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From Kinglake to Kabul
By Neil Grant, David Williams
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Neil Grant and David Williams
All rights reserved.
The journey begins
On an August evening in 2009, I am walking through a wheat field. Sparrows come whirring out from between the stalks. Paths run across raised banks and find their way eventually to the deep shade of an irrigation canal. I sit under the poplars listening to kids playing. The bubblegum smell of clover sneaks in. There is still snow in the hills, caught like ash, high up in the Koh-e Baba (the Grandfather of Mountains). This is Afghanistan.
This is Bamiyan, and I have spent six years believing in this place. This town is central to the novel I have been writing. Here are the characters, here is the setting: I need only sew them together. But then, as the sun drops lower and the fields turn to gold, I remember. I think of all the paths, of all the stories, that have led to here; and of all of the stories that will lead away.
And sometimes I wonder what I really am if I am not just a collection of stories. Slowly, everyone I meet becomes part of my story and I become part of theirs. And this is how it is: one tale links to another until the threads between them become so tangled that there is only one story.
On 11 September 2001, I am watching TV. The day before I had flown in from Indonesia after two months researching my second novel there. I am not really concentrating on the action on-screen. My mind is still climbing volcanoes and surfing over coral reef. Then the show is interrupted by footage of a building on fire. It looks like it could be a new movie. As I watch the burning skyscraper, a plane flies directly into it; burrows deep inside and explodes.
The building is the World Trade Center in New York. It is September 11. Al Qaeda, a little-known terrorist organisation, is about to take centre stage. The world is about to change.
A month later George Bush, the President of the USA, orders troops into Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda. They bomb the caves at Tora Bora and rush into Kabul, ousting the Taliban regime. Operation Enduring Freedom is a success.
But as I write this in 2010, it has become the longest-running war in US military history. Osama's beard is still growing and the Taliban are training young boys to fight. It's not like Afghanistan is a stranger to conflict. Placed at the heart of Asia, a crossroads for traders and invaders, it has learnt to defend itself well. The land is often hostile, the houses protected by fort-like qala– walled compounds. Afghan sports are often warlike – bird and camel fighting, buzkashi played on horseback with the corpse of a headless goat, kite wars with strings of powdered glass. Even in love the virtue of courage in the face of the enemy is apparent. Landays, the traditional two-line poems of the Pashtun people, talk of death and matters of the heart in the same stanza.
My beloved! If you turn your back on the enemy,
do not come home again!
Go and seek refuge in a different land.
Bamiyan had been part of the Silk Route for hundreds of years. In the third to fourth centuries a thriving Buddhist community had hewn two giant statues of the Buddha from the cliffs. The Sassanians invaded from Persia in the west, overthrowing the Buddhist Kushans. They were followed by the Arabs who brought Islam to the valley.
In 1221 Genghis Khan stormed into Bamiyan. The Muslims killed his grandson in the Shar-e Zohak (the City of the Serpent-headed King) and the great Khan put every living thing in the valley to death, including the rats and dogs. Then he laid waste to the fields and destroyed the irrigation canals. Bamiyan never regained its former glory.
The British fought three, mostly unsuccessful, campaigns in Afghanistan (the Anglo-Afghan Wars) from 1839–1919.
The Russians invaded in 1979 and spent ten years being shot at and gaining nasty heroin addictions before fleeing back across the Oxus River in 1989. The Soviets learnt what the British had – that Afghanistan does not take well to invaders. The power vacuum that was left was filled with warring tribal groups in a civil war that lasted until the Taliban took control in 1996.
In March of 2001, the Taliban used tanks, mortars and finally dynamite to remove the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan. The world looked on in horror but mostly ignored the human tragedy. The Taliban, mainly ethnic Pashtuns, hated the Hazara, who were the offspring of Genghis and his army. It was a particularly bloody and brutal time for Bamiyan.
Hameed Abawi, a student from Afghanistan, tells the story of another bloodbath, the Battle of Kabul – a series of skirmishes from 1992 to 1996. Though Hameed was only a baby at the time, this vivid word- picture has become part of his history. It is as valuable an heirloom as any parent could pass on to their child.CHAPTER 2
Victims of war
January 1, 1994. The Mujahideen (Afghan resistance fighters) had claimed part of Kabul. My family and I lived in apartments called Makroyans. The Makroyans are a series of apartments that stretch along most of western Kabul.
I was with my older sister and I was three months and ten days old. We were sitting in the hall. Suddenly an explosion thundered through the house. It shook the whole place. A rocket had collided into our kitchen wall. It was a disaster.
My mum and dad were crying. They heard on the radio that Ahmad Shah Massoud and his men were fighting against other Mujahideen. The Mujahideen were in the southern part of Kabul, and Massoud and his men were in the northern part of Kabul. Everyone from the apartment ran downstairs to the basement. They brought in some supplies. We were basically trapped in a battlefield.
We had no supply of water, and little necessary food. So we had to eat bread and onions. I had some milk to drink. They were fighting and fighting. We had to stay there for seven days. The noise of firing was so severe that my mum had a lotion jar on one of my ears and a pillow on the other. We were trapped and running low on supplies.
On the seventh day, there were rumours that everybody in the Makroyans was dead. When my grandparents heard this news, they got extremely worried. They started calling people and asking them if the rumours were true. Everyone believed it. They lost all hope.
On the eighth day, there was news that Massoud and the Mujahideen had decided on a cease-fire. When we heard this, there was such a feeling of relief. My family started packing. Although our house was burnt out, we still had some stuff to carry.
When we were all packed up, we left. In the streets there were dead bodies all around. Small kids dead, and adults lying on the ground, blood all over.
My family started walking. It was a long way. We went on and on, finally crossing a bridge. The bridge was like a graveyard. Suddenly a cab stopped and the driver told us to get in fast. That was the best thing ever. We had a car that could take us to our grandparents' house.
My family got out of the cab and my dad paid the driver a lot; they were so thankful. My dad knocked on my grandparents' door, and waited. It was like the door of heaven. My grandma opened it.
The moment she saw us, she started screaming. She was so happy to see us alive. She was crying and screaming that her family was okay.
We went in and my grandfather grabbed me and looked at me. He was crying. He said, 'My grandson is okay. Thank you, God.'
We sat for a moment before they noticed that I had a really high fever and asthma. So my grandfather picked me up and put me in a hot tub. And then we had dinner.
This was a bad experience for my family. Life passed on and with the kindness of God, we survived. Now, I study at the International School of Kabul. I am in 10th grade. I still have asthma and get attacks very often, even though I have had treatment in Pakistan.
But all this pain and stress has made us Afghans able to face bad days in life. Bomb blasts, rocket collisions and other stuff still happens in Kabul, and we are caught up in it. Afghanistan is a victim of war. It has a long and intense history we will never forget. But we all want a better future and peaceful life for the people of Afghanistan. We hope that God will be merciful.
And so the refugees poured from Afghanistan. Many of them went to camps in Iran or Pakistan. Some chanced the longer and more perilous journeys to countries where they could eat and sleep in safety, where their children could be raised without the danger of landmines and given an education. These were not terrorists. These were people fleeing that terror.
I began to write a book about a young Afghan asylum-seeker and his Australian friend. And six years later I was still writing.
I dreamed Afghanistan into being. I swooped over Bamiyan on Google Earth and watched every documentary on the country. I did what a writer does: became obsessed.
And one day that obsession turned a little dangerous. I applied for an Australia Council for the Arts grant in 2008 and by the end of the year they had (rather rashly, I thought) given me the money to go to Afghanistan.
David Williams was Head of English at a local high school. We had met at my daughter's parent–teacher interview in 2004. I mentioned to him that I was a writer and Dave's ears pricked up. As his years at the school went on, Dave developed a writing group for the school and produced an anthology of student work, Lightning in Kuala Lumpur. He brought me in as a 'patron' of the program and showed me the potential of student writing.
In 2008, we came across an Artists in Schools program, which links schools with practising artists and provides funds for them to work together on a project. The plan went like this: Dave's students would follow my journey to Afghanistan on my blog and when I arrived home, we would write about it together. We would contact a school in Afghanistan and connect students through writing. This would be a major chance to foster understanding between cultures.
And then the fires changed everything.
On 7 February 2009, just before lunchtime, a fire began in Kilmore East, about 90 kilometres north of Melbourne. The country was dry after years of drought. The bush was ready.
Australians live with fire. It is part of our landscape and those of us who choose the bush learn to deal with flame. My family had evacuated in 2006 when a blaze had threatened Kinglake. We had young kids and no fire-fighting pump. The house was a weatherboard on stumps. I still remember the feeling of leaving it all behind. The utter defeat of it. I wrote this just after those fires:
We set up camp at a friend's home, rolling mattresses onto the floor and eating take-away. That night we all slept badly, the children stumbling around in the dark in a strange place. In the morning it was Australia Day, our eldest daughter's birthday. The radio was full of fire warnings and weather predictions. It was going to be 39 degrees with the wind from the north-west. It was the unkindest wind of all, blowing the fire towards the town and our house. That day in Diamond Creek, we watched the mountain burn, smoke trailing off the blue silhouette like a scarf. Our friends were great but they didn't know what to say; how could they? It's going to be alright, they would repeat over and over like a mantra. And I hoped that by believing it, then it would be true.
We were lucky that time. A freak rainstorm doused the blaze as it took to the crowns of the trees, 2 kilometres from our home. There were no homes lost that time. The fire had approached slowly and we had plenty of notice.
But it was different on 7 February 2009. The fire was ferocious, brutal. It tore into the trees, building momentum. It pulled houses apart, breathing flames into ceilings, tonguing the gaps.
Some fled. Others could not. My family was lucky enough to make it to the town of Yea just ahead of the front. I wrote:
It was close to midnight when I got to Yea. The air was clotted with smoke and there were people camped on the median strip, goats tethered to cars, a stunned group mumbling in a barbeque shelter, parents trying to bed their children down in the pub bistro. There had been a war and here were the refugees.
Eventually I found the recreation reserve and my family camped in a tent. The kids were asleep, their arms above their heads, their hair sticky with sweat and ash. Our sixteen-year-old daughter sat stunned. She had been told her friend had died, a rumour that was later disproved. Our German friend appeared outwardly calm – she is training to be a doctor – but this was like nothing she had ever experienced.
I had trouble comprehending what had happened during that day and the following weeks. As a writer, I had always used words to make sense of things.
I have loved words since I was a kid. I believe in their power to heal and destroy; their ability to inspire. I have always trusted words and they have never let me down.
But there was so much to make sense of. Friends had died, houses were gone, the beautiful, majestic Mountain Ash that gave Kinglake its character had been killed and cut down. I didn't know what to do. I shaved off the beard I had been growing since August in an effort to blend in while in Afghanistan, and I cancelled my trip.
David Williams lost his house. He escaped ahead of the fire.
the bike is burnt black
when the fire destroyed the house
the child lost her soul
Liam PadgetCHAPTER 3
Carmen loved our birds. We had so many different kinds. She particularly loved the Eastern Yellow Robin. My favourite was the White-throated Treecreeper. Amazing bird. We'd watch it spiral up around the tree trunk and laugh at how it defied gravity.
My Dutch friend told me about Dutch treecreepers. 'We have two species of treecreeper in Holland. The only way to tell the difference is that one spirals down the trunk and one up. Yours is like the one we have that spirals up.'
I always looked to see if our treecreeper would break tradition and spiral down.
In the weeks before the fires, there was a heatwave. King Parrots perched in the shade of our hut with their wings half-spread, panting. The small birds flew very little. They were not coping and I was worried. Carmen was intensely worried. I tried to reassure her and myself that rain would come.
On that Saturday, I was prepared. I had my MacBook on and the radio going. I lay on the couch and moved as little as possible.
The CFA and government had warned all week that it was going to be the worst fire conditions since Ash Wednesday. Their faces on TV were very serious. In many ways I didn't need the warning. My house was completely un-defendable. It was quite possibly the worst-positioned and most ill-prepared house in Kinglake. And I knew it.
I remember one friend looking over the place with a worried expression. 'Well, you can start by keeping your gutters clean,' he said.
I shook my head and said, 'What, so I can have clean gutters when the house burns down? Doubt it'll make a difference but thanks for the advice.'
The Saturday morning radio was uneventful, but from about midday fires began to appear on the CFA website and then the warnings began. Sometime that afternoon, the radio broadcast an interview with the CFA main controller. His voice started to sound stressed. And then the radio host said that the switchboard was lighting up. At that, the controller said he had to go.
Nothing in their words, at that stage, was alarming. But what made me sit upright on the couch and take notice was the tone of their voices. It was one of disbelief and confusion which spelled out that things were becoming worse than expected. I refreshed the CFA page on the internet again.
Then one word got me off the couch. That word was 'Whittlesea' – a town 15 kilometres to the northwest. It just happened to appear in a long list of towns at risk.
'Carmen, they've just mentioned Whittlesea.'
'Yeah, but that's a fair way away isn't it?'
'You're kidding! We've got to go. If it gets into the national park we're stuffed.'
I walked outside and stood on my decking, looking through the trees in the direction of Whittlesea. The sky was amber. There was a violence in the wind.
We got to our cars and decided to take both. We turned our headlights on and calmly drove down the mountain road to my mother's house in Hurstbridge.
Around that time my dad was swimming in the Yarra River at Warburton. He noticed a fellow swimmer staring up at the sky. Without lowering his gaze, the man began to walk slowly out of the river. My dad saw a huge plume of smoke over the mountains toward Kinglake and Marysville. With a sense of foreboding, he called me. I could hear the relief in his voice when I said we'd got out.
Excerpted from From Kinglake to Kabul by Neil Grant, David Williams. Copyright © 2011 Neil Grant and David Williams. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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