Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Unearthing memories from the ruins of home

Unearthing memories from the ruins of home

The story of an Afghan refugee who works for the UN refugee agency in Pakistan and who recently returned to Kabul for an emotional visit, her first after 14 years of exile.
7 November 2002
Childhood haunt – what remains of Mariam's house in Kabul.

An Afghan refugee who works for the UN refugee agency in Pakistan recently returned to Kabul for an emotional visit, her first after 14 years of exile. Here is her story in her own words.

KABUL, Afghanistan (UNHCR) - "Finally I am back," I whispered to myself as I stood at the doorway of my home. I have been a refugee for almost 14 years, but up to this point, I never knew I harboured an ardent desire to come back to Afghanistan. This surge of jubilation helped me realise that no matter how long I have lived abroad or how deeply I root myself in another country, I could never sever my ties to my homeland.

Standing before the ravaged skeleton of a building I once called home, I could not decide if I should be mournful for the destruction of my childhood haunt, or happy that at last I was back where I belonged. A mixed feeling of glee and grief crawled up my shoulders and made me shiver.

In 1989, I was about eight years old when my sister and I bade farewell to my parents and our beautiful big house in the north of Kabul in Karte Char. My uncle had persuaded my father to send us with him and his family to Pakistan as Kabul was no longer a safe place, especially for women. His decision was wise, as later developments proved. In the following years, hearing all those stories about girls being dishonoured, taken away or forced to marry men in power who already had three wives, made me thank God repeatedly for my father's decision.

Our exile to Pakistan was a journey to remember. My uncle was travelling with his six daughters - all mature working women - and two sons. He was nervous but determined to take us to a secure place. After travelling for two days - some of it on foot - on an empty stomach, fearing every minute that someone might stop the van and ask for the girls, and praying that one of the missiles flying above us would not hit us, we finally reached the sanctuary we called Pakistan.

It was a different land and presented a different approach of life. Our lives changed tremendously. I cannot begin to describe all the sufferings we faced in those early days.

I was admitted to school in Pakistan. It was hell for me - besides being away from my parents, I did not have a clue about the subjects they were teaching. I did not know English or Urdu, the only two languages in school. It took me many months of 12-hour study and nights of weeping to learn the languages and become the distinguished student that I was back home.

Later my parents joined us in Pakistan. They could not go back to Afghanistan where my father had been kidnapped - he was tortured and starved for weeks - and we had to take a loan to pay the ransom. After his ordeal, he could not work. Life became depressing as our livelihood and education were thrown into uncertainty.

My mother sold some of her jewellery and enrolled us into college. After college, I worked as an English teacher and finally God gave me a chance and I was recruited by UNHCR. I worked as a personal assistant for six months and after September 11, joined the Public Information section. I have been working for one year and I completed my Bachelors degree at the same time.

Recently, UNHCR Kabul invited me to a three-day workshop in the Afghan capital. I was overwhelmed with joy. It was the opportunity of a lifetime and I felt like the luckiest person in the world. There were many obstacles along the way - I did not have a passport, and when I got it, I could not obtain a visa at such short notice. My worried parents also tried to stop me from going back. But I was adamant. At last my mother agreed and on the morning of my departure she told me, "Say hello to Kabul for all of us."

I reached Kabul on October 6, almost 14 years after I had left. The next day, I went to the most destroyed site of Kabul city, where our home stood. Nothing much was left.

I knocked on the door. After a long wait, a woman answered. As she asked me questions, I stared at the skeleton of the pillars and concrete of our house and told myself that I was finally back. When I told her my father owned this house, she thanked me because it had given her a sanctuary in the long years of poverty. She handed me a mud ashtray that she was making for a living here.

As I left the remains of my home, I turned back and waved, no longer able to keep my tears from flowing.

By Mariam Arzomand
UNHCR Pakistan