There’s Nothing for Me Here,’ My Mother Hears Again

Jamil Jan Kochai

The New York Times

8 Jan 2023

Last September, 13 months after the Taliban takeover, my family and I flew into Kabul one morning as many of our relatives were on the cusp of fleeing the city. We hoped to see them before they parted.

My uncle Fawad and cousin Hashmat picked me up from the airport parking lot. The dire state of the economy became evident almost as soon as we entered the city. Groups of children rushed our car, begging for money or food. Poverty in Kabul has been severe for decades. The billions of dollars that flooded into the country during the American occupation rarely reached impoverished Afghans, as income inequality grew throughout the years. And yet, at least in Kabul, I had never witnessed such wanton desperation on the streets.

Children waited at bakeries for a single loaf of bread. There were makeshift markets filled with desperate, newly impoverished families, selling mattresses and furniture and their own clothing. Fawad and Hashmat — both young and unmarried — bemoaned the collapse of the economy, wondering why America had cut a deal with the Taliban only to punish everyday Afghans with their brutal economic sanctions. “We used to say, ‘Deny us bread but give us peace,’ but now that we have peace, we realize that we need the bread, too,” Hashmat remarked and laughed.

Four years had passed since my last visit to Afghanistan, and so much had changed. I had 100 questions about the American sanctions, the fighting in Panjshir, the restrictions on women and the future of the country. My family members in Kabul felt hopeless. Suicide bombings continued to maim and kill in the cities. Children were dying of malnutrition in underfunded hospitals. The Taliban had shut down high schools for girls — even though Islamic scholars across Afghanistan have criticized the decision — and many of my young female relatives felt despondent about their futures. The occupation had ended, but the aftereffects of the long, American war were still ravaging the country.

For many Afghans, life has become untenable. There is little work. The costs of food, gas and everyday goods have skyrocketed. The countryside suffers from flood or drought — side effects of global warming caused by large industrial nations. And groups affiliated with the so-called Islamic State continue to carry out attacks on vulnerable communities. Although many Afghans choose to struggle through these incredible adversities, others have been forced to flee.

In 1982, during the Soviet-Afghan war, my parents escaped Soviet bombings in Logar Province, south of Kabul, and fled across the border into Pakistan. A decade later, I was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, as civil war raged in Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, my family and I immigrated to the United States, integrating ourselves into one of the largest refugee communities in the world.

More than 40 years have passed since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, leading to the deaths of as many as two million Afghans. And yet, to this day, the Afghan people have been seemingly condemned to perpetual displacement. War after war, invasion after invasion, Afghans are still seeking asylum.

Fawad dreams of escaping Afghanistan. He has been unemployed for years, living off odd jobs and funds sent to him by relatives in America. He was planning a trip to Brazil, where he would begin an arduous journey through South and Central America to eventually reach the United States.

According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than six million Afghans have been driven out of their homes or their country by conflict, violence and poverty. Legal routes into safer countries like the United States have dried up as the international community continues to isolate and disengage with the Taliban government. Many Afghans, including my own family members, feel compelled to take dangerous pathways through South American jungles, Eastern European woods or deadly waterways.

Journeying through the Darién Gap between North and South America has become an increasingly popular pathway for Afghan migrants unable to attain a visa for America. My mother warned Fawad about the dangers of the Darién Gap, but he wasn’t dissuaded. “There’s nothing for me here,” he said. “I have to leave.”

In our rented apartment in Kart-e-Char, a neighborhood in western Kabul, we were met by my mother’s sisters: Nafeesa, who lived nearby, and Marijan, who had traveled from our home village in Logar. My aunt Nafeesa is tall and stout and quick-witted. From a young age, I learned not to tease her because her jokes packed a wallop. Nafeesa and her husband, Qayoum, a slim bureaucrat from Logar, lived in the Kart-e-Naw neighborhood of Kabul with four brilliant daughters, all of whom were in danger of losing out on an education.

Her eldest daughter, a 14-year-old, could no longer attend her classes because the Taliban had barred girls from high school. As of Dec. 20, the Taliban banned Afghan women from all higher educational institutions as well.

Nafeesa and Qayoum refused to give up on their daughter’s education. They paid for online English courses and signed her up at the local madrasa. Qayoum supported his daughter’s dreams of one day enrolling at a university. Now he contemplated fleeing the country.

“Let me tell you,” he said. “You never know what God has planned.”

The night before the fall of the Afghan government in August 2021, Qayoum spent hours at his office, filling out biometric forms for last-minute passports — though he hadn’t been paid in months. By 2 in the morning, he had completed about 150 passports.

With the Taliban conquering provinces throughout Afghanistan, Qayoum was dubious about the late-night assignment, but he couldn’t imagine that the entire Afghan government was about to abandon Kabul. In the morning, unemployed for the first time in a decade, he saw the streets filled with Afghans. “The Taliban are coming,” some of them screamed. President Ashraf Ghani had fled, and the Taliban were entering Kabul.

Afghans were so panicked, Qayoum recalled, that their vehicles veered left and right and drove directly into oncoming traffic. Several accidents jammed the roads and families were abandoning their cars to run on foot. Everyone was headed to the airport. Qayoum, too, was struck by panic. He thought he might be shot in the streets.

Fortunately, the Taliban didn’t come for Qayoum. There were no public executions in Kabul — as had occurred in Kabul during the Afghan civil wars in the 1990s — and Qayoum’s fear of total urban warfare didn’t come to fruition. The Taliban carried out raids to search for weapons all throughout the city. When they arrived at Qayoum’s home, they scoured his rooms, found nothing suspicious, and left his family alone. “In the beginning, the Taliban seemed different,” Qayoum said. “They didn’t bother people. They promised to forgive their enemies. They promised not to close schools. I thought things might work out.”

The promises, however, didn’t last.

During my last days in Kabul, my 30-year-old uncle Fawad, the former bodyguard, was on the cusp of fleeing Afghanistan. He sat before me one evening, quieter than ever, rising up every few minutes to go outside and smoke a cigarette. He seemed anxious. Fawad wasn’t in the best shape. He had knee problems and hip pain and weak lungs and a terrible temper that often got him into trouble. But the worst part might have been that he was traveling alone. You could see it in his face. He didn’t want to leave home.

My 24-year-old cousin Hashmat felt compelled to stay and help his parents on their farm in Logar, a largely rural province in eastern Afghanistan. He currently worked as a taxi driver, a farmer, a carpenter, a mechanic and a merchant selling homegrown produce. His two older brothers, Jawed and Nadeem, studied at universities in Kabul but never found employment in their respective fields. Jawed sold produce in Logar and Nadeem worked illegally in Istanbul. When Hashmat finished high school, he decided not to attend college and started working to support his family. For him, a college education just wasn’t practical. He needed income, and he needed it fast.

Throughout my time in Logar, Hashmat drove me around and told stories about the war. He pointed out crumbling bases and locations of recent battles. It felt surreal to return to my family’s village after so many years. The last time I had visited Logar in 2017, firefights and bombings were so constant, I only had a few minutes to visit the graves of my relatives. The local village market and all of the roads had been eerily empty. But Hashmat assured me that Logar had become peaceful again. The roads and the market were packed, and everywhere I walked, I met old relatives and friends.

Hashmat was happy about the tenuous peace in Logar. Over the last several years, he had lived through the brunt of the American occupation, dodging bullets in fields, avoiding corpses on roads, all while attempting to appease the Afghan government forces that haunted his village. His house had been scarred with bullets and severely damaged by Afghan commandos. He faced harassment at checkpoints and was once severely beaten by militiamen. He used to watch the sky, wondering if an American bomb might fall on his head. But now he could walk in his own fields again. The constant firefights had all but ceased. He was no longer afraid of driving produce from Logar to Kabul, a trip that had once been a death wish.

While Hashmat seemed cautiously optimistic about the condition of his country, his older brother, Nadeem, was determined not to return. He had fled Afghanistan in 2020, at what my family recalls as the height of the violence in Logar, and had been living illegally in Istanbul since. It was an arduous and suffocating existence. He worked all day in a factory and then spent his evenings cooped up in a small apartment with several other Afghan refugees. The Turkish police were targeting Afghans for deportation. Nadeem was planning to smuggle himself into Europe again.

The last time Nadeem had made the attempt, he was captured at the Bulgarian border by Turkish police officers. They brutally beat him, tortured him and stole his possessions. In a few days he intended to take a new route with a new smuggler, and he assured his family he was going to make it. His mother, Marijan, wasn’t so certain. She had lived almost her entire life in Logar and had survived two occupations, three wars and the collapse of six different governments. And yet, she could never imagine leaving Logar. “I just want him home,” she said. “It’s where he belongs.”

My aunt Nafeesa and her husband Qayoum had their hearts set on England. They had recently received good news from the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy program in Britain. There seemed to be a real possibility of relocation.

By the time I touched back down in Sacramento, Fawad was on his way to Iran, Nadeem was crossing the Turkish border, Qayoum was waiting for a call in Pakistan and Marijan had returned to Logar.

Scattered across the world, my mother’s family waits for visas and court dates and smugglers. They trek through woods and rush past borders in a desperate attempt to escape the violence and poverty generated by the same countries they hope will accept them. For now, my mother sits by her phone and prays for word of their arrival.

Jamil Jan Kochai is the author of the novel, “99 Nights in Logar,” and the short story collection, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak,” a finalist for the National Book Award.

There’s Nothing for Me Here,’ My Mother Hears Again