QORBAN'S STORY by Phil Sparrow

graphic illustration of a person holding a CVIn May, I went back to Mazar for a few days leave. Kabul was exhausting, and I wanted to go back to our old city, where we had lived. On the second day, I went back to the old team office, and met with Qorban, the watchman. After the embraces and greetings, he had a story to tell me. It concerned one of my former staff, and he wanted me to know all the details. He voice was energised, the words rushing out.

‘…and then! I grabbed him! I grabbed his hands and held them tight, and I kept saying, “Who are you, who are you?” and he kept mumbling, mumbling, saying nothing, and finally when I got him on the ground, he spoke, and he said, “Stop, it’s me. It’s Hazraat.”‘

Qorban looks up at me, his hands cupped out in front of him, each fist clenched a little, as though the bony wrists of Hazraat were still tightly held. Qorban is not a tall man, but he is solid. The long peron and tonbon he always wears hide the muscle and bone. And he has big hands. They are huge. They are hands that look like those of a professional killer, though Qorban is not a violent man. He is a good man, at least, as good as the next. He has done me no wrong that I know of, and he is kind and careful. Though now, having caught and apprehended Hazraat, a thief, and an armed thief at that, Qorban is proud. He has told me the whole story once, and now this is the second time, and some details, like the gun, the darkness, the noise, the fact that he was awake at night – ‘like all watchmen should be!’ – he has told me several times.

I’m weary of the story. This is the third time I have heard it now. I was first told it, by Joel, and it was interesting in the way a car accident or failure is interesting: someone else’s pain and grief and failings are intriguing and juicy and bring out the spectator in me. But that feeling passed, as it should. And now hearing Qorban tell it again, I do him the respect of listening, and Qorban did a good thing, and I tell him that, but still I am wearied. Hazraat was my friend. As much as you can have close friends, here.

I think back: we had just arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif to live and work. We had nothing much but energy and faith and a few words of Dari. I was the new boss of a Development Project that the aid agency was running, and soon we began to expand the work. We needed staff, so we put posters up at the mosque and sent the word around that we wanted two men, two women, to join the team, work in remote, dusty places in the North. It was Taliban time, the worst time, and jobs were few and people were thin. We had a hundred applicants, maybe more. We chose the two men and two women fairly easily: a fruit seller, a woman who had been wrapping candies for a living, a university teacher and a vet. They had some skills, but mostly they had a good attitude: learners, not experts. Poor rural people do not want city boofheads coming to tell them how to fix their lives up. We were happy with the new eclectic team.

But there was Hazraat. He had come in for interview sometime in the middle of the first day. He tried to walk in lightly, but he couldn’t hide the sag to his body: the sag of someone who has not eaten well, for some time. He perched on the edge of the chair, afraid to sit back, not at ease. He was expecting us to tell him to go. Gaunt and fading, he told us he was a nurse. No, a nursing assistant. He had worked at the Red Cross. Helping nurses. Sort of. Anway, he could drive. He had a license. No, he didn’t have a license. But he was getting one. He would get one. He could work. Work hard.

Hazraat hid his fear, but not well. He wasn’t hoping for anything, and he didn’t plead with us. I couldn’t see any point going on with the interview. It was clear he didn’t have medical skills. Maybe he could drive, maybe he couldn’t: practically everyone said they could drive, and were fluent in English and Dari and Pashto, and Urdu, or they could do accounting and use a Codan, and they could all use Excel and Word and Photoshop. But you shouldn’t think of it as lies. It was just the voices of terrible desperation and dying hope. The voices of people who had lost so much, again and again, but still dared that their lives might be better.

Regardless, we couldn’t work with Hazraat. He had nothing we needed and Afghanistan was full of sad and hungry and dying people. I looked back at Hazraat. His clothes hung off him, there was dirt on his shirt and under his fingernails and his eyes were dull. No, I didn’t have any questions for him. “Thank you for coming. We will post a list on the office gate on Tuesday.”

But at the end of the day, as we talked over the candidates, we couldn’t get him out of our minds. The gait, the drawn skin, the disappointment. He hadn’t eaten for three days. Lisa, in her usual blunt way just asked him, seeing how thin he was. So we invented a job for him. Driver-assistant. He would drive. Keep the cars in order. Help the other facilitators when they needed something. We didn’t need a driver, but we were letting him die otherwise. He and his wife and children.

So Hazraat joined the team, and over the years, he developed some reasonable skills. After about a year, he became a good driver, though he was so slight he always needed a cushion to see over the Landcruiser bonnet. He did some maintenance work on the cars and he helped the others in their work. He was there when the Taliban came to the village in 2001, and beat up the staff and tore the place up. Shot at the staff. Hazraat was struck twice with a rifle butt, and when they came back to the office, fear crazing their eyes, he cried as he told me what had happened. He came to our house that Easter and ate hot-cross buns and I still have a photo of him holding one up. He never put much weight on, but his eyes grew lighter over the years. When we left for holiday in August of that year, before the madness, we embraced, and I think he knew that I loved him, as much as I loved the other staff. Then, after the attacks, when we were kicked out, and then we came back, and started up the work again, he was still there, and he came back with us, and we worked together again. It was he and Ismael who were held up by bandits out in the Laili desert one day, robbed at gun point. And he was still there when we closed the project years later.

And then after that, he came to the office one night. He was in debt. We knew he had a drinking problem and that he gambled. We knew he beat his wife, and sometimes his kids, and there were other rumours. My wife had spoken to his wife, we had loaned money, helped him get out of debt, done all kinds of things. He climbed over the wall one night, with a gun. Who knows if he planned to use it. He had thought the guard would be sleeping, thought he could just open the office, take the computers and the cash and load them into the Landcruiser and be gone. But Qorban heard him and came, quietly, and reached for him and then it was Hazraat who was terrified, and he swung the gun around and Qorban got the muzzle in his belly, and Qorban bellowed in fear and lunged out with those big hands, knocking the rifle down and screaming, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’, until Hazraat said in his quiet voice, ‘Stop it. It’s me, Hazraat.’

‘Hazraat?’ said Qorban, disbelieving. ‘But you worked here! You took your salary here! You ate bread here.’ So Qorban tied Hazraat up and the office manager came, and then the regional manager, then the police came, and finally Hazraat was taken away and put in jail. He was released three months later, and he’d been seen in the street and at the bazaar, and some of the staff have talked to him.

Phil Sparrow worked for many years in international development, living in Afghanistan for most of the last few decades. Writing was and remains a way of seeking to understand or at least, record some of the pain and brokenness of the world. He has three wonderful kids and one lovely wife with whom he has been able to share the journey. 

Copyright © 2020 Phil Sparrow. 

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