Gity Afshar: “Either I sink in the sea or die in the sky, but I’m leaving.” Photo by Zabuillah Fazly.
J. Malcolm Garcia's report from our November issue reminds us of the world-wide issue of refugees. People from many different countries are desperate not just to improve their lives but to "feel free and walk free and not be afraid." That is surely not too much to ask.
KABUL—We sit in the shade near the shore of Qargha Lake in Kabul. The anemic shadows cast by thin trees point toward pitted paths where vendors sell fruit. On a road nearby, cars lurch through valleys of ruined pavement toward some distant hilltop destination.
“This is the only place for sightseeing in Kabul,” says Jamshid Ahmady, twenty-eight. “We have this lake and the zoo. We don’t have anything else to do in Kabul beside these two things—and avoid dying in a bomb blast.”
Ahmady wears jeans, a button-down orange shirt, and shined leather shoes. He drinks Red Bull. He remembers the Taliban, but the memories do not weigh on him. What worries Ahmady now is the rising instability and lack of jobs. Like many other young Afghans, he plans to leave Afghanistan for Europe as soon as he can. He’s already made one failed attempt.
“Escaping,” Ahmady calls it. “Skipping out,” others say. However they describe it, the modus operandi remains the same: talking to a smuggler and paying thousands of dollars to leave a country that has been mired in war for close to forty years, including fourteen since the United States invaded in the aftermath of 9/11.
More than 40,000 Afghans have sought sanctuary in Europe from January until August of this year, according to the United Nations. Syrians comprised the largest group of refugees in Europe. Eritreans accounted for the second-largest number, and Afghans made up the third.
Many Afghans worry that the Afghan National Army, in the wake of the impending NATO troop withdrawal, will not have the capability to secure the country. In 2014, the last American commander to lead combat operations in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, described the casualty rate among the Afghan army as unsustainable.
Afghan men and women who worked as interpreters for the United States and other allied forces are among those who want to leave. The Special Immigration Visa, a U.S. program designed to expedite the visa process for Afghan and Iraqi interpreters, entails a lengthy, and costly, application process. Translators and their families mired in the program’s red tape risk retribution from the Taliban with each passing day.
Young Afghans today don’t want to make the same mistake as their parents, many of whom stayed after the Russians left, and lived through civil war and the rise of the Taliban.
Despite assurances by the United States that NATO’s departure will not be a repeat of the 1990s, many people here have concluded otherwise. They see a stubborn and increasingly powerful insurgency that refuses to accommodate Western interests and a weak unity government presided over by two former political rivals. The Taliban’s takeover of the city of Kunduz has made a lot of Afghans even more nervous. Corruption runs rampant. Transparency International, an organization that tracks corruption worldwide, found Afghanistan to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, alongside North Korea and Somalia.
The mounting problems have convinced many Afghans to followNATO’s lead and embark on their own withdrawal.
“Kabul is not safe,” says Abdul Malik Bakhtyar, fifty-two, head of publications for the Ministry of Women. “So many men and women are leaving. We have had almost half a century of war but nothing has changed. It will only get worse if the country continues to deteriorate.”
Bakhtyar lives in Logar province, about an hour’s drive outside Kabul and an area with a strong Taliban presence. One night, he says, he saw the Taliban kill a policeman.
“They would do the same to me,” he says. “Obviously, the Taliban would mind that I work with women.”
Afghan women know firsthand about the threats they face. In March, Farkhunda Malikzada, a twenty-seven-year-old Afghan, was killed by a mob when she was falsely accused of burning the Koran. A woman I speak with, Gity Afshar, twenty-two, worries the same fate might await her.
“Either I sink in the sea or die in the sky, but I’m leaving,” Afshar tells me.
Last January, she says, about a dozen men stopped her taxi and accused her of soliciting sex with the elderly driver. They threw stones and broke a window. She fled to a nearby bakery until the police arrived. No arrests were made.
Her father would not let her leave the house for two months, Afshar says. He told her that no man would be blamed should anything happen to her. Instead, she would be accused of not being a “good girl” and bring shame on the family.
“I was at home when Farkhunda was killed,” Afshar says. “I started crying. I recalled my bad night. I saw my picture on the news instead of her. That is why I’m leaving.”
As I write this, bomb blasts rock the capital and nearby
provinces. My Afghan colleague Zabiullah Fazly, thirty-two, has started a Facebook group, “Afghanistan Security Alert,” in which he documents the routine violence:
Kabul, September 8, at 2:15 p.m.: A magnetic bomb exploded and injured one police officer and destroyed a few vehicles in the area. It was attached to a car.
Kabul, September 11, at 5:15 p.m.: An explosion took place in Airport Residential Apartments.
Ghazni Province, September 14, at 10 a.m.: A group of armed men attacked Ghazni’s prison, and almost 400 prisoners have escaped the jail.
Fazly worries about magnet bombs, explosive devices terrorists attach to vehicles. He inspects his car for the devices even in the Westernized shopping district of Shar-e-Now, where billboards promote Mastercard and Visa credit cards. He, too, would like to leave Afghanistan. He has received death threats because he works with Westerners.
“I tell those guys, ‘I am a poor man,” Fazly says. “Shoot me now because I don’t know when I’ll have my next job, and I can’t afford to leave.’ ”
In a country with an estimated 35 percent unemployment, many Afghans have quit looking for work and focus only on escaping.
“The middle class here is taking a hit,” says Ahmad Shuja, a research associate for the Kabul office of Human Rights Watch. “Right now, unemployment and poverty are extremely high and going up. The figures are dire. You don’t have bread lines here to photograph, but you can see the lines outside of the passport office.”
Shekib Younissi, a flight attendant for Kam Air, an Afghan airline, recently made plans for his pregnant wife, two brothers, and father to leave Afghanistan. They will fly from Kabul to Tehran and stay with a cousin. There, they will pay a smuggler $24,000 to take them to Turkey. They will walk when necessary to avoid police stations and travel by car when they can. In Iran alone, they may have to walk up to twenty hours, Younissi says, before reaching the Turkish border. The trip from Turkey to Germany will cost an additional $20,000.
“My wife is seven months pregnant and with my first child,” says Younissi, who will stay in Kabul to care for his sick mother. “I don’t want my baby born here. Look, everyone is escaping. I don’t want my child raised with bomb blasts.”
His father, Mohammad Fayaz, fifty-seven, weeps when he speaks about leaving his wife of twenty-seven years.
“It is very difficult to part from your life partner and from your country,” Fayaz says. “I have seen so much war. Before I stayed because it was my country, it was like my mother. But I can’t see my family die here. Every time we see the news, the situation is worse here.”
Younissi hopes to raise enough money in a year or two for him and his mother to join their family in Germany—if they make it.
“We have said to one another, ‘Maybe we won’t see each other again,’ ” Younissi says, recalling conversations with his wife. “We both cried. I try not to think of my wife and child dying doing this.”
Jamshid Ahmady knows how it feels not to reach Europe.
He initiated his journey last November, making his plans through the most conventional of means: a Kabul travel agency. A sign in the window advertised visa applications for Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, Ahmady says, such promotions often provide cover for travel agents to connect people with smugglers. A travel agent told him he knew a smuggler in Moscow. He’ll sponsor you, the agent said. Ahmady paid the travel agent $1,500 and the Moscow smuggler $3,000. He bought a round-trip ticket to avoid arousing the suspicion of Russian customs officers.
Over a period of months, the Moscow smuggler filed the forms necessary to claim Ahmady as his cousin. Ahmady then applied for a Russian visa. He left for Moscow last November.
Ahmady spent his first night in Russia with the smuggler. The next day, the smuggler introduced him to another smuggler who, he said, could get him into Europe. But this smuggler told him he would have to wait six months until the snow cleared. The trip would take four or five days and cost $8,500.
After one week in Moscow, the first smuggler told Ahmady he could not stay with him any longer, and the second smuggler said he was sheltering so many refugees waiting to enter Europe that he had no room for him. Ahmady considered his options. He could not afford to stay in Moscow, and so he returned to Kabul. He intends to leave again as soon as he raises the money.
“Everyone here thinks of their own life and how to make it better,” Ahmady says. “Nobody pays any attention to other people. The war makes people think only of themselves, of surviving. No one knows how long they will be alive. They leave for work, they don’t know what will happen. You don’t have a chance here. You’re either not working or you’re working but you could get killed in a bomb explosion.”
He says he wants to feel free and walk free and not be afraid.
“That would mean a lot to me,” he says.