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I remember the silence between the falling shells - the terror of living under siege as a child

Author: Zarlasht Halaimzai

Halaimzai, Zarlasht. “‘I Remember the Silence between the Falling Shells’: The Terror of Living under Siege as a Child.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 31 Oct. 2023,

Content warning – the following article contains graphic descriptions of war

I was 10 years old in 1992 when Kabul was bombarded by warring forces, and life became a cycle of hunger, fear and horror. Then as now, children bear the brunt of war

Tue 31 Oct 2023 01.00 EDT

In 1992, when I was 10 years old, thousands of rockets were fired into Kabul. It started before the spring solstice, when we celebrated Persian new year, and carried on into winter. The siege forced my family to flee our home, never to return. We had hoped the fighting in Afghanistan would stop in 1989, after Soviet forces withdrew from their failed invasion. But our hope disappeared as US-funded mujahideen started fighting one another, bombarding Kabul in an attempt to seize control of the capital.

I was living with my family in the north-west part of the city, in a house with fading yellow paint on its outside walls. A red iron door with loud creaking hinges opened on to the outside world. I used to run out into the street to play with the other children in our neighbourhood. But the siege changed everything. I remember this as the time when all the time I knew disappeared – when bedtime, schooltime, playtime and dinnertime all vanished.

The simmering fear of violence that we had felt every day now turned into terror. Kabul was shelled relentlessly for months. Food and water became scarce. Each day, we received news of more deaths among our family, friends and neighbours. I lived in an extended family of several uncles and aunts and my granny, and it became our family ritual to pray for the dead before eating supper. My grandmother would lead the prayers. My four little siblings and I would follow, scared and confused by death. My heavily pregnant aunt looked numb, all expression drained from her, as if she needed reminding to move her arm and her hand to reach the food on the plate in front of her.

My mother, always anxious, made no effort to hide her terror. She would talk about different scenarios in which one or all of us would be killed. Who would take the injured child to the hospital, she would ask. Should it be my father, or would it be more prudent if he stayed behind and my uncle went? What would we do if our home was completely destroyed? Where would we go? How would we carry my uncle, who was disabled and couldn’t walk, if we had to run to another shelter? Logistics in the event of death were discussed extensively, roles assigned, plans made.

This was the time when our childhood changed. What we were previously told to do – stay off the flowerbeds, don’t climb that tree, do your homework – changed into instructions about how to avoid falling debris and keeping out of places where things could collapse on you. We had many specific instructions that had to be followed at all times. No walking near the walls in the garden. No sitting under the roof that connected the house to the outside kitchen. No leaving the house under any circumstances. And don’t forget to say your Shahadas when you hear the sound of rockets. These injunctions were repeated over and over again.

Instead of reading, which I loved to do, I learned other lessons. Like how perverse hope can be, when you’re crouching in the corner of a room waiting for a bomb to fall and kill you and your family. Hope in those moments when you’re waiting to be killed is dreadful. The belief in our own survival is so deep that even when confronted with a bomb, there is a small part of you that always keeps space for hope. But it feels like a trickster, a game of Russian roulette – you weren’t killed this time but someone you know was. Hope in those moments weaves confusion into your body, so that for years to come you find it hard to trust anything – including yourself.

I remember, in those moments when the rockets started, the dialogue that would play in my mind. There is the sound of a rocket being fired. Will it come for me? Will it tear my body apart? Could I live without a leg or an arm? Will I want to if I can’t climb the almond tree in our garden? Will I see the killing of my sister or brother? I hope I die first. If it’s a choice between watching those I love the most dying or being killed – I choose the latter. That would be mercy. When I was done bargaining, I would pray. I would twist my body into a posture I thought conveyed reverence and I would pray. My grandmother had taught me the prayers required for different times, like Ayatul Kursi for protection – I didn’t know all of it, just a few lines, and I would say them over and over again.

My grandmother taught me to say the Shahada the moment before death so we could pass to the other world whole and holy. I would say this seven times at least. We spoke Farsi and I didn’t understand the Arabic, so after saying the prayer, I would plead with God, asking him to keep us safe, hoping as hard as I could that God would come through for me – though I never quite believed that he would.

I avoided looking at certain members of my family in those moments. I couldn’t look at my mother because the sheer terror in her face broke my heart. I couldn’t look at my little sister and my little brother because somehow, I felt ashamed that this was their childhood. They were so little – five and seven years old – and everything I had been taught about right and wrong made me feel a searing shame that this was their childhood. I couldn’t look at my mother’s sister because she was the only one who expressed what we were all feeling. She would sob and cry as the sounds grew nearer. The only safe person for me to look at was granny, who would hold as many children as she could and cite the Qur’an patiently, only now and then stopping to implore my aunt to stop crying.

The rockets would stop as suddenly as they began. We would wait for a while before granny would start to move us from the back room, where we had been hiding, into the living room. When we could still buy food, she would produce a jar of honey and feed us children a spoonful, trying to wash the taste of terror out of our mouths. When the honey ran out, she would make sweet tea and we’d all drink it.

My uncle would start speculating about where the rockets could have hit. It sounded close, he would say. Could it be in Kululapushta, a couple of miles south, where his brother lived? Was he alive? Were his girls alive? That uncle had five daughters, and lately, when we had seen them, they had always been terrified. We would worry about them, because the way their house was built meant certain death if a rocket hit. They had nowhere safe to hide.

In the morning, news of the dead would begin to arrive. My uncle would cycle to the market to get food and water. Before leaving, he would say goodbye to all of us in case he got killed en route. He would wash as instructed by Islam so that if he was killed, he would be ready for it. For the time that he was gone, granny would pray. She would pray, and sometimes she would cry. It wasn’t frantic crying like my aunt’s, just a wave of sadness that came down as tears. I’d press up against her when she cried because I didn’t know what else to do.

My uncle cycled down the street that led to the school where my mother taught, now closed; passed the mosque, which was empty; and turned a corner where Tariq stationery shop once stood. The shop belonged to my mother’s cousin and was named after her son. We used to buy our pens and notebooks from there, but they had closed the shop and fled Afghanistan months before. He’d reach the market that just a few months earlier had been full of meats, vegetables and fruit, and try to find food. Only a few intrepid vendors were still working – the rest of the market had shut because the roads to Kabul were closed, and bombs were falling from the sky.

Mujahideen fire tracer bullets over Kabul in 1992 to celebrate capturing the city.
Mujahideen fire tracer bullets over Kabul in 1992 to celebrate capturing the city. Photograph: Patrick Robert/Corbis/Sygma/Getty Images

When he returned, there was an exhausted relief in our household. Sometimes, he brought food that would keep us going for a couple of days – potatoes, some sugar, a few vegetables. Other times, he would come back with no more than a few radishes. This was the only time granny would get frustrated. There was so little to feed us with, and it was her job to make sure that we didn’t starve. Her routine of baking bread and making delicious dinners was gone. The Hawasana days – as we called the days when we had special meals – had disappeared. There was a ritual to these meals that I loved. My favourite day was when she made mantu, delicate spiced lamb mince dumplings served with yoghurt and mint. She would start early in the morning, to make the dough and mince the meat. It took the whole family to fill the dumplings. We would sit around a large wooden table as my aunt cut little circles from the sheet of dough that granny had rolled, fill each one with meat and shape it with perfect precision. I used to always count mine on my plate to make sure I got as many as my siblings, and when I felt short-changed, granny would always give me one or two from her plate.

Now, everything was rationed, even the radishes and, most crucially, water. The children were told to ask an adult to pour a glass of water for them when they were thirsty, in case we lost our grip on the jug and wasted precious drops. When the adults went out, they would hear rumours from people in the market. People talked about what their neighbours were doing to survive. Before the siege, we used to save bits of bread that were mouldy and stale because they could be fed to livestock. With food shortages, people started buying and eating mouldy bread that they soaked in water and fed their children. My aunt would encourage us to eat whatever we had by retelling what she had heard from neighbours – so and so’s family are boiling bones three or four times and eating the broth with nothing else, she would say. They look like skeletons now. Eat your potatoes!

A while later, rumours began that parents had started to feed their children rat poison because they couldn’t bear to watch them starve. I’d go to bed and have vivid nightmares about being put to bed with a cuddle, never to wake up. I’d wonder, would my parents do such a thing? And then I’d decide that granny wouldn’t let it happen.

I learned that being killed was better than being injured or maimed. Hospitals in Kabul were overflowing with the injured and those nearly dead. I am not sure what happened to the sick then. I heard stories of people dying from shrapnel in their face, or in their groin – about deaths that lasted days. I heard of people bleeding out after a limb had been blown off, of children dying in their parents’ arms, with arms and legs missing. I heard of women giving birth as they were dying from their injuries – babies born just as their mothers were bleeding to death from a shrapnel wound.

There was no electricity. Our Friday night ritual of watching a Bollywood film disappeared. Fridays were the day of rest in Afghanistan. They would start with my father and uncles going to Friday prayers. On their way back they would bring a treat or two – sweets or popcorn. We would eat our family meal and wait for the film to start. The films were love stories in which the lovers always triumphed despite many, often ridiculous obstacles – even if they were murdered, they would be reincarnated, avenge their deaths, and reunite. I imagined growing up and meeting a boy who would be as mad about me as those lovers in Bollywood films. Now the TV sat silent in the corner of the room.

Darkness itself became a monster. I started having nightmares about monsters after hearing the rat poison rumours. Monsters that were made of tar with red eyes would emerge from the blackness of the night to devour children. I’d wake up so terrified I couldn’t scream. In those nights when Kabul had no electricity, I’d feel for my granny’s papery hands under the sheets. Hold my hand, hold my hand, I would whimper. She always would, pulling me to her, holding my forehead and reciting the Qur’an.

When our neighbour’s house got hit, everything went black. I was in the room where we always hid, closing my ears and eyes. The sound of a rocket hitting a solid object enters your body and lives there for ever. To this day, a loud bang brings back that child who clenched her jaw as the rocket hit our street, waiting for the shrapnel to cut into her body, for blood to gush and bones and skin to fly.

Women and children among ruined buildings in Kabul in 1992.
Women and children among ruined buildings in Kabul in 1992. Photograph: Doug Curran/AFP/Getty Images

Days later, when there was a moment of calm, we went to visit our neighbour. The house had been badly damaged. The rocket had torn through one side of the wall and had shattered all the windows. The house was quiet, which felt odd and sinister. Usually, Afghan households were loud and full of chatter. The family were sitting around as all Afghan families did, sipping tea and eating dried fruit. Their youngest son was lying in the corner of the living room, injured, with yellowing skin and bandages. He looked as if he was daydreaming, his eyes fixed to the ceiling. I felt nauseous, and despite wanting to go over to sit with him and play with him, I just couldn’t. Something deep in my small body knew that he was dying. I didn’t want to be near him. I wondered if death could be contagious. If I touched him, would I be next? When he died, they didn’t hold a funeral. People were killed when burying their dead in the cemetery. They buried him in their garden in a tiny child-shaped grave.

A month or so before we finally fled our home, on one day in August 1992, 1,000 rockets were fired on Kabul, on to the homes of ordinary people. I don’t have much memory of this time, only what remains in my body – the pain and the tension – and the feelings of terror that sometimes rise up as if from nowhere. I do remember the silence between the falling shells. All other sounds had disappeared. I couldn’t hear any birds, or chatter on the streets or the sound of rain – just the swoosh of the rocket, the bang of the explosion. And then: silence.

Each time a rocket hit, a child was killed. I would hear about the death of my classmates, neighbours – children we knew. Children that once ran up the street flying a kite, playing hide and seek and hopscotch (my favourite) – all gone. The joy of climbing a tree, the mischief, the tantrums, asking for chips at every meal – gone. Not a trace left of loving the colour blue.

Because I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to murder children, I started to make up stories in my head. Before the siege we visited holy shrines to make offerings for Sufi saints. Everyone would bring sweets, and my four siblings and I would run around trying to eat as many sweets as we possibly could. My aunt would try to stop us by warning us that if we angered the saint, he would come for us.

What if the children had angered the saints, and now we were paying for our sins with our flesh? What penance could make it stop? Was it because I lied about doing my homework? Was it because I made fun of my little sister and made her cry? Or maybe it was because I stole the chocolates that were meant for Eid and ate them secretly? I would recount every sin and ask for forgiveness. I didn’t know what had brought on this calamity, I just knew I wanted it to end.

Seeing the children of Gaza under siege brings all of this back. I have spent my whole life coming to terms with growing up in violence, when I was made to learn that children are fodder for war – “collateral damage”, according to the people who talk endlessly about war on TV. My life has been an endless search for the humanity that my granny believed in till the very end. “How terrified and vengeful are the men who kill children?” she would say quietly, as if asking herself. I hear that question today.

Children bear the brunt of war. Working as a humanitarian on the Syrian border in 2014, I saw injuries caused by the barrel bombs that were dropped on civilians day after day. The barrels were packed with nails, shrapnel and oil. The injuries were horrific. Children were killed by nails that pierced their skull or oil that burned them alive. Between 2011 and 2021, a child was killed or injured every eight hours on average in Syria. In Iraq and Ukraine, cluster bombs dropped by the US and Russia kill children long after they have been dropped or fired. These illegal weapons are designed by people who want the bombs to remain dormant until they are ready to kill again, usually children who pick them up. I now know that there are no monsters in the dark. Only adults who are terrified enough to kill.

Boys playing in Kabul during a ceasefire in May 1992.
Boys playing in Kabul during a ceasefire in May 1992. Photograph: Douglas Curran/AFP/Getty Images

The feeling that someone wants you dead never quite goes away. It lives in your body as an alarm reminding you that the world is dangerous and unfriendly. It colours every new interaction – you learn forensic vigilance when entering a new place. The question – will this kill me? – is playing on a loop in your subconscious, only sometimes floating to the surface and shocking you out of your day to day existence.

War has the same impact on children, no matter where they are born. I began to understand this after a beloved teacher whose father was one of the first soldiers to liberate Auschwitz gave me Anne Frank’s diary. I recognised the same dialogue in her thoughts as she hid from the people that wanted her dead. She wondered just as I had about who was inflicting such cruel violence and why. Reading her entries, I lived through her bargaining and her attempt to make sense of a world that didn’t value children’s lives, a world that dehumanised her so that she could be killed.

Zarlasht Halaimzai

I founded a charity, Amna, in 2016, to help children recover from the trauma of war. Working with refugee children in Greece, I saw the same terror and confusion that I felt when living through war. I’ll always remember a little Kurdish girl in one of the play groups that I ran at a camp in northern Greece. She was seven or eight years old – the same age as my sister when we fled from Kabul. She was so scared that she had stopped speaking. She was scared of other children. She was scared of the adults in the room. Even when I offered her a toy she would wince and hide behind her mother. She remained speechless for months, until the care she received in group therapy made her feel safe enough to reach for a toy. Still tentative, still scared, she held the soft toy carefully away from her face as if following instructions of her own.

War confuses people, especially the adults who wage them. They get lost in technicalities and self-deception, the desire to be righteous in their pain and victimhood, no matter what the cost. As a child it was so clear to me what needed to be done. I would get angry after each experience of hiding from the shells. I didn’t understand it then, but there was such intelligence in my anger. It didn’t manifest as a desire for revenge or the need to make me or my family into victims who couldn’t recover our life or our humanity. It came out as a resolute demand that played over and over in my 10-year-old head, and has echoed ever since: stop killing children.

DMU Timestamp: November 29, 2023 17:24

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