The Harrowing Road to Asylum

On Jan. 2, 2013, my mother, two brothers and I got into the taxi and left Kabul just after 1 a.m. At 3:20 a.m. our driver slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the men who suddenly appeared in the middle of the dark road. I could see the silhouettes of the Afghan turbans, the signature dress of Taliban militia. A young man, barely in his 20s, with a long beard, approached the car and peered in.

My facial features, especially my flatter nose, give me away as a Hazara, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan despised by the Taliban. I pretended I could not understand the Talib’s questions to our driver, trying to appear uneducated.

The driver said they were going to search us and the car. He was as frightened as I was. I tried to hide my fear from my mother and brothers, Abbas and Ali, who were 10 and 7 at the time.

I remembered that I was still carrying my wallet with my official government ID. I had worked as an adviser for governance and development for the government of the central Afghan province of Daikundi. This could be a death sentence — proof to the Taliban that I was an enemy.

The driver was still talking to the militiaman, and I managed to surreptitiously take my wallet out of my pocket and slide it beneath my seat without attracting any attention. Then, with no warning, the Talib came over to the passenger side of the car, opened the door and yanked me out.

Shonagh Rae
Shonagh Rae

Another young Talib came out of the darkness and pushed the cold barrel of an AK-47 against my forehead. In a glance I saw the fear-filled eyes of my mother and my brothers. My cousin, a high school principal and also a Hazara, had been murdered recently on this very road by Taliban in similar circumstances.

As one Talib searched the car, the other ordered me to take off my shirt. They wanted to see if my shoulder was tattooed with the Afghan Army or police insignia. My shoulders were clear. Then they ordered me to take off my boots. They were looking for the tell-tale calluses of a foot soldier. Years of wearing dress shoes had left my feet clean. Then they checked my hands.

“Your hands do not look like the hands of an ordinary Afghan man.”

I shrugged.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I have a grocery store,” which is a very normal-sounding job; most streets in Afghanistan have at least one little grocery.

The questions kept coming for at least 40 minutes, a long time given that the highway was normally patrolled by government soldiers.

At some point, the Talib fighter with the gun, finger still on the trigger, whispered something to the one who was questioning me. I was sure they were about to kill us. Instead, for reasons I still do not understand, they shouted at us to go. I slowly climbed back into the car. With the gun still pointed at us, we drove away.

I sat quietly for some time before I turned toward the back seat of the car.

“Is everyone O.K.? We are going to be fine. Do not be afraid, nothing is going to happen to us.”

Despite assuring time and again that we were out of danger, my brother Ali kept asking: “Are they going to follow us? Are there more Taliban militiamen ahead of us?”

This is the dread that seeps through all of us in Afghanistan, even the smallest children. I felt my anger rising. A seven-year-old should not have to fear for his life.

As Hazaras, we have long been seen as enemies by the Taliban, but my job made me a special target: I had worked for years as a television news presenter and a journalist at a magazine, before becoming an adviser in 2009 to a female mayor and then to a governor of an unstable, Taliban-ridden region.

I was luckier than most Afghans. I come from a wealthy, well-connected family. To avoid the Soviets, we emigrated to Pakistan in 1981, where I had the opportunity to attend school and university. We returned to Afghanistan in late 2001, after the American-led toppling of the Taliban regime. Like many Afghans, we were excited to be part of the peace-building and reconstruction effort. It seemed like a new day for the nation.

After that harrowing drive, having left our home for the second time in our lives, we made it to Quetta, Pakistan, where the security situation was worse than we had expected. The Pakistani Taliban was resurgent

I had a close call with a terrorist attack. I was in a café when suicide bombers attacking Hazara blew themselves up, killing more than 80 people and wounding dozens more. I had minor injuries.

My family didn’t have the financial resources for all of us to leave Pakistan, and my mother was too old and frail to embark on another big journey. She convinced me to flee. I felt I had no option but to go.

Finding a people smuggler isn’t difficult — you just have to ask around. Plenty of men are making a business out of the outrageous insecurity in the region. But going through with it, paying a smuggler to leave your family behind, is a gut-wrenching decision that you can’t imagine until you have to.

I paid a smuggler about $3,000 in cash to arrange to get me to Indonesia via Malaysia. I took a flight from Islamabad, and after deplaning in Kuala Lumpur, before getting to the immigration control counters, I met up with a group of men who guided me to an immigration official they had presumably paid off. From Malaysia I took a boat to Indonesia, from where I hoped to move on to a safer place. I had Australia in mind.

Again, finding a smuggler to arrange a trip from Indonesia to Australia was not difficult. In the early hours of July 28, 2013, I boarded an overcrowded fishing boat with 100 or so others on the southern coast of Java. We were all refugees or asylum-seekers from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The plan was to head to Australia’s Christmas Island. This time I paid about $3,200.

Everything seemed O.K. — until the storm hit. Winds, rain and waves pounded our weak wooden boat. A vessel full of people who had escaped terror at home found that once again our lives were on the line.

We screamed and cried. Someone deep inside the crowd shouted in Farsi, asking if anyone could speak English. I yelled out that I could, and I was hustled forward to the bridge. The captain had already called for help. I was handed a satellite phone. Seconds later I was talking with someone from Australian search and rescue.

“Hello. Can you hear me? Hello? … We are asylum-seekers in distress on a boat. Our boat is broken and we will drown!”

Rescue: “Could you read me your G.P.S. location?”

I didn’t know how to do that. I had never used a satellite phone before, but I was guided by a voice in my other ear.

Rescue: “What do you wish us to do for you?”

“We are in a real bad situation, sir. We will drown. Our boat is broken. We are nearly 100 people on board. Could you please rescue us?”

Rescue: “What do you wish we do for you?”

“We wish to be rescued, sir! I repeat, sir, we wish to be rescued!”

We stayed low in the boat, helpless, counting every second. They’d said 15 to 25 minutes. Seventeen hours passed. It appeared that the Australians didn’t believe our plea for help.

In desperation, I called an Australian journalist I knew in Jakarta to ask if he could alert the Indonesian authorities.

Nine hours later, a warning bell heralded the arrival of Indonesian search and rescue. We were given first-aid and water. It felt like a miraculous act of kindness.

Our voyage ended in Puncak village in Bogor, Indonesia, where many refugees, including myself, remain. I didn’t get my $3,200 back from the smuggler.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention, which means that we refugees can’t work or settle here permanently. Migrants like me hope to be legally classified as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a process that takes years. After that, we must wait, for more years, to be resettled in a country that will take us in.

The waiting is soul crushing. It’s been more than three years since I left Afghanistan. It’s been more than two years since I arrived in Indonesia. And more than 10 months ago I was officially accepted as a refugee — and all I can do is continue to wait.

Once a week I go to the U.N.H.C.R. office to check on my case, and I’m told politely to wait more.

We refugees know that our plight raises many challenges for host countries. These issues must be acknowledged, understood and addressed through multinational action. The source of our problems may be local, but the solutions are global. The quest to satisfy basic human needs should not be victim to political expediency.

People and nations that aid us have done something our own countrymen were too filled with hate to do. For that, we are very grateful. But at what point does a protracted wait for acceptance and resettlement become a violation of human rights? Is it after three years? Five? Ten?

Leaders with the power to find solutions need to listen to our stories and put themselves in our shoes. We risk our lives to flee our homelands because we have no choice. In the end, we want only what everyone else wants: to live with freedom and dignity.

Naqsh Murtaza is a former television news presenter writing a book about his experiences as an asylum seeker.

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