Went Back for Love : His L.A. Kin Work to Free Jailed Afghan

Staff Writer

Zemaryalai Melgerai was in love.

But there was a problem. Melgerai was living in Los Angeles, and his sweetheart, Rona, was back in his homeland, Afghanistan. The lovers had exchanged letters for years. Then, as civil war racked their country, their correspondence suddenly halted. Melgerai wrote, but there was no reply.

That is why Melgerai went home, his family says. The young man hoped to find Rona, marry and start a family, they say.

But instead, five weeks after his return in early 1983, Melgerai was arrested and jailed by the Soviet-backed Afghan government. The real reason Melgerai went home, the regime claims, was to spy for the CIA. He has been in a Kabul prison ever since, more than three years.


Half a world away, Melgerai’s family in Los Angeles has been quietly working for the release of a man they say is an innocent victim of the global struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States.

“This man is truly innocent, truly apolitical,” says Melgerai’s uncle, Nake Kamrany, a USC economics professor. “He thought (that) if he went back, they would reward him for that, because everybody else was leaving.”

The Marxist Afghan government contends that Melgerai, 33, has confessed to working with the CIA. But his family contends that the confession was coerced with a promise of freedom.

The family--his sister, Laila Hamid, and her husband, Shapoor; his brother, Toryalai Melgerai, and Kamrany--discussed Melgerai’s plight in Toryalai’s Brentwood home. They talked of their frustration, the feeling of helplessness, comparing their torment to that of the families of the six American hostages held by Mideast terrorist groups.

As refugees, the family has little official leverage. Kamrany, a U.S. citizen, says he has made inquiries with the U.S. State Department but was told that little could be accomplished through U.S. intervention.

“Of course, our relations with this regime in Kabul could hardly be worse,” Robert Peck, a State Department officer who specializes in Near East affairs, said in a phone interview.

“They have no reason to be nice to us considering we’re doing all sorts of un-nice things to them,” Peck added, referring to U.S. support for the Afghan resistance forces, known as the moujahedeen .

The Kabul government, perhaps, also has little reason to be nice to Melgerai’s family. Kamrany, who has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, helped organize an Afghan immigrant group that backs the rebels.

Kamrany, who lectures and writes in support of the resistance, acknowledged that his activities may have raised suspicions about his nephew.

At the same time, he said, he suspects that the Soviet-backed regime is trying to silence him. “The only way they can get to me is by holding my nephew,” he says grimly.

Other family members were reluctant to voice opinions about the Soviet-backed government of Babrak Karmal. To do so, Laila and Toryalai Melgerai said, may jeopardize the efforts of their parents, who are in Kabul working for Zemaryalai Melgerai’s release. Some family members declined to be photographed for the same reason.

Their primary hope, they say, is that Kabul may be persuaded by the Soviets, under new leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, to release Melgerai as a good-will gesture.

A long shot is that Melgerai might be included in a prisoner exchange between the Soviets and the moujahedeen-- even though, the family stresses, the young man has no allegiance to the rebels .

The son of a prominent professor at the University of Kabul, Melgerai was only 16 when he and his brother came to Los Angeles to live with his uncle and attend school. He first attended University High, then spent several years in college, attending Santa Monica City College, UCLA and California State University, Northridge, before earning a degree.

Called a Loner

Melgerai , described by his family as a loner, was never content with life in the United States. He was homesick the entire 14 years he was here, his brother says.

During those years, he worked as a busboy, a gardener and at other jobs--"just like any college student,” Kamrany says. After graduation, he worked as a bank clerk. And all the while, he exchanged love letters with Rona.

Melgerai was planning to rejoin his family in Afghanistan immediately after college. But instead, after the Soviet invasion in 1979, Melgerai’s parents, sister and brother-in-law all left Afghanistan, eventually joining their family in Los Angeles.

But Melgerai still wanted to go home. After Rona’s letters halted, he was more determined than ever, they say. And about the same time, the Kabul government called upon the estimated 5 million Afghan refugees to return home, promising a general amnesty.

Melgerai decided to go. “I think he hoped to find Rona alive,” his brother said. “You know, 1 million people have been killed.”

Seized at Uncle’s Home

Melgerai was staying at another uncle’s home in Kabul when Afghan troops surrounded the home one night and arrested him.

Family members in Kabul failed in efforts to secure his release. Then, three months after his arrest, the Karmal government released a statement in which Melgerai confessed he was connected with the CIA.

A news account in the government newspaper, a copy of which was spirited to Melgerai’s relatives in Los Angeles, tells of an interview in which Melgerai is said to have told of a meeting in which he met with his uncle, Kamrany, two other Afghan immigrants and a CIA official in a Los Angeles nightclub. The article described arrangements in which Melgerai would collect information about the Soviet and Afghan military forces in exchange for “plenty of money.”

Kamrany denies that any meeting ever took place. He has no knowledge of the person identified in the article as a CIA official, he says.

Promised Release

The family has since learned, Kamrany says, that Afghan authorities promised to release Melgerai in exchange for his confession.

It is similar, Kamrany says, to the case of Jacques Abouchar, a French television journalist who was arrested in Afghanistan and was released after admitting to spying for the CIA. After he returned to France, Abouchar said the statements were made only after he had been promised his release.

Abouchar’s arrest strained French-Soviet relations, triggering protest marches and diplomatic negotiations. But Melgerai relies mainly on his family.

Melgerai’s parents returned to Kabul shortly after their son’s arrest to lobby for his release. They are allowed to visit their son once a month but have made little progress toward his release.

“The Afghans are a very polite people,” Kamrany says. “They don’t say you’re rejected.

“They say, ‘Come back and see me next month.’ ”