What have we learned from war?
— David C. Onley, OOnt (@LGDavidOnley) August 13, 2014
In the fall of 2008, during the height of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, I travelled to Kabul to tell a war story; a story of anxious mothers, fathers and children fleeing their villages because they no longer felt safe. It had been a terrible summer of fighting in the southern provinces, in Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan, and in their desperation to escape, thousands of families packed up their possessions and headed north.
Many ended their journey at the Charahi Qambar refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, a sprawling, tacked-together jumble of tents, shacks and anything else that offered shelter. There was the barefooted shoemaker from Kandahar who made me tea in his mud hut; a mother who was left with just two of her five children, having lost the others and her husband in a bombing; the distraught camp elder who told me he was going to have to start turning people away. In all their stories, the trauma was reflected in the dark circles under their eyes and the weary rasp of their voices. I was a sympathetic witness to their misery, and though I didn’t know it then, I would soon be a casualty of the same war.
I’ve replayed the moment a million times: a blue car, three men jumping out with AK-47s pointed at our heads; my fixer forced to the ground and begging for his life. A knife slicing into my shoulder, and then into my left hand as I fought back. Shoved into the back seat, bloody and frightened; my face hard against the dirty floor. Feet on my head and on my back. The car speeding away, and after an hour, stopping at the foot of a mountain. Forced out of the car at gunpoint. And then we hiked, hiked for hours, arriving at a town I would later come to know was Maidan, in Wardak province. As darkness fell that night, they threw me into an even darker place—a hole in the ground. It led to a tunnel, about 10 feet down, and that led to a slightly larger hole.
I could barely stand up in it.
That was my home for the next 28 days. It’s where I would wait for my scabs to fall off. Where I was essentially starved, fed a diet of juice pouches and sickly-sweet crème-filled cookies. And it’s where I was violently assaulted at knifepoint on one of my first nights as a hostage.
But it was also the place where I got to know Khalid. I’m sure that’s not his real name, but he was the one kidnapper who showed me some kindness. We spent days and nights in that hole together, sharing cigarettes, learning each other’s language. He told me about his girlfriend, Shagufa. He had stolen my camera on that first day, but he started bringing it back to show me pictures he had taken of her. There was Shagufa on the screen of my camera, giggling at him. There she was with her sisters and her mother. He promised me he wouldn’t kill me, and I trusted him. Sometimes he brought me rice and bread. Twice he brought me French fries, which he said Shagufa made.
We talked about the war. About women. He did not believe Shagufa should go to school. Or get a job. He wanted to be a suicide bomber and he wanted Shagufa to follow him in a martyr’s death. On our last night together, as he led me blindfolded down the mountain—to be freed in a prisoner exchange negotiated by the Afghan government—he asked me for forgiveness.
“Do not hate me, Mellissa,” he said. I assured him I did not, because I saw in him the lost potential of a generation of young Afghans. Desperate, orphaned perhaps, driven by ignorance and ideology, the same motives that drive conflict everywhere else in the world. He suffered, so I suffered.
In that hole, I learned that even in the horrible midst of war, when all hope seems lost, there can be understanding, kindness, and forgiveness. My education would continue when I came home and spent months interviewing soldiers coping with crippled bodies and tortured minds. The courageous Billy Kerr, a corporal who lost both legs and an arm. Captain Trevor Greene, whose skull was split open by an axe attack leaving him unable to walk or speak. Medic Kevin Moore who kept flashing back to the day his friend Chad O’Quinn was killed in an IED attack. Some returned with wounds to the body, some with wounds to the soul.
The worst losses were those suffered by the families whose sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, never came home. Canada sacrificed 158 soldiers, a diplomat, two aid workers, and a journalist to war in the Afghan desert. In their stories, I learned about the courage to continue, and about the depth of forgiveness. Witness Reine Dawe, whose 26-year-old son Matthew was killed in 2007: “Somebody asked me, do you hate the young men who killed Matt? And I said of course not. I don’t know who he was, but he was a young guy doing what he thought was the right thing to do. And he has a mother; he has a family, and he’s a victim of his circumstances just as Matt was.” Reine now works with a Canadian NGO bringing education to Afghan children in the belief that it will create opportunities for young girls and boys, like my kidnapper Khalid; like the young man who planted the bomb who killed her son. That is how she copes; that is what she has learned.
War changes lives—forever, in ways visible and invisible. Nothing is absolute in war, not even death. I have learned that some scars never fully heal, not for me, not for any of the soldiers and their families. But it is in our determination not to surrender to war’s darkest moments that we find the clarity of understanding and the will to forgive.
Journalist and former CBC correspondent Mellissa Fung has been on the front lines covering a wide range of stories on both Canadian and world affairs for the last 20 years. Her first book, Under an Afghan Sky, chronicles her experience as a hostage after she was kidnapped while on assignment in Afghanistan in 2008. Fung lives in Washington, DC.