What Afghan people want us to know about their country

This article has been developed by Flavia Ceccarelli and Juan Sandes.

A few weeks ago, in Afghanistan, celebrations took place to mark one year of Taliban rule. This has not been accepted by society as a whole. One year after the Taliban takeover, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains challenging. More than half of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance, with many internally displaced people living in makeshift settlements. Outside Afghanistan, those who left face the challenges of rebuilding their lives in a new place, often living on the margins of society.

We decided to portray this country through the words of the Afghan people that are living in the camp of Nea Kavala and in Polykastro as asylum seekers. Indeed, as an NGO, our main purpose is to amplify and spread the voices of those who have much to tell but no way to be heard. So, we sat in our Cafeteria inviting anyone who wanted to talk to us, and asking just one question: what do you want people to know about your country?

We let people feel free to share with us the first thing that came to their minds…

Fatima: “Many people have accepted the new regime, but not in all cities”.

Fatima*, a 19-year-old girl, was the first who decided to join us.  She started talking about the current situation of Afghan women. As soon as we asked her our question, she got serious: her mind flew to present-day Afghanistan imagining what the situation would be like if she stayed. “If I were there right now, I wouldn’t be able to study, work or drive, I would have to cover myself from head to toe and obey my husband. There are so many restrictions to respect that I could not even get into a taxi alone because the taxi driver would be a man to whom I do not belong, I would always have to be accompanied by my husband or a family member”.

She adds that she could not dress the way we see her now, wearing sandals, pants, a shirt, and Hijab because in Afghanistan she would now be wearing a chador, like all the girls and women who remained there. And it is with them in mind that she lowers her gaze telling us about her aunt and her cousin, who remained in their hometown Herat, not far from the border with Iran. With a worried look, as if suddenly afraid of being overheard by someone, she reveals to us that the husband of her aunt supports the Taliban and that it is therefore very difficult for them to escape, even if they have already tried seven times. If they are discovered, the punishments they may suffer for treason can be quite severe, up to death.

At this point, Fatima* returns to the current situation in Afghanistan, explaining that many people have accepted the new regime, but not in all cities. For example, in Panjshir locals are still fighting against it and, although the fight is hard and many people are dying, they continue the resistance by defending their flag and rejecting the new one imposed by the Taliban. 

Then she remarks on the problem of discrimination between Sunni Muslims, who are the majority of the Taliban, and Shi’ite Muslims, to which she belongs. Indeed,​​ the Shiite community has been facing persecution in Afghanistan for many years and now the situation doesn’t get better. She tells us about the blast in a Shi’ite residential area in Kabul that killed at least eight people and wounded 18 others on the 5th of August this year, when the community was commemorating the days of Muharram, the Shi’ite mourning period. This episode was claimed by an offshoot of the Islamic State, an extremist Sunni militant group that has carried out dozens of bombings and shootings in the Shiite-dominated area of West Kabul in recent years. The group is known as Islamic State-Khorasan or ISIS-K.

Then, after a short pause and a sigh, Fatima* starts to share with us the story of her family’s escape during the Afghan war (1979-1989). Her grandmother with her daughter (Fatima’s* mother), who was three years old, fled Afghanistan when her husband was killed by a group of Sunni fundamentalists for being Shi’ite. They went to Iran, where they thought they could find safe refuge. But things did not turn out as they had hoped. In Iran, Afghans have never been welcomed. They live marginalised for years without any hope of integration. She explains to us that they can’t attend every school and this hinders their education and integration. Moreover, they cannot have a driving licence, and, in many cases, they cannot buy a house. 

It is from these conditions that Afghan refugees begin to realise that their neighbouring country neither accepts them, considers them, nor treats them with dignity. So, they consider it best to flee, perhaps to a European country, and they began their escape again. Fatima* reports that from Iran she fled with her mother to Turkey to continue moving toward Greece. In Turkey, she was stopped by the police again and again. She tells us how scaring and frustrating it is to live running away from the police even if you have done nothing wrong, you are not a criminal. After yet another attempt to escape from Turkey, she and her mother paid 900$ each and took a boat with 76 other people to Greece. Now they are waiting to go to Germany to be reunited with their family. 

Then, before saying goodbye, she looks at us with complicity and says with a smile “What I hope the most is that one day people will be able to live freely’’.

Mohammad: “If there is one gift that people in Afghanistan have, this is hospitality: they are very kind and welcoming, if you are their guest, they give you everything they have”.

The second person who comes up to talk to us is Mohammad*, aged 36. He is from Ghazni, a town in eastern Afghanistan, and belongs to the Hazara ethnic group. Mohammad* is not the only one from this ethnic group here in Polykastro. In fact, most of the refugees we are in contact with every day come from Afghanistan and belong to the Hazara ethnic group, which has long been the subjects of persecution, marginalisation and massacres because of the ethnicity and the Shi’ite faith in a predominantly Sunni-Muslim country.

On hearing our question, he smiles. He is reminded of all the cultural heritage in his country, the archaeological sites, and the monuments. He wants people to know Afghanistan for its history and beauty, and not just for war and violence. So, he gets the phone and starts showing us YouTube videos of all the historical richness of the main Afghan cities: he shows us the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Minaret of Jam, the City of Balkh, and the Jahenda Bala ceremony to celebrate the New Year’s Eve. Then, keeping up his enthusiasm, he tells us something about the Afghan people: “If there is one gift that people in Afghanistan have, this is hospitality: they are very kind and welcoming, if you are their guest, they give you everything they have”.

Then he gets serious and tells us that unfortunately his country has been in a period of darkness for decades, and he mentions the last President of the  Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, executed by the Taliban in 1996 when they took over the capital, Kabul and established their first theocratic regime. It tells us that since the arrival of the Taliban in Afghanistan there has been no peace. Then, following the NATO intervention in 2001, the level of violence, chaos and guerrilla increased. So, at the age of 15, in 2003 after experiencing yet another traumatic episode – a sudden explosion in which his cousin lost his life – he decided to leave everything and run away, alone without telling anyone. 

Then, he concludes by thanking us because he believes it is important to talk about the good people of Afghanistan, in order to prevent people from generalising. He wants to emphasise that people in Afghanistan are all different, as in every country in the world: “Just as in every family of good people there can be one person who behaves badly, so it is with the inhabitants of every country.” Trying not to generalise is sometimes not easy: the less you know about reality the easier it is to fall into simplifications.   

The metaphor of darkness to describe Afghanistan also returns in Setayesh’s* words. For her, darkness is illiteracy. 

Setayesh: “People in Afghanistan are alive but they are not living, they are unaware of the world because they can’t read”.

Setayesh* is a 26-year-old Hazarian woman who fled Afghanistan four years ago and arrived in Polykastro, Nea Kavala camp, after spending three years in the Moria Refugee Camp (Lesvos) in a situation that, as she recounts, was very harsh and dangerous. She explains to us that the illiteracy rate is very high in Afghanistan, due to the instability that has characterized the country for decades. This has made it difficult for people to attend school: “People in Afghanistan are alive but they are not living, they are unaware of the world because they can’t read”. 

Different stories but the same hope of one day being able to live together in Afghanistan without hatred and without discrimination, just being free people.

*Names have been changed for protective reasons.