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Qais Akbar Omar was only 11 years old when his family fled Kabul, refugees or "modern nomads in a beat-up old car." They fled the rocket-fire and intense fighting between the mujahedeen factions, living for a while at the home of one of his father's business partners.
As they sought long-term safety, the family drove around Afghanistan living in an encampment, in caves, and off the kindness of strangers in various parts of the country.
Now, 30, Qais is studying for a master's degree in creative writing at Boston University after publishing his memoir, "A Fort of Nine Towers."
Qais has not returned to his homeland since he came to Boston in August 2012. Even though he removed nearly all of the names from his book, Qais said it would not be safe for him to return to Afghanistan.
"All those people are still in charge in Afghanistan," he said while sitting in his one bedroom Quincy apartment, which is filled with the trappings of his home country — lush carpets, ornate furniture and an ornate blue and gold tea set.
"In a way, I put myself in a kind of dangerous position if I go back." Qais explained that the could become the target for any one of the religious factions.
It was unexpected for Qais, from a book he never planned on publishing. After 9/11, Qais taught himself English and became an interpreter. He first worked for the U.S. military, then with American journalists and later for the United Nations. When the foreigners would ask Qais what it was like to grow up in Kabul, he would recount some of the stories, and tell of his nightmares that haunted him from those days — the horrific images of death and brutality.
Several people suggested that Qais write in order to get rid of the dreams. Initially in 2004, he tried in his native tongue, Dari. "It was too painful. I just couldn't do it," he said.
Two years later, suicide bombings started taking place in Afghanistan. Qais said watching the news reports triggered many painful memories. He went into his bedroom and started writing. This time, he wrote in English. He did not stop for nearly two months.
"For some reason, in my head when I translate everything from one language to another language, the pain decreases. It was easier. ... It's painful, but I can manage," Qais explained.
After he finished writing, Qais would share the book with his foreign friends, in order to help explain what life in Kabul through civil war and Taliban rule was like. Qais was taken by religious factions several times. He and his father were taken prisoner and forced to dig a tunnel for one faction while witnessing the soldier's attacks on women at night. He and his father were detained and tortured while trying to make their way to Pakistan. He was jailed in a Taliban prison when he was 18 for not wearing a turban.
But he made it out last year. Even now, Qais said the nightmares return now and then. He is still hoping that one day he can return to the land he loves so much.
Qais Akbar Omar, author of "A Fort of Nine Towers"
The New York Times: "Omar and his family spend most of the book desperately searching for a way out of Afghanistan; they have finally raised the money for a smuggler when the twin towers fall. With the start of American airstrikes on the Taliban’s strongholds, Omar’s father digs his heels in. 'I’m not leaving until I find out who these people' — the latest interlopers in his country’s affairs, that is — 'are,' he declares."
Excerpt from "Fort of Nine Towers" by Qais Akbar Omar
What we saw, I will never forget. Thousands of people like us were taking advantage of the ceasefire to flee from our part of the city. Thousands and thousands of people, walking in near silence. When they spoke, they whispered as if they had been forbidden to talk normally. They were strung along each side of the roadway, moving along like lines of ants. All of them had two or three bags in their hands.
Ours was the only car on the road. When they saw our car, they all rushed toward us, asking us to give them a lift, even though they could see that our car was already fully packed. The crowd that gathered around us was so huge that my father could not move the car forward, not even one inch. Some were trying to pull my cousins and me out of the trunk so they could take our place. My father shouted back to us, "Hold on to each other, and lock your fingers together tightly."
We did what we were told, and my father rolled up his window, pressed the horn, turned on the lights, and drove slowly, then faster until one by one the people let go of us.
For the first time in the two months since the fighting had started, all of us were seeing the destruction it had caused. Things we had heard about, but had not wanted to believe, we were now seeing for ourselves.
The block-long, eight-story yellow grain silo that the Russians had built was full of holes where rockets had hit it. Small mountains of wheat lay at the base of the silo where it had flowed out through the holes.
There were big craters in the road where rockets had fallen. This had been the best road in Kabul. There were still many half-exploded rockets standing in the middle of the road, like nails that had been banged halfway through a piece of wood.
Hundreds of dead bodies were scattered all over the pavement, on the sidewalks, and in the park in the middle of the road. Some looked like they had been there for a long time. Blood was matted all over their clothes. Most were on the main road. Maybe they had been hit by a rocket when they were trying to cross the road. But many of them had been shot with bullets to the heat, chest, or back. This was the work of the snipers. I could not believe my eyes; I thought I was seeing an American horror movie, especially when I saw parts of bodies, like arms or legs or even heads, lying by themselves.
My father had no choice but to drive over the ones in our path. Some of the dead bodies were on their backs as if they were sleeping. When our car drove over them, the speed of the car turned their faces toward the road, and the car rose up off the pavement.
To avoid hitting a man who was running toward us, my father drove the wrong way around the roundabout in front of the Polytechnic, then gunned the car up the hill toward the Intercontinental Hotel.
Beyond the top of the hill, everything looked different. The unimaginable scene through which we had just driven suddenly vanished. In its place, we saw real life.
People were buying bread from bakeries for their breakfast. Little kids were holding their parents' hands as they were walking to their school. The dogs were not howling. The roads were not empty. People's windows were not slamming, and their doors were not banging. There was no war. None.
This segment aired on January 20, 2014.
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