The White Flag
Over the Mosque
9 A.M., September 27, 1996. Someone knocks violently onour door. My whole family has been on edge since dawn,and now we all start in alarm. My father jumps up to seewho it is while my mother looks on anxiously, haggardwith exhaustion after a sleepless night. None of us got anysleep: The rocket fire around the city didn't let up untiltwo in the morning. My sister Soraya and I kept whisperingin the dark; even after things quieted down, wecouldn't fall asleep. And yet here in Kabul, we're used tobeing the target of rocket fire. I'm only sixteen years old,but I feel as though I've been hearing that din all my life.The city has been surrounded and bombarded for solong, the smoke and flames of the murderous fightinghave terrified us so often, sometimes even sending usrushing down to the basement, that another night in thisracket is just part of our daily routine!
Until this morning.
Papa returns to the kitchen, followed by Farad, ouryoung cousin, who is pale and breathless. He seems to beshaking inside, and his face is taut with fear. He canhardly speak, stammering out words in a series of strangegasps.
"I came ... to find out how you were. Are you allright? You haven't seen anything? You don't know? Butthey're here! They've taken Kabul! The Taliban are inKabul. They haven't come to your place yet? They haven'tdemanded that you hand over any weapons?"
"No, no one's been here, but we saw the white flagwaving over the mosqueDaoud spotted it a few hoursago. We were afraid the worst had happened...."
This morning, around five o'clock, my young brotherDaoud went downstairs as usual to fetch some water fromthe tap in the courtyard of our building, but came hurryingback up with the basin still empty.
"I saw a white flag over the mosque and another oneover the school."
The flag of the Taliban. It had never before flownover Kabul. I had seen it only on television or in newspaperphotographs.
We knew the Taliban were not far away; people inthe city kept saying they were five or ten miles from thecapital, but no one truly believed they would manage toenter Kabul. When we quickly turn on the radio and thetelevision to hear some news, there is still nothing, thesame dreadful nothingno sound or picture, nothingsince six o'clock yesterday afternoon. This morning myfather also tried to reach the rest of the family in Kabul,but the telephone is still dead as well.
I fiddle nervously with the dial of our battery-poweredradio, searching through the static. No trace ofour local station, Radio Kabul, or the BBC, or the Voice ofAmerica, which I try looking for at that unlikely hour, juston the off chance.... If Farad hadn't risked racing overa mile on his bike from his neighborhood to ours, wewouldn't have had any information, nothing but theundeniable presence of those white flags.
What Farad has seen is so frightening, so appalling,that he blurts it out all at once.
"They've hanged Najibullah and his brother, onAryana Square.... It's horrible! Horrible!"
He turns back and forth from my father to Daoud ashe speaks, then gazes at my sister and me in anguish.We've heard terrible things about what the Taliban do towomen in the provinces they already occupy. I've neverseen Farad in such a panic, never seen such overwhelmingfear in his eyes.
"Can you imagine? Najibullah. They've strung himup with plastic tubing! There's a big crowd, the Talibanare making everyone look at the bodies, they're beatingpeople. I saw them."
Petrified, the five of us are speechless.
Even after my brother told us he'd seen the whiteflags, I didn't want to believe the truth. The governmentforces must have pulled back to prepare for anotherattack on the Taliban, or else they've taken refuge more tothe north, in a suburb of the city. The mujahideen can'thave abandoned Kabul. So many times I've heard, read,and preferred to ignore what the government has beentelling us about the Taliban: "They imprison women intheir own homes. They prevent them from working, fromgoing to school. Women have no more lives, the Talibantake away their daughters, burn the villagers' houses,force the men to join their army. They want to destroy thecountry!'
Just yesterday, despite the civil war, life was "normal"in Kabul, even though the city is in ruins. Yesterday Iwent to the seamstress with my sister to try on the dresseswe were going to wear to a wedding today. There wouldhave been music, we would have danced. Life can't stoplike this on the twenty-seventh of September in 1996. I'monly sixteen and still have so many things to doI haveto pass the entrance examination to study journalism atthe university.... No, it's impossible that the Talibancould remain in Kabul; it's just a temporary setback.
I hear my father talking with Daoud, but I'm so upsetI catch only scraps of their conversation.
"Najibullah is a Pashtun, like they areit's crazy forthem to turn on a Pashtun. And they arrested him in theUN compound? They hanged him? That doesn't makeany sense."
My father is also a Pashtun, the dominant ethnicgroup in the country. Like many others, he had thoughtthat if through some misfortune the Taliban managed toinvade the capital, they would certainly seek out Najibullah,not to hang him, but to set him free and invite himto join their new government.
Kabulis don't much care for Najibullah, a formerleader of our government and a man capable of switchingsides as easily as arms and drug traffickers move acrossthe borders of Pakistan. My father is very critical of himand thinks he is a traitor to our country. Corrupt andcriminal, Najibullah directed the Afghan Communistsecret police, the Khad, a sinister clone of the SovietKGB. During the last coup d'état, in April 1992, when theresistance besieged Kabul, he simply ran away. Armytroops caught him at the airport just as he was about toboard a plane to escape abroad. When they forced himto stay, he took refuge at the UN compound near AryanaSquare, and there he remained until today.
I was only a child when he made a speech calling forreconciliation among the various factions of the resistance,a speech he gave on the very square where Faradsaw him hanging. If the Taliban are capable of huntingdown an ex-president even in the UN headquarters inKabul, then terror and chaos have taken over indeed.
Still shaken, my cousin Farad doesn't want to stayaway from home too long.
"If you must go out, be very careful, Uncle. I've seensome of them flogging people with big whips! They'rescary, they dress like Pakistanis in long, loose pants, theydrive around in four-by-fours and stop to beat people forno reason.... Sometimes they attack men who don'twear beards. And you have no beard!"
Farad doesn't have a beard, either. Do you grow abeard at age sixteen when you wear running shoes andjeans? When you listen to rock music and daydream oversentimental Indian novels, like lots of boys his age?
The Taliban are all bearded. Their edict specifies thatmen must wear beards as long as a man's hand. Theynever wear the pakol, the traditional Afghan cap that hasbecome an emblem of the resistance. Besides, we knowthey're not all Pashtuns, or even Afghans: They're supportedby Pakistan, and they recruit followers abroad.Footage on television and eyewitnesses from the provincesthey control prove that their ranks include manyPakistanis, as well as Arabs from Muslim countries, mostof whom don't even speak our language.
My father checks the street from the balcony of ourapartment. The neighborhood is rather quiet; the Talibanflag still waves atop the mosque. But our minds are reeling.We look at one another, dumbfounded. Farad gulpsdown a glass of hot tea. Papa comes in from the balcony,shaking his head: He simply cannot believe the Talibanhave hanged Najibullah.
This morning, my father and I will not be going joggingwith Bingo, our dog. This morning, my father issilently wondering about a thousand things he keeps tohimself so as not to distress our mother any further. Shehas already been sorely tried by seventeen years of war.War, fightingthat's all I've ever known since I was bornon March 20, 1980, the first day of spring. But evenunder the Soviets, even under the rocket fire of the feudingmilitary factions, even in the ruins, we were still livingin relative freedom in Kabul.
What kind of life will our father be able to offer hisloved ones? What will happen to his children? I was luckyto be born into a united and affectionate family, one bothliberal and religious. My oldest brother, Wahid, lives inRussia. My oldest sister, Shakila, is married and lives withher in-laws, following the custom of our people. She's inPakistan, waiting to join her husband in the UnitedStates. Soraya, who is twenty, is unmarried and has beena flight attendant for Aryana Afghan Airlines for threeyears now. She came home two days ago from a routinetrip to Dubai and was to have left again this morning.Daoud is studying economics. I just passed the first partof a university entrance examination to study journalism.That has always been my dream. My father and everyoneelse in my family hope to see me complete my studies andbecome a reporter, traveling around the country, earningmy living. Will all this come to an end in a singlemoment?
I need to see what's going on in Aryana Square, andso does my sister. We want to convince ourselves that theTaliban are really here, that they've really hanged Najibullahand his brother, that the catastrophe I refused tobelieve in only yesterday has actually happened to us. Mybrother Wahid, who was a soldier during the Soviet occupationand then a resistance fighter under General Massoud,always used to say about the Taliban, who weremoving up from the south, "You can't imagine the kindof foreign support they have. No one in Kabul has theslightest clue: They're powerful, they've got modernequipmentthe government will never be able to standup to those people."
At the time, we thought he was being too pessimistic.Now we realize that he was right. So to convince myselfof this new reality, I want to see these Taliban soldierswith my own eyes.
My father has the same idea. Daoud will stay withMama, who is too fragile to see such things, and the restof us will drive to Aryana Square. Before taking off on hisbike, a sturdy Chinese model, Farad warns my fatheronce again:
"You should stay home! It would be safer."
But we must see this incredible sight. If I werealready a reporter, it would be my duty to go to thesquare. I've never seen Najibullah, except for a few timeson television, and I was so young then. People had beensaying lately that he was writing an autobiography, whichI was eager to read. Even those who betrayed our country,who supported the Soviets, are part of our recent history.Anyone who wants to be a journalist must learn everything,understand everything, know everything.
I usually wear sweatpants, a polo shirt or a pullover,and running shoes, but today Soraya and I dress prudentlyin long dresses and chadors, which we wear athome when we pray. Papa goes to get the car, which isparked near the local mosque. Carrying his bicycle on hisshoulder, Farad follows us downstairs, where we wait forPapa, who soon drives up.
A neighbor calls to us.
"Have you heard? It seems they've hanged Najibullahon Aryana Square. What do you think of that?"
My father signals us discreetly to be cautious. InKabul, and even in our neighborhood of Mikrorayan, younever know with whom you're dealing. The four modernhousing complexes that make up this eastern section ofthe capital were built by the Soviets and form a kind ofconcrete village, with its big numbered apartment blocks,its business sector, its school. Many important officials inthe Afghan Communist Party lived there, in what wereconsidered luxurious quarters that were more comfortablethan traditional houses. Most of the residents areacquainted with one another, and we recognize thisneighbor, of course, but who knows what side he's on thismorning?
Soraya replies prudently, in her usual calm andpleasant manner.
"That's what we heard, too. We're going to see what'shappening."
"My daughter would like to go with you."
Farad whispers to Soraya to refuse: "Better not takeanyone elseyou can never tell what might happen overthere."
Farad has younger sisters and a sense of responsibility.The girl pleads with us to take her along, but theanswer is no.
We drive off toward Aryana Square. Sitting in theback with Soraya, I think about the wedding we will notbe attending. A few minutes ago, when I mentioned thedresses we were supposed to go get from the seamstresstoday, Mama snapped at me.
"Don't you understand what's happening, Latifa?And you're talking about picking up dresses!"
"Don't worry," my father assured me. "I'll get themlater."
I'm well aware that I'm a teenager who is spoiled byher father and coddled by her sisters, and who has grownup in an atmosphere of freedom until now. School, college,Sundays at the swimming pool, expeditions with mygirlfriends in search of music tapes, film videos, novels toread avidly in bed in the evening ... How I hope theresistance forces haven't abandoned us to our fate.
Along the way, Papa stops the car when one of ourfriends, a pharmacist, waves to him in recognition. Thepharmacist's brother holds an important position in thegovernment.
"Where are you going? To Aryana Square? I'd adviseagainst it."
"We want to see things for ourselves."
"Well, then, I'll tell you something later on, whenyou return. Be careful!"
The streets are less crowded than usual; we see men,but not many women. The faces I glimpse in passing arestrained: People seem to be in shock. Everything seemscalm, however. In fifteen minutes we reach the avenuethat runs from the airport to Aryana Square, which isalready clogged with cars. This great square is the moderncenter of the city. My father warns us that he's going tomake a quick tour of the square and park farther along.We drive past the American Embassy, the televisionbuilding, the headquarters of Aryana Afghan Airlines.None of their doors are open.
Soraya has tears in her eyes.
"Look, that's where I work! Maybe I'll never be ableto come here again. Even the television building isclosed...."
The car turns a corner of the square by Peace Avenue,the site of the UN compound. Facing us is the Ministryof Defense, where General Massoud had his office.And there, across from the Hotel Aryana, the most luxuriousin Kabul, reserved primarily for tourists and Westernjournalists, stands a kind of watchtower ordinarily usedby the police guards on duty to keep an eye on the ministry.Two corpses are hanging from this improvised gallows.Papa advises us to look quickly because he's notgoing to drive around the square again.
"Take a good look at the faces, so we can be sure itreally is Najibullah and his brother."
And it really is: side by side, former president Najibullah,in traditional Afghan clothing, and his brother,wearing a Western suit. The first one hanging from alength of plastic tubing wrapped around his chest underhis arms, the other strung up by the neck. Najibullah's...
Excerpted from My Forbidden Face by Latifa with Shékéba Hachemi. Copyright © 2001 by Éditions Anne Carrière. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.