Methods of Escape

Picture Credits: Ichigo121212

An Afghan police officer gestures for us to stop. My translator, Zabiullah, pulls our car over. The streets in downtown Kabul on this summer morning in August 2015 remain largely empty of traffic. Shuttered vendor stalls stand like the vacant buildings of a ghost town and dogs jog down the sidewalks, pausing to rummage in the garbage floating in gutters, competing with boys scavenging through the same refuse.

Jogging to the driver’s side, the cop asks Zabiullah to take him to a bus station. Afghan police earn little and often stop cars and request rides when they’re off duty. Turn them down, you pay a fine. I’m a reporter driving to my hotel after attending an uneventful press conference at the presidential palace. I’m not in a hurry and I certainly don’t need the hassle of upsetting an Afghan cop.

—Get in, Zabiullah tells him.

The cop climbs in the back seat and introduces himself, Naim. Like many Afghans he has just one name. He’s starting five days of leave. He got a ride into Kabul from the police station in Sarobi in eastern Afghanistan, about a five-hour drive, and now needs to catch a bus to his home in Bagram, more than sixty miles away.

He’s more than earned his leave, he tells us. One week earlier, he and other members of the Afghan police, Afghan National Army and American special forces participated in a firefight in Uzben, a village near the Tora Bora mountains close to the Pakistan border. Coalition forces lost Osama bin Laden there in 2001.

By the time Naim reached Uzben, insurgents had set fire to trees. American soldiers looked through binoculars but could see nothing beyond the burning trees. It’s safe, they said. Then Taliban fighters swept down from three different directions through the smoke. Naim ran. He saw police officers and some Americans gunned down. Naim hid in the woods until dark, the heat from the fire searing his face.

At ten, maybe eleven at night, Naim crept out of the woods and made his way to the police station in Sarobi, just outside of Uzben. The dispatcher on duty nearly fainted. I thought you were dead, he told Naim. I’m not, Naim said. We’ve told your family you’re dead, the dispatcher said; I’m sorry for this. Naim punched him in the nose. Now it is my turn to apologize, he said.

He stayed at the station two nights. He called his family but his wife thought he was someone pretending to be Naim because the Naim she knew was dead. By the third day, Naim no longer cared about the Taliban and told his commander he had to see his family. The commander gave him two bodyguards and he drove home to Bagram. When his wife opened the door, she screamed, You’re a ghost! Naim insisted he was not a spirit and walked toward her and she began to cry and wail and sank to the ground. He looked around his house. The tables were filled with flowers. A coffin took up a table. Everything had been prepared for his funeral. He started to cry. For two days, he stayed with a friend until his wife believed that he was indeed Naim. After two weeks, he returned to Sarobi and resumed his duties.

—Have you thought of leaving Afghanistan? Zabiullah asks.

—No, Naim says. If I don’t have money to get to a bus stop, how will I have money to get to Europe?

—Good point, Zabiullah agrees. I had the money one year but still I could not get out.

It had been a simple plan: Zabiullah’s wife, Sweetra, was pregnant in 2014 with their first child. They knew a smuggler with contacts in Italy and he got her an Italian woman’s passport. Sweetra would fly to Italy and have the baby in Rome, making him an Italian citizen. Then she would send for Zabiullah. Borrowing money from family and friends, they paid the smuggler $6,000.

Zabiullah drove her to Kabul International Airport the morning of her departure. They tried to stay calm so no one would suspect what they were up to. Don’t cry, Zabiullah told her, or security will know. He watched her board a plane to Dubai. From there, after a long layover, she’d fly to Rome. He felt so happy when she got on the plane without mishap. He returned home and waited for her to call him. When she did, she was crying. He thought she just missed her family but it was much worse than that. Airport security in Dubai had detained her. Her foot was on the first step of the stairs to the plane to Rome when a guard pulled her aside, took her passport and walked her into a bare room with only a table and two chairs. Who made you this? Where did you get it? the guard asked, waving her passport. He spoke Italian and then English. She insisted she was the person in the passport. The guard kept her in the room for hours before he put her on a flight back to Kabul.

—Don’t ever try this again, he warned her.

Zabiullah called the smuggler.

—You have to do something, he said.

—I have connections. Don’t worry.

Zabiullah was not appeased. He had seen people arrested for drugs on TV, shackled from head to foot, and he feared the worst. He felt like he had lost everything. He’d expected not to see her for six months. Now, she was coming back twenty-four hours later with nothing.

—I don’t want her taken off the plane in handcuffs.

—Don’t worry, the smuggler said.

The smuggler picked her up when her plane landed in Kabul. He drove a black SUV and paid off the necessary people. He took her directly from the plane so she would not be escorted through the airport by police. The smuggler called Zabiullah.

—I’m here. I have your wife.

—It was a very sad day for us, Zabiullah tells Naim.

Naim frowns and pats Zabiullah on the back. After September 11th, the Americans came and everything was fine and then it wasn’t, he says. Nothing is sustainable. That is why everyone is leaving. When he was young, he could go anywhere. Now he can’t. He thinks of leaving but how can he? He’ll go if someone pays.

When we reach the bus station near downtown, Zabiullah parks beside a table where three men sit drinking tea beneath the awning of a restaurant. Two yellow buses pocked with rust stand at the curb low to the pavement on nearly deflated tires. A few feet away a bearded man shouts, Why don’t you accept Islam? Do you not want to go to Paradise? Why do you dress like Westerners? Are you not Afghan? Are you not Muslim? The Holy Koran is the ultimate book of Allah. It’s the one true book. Like technology, the Holy Koran is the final update to everything that preceded it. Do you believe the other books are irrelevant now? Whoever does not believe in the Holy Koran is not following Mohammad and will not go to paradise. The Holy Koran is the last book. No one has the right to change it. People who don’t have faith in the Koran don’t go to Paradise. The day of dooms is for everyone. God will judge us all. I am telling you this because on the day of judgement I will be asked by God if I told the people about the holy book. So now I have tried. People will be divided between heaven and hell. I will be rewarded with good things.

The bus drivers listen to him rant. Turning, they notice Naim, Zabiullah and I watching him. Crazy man, a driver named Mukhtar mutters. He gestures for us to join him and offers us tea. We sit. He looks at his watch. Slow day. It may pick up because many people are escaping Afghanistan. He’s had passengers who have sold everything they have to buy a ticket to Iran, including other bus drivers. He knows of two drivers who just reached Europe. A lot return. They spend all their money and then they get caught, deported. Iran, he’s heard, is not kind to refugees but some people never give up. They collect money and go again. Mostly couples or single men. He rarely sees single women leaving. He gets only good girls on his bus, girls who travel with their husbands. He feels sorry for them when they don’t make it. His brother, Mohammad, sitting across from us, tried to get out but got caught in Turkey and deported. He wants to try again.

—You’re crazy, Mukhtar tells him.

—You’re crazy to stay, Mohammad responds.

Mohammad left Kabul in 2014 after he graduated from Bakh University in Mazār-e Sharīf, a city hours north of Kabul. He had grown tired of living day-by-day and by chance. The chance of being struck by a bullet. The chance of being killed in a bomb blast. He survived a bombing in May in Mazār that killed a small boy. Someone had placed an explosive in front of a pharmacy. The boy was walking past, pushing a cart when the bomb went off. At that moment, Mohammad decided to leave Afghanistan. He knew English. He did not have a wife or other obligations binding him to Kabul. He had no reason to stay. He hired a smuggler and the smuggler put him in a group of sixty-five Afghans fleeing to Europe. He knew some of them. They took a bus to Herat and then walked four hours through mountains to cross into Iran. A falling boulder mangled one man’s foot and he was left behind. Another man fell but got up and kept walking. They carried bread and fruit with them and little more. Some of them threw away their food to lighten their loads. A driver the smuggler hired met them in Iran. Sixteen people squeezed into a car and so tightly that their faces turned red. Six others, including Mohammad, piled into the trunk. It was very hard to be inside the trunk. There were some holes so they could breathe but it was impossible to breathe well and it grew very hot. When Mukhtar asked him what it was like, Mohammad told him, If you want to know more, try it yourself. Twelve other people got in a second car. The rest shouldered their way into two other cars. The smuggler said it would take three days to reach Tehran. When they noticed a police checkpoint, everyone scrambled out of the cars, spread out and crept forward on foot and waited for the smuggler to pass through the checkpoint. They got back into the cars, the smuggler shouting, Hurry, hurry! and drove on until the next checkpoint when they got out again. A few people lost their way each time they stopped and were left behind.

Iranian police caught the Afghans in Yazd, a small town outside Tehran. They had passed the main checkpoint but police were patrolling the road and intercepted them as they tried to reunite with the smugglers. The police spoke to them worse than a farmer beating a mule. They cursed and hit them and the migrants cried but did not resist or try to escape. They had accepted all the risks and knew capture was a possibility. Inshallah, they had said when they left Kabul, God willing we will reach Europe. God had not willed it and they were subdued in their failure. The police took them to a custom house where they worked unloading imported goods. After three days, they were taken to a camp for Afghan migrants near the border with Herat and fed them once a day. The Iranians held migrants with no money indefinitely. Mohammad had nearly $2,000. The police took it when they turned him over to Afghan police.

Now, Mohammad wakes up in the middle of the night furious with the way the Iranians treated him. As if he were illiterate, an idiot, an animal. He is twenty-one. He has a degree in economics. He stares into the dark and imagines himself as an animal in the Kabul zoo, unblinking, enraged, trapped.

Mukhtar grips his shoulder as if to shake away the memories of his failed flight. Mohammad looks down the road at the heat lines rivering the distance into murky waves. He intends to try again. One of his neighbors sold their house to pay a smuggler. Mohammad will go with him and twenty-one members of the man’s family. He has heard that Denmark is accepting of refugees while Germany has begun to crack down.

—You’re crazy, Mukhtar says. Our family is here.

—I will send for all of you later.

—It’s too dangerous. Many are thrown into the sea. You have seen all these things on the news.

—I’m going, Mohammad says.

He looks at Naim and Zabiullah.

—How about you?

They both shrug. They know the stories of people leaving by bus, on foot and not making it. Zabiullah and his wife didn’t make it. Naim has no money to try. They must get exhausted thinking about it. Tired of dreams. Tired of plans. Everyone just wants out. They just want a visa. A piece of paper. That’s all it takes. I know. I have it.

Naim asks Mohammad which bus goes to Bagram. Mohammad tells him and Naim stands. He thanks Zabiullah and me for the ride. His light blue, sweat-stained uniform sags off his thin body and his sunken eyes droop with sleepless nights. He looks forward to seeing his family and forgetting for a while the risks of his job. He receives threatening phone calls from the Taliban. If he returns to Uzben they will kill him. He makes a point of not traveling outside of Sarobi.

—Good luck, Zabiullah tells him.

Naim lets out a long breath. He won’t let threats deter him. When so much could go wrong, it’s important, he says, to keep his life simple.

About J. Malcolm Garcia

J. Malcolm Garcia is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism.

J. Malcolm Garcia is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism.

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