Hope and Consequences for Afghan Refugees waiting on US-Taliban Peace Talks
Written by Mohammed Harun Arsalai
Mohamad Afghan, 26, says it took 12 days to get from his native Afghanistan’s Helmand province to the Turkish city of Istanbul, where he now lives making a meager living as one of the city’s thousands of recycling collectors in bustling Kadikoy district.
“We left Afghanistan into Pakistan, then Iran and made our way through Turkey to Istanbul because the fighting back home left us no option” the undergraduate in Islamic studies told Documenting Afghanistan.
“You either join the Taliban or the Afghan army — there are no other jobs.”
The long hours in the sun, rain or cold and lack of rest are written all over Afghan’s face, but it is the bruises and remnants of a black eye that stand out.
“I was attacked last week by a group of Kurds. Several of them ganged up on me while they held my friend Abdul Aziz down on the ground.They were shouting at me to “go home” and that I’m taking their work because they were here before Afghans. It has become more difficult and dangerous to get to Europe, so many Afghans and other migrants are staying in Turkey.
“I tried to help Mohamad when they attacked him, but a couple of them held me down. I was kicked and punched too, but I was able to cover by face” says 17 year old Abdul Aziz, who tagged along with Afghan for the journey.
“My mother heard from our neighbor that Mohamad was leaving for Europe. My family gathered what money they could and pleaded with Mohamad to take me with him” says Abdul Aziz. “He’s a generous man, so he took pity and brought me along”
“He’s been a big brother to me. We try to look after each other. We live and work together.”
On almost every street in Istanbul, a migrant worker carrying a cart wrapped in a giant plastic tarp can be seen collecting recyclables.
“We pick up cardboard mainly, so we stick around the shops and commercial areas that use a lot of packaging” says Abdul Aziz.
“Its hard work … We almost get hit by cars and sometimes do! Someone hit me with their side mirror and bruised up my elbow and just kept driving.
“We carry hundreds of kilos a day in these carts across the city to warehouses or yards where they weigh the cardboards and give us money.”
“We work anywhere from 12 to 16 or more hours a day. On a good month I make 1000 Turkish Liras (Approximately 200 USD). We send about half home, maybe more sometimes” says Aziz
Although recycling collecting jobs are held by poor Turks, Kurds and Syrians mainly, Pakistanis, Afghans and others all compete for the jobs, often times leading to violent encounters.
“Now we’re all trying to work the same jobs which leads to conflict between the different nationalities. There have been massive fights with people using knives and people getting seriously hurt. Sometimes Afghans and Pakistanis fight together against Kurds because our numbers are low, but sometimes we end up fighting against each other. Its just madness sometimes” says Aziz.
The risks of violence and constant harassment that Afghan and Aziz face is not limited to other migrants, but comes from all directions.
“We hear this a lot; “Go back home!”. From the police, from other migrants who were here before us, and even the regular Turks. We can’t stop anywhere for too long during our work hours in Kadikoy because a shopkeeper or someone will come and threatened us” says Afghan.
“Going home” is not as easy as it sounds for the majority of refugees seeking a new life or asylum in the EU or Turkey.
Mohamad and Abdul Aziz are from one of Afghanistan’s most violent and heavily disputed territories on the frontline of fighting between Afghan forces backed up by the US and NATO against the Taliban. Reports of botched night raids and airstrikes that cause civilian casualties in Helmand province are routine.
When they left home for Turkey last year, Afghanistan was seeing a spike in violence. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) annual report said that 10,993 civilians were killed or wounded in 2018, an 11 percent increase of civilian deaths from the year before.
It was the highest number of civilian casualties recorded by (UNAMA) since the international organization started collecting figures in 2009.
UNAMA blamed airstrikes and drone attacks by US-led coalition forces as well as increased suicide bombings by militant groups for the upswing in civilian deaths.
This past year hasn’t been much better. According to Pajhwok Afghan News report over 1,500 people suffered casualties in March while in April nearly 1,900 people killed or wounded.
“Based on different sources, Pajhwok reports that “1,072 people were killed and 792 others injured in attacks in 29 out of 34 provinces last month.The casualties inflicted as a result of 153 different attacks, 20 percent higher than in March.”
“Despite the constant danger and fighting back home, I was happy being with my family and studying. I’ve done my schooling. My father didn’t want me to get involved in the fighting and sent me to various schools, even in Pakistan where I studied Islamiat as far as I could.” says Afghan.
“We lived off what my father was making as a small shop owner. He had a sudden heart attack and died about five years ago so I had to stop my studies and takeover affairs as the oldest male in the house”.
Shortly after his father’s funeral, Afghan started being visited by men asking for money.
“Either out of shame or not wanting to bother my mother, my father did not tell us he had been borrowing money to pay bills at the shop and to pay for my studies. He was in a lot of debt. So we sold off the shop to pay for most of it, and thanks to Allah’s help, the people of the village put money together to help us pay off the remainder of the debts. They (the people of the village) spoke among themselves after hearing about our debts. They all knew my father well and he was a well-liked man so they felt obligated to help us”.
With no debts, but now without a shop to make an income, Mohamad Afghan began looking for work in schools and religious institutions.
“I even went all over Kabul submitting applications and talking to secretaries and head masters. They all gave me the runaround. Some just said “no, we are not looking for anyone”, but others would tell me “yes, just come back next week to speak with so and so”. This went on a month before I concluded it was a game they were playing with me. They had no interest in hiring me, they just didn’t want one of their rivals to hire me in case I was good at my job. I think they were also worried Id take their job!”
Having no luck and rapidly losing money he could not spare, Afghan starting thinking about a life outside Afghanistan.
“Every week another person leaves. I have friends who went to Saudi and Dubai to work. A few made it to Europe. Others were deported back.”
“I was hoping to make it to Europe, but once I got to Istanbul I started hearing too many horrible stories; smugglers robbing or killing you and dumping you in the forest. Wrongdoings against women. There’s the danger of getting in the water to Greece — people are drowning daily. There’s also risks from the Turkish or Greek coastguard catching you and deporting you.”
In a recent report from Turkey`s Anadolu Agency, over 3,000 “irregular migrants” have been detain in recent weeks including 979 migrants who flocked to Edirne on the Turkey-Greece border after false social media claims that the border had been opened.
“I decided that even though things are difficult here in Istanbul, I can still make a little money for me and my family and stay with some Afghans I trust. There are no guarantees that life would be easier in Europe.”
“We just want the fighting back home to stop so we can be with our families. Our only hope for stability in Afghanistan is the peace process” says Afghan
Although the recent peace talks between the Taliban and United States have been moving at a snail’s pace and sometimes not at all, the current negotiations in Doha are the closest Afghanistan has come to a lasting peace in four decades.
Among the many debates happening around peace prospects and the return of the Taliban into mainstream Afghan society, the effect a supposed peace would have on those who have fled the violence in recent years has been left out of discussion.
The situation for Afghanistan’s Hazara community regarding the peace process is a bit more complex compared to that of Mohamad Afghan and Abdul Aziz who fully support the peace process and are ethnically Pashtun.
Although the vast majority of the violence and casualties are coming from the frontline in places like Helmand, Afghanistan’s Pashtun population is not being singled out for sectarian attacks the way the Afghan Hazara community is.
Practically any gathering of Hazaras is under threat of violence. In recent years Hazara protests, religious gatherings and political events have all been attacked inside supposedly “safe” Kabul, usually by an Islamic State (ISKP) suicide bomber. One of the most devastating attacks took place on July 23, 2016 where an ISKP suicide bomber targeted a Hazara demonstration and march in the De Mazang district of Kabul. 80 people were killed and well over 200 were injured.
Although it is ISKP who are hell bent on fomenting sectarian violence, Afghanistan’s Hazara community still remembers and fears the violence and repression they faced under Taliban rule.
“The deportees fear there will more instability if the Taliban return back, specially those from the minorities such as the Hazaras. Hazaras have seen a lot of atrocities during the Taliban regime, and therefore most of those deported believe the situation for the community will deteriorate if the Taliban come into power” says Abdul Ghafoor who faced anti-Hazara and anti-Shia violence directly while growing up as a refugee in Quetta, Pakistan.
Abdul Ghafoor was also one of the many Hazara`s to flee extremist violence and make their way to Europe. He was deported back from Norway. “I started helping returnees on a voluntary basis by writing their stories in a blog and providing them advice as soon as I was deported to Afghanistan myself back in 2013. I then established AMASO (Afghanistan Migrants Advice & Support Org,) in 2014 due to the large number of returnees knowing about my work and contacting me. The reason I got involved in activism for refugees was because people hardly knew what happens to those who are deported to Afghanistan.”
With the European Union eager to deport Afghans and other refugees with any rationale whatsoever, the appearance of “peace” in Afghanistan raises a dilemma for hundreds of thousands of Afghans who are seeking asylum and refuge outside their homeland as well as those who have already been deported back.
“European states are waiting for a reason to deport thousands of Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan. In case there is a green light about the peace process, the number will increase. Though they don’t care about the agreement a lot, because today where Taliban and ISIS control major parts of Afghanistan, we still have regular deportations from Europe,“ says Abdul Ghafoor.
The agreement Abdul Ghafoor is referring to is the “Joint Way Forward” agreement signed between the EU and Afghanistan in October 2016 which was condemned by Human Rights organizations as a “strong arming” of a poor country by rich and powerful Europe by attaching millions of Euros in aid monies to the deportation of 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers back to Afghanistan.
The agreement also demoted Afghans from refugee status to “economic migrants” and labelled Afghanistan “safe” in order to circumvent international laws regarding the rights of refugees.
A similar agreement was made between the EU and Turkey to stop refugees like Mohamad Afghan and Abdul Aziz from reaching European shores.
On 18th of March 2016, EU and Turkey came to an agreement in exchange for 3 billion Euros to stop the flow of refugees entering Greece. Since then, thousands of Afghan asylum seekers have been deported from Turkey back to Afghanistan.
“I am not too optimistic about the peace talks between the US and Taliban. Im doubting Taliban’s real intentions behind the talks” says Abdul Ghafoor.
“Taliban came in to being to impose sharia law. I can’t convince myself why they would take a step back in what they believe in. I doubt women will have the freedom they have today. I doubt youth will have the freedom to do what they are doing today.“
“The better idea to me is inclusion of all groups in the peace talks, either they are the political parties, youth, women or those who have a proposal that can help with the process. There is no outcome to something when you don’t have all involved, like the ongoing consultative peace Jirga. Afghans as a Nation should have a united voice to put on the table to be able to convince the Taliban and other groups” says Abdul Ghafoor.
Abdul Ghafoor’s position is the general consensus among the Afghan Hazara population who remain skeptical of the Taliban reforming itself from an armed militant group to joining mainstream society and governing institutions. However, for the majority of rural Pashtuns like Mohamad Afghan and Abdul Aziz, there is no other feasible solution than a cease-fire through the current peace process.
“Our lives have been turned upside down by the violence. We pray to Allah that these negotiations are successful so all Afghan whether Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara or Pashtun or whoever can finally go back home and live a meaningful and peaceful life” says Afghan.
“So if you want to know if I would go back home if the fighting stopped and a true peace came..? I say 100 for 100, I would go back the same way I came! I don’t care about Europe! I never wanted to leave Afghanistan in the first place”.
Mohammed Harun Arsalai @ArsalaiM
Mohammed Harun Arsalai is a writer and political organizer from the Bay Area of California, and co-founder of the independent media project, Documenting Afghanistan.