A Letter from Herat

By Hosna

An October morning, I gazed out of the window, the garden was lush and green. Flowers adorned every corner and the tall cypress trees visible from my room made the space even more beautiful. My books, clothes, and flower vases delighted me, and wherever I looked out the window from my beautiful room I saw a joyful dream of life unfolding. But I also felt like I had lived through some things and they had died and become memories for me—spinning in front of the mirror, wearing a floral dress sewn by my grandmother; painting my lips, and not worrying about being labeled a bad girl. Here, girls don’t wear bright colors, fearing judgment. Picking up one of my books and feeling happy that I could continue my education, oblivious to the fact that a girl should only stay at home and never be seen by anyone…

I was lost in my thoughts when a tremor shook me to the core and stopped me from thinking. What could it be? I came out of my room, and heard the loud voices of people outside. Everyone had felt the tremor! My mother shouted in panic; there was an earthquake! An earthquake? I had never experienced an earthquake before, only read about it in school books. Such a strong power that shook the city!

My home! What will happen to it? The earthquakes and their aftershocks made people’s voices grow louder and louder, and everyone prayed to God to stop it, but was it stoppable? As I gathered myself I heard the news that the epicenter of the earthquake was in Zendah Jan, a rural province near to Herat, where it left no house standing. How painful, to see your home destroyed and all your memories in that house—more importantly, the members of that house—gone forever… Perhaps someone had been reading books underneath those houses, someone was cooking, someone else was watching television, a little girl was playing with her dolls, or a boy with his toys, and countless other lives, all now dead.

With each passing moment, the earthquake’s toll increased, 2,500 lives? Is that not enough? Thousands of families were bereaved; nothing remained of their homes, no bread to eat, and nowhere to sleep. But with whatever strength they had, they searched for their loved ones, hoping that maybe one less family member would die and they would find them half-dead. How painful it is for someone to settle for half-dead.

Countless hopes were shattered, girls who had wanted to become doctors or boys who wanted to start a family and become fathers, or a mother who wished for better food for her children, even in times of scarcity and hardship, or a father who had returned home tired but still smiling each night in his dusty shirt and old coat, trying to create a better life for his family, to prevent them from dying of hunger. Where are they now? Are they dead? Buried underground, waiting for someone to find them? How can anyone understand?

My unfortunate compatriots, my weary land, my Afghanistan, my Herat! I’m more tired than you, and you are tired more than me, I loved it when our people were happy, but it seems impossible now. Underneath the cypress tree that I could see from my colorful room, I sit and write to you, hoping that these words may serve as a balm for our wounds. I said “my beautiful room,” but after the earthquake struck it is no longer beautiful. It is like the hearts of us both, broken! Not a single book remains, and now that my mirror has shattered on the ground it reflects me better, every shard broken and displaced.

On the fifth night after the quake most people, including me, stayed outside their houses to protect themselves. Do you know what that means?—that our homes are no longer a shelter; we only wanted to keep ourselves safe. The streets, parks, sidewalks, and roads, are all filled with tents and makeshift shelters. All of the women and children have abandoned their homes, seeking refuge. The tents became colder and colder as night came on.

We cannot forget the fatigue and sorrow, the memory of what has passed. In the night, and as morning, came a dust storm stirred to destroy whatever remained. The tents and shelters, the only refuge for people, were prey to this storm. In one of the cold and dusty tents, in which the wind left nothing behind, I am writing to you again. Can I capture the heaviness and fatigue that my heart endures? Can I build something amidst all this destruction?

Afghanistan, my homeland! They say you are like a mother, a worried mother! But you are more like your daughters, just as firm, just as tired! Daughters with braided hair and colorful skirts, withheld from society! The daughters cannot study, they can neither go to school nor take jobs—all this exactly when so much work must be done. Here, your daughters are seen as objects, and you as an unfortunate agent! I know we had countless hopes and dreams together, but it seems we may never achieve them!

We wished for our nation’s well-being, and for time to heal all these pains, but then the ground beneath us shook—a worse tragedy befell us. The city became chaotic, and our people were caught up in bloodshed. This memory doesn’t allow my mind a moment of calm. Have you ever thought about a memory in which you weren’t present? How profound and painful it is. I say, and I want to believe, that we will be fine, but I don’t believe it.

18 October, 2023