Ed’s note: This essay is an eyewitness account of the July 7, 2008, bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 58 people and wounded about 140. A version was published last month in The Journalist Connection.
“Will you really come back?” my sister said.
“What do you mean? I have just been invited for a few days,” I said.
“Get real!” my sister said.
“You don’t enjoy living here?” I asked.
“Of course I do, but it’s like we live on another planet.”
“There is no hell or heaven in this world,” I told her. “Living in Afghanistan is not as miserable as the media propaganda says every day.”
I’d never understood those Afghans who run away during official trips. I always thought it was shameful. Now it was funny that my sister encouraged me to do exactly that. I stopped talking to her and left to get my passport so I could participate in a women’s conference in the U.S.
The passport office was more crowded than I expected. Women and men had made separate queues. I joined the women’s line and started talking with them. Most were there to get passports for travel to Iran or Pakistan. A woman was saying how it was hard for her husband to find a job and so they had to leave and find work in Iran.
She was talking when a sharp sound shook the ground and the walls of the building. A thick cloud of smoke and dirt burst into the room and tossed people in different directions. I heard screaming. Through the smoke, I could see people scrambling to save their lives. Without thinking, I found myself running with several others. We reached another room, full of people. Some were pacing around while others stood with their backs to the walls, looking nervously at the door.
No one spoke. We all just looked at each other. I noticed many had anxiety in their eyes. Nobody knew anything and nobody asked anything. We were just waiting; I don’t even know why. To me it seemed like a movie with explosions and horrified people. We waited and the silence became stifling.
Suddenly a woman who stood beside me began to scream. She shouted her son’s name. “My son was outside.” Her voice trembled and her whole body shook. Several times, she ran out the door and returned again. Then she stopped and wept loudly. We watched helpless, shocked and frozen. Fear filled my body slowly, immobilizing me. Anxiety pressed against me. “What do I do? Where should I go?” I thought. I found myself in my darkest moment.
Two men with blood on their faces and shirts entered the room. The woman immediately stopped crying. Once again a heavy silence descended on the room, covering us like a blanket, making it hard to breathe. A policeman entered and ordered everybody to get out and proceed to the right. We obeyed quickly without thinking, rushing toward the door at the same time. We got stuck pressing against one another. The crowd pushed to get through the door, and the glass on the top part of the frame cracked and fell on our heads in small shards. Finally I made it outside. I saw the blackened side of the building, more smoke, dust, and broken glass and police cars and ambulances. Injured people leaned against the walls, immobilized. Why don’t they run? I thought. Why do they stick to the walls when they must move?
I was horrified. I moved with heavy legs, stepping on small pieces of glass which looked like a white sparkling carpet. I walked until the street turned brown and dusty again. Wailing, screaming, and shouting, and the sirens of the ambulances and police cars filled my ears. I found myself amidst a crowd of bystanders who looked at me with sorrow and incredulousness. I just continued walking. I turned around once or twice, and only then did I understand that a bomb had exploded in front of the Indian Embassy. I felt a sharp pain in my chest. When I heard about explosions in the news, they seemed so far away, but this time, it was my turn to experience it.
I got into a taxi. As soon as the car began to move, I felt relieved. But whenever the car had to slow down because of the crowd, I grew nervous and vulnerable. I wanted to yell to the driver: “Go fast! Go as fast as possible! Go anywhere you want, but take me away from this place!” I remained silent, my words frozen inside me.
Soon enough, the car was speeding through the streets of Kabul. I could taste life running through my veins, raw and powerful. And for the first time, it became clear to me why so many Afghans dream of living abroad. Why should we stay in Afghanistan when it hurts us so much?
I wondered about this for a few days. Later, I still did not know what was right: staying or leaving? I no longer judge those who leave Afghanistan. I returned to Kabul, though, where I still live, in spite of the continuing threat of more explosions. I don’t know why exactly, but I feel I can still live and appreciate life in Kabul.
photo credit: Elissa Bogos / Reuters