As 2014 NATO pullout approaches, more Afghans flee their homeland

January 30, 2013

A funeral procession for an Afghan makes its way up the mountain. With U.S. and many other foreign visas nearly impossible to obtain, many Afghans hire human smugglers, making it dangerous and causing many Afghans to lose their lives. (Zalmai)

KABUL — Sixteen years after he fled from the Taliban, Zia Ahmadi was back at the Kabul airport, waiting for the body of a cousin who tried to do the same.

Zia had done what he thought was best for his cousin, Javed Ahmadi, offering a smuggler $15,000 to shuttle him out of Afghanistan and away from insurgents. By December, Javed, 19, was halfway through an arduous 3,500-mile trip from Helmand province to Zia’s home in Sweden, running from the same Taliban that Zia escaped in 1997.

But the smuggler’s overloaded skiff capsized off the coast of Greece, and Javed’s body washed ashore with 21 others, nearly all of them Afghan refugees eager to leave their country before U.S. troops do next year. Now Zia was back in Kabul to bury his cousin.

Two decades after Afghanistan witnessed one of the 20th century’s most dramatic refugee crises, a quieter exodus is gaining momentum. Zia Ahmadi was part of the first generation of Afghan refugees. His cousin aspired to be part of the second.

Last year, at least 50,000 Afghans fled to Europe and Australia, more than twice as many as the previous year, according to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. With U.S. and many other foreign visas nearly impossible to obtain, the majority of those refugees hired human smugglers. Even more left for Pakistan and Iran. One-third of the world’s refugees are Afghans, according to the United Nations.

The flight reflects a growing fear that security will worsen after NATO’s military withdrawal by the end of 2014, a date that has taken on near-apocalyptic symbolism in parts of the country. Afghan officials have launched a campaign to warn against illegal migration, distributing brochures nationwide that feature photos of capsized boats and drowning Afghans.

Foreign donors are planning to fund cricket matches and celebrity-filled television spots that convey the same message: Don’t risk your life to leave your country. Despite those efforts, Afghan officials expect the trend to grow.

“It tells you how much progress we’ve made as a nation,” said Zia Ahmadi, 42. “People are still doing whatever it takes to get out.”

‘Get out of here’

Javed found his smuggler in Quetta, Pakistan. He had been on the run for months, since insurgents attempted to kidnap him in a treacherous part of southern Afghanistan.

Javed had always been a target. His father transported food and ammunition to U.S. military bases. His family belonged to the long-oppressed Hazara ethnic minority. After the abduction attempt, Javed felt even more sure that he was a marked man.

Before leaving, though, he consulted his closest family members. They were already on edge: Within the past month, three relatives had been fatally shot.

A relative holds a photograph of Ahmadi.
A relative holds a photograph of Ahmadi.

“Get out of here. Otherwise you’ll be killed,” his uncle told him.

“You must leave. I will help you,” Zia said over the phone from Stockholm.

His father, Mohammed Bakher, said only, “It will be dangerous.”

Javed left in the summer of 2011. If all went well, he would soon bring his wife and baby daughter to Sweden.

The smuggler shuttled him and two dozen other Afghans to the mountainous Iranian border, which they crossed on foot before speeding toward Turkey in another smuggler’s van. Javed described his experience in detail to relatives, who recounted those conversations to a reporter after his death.

Before each leg of the journey, Javed called his father from the smuggler’s cellphone, trying to conceal his concern.

“Everything is fine,” Javed often said. “We are on our way.”

For weeks, Javed and other Afghan immigrants inched toward the Turkish frontier until they spotted border guards and retreated. When they finally crossed, Turkish police stopped their car. Days later, Javed was deported to Pakistan.

The process started over.

By the time Javed made it to Istanbul, he had been traveling for nearly a year and a half.

“He was exhausted,” Zia said.

Finally, on Dec. 14, he was at the threshold of Western Europe, in a small fishing village on the Aegean. He and 22 other refugees boarded a 30-foot wooden fishing boat far too small to hold them. The sea was rocky.

A few months earlier, about 60 refugees, including 31 children, had died on the same route when their boat capsized. A few days before that, nearly 100 Afghans died off the Indonesian coast.

The Afghan government had begun running a public service announcement on national television.

“The unending and deadly trips through mountains, jungles, rivers and deserts are not good options,” Refugee and Repatriation Minister Jamahir Anwari warned in the ads. “They only add to the difficulties of our noble people.”

Before the boat left its harbor, Javed made one more phone call to his father.

“Please pray for my safe arrival,” he said.

Zia’s flight from home

During the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, about 5 million Afghans left their country, most heading to Pakistan and Iran. The next urgent exodus began about a decade later, when Afghanistan descended into civil war.

By the time Zia fled Helmand, more than 7 million Afghans were in exile.

Zia was teaching English in southern Afghanistan when Taliban fighters burst through the doors. They threw ash in his eyes, beat him and called him a “nonbeliever” for holding the class. He knew he had to leave.

“I love my country, but I wasn’t going to wait to be killed for teaching English,” Zia said.


Like Javed, he asked family members for advice. Like Javed, he fled to Pakistan, before plotting his route to Europe. Like Javed, his destination was Stockholm, where relatives had promised haven.

But unlike Javed, Zia arrived safely. He got a visa. He started a business teaching driving. He learned Swedish. He sent money home.

Afghan migrants, having arrived in Greece by boat from Turkey the same morning, embark on a ferry as they are transferred to a central detention centre in Chios on May 5, 2010.
Afghan migrants who arrived in Greece by boat embark on a ferry as they are transferred to a central detention centre in Chios on May 5, 2010.

Thousands of other Afghans were doing the same across the world in the 1990s. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s current president, went to Pakistan. Abdul Rahim Wardak, who resigned as defense minister last August, had moved to Washington. Tooryalai Wesa, now governor of Kandahar, was a professor at the University of British Columbia.

Many refugees returned after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But Zia didn’t want to. He wasn’t convinced that Afghanistan was safe, particularly for the Hazara minority.

He promised relatives that if instability returned to Afghanistan, he would help them get to Sweden. Over the next 10 years, Zia would help nearly 30 family members move to Stockholm.

Insurgents maintained power in his native Helmand well beyond the American invasion. When President Obama sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2010, they were largely dispatched to the districts around Zia and Javed’s home. But Taliban-affiliated
criminals remained.

For years before his escape, Javed was studying part time and managing a pharmacy near the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. He was on his way home one day when two men approached him with guns. His relatives assume he was targeted because his father worked for an American contractor.

Later, hiding in his home, Javed called Zia in Sweden.

“What are my options?” Javed asked.


Afghan Samin Gul is attended by an Indonesian medical staff after being rescued from a sea with 12 survivors in the waters of East Java province, where a boat capsized on Dec. 17, 2011. (AFP/ Getty Images)

Into the Aegean

Just minutes after leaving the harbor, the smuggler’s boat started taking on water. Within an hour, it had nearly disappeared into the Aegean.

Growing up on the Helmand River, Javed was known as one of his village’s strongest swimmers. When the boat capsized, he tried to rescue a child, according to the accident’s lone survivor, who shared his account with Zia.

Javed’s body washed ashore on the Greek island of Lesvos, just six miles from Turkey.

A Greek television station aired images of police carrying body after body from the shore, under the banner headline “Tragedy in Lesvos.”

Back in Afghanistan, Javed’s family was still waiting to hear from him. They called the smuggler, but his phone was switched off.

Then someone sent Zia the television clip. Without saying anything to Javed’s father, Zia booked a flight to Lesvos.

Afghan migrants sit on the ground after being detained by the Greek port police after they were caught in a raid on a house on May 1, 2010 in Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece.
Afghan migrants sit on the ground after being detained by the Greek port police in a raid on a house in Lesbos, Greece, on May, 2010. (Getty Images)

At the morgue in Lesvos a week after the accident, Zia worried that he might not be able to identify his cousin because some of the dead were so battered. But when he saw body No. 3, purple and swollen, he knew it was Javed. He recognized the high cheekbones and thick brown hair.

Two weeks later, Zia stood on the tarmac in Kabul as men sliced through an unmarked shipping container to figure out who was inside. And Zia comforted Javed’s father when he collapsed, wailing, after seeing his son’s face.

It was a long drive from the Kabul airport to a mosque on the city’s outskirts, where the body was cleaned and wrapped in prayer shawls and carpets.

The men prayed over it first, some crying quietly. Then the women entered the mosque and the roar of hysteria could be heard far from the prayer hall.

Brothers and cousins carried the body to a family graveyard. A few yards away was a grave site for a family of refugees who died when their smuggler’s boat capsized on its way to Australia.

Men took turns touching the soil covering Javed’s body. Later, his wife arrived and screamed, “Bury me with him!”


Ahmadi’s youngest sister said goodbye before his burial. “Bury me with him,” she screamed, as did his wife.

For much of the family, it was a tragic pause in their own immigration dilemmas: when to leave, whether to leave. Soon Javed’s wife and father would have to answer those questions for themselves.

Already, had fled Helmand for northern Afghanistan, to put distance between the family and the men who had nearly kidnapped Javed. Several days after the funeral, Mohammed went to Zia with a familiar question: “What are my options?”

Zia thought only of the cold sea between Turkey and Greece.

“I know of no other options,” he said.

See more photographs from Ahmadi’s funeral.

Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.

All images by Zalmai, for The Washington Post.

Read our series “Afghan Legacy.” Read more of our foreign coverage.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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