If you browse the internets as regularly as I do you will have come up with a page devoted to the most awesome places in the world. You’ve also must have seen a shot or two of the most interesting roads to drive along. Be it the scenery, the wildlife or the people that grace the landscape. In all the connotations of the word interesting. ’May you live in interesting times’ is a powerful curse to utter to your enemy, according to the late Sir Terry Pratchett.
I have a particular road in mind here, of course. It is called Kabul Jalalabad Highway and it is actually about a 40 mile section of a national A01 highway in Afghanistan that links these two cities together. Why this particular stretch of mostly paved landscape is designated interesting by the connoisseurs of interesting times, is that it follows up the Kabul River Gorge overhanging steep cliffs, is prone to avalanches and landslides, blizzards, attacks of Yak (I don’t know what that is and don’t want to) wrought with reckless drivers and also crosses Taliban territory. Aha, you say. A walk in a park. I know a place with…
Asad* knows that road. Better than you or me. He used to be a journalist in Afghanistan and still is a journalist, only not there. The news-hound instinct never leaves you, although his thing was strictly behind the camera. Mostly it was fun and games, even in the rural stretches of Afghanistan. Shoot a bit of a wedding here, some family affair there, maybe a political inauguration for some local nobody politician if you get lucky. Dream of a job in the big league. Never enough money to pay the rent. Until one day you happen to shoot the wrong thing and the worst is you don’t even know what that was.
It is a well known fact that war zones these days are not friendly to journalists, especially those native to that country. They may get the best story but they will often get suspected and accused of playing for one side or another. Threats are very common and international journalists face them too. Ask any blogger what amount of hate mail she and her family have to face and multiply that by ten for any war journalist. This link https://cpj.org/killed/2016/mohammad-nasir-mudasir.php
leads to a page where you can follow statistics of journalists reported killed in Afghanistan and other places by country of assignment. The link that opens is one person murdered in his job.
When the threats began Asad knew to expect them, in a way. His friends had got them, not that they talked about it openly. It was as if it had been a shameful thing, to be so much afraid. They just disappeared. Later he got a message telling him all kinds of little things. “Hey man, how are you? I’m in London now. The food is shite and plumbing sucks and the wife hates it. Kids are doing fine.” “Hi, how are you? I got to college in New York. My uncle paid. Isn’t he a dear? Studying pro photography and media editing now.” And so on. Those who could, escaped. Some escaped into their dreams. Some into their nightmares. Those latter he never heard anything of ever again, not in person at least. Some of them he never heard of at all, all he got from their families and friends was a question in their eyes.
When Asad went back home he met his family. His job was the moving sort, he never really stayed in one place, he had an address in the capital but he never stayed there. Somehow they knew where he was, the people who hated what he did. They had sent messages to his dad and somehow his mum had got hang of them too. Asad saw them, before his mother threw them into the oven. “You will not keep such things. If they are found out that is very dangerous.”
He lingered on, the same way you do in a bad relationship. You don’t really see a way out even if it is there. His father told him to come back to his old home. But how could he? He was getting calls to his phone that were directly telling they would kill his family. Even after he changed his number he got them. And somehow Asad just knew that if he went back and tried to do the only thing he knew how to do, the only thing he could get money from, they would make good of that threat. The threats were telling him to quit but it was not that easy. What would he do if he wasn’t taking photos? His father had a little shop but even that wasn’t doing so good. Asad knew that some of the locals were already shunning the shop now because they feared to be associated with the family. They could become a target too.
The words his tormentors used were the words of the Taliban. Never direct threats as such. Unless they absolutely knew they would not be caught. That there would be the veil of shame so strong that you would not report it or that if you did, nobody would care. That they had a friend or someone they had leverage on in the police you would go to.
In his home town the rule was twofold; in the day there was the official rule, the police, the government. People would go shopping, walk on the streets and be seemingly normal. When the darkness fell the Taliban and their supporters could do what they please without impunity. At sunrise the damage would be repaired and the corpses buried in silence and the pretence begin again.
Finally Asad left; to go away to Europe where he had heard there was safety and justice. He chose Finland and applied asylum, thinking he could start afresh.
The migration office interviewed him and asked him all kinds of questions. He felt confident he would get an asylum and so did his Finnish friends. It is an obvious case, right? Journalism, freedom of speech, that should be protected here even if some carpenters and wood choppers and whatnot are not. Wrong.
In the twisted logic of the bureaucrat the thinking became twofold, in the same way as the rule of his former home town; since Asad has been threatened for so long and survived, it is unlikely he will really be under threat. Also, since his family has received these threats and these people know their whereabouts and have not actually killed his family it is unlikely these people threatening Asad are the Taliban. Hence, he is not under threat.
In other words, since his tormentors have failed to find Asad, whom they have threatened for several years and whose friends and colleagues they have managed to drive out of the country, he is not really under threat. Not even though he told a very detailed account of cat-and-mouse he played with the people who did threaten his life and who still were completely aware of his whereabouts, proving that they had above average intelligence skills. That they did not feel like killing an old man and his wife should also not be held as a proof of Taliban or non-Taliban identity. There are plenty of old people alive in Afghanistan to this day and there may have been many factors why the threat was not actualised. The migration office interviewers did not ask whether any protection money was paid in this case, which is another common occurrence when dealing with terrorists.
In other cases the same logic has been twisted backwards; because the family of a person who had received threats has actually been killed before or after they have managed to escape the migration office had interpreted this as proof of them being now safe. While the threats have clearly been directed to the individual in question the actualisation of the threat or part of it has been interpreted as nullifying the threat, which is not how human behaviour works. It seems that whatever you do, whatever happens to you, you cannot comply the rules and wishes of the bureaucrat mind hell-bent on not giving an asylum to anyone. The migration office of what once was one of the most humane and democratic countries in the world has twisted itself to the double standards of the terrorist.
Asad cannot prove the letters were from the Taliban. Even if his mother had not burned them in the family oven, fearing repercussions from officials or neighbours or who knows what parties, they would not tell us much. Asad identified his tormentors early on. The modus operandi was clear and he had travelled in areas controlled by them doing little gigs for the TV-channel he worked for then. His employers knew there might be threats and tried to protect him, which is one reason why he survived. Another reason is that he was smart. He used burner phones and untraceable sim-cards. But still, more than anything, he was lucky. But he knew his luck would run out and when it did the price would not be just his life but possibly that of his family and colleagues.
To add insult to injury, the Finnish migration office, when they rejected Asad’s claim of asylum, even mapped a route to home for him. It runs along the Kabul Jalabad Highway, one of the ten most dangerous routes in the world. They claimed it was absolutely safe.
*Names and some details may have been changed for security reasons.