The Torture Place

He was a godless communist journalist in Afghanistan -- so they took his eye, cut his ear and splashed acid all over his body. Now he is safe in St. Louis. But still burning.

  Abhaseen Barikzy sits alone in the bare living room, still as a wounded lion.

His eyes are hidden by dark glasses and his chest is covered by a Forest Park Balloon Race T-shirt, but on his brown forearms, huge blotches shine pale pink where the acid splashed. He holds his head stiffly to one side, his left shoulder hunched close to his neck, drawn by tightening scars. His skin shows thick in patches, hard with the collagen his body flooded over untreated wounds.

Barikzy dutifully checks in at the BJC medical and psychiatric clinics, but he's uninterested in his own healing. "This is not my terrible face," he tells them. "This is the terrible face of Islam."

Abhaseen Barikzy wears dark glasses even indoors, shielding his 2-year-old daughter, Silsila, from his wounds
Jennifer Silverberg
Abhaseen Barikzy wears dark glasses even indoors, shielding his 2-year-old daughter, Silsila, from his wounds

The Barikzy family (not their real name) has been in St. Louis since April, but the house the family is renting is still sparse and immaculate, with mattresses on the floor of the dining room for the six kids and a prayer rug on the wall. A gift from the local mullah, the rug is a reminder of the other, kind and temperate face of Islam, and Barikzy's wife still uses it to pray. Abhaseen cannot. Every morning he walks the older children to the school bus, then sits in a large donated chair in the dim living room. There, backlit by the window, his face in shadow, he slowly -- with the help of a translator he barely trusts -- releases the story he's waited two years to tell.

Barikzy grew up in the dusty village of Khak-raiz, in the southern desert province of Qandahar, Afghanistan. He was Pashtun, the ethnic majority, and like 99 percent of his countrymen, he grew up Muslim. At 11, he started noticing the contradictions between school, "where we learned about the world, about luck, humor, love, progress, technology" -- and the village's strict mosque, "where we were told we shouldn't live for this world, this is just for two days. They said the technology in the world was for pagans but for Muslims there was another world: paradise."

Barikzy was too interested in this world to dismiss it so easily. Nor could he accept the way his father treated his mother, lavishing love and kindness on a second wife (traditional Islamic law allows as many as four) and leaving Barikzy's mother to do all the housework, take his beatings and gratify his desires. "When I was 12, she died because of too much suffering," he says, "and that bothered me a lot. I felt like an orphan."

Two years later, a young woman in his village left her father's house and went to the house of the man she loved. "When they brought the girl to the mosque, people gathered to see how the mullah would punish her," recalls Barikzy. "He said she should be put in a bag, and they put a cat with her and tied the bag and started beating her." Barikzy says they struck her 80 times: "When they finally opened the bag, she was covered in blood, and the cat was dead."

So was his faith in God. He decided that conservative Qandahar, birthplace of Afghan kings and, more recently, the Taliban, was full of "dark-minded" people. The next year, 1966, his family moved north to the city of Kabul, where the Afghan Communist Party was beginning to take hold. As soon as Barikzy heard the Communists start talking about women's issues and progress, he joined them.

The party handpicked Barikzy to study journalism at its institute in Kabul. By the time they took power in 1978, he was an officer in the army, writing for the defense ministry's army newspaper and, often, the party's paper as well. A few months after the takeover, he says, he attended a huge party meeting at the Kabul headquarters, where officials accused Pakistan's ISI (Interservices Intelligence Directorate) of assassinating a party leader. Originally they'd blamed the king. Now, someone had produced a note allegedly written by, and implicating, the ISI.

While the party was sorting out its suspicions, it was continuing to welcome Soviet advisors at various government offices. Their alien, heavily accented presence stung Afghans loyal to Islam and to their traditional governing council. Fundamentalist rebels, or mujahideen, banded together to oppose the godless Communists. In 1979, the Soviet military entered Afghanistan in force.

The Soviet Union, alert to the millions of Muslims within its own borders, could not risk the contagion of chaos in a client state. The U.S., about to elect Ronald Reagan president, could not sit still while the Soviets bolstered their "evil empire." We backed the mujahideen, pronouncing them "freedom fighters" and channeling arms to them through Pakistan, the bordering Islamic country where democracy had never quite taken hold. Busy opposing communism, we failed to notice the growing religious extremism our support was fueling.

Barikzy spent these years as a Communist war correspondent. "Whatever the party commanded me, with passion and with love I accepted," he recalls. Notebook in hand, he traveled to the ever-changing "front," villages along the jagged Hindu Kush mountains (elsewhere known as the Himalayas), where the God-fearing, U.S.-armed mujahideen battled his party, fighting both a holy war and a proxy war between the Soviets and the U.S.

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