A heartfelt story of a teenage boy living in the conflict zone of Afghanistan
"The explosion jolts him awake. He sits up, gasping for air, heart thumping.
Was the blast real? Perhaps it had only happened in his head, a bad dream. Demons of the dark, his father had called them. 'Push them away. They'll only poison your thoughts. Seek the light and they can't hurt you.'"
Naveed is sick of war—of the foreign powers and the Taliban, the warlords and the drug barons that together have torn Afghanistan apart. He's had to grow up quickly to take care of his widowed mother and little sister, making what little money he can doing odd jobs and selling at the markets. When he adopts Nasera, a street dog with extraordinary abilities, he has a chance to help rebuild his country. But will a new friend's betrayal crush his dreams of peace forever? From the winter of war comes the spring of hope.
About the Author
John Heffernan has written more than 50 books for young readers over a wide range of genres and age groups. His books have won numerous awards. Lyn White is an editor and teacher. Her work with refugee and migrant children motivated her to create a series that spoke of their experiences, and led to the Through My Eyes series.
Read an Excerpt
Through My Eyes
By John Heffernan, Lyn White
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2014 John Heffernan
All rights reserved.
The explosion jolts him awake. He sits up, gasping for air, heart thumping.
Was the blast real? Perhaps it had only happened in his head, a bad dream. He'd had plenty of those, nightmares real as real. Demons of the dark, his father called them.
Push them away. They'll only poison your thoughts. Seek the light and they can't hurt you.
The boy peers hard into the tiny room where he lives with his mother and sister. He listens intently. But the room gives nothing back. Its mud walls hunch over him. The two windows, holes patched with plastic bags, look down like a dead man's eyes. The blanket covering the low doorway to the outside shifts in the morning breeze: a mouth that might speak but only sighs. He catches a whiff of its stale breath, a mix of smells he knows well – garbage, diesel, sewage, dust. He grimaces. But almost immediately his father's words are there again.
In every darkness there is light, Naveed. Never forgetthat. Always look for the light.
'Yes, Padar,' he whispers into the pre-dawn greyness that fills the room. 'I will.'
He means it. He will never forget anything his father said. Never. And he does always seek the light, or at least tries his hardest to do so.
'It's just not that easy, Padar. Without you here the darkness seems so great.'
The darker it gets, the harder you must seek. Padar always had an answer, always a reason to see good, even when it seemed to be nowhere in sight. The world lives on hope.
'You are right, Padar.'
Of course, there is much to thank Allah for, Naveed has to admit as he looks around the room they moved into barely a fortnight ago. It might be tiny and cramped, with a wide crack down one wall and a ceiling in need of repair, but it is a thousand times better than the tent they lived in for almost two years after Padar died. Perishingly cold in winter, unbearably hot and filled with dust in summer, its threadbare canvas was often torn or flattened by the strong winds that blew across the plains from the Hindu Kush.
The room is heaven by comparison – a solid roof over their heads, a place to call home. Mr Kalin charges far too much rent, but that only makes Naveed more determined to work harder and longer. After all, he is the man of the house now, the head of the family. It is all up to him.
He grits his teeth. Improvements, that's what they need. He'll make improvements to the room as soon as possible. A proper door to keep out the icy winds when they return next year. A thick mat for the earthen floor. A good charcoal burner for cooking and heating. The kerosene cooker they have now is old and dangerous.
Yes, that's it, improvements. Little by little he will turn this room into a real home. Qatra qatra darya mesha, as Padar would say. Drop by drop a river is made.
Naveed stretches, lifting his backside off the hard floor. That's another thing he'll get when they can afford it – a toshak, a proper sleeping mat. All he has now is a piece of cardboard. He dreams of owning a really soft toshak like his little sister's. Her sleeping mat comes from his grandmother and has extra padding. But then Anoosheh needs that; it helps her sleep when the pain becomes too great.
He glances across at his sister. She is sound asleep, curled up like a little ball. She cried out in the night, but then she usually does. His mother is asleep too. They look so peaceful it sends a rush of warmth through him, making him smile. They are the biggest reason he has to be thankful. They are his reason for living.
A second explosion startles Naveed, quickly followed by a third. Both blasts make the ground tremble, though they still don't wake his mother and sister. At least he now knows that the first explosion was real, and where it had come from.
Definitely not Taliban; too big for them. The blasts were from Bagram Airfield, the huge American base about five kilometres away. The Americans liked blowing up things. They did it all the time.
He waits for more explosions. But they don't come. The aeroplanes continue, though; they will go on for a long time now. Bagram Airfield has been rumbling and grumbling every day of late, and well into the night. The Americans are leaving, flying out machinery, weapons and equipment every chance they get. It is said that by the end of the year the main forces will be gone, and Afghans will be in charge of their own future. Naveed can't imagine what that will be like; the Americans have been part of his life for as long as he can remember.
They came when he was only a year and a half old, after decades of struggle and strife – war with the Russians, civil war with the Mujaheddin, the cruel rule of the Taliban. Naveed's father had been thrilled at the time.
I knew there was a reason we called you Naveed, he used to say. The name meant 'good news, happy tidings'. It was Allah's way of telling us not to give up hope.
And at first the Americans were like a fresh breeze. They promised peace and stability. They promised to rebuild the country, a brand new Afghanistan where people could do and think and say whatever they wanted. Afghans began to hope once more.
That was thirteen years ago. How sour things had turned. The peace didn't last long, the stability crumbled to desert dust. The great wealth that poured into the country was swallowed by foreign companies and local warlords; ordinary Afghans saw none of it.
And now, after all those years and all that promise, the Americans are leaving.
Good news? Happy tidings? Sometimes Naveed feels his name is like a bad joke.
He stands, waiting for another sound, one that always comes at this time in the morning, as sure as the sun rises. He walks across the room to the doorway, lifts the blanket and steps through into a small outside alcove that separates the room from the passing alley.
On a rickety table is a basin, beside it a jug of water. He pours a little of the chill liquid into the basin and begins making wud'u, cleansing himself for prayer, for the sake of Allah.
When finished washing, he stands up straight and takes a deep breath, waiting, anticipating.
A moment later, there it is.
The voice of the muezzin wafts from the mosque on the other side of town, calling everyone to the first prayers of the day, the Namaaz e Sohb.
The azan, the call to prayer, rings out again, and twice more, followed by further declarations from the muezzin in a long melodic song drifting through the air, beckoning to all.
Naveed listens, entranced by the beauty of the muezzin's voice. When the azan is finished, he raises his hands in the air and, facing Mecca, whispers the words himself.
Then, his hands folded across his chest, he begins to pray. He has much to thank Allah for.
And maybe a few favours to ask.CHAPTER 2
'Little sister, please.'
Naveed claps his hands at Anoosheh, amused at her playfulness but also aware of the time.
'Ajala kon – hurry up! We have to go.'
Ever since breakfast his sister has been cavorting around on her crutches, spinning and twisting. Naveed made some adjustments to them yesterday, adding soft underarm pads and new bases with rubber he'd found among the rubbish near the bazaar.
'They're perfect,' she laughs. 'Thank you, baradar-e bozorg, big brother.' She spins past him. He tries to catch her but she keeps just out of reach, performing a pirouette on her newly improved crutches.
Naveed rolls his eyes, exasperated but unable to be annoyed. Anoosheh is the joy of his life, a constant source of fun and laughter despite all that's happened. Five years have passed since she lost her legs. Amputated just above the knees. An improvised explosive device. Naveed won't ever forget, not any of it. He can still hear the explosion, still see her crumple like a ragdoll. It is part of the darkness he carries, the darkness that fell upon him that day – a pall of horror and sadness for his little sister. And guilt, for she had been in his care. Why had he let her run ahead? Why couldn't he have been the one to step on the IED? Such questions have stabbed him like daggers ever since.
And yet over the years Anoosheh has never looked at him with even a hint of blame. Nor has she ever shown any sign of self-pity. Not once. The opposite, in fact.
'I'm warning you, Noosh.' He tries to sound threatening, but his sister only laughs. So he pretends to be a barmanu, one of the giant creatures said to live in the caves of the Hindu Kush, and begins chasing her. 'You asked for it. I eat young girls. Grrrrr!'
'Komak! Help! Keep away,' she squeals and scampers off. Naveed is amazed at how quickly she can move using a combination of her stumpy legs and crutches.
'Really, Anoosheh! I have to go,' he insists. 'I'll be late for work and you'll be late for school.'
'Huh! Work? School?' she shouts dismissively. 'We won't need either of those when I'm a famous hip-hop dancer.'
'Oh? So is that what you're going to be now?' her mother asks. 'I thought it was a ballerina.'
'That was ages ago, Madar. Hip hop is much better, and I think I have a natural talent for it. Have you seen my latest move? Watch.'
She tosses the crutches away and stands on her two stumpy legs, using her hands to balance. Before anyone can stop her, she drops to her back on the earthen floor and begins to spin. Her mother springs forward at once.
'Ayee!' she yells, grabbing her daughter and lifting her up. 'Don't you dare. That's your one clean outfit. It's for school, not for rolling in the dirt like a pig.'
'Madar!' Anoosheh cries, wriggling to free herself. 'How will I ever become Afghanistan's Queen of Hip Hop if you won't let me practise?'
'Enough, daughter. Your brother is right. Off to school with you. Go, now!'
Anoosheh stops struggling. She throws her arms around her mother's neck, hugging and kissing her. 'Khoda hafez, goodbye, Madar.'
Naveed picks up the crutches, tossing them to his sister one after the other. She turns in her mother's arms, catches them, and is about to rush off, but her mother pulls her back.
'Wait, you little worm,' she says, wrapping a thick scarf around Anoosheh's neck. 'There's a cold wind out there. You won't be hipping or hopping anywhere if you don't look after those lungs of yours.'
Anoosheh huffs impatiently as her mother also makes sure her headscarf is tied securely and her coat buttoned up. Then she scuttles out the door as fast as a cockroach. 'Come along, baradar,' she shouts. 'Keep up. You're as slow as a snail.'
Naveed shakes his head, then throws Anoosheh's satchel over his shoulder, along with his own bag, and kisses his mother.
'Khoda hafez, Madar. I will bring home food for tonight, and hopefully some money, if God wills it.'
'You are a good boy, Naveed. Anoosheh and I are fortunate to have you.'
'Not nearly as fortunate as we are to have you, Madar.'
Naveed's mother reaches out and strokes his cheek. A shadow of concern drifts across her face like a grey cloud. 'Whatever happens, I only hope that —' She cuts herself short and looks away.
'What is it, Madar?'
'Hich,' she whispers, keeping her face averted. 'Nothing.'
'Madar, please,' Naveed insists. 'Look at me.'
She eventually turns her face to him. She is smiling sweetly now, but Naveed guesses it is only with her lips. She has always made a point of hiding her sad feelings, never wishing to burden him or Anoosheh with her worries. He sees that her eyes glisten.
'What is the matter?' he persists. 'Tell me.'
She shakes her head. 'Man hoob hastam, I'm fine. Really, my son, I am.'
Naveed doesn't believe a word of it, but before he can question her further the blanket covering the doorway is swept aside and Anoosheh appears.
'Are you coming, baradar?' she snaps. Then, mimicking his voice perfectly, she adds: 'I'll be late for school and you'll be late for work.'
Their mother bursts out laughing. 'Take her away, my son. Please, I beg of you!'CHAPTER 3
Because they're in a hurry, Anoosheh and Naveed take a shortcut to school. It snakes through lanes and alleys where some of the poorest of Bagram live – in crumbling mud huts, tents and derelict hovels. The long war has created a vast army of the desperate and starving – widows with children they can't possibly feed; legions of street kids, abandoned or orphaned.
They pass vacant lots piled high with stinking garbage, through narrow unpaved streets with potholes and open sewage drains. Impossibly thin wild-eyed children, sit in the rubbish as if they are part of it. A few squat by the drains, staring at Naveed and his sister as they pass, too lethargic to move. One boy calls to them.
'Az barai khuda, ghareeb hastam – for God's sake, I am poor.'
Naveed and Anoosheh want to help. They can see that the boy is starving. But they have nothing themselves. And they know that if they do help, they'll be swamped by the other children. They keep moving.
Eventually they reach a much wider street, one which is paved, although the surface is broken in places, cracks all through it. This street joins the main road that comes from the city of Charikar in the north-west and leads to the centre of Bagram. In the other direction is one of the richest parts of town, where warlords and drug barons and anyone else able to skim off some of the foreign wealth pouring into Afghanistan live in brash palace-like mansions.
'Nearly there,' says Naveed as they turn into the street. The school is only a hundred metres away. Anoosheh hurries ahead of her brother. 'Be careful,' he shouts.
Naveed is not overly worried. Anoosheh is remarkably capable on her crutches, and generally aware of her surroundings. Besides, she is barely ten metres ahead of him, and the traffic is only light at present. Even so, he instinctively quickens his pace, and calls again.
'Anoosheh. Slow down.'
As the words leave his lips, there is a roar from behind. Naveed whips his head around to see a huge black Humvee bearing down at full speed – a warlord's warhorse. He sprints after Anoosheh, shouting. She stops and turns, but one of her crutches slips into a crack and lodges there. She topples sideways, sprawling onto the road, right in the path of the Humvee.
Naveed hurls himself at his sister, grabbing her outstretched hand and dragging her off the road as the Humvee snarls past. A second later and the black beast would have driven straight over Anoosheh.
Naveed lies on his back at the side of the road, eyes shut, taking deep breaths. His sister lies on top of him. He still has her hand clenched firmly in his.
'Ayee, little Noosh!' he mutters weakly.
He opens his eyes and stares straight into hers. They are full of gratitude.
'God is kind to bless me with a brother like you.' She hugs him hard.
A crowd has formed. People peer down at them, concerned. Naveed lifts his sister off and stands, helping her up. Then he retrieves Anoosheh's crutches and hands them to her.
'A thousand curses,' she shouts after the Humvee, even though it has long since vanished down the road. Everyone knows that the big black vehicle belongs to one or other of the warlords or drug barons in the area, and they all nod in agreement.
'May your eyes fall out and your teeth go black!' Anoosheh continues. 'May your skin be covered in scabs!' She shakes her fist in the air. 'Coward!' she yells, almost toppling sideways in the process.
The crowd cheers and Naveed smiles. He does wonder where Anoosheh learned such a curse, but loves the fierce pride that burns in her, making her seem tall.
'Come along, sister,' he says. 'I've had enough excitement for one morning.'
Anoosheh's friend Pari is waiting as they pass through the gate into the school.
'I thought you'd never come,' she says. 'What kept you?'
'Brothers,' Anoosheh says, clicking her tongue. 'I swear he slept in.'
'Noosh!' Naveed gapes at his sister.
Pari laughs. She knows what Anoosheh is like. They've been friends for a long time, even though Pari is about two years older, nearly thirteen.
Excerpted from Naveed by John Heffernan, Lyn White. Copyright © 2014 John Heffernan. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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