Shuja is 28, a proud Kabuli, father to four-month-old Shahazad, husband to Qudsia, and survivor of four deaths.
The first was when he was a small boy.
It was during the "Hekmatyar Time," which refers to one of the most vile mass murderers in Afghan history, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the years when Hekmatyar's fanatically Islamist Hezb-i-Islami militants were raining bombs down upon the people of Kabul from the hilltop necropolis of Shahada.
A Russian-made missile landed in the little courtyard of Shuja's family home, when everyone was eating breakfast. It didn't explode. It just destroyed some grapevines, and broke a window. The missile was more than half a metre in length.
The second death Shuja survived has left its evidences in small scars around his eyes. This was also during the Hekmatyar Time, when Shuja was perhaps 11. A huge missile landed almost at Shuja's feet, just a few metres away. It happened near the Iranian embassy. About 100 people were killed in that one blast, and more than 300 were severely injured.
The third time was in July, 2004, in Ghazni, when Shuja drove over a landmine. The car immediately behind him was turned into a small, crushed and compacted chunk of metal, with a dead man inside it. "I don't know who that guy was," Shuja said. The car Shuja was driving sustained two flat tires. Shuja fixed the tires, and drove on.
Shuja's most recent death occurred near Massoud Square in Kabul, in September, 2006. At least 16 people were killed. "It was a suicide bomber. He drove right past me in their car, around me. And it went into the convoy. There were shrapnels coming down everywhere, but it did not break my car. It was such a huge blast. The whole plaza. Even the trees were on fire."
Shuja’s favourite Afghan singer is Aqbar Baghlani, and he likes to take in the occasional game of Buzkasahi – the traditional Afghan sport that’s a bit like polo except without the rules, and instead of a ball, the carcass of a dead goat.
Shuja is a “fixer,” one of those countless, everyday interlocutors who work with foreign media, embassy workers and aid agency staff. Without people like Shuja, the international commitment to Afghanistan would collapse, but you rarely hear about them at all.
Shuja knows how to get around Kabul, which is to say he is a journeyman in the art of orienteering and a master navigator in the city’s hidden terrain of back-alley shortcuts, must-avoid traffic circles, troop convoys and flocks of sheep.
Thirty-nine countries have soldiers in Afghanistan, and while only a few of them run patrols in and around Kabul, it’s routine to get banjaxed by caravans of scary-looking troop carriers festooned with flags you don’t recognize. Getting pulled over by nervous young men with AK47s at Afghan National Police checkpoints is almost unavoidable.
Then there are all the dodgy private-security outfits staffed almost entirely by demobilized militiamen from one warlord army or another.
If you ask, Shuja will deftly steer you clear of these kinds of things. If you let him, Shuja will show you the Kabul you never hear about, the dirt-poor, beautiful backstreet city, seething with millions of hopeful, helpful, warm and welcoming people.
Shuja is one of them. On an errand one day, Shuja came upon an old Hazara man. The old man’s fruit cart had toppled and he couldn’t right it, so Shuja pulled out of traffic to help him pull his cart home. It turned out the man was desparately ill and the only breadwinner in a large family. Shuja now gives the family $25 a month from his own meagre earnings.
Shuja sneers at all the nervous, high-powered foreigners with their phalanxes of armed guards. Ask him whether a particular errand is safe, or about the security in a particular place, and his answer is always the same.
“Everywhere is dangerous. Everywhere is safe. This is Afghanistan.”
Shuja loves his country. Shuja means “brave.”