(Ed’s Note: This essay refers to events of May 29, 2006, when a traffic accident caused by a U.S. military convoy resulted in at least 14 Afghan civilian deaths and touched off anti-American riots.)
Out the classroom window, clouds stretched lazily across the sky. I was trying to tune into what my Afghan teacher was saying, but it proved too difficult. Trying to educate myself at an Afghan school seemed to be fatal to my poor brain, and to my self-esteem. I felt like a foreigner in my own country. I struggled to speak my mother language, Dari. On the streets, people seemed jammed together into one huge creature. Dust flew around and shopkeepers shouted. The feeling of not belonging toppled over me like an avalanche. Every part of me longed desperately to go home, back to the only place that made sense to me: The Netherlands.
While I sunk in own lazy thoughts, something completely different was happening about ten kilometers away from our school. An American heavy-armored vehicle lost control and crushed an Afghan car with people inside. It continued to crash into other cars, and in a single moment, lives were taken. A stunned silence washed over the witnesses. The crowd inched closer to the wreckage and the Americans started to panic, fearing the locals were armed and could harm them as revenge. The Americans started shooting at the ground as a warning for the people to back up. That’s when anger rippled through the locals. They started shouting, “You killed our people, and you’re the ones shooting at us?”
Both sides made grave mistakes. Things got out of hand and madness took over. Afghans went to international organizations and started raising havoc. People took advantage of this and robbed stores. One man even ran away with a fully-clothed mannequin. Some Afghans that had nothing to do with that insane incident were still somehow caught up in the mix.
News came that the mob had neared our school. We were supposed to gather in the school library but my sister, cousin, and I huddled up in front of the bathrooms, attempting to call our parents from our phones. I was 11 years old, and I watched with total confusion as I tried to read my 15-year-old sister’s expression. The usual sparkle in her eyes had dimmed to a stern and focused glare. It was a look I had never seen on her face; it was pure responsibility. She started walking, and we immediately followed her. We stayed in the library for a while. There was a thick, musty atmosphere. My ears picked up gunshots and all sorts of noises I couldn’t identify. A silent fear grew inside of me. I was scared, though I didn’t understand of what.
I looked at my sister and whined, “Nilab, what’s happening?”
She took a breath to answer, then stopped herself, “Nothing. Sit down and shut up. Stop talking so much.”
That question was the only thing I’d said the whole entire day. Tears sprang to my eyes. Why was she so mean to me? I didn’t know she was trying to protect me from the ugly truth. I lowered my head and stared at my palms. Nothing made sense anymore. I want to go home… And for the first time, home didn’t mean The Netherlands. It meant wherever it was my parents were.
My sister jumped up and began walking, and again my cousin and I tried to keep up with her. “Ugh, where is she taking us now?” I whispered to cousin. She ignored me. We went to the front gates. People were banging against them, and everyone was trying to get in. It was total chaos. I saw a teenage boy squeezing himself through the doors and grabbing a girl’s hand, claiming she was his sister. The girl screamed, “That’s not my brother! He’s lying!” A hint of hesitation lurked behind his perfect brotherly mask, until it fell away and he began pulling her towards him. The school guards finally literally kicked him out.
Through a sea of people, I suddenly spotted my father. His usual calm face was twisted into a look of fear and anger. He motioned to us and shouted our names. We quickly made our way to the gates until the principal stopped us. “Where do you think you’re going?” Her sharp voice cut through the air.
“That’s our father and we’re going to leave with him,” my sister said. She could have added a “duh” to it, because her tone inferred that she thought the principal was a moron.
“How am I supposed to know that’s your father?”
Oh no. It felt like we were at a dead end again. Until my sister quickly took out a picture of him out of her wallet and practically stuck it up the principal’s nose.
Genius. I don’t think I ever appreciated my sister as much as I did that instant.
The three of us clasped our hands together and made our way to my father. We had to walk a long distance to our car because of the traffic. All around me was destruction. I looked at the ground in front of me, not wanting to acknowledge the things happening around me. And it worked; when I think of that particular day, a thick mist blankets my mind.
We finally made it. I collapsed onto the car seat and let relief wash all over me. We weren’t out of harm’s way, but just knowing my dad was there with me was like a promise from God that everything was going to be okay.
It has been three years since that day. Afterwards, I expected to feel even more like an outsider, but I didn’t. Instead, I felt like I was becoming who I was meant to be in the first place: an Afghan. I went up to the window in my house and looked at the streets and a sense of belonging began to take root in me. I looked at the real Afghans, the kind-hearted ones who made me feel like I was one of them. I thought of other Afghans, and how anger and bitterness was their way of life now. Even so, I didn’t lose hope in these people. I knew that deep down there was goodness left in them that could grow into love. The wars of the past have left deep wounds on them that have become infected. We must not throw salt on these wounds, but take care of them, because these wounds are the only thing preventing them from being the great people who built this nation.