n a paper bag, Aziza packed these things: her flowered shirt and her lone pair of socks,
her mismatched wool gloves, an old, pumpkin colored blanket dotted with stars and
comets, a splintered plastic cup, a banana, her set of dice It was a cool morning in April
2001, shortly before Laila's twenty third birthday. The sky was a translucent gray, and gusts
of a clammy, cold wind kept rattling the screen door.
This was a few days after Laila heard that Ahmad Shah Massoud had gone to France and
spoken to the European Parliament. Massoud was now in his native North, and leading the
Northern Alliance, the sole opposition group still fighting the Taliban. In Europe, Massoud
had warned the West about terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and pleaded with the U.S. to
help him fight the Taliban.
"If President Bush doesn't help us," he had said, "these terrorists will damage the U.S. and
Europe very soon."
A month before that, Laila had learned that the Taliban had planted TNT in the crevices of
the giant Budd has in Bamiyan and blown them apart, calling them objects of idolatry and
sin. There was an outcry around the world, from the U.S. to China. Governments, historians,
and archaeologists from all over the globe had written letters, pleaded with the Taliban not
to demolish the two greatest historical artifacts in Afghanistan. But the Taliban had gone
ahead and detonated their explosives inside the two thousand year old Buddhas. They had
chanted Allah u akbar with each blast, cheered each time the statues lost an arm or a leg in
a crumbling cloud of dust. Laila remembered standing atop the bigger of the two Buddhas
with Babi and Tariq, back in 1987, a breeze blowing in their sunlit faces, watching a hawk
gliding in circles over the sprawling valley below. But when she heard the news of the
statues' demise, Laila was numb to it. It hardly seemed to matter. How could she care about
statues when her own life was crumbling dust?
Until Rasheed told her it was time to go, Laila sat on the floor in a comer of the living
room, not speaking and stone faced, her hair hanging around her face in straggly curls. No
matter how much she breathed in and out, it seemed to Laila that she couldn't fill her lungs
with enough air.
On the way to Karteh Seh, Zalmai bounced in Rasheed's arms, and Aziza held Mariam's
hand as she walked quickly beside her. The wind blew the dirty scarf tied under Aziza's
chin and rippled the hem of her dress. Aziza was more grim now, as though she'd begun to
sense, with each step, that she was being duped. Laila had not found the strength to tell
Aziza the truth. She had told her that she was going to a school, a special school where the
children ate and slept and didn't come home after class. Now Aziza kept pelting Laila with
the same questions she had been asking for days. Did the students sleep in different rooms
or all in one great big room? Would she make friends? Was she, Laila, sure that the
teachers would be nice?