Fleeing Bombs and Bullets

 in The Adroit HumanWorld, TOI

Am having a traditional Tajiki Plov, cooked by the wife of my Afghan-Tajik friend, even as her two children play in the dining room. The Plov is rich in spices, kesar, coriander, cumin and cardamom replete with dry fruits and tender chicken.

Even as she serves us this delectable dish, the nightmares of 2018 have come back to haunt Aadela in 2021.

It was a sunny morning in Ghazni, in the summer of 2018, when her brother had just returned home. Studying in Kabul, he wanted to become a pilot with the Afghan Armed Forces.

Let’s call him Aizaan, for family’s security sake. Aizaan had promised his two younger sisters, and a nephew and a niece – a fun trip to Kabul by car.

The younger siblings were all excited for a trip to the big city.

As soon as Aizaan started the car, with two sisters, a kid nephew and niece inside, and moved it a few metres, an IED kept on the roadside, in their residential colony exploded, killing everyone.

Half of Aadela’s family was wiped out in that instant in 2018. Hearing the news in New Zealand over a call, she went almost insane.

Hassan had to take his wife to a psychiatrist, who administered her strong medication, to keep her sane, over the next one year.

Someone apparently had tipped the Taliban, about the 18-year old, studying in Kabul, to make a career in defence.

As Afghanistan falls into the dreaded hands of the Talibs in 2021, the nightmares have returned for millions of Afghans displaced from their homeland.

The paranoia is for real. Hassan for instance, never calls his friends or family back in Afghanistan, via a phone call. He always uses an internet messaging or calling service.

“Am paranoid, if the Talibs just catch my family member talking to someone who has called from outside Afghanistan, with an ISD code popping up, they could instantly get arrested,” Hassan tells me.

“I have lost at least 6-7 friends over the last 20 years. I don’t want to lose any more,” he tells me.

Fleeing Afghanistan

Hassan’s father, a business owner, was killed from a stray bullet, while he was walking home, from his shop, in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1985.

“Who killed him?,” I ask Hassan.

“When a war starts, any bullet whether from a friend or foe, can have your name,” he adds.

Many of his friends picked up the gun to join the Northern Alliance, in the 1990s.

After he turned 18, Hassan wanted to flee the fighting desperately.

We walk together one evening to have his mind diverted from the nightmares, he is having about his family back home in Afghanistan.

He recounts to me, his refugee story.

Travel To Quetta, Pakistan

The year was 2001. A flight of Afghans towards the West had started. But having neither sponsoring relatives nor the connections, Hassan stood little chance for an escape.

So, he made a plan B. “I managed to bribe a smuggler belonging to Balochistan. I met him in Afghanistan, and we travelled by car from Ghazni to Quetta”

In Quetta, he paid USD 15,000 to a smuggler, money that he borrowed from family, and selling his share of family business.

The destination was – ‘Australia’.

The smuggler managed to get him and others, on a tourist visa to Indonesia.

After landing in Jakarta, he along with other refugees, were forced into hiding.

On A Leaking Fishing Boat in The Indian Ocean

After a few months, the boatload of people were taken to an island in Sumatra region. From there, his refugee journey started.

It was a small boat designed to take just about 100 people. But about 400 people arrived. For Hassan, there was no looking back.

He crammed with others in the fishing boat. There was just one toilet, for 438 people.

Just after a few days. the boat was hit by a huge storm which destroyed its engine.

Hassan had vanquished all his drinking water bottles, and a little supply of nuts, already, sharing it with kids on the boat.

As the storm hit, he said his last prayers, and awaited for the almighty to take him.

But the fishing boat survived the tempest, and became adrift in the vast ocean, albeit with a hole. It was spotted by a rescue and reconnaissance plane.

Hard to believe his words, I tried to research for literature.

The fishing boat did become a huge diplomatic issue in 2001 between Indonesia from where it disembarked and Australia. It was rescued by a Norwegian container ship MV Tampa.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard tried his best to send the refugees back to Indonesia, which refused to accept them. MV Tampa was finally disembarked at Nauru.

In the 1970s, Nauru was one of the richest island countries by per capita GDP. Having exhausted all its phosphate reserves by the 1990s, Nauru now relies heavily on Australian aid, paid in lieu of operating a detention centre.

In 2014, there were over 1200 refugees in Nauru, some having spent years.

Hassan was detained at Nauru, for over 2 years, before UNHCR approved his application. He was given two choices – Australia or New Zealand.

He chose New Zealand.

“I will never set foot on Australian soil ever again. I have made myself that promise for life,” he tells me, still peeved with Australia’s policies towards refugees.

A small business entrepreneur in NZ, Hassan now has a boat, which he takes out solo in the Pacific, to escape the nightmares.

“Having spent days on sea, without food or water, and no country willing to accept me, I have no fear of death,” he tells me, even as his young boy of four, nags him to play.

“Will your kids ever see Afghanistan?” I ask Hassan.

“Perhaps, never,” he tells me.

(Some names were changed to protect family’s identity in Afghanistan)