. She was alleged to have been preaching Christianity to the locals.
Logar was somewhat hopeful when I landed here the first time. Though the Taliban had not completely left, their movement was much less. People were distressed but when they looked at us, their eyes would show a sliver of hope and we felt privileged to have carried it for them. Today, I had lost all of that and more. And I did not want to participate in this doom anymore.
“You’re under an agreement, my girl,” the Special Representative of the Secretary-General said over the phone.
“Can you move me down south, perhaps?” I asked, with a bleak hope that my request would be catered to.
“I am so sorry. I realize this is getting hard for you. You may take two weeks off if you like,” he suggested.
“I’d like to withdraw in that case,” I finally said.
“I understand. I will send someone to take over from you soon.”
The sense of comfort that I got once he hung up was indescribable.
Within a week’s time, I bundled out of Afghanistan. In order to continue the remaining part of my agreement in New York, I was stationed at a rehabilitation centre. Soon enough I found myself in rehab too.
Chicago US, May 2019
Morning promised another chock-a-block schedule for the day.
“Okay Google, play out my appointments,” I commanded the device.
The assistant quickly narrated all that was fed to it within the last few days. I made a mental note of all of them and devised my route plan for the day. As I dressed up in a slick business suit, I heard the phone ring.
“Call from mom,” the mechanized voice of my dependable Google assistant called out. I quickly leapt and picked the call.
“Hi, mom, what’s happening?” I sounded as cheerful as I could.
“Nothing really. Just thought about you this morning so before you left for work, I thought I’d chat for a bit,” she said casually.
“That’s unusual. Anything on your mind,” I believed something must have triggered the call.
“Oh, you’d think I am silly. But I saw this very adorable video this morning and was reminded of you,” she tried to brush the subject.
“Alright. Do you wanna show me?” I asked playfully.
“Sure. I’ll send it across,” she hung up almost immediately as she said that. Within seconds the phone pinged. I clicked the attachment to open.
Seeing the video, I crash sat on my couch. Silent tears reluctantly found their way from my eyes till I was a slobbering mess. I saw the video more than a few times more.
I laughed, I smiled, I kissed the screen.
I cried. Gushing. The first time after I had returned from the land of doom.
All the therapy that I needed, all these years, right here. In my palms.
Disclaimer: Story inspired by true events. None of the characters, except aterix marked, bear resemblance to a person living or dead. The similarities could be coincidental based on the events cited.
UNAMA– United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan
azaan– is the Islamic call to worship, recited by the muezzin at prescribed times of the day.
Mullah Omar– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Omar
Osama Bin Laden– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osama_bin_Laden
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