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Ahmad Akbar
Photos by Russell Skelton

Russell Skelton: A life worth living

The Age
by Russell Skelton
May 27 2003

Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban 15 months ago. But is peace bringing all that it promised? Russell Skelton went there to find out.

The barren hills of Wardak are littered with thousands of makeshift graves, each identified by a broken rock stuck into the dirt. Rocks point skywards, others lie flat. Occasionally they are marked by faded red, green and black flags marking fierce battles where the brave and the brazen were martyred.

So many battles have been fought around Wardak over so many years - it is the southern approach to the ancient capital of Kabul just 100 kilometres away - that the countryside often appears as one extended graveyard. Buried here are the armies of the present and the distant past: Russians from the Ukraine, mujahideen fighters from Pakistan, warlord warriors from Afghanistan's numerous ethnic groups, and of course, the Taliban that ruled with a brutal ferocity and fanaticism.

Buried among them are the troops of Ahmad Shah Masud's Northern Alliance that drove the Taliban out just 15 months ago, with the help of US B-52 bombers and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Ahmad Ali despairs when he thinks back to the day five years ago when the Taliban arrived in his village of Sarcasma, to take revenge on the Hazara people resisting the Taliban's brand of fundamentalism, with its literal imposition of Sharia law, including executions, beheadings and amputations.

"We had resisted the Taliban and they were sent to crush us," Ali says. "Six hundred Hazaras died in the fighting. The Taliban rounded up 118 men women and children, and shot 60 of them in the bazaar.

"I knew then, I had to get my eldest son out of Afghanistan; it was my duty to save him."

Today, the bazaar is mostly boarded up, the village almost deserted. Many Hazaras who fled in 1998 are yet to return. To return, they must travel through Pashtun villages where Taliban loyalties have not dimmed. Hazaras account for about 20 per cent of the population; they are Shiite Muslims, and were frequently targeted by Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims.

For Ali, a 42-year-old farmer and goat herder, the bid to save his son Akbar was not only personally impoverishing, because of the Australian Government's Pacific solution policies, it was an ultimately futile endeavour.

Ali sold his Toyota truck to pay a Kabul-based people smuggler $14,000 to get Akbar, Ali's nephew, and another boy to Australia.

"We are now looking for the people smuggler and we will kill him when we find him because the Karzai government is not prepared to punish him."

Ali said initially all had gone to plan. Akbar slipped across the border into Pakistan and took a flight to Jakarta. But, on the second attempt to reach Australia from Kupang on an overcrowded fishing boat, things went dangerously wrong. The boys were rescued, along with 438 other asylum seekers, by the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa.

Akbar takes up the story:

"Everybody thought they were going to die before the Tampa saved us. The boat had broken down and water was coming in through a large hole."

That was just the beginning of Akbar's journey of disappointment that would bring him back to the ghostly village near Wardak and a countryside of gravestones. Over a lunch of kebabs, fried eggs, chick peas and green tea, Akbar, now 23, recounted his journey, producing UNHCR documents and letters from authorities and Australian refugee advocates he has kept from his journey.

He says he finds it hard to believe the way he was tricked, manipulated and misled by Australian authorities.

"They did everything they could to sink our case for refugee status. We were denied access to lawyers, we we never told of our rights and we were held illegally on Nauru for two years. We were genuine refugees and we were denied asylum."

After first refusing to leave the Tampa, Akbar says the asylum seekers - including many Iraqis - agreed to go when the Australian commander on the boat "told us that they would take us to Nauru for an interview and then on to Australia. We were tricked into leaving the Tampa. They had no intention of ever letting us get to Australia.

"The trip to Nauru took 17 days, when it should have taken seven at the most. We were kept at sea while they built the camps on Nauru. But they were also waiting for the Taliban to be defeated so that our claims for asylum would be rejected.

"They knew that the longer interviews about our claims were delayed the less chance there was of us being accepted as refugees. We were tricked into thinking that Nauru was just a stopover on the way to Australia."

Akbar says the conditions on the Manoora were "bad". He and the others on board were given only bread and jam to eat, and water.

"Many people had to sleep on the floor. The toilets did not work properly and many people were sea sick. When the Iraqis refused to leave the Manoora at Nauru, they were taken off by force. The soldiers would wait for them to go to the bathroom and then they would grab them. Some who resisted were beaten with batons."

Conditions on Nauru, he says, were no better. Fellow Afghans went mad from the combination of oppressive heat, isolation and uncertainty about their status.

"One man had a problem with his mind. He came out into the area where we were screaming insults about Australia and shouting 'Oh God, Oh God'. He later suddenly dropped dead and nobody knew why. He had borrowed $16,000 from a money lender and he said he could not go back to Afghanistan because he could not repay the money. I think he died of a broken heart.

"Other people just went crazy. They would take them to hospital for a few days and nights and then bring them back. After a few days they would be just the same. One boy slashed himself many times. After the riot, I decided to leave. I was dying inside from boredom and sadness. I thought anything, even the Taliban, would be better than Nauru."

Akbar claimed he was interviewed by a Pashtun interpreter who was unsympathetic to his plight.

"I told the interpreter how the Taliban had killed women and children and that my father had organised my escape to Pakistan and then to Indonesia. I pointed out my village on a map. But I was not believed. I was told I have provided them with contradictory information."

Akbar's travel documents, which he made available to The Age, show that he arrived on Nauru in October 2001, and that he was formally rejected as a refugee about six months later because "the situation in Afghanistan had changed". The letter, signed by Michael Gabaudan of the UNHCR, said in part:

"You were unable to substantiate that your fear of persecution is well founded in the light of information about the situation in your country of origin."

Along with his cousin and another boy from the village, he accepted the Australian Government's offer of $2500 to return to Afghanistan; he arrived home last December.

"I hate Australia, but not Australians. I thought Australians had a love of humanity, but they smashed my dreams."

Akbar works on his father's farm, which has been devastated by years of drought. But heavy spring rains have brought with them some hope of relief. Asked if he plans to stay and make his future in Sarcasma and the decimated Hazara community, Akbar says no.

"There is nothing for me here. I have lost three years of my life and I cannot afford to lose any more."

Scenes from a peace zone

The letter writer

Letter writerIf anybody can tap the thoughts of Afghans, it is Mohammad Asif Barugzai and the scores of professional letter writers lined up among the kebab stalls across the road from Kabul's Justice Ministry.

"I detect that people are frustrated and becoming increasingly angry," says Mohammad.

"They worry about their children; they want a school or a hospital in their village; they write to the Government over and over again asking for help."

The letter writer is the equivalent of an opinion pollster, sampling the anxieties and needs of Afghans as they write daily to the central Government for assistance on behalf of the illiterate.

"In the letters, people describe how children are being taught in abandoned buildings with dirt floors, they tell of teachers not being paid, lessons taught without books or pens. They want doctors because children are dying in the outlying provinces. They want protection from bandits."

And how does the Government respond?

"Officials start out telling people to be patient, to wait while their requests are considered. But as the months go by and nothing happens, the letters become more urgent. Officials eventually write back blaming foreign countries for not giving Afghanistan enough money. They never blame the Government."

Mohammad, 45, who splits his day between letter writing and teaching, says people do not hold the interim Government of President Hamid Karzai responsible for the dilapidated state of Afghanistan, but he detects a growing disillusionment, even anger, in the tone of recent letters.

"After the war people were happy that the Taliban had been crushed, they were optimistic. But now they want to know why everything takes so long to happen. They cannot understand the delays."

Each day Mohammad pens about 30 letters for illiterate Afghans who make up the majority of the population. Many are addressed to President Karzai personally, others to various Government departments. Concerns range from everyday problems with such things as power, water, roads, to the return of property confiscated by the Taliban, personal grievances and pleas for work. An increasing number are requests for passports and ID cards.

"People are worried because there are no jobs. Kabul has been flooded with refugees returning from Pakistan. They want to travel back to Pakistan or Iran to get jobs to support families."

For Mohammad, letter writing supplements his income of $25 a month as a primary school teacher. He says that he cannot feed his six children and pay rent of $35.

"I had a house but it was destroyed by the Taliban. I have asked the Government for a new one, but I have been told by the mayor's office there will be a three-year wait. But who knows what Kabul will be like then."

The school principal


When Kabul's Ghazi high school re-opened after the war, Sadar Mohammad Barialy (below) expected 900 children to enrol, but 1400 turned up. Among them were several hundred girls forced to remain at home when the Taliban closed down all the girls' schools.

"It was difficult getting started. There was no equipment, everything had been destroyed in the war. Tables, chairs and books had been looted and the buildings reduced to rubble. There was no money to pay staff," says Sadar, who has been the principal at Ghazi for a year.

"I like to think of the school as an example to the rest of Kabul of what can be achieved from nothing. UNICEF supplied us with four tents to replace the bombed out classrooms and some basic things like pens and pencils. Teachers, including 15 women, volunteered to work. They are now getting paid."

Sadar boasts that all his teachers are well qualified, some having returned from Germany and London to help rebuild Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. "We are receiving some other assistance. German NGOs will help rebuild 14 classrooms, but work has not started yet."

Ghazi is the equivalent of Melbourne's University High School. It is a feeder school for Kabul University several kilometres away. It lies in the south-western suburb of Tapa-i-Salam, once a wealthy middle class area with trolley cars and tree-lined streets, but today a ruin. Barely a building has been left standing after 23 years of conflict.

Sadar, 46, says there is a tremendous enthusiasm for education, that urban Afghans view it as the best and possibly only way to get ahead. Parents and children are prepared to tolerate abysmal classroom conditions where children are forced to squat on the ground for lessons, even during winter when the temperature drops well below freezing.

But security remains a problem, even though Kabul is patrolled and protected by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Attacks by remnants of the Taliban on schools teaching girls have prompted Sadar to post two young men armed with AK47s at the front gate. "We are not confident that Kabul is secure; bombs have gone off, people have been killed, we cannot afford to take any chances. We do not want the Taliban walking into our school and destroying what we have achieved."

Children of the orphanage


Afghanistan's children can be seen everywhere on the streets of Kabul. They beg for money, polish shoes for the equivalent of a few cents, collect scrap, sell papers and offer a whiff of foul-smelling smoke to motorists to ward off bad spirits.

They go about their survival with desperate dedication, hounding and beseeching Westerners, ISAF soldiers and wealthy Afghans. But what they manage to scrounge is, according to those who attempt to care for them, a pittance of around 10 Afghanis a day, just one or two cents.

Shakeba, a 12-year-old girl, was found begging on Kabul's streets by a social worker who became concerned that she was vulnerable. Shakeba is not an orphan, but might as well be.

"Her father and mother are alive, but live in desperately poor circumstances, collecting paper and begging,"

... says Eng-Mohammad Yousef, the founder of the Aschiana orphanage opposite Kabul's public library.

He says the social worker became worried for Shakeba's safety when two men befriended her, asking her to run small errands for money.

"It was troubling she was coming under their influence. We approached the family and persuaded them to let her come to the orphanage each day to learn a trade. She is now making flowers on a sewing machine in the mornings and helping her parents out in the afternoon. It's not ideal, but nothing is ideal in Afghanistan and it is preferable to wandering the streets."

There are many thousands of orphans in Afghanistan, a large number severely traumatised, having witnessed the death of parents, as well as brothers, sisters and grandparents.

"The girls are especially at risk; there is always the possibility that they will be taken and sold into prostitution in Pakistan or the Gulf states. Kabul is a dangerous city for children. There is the risk that if they are not properly cared for they will become the Osama bin Ladens of the future."

Yousef recounts the story of Zaheer Ahmad, a 13-year-old boy who said he wanted to be a pilot and kept drawing pictures of jet fighters firing on civilians. "I asked why do you keep drawing this image. He said because I want to kill the people who killed my father."

A survey conducted a year ago, the only one that anybody can remember ever being taken, identified 38,000 children living on Kabul's streets. Yousef estimates that, with thousands of refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran each day, the number could actually be well over 100,000.

If the rest of the country is included in the estimates, the number would probably exceed one million.

The refugee


On the dusty outskirts of Kabul, where the ramshackle buildings give way to a sprawl of blue tents and tarpaulins, Raz Najibullah is wondering why he gave up life as a refugee in Pakistan to bring his wife and two young children back to a country in ruins after decades of violent struggle.

At the time, he says, it seemed like the only sensible decision to make. The Taliban had gone, aid money was flowing into Afghanistan and international security forces had restored order to the streets of Kabul.

"There was a strong sense of optimism among us. After years of being forced to live as outsiders in Pakistan, we felt that we could at last go home and be part of rebuilding the country," he says.

But after enduring his first winter in the Afghan capital, Najibullah is not so sure that he made the right decision.

"The cold was very hard for us, the children suffered, we did not have enough clothes to keep warm. There is no electricity, no running water and no sewerage and no work. Food is expensive. Life was much better in Pakistan; even the schools were better."

Najibullah is one of an estimated 2 million Afghans who have returned in the past 18 months from refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan, where they have lived for years, some for more than a decade. They have arrived with $US20 ($A30), a bag of flour and a blue tarp to live under courtesy of the UN High Commission for Refugees. They now live in poverty on the fringes of Kabul in bombed-out and abandoned buildings, or in tents provided by the UN.

Najibullah is a shoemaker by trade, but cannot get established because he cannot pay the $US80 rent a month demanded for a shop. He tried joining the Afghan National Army, but says he was turned away because he did not have the right connections.

"You have to have war lord connections to get recruited. I spent five years in Pakistan, that was impossible."

While he says he is not ready to return to Pakistan, he is bitter about his circumstances and the lack of resettlement assistance.

"We have no house or proper place to live. This is not life, this is bullshit."

Russell Skelton

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