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‘Memory Boxes’ Offer Poignant Reminders of Afghan Lives Lost to Violence

Category: Politics,War & Conflict

KABUL, Afghanistan — A brother’s sandals. A flag of Afghanistan. A daughter’s favorite toy.

These are some of the remnants of lives lost to violence.

The prosaic belongings, collected in handmade wooden containers, are displayed in the frigid basement of a house in Kabul. They are the possessions of the dead, lovingly preserved by family members of Afghans killed during the past 40 years of conflict.

An exhibition of these everyday items — from scarves and robes to teacups and poems — seeks to memorialize a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have died violently since 1979 in Afghanistan, a country that rarely pauses to remember its victims.

Each so-called memory box includes a narrative composed by loved ones about the life lost, making each tragedy personal.

“We want the story written by the victims themselves,” said Hadi Marifat, director of the Afghanistan Center for Memory and Dialogue, where the exhibition, which opened in February, is housed.

Countless Afghan families have been shattered by violence, but the civilian dead are often forgotten and forsaken by everyone but their closest relatives, even as combatants — warlords, commanders, fighters — are lionized as martyrs in billboards and posters.

An exhibition label suggested these civilian victims have endured a “double catastrophe” — a violent death, followed by public erasure.

For victims’ families, the memory boxes are expressions of both grief and healing.

One of the 36 boxes on display belongs to Kabal Shah, whose brother was killed by a suicide bomber in 2016. The ambulance driver who delivered the body to Mr. Shah asked for the new sneakers the dead man wore that day. In his grief, Mr. Shah obliged.

He regretted that decision when he was first asked to build a memory box. But he had saved his brother’s favorite sandals, and that proved good enough.

“I wanted to make sure that my brother’s memory is preserved,” Mr. Shah said. “I want people to see what happened to my country — who we have lost and how painful it is.”

Another box contained a letter smuggled from prison in 1979 inside a hollow toothpaste tube, written in tiny script on cigarette pack paper: “I am still alive.” The prisoner who wrote it, Dawood Sharif, was executed a month later.

A pink toy dressing table cherished by an 8-year-old girl, Saima, was inside another box. She was killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul in 2015. Her father, Mohammad Musa, wrote of his efforts to locate her remains.

A nearby box featured a shirt and belt that belonged to Hikmatullah, 28, and Asadullah, 15, brothers killed in 2016 by a suicide bomber at a social justice rally in Kabul. Their mother, Maryam Shafayee, wrote that she had begged her sons not to attend, but gave them a bag of dried fruit to sustain them.

She received the bag, unopened, after her sons’ bodies were recovered.

“I always wish I had been killed with them,” Ms. Shafayee wrote.

The memory boxes are displayed in glass cases in an unheated, subterranean expanse under harsh lights, subjecting visitors to physical discomfort as they read family members’ heartbreaking accounts. Above the displays are photographs of the dead.

A written timeline snakes across whitewashed walls — a chronicle of misery that catalogs four distinct eras of violence, from the Soviet invasion in 1979, through the civil wars that followed, to the grinding coalition war against the Taliban, now in its 18th year.

Embedded in the timeline are the names of 8,450 people who lost their lives to suicide bombers, assassins, weapons of war and unknown gunmen. That figure is a fraction of the total victims of violence spanning 40 years.

Over the past decade alone, 32,000 Afghan civilians have died, according to the United Nations.

The nameless victims of mass killings are also commemorated at the exhibition. A map of Afghanistan shaped from dried mud and clay is dotted with tiny pins representing 19 confirmed mass graves — red flags for those from the communist era and black for the mujahedeen and Taliban periods.

In the exhibition, there is also a tower built from scorched robes, scarves, shoes and backpacks — residue recovered from several bomb attacks that indiscriminately targeted civilians.

“You can still smell the dried blood,” said Fatima Alavy, who works at the center.

The center received funding from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. Sima Samar, the director of the commission and a medical doctor, has her own story of violence to tell.

She said her husband, Abdul Ghafoor Sultani, was kidnapped in 1979 by agents of the Soviet-backed government at the time. She never saw him again.

The couple’s son vowed at age 5 to avenge his father’s death, Dr. Samar said. The boy cut the eyes out of newspaper photographs of government officials he blamed for his father’s kidnapping.

Her adult son no longer seeks vengeance, Dr. Samar said. But she said she feared the country would never recover as long as Afghans seek conflict and retribution rather than healing and reconciliation.

“Everyone is so focused on fighting and trying to stay safe that the victims are ignored,” Dr. Samar said. “They deserve respect and acknowledgment for their suffering.”

Inside the exhibition room, Nilofar Bayat, 26, described the rocket attack that struck her home in 1994, killing her brother, Assad Bayat, 13, and leaving her at age 2 with permanent spinal cord damage.

Most of her brother’s possessions were damaged, she said, but she recovered his school notebook for her memory box.

“I want people to see the person I lost — to know who he was,” Ms. Bayat said. “I have never forgotten what happened. I don’t want anyone else to forget, either.”

A few feet way, Sima Dawlatshahi, 65, spoke of her husband and son, killed 32 years apart. Her husband, Mohammad Yunos, was kidnapped in 1984, and never seen again. Ms. Dawlatshahi said she was pregnant at the time with the couple’s son, Ahmad Sharif.

In 2016, Ahmad died at 32 in a suicide bombing. His wife was pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Ms. Dawlatshahi said.

She sobbed as she described selecting possessions for her memory box. Soon those listening to her were weeping, too.

Through her tears, Ms. Dawlatshahi spoke of the lasting legacy of her husband and son, now enshrined in her memory box, which includes her husband’s favorite books and her son’s birth certificate.

“If people see this box and know of their goodness, my heart will be at peace,” she said.


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