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An Afghan Orphan Looks For His Roots

Mohammad Rassool
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WATCH: Mohammad Rasool turned to Radio Azadi to help find parents he hasn't seen since he was an infant.

KABUL -- Is he Tajik? Is he Pashtun?

Mohammad Rasool has a story that leaves him unable to answer that question. So, the 34-year-old Afghan tries to be both in a country where usually you are one or the other.

Recently, he left a voice message on Radio Free Afghanistan's popular show "In Search Of The Missing." He was, he said, a Panjshiri looking for his Pashtun parents. The only thing he knew about them, he said, was that they were said to be from Kandahar and maybe still living there. But he did not know his parents' names and had never seen them.

Such a hopeless-sounding search for missing parents might seem extraordinary in a country other than Afghanistan. But after three decades of war and population displacements, Rasool's situation is hardly unique. He is just one of tens of thousands of orphans who have grown up with little idea of where they came from or who they are.

Parentless Nearly From Birth

Rasool lost his family almost at the moment of his birth in a Kabul hospital. His mother was penniless after having lost her husband in the communist 'Saur' (April) Revolution that toppled then President Mohammad Daoud in 1978 and set the stage for the Soviet invasion. So, in the chaos of the times, she did what desperate mothers with no options sometimes do. She took her baby to the nearest neighborhood and begged families there to take him in.

That one of the families in the Panjshiri neighborhood she stumbled into wanted a son and adopted him, Rasool only learned much later. For 15 years he grew up surrounded by his new parents' love. It never occurred to him that things could be different.

But when he was 15, his uncle's wife decided to hurt him with the truth. As he told RFE/RL, the hissed-out news set off a chain of events that shattered his life and left him alone.

"When I was 15, my uncle's wife told me that I was adopted, and I got very upset and ran to my mother and asked her," he says. "And she cried and said don't listen to this, this is all false, and she cut off relations with my uncle's family for five years."

But though his mother tried to protect him, when she and his father eventually died from illness some years later, he was on his own. The rest of his family -- for motives he says he does not know -- shunned him. Perhaps they never understood his adoption; perhaps they thought he was a secret, illegitimate child; perhaps.... Who knew?

"I can't help but complain about the way the people in my extended family and in my neighborhood behaved," he says. "Because, it's nobody's fault to be adopted. People have no right to punish people [by ostracizing them]."

Knowing he had another family somewhere in Kandahar was a small consolation. By this time, the Soviet invasion had come and -- a decade of bloodshed later -- gone. The country had staggered through a civil war between victorious mujahedin commanders. And now, as Rasool turned 20 and began working the first of many odd jobs, the Taliban occupation of Kabul made even his adopted identity dangerous for him. To travel to Kandahar as a Panjshiri who spoke only Dari and try to look for his family was unthinkable.

So, he remained in Kabul and was soon arrested in one of many early Taliban roundups of Panjshiris in the capital. He was held for 18 months with other civilians from his neighborhood as pawns whom the Taliban hoped to exchange for Taliban prisoners in their war with the Northern Alliance. He was only released when the Taliban finally gave up the hostage taking as fruitless.

Message In A Bottle

Today, Rasool feels he could go to Kandahar but the impetuousness with which he might have set off as a younger man is gone. He understands now what a tiny likelihood he has of finding his natural parents. So he hopes that turning to a radio program might somehow improve his chances, even if it's like a castaway sending out a message in a bottle.

"When I was left alone, I felt how painful my life is. So I thought it's better to put my message on the radio," he says.

The odds of succeeding are slim, yet the alternative is worse. Without a family, solitude in Afghanistan can be even more overwhelming than in other countries. With no family to speak for him, he is unable to approach another family to arrange a marriage. So he lives alone, works as a guard for a private company, and hopes one day that his message will be heard.

The Radio Comes To Visit

In the house he inherited from his adoptive parents, he receives visitors with remarkable poise. It's a cold day so he and we -- his visitors from the radio -- keep our coats on. But the floor of his room is covered with his bedding and he has put a table over it and under the table there is a charcoal brazier whose coals have been carefully trimmed so they no longer smoke. We put our feet under the table and draw a quilt over the table and our laps. The warmth is all-encompassing. Rasool's conversation is pleasant and without rancor, and we feel no urge to hurry away.

Mohammad Rasool
What memories do we take with us when we leave? The most poignant, perhaps, is the transistor radio that Rasool keeps on the table beside him in a gesture of hospitality toward us but also as a symbol. It's a symbol that he seems to hope will add confidence and credibility to his dream, so that we and others may believe in it, too.

And perhaps we should. Shortly after RFE/RL broadcast his message, a first listener in Kandahar responded. The man, speaking Pashto, said he had no news of Rasool's family nor even any idea of who they might be. But he said he was touched by the story and wanted to contact Rasool and offer his help. It's a small step into the unknown society of Kandahar for Rasool, but at least it's a first step forward.

Charles Recknagel amd Radio Free Afghanistan's Zarif Nazar contributed to this report

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