Kabul, Afghanistan, 4 October 1980
On a breezy October day, a kite-flying day, my cousin Kader surprised me with a visit. He looked much older than I remembered, his hair thinner, his once smooth face now lined with worry. He was a well-known political writer who had worked for the Ministry of Education before the Spring Revolution. He was also known for his short stories.
For generations, his family had been one of the most important families in Kabul. Kader looked at me with his deep-set black eyes and spoke in a frantic voice, ‘Bar, you must leave immediately. The National Security and Russian soldiers are now searching house to house. They’ve already searched half of your neighborhood and they won’t stop.
You must come to my house immediately. It’s the only place that will be safe for you now.’
I did not know what to think. Things were so bad now, I wondered if I could trust my own cousin. He could have given in to the Communists, or he could be telling me this because they were holding someone in his family hostage.
I hated the Russians for making me doubt him, and I hated myself for doubting him.
‘Tashakor (Thank you). I’ll be okay,’ I assured him. ‘I have a hiding place that the National Security will never find.’
But he was adamant. ‘You must come to my house. It’s the only place that will be safe for you now.’
‘I need time to think,’ I said, deflecting his request.
‘There’s no time!’ he said.
I told him, ‘I have to think of my wife and children, my father and mother. I’m the only one who can take care of them.’
‘You won’t be much use to them dead,’ he said.
‘That is true, Kader. But before I leave my family and go to your house, I must speak with my father.’
Kader just sighed. ‘God be with you.’
That night I lay on the floor, unable to sleep. I could hear the National Security guards in the street outside my house shouting at people, ‘What is the password for tonight?’ If there was no response, there would be the sound of gunfire and I would flinch as if the bullet had ripped through me.
As soon as the sun appeared, I went up to my father’s bedroom where he spent most of his time since losing his leg years before. I told him about Kader’s visit. ‘Things have changed,’ I said. ‘Every house is being searched now. They will even search the general’s house. I can no longer hide from these crazy people.’
‘So, you think you should go stay with Kader?’ Baba asked.
‘We don’t know who’s honest anymore,’ I replied. Then the words I had dreaded saying for so long escaped my lips.
‘The time has come for me to leave.’
Baba didn’t say anything at first. This unsettled me because my father was never at a loss for words. When he finally did speak, his voice was weak. ‘I was afraid it might come to this,’ he said. ‘I’ve spoken with Abbas. He agreed that when the time comes, he would go with you. I will get word to him. You can leave tomorrow at first light.’
When I told my mother, who I called Babu, her body shuddered, but her lips were silent. My mother had a habit of never sitting still when she was nervous. First, she paced back and forth in the room. Then she walked from one room to the other. Then from one house in our compound to another.
She returned to our living room and continued pacing back and forth until I could take it no longer.
‘Sit!’ I told her. But she never sat. My wife Afsana was asleep in another room with our two children. I couldn’t find the tongue to tell her. But I knew I must.
‘Afsana?’ I called, waking her.
‘It’s not safe for me here anymore…I must leave tomorrow.’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked, panic rising in her voice.
‘Kader came to see me. Things have become too dangerous now. Abbas is coming for me in the morning. He’ll make sure I get out safely. I’ll send for you and the children as soon as
A painful silence followed. Afsana started to speak, but stopped. She knew there was nothing she could say or do now. We both lay awake all night.
As dawn approached, I went to say goodbye to my father.
He was sitting up in bed staring at nothing, his books and newspaper lying next to him, unread.
‘Ah, the time has come,’ he said. He seemed to be searching for something else to say; some last words of wisdom, some final advice from father to son. When he finally spoke, he spoke slowly, the words sticking in his throat, ‘Take care of yourself.’
I could not do this. ‘I won’t leave without taking you and Babu. I can’t leave without Afsana and the children,’ I said.
‘We’ll all go together!’
He was silent for a moment, his eyes never leaving my face. ‘Nay, you know that’s not possible,’ he said.
‘I can get friends to help us. They can take all your things.
We’ll go to Jalalabad. Everything will be all right.’
‘Nay, Bar. It is not practical. I’m too old and weak to be moved. The Russians won’t bother Babu, or Afsana, or the children. We’ll be safe here. If we try to leave, none of us will survive. Things are very bad, but I still have my house and my writings. But it is true, you are no longer safe here, so you must leave to save yourself. Let’s pray that in a few months, things will change.’
‘If that is your wish,’ I gave in.
‘Say goodbye to me now,’ Baba said. ‘I’m afraid you won’t see me again.’
‘How can you say that?’ I protested, feeling the pain of those words as though he were already dead.
He looked at me with sad, knowing eyes. ‘My father said the same thing to me just before I left for Paris,’ Baba said. ‘It was the last time I saw him.’
[Extracted from Red Sky Over Kabul: A Memoir of a Father and Son in Afghanistan by Baryalai Popalzai and Kevin McLean. Published by Speaking Tiger Books, 2023.]
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