KABUL (Pajhwok): “Either Kingdom or Coffin” were the last words 22 years old Ahmad uttered to his mother before he left Afghanistan to illegally migrate to Australia. But he was not lucky enough, as he died when his boat sank in the sea in 2009.
Ahmad, along with four other Afghans, lost his life on May 28, 2009 while travelling by a wooden boat to Australia. Their boat sank near the Sumatra Island in Indonesia. Seventeen other Afghans in the boat have still been missing.
It has been five years that Ahmad left his mother Gul Bakht. But the story of losing him is as fresh in her memory as if it has happened yesterday. “After his graduation for one complete year Ahmad tried to find job.
“Tired as he was, my son argued with me to ask his father to send him to Australia,” says Gul Bakht lovingly touching buttons of her son’s shirt that she has kept since his death.
As I visited Gul Bakht she was showing a picture of Ahmad’s college days and pointed to him in the group. In this picture he looks a young man with determination and ambitions. He was a graduate of educational studies who searched for a job for a year before being selected in the Ministry of Counter-Neurotics.
His brother Ali Reza alleged that despite clearing the tests and interview the job was given to some other person who had reference of the minister. “Frustrated with rampant corruption and disappointment about his future, he left the country,” says his brother who has just joined this ministry to make his brother’s dream of working here come true.
Wrapped in her white scarf, holding Ahmad’s coat tightly, her throat chocking, eyes blinking to avoid tears, Gul Bakht says: “I can’t believe he is dead. From dawn to dusk, my eyes remain fixed at the gate, hoping he will come back,” she says, adding: “I have kept all his belongings in the balcony and don’t’ allow anyone to take it. I hope that Ahmad Jan will come soon, God is great and kind.”
Some of the dead are buried there because of their bad condition, although the Afghan government helps bring the corpses back to the country. But many Afghan families have to wait for years in the hope of of their beloved ones returning. Accepting the reality of their relatives going missing or buried abroad without seeing the bodies becomes difficult.
Fortunately, Ahmad’s body was found but due to bad conditions he was buried on Sumatra Island. Her voice pitch suddenly rises and she erupts in tears: her only desire is to visit the son’s grave. Perhaps that will make her accept the fate of her son!
“His graveyard is like a shrine for me. His cousin had gone once there and brought me the scarf with which he touched the soil of the grave,” she says. “I kiss that scarf every time I miss Ahmad.”
Biggest refugee producer
Afghanistan has been producing the highest number of refugees for the last 32 years. Although Russia and Syria produced higher numbers in 2013, Afghans are still leaving by tens of thousands and many of them are taking illegal and deathly paths, risking their lives.
Australia is one of the most desired destinations for most of the Afghans who choose to leave the country and illegally migrate to the West. But it is one of the most risky passages. Although no accurate data is available, Ministry of Refugees and Repartition spokesman Islamuddin Jurat says: “From the end of 2005 to 2012 around 9,000 Afghans have died on the way to Australia alone.”
Amid fears of civil unrest and economic deterioration following NATOpullout in 2014, the wave of refugees is surging again, acknowledge civil society activists. The issue is also confirmed in interviews with government officials.
Although rules for accepting asylum seekers in Australia have become stricter; that has not deterred the common Afghans from exploring alternative ways including illegal routes to the West. Often these travelers are males. If they are successful, they later invite their families to stay with them. Exact numbers are not available, but in Kabul alone you can find hundreds of women whose husbands, sons or brothers have gone abroad. They are waiting, praying for the safe journey.
The women left behind face economic problems during the long period of wait, generally from 3 to 8 years. There are also reports of them going through a lot of stress and psychological and social problems. Most women accept it as their fate and suffer silently.
According to Mahnaz Sadiqi, a psychological advisor, effects of such migrations are far greater on women than on men.
“Most Afghan women have very less understanding of the world as their lives are limited. They are already deprived and such incidents double their frustration,” she says, adding, “they have less networks, less experience and little communication outside their homes, which affects their understanding and acceptance levels and thus they suffer more than men.”
Love affairs between young unmarried couples are not uncommon even in a conservative country like Afghanistan, but Afghan lovers have their own struggles to go through.
It is around evening time in the crowded main market of Kabul. Inside the Shah-i-Shamshera shrine, Nilofar sits among a crowd of women and children. A young woman, she has the Holy Quran in her hands, is sitting and reciting it calmly before we start our interview.
Nilofar is trapped in a situation she sees no solution to, but patience is her only strength. Nilofar loves Hamad for three years and wants to marry him. But since her sister had got married to an Afghan living in the West and having good economic condition and fame among family and relatives, Ahmad too decided to go to Australia, earn money and return with fame and wealth to marry Nilofar.
“He thrice tried to go from Indonesia to Australia through ships and the human trafficker every time promised his arrival but all the three times they were caught by police. It’s a year he is in a migration camp in Indonesia and has applied for asylum through UNHCR but I didn’t know it will take too long,” says Nilofar — frustration writ large on her face.
“I am now 26 years old. An Afghan girl should generally marry by this age or else people start talking ill. My family is pressuring me a lot to get married to someone else; they are not aware of my love. Also society has started questioning me for not getting married but I am still waiting,” she says, unable to hide her pain.
Like many other Afghans, Nilofar and Ahmad too didn’t know the complications of this journey and the time it might take; neither they are aware of 1951 UN convention regarding migration that could help Hamad have a strong case for being accepted by the UNHCR.
Most of the human traffickers seem to have good marketing skills. They have different pages with timetables ready. The journey is shown as a smooth sailing with promises of arrival in Australia in one to three months. “I take Afghans out of this hell to heaven, I am proud of my job,” says an Afghan human trafficker, who doesn’t want to be named.
“The stories we hear about those Afghans who migrate to the West through illegal means are not always as pleasant as they are narrated. In fact, most of them have to go through several risky and life-threatening routes that they were even never aware of it before making the decision to move,” according to an International Organization for Migration(IOM) official.
“This is further associated with the difficulties they are facing once they arrive in their desired destinations as most of the time the situation in host countries is against their expectations. Unfortunately, such messages never get back home to let other knows how risky and difficult the journey to the West is,” said Massoud Hamadi, the IOM acting program manager.
“For many reasons in particular for the stigma attached and will affect their families back in their country of origins so their stories always remain untold.”
Islamuddin Jurat agrees when he says that earning money is the main reason, but most of the Afghans who migrate are not really poor but educated middle class youth, who are looking for better lives abroad, and hence embark on the journey without realizing the pit-falls of such perilous route.
Happy ending for some:
Not all stories have sad endings though. Jamila is a lucky mother celebrating arrival of her son in Greece — the gateway to Europe for many Afghans.
Jamila’s 24 years old son left for Europe a month back. He went through Iran to Turkey to go to Europe. Before reaching Europe, he was caught and jailed for a week. Her son was lucky enough to be released through bribes. He has now arrived in Greece through a boat where his brother, who is staying in United Kingdom, had come to receive him.
“For a week, we didn’t’ have any news from him. My life was still, I just couldn’t do anything. We didn’t know what to do; we had no money left at home, I had sold all my jewelry for this trip,” Jamila said, adding: “I used to go to shrines and pray for his safe arrival.”
Now that her son has reached safely, she feels their life will change soon. Her son will start working. He had met a local saint and took her blessings. She is now thankful to him and is giving food to the poor and has invited relatives to a mini-feast.
Gul Bakht, meanwhile, laments her decision to let her son go. “Afghan boys should not go,” she says, as I bid her good bye.