The Riot

(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.

By Laila


Comments

  1. What a heartfelt story! This writer conveys the fear and chaos of that day. Instead of being embittered by the experience she comments on the “real Afghans.”

  2. Brittney says:

    Wow, ‘Shove it up the Principals nose.’ Loved that :)
    Really Amazing!

  3. Such an amazing story. It was nice that your father was there to comfort you and make you feel safe. I hope that you are doing well.

  4. Blythe D. says:

    Very powerful story. And your telling of it gave it that power. You are very brave both to have gone through that and then to have written about it in such detail and with such emotion.

  5. this was a vary good story. it sounds like it was vary tragic.

  6. :0

  7. Wow! I love the way you describe the story. You were very brave. Fear crept into me while i read. Very interesting, I love it. I look forward to reading more, but it is a very bad misunderstanding, I wonder what made the Americans lose control. I felt like I was right there with you. It is rally to bad that lives were lost.

  8. KEVIN D says:

    I love your honesty in this story. I hope you are well and safe. Your empathy is something to be admired and respected. Your closing paragraph is beautiful. Continue writing.

  9. This is an incredible story. Although it was filled with a lot of tragedy and fear, it remained very honest and powerful.

  10. Salaam Laila. I just wanted to tell you that I loved your story. So did the people I had the honor of reading it too, they were moved and inspired, and I think when I read it they were not hearing me, but you. My voice just carried the love and fear and the magic of your words you are a powerful writer and t was an honor to read your story. Thank you for sharing it with us- look how far your words have traveled.

    Eman
    Arizona, USA

  11. I just found out my mother posted this story a year ago, and I’m glad she did!

    Thank you guys all for your incredible comments, they inspire me to write more…

  12. it is so significant and powerful story.i congratulate you in having this ability to write such beautiful storys as this.

  13. My name is Kristen and I am a nursing student from San Francisco, California in the United States. I went on the Afghan Women’s Writing Project website and found a bunch of poems and letters that I really enjoyed reading and yours stood out to me because I could relate to what you were going through. I find it funny that even worlds away, school is still unpleasant for everyone. I shouldn’t be complaining though, we are very fortunate.
    It seems you feel out of place and somewhat lonely in your current situation. You’re getting an education and you have your family though, so I have no doubt you will reach your goals and find your place somewhere in this big world, whether it be In Afghanistan or the Netherlands. I don’t know about you, but my favorite thing in the whole world is traveling. My dream is to visit every country in the world before I pass and hopefully I make it to Afghanistan to experience your culture. I hope you have discovered your dreams and you have the courage to pursue them and do something great. Good luck to you and your family and don’t forget to smile every once in a while.

  14. Dear Laila,

    My Name is Alayna and I am a first year transfer student at Saint Mary’s College of California. I loved your story because it was so moving and genuine. While I was reading it, I felt like I was there. I have never experienced something that horrifying, but the feelings and emotions you put into your story made the experience a reality. You are an amazing writer and I hope you continue to write because you are so talented and capable of inspiring so many people. Your story was so powerful because of all the detail you included. I can relate to the vulnerability you feel when you are around strangers and not family. And you are right because in the presence of family, I always know that everything will be okay. I think God challenges us by separating us from our family. We are forced to survive on our own, but we grow and become a stronger person. You were put in a tragic situation, but never gave up and were reunited with your father. I hope you continue to share your stories with others because your voice is so powerful. Your closing paragraph is so heartfelt because it takes a strong person to find the good in people despite the actions they committed. There are not many people who can just forget about the past and choose to forgive and move on. You are able to make a difference in Afghanistan because you allow yourself to see the good in others. You decide to see the good in others, rather than the bad, and that instills hope in others around you, which is what makes your voice so powerful. I hope your family is doing well and that you continue to write! Take care and God bless!

    Sincerely,
    Alayna

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