We rose early, around 4 a.m., offered morning prayers, and then left home quickly to reach the bus station on time. We wanted to catch the bus before daylight, before any fighting between the Taliban and the national army or foreign troops. Battles between the Taliban and American or Afghan forces are very common on the highway between Kandahar and Kabul. For a moment, fearful thoughts wrenched my heart, as if I were purposely going toward a battlefield or to commit suicide. But we were just taking a trip to Kabul.
We arrived via taxi to find the bus station crowded with vehicles and people. Everyone was in a hurry. People were walking with their luggage, some were buying tickets, and some were eating food purchased from carts. Bus drivers were arguing among themselves and pulling the arriving passengers toward their buses. We grabbed our luggage and started walking until we reached the bus that we believed to be safer than others.
It was my mother, my sister, my brother and I. My mother and I sat next to each other with my baby sister between us, and my brother had a seat in the front. The bus waited to be filled with passengers. After an hour, it started moving on the road, slowly leaving the city behind and running on the highway through open, deserted lands.
The morning was very chilly. I wrapped my burqa around me to keep warm, relaxed on the back of my seat and started sightseeing through the window. But there was nothing fascinating to refresh my soul. Lands were empty except for a few broken houses and gray tents. Trees were dry and yellowish as if they had been dehydrating for ages.
After a few minutes, I was lost in my own thoughts, imagining I was the boss of a company managing hundreds of employees, a businesswoman traveling around the world, and I was happy to have finally decided to go to Kabul to continue my education. The beauty of this imaginary world changed my mood and brought a smile on my lips. Slowly, I fell asleep.
Actually, my mother, sister and I were all tired, having not slept enough the night before due to worry about our upcoming trip. Therefore we all slept. The sun covered the earth with its light and heat while we slept. I began dreaming that I was dancing with my friends at my cousin’s wedding and looking very pretty in a pink dress, with my long, highlighted hair. The music got loud and louder and it seemed to be hitting my ears, and suddenly I woke up, rubbing my eyes, shocked to see something very different than my dream.
Instead of music and dancing, there was firing and shooting sounds. All the passengers were scared. Children and women were crouching in their seats and some were sneaking peeks through the windows to see what was going on. The driver was ignoring the firing and trying to get away past the hundreds of buses crowded with passengers, trucks overloaded with supplies, and other vehicles.
“Move faster!” “Back up!” “Go this way! “Go that way!” the passengers shouted at him. He was panicky as he drove around trying to find a safe spot for parking. Finally, he parked the bus but we were closer to the place where the firing was coming from, yes, closer to the battlefield. Our shouting and screaming got louder as we found ourselves nearer to death.
“Get off the bus, hurry!” the driver shouted. Everyone started running outside. Kids were crying. Some ladies were screaming and others were praying: “Ya Allah and ya Mohamed, help us and protect us from being killed by these zalim (cruel) Taliban.”
My mother, brother, sister, and I followed the other passengers. My mom hid my sister in her burqa and I was holding my mom’s burqa from the back. As we got off the bus, we saw more than 50 buses lined up. People were running around to protect themselves; the national policemen were only 30 feet away from us, hiding behind the dry and broken trees. They held pistols and guns and were firing toward rocky mountains where Taliban fighters were concealed. We could see the heads of the Taliban at the top of the mountains. They were wearing black turbans and their hair was long and messy and they were firing toward the national policemen.
The only shelter was a hut a mile away from us. Men, women and children started running in the direction of the hut with the hope of surviving. We followed them and soon arrived at that clay hut, which was very small and dark. It was basically a teashop. All the passengers gathered around that teashop as if it were a monument. Some of the men were stuffed inside, and other men stood outside next to their women and children. My mother, baby sister, and I went to sit next to other bunch of women and children who were sitting outside leaning against the back of the teashop wall.
The weather was hot and dry with dust flying around, which fogged the air. We were tired, thirsty, and sweating through our burqas like rain watering the trees in Spring. We all were scared to death. My mother was concerned about my brother, who had a clean shave and a good hair style, even though he had folded a Kandahari-type huge scarf around himself to cover his clean shave and head. My mother asked him to give her his cellphone and official identity cards, so if the Taliban arrested him, they wouldn’t know that he worked with foreigners in an international organization. She hid my brother’s stuff inside her burqa. Other guys were also handing their cellphones, money, and other documents to their female relatives, because the Taliban could not check the women’s bodies.
We sat there for ten minutes when suddenly a vast explosion occurred, the sky was covered with dark smoke, and our ears deafened. The explosion seemed as loud as an atomic bomb. We could see big objects like parts of some vehicles and human bodies flying with dark smoke in the sky. Thanks to almighty Allah that we left our bus when we did. The explosion occurred just a half mile away from where our bus was lined up with other vehicles. Some people were screaming and crying and some others were unconscious. I wanted to run away but where could I go? There was no place safer than the wall of this teashop. I wanted to cry. I was feeling pain—the pain of those Afghans who have spent 20 years in the war, the pain of those mothers and sisters who have lost their sons and brothers in the war, and deep pain for the unknown number of innocent passengers who had just lost their lives in that explosion.
Time flew by so quickly and only Allah knows how we spent the next three and half hours sitting against the same wall, hungry, thirsty, and frightened under the burning sun. Finally everyone was silent, tired of screaming and crying. Finally the firing and shooting also stopped. People hopelessly waited to see what would happen next. Then I noticed a strange, mournful sound coming from next to me. I turned to find a dog lying on the edge of my burqa. I don’t know when or how this dog came to sit next to me. He was a midsized dog and his deep blue eyes and narrow face were telling me: “Please don’t hate me. I am so afraid and alone!” It’s true that I never liked dogs and never touched dogs because I was afraid of them. But this dog’s innocent face softened my heart. I slowly put my hand on him and softly touched his furry head. His body was very weak and trembling in fear.
After an hour, we saw someone gesturing to show us everything was quiet. “The fighting is over, our way is not blocked anymore, and now we can go,” people shouted joyfully. I can’t fully express how happy people were, and how hard they’d been praying to Allah when they heard this news. The sky boomed with cheering and laughter and other heartening sounds. Some ladies who were headed to Kabul to attend a wedding party starting clanging their bracelets and making sounds to celebrate being safe. Every man and woman looked up to the sky to thank Allah, as if they could see Him there. All ran toward their vehicles like birds chirping when they find their lost mothers after a long voyage. I was sorry to leave the dog behind, but I didn’t have any choice.
When we returned, our bus was not in the same condition as we had left it. Almost all the windows were broken and more than half of the passengers had lost their luggage. But nobody cared; they were happy to be alive. This time our vehicle ran faster on the road than previously, just to avoid being caught in another fight. We also passed through the place where the explosion had occurred, where another bridge was destroyed, and where parts of smashed and burnt vehicles and people’s clothes were scattered all over the road, where the earth was reddened with innocent people’s blood. Where were the dead bodies? They must have been removed already, the passengers said to each other.
We passengers were all as tired as if we had returned from jihad fighting with the enemies of Afghanistan. Some fell asleep, snoring deeply, and others counted each second until we reached Kabul. It normally takes six to seven hours traveling from Kandahar to Kabul, but that day we spent more than fifteen hours suffering between life and death.
It was my first experience facing death that closely. After that, I decided not to travel by road anymore while going to Kabul. But what about those poor, needy Afghans who cannot afford air travel and don’t have any other option but to face, every day, the possibility of being arrested, robbed, or killed by the Taliban?