Hansen: Boy in him always searching for his father - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, October 13, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 6:51 pm
Hansen: Boy in him always searching for his father

If you want to know Afghanistan, follow me into Sher Jan Ahmadzai's office. Crowd around his desk as he leans forward and stares at his computer screen.

Watch him scroll down. Watch his eyes widen. Watch him and wonder: Why are his hands shaking?

Sher Jan is 37.

When he was 3, he learned his alphabet in the squalor of a Pakistani refugee camp. When he was 30, he served as Afghan President Hamid Karzai's right-hand man.

Today he's a rising star inside the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies, an up-and-comer who speaks English better than most native speakers and hobnobs with scholars and returns each day to the west Omaha home he shares with his wife and two sons.

None of this explains why his heart is racing, why he struggles to breathe as he scrolls through this spreadsheet of 5,000 names and dates and reasons.

None of this explains why he searches for only one name, the name of a man he has searched for his entire life.

It doesn't explain why sometimes Sher Jan will see a crowd of Afghans in Kabul or a crowd of Afghan-Americans in Washington, D.C., and he will catch himself studying their faces and wondering:

Are you Muhammad Darwesh?

Dad, is that you?

He was a toddler the day the police stopped his father at a checkpoint on the dusty outskirts of Pul-i Khumri, a city in northern Afghanistan.

In photos, Muhammad Darwesh looks tall and handsome. Regal. He had served briefly in the Afghan army of King Zahir Shah before the king was ousted in a 1973 coup.

After he came home from the army, Darwesh took a job with a Canadian company digging a canal near his hometown. He drove a dump truck. Sometimes he drove the truck out of his way to give a fellow Afghan a ride home.

Increasingly he spoke to his passengers about the reign of Afghan President Nur Muhammad Taraki, the Soviet-backed ruler who seized control in 1978.

Taraki, a communist, established a policy he called “land reform.” Darwesh called it stealing some people's land and distributing it to others.

Taraki downplayed the role of Islam in Afghan society and tried to ban traditional Afghan marriage. Darwesh saw that as insulting to his neighbors and their long-held way of life.

And then Taraki started killing Afghans who spoke out against him, and for Darwesh, that was too much.

He denounced the Afghan president to relatives, friends and neighbors. And he marched in at least one anti-government rally meant to show the president that Afghans weren't afraid.

“He was not a political activist,” Sher Jan says. “He was just a common man who was fed up.”

After that rally in the spring of 1979, Darwesh and two other men were driving in a car when they stopped at a police checkpoint. The police recognized him as an anti-Taraki demonstrator. They threw him in handcuffs and hauled him to the nearest prison.

Darwesh's relatives were afraid — so afraid of the stories of firing squads and unmarked graves that they wouldn't even go to the prison to beg for his release.

But somehow Darwesh got word to his family. He had two wishes.

He would like his wife to bake him a batch of his favorite cookies. And he would like to see his son.

So they swallowed their fear. They dressed 2-year-old Sher Jan in his finest clothes. They took him to the prison.

But Darwesh wasn't there. None of the guards would explain.

He was just — gone.

“We had no idea where,” Sher Jan says.

Within the year, Sher Jan's family also lost an uncle, killed by the police, and a grandfather, who died of a heart attack.

Penniless, they moved to a refugee camp in Peshawar, and then found a one-room apartment in a rundown suburb. Eight of them lived in that one room.

To support the family, Sher Jan's uncle quit school and worked as an office boy. The uncle was 10.

His grandmother did laundry for rich Pakistanis.

Together they kept Sher Jan in a school for refugee Afghans run by the Afghan Ministry of Education in exile — a school that used the teaching aids and textbooks provided by a center for Afghan studies at a faraway American university.

“I'm the product of those books,” he says today. “I'm a product of that work by UNO.”

As he made his way through junior high and then high school, Sher Jan thought constantly about what had happened to his father. Some relatives said he had died in that prison. Others said he had been hauled away and shot.

But Sher Jan held out hope.

Siberia, he told himself. The Soviets have taken him. My father is a prisoner in Siberia.

Sher Jan learned English so well that when he graduated from high school he started teaching English to others. He learned it so well that in 2002, after the United States swept the Taliban out of Kabul, he moved back to Afghanistan and got a government job as a translator.

He did that job so well he got another job, in President Karzai's media relations office. And he did that job so well he got another, and another, until his business card said, “Director of Presidential Scheduling.”

He got married. He had his first boy. He kissed the newborn's hand and he wondered: Did my dad kiss my hand the day I was born? Did he feel like I feel today? Did his heart feel like it was bursting from his chest, too?

He kept working hard for Hamid Karzai. He didn't ask Karzai or other government officials the question that rattled around inside his head.

“I thought about it constantly,” he says. “ 'Does anyone here know what happened to my father?' ”

He came to Omaha on a State Department grant, and he loved it so much that he moved back and signed up for classes in the fall of 2007. Tom Gouttierre, the nationally known Afghan expert and a longtime dean of UNO's International Studies & Programs, gave Sher Jan a part-time job and a partial scholarship.

Sher Jan turned that part-time job into a full-time job. He graduated with a degree in international studies — with honors — in 2011. He's a graduate student now.

“What would your dad think of this?” I ask Sher Jan as we sit in his corner office a world away from that Pakistani refugee camp.

“I think he would be proud,” Sher Jan says. “I know he would.”

Which leads us to a recent morning in September; leads us to cram ourselves into Sher Jan's office as he opens a newly released list of Afghans killed in a Kabul political prison during the communist era.

There are 5,000 names on the 1978 and 1979 lists released by the Dutch government. These 5,000 names represent tens of thousands more killed during the Soviet invasion. They represent the hundreds of thousands who died during the Afghan civil war and the brutal Taliban repression and the American invasion of 2001.

They represent every Afghan, Sher Jan thinks, because every Afghan has felt the violence during the past 35 years. Every Afghan has lost at least one person they love.

There are 5,000 names on this particular list. Sher Jan searches for one.

His heart races. His hands shake.

And then, halfway down the list, he sees a single name.


The one-word reason listed for his execution, when translated into English: troublemaker.

It is a funny thing, this list.

Sher Jan is glad it exists, because it gives him certainty.

And he is sad it exists, because he will never again search for his father in a crowd in Kabul or Washington.

“That hope is gone,” he says.

Now Sher Jan is working his contacts within the Afghan government. He is trying to find the mass grave where they dumped his father and likely thousands of others in May 1979.

He is trying because he wants to return to Kabul, place some flowers on that grave and say a goodbye he never got to say.

On that day, if it comes, Sher Jan will be two different men.

He will be an Afghan-American success story who impressed important men on two continents as he rose from refugee camp to the presidential palace.

He will also be just another Afghan boy whose father left one morning and never came home.

That's Afghanistan. That's as much as we can grasp from the reflected glow of Sher Jan Ahmadzai's computer.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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