Nesime, from AfghanistanBorder Crossings March 5, 2019
The following is from Agus Morales' We Are Not Refugees:
Who am I, who are you,
how are we to know that our identities are stable,
that we shall not flow into otherness,
as do wind and light and water?
George Steiner, Extraterritorial: Papers on Literature and the Language Revolution
He walks slowly across an unending desert on a sweltering summer day in 1984, alongside thousands of Afghans who, like him, are fleeing from war. The young man Kazim Kazimi, the poet Kazim Kazimi—he’s already a poet but he doesn’t yet realize it—crosses the sand where foreign armies are defeated again and again, that parched cemetery of empires, into Iran, the new home of millions of refugees. “I will march along this highway, into the scorching wind,” he will write years later. “On foot I came, and on foot I will leave.”
I am obsessed with stories of people that also tell the story of a country, a war, a revolution, a political process, a social movement. The Syrian exodus, the largest of the twenty-first century so far, can be told through a young woman’s diary. Most Syrians have known peace: now, new generations are beginning to appear that have known only war. But the Afghan exodus isn’t new: it began in the 1980s with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and since then, the tide has only swelled. It has its poets, like Kazim Kazimi; it has its liturgy, its soul-searching, its history. “Death is always bitter, but death in exile, death in loneliness, death in a land where no one understands anything you say, is even more cruel,” writes Layla Sarahat Roshani (1960–2005).
No other people, in the last half-century, has suffered the secret pain of exile as much as the people of Afghanistan. No refugee—no non-refugee—has been so ignored: history has immortalized the mystique of this land where empires have foundered, but it hasn’t traced the paths of the millions of Afghans who have fled.
The story of this Central Asian exodus can be told through the escape of one Afghan widow: Nesime. She was born in 1979, the same year that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the country was plunged into the cycle of violence from which it has yet to emerge.
“I was very little. I remember my parents, I remember the bombs. We went to Iran.”
Nesime’s children scamper around the apartment. She and her family now live in Zeytinburnu, Istanbul. The boys jump up and down on mattresses, draw with colored pencils, constantly make mischief. Indifferent to their merriment, Nesime keeps talking, fumbling through a rush of words, gazing straight ahead. When she speaks of her roots, of her childhood, of the first time she had to flee, she seems to speak not only of herself, but of history, a shared destiny, a public tragedy encapsulated in her story, in her private suffering.
“We were Shi’ites, but being Afghans in Iran was a problem. We didn’t have the same rights as everyone else.”
On December 25, 1979, 7,700 Soviet soldiers were flown into Afghan bases, while the 108th Motorized Division headed to Kabul, where the Soviet soldiers immobilized the seventh and fourteenth divisions of the Afghan army and disarmed the troops of the Ministry of the Interior. On the 27th, KGB troops attacked the presidential palace, killing the president, Hafizullah Amin.
The Soviet invasion had begun.
Ten years, a million civilian deaths, and five million refugees later, the war ended. And other wars began.
The main destinations for refugees were Iran and Pakistan. The Pashtun, of the Sunni denomination, were welcomed into the homes of Pakistanis of the same Pashtun ethnicity. It was there, on the Afghan-Pakistani border, that the mujahideen or Islamic freedom fighters’ resistance against the Soviet invaders was organized. By that time, a certain Osama bin Laden, in those days almost completely unknown, was operating in the area unimpeded. That was the distant seed, planted and nurtured by U.S. and Saudi Arabian intelligence agencies, of the radical Islam that flourished in the aftermath of the Cold War.
The Shi’ites, a minority in Afghanistan, who usually speak Dari—a dialect of Farsi—took refuge in Iran. Like Nesime. Despite many shared cultural codes, integration wasn’t easy. Then, as today, refugees were leaving countries at war and arriving in developing countries that treated them like any migrant population. They had no special, much less international, protection, but local people assumed that their arrival couldn’t be prevented. They needed to be assimilated.
Nesime married an Afghan, and her family began to prosper in Iran. The Soviet war and the civil war among the mujahideen that followed it were over, but in 1996, Mullah Omar, the one-eyed priest who donned the cloak of Muhammad at the Shrine of the Cloak in Kandahar, came to power as leader of the Taliban. The refugees were reluctant to return. In Pakistan, they felt at home. In Iran, despite the exploitation and ethnic discrimination they faced, at least they were safe.
“We couldn’t own property,” recalls Nesime, “and my husband had an illegal textile factory. It was working out well. Then the Iranian police found out and closed it down. They requisitioned his papers and deported him to Afghanistan, along with the rest of the workers.”
That was in 2000, when the Taliban regime was in its death throes, and before the attacks of 9/11, which would trigger the American invasion. Those were the years of darkness, of sky-blue burkas, sharia law, and public executions in the Kabul stadium.
“When my husband was deported to Afghanistan, the Taliban asked him where he’d come from. When they found out he’d come from Iran, they put him in jail, since the Iranians are their enemies because they are Shi’ites.”
Nesime’s husband wouldn’t last long there. He planned an escape with a group of fellow prisoners, taking advantage of a night when there was only one guard on duty. They tied him up and managed to flee, but the Taliban pursued them across the desert, the same desert of exile, the same ocean of dust and stone, the same scorching wind blowing in their faces that the poet Kazim Kazimi had suffered as he fled.
“They tried to hunt them down. They had no shoes. They ran across the desert and through the mountains. Finally, they reached Iran. My husband was sick, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t stop shouting. The doctor told us he was going to die, but gradually he began to recover.”
The family resumed their life in Iran, where they lived between Tehran, Mashhad, and Jom. Her husband reopened the factory. On the other side of the border, in Afghanistan, another invasion was beginning, the post-9/11 American invasion, the search for Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora. The Soviets had named their intervention Operation Storm. The Americans called theirs Operation Enduring Freedom. Different names, but in Nesime’s eyes, the same war. She had no intention of returning: her home was now in exile, where another story, another destiny began to be woven.
“We had a nice life and a small factory. We needed an Iranian accountant to act as a front, so the same thing wouldn’t happen to us again. But we didn’t know he was a Christian.”
It might seem like just an insignificant detail, a remark by an intolerant Afghan woman who didn’t want Christians around her. But the Iranian accountant befriended Mehdi, the eldest of Nesime’s seven children, and made it his mission to convert him to Catholicism.
“My son was a good Muslim. First, we noticed that he wasn’t getting up to eat before sunrise during Ramadan, like the rest of us. Then we noticed that he would disappear into his room to pray on Sundays. He had converted.”
Their son’s decision, in a frightened family of Afghan refugees in Iran, caused a torrent of family strife. They asked him to give up his new religion, to “go back to being a Muslim.” Just as they were beginning to feel at home, they suffered another kind of ostracism: that of their community, and of the society that had welcomed them.
“My brothers and sisters began telling me we were no longer part of the family,” says Nesime, as tears begin to fall from behind her small, rectangular glasses. “They said my son was a disease.
‘Get away from here!’ they shouted. When one of my nephews died, they wouldn’t let me go to the funeral. We couldn’t go to weddings, we couldn’t go to our relatives’ houses. They tormented my son, and threatened him.”
All this causes her much more pain than the war. Her family’s rejection: a private, personal anguish she carries with her as a mother and as a refugee. A mistake that she made her own, a sentence to flee yet again, an unforeseen persecution, a story that combines the great ills of our times—politics, religion, borders—in the worst possible way, where the obscure and unfathomable reasons why humans make life impossible for one another rise to the surface.
“The Iranian government also wanted my son to convert back to Islam,” says Nesime as she glances at the clock and we hear a key turn in the door of the apartment. “We even signed a letter promising we would try to persuade him.”
It’s one in the afternoon, and Mehdi, the son who converted, arrives home from work. He has just turned seventeen. He works in a textile factory in Istanbul along with his younger brother, who is thirteen. Skinny and poised, with a kind expression, he sits down on the couch, unperturbed by the presence of notebooks, pens, and cameras. He answers my questions willingly but asks me not to take up too much of his time since he needs to have lunch and get back to the factory.
“They tormented me, they beat me, they did things to me I can’t mention here, in front of my family,” says the young man, who now suffers from epileptic seizures. “I feel awful whenever I remember it.”
The memory of that pain doesn’t seem to be attached to Mehdi’s physical suffering, but rather to the knowledge that he was harming his family. But despite this, his spiritual decision would remain firm and irrevocable.
“Why did you do it?”
“I had a friend who taught me about Christianity, and in the end, I converted. My mother has always supported me because I’m her son, she’s always been there for me,” says Mehdi. “All this is my fault. I feel terrible because if it weren’t for my conversion, we wouldn’t have fled, and nothing would have happened to my father.”
His father: a silence descends. His father isn’t here. Mehdi gets up to go and eat, and his younger siblings follow him into the kitchen. Nesime resumes the story, now that her son has left the room, and explains why her husband isn’t there.
“We decided to leave Iran. Our situation was very dangerous. We couldn’t withdraw money from the bank because the factory was in the Iranian accountant’s name, but we had a small amount of money and some gold. We went to Tehran, and from there we tried to cross into Turkey illegally, through Urmia and Van. We had to walk along the border for twelve hours. We saw dead bodies, it was terrible. There were three groups of us, we were in the middle one. The Iranian police caught us. The first group stopped, and we stayed quiet. We were in the middle, so we didn’t know what to do. There were gunshots. Five people were wounded, two of them children. We started running. We kept running and running, and I thought my husband was there with the rest of our group. We ran for miles, until dawn. But my husband was gone.”
Nesime assumes that her husband was shot to death by the Iranian police. While she believes that this is what happened, the loss is especially painful because it is unconfirmed. I don’t dare to ask her if she’s considered the possibility that her husband might have escaped, or that he may have survived, but he didn’t want to return to his family. I don’t know if it’s more cowardly to ask this question or not to ask it.
The family now lives in this modest apartment in Istanbul, and they’ve requested asylum through the UN Refugee Agency, but they complain that the bureaucratic process is dragging on, and have little hope that it will bear fruit.
“We want a place where we can live in peace. When we arrived here, my son kept screaming. He was anxious, he thought our family were going to send Afghans here, to attack him. He’s afraid of the Afghans in this neighborhood. In fact, we didn’t want to request asylum for fear that they would find us. Other countries aren’t interested in us. We’re human beings, but it doesn’t matter to them. If anything happened to us, they wouldn’t care. My husband’s relatives said they would follow us wherever we went, to do away with my son. I’d like to go to Australia. As far away as possible.”
We finish the interview, and I start playing with the children. They’re making an almighty ruckus and I take a couple of punches. I keep a drawing by one of them: Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi with the number 10 on his back, some dark blue stripes, an oval-shaped ball, a sun shining brightly, a soccer field that looks much more European than Afghan. I leave the apartment to go and get something to eat with the Afghan interpreter. He savors his pide—a kind of Turkish pizza—with relish, oblivious to all that surrounds us. We begin to forget Nesime’s story. One more story.
A few days later, I went to the Greek island of Lesbos and spoke to the Afghans who, in that distant summer of 2013, were already boarding boats to Europe. I thought that might be the only possible way out for Nesime and her family.
Two years later, I went back to Lesbos and followed the refugee trail toward northern Europe. Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia . . . the blockades, the waiting, the humiliation. The majority of the refugees were Syrians and Afghans. I imagined Mehdi the Christian, now the head of his family, leading a group of Afghans across the border between Greece and Macedonia. On the buses, I saw Afghan women with rectangular glasses and blue headscarves, any of whom I thought might be Nesime. I looked everywhere for her. Few stories like hers encapsulated every kind of persecution that a human being can endure: bombings, fanaticism, the police. I imagined the family arriving in Sweden and presenting their request for asylum, which would be rejected since they couldn’t provide documentation of the persecution they’d suffered, because they couldn’t provide documentation of the destruction of their hometown that had occurred in the 1980s, because they couldn’t provide documentation of a permanent war that belonged in the public domain, because they couldn’t provide documentation of their status as refugees.
All this wasn’t just because of an Iranian accountant.
We Are Not Refugees
Translation copyright © 2019 by Charlotte Whittle.
An Imagine Book
Published by Charlesbridge
Originally published as No Somos Refugiados by Círculo de Tiza
Copyright © Círculo de Tiza (Derecho y Revés, S. L.), 2016, Madrid
Text copyright © 2016 by Agus Morales