November 26, 1932
It started out like any other ordinary day in Kabul. At 6:30 a.m., my older sisters woke my brothers and me up for school. Like usual, I rolled over with a big yawn before getting dressed and trundled out to the living room where my mom was preparing breakfast: naan-e-khusk16 with chai17. After finishing our meal, my mom kissed all of us on our forehead before we left for school. Our cousins were already waiting for us in the center of the hawili18.
In Kabul, the four Charkhi brothers and their families, totaling about fifty people, lived together in a large estate that comprised of a two-story white mansion with a blue-green roof, a huge lush garden, guesthouses, meeting rooms, and a number of one-story, mud-brick homes for their twenty live-in maids, chefs, nannies and assistants.
We lived on Andarabi Street, an area of Kabul near the Royal Palace where the most influential people in the country lived. At this time, my uncles Ghulam Nabi and Ghulam Jailani had been visiting the palace for their political meetings in the Arg, while my father and my uncle Aziz both remained in Germany. Because of his hectic schedule as an Ambassador, I had no memory of my father, yet I missed him dearly. I could hardly remember the last time I had seen him. I must have been two years old, but even that felt like a dream. In truth, I only knew my father from the stories I heard, and I only knew his face from family pictures.
Among the children of the Charkhi brothers, there were nine girls and twelve boys that were of school age. Each day, as we walked out the gate of our estate, a coach waited to escort the girls to their school, while the boys were accompanied the two blocks to our school by our lalah19, Shahabuddin, an older gentleman with a very long snow-white beard curled down to his chest. That morning, as we walked into class, Shahabuddin walked towards a bench in the school’s garden and sat, as he did every day, waiting until we finished our school day so he could walk us back home.
Upon our return from school that afternoon, my family became busy with our usual activities. Most of us children did homework or played in the yard while our mothers discussed the news in a hushed circle. I focused on my arts and crafts assignment of building a model house. My older brother, Dastgir, and cousin, Azim, offered to help. We thought it would be fun to do the project on the roof since we’d have a better view of the mud-brick homes below, our model for the assignment. So we climbed up the ladder with all the supplies and got to work.
Just as I was putting the roof on the miniature house, an eerie sensation came over me like a cool breeze. I looked up and saw the clouds darken, and the wind began to blow with greater force. I knew something was wrong; I could feel it in my gut.
That’s when the screams of terror came from below. In shock, I looked over the edge of the roof and saw people emerge and form a circle at the center of the courtyard. I looked at Dastgir and Azim, both of whom had eyes wide with fear. “Come. Let’s go,” said Dastgir.
We quickly climbed down the roof to discover the cause of all the chaos. As I tried to push my way into the middle of the circle, my mother picked me up and placed my head over her shoulders as she wailed in grief.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
She stuttered gibberish as she hyperventilated, still squeezing my head tight against her neck as her tears fell onto my forehead.
What’s going on? What’s happening? Why are you crying? Why is everybody crying? Let me see...
One of my aunts came to comfort my mom, and my mother put me down so that the two of them could embrace in grief and sympathy. I knew this was my chance to see what the commotion was about, so I crawled my way through the adults in front of me, anxiously inching my way forward. I could now make out a figure in the center, but with all the people in the way, it wasn’t clear what it was. I kept moving and raced my way forward, only to come upon an unimaginable nightmare.
There in the center of the circle was the brutally beaten dirt-covered corpse of my beloved uncle, Ghulam Nabi Khan. I could hardly breathe as an ocean of tears poured out of my eyes. I grabbed at my suddenly aching heart and buried my face in my other arm as I felt my family’s agony reverberate through my entire body. I peeked up once more, hoping it was just a nightmare. It wasn’t. Dust covered my uncle’s face. His back was bloody, and there was a puncture wound on the back of his head with blood still seeping out.
As I looked around, the grief was overwhelming. I saw my older cousins pound their chests with their fists. I saw my older brothers stand in stunned silence as their tearful faces contorted in pain, and I saw my uncle’s wife, Ku Ku jan, fainted on the floor with other women and servants by her side. But when I saw Ghulam Nabi Khan’s daughter, Habiba, shivering as she replaced the bloody towels under her father’s head with new ones, my heart shattered into a million pieces.
After what seemed like an eternity of grief, a group of soldiers entered the hawili. They ordered all of the male servants to take Ghulam Nabi’s body and prepare it for a proper Islamic burial. When Ku Ku jan saw the hole being dug and rushed over to be with the body of her late husband, the soldiers reacted defensively, demanding she stay back. After some time, one of the soldiers left and reappeared with a local mullah20 who led the Namaze-e-Jena21. Over seventy of us gathered for the funeral. My sisters tried to pray, but they couldn’t help but break into sobbing. My eyes were burning, too, but I was certain I had no tears left. My throat ached from wailing so intensely. I stood, hunched over in silent disbelief as the last mounds of dirt were shoveled over my beloved uncle’s body. As the funeral came to an end, the soldiers
ordered us to stay in our houses until further notice.
Once we were enough distance away from the soldiers, Ku Ku jan spoke
up angrily, “I heard two of the soldiers speak with some anxiety in their voice,” she said. “They want to keep us under strict supervision because they think our chefs will dig up Ghulam Nabi Khan and show him to the city as a martyr. They’re afraid of an uprising.”
Other than that, we remained quiet throughout the evening—our voices too exhausted from the grief-filled afternoon. But as we were preparing to sleep that night, the entrance door slammed open again, and loud footsteps followed. The soldiers had returned. “All the men must come with us immediately!” they barked.
As my older cousins and our male servants were called forward, my aunts screamed in helpless shock, fearing their sons would meet the same fate as Ghulam Nabi. “Where are you taking them?” Ku Ku jan demanded.
“We’ve been ordered to take them to the Arg prison, where their fathers are being held. They are to be held there until further notice. Until then, you must stay on your property at all times,” said one soldier. The soldiers then ordered my eldest cousins—Ghulam Mustafa, Ghulam Rabbani, and Abdul Latif—to follow them.
With that, the boys’ mothers fell to their knees, wailing in helpless misery. I couldn’t bear the sound of their cries. None of us could. But we said our goodbyes, hugging one another, giving what love and encouragement we could. We didn’t want to think the thought, but it was on all of our minds. Will we ever see each other again? I felt very sad watching my cousins board the back of the lorry. As they sat down, they looked back at us with confused looks through glazed, watery eyes. Then, like a snap of a finger, our elder cousins and all but one of our male servants were taken away. The only servant who remained was Shahabuddin.
Almost immediately after our cousins’ departure, seven soldiers entered the hawili and stood guard at the entry and exit points.
“What is their purpose?” my mother insisted.
“These men will keep round-the-clock guard. Don’t try anything you’ll regret,” said their leader.
We fell silent, realizing we were trapped in our own home.
As I went to sleep that night, I looked around and saw my sisters trembling with uncertainty. I couldn’t fall asleep either. Every time I closed my eyes, I was haunted by the image of my uncle’s bloodied corpse, and the piercing wails of my aunt.