Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

THEY ‘USED OUR STREETS AS BATTLE ZONES’

Susan McClelland October 1 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

THEY ‘USED OUR STREETS AS BATTLE ZONES’

Susan McClelland October 1 2001

THEY ‘USED OUR STREETS AS BATTLE ZONES’

Susan McClelland

There was a time when Mohammad and Latifa Alamyar led peaceful lives. The couple, who moved to Toronto with their family in July, grew up and married in Gardez, a small Afghan town near the Pakistan border. Shortly after moving to Kabul in 1965, Mohammad, an auto mechanic, and Latifa, a social worker, had their first two children, Sultan and Suzan. They worked hard, but also enjoyed a safe, comfortable life as members of Afghanistan’s small middle class.

All that changed in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded the country. Like most Afghans, the Alamyars have since endured one tragedy after another. In 1979, Latifa’s brother, an engineering student, and her uncle, a police officer, went missing-likely murdered, they contend, by the Soviets. Two years later, Mohammad’s brother, a physician, was shot dead at home in front of his wife and year-old child, who was wounded in the leg. “Our family weren’t members of any political party,” says Latifa. “They were academics, intellectuals, just questioning Soviet policies.”

Despite the horrors, the Alamyars were hopeful the war would end, and in the 1980s, they had three more children, Mursal, Sodaba and Mansoor. But during that period, mujahedeen guerrilla activity increased. Mursal, now 19, remembers skirting artillery fire to get to school. The family heard about a woman who had been gang-raped and children who had been killed by bombs hidden in plastic toys strewn about villages. “The Soviets and the guerrillas used our streets as battle zones,” says Mohammad, 58. “Innocent people were the targets.”

Afghanistan erupted into civil war after the Soviet army withdrew in 1989. In 1993, Sultan, then an English teacher, learned of colleagues who were being taken away and tortured by the mujahedeen. The family knew they had to leave. With nothing but some clothes and photos and enough money to last them a few months, they set out for Pakistan. Life in that country, however, was far from a sanctuary. As refugees, the Alamyars were harassed and forced to pay bribes to the police. Sultan and Mohammad witnessed the beating of Afghans by Pakistani officials. Racism against all Afghan people abounded.

They endured the abuse for eight years, until Canada accepted the family (daughter Suzan lives in Germany with her husband). Their immigration was sponsored by Latifa’s sister. The parents are now studying English, and Sultan and Mursal work as telemarketers. But current events make it impossible to forget the horrors of their homeland. “The world thinks we have chosen the people in charge of the country, that we are the same as those who have done this to the United States,” says Mursal, who notes that while family members haven’t been harassed since Sept. 11, they have overheard nasty comments about Afghan people. “We are just as angry, just as sad, as everyone else.” Adds a tearful Latifa, 47, whose words are translated by Mursal: “Afghanistan needs food, education, shelter. For the sake of children who are killed or left as orphans, war needs to stop.”