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from the December 2020 issue

The Decision

Tragedy strikes a newsroom in Kabul as a journalist scrambles for safety in Sharifa Pasun’s short story set during the Soviet-Afghan War.

She opened the wardrobe, took out her skirt and suit jacket, and shut the doors. After getting dressed, she looked at herself in the three-piece mirror, brushed her hair, and looked again. She admired herself, she thought she looked really good. Her long hair touched her shoulders, shining as the afternoon sun caught it through the window.

There was a pen on the dressing table, which she put in her handbag. She looked at her watch, it was five in the afternoon. Hearing the car horn, she opened the window and looked down from her second floor apartment. The gray car was waiting near the stairs of the building. The driver looked up and, on seeing her, stopped pressing the horn. Sanga slung her handbag over her shoulder quickly and left the room. She called to her mother from the corridor: “Mom, I am going now, bye! The car is waiting for me outside.”

Her mother rushed into the corridor. Her sleeves were rolled up, with a knife in her hand and tears in her eyes from the onion she had been cutting.

Sanga turned back and begged her mother: “Mom, please look after Ghamai, I don’t want him to hear us, he is busy riding his bike on the balcony.”

She left and quickly went down the stairs. Her mother watched, praying for her safety until the minute Sanga got in the car and shut the door.

*

Sanga reached the National Radio and TV headquarters, where she worked in the evenings. During the day, she was a student at Kabul University.

She went straight to the makeup room on the left side of the building, at the end of the corridor on the first floor. The makeup lady, Maryam, was in the room. She was tall, with curly hair she had dyed brown. Her glasses were pushed to the top of her head and their string hung down behind her neck. She was standing at the middle mirror, busy removing curlers from another newsreader’s hair.

Sanga stood in front of the sink and washed her face with warm water, then, looking in the mirror, dried it with a paper napkin. Maryam asked the seven o’clock newsreader, whose hair she was doing: “Should I do your makeup or do you want to put it on yourself?”

She answered: “You will be busy with Sanga’s hair now, there isn’t much time left, I will do my own makeup.”

Sanga sat down beside the seven o’clock newsreader and Maryam stood over her. She touched Sanga’s soft hair, looked at her clothes, and said: “It is good you are wearing modest clothes.”

Sanga didn’t like this comment. She wanted to say that she always wore suitable and modest clothes. At this moment, they heard a loud explosion from a nearby rocket. They all got very scared and their eyes opened wide in shock. The seven o’clock newsreader could barely speak. She whispered: “Sounds like it landed very close.”

Maryam, the makeup lady, said: “God save us, I hope it is not a continuous attack.”

Sanga looked at Maryam and said: “If you finish my makeup and hair quickly you will be able to go home soon. I will be here until eight thirty or nine o’clock.”

It was 1985. The opposition was busy fighting the Afghan army, firing rockets and targeting government buildings and institutions. People used to call them blind rockets because only one in a hundred would hit the target.

Sanga’s heart was beating hard and fast. She hadn’t kissed her two-year-old son goodbye, because when she did, Ghamai would cry and insist on going with her. She couldn’t take him to work, so she usually left the house without letting him know.

Maryam said angrily: “What kind of country is this? They can’t let us live peacefully––how can we work and live in this kind of situation?”

It was twenty past six in the evening now. The telephone rang; it was a telephone on a wire, as they all were in offices at that time. Maryam picked up and, after listening, told the seven o’clock news reader to go to the newsroom. She said: “They say the news is very important and there is a lot of it. You need to go now.”

Then, too, radio and TV were important institutions. This newsroom produced news about the leader, his cabinet ministers, and their work, as well as the victories of the army, which was fighting the opposition. At the end of the broadcast, there was some international news too. At that time, there was only one TV channel across the county that broadcast live news in Kabul city.

The newsreader quickly took her pen out of her handbag, looked at herself in the mirror again, put on another layer of red lip liner, and left in a hurry. As she closed the door, another rocket struck. The makeup lady was panicking: “This is definitely a continuous attack; more rockets will land.”

Sanga was worried that Maryam might leave without finishing her makeup. The female newsreaders would always have their hair and makeup done before appearing on TV. Maryam took the metal comb, separated Sanga’s hair in small parts, and curled them all up. She plugged in the hair-drying hood while Sanga sat calmly underneath it, the warm breeze blowing through her hair.

The seven o’clock newsreader opened the door of the makeup room and came in to take her handbag. She had finished her work and a car was waiting to take her home. Maryam quickly said: “I want to go with you. We live in the same direction.

*

Sanga was left alone. She looked out of the makeup room window and it was dark now. She didn’t like being alone. She left the makeup room and went to the newsroom. At the top, there was the editor’s desk. He usually stayed beyond his eight-hour shift. This was an important office and everyone––from the editor to reporters, producers, and even the helping staff––had overtime pay.

As Sanga entered the newsroom, she greeted her colleagues and went straight to sit behind the long desk right in the middle of the room. One of her colleagues told her that not all her notes were ready but some copies were, so she could read through those. Sanga got busy, marking the script as she practiced reading. At that moment, there was another whistling sound followed by a huge explosion. This time the rocket had hit the technology building, newly built, just behind the National Radio & TV building. The explosion was so powerful that it broke the windows of the newsroom.

It was the end of autumn but the weather was cold; a sharp breeze blew into the newsroom. Someone opened the door and said in a worried voice: “All of you go to the lower floor. It is possible that more rockets will strike! Hurry, we all need to go downstairs now.”

Everyone started panicking and left their chairs, most of the staff took their pens and papers with them and started leaving the newsroom. Sanga left her notes on the table, she was very scared. One person came close to her and whispered in her ear: “Don’t get scared, everything will be fine.”

Sanga responded: “I have seen many rockets, they land every day. I am not scared of rockets, I am scared of God.”

Sanga had no sooner finished her sentence than another rocket landed, striking the front of the nearby admin building. If you looked down from the newsroom window you could see the building’s rooftop. A piece of shrapnel hit the chair where Sanga was sitting a few seconds ago. She had only just reached the door of the newsroom.

Everyone had left by now. Sanga went quickly to the corridor, took a deep breath, and ran down the stairs, nearly falling. It was now five minutes to eight o’clock. Sanga had to go to the live studio.

Before entering the studio, she took her shoes off and wore the special sandals which were kept in a metal cupboard. The people in charge of the studios didn’t want anyone bringing in dust that could harm the machines. Sanga had left her notes behind in the newsroom and was empty-handed. She went inside the studio, feeling the warmth of the studio lights as she sat down. The editor brought news copies and gave them to Sanga. It was time for the eight o’clock news. As Sanga was taking up the copies, she saw her face on the monitor in front of her and heard the signature tune of the news show going live. After that, she started reading the news bulletin, finishing it all on time. The studios were soundproof; no sound from explosions could enter from outside.

*

Sanga waited in front of the Radio & TV building in her makeup and styled hair. Other staff were also leaving the building in groups, there were big and small cars waiting to take them home. Everyone looked worried, many workers were lowering their heads as they walked toward the cars, as if walking that way would save them from the rockets.

One of the drivers told Sanga to get in the car quickly. Sanga got in and the driver sped toward the 3rd Macrorayan, those residential blocks built by the Russians in the 1950s and 60s. Before the car had reached the first roundabout, a rocket landed in front of those blocks. Sanga could hear the screams of men, women, and children. There was panic and chaos around her; her heart started beating fast. She decided that if this time she reached home safely, she would quit the presenting job.

She had decided to quit a few times before but whenever she thought it through, she would decide that a life without working would be hard. That thought seemed as bad as death to her.

Before they reached the second roundabout, another rocket landed near them. It went past the car and landed on the edge of the roundabout. The driver and Sanga both ducked. Scared and panicking, the driver nearly lost control of the car. After a stopping briefly, he started driving again.

Now the car had entered her part of the Macrorayan area. Along the way, they could hear the wounded people screaming and calling for help, but there was no one who could run out to help them.

*

Sanga finally reached her home. It was nine o’clock at night now, she went quickly up to her apartment and knocked forcefully on the door, but it wasn’t locked. Her mother had been standing behind the door for some time, waiting for her return. As she opened the door for Sanga, her eyes welled with tears, which she tried not to let flow.

Sanga went into her room, followed by her mother. She went close to Ghamai’s bed; he was fast asleep. She kissed him gently, touched his hair, and then sat on her bed, taking a deep breath. Her mother now had a smile on her face. Sanga asked her: “Mother, was Ghamai scared by the rockets?”

“No, he was sleeping, he didn’t even move in his bed,” she said.

“I was worried that a rocket might have landed near our block.”

As her mother listened carefully, Sanga told her that wherever she went today the rockets followed her: “I saw it with my own eyes. I had just got up off that chair and hadn’t even reached the newsroom door when the rocket landed and its shrapnel hit that same chair. It was just a matter of a few seconds. I got up and, when I looked back, the chair was all broken and destroyed.”

Her mother screamed with fear.

Sanga’s mother couldn’t stop crying anymore. Her voice echoing all over the room, she went up to her daughter, hugged her and then kissed her. Sanga felt calm in her arms. Her mother wiped her tears with the edge of her scarf. She went out of the room and, after a few seconds, brought back a glass of lemon juice. As Sanga drank the juice, she felt as if she was regaining her energy. Her mother left the room, telling her to rest.

*

It was eleven o’clock, the dogs could be heard barking far away, the roads were busy with ambulances. The rockets couldn’t be heard anymore. Sanga knew that the opposition had run out of rockets. She felt that they must be tired like her. She was thinking that they would be sleeping now and getting ready to launch fresh attacks tomorrow, but no one knew where the next attack would be and when it would happen.

Sanga held her head tightly between her hands. Her mind was full of news, loud explosions, and ambulance sirens. She pulled the duvet over Ghamai so he wouldn’t get cold.

She opened the wardrobe next to her bed and looked at her clothes––it seemed as though she was choosing her outfit. She took some clothes out and hung them on the door. She closed the curtains so the room couldn’t be seen from outside. She turned on the TV and a song by Mahwash was on. Before it ended the power went out.

Sanga got up and drew back the curtains. Moonlight brightened the room. She switched off the TV and lay down on her bed, but she couldn’t sleep. Ghamai’s beautiful face was shining in the moonlight, he looked like an angel child when it is asleep.

*

I saw Sanga the next day. She got out of the gray car in front of the National Radio & TV headquarters. She was wearing a khaki jacket with a black skirt, carrying a few books and her handbag. She adjusted her handbag on her shoulder, took her sunglasses off, and placed them on her head. Before entering the building, she looked around at the damage from the day before. She observed the scene carefully and calmly, and then went inside.

“The Decision” © 2020 by Sharifa Pasun. Translation © 2020 by Zarghuna Kargar. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.

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