Last week was Eid-al-Fitr. Over three days, Muslim families all around the world celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan with their friends and families, going to one another’s houses, cooking special dishes, and dressing in new clothes.
For our family here in Afghanistan, this Eid was different from any in the past. We are in hiding, living almost like prisoners in a safe house supported by international volunteers to whom we are eternally grateful. We have been here for more than six months, 10 of us living in three rooms: my wife, her mother and one brother, our four children, my parents, and me. We should have been 11, but one of my wife’s brothers was seized by the Taliban when he went out one afternoon to search for much-needed heart medicine for his mother. We have not heard from him since.
Despite our situation, we were determined to celebrate Eid. Our young sons can look out our windows and see other kids wearing new clothes. In the run-up to the celebration, our 7-year-old repeatedly asked if we were going to allow him to go out during Eid and play with the neighbors’ children.
“I know you bought me new clothes and hid them, like the other Eids,” he said, “and you will tell me the story of the Golden Upupa and how he brought me new clothes and new shoes and put them next to my bed.” He was referring to the Eurasian hoopoe bird belonging to King Suleiman the Prophet.
Listening to my son and looking into his innocent eyes required great self-control. He does not understand that I have already been arrested by the Taliban for my activism defending women’s and children’s rights. Though badly beaten, I managed to escape that first arrest and quickly took my family into hiding in another city. The threat of being arrested again hangs heavy over all of us. My wife is a target for her work as a prominent women’s rights defender and a journalist — we are cofounders of a nonprofit organization that defends women. Our son also does not know that his jurist grandfather, my father, faces retribution by the Taliban because of his close work over the years with international organizations.
I did not know how I would tell my son that he cannot wear new clothes and new shoes on this Eid because there are no new clothes or new shoes. I did not know how to tell him that, sadly, after the many days he has already spent in this safe house, he will have to put up with many more while we wait and hope to be granted asylum in another country.
We fill our days with naps, cups of tea, and hours on the Internet, trying to grasp any small thing that makes us feel like we are living normal lives. My teenage sons spend hours doing push-ups and studying online. The little ones have some computer games. We rarely speak. What is there to say to one another after so many months?
We do not know for how long we can stay in this place or when the volunteers who support this safe house will run out of funds. There is talk of evacuation flights, but they never come. If we must leave, how will my wife and I transport our sick mothers, my father, and our children to safety?
How will we celebrate the next Eid with our relatives? Will I ever again be able to tell my little son the story of the Golden Upupa and give him new clothes and shoes?
We had no special food for this Eid, but we had one another and our three rooms. My parents live in one. My wife’s mother and brother are in another. My wife and sons use the third. So on this Eid, we decided that on each of the three Eid days, we would go to a different room, as if we were visiting our friends in their homes, and wish each other “Eid Mubarak,” or “Blessed festival.” My wife and our mothers may not have been able to cook the things we love at Eid, but we had the food the volunteers brought to us.
We know we are not alone. There are tens of thousands of Afghans like us who are caught between the promise of a visa to another country and the Taliban’s repression in ours. We carry in our hearts Islam’s message of peace to all. And we wait.
Mohammad Najib is the pen name of a human rights activist and writer in hiding in Afghanistan.