The People Behind the War


Every year my husband has been home at this time, we make it a point to visit Red Lobster once for their Endless Shrimp special. It's like a holiday of some sort for us, "Shrimp Christmas". We look forward to it, we leave the kids at home, and we go eat shrimp until we can't stand up and walk normally.

It doesn't help my diet any, so luckily we only do it once a year when Air Force Guy is home.

This year, entirely by accident, we sat in the section of a woman with a very interesting name and a slight accent. When she brought us our food, my husband asked her where her name was from and she turned the question around on us, "Where do you think it is from?" she asked.

I guessed Morocco. My husband guessed Israel. We were both wrong. She was from Afghanistan.

We had come to the restaurant late in the evening, so business was winding down and we got our server's full attention. And she was very attentive! She kept our drinks refilled, the biscuits full, and the shrimp coming. And we got to hear her story.

Hamasa (not her real name, but a fitting substitute I think), and her family had managed to escape Afghanistan just ahead of the Taliban. To hear about that harrowing journey - where she, a fourteen year old girl, had been sent ahead of her mother and four siblings to find a place in Pakistan - was equal parts horrifying and astonishing. And yet it was just one part of her story.

Her father, who had been a physician in Kabul, had been taken away one night by the Soviets. When that happened, her mother was left alone with five children at the age of twenty-five. Hamasa was sent to a school that taught Russian literature, emphasized engineering and Soviet political thought. She was taught in Persian-Dari (which she said she still likes to write poetry in today), but surprisingly she didn't learn Russian.

Hamasa didn't tell us much about that transition period - she didn't talk about the Soviets leaving or the bombings. She skipped forward to when they started to hear more and more news about the Taliban. Her family had always been more Westernized; not only had her mother never worn a head-covering (much less a burqa), but Hamasa didn't really remember anyone who did. Her mother decided that that Taliban's coming was inevitable and she made plans to get her family out.

They left their house and extended family, taking only clothes and food items (and "modest coverings", as Hamasa described them, which I think meant something more than a head scarf and less than a burqa). Hamasa, as the oldest child, was sent ahead first to Pakistan and ended up in Peshawar. She didn't tell us about her journey there at all, but I can't imagine a fourteen year old traveling through a war zone to make a way for her family to escape. She learned Urdu quickly (she already spoke Pashto), and sent for her mother and siblings. This was when she had to start lying about her age - a fourteen year old was not allowed to do the things Hamasa had to do for her family.

The family's journey was terrifying. The bus they started their travels out in was hit by some kind of explosives. The family continued the journey on foot. They group they were traveling with was discovered by Taliban and some of the boys in the group were taken. Hamasa felt lucky her brothers were both spared; but her mother has never gotten over seeing all the family photographs (the only thing aside from food and clothing they took with them) seized and burned. They made it to Peshawar with Hamasa, though, and started planning for the next step. They felt the only chance they had was to come to America. And once again, it was Hamasa who was going to have to get them there.

Sight unseen, Hamasa agreed to marry an Afghan man in America. His father had also been taken by the Soviets, so she felt they would have something in common. And, unlike so many of these stories, her marriage was wonderful. Her husband brought her to America where she immersed herself in learning English, becoming an American citizen, and sponsoring her family to bring them to the United States to safety.

Hamasa's brothers are wildly successful. One is a dentist and one is an engineer. She has two sons; they speak Dari to their grandmother and are completely Americanized in their pursuits and endeavors. She said that now, now that she has managed to get her family here and put them all through school, she is concentrating on herself. She is working on her college degree during the day and waiting tables at night to pay for it.

We left a very large tip.

I have read a lot about Afghanistan. I'm a news junkie and a history addict who majored in Political Science in college; so I spend Air Force Guy's deployments learning as much as I can about where he is. I've read the horror stories of Taliban treatment of women. I've also read about their treatment of boys. But no matter how much I read, how many specials I watch, or how I pick apart the news to try and get some sense of what it is like where he is... I'm always removed. I think that's just the way it is - it is a place I have never been, and a situation I can't imagine.

I had never before had the chance to talk to someone like Hamasa; someone who lived through all those events that culminated in my husband going to war in a country thousands of miles away. It's one thing to read the stories, or watch the news report. My heart would break seeing those things. But it was completely different to talk to Hamasa. My heart did break, and I did have moments during her story (particularly when she asked my husband to describe to her places as they were now versus how she remembered them) when it felt like a huge weight was sitting on my chest.

And it was strange, very strange, to see my husband and this woman neither of us had ever met before share something that I could not share with my husband. I have never seen these things first-hand. I've seen him have these moments with others who have deployed, but never with someone like Hamasa - one of the civilians whose life was completely shaped by the war that my husband keeps leaving to fight.

But overall I felt humbled. As trying as some of the events our family has had to go through have been, they've been a cake-walk compared to Hamasa's story. And she laughs, still. She is excited about her future. She makes plans, and works to fulfill them. And she can breathe - something I had trouble with just hearing her story.

And now I have that extra background to add to the picture, to shade the nuances when my husband talks about his deployments. I have talked to one of the people behind the war.

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