I met Basheer some 6 years ago when CAI began a massive water distribution project for about 30,000 internally displaced refugees at Chandawaal, outside Kabul; CAI was in need of engineers. I have grown close to both Basheer and his partner Wasi personally and professionally over these years. They are down to earth, honest, kind and Allah fearing people with deep empathy to the oppressed and destitute of Afghanistan, just like CAI donors. I felt Basheer’s saga regarding his capture and imprisonment by the Talibaan would make interesting reading when I heard it. Here it is then, by Basheer, edited and grammatically fixed by me. Enjoy…
I am Basheer Razaee, born in 1975 at Jaghara village, Heraat, a Western city of Afghanistan, close to the border to Iran. I am the first surviving child in the family; twin boys born before me died during first few days of birth, maybe they sensed pending situation in my country was not worth the effort and gave up the will to survive. I opened my eyes to the sound and sight of war and destruction, people trying to escape death from Soviet bombardments. From a small window in my house at age four or five, I remember seeing Soviet tanks destroy garden walls to flush out and kill Mojahedin freedom fighters. Our village was a staging area where they gathered and planned attacks against the Soviets and generally hid in gardens. They were punished by aerial attacks from Soviet jets; we would run for cover and go hide at camouflaged shelters when this happened.
Then, my father, like most other men in my village, was a Mojaahed, in defense of family and motherland but abandoned arms and Jehaad when he opposed indiscriminate warfare methods used by a local commander. My father later told me killings of doctors or teachers or other professionals just because they worked for the Soviet backed government was unjustified, work of ignorant people.
Since the situation was daily deteriorating, my father finally decided to migrate to Iran; I was seven then. My father, mother, brother Nazir and sisters Raihaana and infant Fatimah migrated to the city of Mashaad where one of my maternal uncle lived. Mashaad had very strict laws about admitting refugees to government schools so I lost a whole year of education in the struggle to enter school. Ferdows (Heaven in Farsi) some 240 miles south was more welcoming. Father got a job here and we all went to school. I have very good memories of this city where people were God fearing; we lived in Ferdows 14 years and resided in 14 rental homes!
My father (Allah bless him) was a very hard working person and did not allow us to help him, as he wanted us to just study. In barakat of our migration, my family grew from six to 10; Allah gifted me 3 more brothers and a sister. It is difficult to imagine how Father supported the whole family with only him working. Brother Nazir and I chipped in with summer jobs when school was out.
Nazir and I put in a lot of effort studying, so we both passed exams with grades over 80%, making us eligible to continue with government middle school. It was a new school with very good facilities including a hot lunch every day. We spent a lot of time at school; it was warm in bitter winter months. After middle school, I found further success and went to high school with high hopes and ambition, especially in math and physics. I wanted to prove myself to my parents; make them proud that their efforts and sacrifices were not in vain. Fate, however, had a divergent agenda for me.
I’ll never forget the day when the principal called me to his office and showed me an order from the Ministry of Education barring all refugees from attending government school. According to Iran, the Soviets had been defeated and left Afghanistan; it was time the refugees returned to their countries. It was a victory (?) for the Northern Alliance perhaps, but a huge defeat for my education future and the order broke my heart.
There was no point in staying in Iran as the government closed one door after another for us, turning on the pressure for us to leave. Three months later, we packed up and headed for Afghanistan, to Heraat. As we left Ferdost, I promised myself I would continue my education and toted used test books along to read on the long way home.
The infrastructure in Afghanistan was terrible, after so many years of war with the Soviets. The roads were so bad, my elder sister was thrown off the rented pickup we hired to bring us to Heraat from the border; fortunately, she escaped with serious scrapes and bruises. We began a new life but strife, war and bloodshed is written into the kismet of Afghans, I guess.
The diverse group of Mujahedin elders began bickering as soon as self interest and individual egos began mischief and the lull of guns, mayhem and blood restarted, even more fiercely. The economic and work situation due to the civil war went from terrible to terribly terrible. Then, catastrophe struck as the Talibaan gained advantage and breezed into the country from Pakistan victorious. These ‘Muslims’ with flowing beards, kohl laden eyes, massive turbans, black baggy clothes and intolerance towards all minority Muslims struck terror in our hearts.
With their strict ways and instant justice come some semblances of order, so we saw a return of many refugees back to Afghanistan. But my family could not stand the persecution by the Talibaan against our faith so they returned to Iran illegally while I stayed back because I wanted to continue civil engineering, which was not possible in Iran. I studied at a local university and also taught at a private elementary school to support myself. Also, unknown to us, Father was stricken with cancer and wanted to see his first son settled in life before dying so I got engaged to my first cousin.
One hot summer day in 1988, when I got out of college and went to teach, I got an eerie feeling something was amiss. There was fear in people’s faces and this fear irrationally, slowly but surely, crept into me as well. Suddenly, my eyes fell on a corpse that was hanging from a tree near a local police station. I could not bear the sight so immediately took a detour and reached the school feeling unwell. Was I in the 21st century or in the times of Firaun?
Rumor spread through the city about bodies everywhere and panic set in. I decided to leave town and head to my Uncle’s (future father in law) village. I rode my bicycle hard, coming across three more dangling bodies along the way that took 10 minutes instead the usual 20. I later learnt the Talibaan had declared holy war against the ‘unbelievers’ Hazaara minority Afghans and other Shia Muslims.
That night passed in fear and prayer. Over breakfast the next morning, I heard that Talibaan had encircled the village. Suddenly I saw armed Talebs on boundary wall surrounding my uncle’s home. My aunt, with fear in her face, tried to block the view and tried shielding me to safety at the back but a young Taleb, about 18, came running and had me arrested, giving no reason for my crime. With my aunt crying and lamenting, the Taleb took me away; they arrested 23 other men from the village, 2 my close relatives.
On the back of a flatbed Toyota, under the watchful eyes of a few Talebs, we were driven to the main jail in Heraat city where a lot of commotion ensued. The place was packed with people, mostly Hazaras, all under arrest for crimes that even the arresting Talebs were unsure about. Comical comments from prison officials followed – The main jail is full, we can’t take them in! You should have brought them earlier, the place is now full. You should have called in to reserve their places, now where will they stay?
After some head scratching, we were led to a former workshop used for training prisoners built during times of civility; 6,000 square feet with a man made pool in middle and 8 or ten evil smelling latrines without doors; a zero star prison! We were initially detained inside about 60 square feet room without carpet; and forgotten. At midnight, the doors burst open and harsh torchlight lit up our faces; our captors had gone soft, they threw a dirty rolled up carpet towards us and banged the doors shut.
Morning of first day, they took us outside the yard and shaved our head then back to the room where we did not move for 4 days; daily food was 2 dry naans of 20cm in diameter and ‘soup’, mixture of oil and water. I stuck to just bread and water; we were permitted two loo breaks a day, accompanied by an armed guard. We were released to the prison yard on day 5; I profusely thanked Allah, for the yard was full of people, including 2 friends from home. The overwhelming numbers of prisoners were the wretched Hazaras, persecuted even now. Now, I could buy some chai and cookies from a small shop from small amount of money with me. Uncle’s family sent me money and food as well, but they were unsure if I received it because no prisoners were allowed family visits; in 40 days I was incarcerated by the Talibaan, none of my relatives had any reliable information about me.
For one week we were let free in the prison yard, we slept in the corridors, on concrete floor without a carpet, pillow or blanket; thankfully it was summer. Almost all men in Afghanistan have a cotton piece of cloth, like a keffiyeh, called a patto; a multipurpose bed sheet, towel, blanket or turban; I felt lost without one.
Those days were most painful days of my life; I saw oppression, ignorance, prejudices and insult to human dignity. I will never forget the humiliation of human dignity by our captors, to the Hazaras. They would withhold food or other necessities sent by relatives or poke fun at the proud prisoners, taunting, saying their wives were as pretty as they; they laughed but I cried. There were two large copper pots in the yard that were used as torture instruments. When a prisoner was lax in paying attention to Talebaan announcements, the culprit went under the copper pot; imagine the heat and suffocation of summer! If the person attempted to come out, a waiting Taleb would use a whip on them; this happened for one of my relatives.
Time of salaat was interesting; Talebs came inside the yard with whips in hand, shouting for everybody to start praying. The crowd of about 1,000 prisoners would scatter like frightened chicken in order to avoid the sting of whip; some would jump into the pond, few would crash head-on like motor vehicles while others would begin praying without ablution; it was rather comical. There were 10 latrines in very bad condition and evil dirty, without doors, one for every 100! It was horrible; as soon as one finished business, another person took his place, no flushing! There were always very long lines; it was awful agony for anyone with a bad stomach.
On the 10th day, other prisoners were brought to prison, among them a sick man who could not walk and was carried in by two persons on a blanket; I learnt the Talebaan arrested them after Iran expelled them from the border. It was sad to learn that Iran, who took us in during the Soviet oppression were kicking out sick people trying to escape Talibaan oppression, this sick person after an appendicitis surgery. Eleventh day in prison, a Taleb selected me and 3 others from 23 arrested at my Uncle’s village. And for no apparent reason, put us all into total solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement was a dirty room 12 square feet, some sort of storage room of documents for past prisoners. I made myself a bed from a wooden box. Alhamd’Allah, I was spared Talebaan’s oppression, insults and scorn here. On the first night, I heard screams and terrible sounds, making sleep impossible and filled me with incredible dread. Surely I would be next for this treatment with the other 3? But I was helpless, so I remembered the plight of my Imam Kadhem (A), who spent years in solitary confinement only to be poisoned by his captors. I am his follower so I consoled my fright and dread in his remembrance. I was later to find out the man being tortured was a momin who was martyred from the torture. The long summer days in solitary confinement were agonizing; I would recite Quran and do doa; I wanted Allah to forgive all my sins then be released from jail but when I saw the inside of me, I said O Allah I am kidding, if you see my sins, I should remain in jail all my life!
I felt miserable for my fiancée; our budding hopes and future plans were a despairing dream now; what must she be enduring out there, not knowing about my condition here? I began writing memoirs in jail as I have some talent in writing poetry; I wrote 14 poems. However, most of my time went into contemplation about Allah (S) and thinking about jaheleeyat of some ‘Muslims’. I remembered Imam Ali (A) the most; what trails he (A) must have gone through because of these people!
I spent 18 days in solitary confinement for a crime I still do not know; a total of 40 days in Talebaan jail. A guard would take me outside for loo break twice a day, in the morning and another time late afternoon; bonus was not having to stand in queue. When I was finally interrogated, they asked me about a weapon! I impressed upon them I was a student in engineering faculty and showed them my ID card; I am certain the Taleb was as fuzzy about my crime as I was. They gathered all of us in the yard one day and selected some to be moved to a jail in Qandahaar; I thank Allah I was not one selected, as I am sure I would not be alive to tell this story.
For no apparent reason, I woke up feeling cheerful on the fortieth day. I was released from solitary confinement and taken to the yard; I discovered my mates had been released earlier. I was let go at magreeb that day; I went straight to my Uncle’s home at the village. I now know how a bird would feel outside a cage.