“I’m a member of the Taliban,” he said. And then my life changed.
When I told people I was going to Sri Lanka and Dubai, no one seemed to blink, but when I decided to add a week in Afghanistan onto the end of my trip, people began looking at me like I was mad.
As someone who travels the world in search of stories that can inspire people to find and pursue what makes them smile, I guess my decision just didn’t seem make sense to many.
“Why put yourself at such risk? The way you travel, with all that camera equipment, it’s suicide. What can you possibly learn about happiness in such a place?” people said.
While declining security had made it ‘the most deadly country on Earth for foreigners in 2014’, something was calling me to Afghanistan, and as a journalist and filmmaker who had forged a beautiful life and career out of following my heart no matter what, I wasn’t going to die wondering.
“If the world wanted me dead, it would find an easier way,” I’d tell people. Plus I knew the universe was sending me there for some reason, and I was about to find out why.
It was 60 degrees Celsius and I had spent all day photographing in the desert, so when I couldn’t find a taxi and a man in an ‘uber-like’ car pulled up and asked me if I needed a lift, I said sure.
Jumping in the car, I’d barely told him the address of my hostel, when he began asking where I was from and where I was going. I told him I was from Australia and was heading to Afghanistan the following day.
“I’m a member of the Taliban,” he said, as if it were like telling me he was an accountant.
My muscles tightened as I planned my escape. “What!!!” I replied.
“It’s OK,” he said, “I’m no killer.”
“All males in my village are forced to join the Taliban once they are 16. Actually, I am still forced to go back and train with them for one month every year. Otherwise they will kill my family,” he said.
“The worst thing is, my boys are getting older and soon they will have to join too. It is my greatest fear – that they will become killers. Because you know, as soon as that happens, you are killing yourself. Your soul slowly dies.”
As I asked him how he planned to stop his boys from becoming killers, I had no idea what I was about to hear, and for fifteen minutes I sat there with my mouth wide open.
“One day while I was out in the garden I heard some cries from beyond our property,” he said.
“They got louder and more frequent, so I began searching for the source, only to find, hidden away under a bush, was a US soldier with a severe bullet wound to his leg.”
“He was shaking with fear as he begged ‘I have a family, I have a family, please don’t kill me, I have children’.”
“What could I do? If I didn’t kill him I risked my family and I being killed too.”
“As I stood there listening to him pleading for his life, I knew what I must do. See, I had always taught my boys that what’s right isn’t always what’s easy, and no matter what, no one can make you do anything you don’t want to do, not even the Taliban.”
“So I looked around to see if anyone had been listening, and quickly lifted the man over my shoulder and took him to the spare room in our house where my wife attended to his wounds to try and stop the bleeding.”
“You see, for many years I had been trying to teach my boys that there is an alternative to the hate and vengeance that fuels war. So, while the decision to save this man put us all at risk, I knew that a new reality could only be forged by those brave enough to lead a life of compassion, love and understanding.”
“Despite our best efforts to stop the bleeding, the man was dying. He pleaded with us to take him to a nearby US base. ‘I’m dead if you don’t’ he said.”
“Despite the risks, my children needed to see how human beings could and should behave, so I called a friend who had a car, and prayed we could trust him with our secret.”
“We got the soldier into the back and drove him to the base, but just as we were approaching I stopped the car. ‘What will they think of me, a member of the Taliban arriving with a wounded US soldier? They’ll kill me,’ I said, ‘I can’t go on’.”
“He told me I would be safe, that ‘the military and my family would be forever grateful’. ‘Trust me’ he said.”
“The idea of trust was something that could solve so many of the problems we faced, for with it we might begin talking about the issues we all face, rather than trying to solve everything with violence.”
“Ultimately I told myself that I needed to believe in the world that I wanted and so ‘trust’ was a given.”
“Some weeks later we received a letter that the man had survived and would be headed home shortly to see his family.”
I was speechless. “Wow!” I said. “And what did this experience teach you about happiness?” I asked.
“I guess it just shows that no matter what, we must live life by those rules that make us happy, because if we don’t, we can’t very well expect others to.”
*Please note that I have shortened this story and avoided using specific details so as to not put his life at risk.
About the author: Mike Worsman is an Australian journalist and filmmaker, who founded A Million Smiles – an organisation sharing stories about people, places and ideas that can inspire people to find and pursue what makes them smile. See more about the project and his time in Afghanistan via amillionsmilesmovie.com