Fleeing Afghanistan at the Age of Twenty-Two – A Personal Reportage

Afghan passport

by Nazanine Anwar

The author of this piece is the daughter of an Afghan who fled to Austria in the 1980s. Some weeks ago, she took her father to Hauptbahnhof Wien. Maybe he could give a little hope to the Afghan refugees who are left in limbo there.

Arriving at the train station, we are nervous, unsure of what to expect. Autumn is drawing to a close, and suddenly we both realize just how cold it is. Families are sitting on the ground, people sleeping on chairs, children playing together with their fathers and laughing wholeheartedly under the eyes of a tired and saddened mother. The main hall is crowded, and yet the feeling of emptiness pervades the place.

Fazullah, from Kunar Province, a region in north-eastern Afghanistan, is among the first to approach us. Fazullah is twenty-two years old, but the lines on his face tell a different story. He is already married and has two children. When my father asks him in Dari where his family is, he answers: “I left them at home with my parents. My wife is crying every time we speak on the phone.” Fazullah shakes his head. “Allah is great,” he adds.

Fazullah left Kunar Province five months ago, in June of 2015. “As a soldier of the Afghan National Army, the Taliban consider me their enemy. If I had stayed, I would have been killed – no doubt. I had no choice but to leave,” he explains. Fazullah made his way to Kabul. From there on, smugglers got him into Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia and finally to Austria. “How was the journey?” I ask him naïvely. He shakes his head. “We faced so many difficulties, especially in Bulgaria, where our smugglers abandoned us in a forest. For five days, we had nothing to eat, nothing to drink and nowhere to sleep. It was raining constantly and we tried to find a road, a house – anything that would give us hope.”

Fazullah travelled with thirty other young Afghans. The youngest among them is Fahim, a thirteen-year-old boy. Fazullah introduces us, and – as if out of desperation and a lack of tears – he suddenly starts to laugh. “People here in Vienna are very friendly and take good care of us, just like in Sofia. I am really happy here.” Another Afghan overhears our conversation and steps in, asking: “This is what you call happiness?” Fazullah turns his head: “Yes, I do. In Austria I have a place to sleep, something to eat.  As long as I am far away from war and my country, I am happy.” Fazullah wants to study and to work. His greatest wish is to get a visa in order to bring his family to Europe and to “simply live in peace.”

Fazullah’s story is emblematic of the Afghans who feel increasingly unsafe as the Taliban continues to gain control over their cities. It is, however, not the first time that Afghan citizens have been forced to leave their country. This same thing occurred first in 1979. At that time, the Soviet Union was intervening in order to consolidate the Afghan communist party after they had overthrown the last king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah. What resulted was chaos and destruction. Women were being raped and going missing. Russians were breaking into houses, confiscating anything valuable they could find. The Soviet army had prepared their soldiers for an assault against the insurgents – the Mujahedeen, also known as the “men living in the mountains.”

At that time, my father, Wahid, was twenty-two years old. He had to fulfil his compulsory community service in the Afghan army. “One morning, Russian tanks were outside our windows and Russian soldiers waited at our front door,” he explains. “We had no choice but to fight. Had we refused, we would have been killed. Either way, death was waiting for us.” Three years after the insurgency, my grandfather told his son to leave. As a young man, he had no future in this doomed country. My father felt fear and deep sadness: “Before I left, my father and I…we cried a lot. We comforted each other and – like a little child – I clung to his legs and did not want to leave.” In November 1982, they finally bid farewell and my grandfather said: “My son, we will never see each other again. May Allah be with you.”

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Twenty-two years old Afghan refugee, Fazullah

My father left Afghanistan with his two female cousins, one of them was married and had a child. In order to reach Pakistan, they had to pass through the mountains where the Mujahedeen were hiding. On the road, one of the Mujahedeen confronted them. He asked my father and his cousins who they were and where they were headed. “I had to lie and say that my cousin was my wife to prevent her from getting raped. The Mujahedeen looked at me very suspiciously and wouldn’t stop repeating that I was a spy for the Soviet army.” After several days in the cold, travelling on dangerous roads in the mountains, they finally reached Lahore, Pakistan. “Even there my life was in danger. I spent five months inside an apartment, because the Pakistani authorities were looking for former Afghan soldiers.”

He left Pakistan after his brother, who was already living in Austria, sent him a visa and a plane-ticket to join him. After crossing border control, my father could not believe that he was in safety: “I used to wake up at night, slapping myself in the face to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. But I could not forget my family, especially my father, who got ill. In Afghanistan, affording medicaments was a luxury.”

My father studied at the University of Vienna and worked fulltime to support his family in Kabul. Just as Fazullah does today, he promised his father that he would get his family to Europe – no matter the sacrifice. Eventually, my father had to give up his studies. He devoted all his time to earning money: “I worked almost twenty hours a day and slept four hours every night. I could not stop thinking of my father.” A few months after my father had given up his studies, my grandfather passed away: “He had guessed right. We would never see each other again.”

Today, Afghanistan is once again far from safe. As the Taliban and other extremists regain control, the country’s prospects for a better future are fading. Little boys are still being trained to become soldiers and suicide-bombers, the central government in Kabul cannot provide security in the country’s vast valleys. Only in October did Barack Obama extend the mandate for American troops stationed in Afghanistan. Before the country can transform into a peaceful democracy, as the international community hopes it will, a long path lies ahead. Until then, thousands of twenty-two-year-old Afghans will share my father’s and Fazullah’s fate – with consequences unknown.

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Wahid Anwar with the Afghan refugees at the Vienna main train station

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