News

In Sydney, a Hazara refugee wakes each morning and waits to hear from his mother in Kabul. He says he is drowning in fear. By Sarah Price.

Afghans in Australia: ‘I am human first of all’

A Hazara man carries bread across a makeshift bridge in Afghanistan’s Bamyan Province.
Credit: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Content warning: This article includes discussion and depiction of graphic violence.

 

When he fled Afghanistan nine years ago to travel by boat to Australia, Ali left his mother and younger siblings behind. He was 17 years old. Taliban militants had recently dragged his father off a bus and executed him by a roadside. His sister was missing and presumed dead and Ali’s mother feared he would be next.

From his home in Western Sydney, where he lives with three other Hazara refugees from Afghanistan, Ali agrees to speak to The Saturday Paper on the promise of anonymity. If the Taliban learn that an Afghan family has a relative living abroad, they will kill them immediately, he says. “There is no question. They will say, ‘Your family is living in an infidel country’, where the country does not believe what they believe.”

Since he arrived in Australia Ali has called his mother in Kabul every day. In the past few months – as foreign troops withdrew and the Taliban conducted its swift and strategic takeover of the country – Ali’s conversations with his mother have become more and more distressing. She is anxious and afraid. She worries constantly that the Taliban will target her children. Belonging to the ethnic Hazara minority, the family is considered progressive in their pursuit of education, women’s rights and freedom of speech. “We value education,” Ali says. “We value human rights. We value equality when it comes to men and women. Not only are we a minority, but our beliefs and values put us at risk of genocide with the Taliban.”    

        

When international troops arrived in Afghanistan two decades ago they brought with them protection and hope, Ali says. Refugees began to return home. Despite poverty, and people having lost family members to years of civil war and the Taliban regime, there was a sense of motivation to move on. A more dynamic society began to emerge: girls’ schools opened; a free media was established; people from diverse ethnic communities, and women, were accepted into nearly all aspects of public life. “People lived more purposefully. There was a feeling that we can build a country. People wanted to forget what had happened during the civil war and move on with a brighter future. It was really hard for people to support their siblings or kids to go to university, but they did. People tried really hard to be able to follow the idea they were dreaming about. They wanted to improve the country, not just their own lives.”

Ali says those same university students and professionals are now targets. They are made vulnerable by their education. Any person with a voice, or who could have influence, is on the Taliban’s hit list. “For people who were empowered by international forces: young people, girls and women, university students … they are now in great danger. Two generations of young people have not known life in Afghanistan without the protection of international forces. They don’t know any other way.”

For young people like his siblings, the Islamic Emirate will be particularly terrifying, Ali says. They have grown up with a sense of safety. Now, the Taliban will do whatever they want. Girls will be taken by force from their families, married to jihadists, whipped in public for breaching modesty laws. Schools and universities will close. Women will be made to wear full burqas and men to grow beards. People will be forced to pray five times a day. If they do not comply, they will be punished.

 

Ali’s sister was a medical professional; his slain father, an engineer. Since he left Afghanistan his siblings have studied medicine, nursing and computer programming. In Ali’s most recent phone calls to his mother she tells him Taliban militants are on the street outside. The family is too afraid to leave the house. His siblings are, at times, frozen with fear. “They have lost hope. Once they had dreams to work and to give back to the community. Their dreams turned to darkness the moment NATO said, ‘We are getting out of the country.’ So those dreams and hopes are no longer dreams and hopes. Now, they just wonder how they will survive.”

He continues: “When I talk to my siblings I get very emotional. I was the main source of motivation for them to go to uni and get an education, and what now? I have no words to say to them. I feel like I failed them.”

Ali fears the Taliban will do to Hazaras what it has done in the past: cut the throats of Hazara boys, behead the men, and take Hazara girls and women as slaves. He cannot even put in his head what could happen to his family, he says: “My mother, my sisters, my brothers.”

This week the BBC reported that nine Hazara men from the Ghazni province were massacred by Taliban militants in early July. In interviews with Amnesty International, eyewitnesses provided photographic evidence and gave accounts of the men being beaten, shot, having hair pulled out, bones broken. Some of the bodies were reportedly dumped, bruised and bloodied and riddled with bullets, beside a creek. One body had to be buried in pieces. Another of the deceased, accused of working for the Afghan government, was strangled to death with his own scarf. The locals who buried him reported that the muscles on his arms had been carved off.

People in Afghanistan have an understanding of fear that people in the West do not, Ali says. They know what is coming. They know at any moment their life can be taken away from them. “The Taliban is putting on a fake face for Western media. They have not changed. Once the international forces are out of Kabul airport, the dark time will again come to Afghanistan. People know that. The Taliban is not new to Afghan people. We keep forgetting that: they are not a new regime. They were there before. They have already killed thousands of people in front of their families. It is just a matter of time. Straight away they will kill people. They will not ask questions. There is no mercy. The fear people have is that once the international forces leave Kabul airport, the Taliban will start slaughtering. People sense it. They know.”

 

This week, when one of Ali’s housemates received a frantic call from his own brother in Kabul, he began to shake uncontrollably. The Taliban had discovered this man’s brother worked for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. They called to say they knew where he lived. They were coming for him. He hung up, smashed his SIM card and left the house straight away.

Ali says that when he looks at his housemates, he knows they all share the same fears. He can see the pain and desperation in their faces and hear it in their voices. Why should we suffer every time, he asks. Why Afghans? Why Hazaras? “There is no other way I can explain this. We are all wounded. We have wounds in our bodies. It is painful. Our bodies are in pain. It won’t go away. For any Afghans that live here it is only getting worse. It will only heal when we know that our families are safe from those evils.”

Since the Taliban entered Kabul, Ali has not left his Western Sydney home. He is drowning, he says. He has no motivation for anything, except to contact his mother. “I won’t rest until my mum and siblings are out of Afghanistan. I won’t rest until they are safe. When I wake up in the morning I just keep waiting and waiting, until she sends me a voice message.”

Ali says Scott Morrison’s statements last week stripped him and his housemates of hope. The prime minister was clear that his policies had not changed: no Afghans on temporary visas would be granted permanent residency. Australia will never grant them permanent protection. It will not support them to bring their families here to safety.

“A leader should come on TV at this time and show support and empathy for people, not tell them, ‘I don’t give a damn about you,’ ” he says. “It wasn’t the time for Morrison to lecture us again on how we arrived in Australia. It was time for a leader to offer sympathy to Afghans. It shows how cruel he is. He has no sense of humanity.

“He comes on TV talking to fathers and brothers and mothers and sisters, whose children and family members are dying in Afghanistan, and he lectures them about coming here by boat. Those people came to Australia by boat because they feared this dark day would come to Afghanistan.”

He continues: “I am human first of all. Why does it matter how I got here? I have my family in Afghanistan dying at the hands of the Taliban, and Morrison comes on TV and tells me, ‘I don’t care.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "‘I am human after all’".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.