On Tuesday morning, my uncle Arsala Jamal was killed in a bomb blast in a mosque in Afghanistan. The bomb was planted inside the mosque’s microphone and detonated while he was delivering a speech about Islamic values of non-violence and education.
At 1:00 in the morning, while studying for my neuroscience midterm, I got a call from my friend who had heard the news on the radio in Kabul. His voice trembled hesitantly as he said, “Arsala Jamal has been killed in a suicide attack.”
I was too paralyzed to give him a reply so I disconnected the call. After regaining some sort of consciousness, I started to take in the gravity of what had happened. That night, Arsala’s wife and six kids were celebrating their youngest daughter’s second birthday at their home in Canada. I wasn’t sure whether they’d heard, so in the midst of my confusion and sorrow I called them. They had not yet been told about his death, and it was the hardest news for me to break. Yet, there was no way to silence the news or to undo any of it. And at least they didn’t hear it from the media, but from a loved one instead.
Beyond being a cherished member of my family, Arsala was an influential and respected leader, having served as the governor of two provinces and the Minister of Tribal Affairs. In Kabul, whenever I would mention his name in a social setting, people would instantly respect me because of what my uncle represented. In the span of several hours after his death, many of my Afghan friends on Facebook changed their profile pictures to photos of him. The United Nations condemned his death, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai attended his funeral. Messages began pouring in offering my family condolences and words of kindness.
I realized that this was not just a personal loss for my family — it was a loss for all of Afghanistan. With Arsala, the terrorists took away an intellectual leader with deep roots in the provinces he governed. He was dedicated to improving life for the average Afghan; recently, he was working on the development of the world’s second biggest copper mine, located at Mes Aynak in Logar province. He was also on the vanguard of promoting education for Afghan youth. President Karzai offered my uncle safer jobs, like the ambassadorship to Canada. But he chose to work in Afghanistan so as to directly impact civilians there.
He knew the risks entailed by his public service to the country, and he had been attacked more than a dozen times before his death. I remember my concerned dad saying the terrorists just needed to get lucky once, while Arsala needed to get lucky every time in order to escape. Unfortunately, this time he didn’t get lucky.
Hopeless from thousands of miles away, I wanted to return for the funeral processions, and Yale University had offered to pay for my flight. Although I could not go home because of my single-entry U.S. visa limitation, Yale’s offer, along with the kindness of my master, dean and professors, consoled me and showed me the immense support system this community offers.
This incident adds a new layer of complexity to my long-term question of whether to return home to Afghanistan. All Yalies struggle with decisions about how to balance their various interests and direct their careers. Not only do I grapple with these issues, but also questions of how to balance my career in neuroscience with my lifelong dream of helping Afghans in a concrete and direct manner.
I always knew there would be a risk in returning to Afghanistan. But I could not fathom it hitting so close to home. I go back home to Afghanistan every summer and try to identify the best ways that I can help out. In 2010, for example, I worked in the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan during the Wolesi Jirga elections. Friends always told me that it was risky. Yet it was not until last week, when I received that phone call, that I could fathom how genuine those fears were.
The realization that someone who wishes to lead the country could be killed adds a new coat of confusion to my considerations of going back home. But I don’t want to succumb to my trepidation. The prime objective of terrorists is to spread fear and discourage intellectuals from stepping up to fill in leadership positions left vacant. I see my uncle as a beacon of courage, and someone who truly lived by the values he espoused. Remembering Arsala, it becomes clear to me that I want to go back home — and that he would have wanted the same.
Saifullah Khan is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.