KANDAHAR — The young man’s voice comes crackling through, sounding as if it’s so far away that it’s another era entirely. Bent over an old telephone fitted in a box, an old woman wrapped all in black listens hard and asks questions, in between her sobs.
The whole family is gathered around the woman: her two sons, her brother, a nephew and a cousin. They are all crammed in the tiny wooden booth installed by the International Committee of the Red Cross at its headquarters in Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban’s spiritual home.
The young man whose echo was scrambled across the telephone line is named Zakaria. He is being detained more than 500 kilometers away, in the infamous prison of Bagram, the location of a U.S. military base north of Kabul. He was arrested during the summer of 2013 in his home village of Qala Shamir, in one of the most violent districts near Kandahar.
“He was sleeping peacefully at home when they arrived and arrested him in the middle of the night,” recalls Abdul Malik, a cousin who accompanied the rest of his family for the phone call organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Amid daily violence, Afghanistan prepares to vote for a new president Saturday, and the issue of prisoners like Zakaria continues to be a thorn in the side of the relationship between outgoing President Hamid Karzai and the United States. The longstanding Afghan leader has been making a point of denouncing night raids by American troops, part of his strategy to win back support from a public that has never accepted the arbitrary aspect of many arrests or the number of civilians killed and injured during those operations.
A terrible mistake
Since the U.S. ceded control of the Bagram detention center to the Afghan authorities in March 2013, Karzai has ordered the release of 120 prisoners over the objections of Washington. The Americans believe that among those freed are fighters responsible for attacks against NATO troops.
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U.S. soldiers at Bagram military base — Photo: United States Navy
But for the Kandahar families gathered at the Red Cross headquarters, the wait continues. In the small courtyard facing the telephone booths, the organization erected a tent of light blue canvas. Some 40 people have been waiting inside since the break of dawn, just to be able to talk for a bit with their loved ones who are imprisoned on the other end of the country.
This is the fourth time in eight months that Zakaria’s family has traveled from Qala Shamir to Kandahar to call him.
Abdul Malik is very talkative. His face covered in a white beard and his hair covered by a black turban, the owner of the village grocery is convinced his cousin is innocent. “Zakaria is not a Taliban. He was arrested by mistake,” he says.
On the night of the raid, it was so warm that Malik was sleeping outside in his courtyard, and is sure there were no fights during the lightning-fast operation. Out of the five arrested that night, Zakaria is the only one who remains in custody.
Whenever they call, Zakaria asks his family to send him books, and says he is not ill-treated. But whether that’s the truth or simply an act of discretion in the event he is being monitored is unclear. The conversations usually avoid sensitive topics. Many families choose not to give their sons bad news, such as the death of a relative, so as not to disturb them further.
The old woman in black is now weeping, after having just hung up the phone. Already, another family is slipping into the small wooden booth, and the Zakarias will be on their way back to Qala Shamir, where war still looms.
There, between the Afghan soldiers posted at the entry of the village and the Taliban hidden nearby, the population is in the proverbial crossfire. “When fights break out, we’re stuck between the two sides,” Malik says.
Thirteen years after they were installed, the telephone booths at the International Committee of the Red Cross still represent a precious chord of humanity in the horror of the Afghanistan war.