Memory boxes capture Afghans' pain of war, attempt to heal

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It was an evening like many others. Faisal teased his mother Adila before leaving for the Kabul pharmacy where he worked to earn enough money to pay for math and English classes. The 17-year-old dreamed of becoming a doctor.

After kissing his mother goodbye and telling her he loved her, he left the home for the last time. Moments later — in a scenario that has played out in similar fashion throughout Afghanistan for years — a suicide bomber detonated his explosives nearby, killing Faisal and his 15-year-old cousin Ahmadullah, as well as three others.

"He ran out the door. He was laughing. Then just five minutes later I heard this big explosion," Adila Hamidi said of her son's last moments in a recent interview, choking back tears.

War and death have dogged Afghans like Hamidi and her family for the past four decades, giving birth to a project known as the Memory Box Initiative, designed by the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization. The project pays tribute to the millions of Afghans killed and wounded in 40 years of relentless war and to help heal the wounds of the living, said Salim Rajabi, project organizer.

Stacked in a room in Kabul and padlocked against intruders are about 300 of the memory boxes stuffed with mementos of Afghanistan's war dead. Each is decorated with an Afghan flag, created by owners of the boxes to depict the country they hope Afghanistan will become. Inside the box is a second Afghan flag, this one reminiscent of the time in which the killing occurred. Afghanistan has had dozens of flags, including the white and black of the Taliban. Still, many of the deaths commemorated in the memory boxes happened since the collapse of the Taliban, most killed in horrific suicide bombing attacks.

As Hamidi recalled her son's death, she toyed with a small container of rice she had chosen to place inside her memory box dedicated to Faisal and to Ahmadullah as well as to her husband, Zabiullah Abdali, who is alive, but lost his hand and eyesight in two of Afghanistan's earlier wars.

When the bomb that killed Faisal exploded, Hamidi's world came crashing down around her. She recalled running to her son who only minutes earlier had been showering her with kisses.

"He was lying there. His stomach was wide open and everything inside was outside on the ground," she said. "He looked so small. I couldn't see Ahmadullah, there was so much smoke and screaming."

Each memory box takes four days to prepare. It's more than just bringing in a favorite item of the dead, said Rajabi, the project organizer. Survivors meet with other survivors, they talk of their loss, they exchange stories and then they are asked to write two letters — one to the loved one who died and the other to the larger Afghan community, telling about themselves and about their disappointments and desires for their country.

"The process is as important as the box itself," said Rajabi. "Family members come together, talk about what happened, talk about the collective impact, shared experiences. It becomes a community experience that we share together."

Many Afghans can neither read nor write and they are encouraged to put their emotional message to their lost loved one in a drawing. Hamidi carefully drew a garden scene, whose center was dominated by a bright red apple — her son's favorite fruit.

The U.S.-led coalition entered Afghanistan in 2001 to hunt down the men who masterminded the 9/11 attacks in the United States. While the Oct. 7 invasion that year has turned into Washington's longest war, it is just the latest of several wars Afghans have endured.

Dr. Sima Samar, a fierce champion of women's rights and chairwoman of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, noted that this month marks 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan.

In April 1978, a coup overthrew President Mohammad Daoud and installed a communist government in Kabul, which led to the 1979 invasion by the former Soviet Union to support the government and Afghanistan's subsequent spiral into relentless war.

Afghans have gone to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the hopes of finding justice for war crimes, Samar noted.

Late last year, the ICC launched a campaign to discover whether war crimes were committed in Afghanistan, but the investigation is restricted to offenses committed after 2003, when Kabul signed on as a member of the court.

Still, when the deadline closed in February, more than 700 representations were submitted, alleging war crimes had been perpetrated against millions of Afghans. The ICC has still to decide whether the claims constitute war crimes and whether enough evidence exists to open an investigation in Afghanistan.

Claims of war crimes have been levelled against the Taliban, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan intelligence agency, known by the acronym NDS. Accusations of war crimes have also been directed at the Afghan National Security Forces and the U.S.-led coalition, but to a much lesser extent.

A strong advocate of an ICC investigation, Samar said it would offer hope to survivors of the millions killed and wounded.

"Most important is that people have a hope for justice and that the ICC can be a tool that can bring justice for victims and also help to end the culture of impunity," she said in her heavily fortified office in the Afghan capital.

Samar believes the peace that has eluded Afghanistan for 40 years won't come through negotiations. "Peace will come with good governance, provision of social services, respect for human rights," she said.

Zabiullah Abdali enrolled in the police academy when communist President Babrak Karmal ruled Afghanistan, aided by a 100,000-strong Soviet army. The United States was supporting anti-communist mujahedeen rebels, based in Pakistan, to oust the communists from power.

Abdali had studied in Kiev in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and said he was a proud professional. But after only a few years on the job he was shot four times by mujahedeen rebels in southern Zabul province. He didn't work again until the mujahedeen took power, but soon he was struck in the crossfire of fighting between rival mujahedeen groups and lost his right hand.

The mujahedeen battles devastated the capital of Kabul before the Taliban took control in 1996. Unable to work during the Taliban rule, Abdali sold tea in a park, afraid the radical religious movement might discover his communist past. When the Taliban were toppled by the U.S.-led coalition, Abdali held out hope for his country. Then, his 17-year-old son Faisal was killed in the suicide bombing and hope turned to despair, he said.

"If the ICC does nothing, it will be like putting salt in our wounds," he said.

Next month, the boxes will go on exhibit in Frankfurt, Germany.


Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.