08 March 2005

An Afghan Woman Contemplates Exile, April 1980

The country's conditions had become even worse. Several months had passed since I applied for a passport and I still didn't know whether I would be able to make the planned trip to India, because the report from the secret police had not been made yet. With great sorrow I resolved to leave the country--for who knew how long?--the country to which I owed my entire life, the country my husband took such pride in serving [in the Afghan military], the land we cherished, treasuring its memories deeply, the one we always felt homesick for when we traveled.

This day, on my way home, I reviewed the situation carefully and these were my conclusions: It had been two years since my husband had gone missing, with no word about him or the reason for his disappearance. I didn't know whether he was alive or not. I had a sick child and was not permitted to have her admitted to the only hospital that had proper facilities, even though I was willing to pay the entire cost up front. We had lost not only the benefits of health insurance but also Saleem's social security and the retirement money he had paid into the fund directly out of his paycheck every month.

Many young students had disappeared lately without a trace. The schools were getting dangerous. I could not send my children to school without worrying about them all day long. I'd had them stay home several times during the past two weeks because of student demonstrations and the brutal efforts of the police to repress them. Omar and Ali both complied with my orders but didn't understand my position. They thought I was paranoid.

I did not have security at my job. Any minute, I thought, they would come and arrest me. There were no guarantees of safety for any one of us anymore. In fact, circumstances were forcing me to leave as soon as possible--not for myself but for the safety of my family. It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life. To assuage my agony, I promised that I would return when conditions became right. Surely the Russians would not last very long.

The day I decided to leave, I cried all the way home from the office. A searing pain shot through my heart when I looked at the Aliabad Mountains behind the university. I remembered the times in college when we frolicked and played games among those steep rocks. We even tried one day to climb a large boulder but didn't get very far before one of our classmates got stuck between two rocks. The rest of us tried to rescue her and the whole class missed a lecture. The dean didn't let us make up the test we missed that day; he never understood the pleasure we derived from going up there.

All night long my head was full of unanswered questions. What was I going to do in a foreign country with no money, all by myself with three children? How would I be able to earn money for their food and education? Would I be able to provide the comforts they had here at home? What if my husband was released and I wasn't home? Would he understand? Was I doing the right thing? What about the promise I'd made to him: "In bad times as well as good, in sickness and in health, I will stay by your side until death parts us"?

I had applied for a passport, but then my idea had been to return home after my daughter's medical treatment. Now I must change the plan and I needed more money. I couldn't sell our real estate because of the uncertainty concerning my husband; and even if he were no longer living, it could not be sold till all the children had passed their eighteenth birthday. I dare not sell the household goods because that would attract attention. Even if I did, they would realize only a small fraction of their original price. So I would have to give away everything we had accumulated and saved bit by bit over the years. My heart broke when I remembered that Saleem had sometimes saved money by canceling a movie or a trip in order to have enough to build our house.

Could I keep my plan secret? I certainly could not tell my husband's family that I was leaving. The very few whom I trusted could not keep the news to themselves, especially my mother-in-law, who would begin to cry, and then others would know. Would our departure be too hard on her, especially at this time when my husband was missing too? What would happen to my mother and brothers and sisters? Would the government arrest them because I had left the country? Many close relatives were arrested and questioned if one family member left the country. Yet how could we all leave with our children, twenty-six of us, without being noticed? The more I thought, the more questions appeared in my head which called for answers--answers that I did not have. In fact, everything seemed impossible, out of reach.

Finally, early in the morning, I decided to put all the negative and all the positive points of my plan on the two sides of an imaginary balance. On the left side went all the negatives, such as lack of money, trouble finding a decent job, starting all over again from zero, leaving all my property behind; on the right side were the positive points, such as having a safer life for my sons and not being afraid of losing them, having proper health care and a good education for my children, not having to worry about spies and false reports. I still was not able to decide. In fact, it seemed I might lose a whole lot more than I gained in the deal. The future lay ahead of me as a somber blur.

At last I realized that what I would really gain from leaving would be freedom. The thought of freedom grew larger and larger in my mind until it completely weighed down the right side of that imaginary balance. It would be well worth fighting for. I thought, I can trade everything in the world, all the luxurious and elegant things in my life, in order to earn freedom for my family and for my mother, my brothers and sisters, and their families. The idea of achieving freedom for all of us gave me the peace of heaven.
SOURCE: An Afghan Woman's Odyssey, by Farooka Gauhari (U. Nebraska Press, 1996), pp. 171-174

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