Our Journey to Smile

International Day of Peace in Afghanistan, where peace asked to go home and war, like a cancer, ‎demanded to stay

shams with his friend

Shams, on the left, with his friend Abdulai

Please watch Shamsullah guess where my real home was, when he was well


“If I am dying, I want to go home.”

When a 14 year old Afghan boy coping with terminal cancer says this, we ought to pack up our bag of follies for the sake of his pain.

It was a short year back that Shamsullah’s dreams started ebbing away. His nose bled uncontrollably, suddenly, like a burst pipe.

The tumour which invaded and eventually over-ran his nose and neck, was like the raging war afflicting Afghanistan.

Shamsullah beheld the escalating tumour like he beheld the war but he couldn’t put his finger on it, not even when it had been buried with himself.

He hated its unwelcome appearance but couldn’t shirk it because it had soon become an ugly part of himself.

He wished it away but instead, had to quietly accept that he neither had the money nor the power to even ask if a cure was possible.

He detested its odour and its encroachment on his very breath but he couldn’t have possibly fired it away with the common Kalashnikov.

He could bomb it out of his world but that would take away the very reason why he wanted to go home.

He wanted to return to the comfort of love. He wanted to leave the condemnation of help-lessness.

Sham’s brother and uncle had brought him to a hospital in Kabul. They were told that treatment was only available in Pakistan or Iran. “There’s nothing we can do here.”

In Afghanistan, that’s a reality that is suffering repetitively. Multi-billion dollars are being extra-ordinarily and unreasonably spent on the war machinery while people are dying for ordinary and dubious reasons.

It is hard to explain to a child that this is the best that Mankind can offer, when Mankind is waging many continuous, costly wars.

His destitute family and equally destitute village over-heard his occasional complaints of nocturnal pain, the distressing pain signals that indicate our cracking human condition.

I believe that everyone who knew him genuinely wished they could help. But this is Afghanistan. Occasional help may be expected of foreigners but no help is expected of life.

I was first acquainted with Shams in the video exchange above, in which he was guessing where my real home was. Later, when I first saw him in his advanced illness, I was looking at impending death, the burial of life.

But Shams was sitting calmly on my mattress, resigned and gracious. Even when Afghans stare at death, they learn to remain strong.

When Shams said, “I can’t eat much. It doesn’t hurt that badly,” he was saying, “I don’t think I can get well. I don’t think we can beat this.” He had become a pale shadow of himself.

I told him, “From today, let’s agree that you have only one responsibility. Eat whatever you can muster yourself to eat. I know you didn’t like Kabul much, but we’d like you to go again.” I wanted to exhaust the options in this fateful country.

It wasn’t that Shamsullah’s spirit didn’t fight with the thief of his time. He was strong in his heart; I wanted to encourage him and as a physician, I’ve observed that courage itself is enabled by love. When we withhold love, courage suffers. Shams needed us, above all uncertainties, to love him and that was why he wanted to go home.

Home was where love had always been. One evening after it was clear that none in Kabul could help, I asked his mum to visit me and short of crying, I handed her a little cash for the journey to Pakistan.

We were aware that the Afghan / Pakistan crossing had its dangers. But we all have to cope somehow even when there are wars within ourselves and on the road.

Shams and his mum never made that trip. It seems that Shams had the intuition of endings on the morning he left us. He had asked to see his family and had asked for forgiveness for the trouble he had brought.

It wasn’t fair. And we mustn’t pretend that it was.

In Sham’s Afghan village is a kids’ cemetery for those who die before 14 years of life are completed. On the beautiful evening when I had gone there to ponder his passing, beside his stone-marked grave was wheat that was green and growing. Afghan graveyards are spilling over and crowding out life.

I remembered his gentle acceptance that living in a poor country riddled with conflict, often kills human endeavour.

I remembered how he perked up slightly after hearing some hope in my advice for him to keep strong with a good diet. He had looked into the distance and had come alongside our shared humanity by agreeing with the significant yes. The yes that says, “I’m with you in this struggle.”

I remembered his peace in asking to go home.

Unlike war, which, like a cancer, mercilessly demands to stay.

It keeps growing and feeding itself.

It kills its own house.

It dominates and threatens its victims to submission, and in the end, it extinguishes even the un-submitted soul.

It is an unsatisfied parasite that, while sucking out the marrow of life, doesn’t care that it too would perish with its victory over the host.

Acting as if war can bring enduring peace is like mistaking cancer as the healer.

Like cancer, Einstein said that ‘war can’t be humanized, it can only be abolished.’

Michael Jackson had sung, “Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race. There are people dying, if we care enough for the living…” Even if we were not Michael’s fans, we should like the song’s dream of a better world.

Karzai, in his International Day of Peace Speech, said “We Afghans, more than any other nation in the world, realize the value of peace. In a world where conflicts and unrest claim thousands of lives each day, our nation bears the heaviest burden. A one-day ceasefire may be symbolic, but it symbolizes peace as the greatest ever aspiration of mankind.”

I know that it’s a positive step in the right direction to call a ceasefire for a day in a year.

But truth must go beyond that to recognize that our war-torn world has been so mutilated by the cancer of wars that asking Shamsullah’s cancer to stop its destruction for one day would not have brought the healing he desired.

We must never lose sight of the greater aspiration by hiding the tumour for 24 hours.

What Shams needed, to overcome the deadly cancer, was a long-term care and commitment from fellow human beings and the applied knowledge of Man’s hearts and minds to help one another, together with an equitable economy based on human concern.

None of us can overcome death but we can overcome cancers, including the cancer of war, for the healing of our future and children like Shams.

If then, after we have done what we can but we still hit the end of the road, it would remain for us to be kinder friends by visiting Shams at his home, by greeting him in peace and by adding to the consolation of love and meaning at his place of birth, in his home of homes.

Shams sensed that while the cancer was winning the war against his body, another day and even another one ‘terrible night’ at home was safer.

For this International Day of Peace in Afghanistan, I’ll remember Sham’s life by recalling that he, like peace in his burdened country, had asked to go home, despite knowing that the cancer, like the Afghan war, was demanding to stay.

“If I am dying, I want to go home.”

war is a cancer

war is a cancer