As she stood over her father’s corpse laid out by the veranda of her home in Kandahar, Rangina Hamidi initially felt grateful. She was relieved the suicide bomber’s explosion did not shatter his handsome, angular face, only his back and neck. Then she turned to his feet, still chilly from the hospital morgue.
She kissed them.
Now she felt guilty. Several years ago, she was the one who lobbied her father, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, to quit his routine accountant’s job at an Alexandria travel company and move to their home town of Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he served as mayor until his assassination Wednesday.
“I apologized and said, ‘I am sorry for bringing you here,’ ” Rangina, 33, a consultant to a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor in Kandahar, recalled in a telephone conversation. “His feet were just as beautiful as they were when he was alive — clean and white.”
In the days since Hamidi’s death — for which the Taliban asserted responsibility — a deep grief has spread from Afghanistan to his relatives and friends in Alexandria and Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties. His killing also illustrates the risks local Afghans and other exiles can face when they ponder a move back to their homelands: Opportunity for prestige, power and money may await, but also war and danger.
Three decades ago, Ghulam Hamidi had fled Afghanistan after the communist takeover and the Soviet invasion. In 2007, he returned to his homeland, leaving Aldie, a small Loudoun County town near Middleburg, his long accountant’s career and a large family. Four of his children live in Northern Virginia (three are married) and multiple grandchildren. (His wife, Spoozmi, followed him later.)
Rangina said she sensed that her father, who had worked at TransAm Travel in Alexandria for 18 years, was bored.
“It was the usual nine-to-five job with two or three weeks of vacation. He worked all his life, and I could see the mundane work he was doing in America,” she said. “All my sisters and brothers were against it, but I was the one who said, ‘Let him experience something new.’ ” For Hamidi, who had studied finance at Kabul University, that meant accepting an appointment by President Hamid Karzai to run the nation’s second-largest city, once a Taliban hub.
In Northern Virginia, the family treated Hamidi, 65, with the respect afforded a patriarch. No one in the family ever called him “dad” or “father.” They used the honorific: “Agha,” or “Great.” He was treated with similar respect at TransAm Travel, although there he was called the more humble nickname, Henry.
“He was like a father figure to almost everyone here,” said Parvez “Shawn” Kamal, 35, the firm’s chief financial officer, who was born in Bangladesh. “He went out there to do something good. I know I’m not as brave as him. I wish I was.”
In Kandahar, Hamidi had a reputation for helping to build schools, pave roads and plant trees, but at a cost that also earned him enemies. He ordered the bulldozing of unregistered shops, banned illegal sidewalk vendors and evicted squatters. On the day of the bombing, he was leaving the municipal office to meet with tribal elders from a neighborhood where two children were accidently killed by the municipality’s bulldozers razing houses built on government land.
In Aghanistan, he had his share of critics, some of whom saw him as a highly paid tool of Karzai and his powerful associates. Hamidi’s death came after the killings last month of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother, and Jan Mohammad Khan, a top presidential adviser.
Hamidi’s eldest son, Ahmad Hamidi, 27, said it seemed as if his father knew he might be killed soon. Ahmad last saw his father earlier this year when he returned to help plan his son’s wedding to Simira Fatah, the manager of a cosmetics store in Springfield. The wedding had been scheduled for July 2012; but the father asked that the three-day event at a Manassas banquet hall be moved to November 2011.
“He said, ‘Let’s hurry up and do it. I want to see your wedding.’ He always thought, ‘What if the next day something happens?’ He always knew these people were after him,” Ahmad said.
In an interview at his fiancee’s home in Woodbridge, surrounded by family photo albums, Ahmad said he grew more comfortable with his father’s decision when he visited Afghanistan a few years ago: “He showed me his old university and some monuments, and I learned what a great person he is. His grandfather and ancestors were all there, and he wanted to rebuild it. . . . And he was doing all this because he always wanted to fix it so one day we could go back and live there or visit more often.”
Still, Ahmad would nudge his father to reconsider returning to Northern Virginia, where the patriarch had an extensive network of descendants: oldest daughter Farida and her husband, who live in Aldie with their three children; Stoorai Ayazi of Sterling, who has two children; Zarmina Ayazi of Leesburg and her three children; and Ahmad, of Centreville, who works at a Sterling restaurant and also for a U.S. government contractor on the side.
(Two other children, daughter Wazma Ahmed and Abdul Hamidi, the younger son, live in Toronto and in the Los Angeles area, respectively.)
Along King Street in Alexandria, Satti Pall Kapoor, president of TransAm Travel, remembered that the Karzai administration tried to lure Hamidi as early as 2001, but he resisted because his children were too young.
Last week, employees struggled to stay focused on work and instead passed the time swapping memories of Hamidi. Some laughed at how the accountant didn’t trust calculators and would do everything by hand; and how once, in a rare moment of anger, he told a caller to “talk to his shoe” and then held one up to the phone.
In Kandahar, daughter Rangina can’t help but replay the assassination in her mind and wonder how a suicide bomber hiding an explosive in his turban was able to get inside the municipal building. “An eyewitness — a security guard — told me that the man greeted my father, and my father turned back around to greet him. As my father extended his right arm, the guy brings down his head to his hand, and blows himself up,” Rangina said.
“But my dad turned his face away. The police took him in their car to the hospital, and he was still breathing. He took his last breath there.”
Despite the Taliban’s claim of responsibility, Rangina said her father engendered more ill will from the region’s warlords, who were angry over his attempts to clean up the local government. “His dream was to turn Kandahar into a Fairfax County. He saw order and beauty there.”
As for finding the plotters behind their father’s death, Rangina and Ahmad expressed ambivalence. “Honestly, what’s the point of searching?” she said. “The thugs who did this job succeeded. Even if I found out, what am I going to do with the answer?”
Said Ahmad: “Half of me wants to have my vengeance, but the other half tells me to forgive my enemies — that’s what my father taught me.”