The Saga of an Anguished Afghan

“After the migrant leaves home, he never finds another place where the two life lines cross. The vertical line exists no more; there is no longer any local continuity between him and the dead, the dead now simply disappear; and the gods have become inaccessible. The vertical line has been twisted into the individual biographical circle which leads nowhere but only encloses. As for the horizontal lines, because there are no longer any fixed points as bearings, they are elided into a plain of pure distance, across which everything is swept.”

John Berger, And our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

I was biking back to my house from the grocery store with a friend who is staying with me, when I glimpsed a short, Nepalese-looking man cycling towards us. We stopped and started talking. It turned out that he was a refugee from Afghanistan, visiting a friend in the local area. (For a few years I have been living and teaching at an international junior college in the fjords of Western Norway.)

His name (changed here) was Jamal and he belonged to the Hazara tribe from the highlands of Central Afghanistan known as Hazarajat. The Hazaras are an ethnic minority (4-5 million in number, now spread across many refugee-absorbing countries), descended from Mongols (probably remnants of Chingiz Khan’s invading army) and settled in the mountains to the north of Ghazni since the 13th century. Some years ago, the Taliban destroyed the famous centuries-old Buddhist statues in the region of Bamian (since orthodox Islam forbids images), which is where Jamal is from. The Bandi-Amir lakes are close by. Kabul, Bagram, and American presence, are not far.

The Hazaras are mostly Sh’ia Muslims and have long been a persecuted minority, being a favored target of the dominant Pushtoon tribes. Since the late 1980s they have been trying to defend their regional autonomy (traditionally, always crushed by the Pushtoon rulers in Kabul) under the banner of Hizb-Wahadat (Party of Unity). As Jamal informed me, the Taliban, being Sunni fanatics, were particularly harsh on them since gaining control of Afghanistan after 1996.

When we met, Jamal had been in Norway for several months. As we got talking he began to narrate the spine-chilling story of how he got here.


A tormented past

One would have guessed Jamal’s age at at least 30. It turned out he was about 20 (he did not know exactly). The lines on his face were testimony to the life-experience of a much older man. He had had education (in Dari, his own language, and Persian) till grade 8. He had to suddenly leave schooling ­ and home ­ 6 years ago under very trying conditions.

For one thing, there was a serious family feud, involving his family with that of his uncle (mother’s brother) and the latter’s son. Jamal’s eldest brother had avenged the killing of their sister (married to the uncle’s son and killed by him) by killing his own sister-in-law, who was the uncle’s daughter. Ultimately, the uncle and his son came with Kalashnikovs one night and gunned down both of Jamal’s elder brothers, leaving behind little Jamal, his second sister, and their parents. Soon after, the parents prevailed upon Jamal, his sister, and her husband to leave the area.

An equally important impulse for leaving home was the take-over of the region by the Taliban. Initially, the Hazaras had managed to defend themselves against a Taliban offensive in the Bamian region. The Hazaras’ sense of desperation is summed up in their proverb: Tang amad, dar jang amad (He who is cornered must fight). But in September 1998, the Taliban attacked a second time, emboldened by their capture of Mazhar-I-Sharif, armed this time with far superior weaponry, helicopters and tanks. The Hazara resistance was crushed. According to Jamal more than a thousand innocent people were slaughtered. Many Hazara women were raped. He saw with his own eyes the slaying of a six-month-old baby. Two of Jamal’s cousins died in battle with the Taliban.

In May, 1999, the Taliban committed further massacres in the area, killing several hundred people and consolidating their new-found hold on Hazarajat.

The Taliban considered the Sh’ia Hazaras to be Kafirs (infidels) and told their own fighters that the Qatl (killing) of a Sh’ia Kafir will ensure them a place in Jannat (heaven). The Taliban’s ultimatum to the Hazaras was to leave their “Mazhab (religion), their country, or get killed.” The obvious results obtained.

In passing, Jamal noted the American hypocrisy of first arming the Islamic fundamentalists and the Taliban against the Russians and then pretending to destroy them after 9/11, ignoring all along the humanitarian concerns of the Hazaras, as also the other innocent tribes of Afghanistan, victims, first of the Russians, then of the Taliban, and finally, of US bombing and destruction.


The teenager’s flight into exile

Jamal’s land-and-water journey, without papers and passport, armed with little more than a limited working knowledge of Persian, from Bamian in Afghanistan to the fjords of Western Norway, a journey over six years and over a dozen countries ­ negotiating, in turn, the highlands of Central Asia, the Baluchi desert, rugged, mountainous tracts in Pakistan, Iran, Kurdistan and Turkey, before finding extraordinary means of getting across to Greece and Italy over water, and traversing Europe before reaching its Northern shores ­ is the stuff of epic human suffering. It shows just how imperiled, hearty and brave a creature man is! Jamal came close to death on dozens of occasions, running scared from army patrols and policemen on some of them, barely surviving thirst and hunger on others. Jamal claims that the bulk of the people who leave Afghanistan in despair never make it to their final destinations and do not survive to tell the tale.

Over the past century and more, the West and its corrupt, violent accomplices in the Third World, have perpetrated monstrous miseries on vulnerable millions across the globe in the name of higher causes like ‘peace’, ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’. For millions of beleaguered migrants like Jamal, it is not the thrill of imperial adventure ­ chronicled by unjustly famous figures like Gertrude Bell and Lawrence of Arabia ­ that the human spirit lives. On the contrary, its strength is stretched to unimaginable extremes and it endures endless nights of hopelessness. The darkness stretches longer than a Norwegian tunnel, and only the ones who suffer know that, unlike the tunnel, it may never end. It is a tribute to human courage and a testament to Jamal’s tenacity that he is able to smile through the violent cracks of his life.

Jamal’s long trek began before the winter of 1998-99 set in. Along with his sister and her husband, he escaped from his qasba (small town) in Bamian by night, and on foot. They had to avoid the eagle eyes of Taliban guards. A Pathan then picked them up on the highway and brought them in a sealed truck to Qandahar, from where they managed to get a ride the next day on another truck to Quetta in South-West Pakistan. They were saved from Taliban guards by truck-drivers who concealed them at the back of their trucks under sandbags.

After two months of unsuccessfully searching for work in Quetta, Jamal, his sister, and her husband made arrangements with an agent to take them to Iran, which had been accepting Afghan refugees for sometime. They had to let go of the little sum of money they had left to pay the agent.

His education cut short in grade 8 after he left Bamian, Jamal started his professional life in Teheran. He began working under his brother-in-law who himself hired his supervision services in construction to a local contractor. Jamal began by lifting heavy loads, often carrying sandbags as high as 5 or 6 storeys. On one occasion he fell from the second floor of the building that his team was working on. He fell and hurt himself miserably, putting himself out of work for several months. Since he had no money to get medical assistance, his knee has got dislocated permanently. It hurts even now and he is not able to lift heavy loads for too long. For a person who has few skills apart from his physical ones, it is a far greater handicap than what one would otherwise imagine.

Soon after turning 16, Jamal started working separately from his brother-in-law, having picked up some metal-working skills and carpentry in his spare-time. He would make doors and windows in people’s houses. While earlier he was earning about 50 Euros a month and giving all the money to his sister, now he was making up to 150 Euros a month and being able to save a good fraction of it.

Apart from the minimal fortune of finding some work Jamal, like other Afghan refugees, was treated badly in Iran. If he was caught by the police they would invariably take all the money in his pockets as bribes, since he did not have any papers. In case he did not have money on him, he would often get a thrashing.

Beatings of Afghan refugees are quite common in Iran. Jamal told a number of stories and the accounts can also be cross-checked with similar reports on treatment of Afghan refugees in Iran prepared by NGOs in Norway as also groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Authorities in Iran became more stringent with Afghan refugees after 9/11. On one occasion, two years ago, Jamal, along with some fellow-Afghans, was caught by the police and taken in a sealed truck to Bazdashka (prison), where they were asked to lie on the ground next to each other and beaten with wooden batons by the guards. For one week, 300 refugees were imprisoned in a large hall. They were allowed to leave the hall only once during the day to have water and visit the toilet. They were robbed of all money and possessions and provided with some burnt bread by way of food. There were daily police atrocities. There was no recourse to justice for an Afghan in the custody of Iranian police. From the prison they were taken via Zaidan to Talisiyah near the Afghan border for deportation. Finally, hungry, thirsty and broke, they arrived at Nimroz on the Afghan border.

From Nimroz Jamal managed to make a phone call to his sister in Teheran and received some money after a few days, with which he could entertain the possibility of re-entering Iran. Along with some of the other refugees he was able to find a Persian-speaking Pathan agent who first took them in a truck to Zabul and from there, in order to stay clear of the Taliban guards, the agent took them on foot, by night, to Zaidan on the border with Iran. A Baluchi agent then charged them 200,000 Tomans (150 Euros) each to take them to Teheran on a truck, the journey lasting three days. The agent’s fee included the bribes to be paid to the Iranian police, who, Jamal pointed out, make money from Afghan refugees both ways: first when they are deported, and then when they try to re-enter the country.

Upon returning to Teheran Jamal worked for six more months, saved some money and, after advice from his sister, made plans to make his exit from Iran since the authorities were getting increasingly severe on refugees after 9/11. For 450 Euros an agent promised him safe passage to Turkey.

As Jamal left for Turkey, he was for the first time completely separated from his family (he has not seen his sister since). The overland journey from Teheran to Istanbul took three weeks. Jamal just had a change of clothes, some food and a bottle of water with him. The journey was through heavily patrolled areas of Iran, Kurdistan and Turkey. It was made with the help of a series of interlinked agents. There was the man with the truck carrying sand. Jamal and his fellow escapees were hidden under the sand. “How did you breathe?”, I asked him. “They had created tunnels in the sand for exactly that purpose!” There were five people in the sands. When they reached the next destination on the way to Istanbul, three people were unconscious because of suffocation and had to be revived with water. One of them could not be revived and was left behind, likely dead.

There were several overnight journeys on foot over the Kurdish mountains. Some of the migrants died of cold, according to Jamal. In the villages and small towns where they would halt for the night, they would often be asked to stay with sheep and goats in their sheds, so that armies on patrol would not catch them. On one occasion they stayed at the house of an agent. There were as many as 80 fellow-migrants ­ including Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Iraqis ­ staying there, each paying a sum of money to the host.

On several occasions Jamal and his associates had close shaves with the army or the police, in Iran as well as in Kurdistan and Turkey.

After a three-week odyssey Jamal and his fellow-refugees arrived in Istanbul. Unlike the others who had the money to pay agents to buy passage to Europe, Jamal was broke and was lucky to find some work soon. He worked for six months in a leather and rubber goods godown owned by a Pakistani. The work involved cutting, sorting and arranging the items. It enabled him to survive and also save a bit of money to pay for the boat to Europe.

“Why did you want to leave Istanbul?”, I asked him. He replied that the authorities there were very hostile to Afghan refugees and were unwilling to give them legal status. There were a number of police atrocities against them. Jamal himself got beaten up on a couple of occasions. Moreover, most employers were not willing to hire people from outside. The risks for Afghans were high. If you got caught without papers you were deported to Iran and from there to Afghanistan. Jamal thus had to work on the sly, going to work before dawn and returning after dark, in order to escape the eyes of the police. On one occasion when he was caught he was dispossessed of all his money.

Finally, when he had set aside enough savings, Jamal managed to arrange for an agent to take him to Greece by boat. He was told that the crossing would take 5 hours. It took three days and three nights! He ran out of water on the second day and stayed thirsty for the remainder of the time. In a boat, no more than 20 metres in length, there were as many as 40 people traveling, including 12 Afghans, several Palestinians, Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians.

(During the mostly standing-room-only crossing Jamal met an Egyptian man who showed anger at Afghans because he thought they were the same as Al-Qaeda and were jeopardizing prospects for Muslims across the world. Jamal responded by saying that as an Egyptian he should know the difference between an Arab and an Afghan, that in Afghanistan Al-Qaeda drew its recruits predominantly from the majority Pushtoons and that there are more Arabs than Afghans in the terrorist group, many of them from Egypt! In general, Jamal feels that people all over the world, thanks to American propaganda after 9/11, have wrongly started thinking of all Afghans as Taliban, when, in fact, ironically, most Afghans are the victims of the latter. Using a popular Hazara expression, Jamal says that “the Taliban came and spoilt their food.” He would like very much for the world to recognize the integrity of his people.)

Hungry, thirsty, tottering at the edge of survival, Jamal was landed, after 72 hours on water, in a Greek jungle-swamp. They were received by a local agent who took four of them to his house at a time, strip-searched them upon arrival with a knife held to their throats, and demanded up-front cash before allowing them to stay for the night and take them to their next destination.

After a couple of days, Jamal and his new friend Asif, a 16-year-old fellow-Afghan, were put with a consignment of watermelons in a container-truck headed for Italy. Apparently, some off-duty policemen saw them being loaded into the container. While the truck was driving to the port it was stopped by the customs authorities for an examination. As luck would have it, the police torches showed Asif concealed under the watermelons, though Jamal escaped notice. Asif was hauled out of the truck, after which Jamal merely recalls a loud sound of screeching brakes and a crash. He was told later that Asif had been killed in the accident. He said he was afraid for his own life and was unable to know the real truth about Asif’s death. He will never know, he said.

Upon reaching the port at night, Jamal was escorted out of the container by another agent and shown the way into a waiting boat, where he joined dozens of other potential immigrants en route to Italy. Once again, the boat proved to be very heavy on a stormy sea and Jamal claims that several people on the boat were thrown out on the water to drown, or simply shot by the agents after being offloaded.

After a 30-hour ordeal, through which Jamal went hungry, they arrived, again during the night, at a deserted shore which, they were told, was Italy. There was no agent to guide them from here. They were merely shown the direction to the nearest village. So, with barely a few belongings on their shoulders, Jamal and two others began their trek on the European mainland. A policeman who encountered them on the way turned out to be a rare piece of good fortune, managing to explain to them in an alien tongue that they could spend the night at the morgue in the village and then walk three kilometers in the morning to the small town nearby which happened to have the closest train-station.

They did as they were told. Next morning they walked the three kilometers in the rain. Their luck seemed to have run out when they were asked for documents by two Italian policemen. Upon finding out that their captives had no papers, the policemen took pity on their wet, frozen condition and instead of taking them to jail, told them how to get to Rome.

Not having the requisite amount of money they managed to get on to the train to Rome, but without a ticket. Through sheer pluck they evaded the train-conductors and made it to Rome. They had the address of a park where some of their compatriots were apparently “staying.” They found them after a day’s effort, and finally got some food to eat.

Two weeks in Rome was Jamal’s baptism in Europe. He had various adventures but he managed to evade the cops, thanks to a rapid acquisition of survival skills perfected by his fellow-Afghans.

Jamal made contact with his sister in Teheran again and got her to send him some money. Then, he and two others made a plan to travel towards Norway, since he had heard that they take the best care of Afghan refugees. They bought a train ticket to Paris, so this time there was no fear of being checked, though they did not have any other papers.

Paris was cold and wet and they lay down, once again without blankets, in a park at night. Next day they made contact with some Afghan refugees in the city who put them in touch with a Persian-speaking Kurdish agent. For a sum of 600 Euros (all of Jamal’s savings, sent to him in Rome by his sister), he agreed to take Jamal to Oslo and his traveling companions to Copenhagen and Stockholm.

After spending a week in Paris, they took trains and buses, and on one occasion found themselves concealed at the back of a station-wagon! Jamal does not know exactly which countries he was taken through. But his agent informed him that he went through France, Luxemburg, Belgium, Germany, Denmark before he reached Stockholm and was put on the bus to Oslo.

He arrived alone in Oslo late at night with 50 Norwegian Kroners (6 Euros) in his pocket. He was met by a Kurdish man who immediately took him to the police station to get him registered as a fresh seeker of refugee status. They finger-printed him and took him to a refugee camp. He was interviewed there and after 4 days, sent to a larger refugee camp. He spent 40 days there and was well looked after, after a very long time.

Right now, Jamal lives at another camp (he asked me not to name it). He is given 2800 Kroners (325 Euros) a month by the Norwegian authorities for his upkeep while he awaits the decision on the legalization of his status.

He casts a cynical eye on Afghanistan after the “end” of the Taliban. He says that the Mullahs still hold the reins of power, only this time (as before 1990) they are with the Americans. He dreams of resuming and completing the education which was rudely interrupted 6 years ago.

Jamal and Afghanistan: Which way now?

No other country has been savaged by the three most potent fundamentalisms of our time, namely the Communist, the Islamic, and the capitalist. First, the declining Soviets invaded and ravaged the country and ran it from 1979 to 1988. Then the most rabid Islamic fundamentalists, in the shape of the Mujaheedin and the Taliban, armed by the CIA to battle the Soviets, pillaged the land and its people. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Osama Bin Laden was created by American policies.

Finally, after the Soviet withdrawal and the end of the Cold War, American interest in Afghanistan and its warlords has centred around negotiations to build oil and gas pipelines ­ the new “Silk Route” through Central Asia ­ from the Caspian Sea region through Afghanistan to Multan in Pakistan, from where already existing pipelines would carry the oil and gas to waiting tankers in the Karachi harbour. The powers involved in this 21st century version of “The Great Game” for regional hegemony ­ the US, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and to lesser extents, Britain, China and even Argentina ­ have been impatiently eyeing the $3-6 trillion oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea region.

Under pressure from the oil companies, especially UNOCAL and AMOCO, the Clinton administration consolidated its links with the Taliban. Many official exchanges took place between US administrations and the Taliban, all the way till negotiations over the oil and gas pipelines broke down in 2001. In 1996, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robin Raphael even took a helicopter from Islamabad to Qandahar to meet with the Taliban high command. It’s worth keeping in view the fact that till their falling out after 9/11, the Taliban served as America’s “pipeline police” in Afghanistan. Their treatment of women or children never stood in the way of official American dealings with them. On one occasion the US even defended the Taliban at the UN.

After 9/11, the US, in a cowardly show of misdirected retributive justice, began the high-altitude bombing of an already savaged land. 17 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 aircrafts came from Saudi Arabia. None came from Afghanistan. But the Bush family’s loyalty to Saudi royalty and to Prince Bandar Sultan (known to the family as Bandar Bush) prevailed and the Afghan victims of Al-Qaeda (the latter recruited largely in Sunni-dominated regions like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Pushtoon areas of Southern Afghanistan) were subjected to another round of barbarism, this time in high-tech fashion by the Americans.

Informed observers believe that America’s “war on terror” is, at bottom, not only a war for continued domination of the Middle East and its oil (keeping it from the Europeans, the Japanese and the Chinese, closest competitors in a globalized world), but even more for Central Asian oil and gas. The area has vast gas reserves and, as per latest estimates, could have up to 15% or more of the planet’s oil.

The Hazaras, Jamal among them, only constitute a tiny fraction of the millions of innocent victims around the globe of fossil-fuel-driven American foreign policies for continued global hegemony, policies which should themselves be fossilized if the planet is to survive into the next century.

As I was saying goodbye to Jamal, I wondered aloud whether we would ever meet again. Giving me a warm embrace, he said softly “kal ka kya pata, aaj toh gale mil lein!” (“who knows about tomorrow, let’s embrace today!”).

His fate now rests with the immigration authorities in Oslo who have yet to legalize his status, without which he does not even get the opportunity to take the necessary Norwegian classes, get himself the education he so badly desires and the medical attention he needs to attend to the problem in his knee (doctors refusing to treat him in Norway till he gets legalized). His fate also lies, more broadly, with the Norwegian government which has recently been promoting “Voluntary Return Programmes”, trying to induce refugees to return to their countries of origin.

Jamal himself remains extremely grim about the possibility of returning home. He does not know if his old parents are still alive. He is practically out of touch with his sister. When asked about the return of peace to Afghanistan after the American defeat of the Taliban, he responds “Kaisa aman? Kaun sa aman?” (“What peace? Which peace?”). He recalled that a Norwegian soldier had been killed, and one wounded, less than two months ago in a grenade attack near Kabul itself.

The Norwegian government should take heed, and if the EU and the UN wish to stem the flow of refugees from Afghanistan, they need to apply far greater pressure on the US than they have done hitherto, to change the course of its policies in the region. The problem has to be tackled at its root.

The Americans have to take responsibility not just for the destiny of Afghanistan as it has unfolded since 9/11 (the US was willing to put 7 million people, dependent on international food aid, at the risk of starvation in winter when they began the bombing of Northern Afghanistan in October, 2001), but for over two decades of problems resulting from the proxy Cold War conflict that they engaged in with the Soviets there since the Reagan years. For the first time in the history of the Cold War, American-armed guerillas (Sunni Islamic fundamentalists, the original ancestors of the ultimately victorious Taliban and Al-Qaeda) were firing directly at Soviet troops. The grand figure of Osama Bin Laden was created to prosecute American interests in the region, and fight the Soviets with a CIA-trained army of Sunni Islamic fundamentalist youth, recruited from countries as far apart as Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The US, with the pivotal assistance of radical Islamists, was hugely successful in its goal of displacing the Russians. Further, many observers regard the Soviet defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan as the key element in the final unravelling of the Soviet empire. But the long-term legacy of American intervention for the people of Afghanistan has been little short of catastrophic, especially after the oil multinationals began to show an interest in Caspian Sea oil and gas and of building the infamous pipeline. The barbaric monstrosities of the Taliban notwithstanding, the Americans wined and dined them all the way till August, 2001, to negotiate a good deal for the oil companies interested in Central Asia.

What now? Jamal recalls that the American-appointed Hamid Karzai was a minister in the short-lived Mujaheedin government in the early 1990s and was even a supporter of the Taliban at the time. He is certainly very far from having the interests of minorities like the Hazaras at heart. Jamal says that no one in Afghanistan takes seriously the claim of the Western media and governments that the Islamic fundamentalists and the Taliban have been eliminated from the country. Karzai is seen exactly for what he is, an American stooge who will ensure safe passage for American oil interests. ‘Karz’ means loan in Dari and Urdu, and the Hazaras believe that the Americans have this time taken Karzai on loan from the Afghans, in order to do their bidding in Afghanistan! The country outside of the small circle of American light around Kabul is still run by warlords who get their kicks from Kalashnikovs, either belonging to the Taliban or the Northern Alliance or one of their supporting groups. In many parts, thanks to complete lawlessness, women are no better off than under the Taliban. Rapes are common. Kabul itself, Jamal alleges, has become prohibitively expensive, affordable only for American and UN officials and diplomats, whose presence has spiked all prices and rents.

The Jamals, not the Karzais and the Khalilzads (architect of Bush’s policy in Afghanistan), are not only the real survivors of a devastated Afghanistan, but the true heroes of the modern world. For the Karzais and the Khalilzads, having made their mealy-mouthed deals with the Americans, life is simple and easy. Not for Jamal: “Whoever believes that life is simple or easy has not lived”, Jamal says in fluent Urdu, reciting a couplet which now eludes my memory and which offers consolation to a life almost resigned to exile. Yet he harbors the soaring hopes of youth. His eyes light up as he declares with zest: “Mustaqbil mein ek roshan banana hai” (One has to make a light in the future). Already fluent in several languages (his native Dari, Persian, Urdu, spoken Hindi, some Turkish and now learning Norwegian and English) Jamal still wishes more than anything else to complete his education.

With wisdom missing nowadays in men thrice his age, and hugely more educated than himself, the saddened 20-year-old muses that “there is no hope for my generation. I have never glimpsed happiness in my life, but at least the next generation should see some, and we have a role to play in that.” I asked him how he wished to play his part. “I do not want to become rich. If I can get an education, I would like to be of some help to the poor children of Afghanistan, because I know from my own life the conditions under which countless tens of thousands of children are growing up in the country. We need teachers, doctors and engineers, not Mullahs, weapons, American-appointed leaders and what they and the Americans call peace.”

One of the most astute commentators on Afghanistan and the modern world, the late Eqbal Ahmad from Pakistan, used to describe the country as a “metaphor for the world to come.” The world had better take heed of his words, given how prophetic he was in his prediction about the rise of a once obscure Saudi Mullah called Osama Bin Laden, more than a decade before 9/11 brought him immortal notoriety.

ASEEM SHRIVASTAVA, a citizen of India, teaches philosophy in Norway and can be reached at: