Dec 10, 2023
Dec 10, 2023
Continued from “Afghani Bride and Her French Mother-In-Law”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 33
On the street next to the Shahr-e-Naw park
Thank God she’s alive!
Thank God she’s alive!
That’s all I kept telling myself, like a robot, once I heard her voice on the phone.
‘First floor, right?’ I’d whispered back to her, once I heard she was holed up inside the linen closet inside the bathroom with this Afghan girl.
‘Yes,’ she’d said.
‘I’m coming for you,’ I’d said.
‘No, don’t. And listen, I can’t talk. I’m switching off.’
‘I’m coming,’ I’d said.
The line had gone dead.
‘You can’t go there, James,’ says Barry, looking at me in confusion. He has heard scraps of our conversation.
‘I’m going, Barry!’ I shout. ‘Can’t stay here, while she’s going to be bloody killed out there.’
And I’m out of the room in a moment. I race down the staircase, seeing people gathered at the breakfast table. A young man from Sri Lanka is crying and others are trying to reassure him. I hope nothing has happened to anyone he loves, and that he is crying only for himself.
I run through the door of the dining hall into the garden, racing across to the main gate.
A Talking Closet
Inside a closet
‘Inja-beya, Mohsin,’ the man yells. ‘Look what we have here.’
The man is speaking in Dari, but I have a knack for picking up languages, and cold fear sharpens my sense of what is being said.
‘What?’ someone shouts from a point further away.
‘Come and see, Mohsin,’ the voice insists. ‘We have a talking closet.’
Inside the linen-closet my companion and I freeze in terror. I have just finished telling her my life story. Not my entire life story – that would have taken too long – but an account of how a Bangladeshi girl like myself came to live and work in Afghanistan.
And she on her part has bit by bit whispered her story to me. Of the difficulties she faced with her mother-in-law and how they were gradually overcome.
We have been talking against the background of gunfire for half an hour now, trying to calm each other’s fears. For if we hadn’t spoken to each other I believe we would have burst out screaming. If either of us had screamed it would have brought the Taliban fighters right into the room and they would have murdered us within seconds.
When we’d heard the murderers prowling around the corridors, firing bullets here and there, I’d pulled her into the closet with me, and saved our lives. Temporarily, it would seem. Originally it was her brainwave that we should seek refuge in the spacious ladies’ bathroom at one end of the corridor.
It doesn’t matter now. In a few seconds they will pull the door open and we will both be dead.
‘Mohsin,’ says the girl, as if she is chanting a mantra. ‘Mohsin.’ And yet again. ‘Mohsin.’
Why on earth is she repeating the name of the man outside? Obviously we’ve been discovered and our situation looks desperate, but even so . . . Why? There was still a wild hope burning inside me that they might not open the door, but this now lies extinguished.
The sweat of fear drenches me from top to bottom. Inside the suffocating warmth of our wooden cage, I’m shivering. My companion’s nails knife my shoulders even as I grip hers tightly. A scream arises, but terror pushes it down and it falls back soundless, trapped inside my throat like a fishbone.
I hear footsteps approaching.
‘What is it?’ the new voice asks.
‘See this tall box?’ says the other with a laugh. ‘It moves, and I think it has something bigger than rats inside. I’d fire and kill whoever is hiding inside, but first I want to see their cowardly faces.’
‘Yes, don’t fire yet,’ says the new voice. ‘Let’s see who it is.’
I’m so sorry, James. I’m so sorry it has to end like this.
The two guards posted near the main gate to my guesthouse look terrified, as if they themselves are under attack. I’ve determined that I will somehow reach Amala’s guesthouse and try to save her, even if I lose my life in the process. My heart is crying out with anxiety.
I’m out of the gate and running across the street. My prosthetic leg starts to give me trouble. In the heat of the moment I’ve forgotten all about it. So now I slow down a bit, telling myself that I need to conserve my strength. I jog past the tall, black glass of the Etisalat tower and I’ve reached the turning where a side street leads to Amala’s guesthouse when the police stop me. The entire area has been cordoned off.
I’m not going to listen and I’m arguing with them, looking for an opportunity to just run past, when the phone rings. Amala is whispering again, but this time in a different way.
‘It’s over, darling,’ she says.
Darling. That’s the first time she has used that word for me.
‘It’s over, darling,’ she repeats. ‘Don’t worry. I’m safe.’
No need for any bravado now. I allow the policeman to push me back gently. Let them take charge.
International Guesthouse, Wazir Akbar Khan, Kabul
At last Amala and I are together. In the past months I’ve often fantasised about living and sleeping with her, and now this has happened, but I would have done anything to make this come about in a different way, without her having to go through the trauma she’s suffered today. Part of life’s small ironies, I guess.
A little while after the morning’s attack, security came to evacuate us. They took us to a more secure location. By ‘us’ I mean those inmates of guesthouses all over Kabul who work for international organisations. We were taken to the International Guesthouse in Wazir Akbar Khan, called the IGH, one of the most secure residences in Kabul with its 15-foot-high perimeter fencing, and round-the-clock security provided by half a dozen Afghan policemen on the outside and five machinegun-wielding Gurkhas inside.
Barry accompanied the investigators when they went to retrieve the survivors’ possessions a few hours ago. I heard from him how Amala’s room was completely burnt out but they managed to retrieve her passport. He returned to the IGH looking completely shattered. I’ve never seen him hit the bottle so early and so hard.
‘Just terrible,’ he said. ‘Bits of flesh strewn all over. An ear here, an arm there . . .’
‘Haven’t they –’
‘Nope,’ he said. ‘The Afghan police didn’t bother to get the place cleaned up. Personally, I don’t think they are very much concerned. They probably think, oh well, this is something between the bloody Taliban and the bloody foreigners.’ He tossed back the remains of his drink. ‘Don’t think there’s any gratitude there.’
* * *
Amala was taken for first aid treatment, counselling and questioning in that order, and later brought to the IGH. I hung around reception wanting to make sure that I saw her as soon as she arrived. She looked as though she was recovering from a long illness. I knew she was trying hard but she couldn’t bring up a smile. We hugged each other.
They gave us a room together to allow us some privacy.
A Jihadi Or A Protector?
International Guesthouse, Wazir Akbar Khan
Will I ever forget those last terrifying moments after the jihadis discovered our hiding place? They have been playing in my mind over and over again like a scream with a never-ending echo.
Suddenly our bathroom door was pushed open. And we heard a cruel male voice snigger that there was someone hiding in the cupboard. I was sure this was the end. And then, with my heart thumping so hard I thought it would burst, the closet door was pulled open, and there was a pockmarked Afghan man – an adolescent really with a mere wisp of a beard – standing in front of us, grinning maniacally. Another young man, a few years older, stood behind him.
‘Hello,’ said the first one in English, and lifted his gun. The Afghan girl screamed. We held on to each other and waited for him to fire. But before he could do so the other, a good-looking lad in his twenties with a full beard, stopped him.
‘Leave them,’ he said. ‘They are women.’ He used the word aurat, which I know is Dari for woman.
‘Makes no difference,’ his companion said, and pointed his gun at us, still grinning. I saw – I actually saw even as a blind fear gripped me – his fingers tense around the trigger.
At that moment my Afghan friend, who was still hugging me, blurted out the second man’s name.
‘Mohsin!’ she cried out. ‘Mohsin!’
And then I must have blacked out for a few seconds because I didn’t hear the sound of a shot or see a trigger being pulled but moments later the pockmarked man who had been standing in front of us lay dead at our feet. He’d been shot dead by the man called Mohsin.
‘Mumtaz!’ said the young man, and the girl went up to him. I don’t honestly know what relation they had to each other, because she’d told me that her husband was French. The two hugged each other.
‘Come,’ said the Afghan man to both of us, in English. ‘Come with me. I’ll take you out safe and sound.’
We followed him in a daze. It was all quiet now, except for the sound of gunfire outside. He led us down the staircase, and then he asked us to wait inside the house, behind the wall, so as to not get caught by a stray bullet.
I saw him walk to the guardhouse fearlessly. It was a scene out of Hollywood, with our rescuer playing a taller, bigger and younger Tom Cruise. Within seconds he was at the guardhouse, dodging bullets being fired at him by the police – they were shooting towards the guesthouse as well. Moments later, he’d killed another colleague, who was firing back at the police from the security of the guardhouse, which he’d taken over. And then a fourth man. All this while bullets were raining on to our guesthouse. If the terrorists didn’t kill us, it would be the police.
And then it was all over really. The police kept firing crazily for a few minutes, but, when they realised that there was no return fire coming their way, someone with a brain asked them to stop.
What happened to that young man? Why did he do nothing to stop what was happening till he saw us? Why had he come?
I guess I’ll never know, but I’m sure it had something to do with that young woman, Mumtaz.
The man who saved our lives is in hospital right now. I hope that this man – Mohsin, as Mumtaz had called him – survives his injuries. I explained to the security men who questioned me that he had shot the terrorist who had pointed his gun at us, and that he’d also killed two other terrorists outside the guesthouse.
When I told James last night that I was planning to try and see him, that in my eyes he was a hero, I saw his body stiffen in anger, despite all the love and concern he has for me. He didn’t say anything but I knew what he was thinking. He was remembering the dead, and he had doubts about Mohsin’s motives.
Aside from Mumtaz and me, hardly anyone survived.
Two men: Xavier and Philippe, a French gay couple, both young and athletic-looking, worked for the same election project. They shared a suite but in order not to offend local sensibilities told the guesthouse management their decision to do so was motivated by a wish to save money. It sounded plausible enough to the Afghans.
The only reason they survived was because instead of jumping down like Bergen and Jill – to their death, as it turned out – they’d decided to go up. To the roof.
They climbed the water-pipe from a section in the building that wasn’t visible from the outside and hid inside the half-full water tank.
One other woman survived. A young, extremely thin, election observer from Japan had simply lain still beneath the duvet all through the carnage.
So what was I talking about? That’s what James was thinking. This man Mohsin had arrived with terrorists who were responsible for the death of at least eighteen men and women. Didn’t I feel for those who had died? Dear K-Jim; poor Jonathan; Sebastian, my programme director; other colleagues; the guards outside whom I’d befriended; the cook and helpers who lived inside – all gone.
I wanted to shout and tell James: ‘Of course I feel for them! Of course I feel terrible!’
Despite everything, all the fear, the bloodshed and violence, when I think of the expression on the face of our bearded saviour I cannot feel any animosity towards him. It was the expression of a man who has decided to protect, not destroy. It was akin to the expression I have sometimes seen on James’s face when he worries about me. It was the same expression – only deeper. And softer.
In my mind’s eye, when I play back to the moment the closet door was opened, I vividly recall the expression on Mohsin’s face. Unlike the mix of hate and glee on the face of the man next to him, on his almost serene face there was not an ounce of malice or even anger. It was clear to me then, and it is clear to me now, that he had arrived with the intention of protecting and not killing.
When he saw Mumtaz, a look of surprise registered on his face, but his expression did not alter from that of a killer to that of a protector. Even before he set eyes on her he was already cast in the mould of a protector both in terms of his non-aggressive body posture and reasonable-looking, rather worried expression. At the time my mind was on high alert and I could not be mistaken about something like this. That’s why I’m so convinced that he was not a willing party to the terrorist attack.
How then did he come to be there with the jihadis? Why was he dressed like them, in a police uniform?
I cannot be sure of the exact circumstances, but I believe he was on a rescue mission. Perhaps he came to know of the attack and managed to join in – only with a view to foiling it somehow.
Why so late in the day? Why after so many lives had already been lost? These are the questions that trouble James.
Perhaps things just got out of hand. It may have all gone too fast for him, and it was only at the point when he saw us that he was able to take charge.
And as he took charge, and fought against the terrorists, the almost calm aggression that he displayed was that of a man who was at peace with himself. Whether it was because he had already achieved something that had set his mind at rest, or whether it was because he now knew what was right, I guess I’ll never know the answer. And if it was because he had achieved something, I wonder what that was? But I know that what I saw in him was not evil. Far from it.
I’ll wait a while to explain all this to James because I feel somehow that right now he wouldn’t understand. The killings have upset him too much, as they would anyone. As they have upset me. Right now this discussion would just trouble him.
Sometimes we have to make a judgement on what to say and what to keep secret. Like yesterday, with security.
After they had finished with the counselling, two investigators came to question me. I told them everything, but I did not tell them that the young woman, Mumtaz, knew the Afghan man who rescued us.
Her husband was to arrive the following day. I don’t want to create any trouble for her. She can tell the investigators herself if she wishes to, for I don’t doubt that they will question her too, if they haven’t done so already.
Sometimes you have to take a decision simply because you somehow know it’s the right one.
Just as I know that marrying James will be the right decision for me.
* * *
Look at him sleeping so peacefully. I’m the one who should be sleeping, and he watching over me.
It was while I was inside the closet that I became aware that, in a bizarre act of unconscious masochism, I was forcing down all the attraction I felt for James. As the seconds ticked away, bringing me and my companion closer to an almost certain death, I asked myself what would happen to my family, once I was gone and no longer able to support them.
And it was then that I realised that most of my brothers and sisters would get along quite well without me. Other relatives whom I supported were simply hangers-on, who didn’t really need help. I should have understood this much earlier but it was only in those moments where death seemed so near that I suddenly knew who mattered and who didn’t. In my hearts of hearts I recognised I was being used by at least half the people I supported financially, but, rather than put an end to it, I was asking myself if James would put up with it.
Who would? I shouldn’t have put up with it myself. And when I thought about it seriously, I knew that my James, the James I knew with the kind eyes and thoughtful gestures, would never ever begrudge the help I gave to those in my family who genuinely needed it. And without even giving him a chance, a fair opportunity to voice his feeling, I was shutting the door in his face. For people who didn’t really matter, I was torturing someone who did. And if I was being harsh to James I was being yet more cruel to myself. For in the end I couldn’t hide the truth from myself that I longed to be enfolded in his arms, to kiss and be kissed by him all over, to bite his large nose . . .
Yesterday evening, while we were sharing a plate of soup in the mess – a few spoons was all I could bring myself to eat – I told him how I thought of him in those last moments: of his kindness, of his patience.
He turned to look behind him, as if this was someone else I was talking about.
I knew he was trying to make me smile.
And I smiled, even though I didn’t feel like doing so; it was only to give him some satisfaction.
But last night when I woke up sobbing and he held me tightly and whispered sweet nothings, I felt comforted. And loved. And safe. And I knew that I wished to be with him for the rest of my life.
More by : Rajesh Talwar