Dedicated to all my Afghan brothers and sisters, those who made it to Pakistan and beyond and those who lie buried in the earth of their homeland.
All characters are fictional, the stories are a composite of true stories of the flight from Afghanistan to Pakistan during the soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
He had just finished rounds. He took off his white coat walking fast to the stairwell leading down to the physicians parking lot. He saw his colleague Manuel who was also a foreign medical graduate, coming up the stairs in a hurry, his face creased with worry and his forehead beaded with perspiration from climbing the stairs.
He stopped at the landing to greet Manuel briefly when Manuel caught his sleeve, “ Can I have a roadside consult” he asked
“Sure” he said and stopped and looked at his friend’s worried face.
“ I……….” Manuel stammered and looked around. The stark sterile stairwell in this posh LA Hospital was empty. Most Americans preferred the elevator, instead of running down eleven floors. He had always preferred the stairwell. It helped him get rid of the days mental fatigue.
“I have a confidential question” said Manuel . “ Don’t worry it’s all under HIPPA “ he replied smiling at Manuel, the harsh planes of his young Afghan face softening momentarily.
“ I have a friend, she ummm…………she is eighteen she has just arrived………” Manuel’s voice tailed off. The terror of ICE was alive and well in California and had infiltrated even the hospitals and emergency rooms.
Understanding dawned within him, he saw in his mind’s eye: the Mexican border and the vast desert of the USA with its walls, barbed fences and shooters of all who crossed illegally into the land of the Plenty and the Brave.
He nodded his heart softening and put his hand on Manuel’s shoulder looking around at the empty stairwell for listening ears. They were both foreign doctors one Afghan and the other Mexican and were well aware of the double standards even at their level.
“She can’t walk………. And does not want an American to examine her” said Manuel.
Horrible visions of rape and violence flitted through his head.
“Violence…….?” He asked.
“NO NO! thank the Lord ………..” said Manuel crossing his chest, and then in a whisper he said “riding on a donkey for three nights…………….. crossing over ” he smiled sheepishly.
He was rooted to the spot……………..The stairwell and Manuel faded away and he was back in the dry hills of Afghanistan.
It was a moonless night and they had been riding for two nights and hiding in the day. Suddenly the lead donkey went crazy and started braying loudly the sound of which resounded in the stark hills of the night. They sat frozen with fear of being discovered. how could the soviet soldiers not have heard the donkey……..” He prayed hard asking Allah not to wake the soviet soldiers from their night time drunken stupor.
The Taliban soldiers had eyes that could see in the dark and knew every inch of land between Kabul through the hills into the secret alleyway into Peshawar, Pakistan. The Resistance to the soviet union invasion of Afghanistan had arranged their escape passage from Kabul to Peshawar.
They had fallen in love at first sight. She was eighteen going into college for business and he was twenty-one in the second year of medical school when they had decided to have their nikah done and postponed the usual celebrations till after they graduated.
It was in the evening when he was visiting her home that the message had come from his uncle “DO NOT GO HOME, they are waiting for you” Fear shot through him like a lightning rod. Yes, it was going to happen but he had thought it would be later at least allowing him to finish medical school but these Godless invaders wanted to squash all rebellion especially intellectual.
He was in the Afghan Student Resistance against the soviets at an intellectual level, writing articles, changing views, having meetings with other Afghan men to free Afghanistan from the yoke of the Soviets.
It was that night that life had changed forever for him and for his beautiful young innocent wife.
“of course, I will go with you” she said, never questioning how they were going to get to Pakistan.
“Why don’t you wait a few days and go with us through India?” said her mother to him.
“don’t wait………..Go now!” said the message and the second note was cryptic “bring only cash and gold, which you will need in Pakistan you will be taken care of on the route to Pakistan by the Mujahideen and they will not charge you, it is FisabillAllah”
Manuel was shaking his arm ……and he came out of his reverie. Afghanistan faded but remained an ache in his heart.
“……………I understand” he said turning to Manuel “ it’s probably thigh skin burns from riding the donkey”.
The situation would be comical had he not known and experienced the tragic background that leads to such a scenario. Leaving your birth country, persecuted, carrying nothing, riding a donkey to safety was nothing to be laughed at.
All was quiet again the moonless night felt like a velvet blanket over him, blinding him to the dangers and folding him in a hug much needed. The noise of braying donkey had stopped. The Taliban soldiers had put blinders on the frightened donkey and knew how to soothe the animal.
He could not see anyone except her pale face and her large hazel eyes wide with fear.
“We have to keep going “said the Taliban soldier…….” Stopping him from alighting from his donkey to check on her.
Silent tears were coursing down her cheeks…….not from fear but what he realized later were from the pain of riding the donkey for the third straight night, where her young legs had never ridden anything other than a BMW.
It is a strange sensation of surrealism when you don’t talk for three days and nights because the hills and mountains have ears and an echo and your companions and guide are speechless and only stop for prayer. The Taliban soldiers leading them spoke with their eyes and their hand gestures, seldom uttering a word.
It was midnight when they reached Pakistan. “you have to get off now” said the Taliban soldier to him. He did not remember how stiff he was when he got off his donkey but he remembered clearly that as she tried to get off, she fell to the ground because her legs were numb and stiff and later, he realized not only chaffed but bleeding from the rub of riding the animal.
“Manuel………..” he said “ Would you like me to do a home visit”
Manuel’s eyes filled with tears and he embraced him “ Thank you “ he said softly
“Thank you ……….” He had whispered to the Taliban soldiers as he had half dragged half pulled his wife off the donkey to walk across the border into Pakistan and safety where his uncle’s men waited for them.
There had been no time to grieve for being wrenched from his homeland because it now belonged to the Godless who were gowned in the cruelty that came so naturally to them.
They turned to say goodbye to their rescuers and to Afghanistan as they knew will never again be the same, but there was no one. They had melted into the night………… donkeys and all.