"And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another […] Now the Soviets. But we're like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing looks pretty to look at, but still standing." (2.21.10)
Afghanistan has seen its fair share of conquerors over its long history. This has been a huge strain on the country, but it gives its citizens a resilience that they wouldn't have developed otherwise.
The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other. (2.23.135)
This is a story as old as time. A coalition of different groups with different goals joins together to fight a common enemy. They emerge victorious, but then they fall apart because they can't agree on a future direction for the country.
It wasn't so much the whistling itself, Laila thought later, but the seconds between the start of it and impact. […] Like a defendant about to hear the verdict. (2.24.1-3)
Every day Laila spends in war-torn Kabul is a risk, and the image of herself as a "defendant" symbolizes this. It just so happens that the "judge" is a crazy person, handing out punishments indiscriminately and without any regard for human life.
Giti was dead. Dead. Blown to pieces. At last, Laila began to weep for her friend. And all the tears that she hadn't been able to shed at her brothers' funeral came pouring down. (2.24.42)
It's horrifying to imagine that one of your closest high school friends has been killed in the war. So far, Laila has been able to compartmentalize the death of her brothers because they've been so far away for so long. When Giti dies, however, the reality of her absence is immediate and crushing.
"Fariba, all these people know is war," said Babi. "They learned to walk with a milk bottle in one hand and a gun in another." (2.24.29)
War is a cyclical process. Children growing up in war-torn countries are forced to experience the horrors of war on a daily basis, and this shapes them. Some, like Laila, dedicate their lives to peace. Many, however, give in to the pressures of society and continue the cycle of violence.
It slays Laila. It slays her that the warlords have been allowed back to Kabul. That her parents' murderers live in posh homes with walled gardens, that they have been appointed minister of this and deputy minister of that. (4.50.19)
While the Kabul at the end of the book is healthier than it has been for many years, we still see the potential for future violence. It's a horrible irony that the people who caused the war in the first place are still profiting, while many citizens are struggling just to put the pieces of their lives back together.
Maybe this is necessary. Maybe there will be hope when Bush's bombs stop falling. But she cannot bring herself to say it, not when what happened to Babi and Mammy is happening to someone now in Afghanistan. (4.49.37)
Laila is a true pacifist: she's experienced war directly and knows that even a "just war" can irreparably damage the lives of civilians. That's not to say that she is without hope; she's just realistic about the real effects of war.
The Americans have armed the warlords once more, and enlisted the help of the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban and find Bin Laden. (4.49.29)
Again, the cycle of war continues. Sure, the Taliban is gone, but the Northern Alliance is far from a friendly organization. It's important to remember that it was the U.S. who armed the Mujahideen in the first place, setting off the chain reaction that led to the rise of the Taliban.
Massoud's violent end brings her no joy, but she remembers too well the neighborhoods razed under his watch, the bodies dragged from the rubble, the hands and feet of children discovered on rooftops or the high branch of some tree days after their funeral. (4.49.7)
When we talk about war, we often forget about the toll it takes on civilians. We see here that civilians are usually the ones who suffer the most during a war. It's easy to think about it if you put people into neat categories of "bad guys" and "good guys," but the truth is rarely so clear.
"I'm sorry," Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and imaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on. (4.50.59)
This is the message of the book in a nutshell. By the end of the book, Laila has realized that the most difficult parts of her life—the death of her family, Rasheed's abuse—don't define her. Like her fellow Afghans, she knows that perseverance is the only answer in the face of such adversity.