Life after Afghanistan: like silence after screaming

(Credit: Tooba Neda Safi)

It is said that life is a collection of joys and sorrows. I believe it, but I also believe that these joys and sorrows are not shared equally for everyone. Life gives more happiness to one person and more pain and sadness to another. So it can be said that life is not fair.

My name is Tooba Neda Safi. When I look back, I realise that my life’s journey is full of dramatic situations and events. In my country, Afghanistan, there has been more than four decades of war. I was born in the war and grew up in a state of war. As a child, I could never play with other children in a playground. I spent most of my childhood days in the dark basement of our house in Kabul with my family, to be safe from missiles and explosions.

 I loved school but could never attend on a regular basis, because schools were often closed due to the civil war in Kabul. At the end of the year we would take our final exams before moving onto a higher grade, but all the preparation had to be done at home.

The days when I had the chance to go to school were the happiest days of my life. Our classrooms didn’t have chairs, tables, doors or windows. We had to sit on bare floors. Every day we brought a piece of carpet from home in our bags. As students we did not have any books. Sometimes I would borrow a book from my teacher and then I didn’t sleep until midnight. I would stay up  copying the entire contents of the book into my notebook until my hand became tired and could not write anymore.

There were seven of us in the family: my mother and father, two sisters and two younger brothers. My mother was a teacher. She had been taught literature in one of the high schools in Kabul. My father was also a well-educated person and had been working at a bank. Both of them would help us with our lessons. My mother would behave like a serious teacher, but our relationship with my father was close and friendly. I lost my dear father from cancer in 2009.

My  primary and secondary school years passed in the same situation. I was in the ninth grade when the Taliban took over the government in 1996. They banned women and girls from education and work.

 The current Taliban regime is much better than it was then. Now, the girls up to sixth grade can go to school, the female teachers and some other employees still have their job, full hijab Burqa is not considered an obligation for women and women can travel  by taxi and go out to restaurants without any male members of the family.

TV channels still function  and female journalists and TV presenters can appear on screen. The greatest advantage of life under the Taliban today is the internet, which did not exist when they last held power. Now people can communicate with the world in any situation, but at that time life was like a prison.

 I had to stay home for five whole years, which was the hardest period of my life. I  cried every day for my school and studies and never felt happy.

 I felt like a bird in a cage. I would  sit on the edge of the roof until  late at night and talk to the moon. I would sometimes write poetry, but I didn’t want to show my poems to anyone because they were a mirror for my feelings and I wanted to keep them to myself. Maybe I thought no one could understand them. 

 Soon,  I felt the scope of poetry was too small to accommodate my feelings and emotions. That's when I started writing stories. I wrote my novel, The story written in her eyes, which was later published. It tells the story of a young and beautiful girl who dreams of becoming a doctor but gets engaged to a Taliban and is driven to the point of insanity. The tale ends with a sweet love story.

We had a small library at home wherehere I would spend my free time reading novels and books on history and religion. The only media we had access to was  radio. I would always listen to the BBC, which inspired me to become a journalist.

 Although the situation under the Taliban was disappointing, I did not lose the motivation and energy to do something for other girls. My mother and I  began running some classes for girls at home. My mother was also running a UN Habitat project for women, which I helped with from an office we made in our house.  All the activities were secret. We had always been afraid of the Taliban, because if we were caught the punishment would be severe because of our attempt to help girls claim their right to education. 

In 2001, the Taliban regime ended. Five years later I was able to go back to school and then to university. I got my bachelor's degree in computer science from Kabul University, but I never worked in the field  professionally. I followed my dream to be a journalist and got my first job with the BBC as a writer and producer. I later worked with Counterpart International as a media officer and then with a World Bank project as a communication specialist in Kabul.

At the same time, I continued my literary activities. With help of some other activists who were active in politics, media, civil society and literature, we made a women’s social and cultural association and named it Mirman Baheer (Women Association). 

Our aim of this association was to support women’s cultural and social activities, to raise their voices and champion women’s rights. We launched poetry associations, literary discussions, workshops on women rights and published female writers’ books. The institute trained young women  who later found places in politics, national and international media and became popular writers and poets.

 In a conservative and patriarchal society, being a woman and working for women is not easy. It may even cost your life. I was no exception.

I grew  up in Kabul but originally I am from Kapisa province in the north-east of Kabul. My distant relatives in Kapisa have been active members of the Taliban and had never agreed with me and my family’s jobs and civil activities in Kabul. They have always been against us.

In my most high-profile media job when I was working as Mirman Baheer's communications person, I had to be regularly contacted by the national and international media to speak out about the association and women's activities as well as women 's rights.

This created many problems for me. I received many threats and finally had to leave my country in 2014. My brother and sister were also forced to leave soon after.

For me, life since leaving Afghanistan has had its own issues. On the one hand I have had to get used to a new country and a new lifestyle. On the other hand, being alone and away from family and always worrying about them is not easy.

I have been living in Switzerland for years but have only been here physically, with my heart and thoughts  still in my country with my family. I never felt that I live far from war or that I am in security. Because I am always worried about my loved ones , whose lives are in danger.

 Now, only my mother and little brother are in Kabul. Their lives are in danger for reasons I cannot explain. Since 15 August they have left our house and are in hiding. My mother is suffering from a cardiac problem and doesn’t have access to medication, which gives me constant worry. . 

I get a shock each time my telephone rings. I worry I may be about to hear some bad news from Kabul about my family.  Every  evening I call my mother. When I hear her voice and can tell she is in pain then I cannot sleep all night.

Sometimes I get out of bed in the middle of the night and stand by the window, and look at the roadside lights for a long time. Then I think the whole world is lonely like me, and everyone misses their mother like me.

Most of the time I keep myself busy with work and writing, but sometimes I cannot even write anything. Like a statue, I become silent and numb, only the tears that flow from my eyes give my feelings away.

 I do not want much from life, only that my mother and brother are safe. Then I would close my eyes without anxiety every night and happily open them again every morning. 

The things that others take for granted as part of normal life are no more than a dream for me, a desire for something I have never had.