As the situation in Afghanistan becomes ever more chaotic, an increasing number of Afghans are heading towards Europe. But as one family’s story shows, the trip often ends in tragedy.
Redwan Eharai’s journey ends where it began: in Afghanistan, in the city of Herat. Eharai, a 15-year-old boy, is carrying the heavy body of his mother Sima up the hill to the cemetery, together with neighbors and relatives. He and his mother had set out from Afghanistan together, headed for Germany. Now he is standing at her grave.
She died at the border between Iran and Turkey, struck in the head by a bullet fired by an Iranian police officer.
Hundreds of people have now come to say their goodbyes. When she was still alive and urgently needed help, no one was there for her, says Eharai, as he looks into his mother’s grave. Despite his stubble, which makes him look almost like a grown man, he currently seems more like a child.
His family is poor — Eharai’s father died of a brain tumor five years ago, and Sima, his 43-year-old mother, suffered from depression. She had trouble sleeping and cried a lot. In Afghanistan, being a widow without an income, and with three children, is like being buried alive, says Eharai — you have no rights at all.
Instead, Sima Eharai decided to leave Afghanistan and go to Germany with three of her children, Adnan, Erfan and Redwan. Sanaz, her eldest daughter, was already living in Frankfurt. Her mother, determined that she would have a better life, had arranged for her to marry a German of Afghan descent. “I can’t continue living like this,” Sima Eharai said when she called her daughter the last time. “Either I make it to you or I’ll follow my husband into death.”
Convergence of Crises
Many Afghans dream of a better life in Europe. About 80,000 applied for asylum in Europe in the first half of 2015 alone, with most of them going to Germany. They are the second-largest group of refugees and migrants in Germany after Syrians.
At the moment, people are flooding into Herat Province from all over Afghanistan. From there, they drive across the border to Iran or travel farther south to cross into Iran along a less well-guarded section of the border. About 3,000 Afghans are now coming into Iran every day illegally. From there, they continue to Turkey, where they board boats to the Greek islands of Lesbos or Kos and then cross the Balkans to Northern Europe.
This sudden rise in the number of refugees raises fundamental questions for the West, about the success of the almost 14 years of military intervention and reconstruction in Afghanistan, about Western mistakes and about how many schools, hospitals, universities and police academies are needed for the country to be stabilized and made livable for its people. These are painful subjects, especially in light of the billions of euros that were spent on Afghanistan, and the thousands of Western soldiers who died for the freedom of the Afghan people.
This year, a number of factors are coinciding to worsen the situation on the ground: The rigged 2014 presidential election, the ensuing political stalemate and the formation of a coalition, pushed through by the Americans, between two men who were both determined to be president. The result is a dysfunctional government: new president and former World Bank manager Ashraf Ghani, and his rival, Tajik-Pashtun doctor Abdullah Abdullah, are engaged in power struggles while the Taliban, al-Qaida and, more recently, the so-called Islamic State (IS) are gaining control over growing parts of the country.
President Ghani had promised his fellow Afghans effective leadership, jobs and a tough anti-corruption campaign. But none of this materialized. On the contrary, since the international ISAF troops withdrew in late 2014, the amount of money flowing into the country has declined sharply. It’s not just the West that has lost interest in Afghanistan: Most Afghans have given up all hope that their country will ever develop in the right direction.
Tens of thousands of translators, construction workers, drivers, bodyguards, cleaning personnel and cooks who worked for the military and international NGOs are now unemployed. Rents and real estate skyrocketed after 2001, when the market was inflated by the wartime economy, but now they have abruptly plunged. The country is in a dramatic downward economic spiral. On Sept. 28, when the Taliban captured the strategically significant provincial city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, many people who had held out started packing their bags.
With its many parks, old boulevards and a historic district, Herat, the hometown of Redwan Eharai and his mother Sima, still shows signs of its important past as a trading hub. The main trade routes from the Middle East to Central Asia once crossed in Herat. In the medieval 15th century, when war and chaos prevailed in Europe, Herat was the center of civilization for academics and intellectuals from around the world.
The city is still a center today, but for migrants and refugees who use it as a base from which to begin their journey to the West. The Iranian border is only about 100 kilometers (62 miles) away, making Herat a base for human-traffickers.
A Gathering Point for Refugees
In downtown Herat, the streets extend at 90-degree angles from the Char Su bazaar to the four old city gates. Alongside the vendors selling fresh pomegranates, grapes and freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, there are piles of furniture, sinks, TV sets and shelves — household goods being sold at bargain prices by Afghans eager to leave the country. A real estate agent says that he has six houses in excellent locations for sale, including palaces for $100,000 (€91,000). The same homes would have cost $200,000 only a few months ago, he says — but no one is buying.
Finding a human-trafficker near the bazaar is easy. A travel agency, for instance, offers more than just bus trips to Nimruz and flights to Iran, Dubai and Turkey: “Bring a passport and $18,000, and we’ll take care of the rest,” says a friendly looking man with a gray beard. For $20,000, the agency will provide forged documents and a direct flight to Europe.
But many Afghans simply set out on their own, often with little more in their pockets than a bus ticket costing the equivalent of €12. They include young men in jeans, as well as families with children, standing in the early morning hours in front of a long fence at the Islam Qala border crossing into Iran. Unlike those who cross the border illegally along thinly guarded sections, these migrants have the €100 needed for an Iranian visa. Many have even organized and paid for the expensive trip to Europe, Canada or the United States. Traffickers are waiting for them in Mashhad or Tehran to take them to Turkey. Their belongings are piled high on the roofs of taxis.
The Eharais didn’t have that much money.
Redwan Eharai says that his mother’s decision to leave Afghanistan was a spontaneous one. They were watching a TV report about Syrian families crossing the Mediterranean on boats that stated that Germany was accepting refugees. “We understood that there is a future in Germany,” he says. They had also heard that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was allowing refugees stuck in Hungary to enter Germany. That was when Sima decided to leave.
Eharai refuses to accept that Afghans are not Syrians and Herat is not Aleppo. There is war in Afghanistan, too, he says, and his family had nothing to eat.
It happened when they were already in Iran, he says, walking along a path that led into Turkey, surrounded by thick undergrowth. The group of 32 people included 13 children. The more affluent ones rode horses. The traffickers would hit Sima and her children with sticks whenever they were so exhausted that they had to stop walking. They had been traveling for 16 hours, and the sun had already set.
Suddenly Sima collapsed. At first, Eharai thought that his mother had tripped and fallen. But when he placed his hands around her head, they were soaked with her blood. He hadn’t even heard the shot that struck her.
The border guards came and shone their flashlights in the migrants’ faces. Eharai says that he begged the men to take his dying mother to a hospital. He screamed for help, but it was useless. The four border guards were armed with AK-47 assault rifles. “They punched me in the stomach until I collapsed, and then they threw my mother’s lifeless body into the back of their Toyota pickup,” he says. According to Eharai, the guards laughed and shouted that this time they had only shot only one “dirty Afghan,” whereas they had killed eight the week before.
The relationship between Iranians and Afghans is tense. The crisis in Afghanistan has already driven millions of refugees into Iran, and the Iranians deport hundreds of illegal Afghan immigrants every day.
The Smugglers’ Offers
The safety of a given route depends on the trafficker’s experience, says one human-smuggler who introduces himself as “Rassoul.” He is 31 and sits on a long cushion in a friend’s guestroom in Herat, wearing a light-green shirt and a plaid turban. His face is gaunt, but his brown eyes are alert.
Those who do well in his business have the right contacts, on both sides of the border, says Rassoul. He means that border guards are often open to bribery. But, he adds, Iran recently tightened its controls, and some of his old contacts were replaced. “Still, there is always a way,” says Rassoul. “It’s all a question of price.”
Human-trafficking is illegal in Afghanistan, but Rassoul is a respected man in Herat. There is almost no legal way for Afghans to travel to the West, which means that anyone could end up requiring Rassoul’s services. It’s a booming business.
For $30,000, he boasts, he can fly any customer to Europe in first class. Even the visa will be real, although he doesn’t explain how this is possible. The so-called Touchdown package is currently the most popular among his customers, says Rassoul. For a price of $15,000, he guarantees entry into Europe, into a country in the Schengen area, putting the migrant on a direct path to his or her desired country.
The trip begins in Herat, says Rassoul, explaining that he always accompanies his customers himself. They never have much luggage, he adds, just a light backpack. Rassoul owns a pickup. He travels the longest distances by car, but there are also strenuous walks through the desert of Baluchestan, a region in the border region where Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet. The treks often last for days, he says.
From Herat, the journey continues to the Pakistani city of Quetta, across the desert from Nimruz to Iran, on into Sistan and Balochistan Province, to Qom, a center of Shiite teaching, and finally to Turkey. There the migrants board a boat headed for Greece.
Although he has often been shot at, he has never lost a customer, says Rassoul, and he is making more money than ever before. He’s proud of both things.
A customer from Maimana, a city in Faryab Province in the north, is sitting next to Rassoul. He is 18 and has booked the Touchdown package, which will take him to London. His parents went into a lot of debt to pay for his trip, he says. Rassoul will accompany him to Tehran tonight, and from there one of his contacts will take the young man to Istanbul.
Rassoul explains to the boy from Maimana that he should allow the police to arrest him when he reaches England. Afghans are never sent back, he says, and the young customer doesn’t question Rassoul’s claim for a moment.
The boy shrugs his shoulders. “We have nothing but war and violence here, and no work,” he says. “I want to leave.” Of the 16 million Afghans who are fit for work, only about 3 million have jobs.
Rassoul’s network includes 20 traffickers, who send each other customers. They have only met by telephone. The network stretches from Central Asia to the Middle East and on to Europe. Each of the traffickers is independent, says Rassoul, and there is no central boss to manage everything.
‘You Are the First Ones We Will Kill’
The exodus has intensified since the Taliban attack on Kunduz. Minorities suffered the most under Taliban rule, and Herat has a large community of Shiite Tajiks, who comprise about 15 percent of the population. A man who prefers to remain anonymous says that he fears he will be “butchered” if the Taliban seizes control of the city. “You are the first ones we will kill,” IS sympathizers wrote on the wall of a Shiite mosque.
IS combat groups have established themselves in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, and are even trying to challenge the Taliban’s leadership in some areas. The IS groups are usually offshoots of the Taliban with support from foreigners, including Arabs and Chechens. They previously lived in the Pakistani border regions of northern Waziristan but were recently driven out by the Pakistani army, and are now regrouping in Afghanistan.
This is another reason many Shiites are now selling their old houses in the city: Wealthy business owners and former employees of international NGOs are also leaving, headed for Turkey or Dubai. The Shiites are worried that they could be kidnapped if they stay, either for money or revenge.
“Fifty percent of the people I know want to get out,” says Naheed Farid, 31, a member of parliament from Herat who studied in the United States. Many of her friends are intellectuals with university degrees and international connections. They are part of a young elite that ought to be leading the country into the future. The poor are being left behind — people like Redwan, the son of the now deceased Sima Eharai.
After their failed attempt to escape, the border police locked Redwan and his brothers into a prison cell. The children spent seven days there before Iran deported them to Afghanistan, sending the body of Sima Eharai back to Herat with them.
Redwan Eharai is now sitting in the basement of his uncle’s house in Herat. His mother had already emptied out the family’s small apartment and sold all their belongings, including the bed, the kitchen appliances, the TV and the bicycle. A street dealer paid her $1,200 for all the household goods. The trafficker wanted $2,000, so Eharai borrowed the difference from relatives.
He has had headaches since his mother’s death, says Redwan, and now he has trouble concentrating. Little Adnan barely moves, while eight-year-old Erfan won’t stop crying. The uncle says that the brothers can only stay there until the funeral is over, and that they’ll have to leave after that. He is unable to care for them, he says, adding that he has eight children of his own.
Redwan left school when he was 10 around the time his father became severely ill and died. After the family’s savings had been depleted by his father’s expensive treatments, Redwan had to earn money for the family. He worked as a painter, earning €3 a day. The family had bread with tea for breakfast and potatoes for lunch, but meat was too expensive. They paid €100 a month in rent for a small, two-room apartment on the outskirts of the city.
Redwan was a strong boy, and somehow he managed to feed the family after his father’s death. He fought for his family’s future, and now he has lost everything.
Standing in the hilltop cemetery, surrounded by his relatives, he breaks down and weeps, overcome by the enormity of his pain.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan