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War Robbed Him of His Family, Then His Eyes, Then His Love

KABUL, Afghanistan — The last time Zaheer Ahmad Zindani thought he could still see, he was 17 and in a hospital bed, heavily drugged and covered with shrapnel wounds from a Taliban bomb.

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RESTRICTED -- War Robbed Him of His Family, Then His Eyes, Then His Love
Mujib Mashal
, New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The last time Zaheer Ahmad Zindani thought he could still see, he was 17 and in a hospital bed, heavily drugged and covered with shrapnel wounds from a Taliban bomb.

He asked the doctor for a mirror.

“The doctor told me, ‘Son, you don’t have eyes, how will you be able to see your eyes?'” Zindani recalled. “I raised my hand to feel my eyes — it was the ashes after a fire has burned, and nothing else.”

That was five years ago. He remembers that even in those first moments, when the reality of his blindness made him howl with grief, another realization took his breath away: His love for his childhood sweetheart had already been difficult because the girl’s family did not see him as worthy. Now, it was surely doomed.

“If I had lost my eyes and had her hand, I would still be happy,” he said. “But now I neither have eyes, nor her.”

Now, Zindani is one of the founders of a march for peace that reached Kabul, the Afghan capital, in June after a nearly 40-day, 400-mile slog from the south of the country through summer heat and war-torn territory.

He is protesting a war that has, so far, swallowed his father, his uncle, his sister, his eyes and his love.

Like many Afghans, especially in the countryside, he was not born with a last name. Some later pick their own, and after he lost his eyes, he chose Zindani. It means “imprisoned.”

Along the way, when the march would stop at a village to rest, Zindani, now 22, tall and handsome, would find a corner and lie down for a while, losing himself in thought.

Sometimes he would stand up, feeling his way around the mosque from column to column, following the voices to get closer to the discussion. Other times he would whisper the name of the fellow traveler he is closest to, whose shoulder he would hold onto during their long march.

“Kitab? Hey, Kitab, where are you?”

Kitab, a father of three whose birth name is Inamulhaq, joined the march along the way. The name he chose for himself means “book.” He cannot read.

Zindani is also illiterate. But he is a poet. At home, he has 50 pages of original poetry that he dictated to his siblings.

Their march passed through cities and villages. But often, they would find themselves in long stretches when it was just them, the sky above, the asphalt beneath, and the vastness of the desert all around.

His hand on Kitab’s shoulder, Zindani would recite poems.

Even after I died, my eyes did not shut
Waiting for you, I remained looking at the door.

When Zindani tells his own story of life and love, he evokes a series of images — beautiful in their detail, heartbreaking for what he holds on to.

When he was 7, his family lived in Gereshk, in Helmand province. They farmed opium poppy, wheat and grapes along a main highway used by coalition forces to supply the military units that were pushing into what had been Taliban territory.

One day, his father and uncle had cut down the poppies and were preparing the fields for a second crop, onions, when they were hit by a U.S. airstrike, Zindani said.

“We found nothing of them, not even their blood,” he said. “It was just a large crater, and dust.”

His father, Ghulam Wali, was 29 when he was killed. He was tall and wore his beard trimmed short, just like his son now. At his father’s funeral, Zindani remembers family friends running kind hands over his head and handing him money.

“I was confused why people were giving me money,” he said. “I was actually nervous — that my father would show up and he would get angry at me for accepting money from his friends without his permission.”

He added: “I had seen weddings, but I hadn’t seen funerals.”

After the airstrike, Zindani’s family moved to Kandahar, near distant relatives who had a young daughter. She was also 7, and the two children were often together. When they played hide and seek, Zindani would find himself “deliberately” hiding with her.

“I just liked her way of talking, her walking, her scent, everything about her,” he said. “Wherever she would be walking, I would find myself there. I didn’t know it — I would just end up there.”

As the two grew close, Zindani moved with his remaining family members to another district, where he became a mechanic’s apprentice. But every time his mother visited the relatives, he would come with her, just to see the girl.

When did he know it was love? They were both 12. They were walking to a shop.

“I remember reaching out to take her hand,” he said. She reciprocated, and they giggled.

He had money in his pocket.

“We bought just two cigarettes,” he said. “We went back and smoked those cigarettes in hiding, in the bathroom.”

Over the years, Zindani said he would find himself in the mechanic’s shop, under the belly of a car, often thinking about her, practicing what he might say to her. Whenever the chance came up, he visited her, bringing gifts: a small ring, a comb, a pocket mirror.

The girl’s mother was understanding of the young romance, Zindani said. “Whatever is her destiny,” he remembered her saying with a smile.

But that is not a typical attitude toward marriage in Afghanistan, and her father, coming from a rich background, did not see him as fit for his daughter. Zindani came from a different province, a different tribe, and was just a mechanic’s apprentice.

But Zindani knew he had a trump card: the girl’s heart. She loved him. The stronger their love grew, the more difficult it would be for her father to stick to his opposition.

All that changed when he lost his eyes.

The night before, Zindani had booked two bus tickets in Kandahar. Just before dawn, he and his sister Ahmadia, 15, set off to visit relatives in Herat province. They had grown close — she was his secret bearer, and a frequent courier for his love notes.

They were sitting in the fourth row opposite the driver, he recalled, when the bus struck a roadside bomb planted by the Taliban. He remembers fire all around him, and either him or Ahmadia screaming their mother’s name.

She didn’t make it.

“When I reached the hospital, I remember calling out for her,” Zindani said. “No one would say anything.”

After the bombing, Zindani still clung to the possibility of his love. But her family made their opposition clear: Not only was he from a different province and different tribe, now he was a blind man and could not provide for a family. They married her off about two years ago, and she now has a baby, he said.

Zindani would not give identifying details about the girl or her family, in order to protect them. Still, his relatives and friends confirm that it all happened.

He said that he still talks with her sometimes, secretly, on the phone. But Zindani tries to keep some distance — out of respect for her new family — just enough now and then to hear her voice, playful and full of energy still, and to keep memories of her fresh. One of the last images he has of her, before she married, is the two finding a quiet moment on the porch after dinner. She brought him fresh pomegranate juice. He recited to her one of his latest verses:

I am too scared to even drink water
It may fade my beloved’s name on my heart.

She once took his notebook of poetry. Days later, when she returned it, she said she had copied the best poems and marked the rest.

“Fix these ones,” she told him.

The images are not just something of the past for Zindani. They grow, they keep him busy.

“In my mind, I find myself in a place where there is no one else. I walk, with myself, and I start from the beginning of one poem, to the end of another. I keep walking,” Zindani said. “There have been times that, in my thoughts, I have made her mine, that in my thoughts, we have gone very far.”

He paused.

“Then, as they say, ‘When I raised my head, I was nothing.'”

When the images and thoughts overwhelm him, he wrestles with the question of whether a love denied is better than none at all.

“I have not reached an answer,” he said.

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