One night when Beria was 8, he holed up in his bedroom with a few strips of bamboo, pieces of English tissue paper and wallpaper glue. When he was done, he marveled at his first homemade kite.
Beria released his kite into the cold wind that blew down from the Hindu Kush. As it spun away, it keeled to one side, off balance.
Najib's kite set on it like a raptor on wounded prey. Their lines crossed. Beria let the spool unreel.
But in a blink, the string went limp.
Beria knew this feeling as sure as a fisherman knows the snap of his dinner escaping.
He went home disappointed. But the defeat made him more intent on learning the craft. His father, Gul, showed him how to shave a bamboo strip down with a razor blade, cutting the pulp away until the skin bowed in a balanced elliptical arc. He taught his son how the smooth, strong curve of the top spar was the kite's muscle.
Beria beat Najib with his second kite, and the two traded victory and defeat over the next year. He learned to jump at opportunities before they vanish.
His youth inthe 1960s was during a unique spell of calm in Afghanistan. His father made a fine living importing electronics and exporting grapes. King Mohammad Zahir Shah had ushered in an era of modernization and openness in Afghanistan. Women no longer had to wear veils. Foreign backpackers shopped in the bazaars. The government built highways and irrigation projects with foreign aid.
Like many students at the time, Basir was filled with a searing pride for his country that he holds in his heart to this day. He learned that his ancient and diverse culture sat at the crossroads of Asia's great trade routes, that foreign invaders fled in squalid defeat.
His memories of that time are warm and nostalgic. But the horror that would bring Afghanistan to ruins was a storm gathering on the horizon. By the early 1970s, many Afghans began to fear imperial encroachment. Over dinner, Beria's father complained about the country's growing dependence on the USSR.
A bloodless coup in June 1973 ended Shah's 40-year reign. Gul grew distraught as political discourse increasingly polarized between Marxism and radical Islam.
He didn't like either. Gul was a devout Muslim but resisted doing anything in the extreme. "Whatever you do," he told his children, "stay in the middle."
Daily life plodded on, though. Beria flew his kites. In high school, he became a champion. He hoped someday to be one of the country's masters.
But he was increasingly drawn into political events. He met up with his neighbor Sharif, a schoolteacher who spent several years in prison for subversion. Sharif brought Beria into an underground movement against the Soviets.
At 17, Beria began to move arms from point to point in the city, as the Soviets drew closer to power. He distributed fliers called "night papers" because no one was supposed to see who left them. They urged Afghans to be ready, when the time came, for jihad.
And then, in April 1978, his school principal walked into his class with two Afghan soldiers carrying Kalashnikovs.
They pointed to Beria.
They took him to the Sedarat prison. When he wouldn't renounce his activities, he says, they kicked him in the spine and dragged him to a cell.