On Wednesday afternoon, M. comes to visit me.
We met properly in 1999, when we started in the community development project, based out of Mazar. He was one of the four Afghans working with us in those remote, poor, difficult villages. Later we hired five more local staff, and within a few years, M. had become the team leader. He was educated, and so was granted a natural status, and he knew it. He was also, variously, sulky and easily irritated. Mind you, perhaps we all were back then. It was a sulky time, and the Taliban were world authorities in irritating people.
But he grew in leadership, and in character, and in servanthood. By the time we closed the project down in 2005 – the area by then being saturated with NGOs doing development work, mostly badly – he was mature, competent and a valuable part of our team. We opened a new development front, 8 hours to the West, in the tiny outpost of Maimana, but he didn’t want to move there – his wife was still working in Mazar, and their son was at high school. Unsurprisingly, he soon found a job with another NGO. I caught up with him again in 2007, and we kept in touch over the years as he worked for Oxfam, TEAR Fund and other groups, steadily growing in responsibility and stature.
It is wonderful to see him. He climbs down from the 4WD that he has arrived in. He is a big man. He lifts a back pack, the sort most aid-workers use. He has a beard, flecked with grey now, I notice. We go back to the office and I offer him water, and we share our news with each other. His son, U, is married, and has a daughter; their first child died at birth. U is working for a mobile phone company now: U, now a man, who I knew as a child. M’s wife is not working – ‘She is older now, and the offices don’t want to employ an older woman. She has white hair, like me.’ It is an exaggeration, M is probably the same age as me and his hair is black and thick. I remember how M. and his wife shared a genuine love and affection for each other, I still have the photo of them sitting together, cradling Pietà when she was little.
M. phones his son, U, and I talk briefly with him, and give congratulations on his marriage and his little one; I show M. photos of my family, and he gasps at Pietà – she was four when he last saw her – and chuckles at Elijah and Rachel, and he offers condolences on the death of my father and mother.
But as we talk, I notice M. is increasingly quiet. He often repeats a phrase – ‘kho, zendagi ast’ – ‘Well, this is life’. I think I know what he is feeling, and I feel it too: the passing of years, and the intractability of life. It is 15 years since we met, we are not young men anymore. Afghanistan is still beset by innumerable problems, what has changed? He reminds me of when we were both North of Kabul, in Kapisa, back in 2007, and I told him that things would get better here, that a time of peace was coming.
‘And now we are here, and still there is no peace, and perhaps tomorrow or next year I will get shot, or hit by a rocket.’ He shakes his head. ‘And will you tell me again that peace is coming?’
I don’t know what to say. I hope what I am seeing is just something I have seen with many Afghan friends who have lived so much grief – someone taking a moment to unload, to tell their story. But I am not sure. M. is not really unloading. He is not telling a story. He is just being honest.
After a while, M. takes his leave, and heads off to stay with his brother on the other side of town. In a month or so, he will start a new job with an NGO he has worked with before. ‘The salary is less, but the people are honest. There was so much corruption in _____. What could I do? If I stayed there, I would be counted as one with them. One man cannot change all that. It is better for me to have less money, but be with people who are just and truthful. We have things in common.’
We embrace, and shake hands, M. swings his backpack over his shoulder and walks slowly to the corner.