Hazaras face death on return to Afghanistan
In this story
On October 9, the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said in a press conference that he had launched “appropriate inquiries” into the torture of Zainullah Naseri following his refoulement to Afghanistan. Days earlier, Zainullah had appeared on the front of The Saturday Paper, detailing his capture and abuse by the Taliban after being forcibly deported from Australia, where he had been seeking asylum. “I told them 100 times not to deport me,” he told me in that piece. “I would be killed. But they did not believe me.”
Zainullah was called by the Australian embassy in Kabul on October 10, a day after Morrison’s press conference. He was interviewed by phone in a room within the embassy’s blast-proof wall, and was asked about his kidnapping and torture. “It lasted about 20 minutes,” he told me. “They asked me what happened to me after I was sent to Afghanistan.”
After the brief interview, the embassy told him they would be in touch if necessary. A month has passed and he has heard nothing. He doesn’t know whether he will be reassessed. As a deportee, it may be of no interest for the Australian government to follow through on his case. He has nobody in Kabul to represent him.
A week after Zainullah was kidnapped in the Ghazni province, another Hazara man named Sayed Habib Musawi was killed on the road between Kabul and Jaghori. Unlike Zainullah, Musawi was an Australian citizen. But the plight of both men has been largely similar: caught in a dangerous country, ignored by an embassy staff so frightened of the danger beyond their walls that they rely mostly on news reports published in Australia for updates.
Last month, I met Musawi’s son-in-law, Sayed Abbas Hazheer, in his office in Kabul. He says a person from the Australian embassy had called him after news of Musawi’s death was reported in the Australian press. Besides showing sympathy, the staffer asked, “What can we do for you?” He requested to meet face to face, as he didn’t want to talk about the case on the phone. “I thought they are serious about it,” he told me. “That’s why I was going to go and meet them.”
At the first meeting, Hazheer was given copies of the Australian news reports about his father-in-law’s fate. He told them news stories wouldn’t solve the problem and he needed more things to be done.
“What can we do for you, then?” the staffer asked him again.
“Please investigate what happened to Sayed Habib,” he said. “What is important for me, as a member of Habib’s family, is that the perpetrators should be found. Or, at least, be known why he was killed. As your citizen, it should be known to you, too.”
The embassy replied that they were unable to help. “We can’t investigate. It’s difficult for us to investigate because we can’t go to the area. It’s dangerous there.”
Hazheer battled on, in vain. “I told them: ‘Clearly, today it happened to him, tomorrow it will happen to another of your citizen.’ ”
William Maley, an Afghan expert from the Australian National University who visited Afghanistan last week, said he had “great respect” for the Australian embassy and its staff in Kabul. “There is no evidence that they are biased against Hazara … But the circumstances under which they operate are so severely constrained that it is very difficult for them to offer more than hearsay on issues such as the safety of travel for Afghans on roads to remote districts.”
Hazheer told the embassy he would conduct his own investigation but that he needed their support whenever the case encountered Afghan government bureaucracy. The embassy told him they would try.
“I have no confidence, with the Afghan government going nowhere,” Hazheer says. “He was an Australian citizen and it should have been the responsibility of the Australian government.”
Musawi’s wife and son went to Kabul after his death, angry at their treatment by the embassy. “They did not help at all.”
Hazheer met Musawi at Kabul airport on May 27 this year. Musawi stayed briefly in Kabul but wanted to go to Jaghori to pay respect to his parents’ graves and see his relatives. Hazheer asked him not to go: the road was controlled by the Taliban. “What are they going to do with me?” Musawi asked. “I don’t belong to any political party or work for the government or NGOs.”
The greater threat, though Musawi did not realise it, was his Australian citizenship. It had been the same for Zainullah, who was tortured after the Taliban found his Australian driver’s licence. “You from an infidel country,” Zainullah’s captors said. “You infidel. We kill you. Why you come to Afghanistan? You a spy.”
Hazheer knew the dangers of the route to Jaghori. He lost his two closest friends there. “My friend’s nails were pulled out first. His penis was cut. Then on his wound they sprayed hot chilli and salt when he was still alive,” he tells me. “Then his flesh was cut into bits and was stuffed in a grain bag.”
Despite the warnings, Musawi went to Jaghori for two weeks. That was, until the morning of September 20. Musawi had booked a ticket for a minibus to take him back to Kabul. After about an hour’s drive, the minibus was stopped by six armed Taliban in Larga, a village in Moqor district, still within Ghazni province. One of them ordered, “Sayed Habib, get off the bus.” Another passenger heard a Taliban saying, “Did you come from Australia?”
Musawi was picked out from among the 20 passengers on the bus. The Taliban took him a few metres away from the unpaved road to a small room and talked to someone on the phone. They found his key-holder wallet, which had an Australian flag design, and also his driver’s licence and Medicare card. After a while, four motorbikes, each carrying two people, and a carload of Taliban arrived at the scene. They surrounded Musawi, talking on the phone and murmuring in Pashto.
The minibus driver waited two-and-a-half hours for Musawi to be freed, but the Taliban told him to leave. When the driver refused, the Taliban beat him with the butt of a Kalashnikov – he was forced to drive off, leaving Musawi behind.
At 11am, four hours after his capture, Musawi’s son-in-law Hazheer received a call from somebody. Shocked by the capture, he expected the worst, recalling his friends who had not survived. He called elders in the area, asking them to go and negotiate with the Taliban. It was established which Taliban leader had taken Musawi and, over two days, his release was negotiated. An oath was sworn. Hazheer woke with excitement the next day. After many attempts, he managed to reach the elders on the phone at about 1pm.
“What happened to Sayed Habib?” he asked.
There was a moment’s silence. “He is freed,” the elder answered.
“Where is he now?” Hazheer asked.
“He is here with me.”
“Thank God,” Hazheer said. “Can you give him the phone, I want to hear his voice.”
“He can’t speak,” the elder said. “Unfortunately, he is dead.”
Hazheer froze with the mobile phone in his hand.
“I was speechless for few moments. He was not my father-in-law but my best friend.” As he tells me this, his throat chokes with emotion.
Sayed Habib Musawi’s body, his hands and feet bound, was thrown onto the side of the road in the deserts of the Qarabagh district. A passing motorist noticed the body and telephoned police. Musawi had been shot four times. One bullet had entered his back and come through his chest. There were signs of torture elsewhere on his body.
“It looked like he was killed shortly after his capture,” Hazheer said. “They just told the elders lies that he would be released.”
Two days after Musawi’s death, another two locals were killed on the same road. Many here believe torture, arrests and killings are common on the route from Kabul to Jaghori, within Ghazni province – the same route the Refugee Review Tribunal deemed safe before ordering Zainullah’s refoulement, the same route Australia’s embassy staff are fearful to take. This is the inherent contradiction in the official assessments: Australia deems this area safe enough to send back asylum seekers, but too dangerous to investigate the torture and subsequent killing of an Australian citizen.
I spoke to the head of security forces in Jaghori, Bashi Habib, under whose command Zainullah took refuge after escaping his Taliban captors. He told me: “Musawi was reported to the Taliban from his areas – that he is an Australian citizen.” He continued: “Musawi was not so lucky as the wretched Zainullah who escaped the brutal Taliban.”
Hazheer accepts that an informant tipped off the Taliban about his father-in-law’s whereabouts. But that is not the key to his death. “It’s still under investigation by who,” he says, “but what killed him was his Australian citizenship.”
The family is frustrated at the lack of help from the Australian government. “He is treated as a second-class citizen,” Hazheer said. “If he did not have dual citizenship, they would help with the investigation.”
On Tuesday, the Australian government deported to Kabul another Hazara asylum seeker, Abdulah Ramazani, to attempt the journey to the Hazara district of Jaghori on the same treacherous route along which Zainullah and Musawi were attacked. Six more Hazaras are in line to follow him. Morrison’s investigation is presumably still running.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 8, 2014 as "Death, torture and an embassy afraid". Subscribe here.