This is a story of the children of the British colonial empire trying to get to the land of their former conquerors.
This article was first published in the 2012 spring issue of the French quarterly magazine XXI.
It was winter when I arrived in Birmingham, with gray skies, snow, icy streets, empty walkways and biting wind. Once home to the industrial revolution, today there are glass high-rises, red brick Victorian buildings, row houses, boarded up storefronts, pubs with men with hard faces smoking outside, and Indian restaurants run by Bangladeshis.
Over 20 percent of Birmingham is Asian. Pakistanis call it “Choka,” or little, Pakistan.
The first mosque was built in 1981. Today, the red brick Ghamkol Sharif Masjid, one of the largest mosques in Europe, with its minaret reaching up to God and a madrasa across the street, has room for 5,000 worshippers. They come from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean, seeking a better life. The children of Britain’s colonial empire have come to the land of their former conquerors. Those who have traveled the farthest, who have surely suffered the most, and who confront the biggest dilemma once they arrive, are Afghan boys.
“It is the largest illegal migration in the world,” said Michael Parazyszek, a spokesman for Frontex, the Warsaw-based agency that controls border security for Europe. “Of the 40,000 boys that migrated to Europe in 2010, one-half are from Afghanistan.” The numbers were higher in 2011.
Jean-Philippe Chouzy of the Organization of International Migration in Geneva said, “No one really knows how many are coming. Do we know of one out of two, or is it one out of ten? Some use drugs as currency to pay their way; some are forced to provide sexual favors to continue their journeys.”
It was three days before Christmas. My contact picked me up in an old, dark Subaru at the train station, and drove me to his modest red brick house on a quiet, tree-lined street, with front yards covered in snow. We took off our shoes at the door, in keeping with Afghan custom, and he brought me into a male guest room, called a hujra, in Afghanistan. The walls were bare. There was a red Turcoman carpet on the floor, a computer in the corner and two black leather sofas. A half hour, the boy arrived, and Ahmed brought him into the room. He was a smiling, raw-boned young man, about five-foot nine. His hair was short, his eyes bright and he had a wispy beard. He wore jeans, a windbreaker, two T-shirts and was barefoot. He left his shoes at the front door. He looked about 21.
His name is Bhahar. He is Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The Taliban are Pashtuns. There are now, after 30 years of war in Afghanistan, 78,000 Pashtuns in this city of one million people.
Bhahar sat across from me and sipped a glass of green tea. “I am from Saokayi, a village in Kunar Province,” he began. His house, made of baked mud and stone, is near the Kunar River, on the northern Afghan-Pakistani border, a land of pine forests, rolling mountains, and deep valleys, where farmers use wood plows and harvest wheat with a scythe. Bhahar cut firewood, for cooking, and to heat their home. Across the wide, rippling river are rocky lowlands and then a line of stark, jagged mountains, beyond which is Pakistan. The Taliban live in the mountains, and in Pakistan.
“We had a small plot of land where we grew vegetables. We had five sheep, four goats and three cows. We grew corn and wheat on another man’s land and gave 50% to him. If it didn’t rain we worked as laborers building stone walls, anything, to survive.”
Bhahar’s father went to the mosque before dawn to pray and hear a sermon. His family prayed at home facing southwest toward Mecca, after which they sat on a kilim on the dirt floor and ate warm bread, drank tea and then went to work. “My two sisters and my mother cut grass for the animals and cleaned their stalls, and the house. My father, three brothers and I did heavier work. I went to a man’s house when I was a boy and he taught us about Islam. He and other boys sat on the ground and listened to the mullah. We were too poor to go to school.” He said that he only ate meat a few times a year.
He never had a girlfriend. His eyes flashed. “I was afraid to like somebody.” If he looked at a girl the wrong way her brothers would say that he had dishonored her. “How would you feel if someone treated your mother or your sister this way? That’s how they would think.” It would unleash a call for badal, or revenge, a tenet of Pashtunwali, the detailed and demanding code of the Pashtuns which goes back thousands of years and governs law and order in this hard, tribal, warrior society. Her brothers could kill Bhahar, and his family would respond, and a cycle of killings would begin.
I first came in contact with Pashtunwali in 1973 when I visited a Kuchi, or nomad, camp near Kabul. A man invited me into his tent, his home, and his wife, unveiled, like all nomad women—the Taliban could not get them to wear a veil—walked barefoot, gracefully, in a dress, to the back to get glasses and sugar for tea. I sat with them and their children in the late afternoon. I was their guest. To be a good host is a form of milmastia, or hospitality.
The Kuchis, called powandah in Pakistan, are Pashtuns, the vast majority of whom today are sedentary. Wali means the code, or the way, in Pashto. It can also mean “ism,” in English, as in Pashtunism. Pashtunwali means “The way of the Pashtuns.” It applies no matter where they live in the world.
The main tenet of Pashtunwali is honor. All other tenets: hospitality, revenge, right of refuge, inheritance, marriage, divorce, and all forms of punishment, stem from honor. It goes to the heart of what it means to be a Pashtun. A man has no tolerance for anyone who attacks his personal, family or tribal honor.
All men must tell the truth, for to lie is a form of cowardice. A man must protect to the death someone seeking refuge with him. Pashtunwali demands blood vengeance, contradicting the Koran, which states that a man must not kill another Muslim. A man must never let an insult go unpunished. Shari’ah, or Islamic law, is interested in arbitration, settling a dispute, paying blood money for murder rather than killing the murderer, and restoring stolen property rather than punishing the thief. A man must pay his debts.
All men are equal under Pashtunwali, and noble, but if a man looks at a woman with the slightest slant, demeaning her honor, it is grounds for murder. Bhahar knew the rules. Every boy does. Rarely is a woman ever disgraced or molested in Pashtun culture, nor is she considered equal to a man. Courtship and romantic love are forbidden. A man marries his father’s brother’s daughter. A man and a woman who elope lose respect. The family can only retrieve its honor and status if they kill the elopers. The woman must die first. If they flee to another country, they must never return. Male and female are stoned or buried alive. Under Shari’ah, adultery must be witnessed by four people. In Pashtunwali, a rumor can end a woman’s life.
“War was everywhere,” Bhahar said, his voice rising. A boy he knew blew himself up, along with a U.S. Army vehicle, on the road by their house. “People say that the ISI (Pakistani military intelligence) kidnaps boys and trains them to be suicide bombers. Boys from my village disappeared. So many people have been killed. People say that the Taliban are killing, al-Qaeda, the government, the Americans.” He was afraid and talked to his family.
His mother told her brother, a schoolteacher in Jalalabad, the main city in eastern Afghanistan, that Bhahar wanted to go to the West. Her brother owned a taxi and some land. He knew of the Kajaki Larah, the road that boys took to Europe or Australia. “Every Afghan knows about it,” said Bhahar laughing.
His uncle gathered $8,000, the cost to send a boy from Afghanistan to Greece, the entry point to Europe. He took the money to an agent in Jalalabad, who took it to Chowk-i-Yadgar, the “place to remember,” a maze of winding dirt alley in the covered bazaar, with lights hanging from wires overhead, in Peshawar, Pakistan. This is where the money changers and drug dealers work. The agent met with a kachakbar, a “smuggler,” signed a contract and gave him the money. He would release half to the traffickers when Bhahar reached Istanbul, the rest when he reached Greece.
It was autumn and the leaves were falling when Bhahar said goodbye to his family. His mother cried. He fidgeted as he talked, his voice softer now. “It was hard. You leave your family, all you know, to go to a strange land. I was 16 or 17.” No Afghan knows his real age. “It is difficult to leave your home. Your father and grandfather lived in your house. My older brother wasn’t that strong. I was the one who would leave.”
He and his father stood by the road. A mini-van appeared and his father put out his hand. It stopped and Bhahar took it down to Jalalabad, the cold, rushing Kunar River a hundred yards wide, on his left. The city, in the lowlands, was hot and humid. The next day his uncle took him to the agent, who took him to a house where three boys were waiting. Another man drove them to Torkham, the border crossing, with a U.S. military base, like a fort in the American West, next to it, Frontier Scouts manning the gate, and trucks, cars, camels, sheep, and people walking. They passed through the gate and drove the winding paved road through the hills, with baked mud compounds dotting the landscape, to Peshawar, a sprawling city of three million. He dropped the boys off at a safe house, where other boys were waiting.
Two nights later a mini-van drove them south through checkpoints with cables across the road, through the tribal areas, headquarters of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, past brick mud compounds, villages, and old British forts with whitewashed stones lining their walkways. The driver, a Pashtun, gave the boys bread and water. The next morning the road rose and they reached Quetta, in Baluchistan Province. They changed buses and a Baluch drove them west on a two-lane paved road across high desert, past herds of sheep, camels, sand dunes and distant villages. That night they reached Kiftal, a dusty village near the Iranian border.
They slept in a field under a tree outside of town with 15 other boys. There was no food. At dawn, others “agents,” as Bhahar called them, drove them near to a long baked mud wall about seven feet high. It was the Iranian border. They told them to scale the wall and run to where cars were waiting. The boys ran, but Pakistani border police, in khakis and red berets, fired into the air and some boys fell back from the wall, frightened, and were taken into custody.
The rest made it over, but Iranian police fired at them, killing two and capturing others. Was this true? I knew that Afghans lied in spite of their tribal code and Islam. I asked my contact, who was translating. Bhahar repeated his story. “I believe him,” he said gravely.
They ran across the dusty scrubland to the cars, Toyota Corollas, ubiquitous in South Asia, and they raced away bouncing over a track and climbed up a mountain and left them there. That night men came and walked them in a single file through the mountains. They slept in the undergrowth, to keep warm for a few hours and continued on to the next evening, when they reached a dirt road where other cars were waiting. The traffickers put three boys in each trunk and drove down to Zahedan, the main city along the border, where two buses waited. Men appeared with other boys and put 18 into each baggage hold, and they rode 400 miles northwest across the Lut Desert toward Isfahan, with its fountains and turquoise mosques, once capital of Persia, on the Silk Road. They stopped outside the city, and the drivers opened the doors and the boys stumbled out, some sick from the fumes. The drivers told them to run and they did, as best they could, to a forest. Men met them there and gave them bread and tea, their first food since Quetta. More boys were there.
“We weren’t afraid,” Bhahar said, “because we were about 50 boys now.” That night, five armed men came and robbed them, beating some because they didn’t have money. The boys huddled together, frightened. At dawn other smugglers came and drove them back to the highway and then high up into another forest where it was cold and raining. Men with walkie-talkies appeared and led them by another route down to waiting buses and put them again into baggage holds. Three boys fell unconscious, overcome by the fumes. When they finally stopped the boys gently put their friends on the ground.
A taxi pulled up, men got out and kicked the boys to wake up. A motorcyclist patrolled the road. The men stuffed boys into their car trunks and drove into Tehran and to safe houses. “It was so dirty inside,” Bhahar muttered, “I didn’t take off my shoes. They threw pieces of dried bread at us like we were dogs. Boys cried and couldn’t eat. We were afraid.”
Bhahar had been traveling for two weeks and had come 1,600 miles. They stayed in the house for three weeks. “We drank water from the faucets. Some days we didn’t eat, and we just tried to help one another.” A hierarchy began to develop, with smaller, younger boys, looking to older teenagers for protection from the traffickers. Men brought them western clothes and shoes. They had to blend in; otherwise, the wrong people would see them and arrest them. Some boys put their old clothes and sandals, their ties to home, in bags to bring with them. Men offered boys money and food if they would carry drugs. Some boys agreed. Others refused.
One morning, before dawn, agents appeared and put them into cars and took them outside the city, loaded them into a large truck, put a tarp over the top and stacked boxes high in front to look like cargo. A motorcyclist went ahead watching for the police.
They rode northwest, near the Caspian Sea, and stopped that night at an apple orchard in the foothills of the Elburz Mountains, in Kurdish country. There were shepherds and goats and sheep and the boys slept among the animals for warmth. The next morning Kurds gave them bread, cheese and black tea. “They said there was too much snow in the mountains and we had to wait, and that this was the hardest part. The rest would be easy. All we thought about was that our families had spent so much money and we had to keep going.”
I asked if some boys were carrying drugs. “Agents offered us $200 or $300 if we would carry suitcases,” Bhahar answered. “Some boys did this. We knew it was heroin or opium. We heard that they took organs from boys and stuffed heroin inside their bodies, too.”
In the 1970s, there were 5,000 hippies living in Kabul. They lounged in the sun, read books, sat in cafes, smoked hashish, and listened to rock and roll. Louis Dupree, the preeminent American scholar working in Afghanistan then, wrote in his book, “Afghanistan,” that hippies introduced drug trafficking to the West. It is now a multi-billion dollar business.
Other men came and took them up into the mountains where they stayed for a month. Bhahar smiled, like a boy. “It was the best place. The houses were warm and the ladies treated us like their children. They were beautiful. They spent so much money on us. There was food and water. Here was the real agent. He talked to each one of us and we were allowed to pray.”
The boys spoke Farsi, called Persian in the West, and Dari in Afghanistan. Bhahar also knew Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, and Pashto. He couldn’t read or write. The agent said they could rent horses for $50 each to ride over the mountains. About twenty boys had the money. They left before dawn, some boys on horseback, Bhahar and the rest on foot, and they hiked and rode for 24 hours through the mountains. Bhahar touched his thigh. The snow was that high. They gradually came down and other men appeared in the distance. “We are leaving you here,” the agents said, took their horses and turned back. They were now in Turkey. The boys followed the Turkish Kurds down to a dirt road and soon a truck pulled up. “We were so cold we couldn’t climb in,” Bhahar said. “They threw us in like animals.”
He put his feet up on a coffee table. Three of his toes were black, from the cold. The truck made its way down the mountains, stopped and seven Pakistanis climbed on. It stopped again, and eight Bangladeshis climbed on and they rode down to a village of wood and stone houses where about 80 young men from Iraq, Iran, India, China and Pakistan, but mostly from Afghanistan, were waiting. A Crusader castle stood on a hill, a way station once for warriors on their way to the Holy Land. Now al-Qaeda used this route to travel across Iran to Pakistan.
“Two trucks came and agents put 50 of us in one and 30 in another and we rode down to another town. It was a bad place.” Bhahar’s eyes were dark and he looked older. “There were subagents here, men who people said would sell us to other agents, cut off our noses, our ears, pull our fingernails out, or burn us with a cattle prod to force us to call our families for money.” He raised his fist. “The big agents don’t know about this. The subagents would try to grab us. I was afraid to go outside.”
A truck came, got stuck in the snow and the boys had to pull it with a rope. A man hit them with a stick to make them pull harder. They pulled the truck out and rode down out of the snow and west on a paved road on the high plains past towns and villages, and hills dotted with herds of sheep, to sky-blue, saline, Lake Van, 20 miles wide, where they lived for a month in an animal shed on bread, tomatoes and rainwater. Only three of Bhahar’s 12 companions from Peshawar were still with him. “The others were lost, maybe in prison or dead,” he said quietly. He didn’t know where they were, nor did he show any emotion.
Another truck took farther west back up into the hills and they walked through the Taurus Mountains, and took a series of trucks across the Anatolian plateau to a forest near Ankara, 750 miles across Turkey; over 1,000 miles from Tehran; over 2,200 miles from Peshawar, probably longer if you take in the hiking. Men crammed 105 boys into one truck, like cattle, and they sat on their haunches and rode west toward Istanbul.
They reached this ancient city, half of it in Asia, half in Europe, still the stopping-off point for travelers going between the two. The truck, like a bus, stopped at a few places, unloaded boys, and vans then took them to safe houses. “We were weak, tired and afraid,” he said. “We could only eat yoghurt.”
An agent called Peshawar, but Bhahar’s money wasn’t available. The kachakbar was using it elsewhere. “Now things get exciting,” Bhahar exclaimed, his eyes glowing. For the first time he seemed happy to talk. The room was filling up with older men, who had come to talk, and drink tea. They listened and no one questioned him.
“The agent took me down into a cellar. I was there for seven months.” I let this sink in for a minute. “Some boys were there a year. Sometimes, when money came, they moved 20 to 30 boys at a time; sometimes there were 100 of us waiting. I couldn’t tell day from night. There were bugs and boys fought over blankets or if they touched one another.” He squirmed telling this part. Some boys had formed gangs.
“Twice I received $100 by hawala and gave it to the woman who bought us food.” He shook his head disdainfully. “She charged us a commission.”
Hawala is an ancient, untraceable money transfer system, where money doesn’t move, and is based upon trust. Militants use hawala. Every Afghan I knew used it. Bhahar called his uncle, who sent money to the kachakbar, in Peshawar, who gave his uncle a number, who gave it to Bhahar, who gave it to the agent in Istanbul, who took it to a hawala man, who called Jalalabad. The hawala man there confirmed the number, releasing the money, and Istanbul gave it to the agent. Everyone took a commission.
Bhahar’s $4,000 arrived. “I was so happy,” he smiled. He could now go to Europe. Traffickers came before dawn and drove him and other boys, southwest to Izmir, on the Aegean Sea, with high rises, winding streets, outdoor cafes, tourists, and NATO ships. Greek islands beckoned across the blue water. They stayed in a house for a few days and then smugglers drove them in vans to a forest where about 70 boys were waiting. The men took them at night to a rocky cove where the boys boarded a small, rusting boat. The pilot was drunk. The boys sat on deck and they left, and wind came up and waves lashed the side and the engine stopped. “Now we die,” we cried, said Bhahar. But the waves sent the boat back and it crashed into shore.
The boys got out, but the police came and they ran. Bhahar lost his shoes in the water. The police fired and a bullet grazed his back. He lifted his shirt and showed a small dark scar on his backbone. His back was muscular and it was strange how the bullet barely grazed him. I didn’t know if I believed him. The other men in the room listened intently. “We kept running,” he said. There were hotels along the water, closed for the winter, but about 60 of us broke windows, climbed in and spent the night.
Bhahar had been sitting for hours. I asked if he was hungry. He hesitated. He was Pashtun and couldn’t show weakness in front of his elders. We walked to an Afghan-Pakistani neighborhood with row houses, produce stands, halal butcher shops and men in shalwar keemez and women in head scarves. According to a June 2010 story in The Guardian, there are 150 surveillance cameras here, 40 of which are hidden.
In the restaurant men sat at tables, or cross-legged on a meza, a platform, as they do in Afghanistan. We ordered karahi, lamb, spices and gravy cooked in a wok over an open fire, a specialty of Kunar. Bhahar waited patiently. He served us first before eating, and he kept eating. Evening came and when we returned to the house, there were more men, in Afghan or western clothes, in the hujra. They ate almonds, dried raisons, drank tea and talked of their homeland.
“The next morning we went to the main road,” Bhahar continued. “Some boys could read the signs and we hitchhiked and walked back to the house.” A month later, the smugglers returned, with rubber rafts, and drove back to the rocky cove. They blew air into the rafts and loaded 18 boys in one raft and 20 each in two others. They had three paddles, one for each raft. A smuggler, who had to deliver them to Greece, used one paddle and the boys used their hands. It was cold and windy. Two rafts capsized and the boys were lost. The room was silent. Bhahar nodded sadly. “They disappeared.” On January 18, 2011, according to news reports, a boat carrying 230 Afghans went down off of Corfu, and 22 drowned.
They reached Mitilini, a Greek island. Bhahar gave thumbs up. “There were palm trees.” They had made it. The police arrived and put them in prison for a month, after which they gave them papers and said they had to leave Greece in a month, and put them on a boat to Athens. The boys wandered the city looking for food. “There were so many Afghans and Pakistanis,” Bhahar said. “Some had become traffickers, others drug dealers.” Bhahar and his group went north and found work picking onions for nine Euros a day and slept in abandoned buildings.
Nine months later, he called his uncle, who sent $3,000 more to the hawala man. Bhahar went north to Petras, where four times traffickers put him onto a truck going to Italy, locked him inside and the driver drove onto the ferry. “Each time I made it to Italy and each time I was deported back to Greece,” he moaned. He spent two more months in prison.
This time the traffickers packed him and 26 other boys in a small space between crates of oranges, and they made it to Italy. The driver stopped by a road, let the boys out and they reached a town, and jumped onto a train to Rome, where they stayed for ten days, sleeping in church cemeteries, then took a train to Milan. They slept in subways, ate where churches fed the homeless and went to the police and asked for asylum. They said no. People said they could find work in France and they jumped on a train to Paris.
“We would spend all day looking for churches to give us food,” Bhahar complained. “We stood in lines forever.” They were competing with migrants from Africa and the Middle East. “People told us to go to Calais.” Their clothes were dirty and their shoes torn, but they jumped on trains and continued northwest. In Calais, they slept for a month in the “jungle,” a shantytown of tents and plastic shelters run by Afghan and Kurdish mafias. Ethnic groups fought one another. The Catholic Church and the UN fed them and provided clothes and shoes.
Bhahar again called his uncle, who sent $600 via hawala. Twice traffickers locked him into a truck, but each time it went to Paris. Boys fell off trucks and broke their legs, shivered in freezers, and got into fights. Finally, a truck took him to London, where police arrested him and gave him a place to stay. He met a Pakistani on the street who gave him money for a train ticket to Birmingham. He arrived 19 months after he left his village. He had come 4,700 miles.
Fellow Afghans took him in. After a month, he felt safe. “I found a job in a car wash where the owner, an Iranian, didn’t ask for documents.” He makes $160 a week. If it rains there is no work, but in the summer he makes more money with tips. He phones his uncle every month or so and sometimes his parents go to his house and he talks with them. He sends them money.
He was silent. “I must pay my uncle back,” he said softly. “I am glad I made it. This is my home, the people I live with are my family, but I miss my real family. I am lonely. In Afghanistan I went to the mosque five times a day. Here I go when I can, because of my job.”
I asked about a girlfriend. The room grew silent and he asked to go into another room. “I have never been with a girl,” Bhahar admitted. “It is un-Islamic. There is no one to stop me. I ask God to make my life better. If I commit sins it will make my life worse. I jumped on trains, but I was desperate and asked God to forgive me. I practiced my faith all the way here. Even if there is no water to wash, you can still pray.”
“Young men can only go two ways,” said my contact. “They become secular or radicalized.”
“I talk to some boys who seem to have grown up in a madrasa,” an actor in Los Angeles had said. “I wonder if they haven’t been trained, and sent here.”
I found another boy working in an outdoor market in London. It took a few days, without an introduction, for him to talk to me and even then he was wary. I told him Bhahar’s story and asked if it was true. He wouldn’t tell me. I said that I had heard of boys being radicalized in the UK. “Everything happens here, and can happen. Everything.” He looked at me hard. He was about 20 and he wore his jeans down below his waist. He said his whole family had been killed in a bomb attack, but I didn’t believe him. Afghan families are too extended. “It all depends how desperate you are,” he continued. “A boy can be radicalized here.”
December 2010, 12 men, aged 17–28, were arrested in what British police called “a major anti-terrorist operation.” July 2012, British authorities arrested seven people on suspicion of terror offenses. I heard stories in Birmingham and London of Taliban commanders, and members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), the Pakistani militant group linked to the ISI, recruiting boys here, of Afghans who fought in the 1980s going back to fight every summer, of fathers taking their sons to Kandahar to learn proper manners. They are afraid of what the West does to them, and of the lure of al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
In London I met a man called Bashir, a father with a soft voice, a trimmed beard, and a master’s degree in Islamic studies from Saudi Arabia. “We hold courses in Islam at our mosque for young people. We implore them to study hard, to be proud to be a Muslim, and to be a messenger of Islam in a good way. We tell them don’t go to al-Qaeda or Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation).”
“I have never been approached by anyone asking me to join the Taliban,” Bhahar insisted. “Agents said if I took heroin they wouldn’t charge me. I said no. If I did something illegal I would go to prison and how would I pay my debt? I came all this difficult way. My uncle is asking for his money. If I can’t pay, he will taunt my parents. ‘You are not good Pashtuns; you are not good Afghans.’” A Pashtun cannot stand to be taunted. He will kill to stop it.
“The boys are alone and scared,” said the actor. “Al-Qaeda can come to the mosque and offer to pay their debts if they will do something for Islam. A boy will do anything to stop the taunting.”
“America good,” Bhahar smiled, giving thumbs up. I heard about boys being groomed here to become terrorists. My contact knew of two boys from the tribal areas of Pakistan who were trying to get to the U.S.
“ʻWhy did I help my sister?’ my uncle asks,” said Bhahar. “Islam and Pashtunwali come together, but it is delicate. A person’s family can become the enemy. My father’s land, house and animals are worth $5,000–6,000, but his brother has a share in them.” He needs a better job, but he is afraid that someone will turn him in. “I leave everything to God. If there were peace in Afghanistan there would be no need to do this. We don’t know why we have to suffer like this. We want to live like other human beings. I am in prison here. I want to be free. Agents don’t give you food, they beat you, swear at you, spray you to make you unconscious, use Taser guns to make people get going, they fire on the police, pay them off, and they kill you. There is snow, rain, and wind, no warm clothing. People die in the mountains. They think by taking this journey that they are making their life better. I suffered too much. It would be a disaster if I had to return. They deport people all the time and many who go back join the Taliban.”
He lives with four Afghans above a narrow street lined with small shops and restaurants with names like Lahore and Kabul painted on windows. He brought glasses into a small room with Naugahyde sofas, and pictures of Afghanistan on the walls, and poured sugar and tea. He was a good host. A television in the corner showed men with blood on their clothes, policemen holding rifles, children in hospitals. “Other boys visit here. We watch television. When they see the bombings they blame America and become anti-American and angry.”
“I miss playing marbles and other games with my friends. I miss climbing trees and dropping leaves for the animals to eat.” Bhahar’s eyes were distant. “My uncle keeps asking for the money. This can’t go on too much longer. He can take our land. Killings can take place.”
My contact and I walked down the snowy street. “There are many boys like him,” he said. “He must pay his debt.” Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba are watching.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.