One night, only minutes after I’d turned off my lamp, the usual silence was shattered by the sound of firing. This wasn’t the normal reminder from Hisb-i-Islami on their mountain, to which we had long since become accustomed. This was very much louder and uncomfortably close to home. For a brief moment I considered it might be to announce the birth of a son – proud fathers were often given to firing off volleys from their Kalashnikovs on such occasions. The sound of rockets, seemingly directly overhead soon put paid to the idea that this was a celebration.
In the dark I groped for my glasses, wrapped my chaddar securely about me, then, feeling my preparations for any eventuality were somewhat inadequate, but not knowing what else to do, I crouched on the mattress. I expected Hussain to appear to reassure me, to tell me what was going on – but he didn’t appear. And I was certainly not going looking for him. After what seemed like hours everything went quiet. In the sudden silence I could hear my heart thudding – a phenomenon I’d never experienced before.
By torchlight my watch showed, surprisingly, barely fifteen minutes had elapsed since I put out the light. I found my cigarettes and, after two in rapid succession – sucking in the smoke like a vacuum cleaner – I tried to go to sleep. It was a long time coming.
Next morning when I arrived in the staffroom Hussain, Ismail and Ali Baba looked solemnly at me. ‘Did you hear something in the night?’ asked Ali Baba.
‘What was it? It sounded like rockets flying over us.’
Ismail said, ‘It was. Some of the Parties were shooting at each other. Our clinic is in the middle so the rockets went over our roof. Were you afraid?’
I tried to shrug nonchalantly, before admitting, ‘Yes, I was. Why are they fighting?’
Hussain flashed me an apologetic grin. ‘I wanted to come to see you – but was too afraid to move. We still don’t know what it was all about but we’ll find out this morning.’
In the clinic the night’s battle was the main topic of conversation. After one patient left the clinic Hussain turned to me and said, ‘Mum, that man said during the firing you showed a light for three minutes!’
‘No, I didn’t. I was shivering in bed in the dark – like you.’ Then I remembered. ‘Oh, well, after it had stopped I put my torch on to look for my cigarettes.’
‘Really, Mum, it’s so dangerous. You must never show a light when there is shooting, maybe they will fire on our clinic.’ I promised. He grumbled on at me a bit longer, clearly feeling I was not showing a sufficient degree of fear. In fact, I had been terrified, lying in the dark, alone, listening to the rockets, not knowing if the clinic was the intended target or not, but somehow, in daylight with everything normal again, it no longer seemed real.
The reason for the outbreak of hostilities was not clear; the most popular theory being that mujahideen from Hisb-i-Islami had entered the houses of Nasre people, when the men were out. They had stolen guns and ammunition; there was also talk of the women having been “tormented” – a much more serious offence. Nasre had retaliated by firing rockets in the direction of houses belonging to Hisb-i-Islami supporters. Nezhat seemed to have joined in just for the sheer hell of it.
It may have ended there, with honours even, but a man from Hisb-i-Islami had been killed. The need to avenge his death meant the fighting had to continue. The second night, as I groped for my glasses one of the legs fell off. I crouched, cowering on the mattress, grimly holding my glasses onto my nose as though my life depended on it.
Next morning, Ismail and Ali Baba were laughing at this picture of me sitting in the dark clutching my spectacles when Hussain, irritated by what he considered to be my too frivolous attitude, proceeded to lecture me at length on the safety precautions I must adopt. If I had the lamp on at any time in the evening it must always be on the floor, my mattress must not be under the window but in a corner, I must not put a light on in my room during any firing episodes. It got better –I must not stand by the window while any shooting was going on, and, if I had to go to the loo during, or immediately after the firing, I must not put on a torch.
I could not begin to explain to him that I was taking it seriously, was scared witless when sitting alone in the dark, but that the more patronising he became the more the upper lip stiffened. We each have our own ways of dealing with these things. His was to exaggerate the dangers, mine was to try and laugh them off. We each felt the same degree of confusion and fear.
Far more sobering than Hussain’s hysterical approach was the sight, uncomfortably close to the clinic, of a house whose roof and walls had been destroyed by a rocket. The family had taken refuge in a tent and an image of the frightened faces of the women stayed with me for a long time.
After a third night of rockets flying around, hostilities ended as abruptly as they had begun. Each side was claiming a victory but, as Ismail observed, ‘No-one wins this kind of war, everyone loses.’ A couple of days after the fighting stopped I climbed the mountain behind our clinic. It was a beautiful sunny day with small wisps of white candy floss clouds floating in a bluer than blue sky and I desperately needed exercise and fresh air. It was a relief to have no-one prattling incessantly in my ear about firing and fighting and dangerous situations. From the summit the view was glorious and the clarity of light made the towering mountains, whose range seemed to stretch to infinity, stand out hard and sharp edged against the sky. Below, the flat rooftops were patchworks of colour: the gold of apricots contrasting with the dark purple and white of the mulberries drying in the sun.
Last year’s dried apricots, poached, formed a staple at breakfast and dried mulberries were sometimes offered in place of the customary boiled sweets with tea. I much preferred them fresh, had eaten vast quantities since my arrival and was sad their season was now over. Gathering mulberries required teamwork – four people each held a corner of a large tarpaulin under the tree. The most agile team member, clinging precariously high up in the tree, shook the branches vigorously making the luscious ripe berries rain down.
Glowing from my exertion, and with a sense of achievement, I returned home to find Hussain, waiting for me. ‘Where have you been?’ he demanded.
I grinned exuberantly at him, ‘Up the mountain – right to the top. It was wonderful, you should…’ My voice tailed off as he exploded into a tirade about how dangerous it was to walk by myself on the mountain, perhaps mujahideen were up there, this was not his village, not his people so he could not trust anyone, I was a foreigner and did not understand.
As Ismail and Baqul had both given assurances that it was safe to walk on the mountains by the clinic I knew Hussain was not as worried about my safety as he was about feeling unable to keep me under his control. I marched into the house, giving vent to my feelings of outrage by childishly slamming the door.
When my temper had cooled I thought about Hussain’s position. His parents had died within months of each other when he was five years old. He and his baby brother were brought up by his older brother’s wife, who had only just married. Hussain had found a job working as the cook’s assistant at the field hospital. He was a dreadful cook but was a smart, intelligent boy and when Jon met him he offered him the chance to train as a leprosy/TB paramedic in Pakistan. Now, back in Afghanistan he was responsible for three staff, overseeing the building of a clinic near his own village while being in charge of a temporary clinic in a place he felt an outsider – not to mention being responsible for the safety of a stubborn foreigner. And he was scarcely eighteen. I vowed to be a bit more understanding.