Baryalai Popal sees his Western-educated professors at Kabul University replaced by communists. He witnesses his classmates “disappearing.” The communist takeover uproots Popal from his family and home. Thus begins Crossing the River Kabul, the true story of Popal’s escape from Afghanistan and his eventual return. Kevin McLean weaves together Popal’s stories in this memoir, which is also a fascinating look at Afghanistan from the viewpoint of Popal and generations of his politically influential family. From the exile of Popal’s grandfather from Kandahar in 1898 to his father’s tutoring of two boys who as adults would play important roles in Afghanistan—one as king and the other as president—to his uncle’s presence at the fateful meeting that led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Popal’s family history is intertwined with that of his nation. Popal fled his country following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. After being imprisoned as a spy in Pakistan, he managed to make his way to Germany as a refugee and to the United States as an immigrant. Twenty years later he returned to Afghanistan after 9/11 to reclaim his houses, only to find one controlled by drug lords and the other by the most powerful warlord in Afghanistan. Popal’s memoir is an intimate, often humorous portrait of the vanished Afghanistan of his childhood. It is also the story of a father whose greatest desire is to see his son follow in his footsteps, and a son who constantly rebels against his father's wishes. Crossing the River Kabul is a story of choice and destiny, fear and courage, and loss and redemption.
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About the Author
Kevin McLean practiced law in Boston and San Diego.
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Crossing the River Kabul
An Afghan Family Odyssey
By Kevin McLean
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Kevin McLean
All rights reserved.
Kabul Airport, Afghanistan, October 1980
Our driver, Saed, sat behind the wheel of our old black Mercedes, shivering in the predawn October darkness. My cousin Abbas and I slid quickly inside. We headed for the airport on the far side of Mount Asmayi, the mountain that separates my neighborhood, Karta-i-Char, from downtown Kabul. Behind the walls of our family compound, the weight of my absence rested heavily on my father and mother and on my wife, Afsana. The whole of the life I had known was behind me now. What lay ahead was completely unknown.
I had no plan of escape beyond flying to Jalalabad. I could make no plan because I could trust no one. The division and mistrust that had overtaken Afghanistan had infected friends, neighbors, families, cousins, brothers, fathers, sons. Even relatives might turn you in because they had been threatened or because they felt the ruling Communists were here to stay or because they were tempted by the rewards offered to those who would identify "Enemies of the People." Although you suffered greatly if you did not cast your lot with the Communists, many refused to do so. The problem was one could never tell who had sold out and who had not.
It was deathly silent in the car as we made our way through a maze of streets, all deserted at this time of morning. We knew National Security had set up checkpoints, which the guards changed nightly — often putting them on one-way streets so there was no escape. We prayed we would not encounter them.
We drove past the Kabul Zoo, which I had visited with my class when it first opened in 1967. We were all excitement and noise because none of us had ever been to a zoo. I held a rabbit for the first time, petting its soft fur, feeling its warmth in my hands, the beating of its heart as it nestled against me, little knowing that during the civil war to come, the rabbits would be food for starving families. As we passed near the tomb of Babur Shah, a descendant of Genghis Khan who had created the Mughal Empire, which stretched from Afghanistan to India, I thought of the words there: "If there is a paradise on Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!" What had been my own paradise was gone — perhaps forever. Suddenly Saed pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. My heart stopped as well. "You must walk from here. It's too dangerous to get any closer," Saed announced. "May God protect you."
We carried no luggage — that would arouse suspicion — only documents in small plastic bags. The mountains surrounding Kabul appeared as jagged teeth against a rose-colored sky. Afraid to be seen in the growing light, we followed the large, old panja chinar trees that lined the road to the airport. Afghan rebels fighting the Russians — the mujahideen — would later use these trees as shields to shoot at the Russians. The Russians would solve this problem like they did so many others — they destroyed the trees.
The airport terminal was a long, low, cement block structure from which the control tower jutted skyward. The small plane for the short flight to Jalalabad sat on the tarmac, the stairway in place awaiting its passengers. Dozens were already at the entrance gate, pushing to get on board. This part of the airport was also used by Russian military planes and helicopters. Security was tight. Guards scrutinized each passenger. Abbas and I quickened our pace, making our way into the middle of the crowd, which carried us past the guards. "We made it," I said to Abbas, feeling relieved.
But my relief soon turned to terror — a Russian soldier and his Tajik translator, both armed, stood at the bottom of the stairway, checking passengers' papers. They wore the gray wool uniforms of the Russian military, the Russian's trimmed in the black of the Russian Special Forces. The Russian's eyes narrowed as he studied each passenger's papers. The Tajik waved them on with his Russian-made Kalashnikov. I had to fight the urge to turn and run as I tried to think of a way to explain why I had no papers. Suddenly I found myself staring into the cold black eyes of the Russian Special Forces soldier as the Tajik gripped the trigger of his AK-47.
"How many more passengers?" a voice boomed from the top of the stairway. "We're almost full." The guards turned their attention from me to the bear of a man in a pilot's uniform towering above them. I looked up. Sorosh! His father had worked with my father in the Foreign Ministry. Before the Russian invasion, he had piloted international flights. Now the Russians used him to fly short domestic flights. With his bushy black eyebrows and black goatee, his large head and body and huge hands, he was an unmistakable presence. He was not a man to disagree with. As he surveyed the passengers, he caught sight of us and pounded down the stairs.
"They're okay. They're with me" he said. The guards eyed Sorosh with contempt but said nothing.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Sorosh asked us as soon as we were aboard the plane. "Where are you going in days like these?"
"We have some things to do on our houses in Jalalabad," I said.
"Ah," he smiled, "it seems everyone has a problem with his house in Jalalabad now. I wish I were free to check on my house in Jalalabad." Lowering his voice, he added, "You know, the Russians transport their troops in planes like this. The mujahideen will shoot down anything, especially this kind of plane. I never know if I'll live from day to day. You're lucky — you fly only today."
I had not thought of myself as lucky, but even in war, everything is relative.
Our route took us high over the snow-covered mountains to the east of Kabul. Suddenly several passengers began shouting and pointing out the windows. The rest of us jumped out of our seats to see what was happening. National Security guards ordered us to sit down, but everyone ignored them. Russian helicopters were firing rockets into the sides of the mountains below, sending great plumes of dust and smoke skyward. I felt sick. The mujahideen would be firing back and could easily hit an aircraft like ours.
But soon we were crossing high above the sixteen thousand-foot Safid Koh, the "White Mountains," which are perpetually covered in snow. I sat back and stared at a photograph of my family, the only one I had brought with me. It had been taken in the spring in Uncle Ali's front yard, the day my Uncle Gholam and his German wife, Lilo, left Afghanistan. Because Afghans assumed any foreigner was Russian and should be killed, Gholam and Lilo were returning to Germany for Lilo's sake. There I am, towering over everyone. Uncle Gholam is to my right, then Uncle Ali and Uncle Sultan. To my left, hands on hips, is my son, Walid, only five years old. Beside him stands my mother, Babu, so kind and patient. She loved to spoil me — which my father disliked because he thought she distracted me from my schoolwork.
My wife, Afsana, is at the far end because she is not a blood relative. She is not even a Pashtun but a Turk. My father could never forgive her for not being a Popal. But I could not resist her intelligence, her compelling eyes, and her wonderful sense of fun — something that my mother and father lacked and that I, as an only child, had longed for. Baba is missing from the photograph. His amputated leg made it difficult for him to leave the house — and he never liked having his picture taken.
As we descended into Jalalabad, flames flickered through heavy layers of smoke. The terminal, its walls pockmarked with craters and bullet holes, was ringed by Russian military vehicles and tanks occupying the parking lots and nearby streets.
Abbas and I let the other passengers exit ahead of us, planning to leave with Sorosh. One of the guards shouted at us, "Get up! Go!" We didn't move. He approached us, brandishing his Kalashnikov and a fierce look, and stuck his face in mine, his bushy mustache shaved in the form of the Persian symbols for the numbers 2 and 6 — the date Daoud, backed by the Communists, overthrew the king. Such mustaches were worn only by the most fanatical and brutal Party security men.
Abbas and I slowly made our way to the front of the plane, where Sorosh sat in the cockpit writing in his log. He looked up as we stood outside the cockpit door. "Wait for me," he said. The security guard immediately barked, "You must wait outside."
We stood still as if we hadn't heard him or didn't understand.
"Why are you not moving?" he demanded. "Show me your papers."
"Leave them alone," Sorosh said, ducking his head low as he exited the cabin. The guard turned his weapon on Sorosh and glared. "They work for me," Sorosh said more firmly. The guard hesitated before lowering his weapon. He turned to the other guard, spoke to him in Russian, then they left the plane. Outside dozens of Russian military personnel and Party members guarded the entrance to the main terminal. Not even Sorosh could get us past all that security.CHAPTER 2
Jalalabad, Afghanistan, October 1980
To our surprise Sorosh did not go into the main terminal but led us to the pilots' lounge, where we slipped in through a side door. Pilots sat in a haze of pipe and cigarette smoke, reading magazines and newspapers and drinking tea. Abbas said to Sorosh, "That was very brave of you. You could have been arrested."
"True. But the Russians need pilots like me. If they had arrested me" he smiled, "they would have been the ones in trouble"
"Tashakor, Sorosh," I said, thanking him.
"If you survive, that will be thanks enough for me," he said. "May God protect you"
Abbas and I plunged through the door out into the airport parking lot. Twilight was descending quickly, the cold October air a thick gray mist that smelled of rubber burning. Men cradled AK-47s as they surveyed the parking lot. Others clustered around Russian tanks, trucks, and personnel carriers that had arrived on the "Sky Bridge" — a convoy of Russian planes so vast it was said you could have walked across them all the way to Russia.
"Walk slowly — as if you belong here," Abbas muttered under his breath, "and pretend we're having a normal conversation."
The guards eyed us as we made our way across the parking lot, fingering their weapons. With every step I feared hearing a voice shout "Stop!" — or worse, the sound of gunfire. My heart pounded wildly until we reached the highway, the only major route between Jalalabad and Torkham now used by Russian military vehicles. The two of us dressed in the dark suits and leather shoes of Kabul would look very suspicious walking along this highway. But the road to Jalalabad was deserted at this hour.
We crossed quickly and found ourselves in a small park, where we collapsed onto a wooden bench. I sat drained. I looked at Abbas, who sat hunched over, exhausted, his breathing labored. The son of Uncle Gholam, he had served in the military and with the Kabul police. At thirty-nine — ten years older than me — Abbas was like a second father to me. But unlike my father, who was large, heavy, and imposing, with penetrating brown eyes and a love of talking, Abbas was short, wiry, muscular, and quiet. When I was in elementary school, he often drove me to school or sports. Abbas taught me how to shoot a gun — something Baba never would have done. The military had not been Abbas's choice. He had dreamed of becoming a medical doctor like his brother in Italy. But my Uncle Ali was a member of the prime minister's cabinet, and everyone in the cabinet had to have a family member in the Afghan military. Uncle Ali's son Shabir was too young, so it was Abbas who was sent off to Germany for military training.
When I told my father I could not let Abbas risk his life for me, Baba said, "I asked him to do this for me." And then I understood. I was his only child. If anyone could get me safely to Pakistan, it was Abbas.
Suddenly I felt as if the life I had known was flying away from me faster and faster — as if it were a kite whose string had been cut and a strong wind was pushing it farther and farther away, until it was just a dot in the vast blue expanse of sky.
"What is the plan now?" Abbas asked. I was silent. "What do we do now?" he repeated.
"I don't know. My only plan was to escape to Jalalabad, which we have done."
Abbas stared at me. "I can't believe you have no plan beyond this."
"How could I? You can't trust anyone in Kabul."
Abbas sat without speaking for some time until the silence became painful. I wanted to say something but could think of nothing to say. I had let him down.
"We'll make our way into Jalalabad," I finally said, "and find a way across the border"
"Nay"' Abbas said, taking charge. "We'll go to Abdien — to Nasir's"
Abdien was a village not far from Jalalabad where Abbas and I had visited Nasir and his wife and child many times. Nasir worked as a tailor in Abdien. He grew oranges and vegetables in a little garden. It would only be an hour walk to his house. But there was one problem — we would have to cross the Behsood Bridge, and we could not risk being seen.
We waited until dark. Soon we found ourselves walking through farmland, where houses were few and far between, past orange groves, sugarcane fields, and rice paddies bordered by the silhouettes of tall, slim trees. Mud brick walls surrounded each farmhouse. The only entrance, a wooden door large enough to accommodate the comings and goings of the farmer's sheep, goats, and cows, was kept closed at night. The walls, built to protect the women from the eyes of strangers, protected us from being seen as well.
We hugged the riverbank as we neared the Behsood Bridge, which spanned the Kabul River. Moonlight glinted off the water as it coursed through a shallow gorge. Lines of people, cars, and trucks waited to cross, while National Security guards and Russian soldiers examined papers and searched vehicles. Russian tanks aimed their turrets toward the mountains across the river. The rebels' small arms and rockets were no match for the Russians, but the mujahideen took great pleasure in harassing their Russian enemy. At night they launched rockets and unleashed their automatic weapons at the Russians. Russian tanks fired in response, and after an hour or so of this "battle," the mujahideen would run out of ammunition and fade back into the mountains. The night was silent again.
I thought of the time my father took me to see the king at his Winter Palace, passing through its many flower and vegetable gardens. In Afghanistan we have a saying: "Wherever an Afghan ruler settles, there springs a garden." Baba and I sat with the king in the shade of an ancient panja chinar tree amid the sweet fragrance of orange and lemon blossoms. When the king spoke, his words were drowned out by the music of a hundred songbirds.
Now the Palace's gardens were untended, the flowers dead, the songbirds gone.
The road along the river was used by trucks excavating sand for cement. We huddled in a hollow in the riverbank not far from the bridge. Suddenly the earth shook with the explosion of rockets launched by the mujahideen, followed immediately by the deafening blasts of Russian tank fire. Automatic gunfire pierced the air. Stray bullets ricocheted off rocks outside our shelter, sending sparks flying like tiny shooting stars.
"The bridge is too dangerous," I yelled to Abbas. "We'll have to cross the river."
In the spring the Kabul River, fed by snowmelt from the mountains, becomes a rushing torrent hundreds of feet wide. Now in October, after months of summer sun, the once broad river was broken into deep-channeled fingers of slowly flowing water separated by sandbars. We walked along the riverbank until we were far from the bridge.
"We can cross here," I said.
Staring at the broad stretch of water, Abbas did not look so certain. "I hope you're a strong swimmer," he said.
"Don't worry about me," I replied. "Worry about yourself. I know this river."
We stepped from the moist, sandy riverbank into shallow icy water that bubbled and gurgled over submerged rocks as we made our way to a rocky sandbar, beyond which the river widened. We waded in. The churning river grew suddenly deep and grabbed us as if it wanted to take us with it, and we began paddling with one arm, the other holding aloft our plastic bags of documents.
At the bridge the fighting began again — guns firing, rockets exploding — as we fought our own battle, struggling to swim across the bone-chilling river. Finally, our feet found the river bottom. As we staggered up the steep riverbank, the wind hit us like a thousand knives slashing through our wet clothing. We followed dirt paths through fields of tall sugarcane and rice paddies bordered by stands of trees, the white peaks of the Safid Koh glowing faintly in the distance beneath a bone-colored moon.
Suddenly a dog blocked our path, growling and baring its inchlong, hook-like fangs. It was a Kuchi, a vicious fighting dog bred by the nomadic Kuchi tribe to protect their camels, sheep, and goats. A dog that could scare a mountain lion or take a hunk of flesh out of a thief. Near Kabul before the war, over a thousand men would gather to bet on Kuchi dogfights. We stared at the snarling dog, its ears cropped almost to its head to prevent an opponent from latching on during a fight. Its tail was cropped for the same reason and jutted out from its body at a slight angle. It was not a large dog, but its wedge-shaped head and broad, muscular shoulders exuded power. As I stood paralyzed with fear, Abbas gave it a sharp kick in the nose, and the dog ran off into the darkness.
Excerpted from Crossing the River Kabul by Kevin McLean. Copyright © 2017 Kevin McLean. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Author’s Note Acknowledgments Prologue 1. Kabul Airport, Afghanistan, October 1980: Flight 2. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, October 1980: Behsood Bridge 3. Abdien, Afghanistan, October 1980: Nasir 4. Somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border, October 1980: Minefield 5. Afghanistan 6. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1919: General Nadir 7. Paris, France, 1920: Hélène 8. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1929: Nadir Shah 9. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1933: Zahir Shah 10. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1934: Tajwar 11. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1953: Pashtunistan 12. Faizabad, Afghanistan, 1955: Badakhshan 13. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1959: Baba Naeem 14. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1961: Kite Flying 15. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1962: The New Great Game 16. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1963: The King Acts 17. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Winter 1963: Duck Hunting 18. A Farm North of Kabul, Afghanistan, 1964: Buzkashi 19. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1965: Lessons 20. Ghazni, Afghanistan, 1967: Sia 21. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1967: The Mystic 22. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1967: Basketball 23. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 1969: Afsana 24. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1970: A Turkish Bride 25. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 1971: Daoud 26. Bombay, India, 1973: The Wind 27. Kabul, Afghanistan, April 1973: Coup d’État 28. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1974: Sitar Lessons 29. Paghman, Afghanistan, 1974: Japan 30. Moscow, USSR, 1977: Daoud and Brezhnev 31. Kabul, Afghanistan, April 1978: Daoud Is Overthrown 32. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1978: Professor Wazir 33. Kabul University, December 1978: The Final Exam 34. Kabul Afghanistan, 1979: Hiding 35. Kabul Afghanistan, 1980: Pol-i-Charki Prison 36. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1980: Kandahari 37. Kabul, Afghanistan, October 1980: Exodus 38. Back in the Minefield 39. Landi Kotal, Pakistan, 1980: Prison 40. Landi Kotal, Pakistan, 1980: Connections 41. Peshawar, Pakistan, 1980: Pir Gailani 42. Peshawar, Pakistan, 1980: Hazrat Sepgotolah 43. Peshawar, Pakistan, 1980: The United Nations Humanitarian Aid Office 44. Afghanistan, Somewhere near the Pakistan Border, 1980: Mujahideen 45. Karachi, Pakistan, 1981: Train Ride 46. Ankara, Turkey, 1981: Shoeshine 47. Istanbul, Turkey, 1981: U.S. Consulate 48. U.S. Consulate, Istanbul, 1981: Hazaras 49. Frankfurt, Germany, 1981: The Parcel 50. Frankfurt, Germany, 1981: The Interview 51. Frankfurt, Germany, 1989: Warlords 52. San Diego, California, 1992: SpeeDee Oil 53. Kabul, Afghanistan, 1995: The Taliban 54. New York City: September 11, 2011 55. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002: The Dance of the Dead 56. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002: Karta-i-Char 57. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002: The Gate 58. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002: Ghosts 59. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 2002: Hazrat Ali 60. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002: The Cemetery 61. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002: Money 62. San Diego, California, July 4, 2002: Citizens 63. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2003: Number 3 64. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2003: Rebuilding 65. Kabul, Afghanistan, 2004: Orders 66. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 2004: Din Mohammad 67. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 2004: Hazrat Ali 68. Office of the Governor of Jalalabad, 2004: Gul Agha Sherzai 69. Jalalabad, Afghanistan 2004: Hadji Jawid 70. Security Headquarters, Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 2004: The Gardener 71. Abdien, Afghanistan, 2004: The Funeral 72. Compound of Hazrat Ali, Afghanistan, 2004: Jirga 73. Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 2005: The King’s Arabians 74. Karta-i-Char, Kabul, Afghanistan 2008: Rasoul Bibliography