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Memory Center Examines, Remembers Afghanistan’s 40 Years of War

Hameed Rafi holds his sister's watch during an interview with the Associated Press at the Rahila library, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo)
Hameed Rafi holds his sister's watch during an interview with the Associated Press at the Rahila library, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo)
Memory Center Examines, Remembers Afghanistan’s 40 Years of War
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Hameed Rafi says he will never forget the day he got to speak about the suicide bombing that killed his 18-year-old sister.

He shared his story in March as part of a panel discussion at the Afghanistan Center for Memory and Dialogue.

All of those wounded in the attack were taken to hospitals in and around Kabul, Rafi told people attending the discussion. He first began searching lists of the wounded that hung on hospital walls. But he could not find his sister’s name, Rahila.

Then, a doctor suggested Rafi also search lists of those killed.

“That shocked me," he said. "I had never considered that my sister wouldn’t be alive anymore.”

As he later learned, Rahila had died in the attack. She was studying in an education center for her college entrance exam when the bomb exploded.

Rafi’s chance to share his story is at the heart of the memory center’s mission. The center was launched in February and is a project of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization. It seeks to protect and share memories and stories of civilian victims of the country’s 40 years of war.

The center is in the lower level of a rented house in west Kabul. Special exhibits remind visitors of the years of destruction and loss. On display are clothes and pictures, along with personal information about victims, such as their names and the causes of their death or injury.

But the center is also a safe space for family and friends of civilian victims like Rafi, who can share their stories and keep the memories of their loved ones.

Afghanistan has experienced 40 years of continuous wars. The center has divided the conflict into periods. It starts with the former communist administration from 1978-1992, which led to the 1979 invasion by Soviet forces to support the government.

That period was followed by the civil war in the Islamic State of Afghanistan, which lasted from 1992 to 1996. During these years, competing militias fought against each other for power. In Kabul alone, 50,000 people died. Many of the leaders of those militias were returned to power by the international community in 2001.

The Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. The years from 2002 to present day represent the current period that followed the collapse of Taliban rule.

More than 2 million Afghan civilians are estimated to have died in the fighting between 1978 and 2001. Thousands more have been killed or hurt over the past 17 years, since the United States-led NATO intervention.

The memory center grew from the idea of “memory boxes.” Family members would take favorite possessions of victims and put them in boxes of different sizes and materials.

As family members met other victims’ family and friends, they began to exchange stories.

The center later asked survivors to write letters to their lost loved ones and to the larger Afghan community to let people know about their pain. This took place over about eight years. During that time, hundreds of memory boxes were created. They held more than 4,000 personal objects and stories.

Visitors see in one exhibit a Barbie doll and a makeup table. These playthings belonged to a young girl named Saima. She was killed in a suicide car bombing near the former parliament building in April 2015.

In another area, a wristwatch still shows the time for visitors, but not its owner, who is unidentified. The watch belonged to the victim of a suicide bombing attack in Kabul that killed and wounded many. Center organizers were unsure of the date of that attack.

“Unfortunately, in Afghanistan there was not a policy of remembrance for thousands of war victims...” said Hadi Marifat, the human rights organization’s director. He said the center serves as a place for survivors and victims’ families “to come...share their stories and to…get acknowledgement, which is…important in a context like Afghanistan.”

Rafi’s sister was one of 50 students killed in the Islamic State group’s suicide attack on the Mawood Educational Center in western Kabul.

When Rafi returned home after Rahila’s burial, he went through her diary. He discovered her love for books and education. In one of her diary entries, Rahila wrote that education is the only way out of the crisis in Afghanistan.

After reading his sister’s writings, Rafi decided to open a library in west Kabul -- not far from where Rahila lost her life.

The Rahila Library has more than 7,000 books with a separate reading space for visitors. So far, more than 4,000 people have visited the library since it opened last October.

Rafi said, “We lost Rahila, but we hope Rahila’s name and kindness will be remembered by people through this library.”

I’m Jonathan Evans. And I'm Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

panel - n. a group of people who answer questions, give advice or opinions about something, or take part in a discussion for an audience

rented - v. to pay money in return for being able to use (something that belongs to someone else)

exhibit - n. an object or a collection of objects that have been put out in a public space for people to look at

display - n. an arrangement of objects intended to decorate, advertise, entertain, or inform people about something

wristwatch - n. a watch that you wear on a strap or band around your wrist

context - n. the situation in which something happens : the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens

diary - n. a book in which you write down your personal experiences and thoughts each day

library - n. a place where books, magazines, and other materials (such as videos and musical recordings) are available for people to use or borrow