Under an Afghan Sky, page 1
A Memoir of Captivity
For my parents
“I am Talib.”
About the Author
PRAISE FOR Under an Afghan Sky
About the Publisher
“I am Talib.”
I looked up from where he had me pinned to the floor of the car. It had all happened so fast. My heart was pounding, and I still wasn’t sure what was going on, except that I was staring up the barrel of a Kalashnikov. There were two men in the back of the car with me and one in the front, in the driver’s seat. The men in the back tried to cover me with my black scarf, which I wore over my head whenever I ventured out into the real streets of Afghanistan. I struggled, but it was useless. They were pressing my camera bag in my face in an attempt to cover me up, in case we passed any police while the car sped away from the refugee camp. I tried to look out from underneath the scarf. I wanted to see where we were going.
I suddenly noticed I was bleeding. Huge red bloodstains spread over my blue-and-yellow flowered kameez. Blood was pouring out of my right shoulder and my right hand. One of the two men in the back—the tall one—was on a cell phone, speaking loudly and rapidly to someone who was barking back in Pashto, the language spoken in the south of the country. I had no idea what they were saying, but I knew deep down that it wasn’t good.
“What’s your name?” asked the man.
“Mellissa,” I answered, and he demanded to see my passport. I didn’t want to give it to him, but he started to search me. I had it in the left pocket of my hiking pants and fished it out for him.
“Canada. You not from America? Or Britain?”
“No. Canada,” I replied as another warm gush of blood oozed out of my shoulder—though I felt no pain.
The man made another phone call and, between bursts of Pashto, I could hear him say “Canada.”
I looked up at the door handle and instinctively reached out with my right arm to pull it, only to feel the pain of a worn leather shoe smacking down my hand. The other man, who had curly hair, pointed his bloody knife at me, glared at me with angry black eyes, and shouted, “No!”
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We are almost there. Ten minutes more.”
Ten minutes earlier, I had been working in the relative safety of Charahi Qambar refugee camp, just northeast of Kabul. My fixer, Shokoor, and I had gone there on a sunny Sunday morning, October 12, 2008, to interview people who had fled the fighting in Kandahar and other southern provinces of Afghanistan.
I’d arrived in Kabul the day before, flying up from Kandahar Airfield, where I was based for my second rotation covering the war, and in particular, Canada’s military efforts in the south. As a journalist for CBC News reporting on mostly Canadian stories, I had been excited by the prospect of travelling again to Afghanistan. There are few opportunities for domestic reporters to get a taste of conflict zone reporting, and I was determined to make the best of it. I was fascinated by the country and the Afghans I’d met the year before on my first assignment there, and I wanted another chance to tell their stories. The fighting in the south had intensified over the past several months, and thousands were forced to flee their homes in Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan provinces to set up temporary shelter in the safer areas of the north. This camp just outside Kabul was one of them.
It was only eleven o’clock in the morning when I arrived but already unbearably hot. A thick stench, emanating from the open sewers that ran through the camp, filled the air.
We’d spent just about an hour there, no longer. Shokoor was very careful about taking me around the city, knowing there is always a risk when foreigners in Afghanistan venture out. I tried to blend in as much as possible and always kept my head covered with a scarf. We’d interviewed several families that had recently arrived at the camp. One woman told me she’d lost her husband, two sons, and a daughter to a suicide bomber. She told me her life story as we sat outside her makeshift shelter where she lived with her remaining children—three little boys and a girl—as well as her puppy and another dog. She said she was maybe forty years old (Afghans don’t celebrate birthdays), but the lines that creased her brown face made her look at least twenty years older. She had kind eyes, though, and a soft smile. I couldn’t help but stuff a few hundred afghanis in her hand as I was leaving.
Her family shared their small space with another family from Kandahar province, a family of six or seven, and as I left her, I saw everyone gathering around a small fire—fifteen or sixteen people, waiting for a tiny pot of white rice to cook. It would be their meal of the day. Little did I know then how much of a luxury white rice would become for me.
After we’d finished our interviews, Shokoor and I ran into a group of people from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who’d been visiting the camp. The United Nations provided some assistance to the people who lived there, but the refugee situation in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan was becoming critical. Tens of thousands of people had been displaced by the fighting, and there was nowhere for them to go. We made arrangements to stop at the UNHCR office next, to talk to the director about the plight of the refugees. The UN car left, and we made our way back to Shokoor’s white Toyota Corolla. His brother was our driver that day, and he was waiting for us just outside the entrance to the camp.
The sun was beating down on us, and I was eager to get going. The UN interview would round out the story. And then we were going to visit a school in the centre of Kabul, funded in part by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), for children who had been orphaned by the war. It was a busy day. But I was going to be in Kabul for only three days and I had four stories to shoot.
“That was good,” I said to Shokoor as we walked on the dirt road leading out of the camp. He was holding the small digital camera we were shooting with, while I carried the camera bag and the knapsack with my radio equipment. Everything was going well. I knew I had an important story with the refugees—very few Western journalists had been to this camp.
Just then, a blue car sped toward us from the camp entrance and squealed to a stop next to us, kicking up a small dust storm. Three armed men got out and pointed guns at us. The shortest of them grabbed me and tried to push me head first into the car. “Shokoor!” I screamed as I struggled with the man. In a reflex action, I swung my right fist at his nose. I noticed a glint from the end of a knife and then felt something stick into my shoulder. My heart was racing, but I didn’t feel pain, and I wasn’t scared for myself. Rather, my overriding fear was that they would kill Shokoor. I saw him covering his head with his arm as one of the men pointed a gun in his face. I squeezed my eyes shut to brace myself for the inevitable sound of a gunshot.
“Shokoor!” I shouted again as I was shoved into the back seat of the car. “Call Paul! Don’t go to the police!”
The car sped away, kicking up another dust storm in its wake. From the back window, I could see Shokoor running to the road, the camera still hanging on his shoulder. I continued to struggle in the car, swinging my fists as the men shoved my head down to their feet with the butts of their guns. The car smelled of gasoline and sweat. I tried to look up to see their faces but one of them held my scarf to my face and the other kept his foot on my back, not allowing me to move.
“Stay there,” ordered the tall man, shoving a foot into my face. He was wearing dusty black leather shoes which he had flattened at back and wore like sandals.
Two of the men start
“What’s this?” the tall man asked, pulling out some wires.
“Who are you? Where are you taking me?” I asked, pushing the scarf off my face.
“I not going to kill you,” he said in reply. “I am Talib.”
Oh my God, I thought, this is bad. This is really bad. We had all considered the possibility of being taken hostage by the Taliban but never really believed it would happen. We took so many precautions every time we went out to shoot a story.
“Where are we going?”
“Do not speak.”
His cell phone rang and he took his foot off my back. I sat up a bit. I could hear a loud, anxious voice on the other end of the line, speaking in Pashto. The men were looking out the window furtively, watching for police roadblocks, I guessed. I could feel the car turning and speeding, turning and speeding as the driver changed gears, stepped on the gas pedal, and then hit the brakes hard. The tall man, who wore a long black shirt, kept yelling at the driver.
The men continued going through my things. They rifled through the small red case where I kept some powder and lipstick, then tossed it back into the knapsack. They pulled out my notebook and boxes of AA batteries, which I kept for the radio equipment. My camera bag was empty, save for a lens cap and some batteries. I was thankful that I’d left almost everything else in my room at the Serena Hotel in Kabul. Especially several thousand American dollars—money I’d brought from Canada to pay Shokoor and to take care of other expenses.
“Where is your laptop?” the tall Afghan asked.
“It’s in my hotel room,” I told him. “Why don’t you take me back there and I’ll give it to you.”
He laughed and said something in Pashto to the curly-haired man. They both laughed. “Where is your cell phone?” he asked.
“It’s in my bag,” I answered. As the men searched my knapsack, I managed to take my second, spare cell phone out of my pants pocket and slip it down the front of my hiking pants without them noticing.
“Do you have money?” the tall one asked as I watched him take my cell phone apart. He took the battery out, and then the SIM card from the back of the phone, putting them along with the phone and back cover into his breast pocket.
“Money?” he repeated. I was carrying a few hundred afghanis and about two hundred US dollars in my pocket. I pulled it all out and offered it to them.
“If I give this to you, will you let me go?” I bargained. I think deep down I knew they wanted a lot more, but that didn’t stop me from trying—maybe I would be able to persuade them to take me back to Kabul. The tall one laughed again and translated for his friend. They both laughed and split the money between them, giving a little to the driver as well. “If you take me back to Kabul, I will give you my laptop. And I also have some money in the hotel safe there.”
“How much money?”
“A few thousand dollars, maybe.”
This seemed to intrigue him, and he conversed in Pashto with the curly-haired man for a while. Finally, the tall one—apparently the only one who spoke a little English—said, “No, a few thousand dollars buys us nothing. It won’t even buy a gun.”
“You have a gun,” I said, gesturing at the weapon on his lap. “Why do you want another?” I wanted to keep them talking.
“To kill Americans,” he answered, as if it was obvious.
The curly-haired Afghan reached behind him for a bottle of neon orange–coloured pop. He took a swig and then offered the bottle to me. I shook my head.
“Where are we going?” I asked again. It felt like maybe half an hour had passed since they had ambushed us at the entrance of the camp.
“We’re here. Get out.” The car had stopped at what looked like the edge of a small village. I could not even see Kabul in the distance anymore. A large mountain stood in front of us. It all looked strangely fuzzy to me, and I realized I had lost my left contact lens. It must have been knocked out in the struggle to get me into the car. I felt slightly dizzy and off-balance as I looked around.
“Don’t look back.”
“Where are we? Where are we going?”
The two Afghans grabbed their stuff from the car—two bottles of the orange pop, a few boxes of cookies, my knapsack and camera bag—and the car backed up and sped off.
“Start walking,” the tall man ordered. I followed, the curly-haired one behind me. Both men wore their Kalashnikovs over their shoulders.
We were climbing the mountain. The rocky ground was covered in stones and short grass. I looked back and saw the village in the distance. Except that now that I could see it from farther away, I realized it might not be a village after all. It looked more like a cluster of houses. Maybe a suburb of a suburb of Kabul.
“Don’t look back,” the tall man repeated, while the other glared at me again with his angry dark eyes and pointed his gun forward, as if to tell me to keep moving.
“What’s your name, anyway?” I asked the tall one.
“Calid? Say it again?”
“It’s like Ha-lid.”
“Yes, that is right.”
“And your friend’s name?”
Khalid turned to the curly-haired man and said something in Pashto. Curly-hair turned to me and said in broken English, “My name Shafirgullah.”
“Sha… say that again,” I told him.
Shafirgullah pulled a package of cigarettes out of his pocket and offered me one. They were Pines, the same brand I had smoked at the Kandahar Airfield base. I shook my head. Khalid took one, licked the end of it—I discovered later that this was so the ashes wouldn’t flake off—lit a match, and then both men took turns taking long puffs.
“Your head,” Khalid said to me, making a motion with his hand. “Keep covered.” I realized my scarf had been hanging around my shoulder, and I lifted it with my left hand to cover my head.
We continued walking. Everything around us seemed brown and grey, save for the blue sky. The afternoon sun remained fiercely hot, making me sweat. I looked down. Huge drops of blood fell at my feet with every step I took. The blood was dark red and pouring out of my shoulder, running down my body in rivulets. I could feel my undershirt soaked and sticking to me, and there was also a gash in my right hand. I vaguely remembered Shafirgullah sticking his knife into my hand after he shoved me into the car. I must have lost a fair bit of blood, and I was starting to feel faint. I wasn’t sure if the two men noticed me bleeding, but after a while they stopped.
“Sit down,” Khalid said. I was glad to rest, and we all sat down on the rocky ground, a break in the middle of the uphill climb. The two Afghans pulled my scarf away to reveal the gaping wound in my shoulder. They spoke in Pashto to each other and studied the wound for a bit.
“Does it hurt?” Khalid asked. I nodded, though it felt more numb than anything. He unwrapped the black scarf that was wrapped around his neck and slipped it under my right arm, tying it in a tight knot at the shoulder. My kameez was ripped and soaked in blood. Shafirgullah offered me the bottle of orange pop, and this time I reached out and accepted. I took a few sips.
“Good?” Shafirgullah asked. I nodded. He opened a box of cookies. They were sandwich-style—two vanilla wafers with chocolate cream in the middle. “Biscuit?” he offered. I took one and ate it. And then another. It must have been mid-afternoon and I’d last eaten around seven that morning—a poached egg and toast in the café at the Serena Hotel. I loved having breakfast at the Serena. There was always a buffet with fresh fruit and juices, and breads baked that morning. You could have eggs any way you wanted, and the coffee was rich and dark. I could still taste the coffee. I’d had two cups.
“Get up,” Khalid ordered suddenly.
We continued walking. The mountain was getting steeper. In the distance, I could see another village. Or maybe that wa
“Do you have a GPS?” Khalid asked.
“No,” I said, “why?”
“Airplanes. They tracking us.” He led us into a ravine where the ground was covered with shale-like rocks. It was hard to walk and keep my balance. “Shh. Sit down.”
Again, we sat down. The men took their Kalashnikovs off and put them on the ground. We waited. The airplane sound got louder, then faded. The two of them started searching my knapsack again. They pulled out my wallet and this time went through all my cards.
“Credit cards,” Khalid said.
“Yes,” I told him, “but they’re only good in Canada. You can’t use them here.” He nodded and put them back in their compartments.
“Where this money is from?” He pulled out several denominations of Canadian bills.
“How much is this?”
I reached out and he put the bills in my hand. I counted.
“About a hundred dollars,” I answered. He took the bills back and stuffed them in the pocket of his pants.
The men seemed convinced that I had a GPS, and they were determined to find it. Instead, they found my Nike wristwatch, which Khalid held to his ear as if to listen for the ticking. Then he took a sharp rock and smashed it into pieces. And then he smashed the pieces some more.
“That was my watch, not a GPS.” I scowled at him. He had moved on already, pulling out my camera from the bag. I had a little Canon point-and-shoot that I’d bought—it was basically brand new—to take with me to Beijing while I was on assignment at the Summer Olympics only two months before. I watched as they took it out of its case and found the on switch.
“Camera,” Shafirgullah said, proud that he knew how to say the word in English.
They scrolled through all my pictures, asking questions. “Who is that?” “Where is this?” “What were you doing?”