At the end of last month, I saw a TikTok Video it took my breath away. In it, a white-haired Ukrainian grandmother points an automatic rifle at the advancing Russian army. This, I thought, is why the world has rallied behind the Ukrainian people. They see what courage looks like in real time.
The video was powerful for another reason: it took me back to a moment four decades ago when my own family fled the Russians as they invaded Afghanistan. At one point a woman welcomed us into her modest mountain home for some water and food.
When we asked her why she had no blankets for the coming winter, she said she set them on fire and threw them at the advancing Russian tanks. If only TikTok could show such stories to the world.
That’s why we can’t take the power of storytelling for granted – which is really just freedom of expression. We must value the democracy that allows us to speak, film, tell and shed light on the truth. The alternative is Russia, where Facebook and a free press are banned. The alternative is 1970s Afghanistan, where neighbors could not speak honestly to each other for fear of reprisals.
Today, I am an English teacher and I teach my students the power of language. I teach them to use stories as weapons of truth. I teach this because I know the alternative.
I was 8 when Afghan President Mohammed Daoud Khan was assassinated in a coup. Khan had sought to reduce the country’s dependence on Russia and forge stronger ties with the West. But his successor, Communist politician Nur Mohammad Taraki, wanted to do the opposite; naturally, the Soviet Union supported Taraki’s rise to power.
With a new government in place, Afghans were suddenly divided, forced to choose between the old regime and the new. The government offered people incentives to spy on their neighbors; if they reported someone for anti-communist behavior, they were rewarded.
My dad learned the trick while working in the restaurant industry in America. When he arrived home, all eyes turned to our family. I had always felt safe in our community. Now, as presumed Western sympathizers, we couldn’t trust anyone. Not even Madina, my best friend and next door neighbor. Or my uncle, who arrived one day asking too many questions.
Over the months, opponents of the new communist government launched an uprising and civil war broke out. My family and I saw one president fall after another, until Christmas Eve 1979 when the Soviets finally arrived with 30,000 troops.
Gunshots roused me from sleep. Above the high mud walls surrounding our house, we saw men, women and children running and screaming as Soviet soldiers shot them down. My mother ordered us to lie down and sleep in different corners of the house in the hope that at least some of us would survive the shelling and rocket attacks that happened every night.
The next day, the streets of Kabul were different. Soviet war tanks patrolled the city, their weight breaking the pavement. At my sisters’ school, the principal organized a protest against the invasion. One of their classmates, a beautiful and dynamic girl, bravely held the Afghan flag above her head – and was shot in the chest by Russian soldiers.
A few months later, on a hot summer morning in 1981, around 2 a.m., my family did what millions of Ukrainians do now: we fled for our lives across the border. . We took almost nothing with us. As our car pulled away, I said a silent goodbye to 11 years of my life. Then I turned forward, to face an uncertain future.
For the next decade, Afghans fought the Soviets to defend their homeland, their culture, their families and Islam. Russia was a superpower and the rules of the game weren’t level playing field. But the Afghans were fearless and innovative, making grenades out of gasoline and empty bottles. On February 15, 1989, the defeated Soviet Union finally withdrew its troops.
Now, 33 years later, Afghans like me are appalled to see another Russian invasion – not just because we too have been victimized by the Russians, but because what Putin is doing to Ukraine is not not so different from what the Taliban are doing in Afghanistan.
Both are dictatorships with an insatiable thirst for oppression. Both are trying to silence the voices of ordinary people, as the Taliban just did by restricting girls’ education beyond sixth grade. But in our interconnected world, they cannot succeed. Ukrainians and Afghans share their stories, making the struggle for democracy and human rights known, seen and felt.
It shouldn’t take a war to help us appreciate the power of storytelling. Especially here in the United States, we too often forget why speaking is important. It’s not just about the freedom to say what we want. It’s about developing empathy and connection – the opposite of dehumanization and destruction. I have experienced what happens when our voices are taken away. But I also know that the best way to protect our voices is to use them.
Sophia Aimen Sexton is an English teacher at the Annandale Campus of Northern Virginia Community College.