At least 15 doctors and patients were killed by a car bombing at a hospital last week.1An explosion at a campaign rally two days prior took 26 civilian lives.2 Another bomb detonated in the capital city on that same day, killing 22 more.3 The people of Afghanistan are under attack, and they have been for quite some time. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) statistics, at least 3,812 civilians have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan’s war during the first half of 2019,4 and the situation has sharply worsened over the past months. For most people it is hard to understand what is happening there, because they can’t, or don’t want to, picture such destruction within the context of their own realities. But these people need your imagination and empathy for you to influence government action.
With the Afghan elections coming up this week, strategically inhumane attacks from the Taliban are intensifying across the country. Thus far in September, at least 339 people 5a 5b 5c have been killed with thousands more wounded. The terrorist group has outwardly stated 6 that the heightened violence is an intentional means of dissuading voters from going to the polls on September 28th, which is when, potentially, a new president is to be democratically decided. “Taliban attacks on political rallies and other election events are part of an apparent campaign to sow fear, undermine the electoral process, and deny Afghans the right to participate in political life,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 7This is to be Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election.
According to UNAMA human rights chief Fiona Frazer, the data collected by the United Nations “strongly indicates that more civilians are killed or injured in Afghanistan due to armed conflict than anywhere else on Earth.” 8 Moreover, she explained that the official numbers recorded by the United Nations “do not reflect the true scale of harm” considering the rigorous and time consuming methods required for verifying civilian casualties. In essence, the situation is much more dire than what is documented. Not only are civilians being killed by the Taliban and ISIS, but also weapons by the Afghan government itself and its foreign allies.
Greece is considered to be the “gateway to Europe” for many of those fleeing war and extremism, and thus far in 2019 the greatest percentage of asylum seekers are of Afghan origin. 9 According to the UN, nearly half of all migrant and refugee arrivals to Europe have come through the Greek islands, 10and so far 9,935 Afghan people have traveled via the Aegean Sea since the start of this year. 11Here on the island of Lesvos, Mare Liberum sat down to speak with Ahmed and his seven year old daughter Zahra. They are asylum seekers who fled their homes in Ghazni, Afghanistan just over a year and a half ago. Ghazni is one of the most dangerous provinces in the country as it is the center of Taliban control. When Ahmed gathered his loved ones and left their country, his family had four members. Now they are two.
A year and a half ago, the Taliban came knocking on Ahmed’s door in search of his 15 year old son, Mesbah. The fighters told him that now that his boy is old enough, he must come and fight on behalf of Jihad. The Taliban tried three times to abduct Mesbah, and after the third attempt Ahmed decided that they must leave Afghanistan in order to save his son’s life, and his family’s life from this war. They wanted to move to Europe, a place Ahmed describes as “somewhere where there are human rights.”
Their 5,000+ km journey began by going across Afghanistan, through Iran, and into Turkey, which is where tragedy worsens to heartbreak. Ahmed, his wife Latifeh, and his children Mesbah and Zahra left the border town of Urmia and crossed up into the mountains to reach Turkish territory. It was the middle of winter, and at the mountain peaks the snow was waist deep. Ahmed wrapped Zahra in a trash bag and carried her on his back to protect her from the wet snow and wind. “After 12 hours of walking in the deep snow we finally noticed a light in the distance. At around 1:30 am, we started walking towards that light, which we presumed was the Turkish border force. My wife and son were too weak and could not walk anymore, so I decided to go with my daughter to get help.” It took another two and a half hours for Ahmed to carry Zahra down the mountain and through the snow and once he reached the border patrol station, the officers immediately searched them and took them into custody.
They were freezing, Zahra was crying, and Ahmed was pleading for them to help him rescue his family. “No matter how much we cried, they did not listen. I hate Turkish police to my death no matter where I am. They did not take me to my family. They did not help me. They did not want to save them.” Instead, they took Ahmed and Zahra to another border police station to take their photos and fingerprints. Then they transferred them to a different station. Then another one. And finally they put them in what Ahmed describes as “a prison”. In retelling this story, Ahmed’s eyes still plead with confusion when he explains: “I am not a criminal. The only thing I’ve done wrong is to cross onto your land without permission, but I came because I heard you have human rights and that you protect people who are in danger. I came here with my family, but now for three days two members of my family are missing and I don’t know if they are even still alive.”
On paper, he was sent to a refugee camp, but in actuality, this is where refugees are stored and beaten by the police. “They were brutal and kept beating us. We stayed quiet in our rooms and would only go out when we needed to have food. There was no translator for three days, and when he finally showed up, I told him what has happened and I begged them for help but they did not do anything.” After ten days in the camp, they had permission to leave. Once freed, he found the nearest UN offices, but he was told “we can’t help you”. So he decided to put Zahra once again on his back and walk for three days to Ankara to talk to the UN office there. He was told “we will let you know”.
A few days later he received a call that they found 2 corpses that were frozen in the snow. It was Latifeh and Mesbah.
Today, their situation is far from improved. They now live in the overcrowded and under-resourced Moria camp, where there aren’t enough blankets, rotting food, and families with children sleeping on the streets or makeshift tents. Due to outbursts of violence and neglect from the authorities, safety and security are nonexistent. One month ago, two young boys died after being stabbed in a fight that broke out in the camp.12 Just this week, a five year old Afghan boy was inside a cardboard box when he was run over by a truck.13 Ahmed, describing his own daughter, said, “I wish that Zahra was also dead. Or that we had all died in the snow.” He claims that providing for her is the only thing keeping him alive.
In Abrahamic religions, suffering is an innate consequence of life, but meaning and hope make that suffering worthwhile. However, there is a very real point at which suffering is unbearable to the human mind, rendering life not worth living. It’s clear that Ahmed is incredibly resilient considering all he endured, yet his reality as an asylum seeker in Europe is in stark contrast to the hope that fueled his pilgrimage towards a life with human rights. Ahmed’s story is uniquely personal but his suffering is sweepingly common for refugees that land on the Aegean islands. How is it that Afghan migrants are fleeing death only to be greeted in Europe with desolation?
All humans should be met with empathy and compassion, but destination states should be doing more to ensure that asylum seekers are particularly cared for—especially those governments that are involved in the fighting. After all, Afghan security forces and their allied international military forces have killed more civilians so far this year than the Taliban.14