Afghanistan, a Beautiful Place Now Covered with Landmines

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After 30 years, Champaign native and Gulf War veteran,
Shaheen Shorish, still vividly recalls the blood-soaked Persian
carpets prominently displayed on the lawns of the
royal palace in Kabul in 1978. The perpetrators of the
Soviet-backed coup d’état, that unseated recent royal
usurper, Mohammad Daoud, and resulted in the slaughter
of his entire family, displayed the proofs of their murderous
actions with evident pride. In a matter of hours,
Afghanistan had become a very unsafe place for everyone
living there and the Shorish family was forced to flee. During
the events leading up to the 1979 Soviet invasion, fiveyear-
old Shaheen, her Michigan-born mother, her Afghan
father, and her brother escaped on the last commercial
flight ever to depart from the Kabul International Airport.
They fled throughout Europe until they were at last able to
return to the safety of their Champaign home.
In the years following the
Soviet takeover, many members
of the Shorish family’s
Tajik ethnic group campaigned
to sound an international
alarm about the globally
strategic significance of the
precariousness unfolding in
Central Asia. After the Soviets
were driven out of the region
by U.S.-backed Mujahedeen
guerilla warriors, the 1996
ascendance of the Taliban
briefly seemed to many to be
an improvement over the
Soviet occupation. Tragically
though, the harsh Taliban
interpretation of Shariah (Islamic law) soon proved even
more divisive and destructive than any previous tyranny. The
Taliban’s subsequent policies subjected the female half of
Afghanistan’s population to a reign of gender-based terror,
unprecedented in the history of the region or the world.
Educated Afghans, such as the Shorish family, did everything
they could think of to alert the rest of the world to the misogynistic
madness. But, Shorish says, “It was like someone
screaming in space with no one listening, no one hearing.”
”If the U.S. had been focused on the Taliban, we could
have conceivably prevented 9/11, or some aspects of it,”
says Shorish. “If only the U.S. had understood sooner. . .”
she trails off, her brow furrowed in thought.
The most famous Tajik to try to warn the pre-9/11
world of the dangers of militant fundamentalism was the
late General Ahmad Shah Massoud, widely revered as “the
lion of Panjshir” and credited by many with driving the
Soviets out of Afghanistan, thus ending the Cold War in
Central Asia. In a press conference televised from Paris in
April of 2001, Massoud warned President Bush that if the
United States and the West did nothing to rebuild
Afghanistan and restore peace, “they would bear the consequences.”
It appears Massoud’s warning fell on deaf ears.
He was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives on September
9, 2001, just two days before the Twin Towers toppled.
Shorish surmises that one reason for the U.S. nonresponse
to Massoud’s pleas may have been because the U.S. was
interested in building an oil pipeline through the region.
Shorish’s aunt, Dr. Zeiba Shorish-Shamley, was in some
ways more successful than Massoud in conveying her warnings
to the West, and in obtaining help to fight the Taliban.
Her hard-won success was in a small way attributable to the
timely intervention of her Washington, D.C. hairdresser.
”It’s funny how things get done in politics,” Shorish
says, recounting the chain of events that led to the Feminist
Majority Foundation’s assistance. Shorish says her
aunt was at her hairdresser’s, complaining that she couldn’t
get anyone to pay attention to the increasing abuses of the
Taliban. In particular, she was concerned that the United
States was on the verge of acknowledging the Taliban as a
government. This was when the hairdresser said, “Don’t
worry, I know someone who can help you.” The next day
the hairdresser spoke to another client, a politician who
was concerned with international women’s rights. Soon,
the politician met Shorish’s aunt and introduced her to Jay
Leno’s wife Mavis, and the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Subsequently, Dr. Shorish-Shamley testified before the
United States Congress and the United Nations that rape is
a war crime and that the violation of women’s rights cannot
be tolerated if any lasting peace is it to be achieved. Building
on the ideals of Dr. Shorish-Shamley and other international
feminist scholars, the Feminist Majority Foundation
recently launched a new international public educational
campaign, exhorting President Obama, Vice President
Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to stabilize
Afghanistan and defeat terrorism by focusing on educating
and defending the rights of women and girls, rather than
by continuing to re-arm warlords.
”The way the Taliban treat women,” Shorish says, “that
is not part of Afghan history. That is not part of Islam.”
Shorish further says that the
impediment to gaining
rights for Central Asian
women is that they are largely
unaware that they have
rights to begin with. “If
you’re not Afghan … they’re
not going to listen to you. So
the best way, if they’re Muslim,
is to say, ‘You do have
these rights according to the
Qu’ran.’ … The Taliban use
religious nonsense to keep
women down, so you have
to use the Qu’ran to fight
that,” Shorish says.
Hailing from the ancient,
cultured and prosperous city of Herat, Shorish says that
members of the Tajik ethnic group to which the Shorish
family belongs have always been vocal opponents of the
Pashtun-dominated Taliban. With a centuries-old tradition
of literature and learning, Shorish explains that the people
of Herat were generally too well-educated to be drawn into
the misogynistic and genocidal ideology espoused by the
”The problem now is that so many people have been
raised in a war zone,” Shorish says. “They’ve been taken from
their families and sent to Pakistan, where they have grown
up in madrassahs, learning nothing but how to fight,” and
how to justify fighting by misquoting the Qu’ran, she says.
As much as Shorish endorses humanitarian aid for
Afghanistan, she states emphatically, “Afghanistan needs to
help itself from within… Women need to be educated. As
soon as women are educated, they can start fighting. And
they will. Afghan women are notorious for fighting for
themselves and their families. But first they have to know
they have rights. Then there will be no stopping them.”
Despite the disappointments she has sustained from
her father’s ancestral homeland and from her own native
United States, Shaheen Shorish is a remarkably calm, gentle
and grateful woman with abiding tenderness and loyalty
towards both America and Afghanistan.
”I’m always grateful to the United States. . .” she says. “It’s
my home… They let us back in, they facilitated our early reentry
(after the coup)… Because of what I witnessed in
Afghanistan, that violence, the lack of government, the sudden
secrecy… I have always had a strong appreciation for
this country’s freedoms. I did want to give back and I did
enlist in the Navy as my way of paying a debt and as my way
of defending the Constitution. I know that does sound old
fashioned, but it’s something I really believe in.”
Commencing July 24, 1990, Shorish began a tour of
duty with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 4 in Sicily,
Italy. In early 1991 she was deployed to Bahrain for
Operation Desert Storm, a successful United Nations-led
defense of the tiny Persian Gulf nation of Kuwait against
an aggressive occupation by its much larger neighbor Iraq.
”I’d like to film a documentary on Afghanistan,” Shorish
She also hopes to travel there soon, but “that does depend
on the stability… It is definitely on my agenda, on my to-do
list… I’ve not been able to go back since I was a child.”
Shorish’s final memories of Kabul are dark ones of the
coup d’état as experienced by her five-year-old self. “My
first memory would be the tank blocking traffic, the tank
that appeared out of nowhere… my mom said, ‘That’s a
tank.’ We didn’t know why it was there on the street near
us. All hell broke loose and we ran back to our apartment.
I remember bombs, gunfire and concussion bombs. Do
you know what concussion bombs are?”
”Concussion bombs are set to explode in the air,” she
explains with an unnerving authority. “They shatter every
plate of glass in the area, and they are meant to completely
demoralize the population.”
Shorish’s parents, however, proceeded courageously.
Back at the apartment, Shorish recalls, “Our mother covered
us with a blanket and put us under a bed… Things
were on fire everywhere. We had to stay away from windows.”
While this Michigan woman spent the next 30 plus
violent hours keeping her two young children alive, Shorish
says that her academic father spent a good portion of
the time “speaking into an old reel-to-reel tape recorder,
saying the date and what was happening. He had to document
it. He needed to document it.”
After the shelling ceased and they were finally able to
leave the apartment, Shorish says she ventured out with
her family to figure out what was happening. She reports
that she then saw sights no five-year-old should ever have
to see. “We saw so much bloodshed, we saw the bloody
carpets, we saw pieces of people hanging from trees…
Talking about it sounds overly dramatic, but we saw all of
that. There were tanks everywhere. There was no glass.”
She remembers seeing the courtyard where they had
once played, emptied of children, all of the children either
dead or having fled. She says that once they saw the
bloody carpets and understood that a coup d’état had
taken place, they knew they would have to flee, too.
”My parents made a smart decision to get out,” Shorish
says. “I don’t think it mattered what a person’s political
leanings were at that moment, we were probably going to
be killed if we stayed.”
While Shorish will never forget this hellish interlude,
she says she also remembers and misses many wonderful
things about her father’s birthplace. “I remember what
Afghanistan was like and I feel the sense of loss. It was
world-renown for poetry. It was (part of) the Ancient Persian
Empire. There is so much history there, such diverse
cultures,” she says. “I remember so much greenness,
gigantic fruits, deer, honeysuckle… It is the land of Rumi,
the land of the famous Sufis… It is a beautiful, beautiful
place, now covered in landmines.”
Shorish talks about how valued she felt as a child in
Afghanistan, and how much her mother was respected just
for being a mother. She says she misses all of that, adding,
“I miss peace in Afghanistan more than anything else.”

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