A boy aged 12 walked out of Afghanistan alone and travelled through eight countries to escape the war. Gulwali Passarlay tells his story to Mitra Qayoom.
They say war brings people closer together because you suddenly find yourself amongst people of different backgrounds and classes. You are no longer the daughter of a general, no longer a well respected doctor or a teacher. You are just like everybody else because war does not see colour, race or status. However, war also separates you from those you love, everything you once worked so hard for disappears in front of your eyes, and the most difficult decision you ever had to make was to say goodbye to your country, not knowing if you will ever return.
War-torn Afghanistan has been left in a fragile and unstable state. But who are the most vulnerable victims of war?
A report by Unicef, two years ago, described Afghanistan as the world's most dangerous place to be a child. Recent statistics show that from January to September last year, 1,600 children were reported killed or injured. That is a 55 percent increase compared to the previous year. It was also ranked as the second most dangerous country, after the Congo, for women to live in.
Millions of Afghans were made refugees as a result of the ongoing war. Some left the country during the Russian invasion, some left during the civil war, and others during Taliban rule. The country is now under the US/NATO occupation, which was meant to have brought peace and stability after the fall of the Taliban. If that was the case, why do so many Afghans, especially young people, still leave the country?
A few months ago I met a young Afghan boy, Gulwali. Gulwali and I got along very well; we laughed and joked while waiting on the rest of the group. I could tell then that there was more behind Gulwali’s sincere and youthful smile. He then told me his story, which evoked a shocking but not a surprising truth. I thought Gulwali would be the perfect person to tell us why so many Afghans have left the country.
When I asked Gulwali why he left Afghanistan, he replied:
“After 2005 things were getting worse and most schools closed down because of the fighting which was worse where I lived (near Tora Bora). I had two choices, to join the Taliban (as did my uncles) or join the Afghan army under NATO troops. These are the reasons why most young people leave Afghanistan today.
My mother made the decision that I should leave Afghanistan. It was not possible for me to attend school due to my uncles’ involvement with the Taliban which left every member of my family at risk. Some close members of my family were also killed in the war and my mum didn’t want the same to happen to me. This was not an easy decision for my mother to make, to send her 12-year-old child away, alone, not knowing if she will ever see him again.”
Still with a smile on his face he told me his father was a doctor. Gulwali and his brothers were attending school and he was also occasionally helping his grandparents, taking care of their sheep, goats and cows.
“I was learning to become a tailor, like my uncles, and from my point of view, as a child, things were wonderful, even though the country was under the rule of the Taliban. However, I do realise that for some people life was hard under the Taliban regime, especially for women.”
Gulwali continued telling me:
“After the invasion of Afghanistan by the US, things changed for the worse. Every night I could hear the continuous sounds of guns, rockets, planes and helicopters. The war eventually made us leave our village but everywhere we went the situation was the same. My uncle (now a member of the Taliban) was fighting in the front line, and my father was treating the wounded (innocent civilians). But I went with the women and children to Jalalabad, because it was a bit safer. My house would get raided at least twice or three times a week by the soldiers, holding everyone including women and children at gunpoint. They would never find anything, leaving us all shaking and traumatised.”
I have heard so many horrific stories of Afghan refugees who have escaped the war, trying to cross borders to reach their final destinations. I have heard of stories where mothers have lost their children while crossing rivers, families packed into small containers, who have died due to lack of oxygen, and many have lost their lives while crossing jungles, attacked by animals, all in the hope for a new and better life abroad.
Gulwali told me it took him a year to reach the UK, alone, at the age of 12. I asked him to tell me more about his trip:
“I was very sad to leave my family and also very scared as I didn’t know what dangers might be ahead of me. I travelled through several countries: Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and France. From France I went to Germany and Belgium and there I was arrested and sent back to France. I was arrested so many times, in every country, and this was very scary as I didn’t speak the languages.”
As Gulwali was talking to me about his journey, I had had a flashback about the time when we first left Kabul, at the beginning of the civil war. I remember, my dad hired a coach and we left for Pakistan. Halfway between Kabul and the Torham border we stopped to have a break under the shades of the mountains.
My mum and I went to the edge of the river to wash up; it was a very hot day. A couple of minutes later I heard a man’s voice behind us cursing my mum. I turned around and saw a Mujahid pointing his gun at my mum and saying he will shoot her because she took off her scarf. He said after shooting her he will shoot me also, pointing his gun at me. My mum was crying and pleading with him to let us go and that she will never take her scarf off again. Eventually the Mujahid let us go and both I and my mum walked back towards the mountain crying. We never told my dad about what had happened and why we both came back so upset.
We were on the move again and it was dark now. We saw a family outside who were crying over the body of a woman, who was wearing a blue burqa and holding her shoulder. We stopped and a few minutes later the family joined us in the coach. The woman sat in the sit in front me and I could see blood running down her right shoulder blade, staining her blue burqa. She was in pain and screaming. I asked my mum what happened to her but she told me to close my eyes and go to sleep. I remember being very upset but I don’t remember whether I was more upset because she was in so much pain or because no one was helping her. When I woke up she and her family were gone.
We finally reached the Pakistani border only to find out it was closed until the next morning. We had to spend the night at the border. My mum laid down a carpet for us to sleep on. I remember lying on my back, gazing at the stars in the dark sky and thinking it was so beautiful. The next morning when woke up, we found out that most of our belongings were gone (TV, stereo and VCR). My dad never found out who stole them. Eventually the border opened and we were on our way to Islamabad.
All these events occurred in my life in less than 48 hours. So I was very interested to hear more about Gulwali’s journey.
“I saw bodies of people who had died along the way. They had been trying to do the same as myself but were not so fortunate. They would never live to see their dreams come true. The smugglers we paid to get us across borders were cruel and heartless.
I used many forms of transport during my journey: car, van, lorry, horse, bike, boat, bus, train and of course on foot. My train journey from Italy to France was very confusing because I did not understand the language so I really had no idea where I was. My trip by sea was frightening but travelling along the motorway at high speed clinging to the underside of a lorry was just as dangerous. I would certainly have died if I had lost my grip.
One of the most terrifying moments of my journey was when I had to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. I was packed into a small boat with many others. We had no food or water. The sea was so rough that I thought many times I was going to die. We had to keep below deck in case the police boats that were patrolling the area saw us. We were not allowed to move, even to go to the toilet.
I travelled in all kinds of weather – under the burning sun, over freezing mountains and through pouring rain. I carried very little clothing with me so I was often cold and soaking wet.
I felt hungry and thirsty many times and the lack of food often made me ill. I spent many days and nights in prison cells and lived in areas we called the jungle with hundreds of other asylum seekers sharing what little food we had.”
After leaving Gulwali that evening, I felt very sad and could not stop thinking about him and many other young Afghans who have and are still going through the same journey in the hope for a better life. I felt lucky that at least when we left Afghanistan, I had my parents with me. My mind also kept going back to their mothers who face making that difficult and painful decision of sending their children to a foreign land, not knowing if they will ever return.
Young boys leave Afghanistan today because, as Gulwali says, they wish to avoid recruitment by the Taliban, the trauma they go through as their homes get raided, to avoid death, which lurks in every corner, lack of education and poverty. Children left orphans are also vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Recent incidents such as that in which US troops urinated on the dead corpse of Afghans (who they claimed were Taliban), and the rape of two Afghan children by the British soldiers are signs of failure of the so called ‘war on terror’.
“Since the occupation the lives of hundreds of innocent Afghans have been lost, many of them women and children. Villages have been destroyed making people homeless and children orphans. There has been no change in human rights or women’s rights as promised by US/NATO.”
Afghans have been holding demonstrations to show their frustrations with both the Afghan government and the western troops. They are also demonstrating to let the world know that Afghans have had enough. During the tenth anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan one protester said: “Now it is 10 years on from this occupation by the US and its allies in Afghanistan. Our people suffered a lot of instability, and poverty increased. There are no other benefits.”
Protesters also accused the US of “massacring” civilians and denounced President Hamid Karzai as a puppet of Washington. Gulwali Passarlay's opinion on the fate of the occupation is clear:
“The only solution for peace in Afghanistan is the complete withdrawal of all foreign troops. Let the Afghans decide for themselves and come up with a solution for the future of Afghanistan”.
Mitra Qayoom is an Afghan activist and writer. Mitra is a member of Afghans for Peace, an alliance of Afghans from various ethnic, religious, socio-economic, cultural, and political backgrounds with a united vision for a democratic, all inclusive, just and peaceful Afghanistan.