I Take One Step, They Take Two

This text is a part of a series of reportages from Italian refugee camps called Permanently Temporary. The accompanying photographic essay can be seen here.


I first met Zabihullah (27) on a September night in Badolato, a picturesque abandoned village hosting a refugee center in the deep South of Italy. A well-built young man with a soft glowing face, I noticed him standing almost motionlessly on the historic cobblestones of the main square, head hung and shoulders slightly hunched, his gaze seemingly lost in thoughts of places far away. Later that night, after finding myself in a house converted from a neglected semi-ruin into an apartment he shares with 3 other refugees, I was not sure if Zabihullah’s tears were a result of the onions he was chopping for a late-night dinner — or the memories of his escape from Afghanistan he was quietly recounting for me.

Born in the tumultuous northern province of Baghlan in the late ‘80s, a year before the withdrawal of the Soviet occupation forces and at the beginning  of the gradual rise of Taliban as the country’s dominant force, Zabihullah remembers his childhood with an overbearing sense of nostalgia. In spite of growing into his teenage self with little money and Taliban regime micro-managing every aspect of Baghlan’s public life, I notice his eyes light up with a sense of longing every time he mentions the simple pleasures of his youth. Yet, as the years passed and the regime grew more potent by the day, he remembers the threat of violence for the smallest or even imaginary infractions against the draconian interpretation of sharia law bringing his life, as well as the lives of everyone around him, to a suffocating halt.

A NEW HOPE, A HOPE DASHED

The mood in town changes markedly after the arrival of Americans in 2001, and, along with them, Taliban’s grip on power crumbles fast. Seemingly overnight, there is talk of not only a fairer life, but of music, movies, and, as Zabihullah puts it, simple happiness.

Life moves fast: it’s 2007 and, imbued with hope of ridding his country of Taliban once and for all, Zabihullah joins the American — led police training program, ultimately becoming a member of the newly-formed Afghan National Police Special Forces. A major part of his job turns out to be planning and executing attacks on known Taliban strongholds in Baghlan province.

This strategy of local policemen fighting national threats has been designed by the American coalition in hopes of imposing a sense of unity and responsibility among the varied peoples of Afghanistan. Ever the optimistic exercise in nation building, it ultimately proves to be a mixed bag — with  better results in the southern regions and markedly more resistance in the northern ones. It quickly becomes apparent that building a strong national identity by circumventing ethnic, local and tribal allegiances which Taliban and regional strongmen are vastly more skilled at navigating, is not a simple task. What's more, the situation is further aggravated after the 2011 withdrawal of American troops which, up to that point, act as both the glue that holds the moving parts together, as well as a protection for the Afghans who decide to join.

It’s February 2014, the beginning of the summer fighting season — and a few years into his service as a policeman — when Zabihullah takes part in an especially gruesome mission close to the present-day Taliban hotbed of Kunduz. The objective: raiding a Taliban resistance in the mountains. In spite of a few men from his unit dying, the mission is considered a success as more than 25 Talibs perish in the fight and 30 are captured. Yet, the victorious return to Baghlan feels more like a heavy hazy dream than a walk of triumph: “You know you did a good job for your country but there is always fear of revenge on your family,” he says in a slow broken English with a leaden tone in his voice.

This hazy feeling of danger, turns out, is more than just that. The following day after the mission, a group of young Talibs is seen posting fliers in a nearby mosque calling Zabihullah by name and demanding he “stop collaborating with non-Muslims and join the Taliban cause” or else “be killed along with his family”. 

WE, THE PASHTUNS, DON'T GIVE UP

There is no shortage of these fliers in Afghanistan in 2014, three years after the western coalition troops picked up and left. In spite of witnessing the dire consequences brought upon the people mentioned in them, Zabihullah refuses to disavow his allegiance to the National Police: “We [the Pashtun people] don’t give up so easily. It is our Hawaad — our country and honor — and we need to protect it.” 

It’s the first time I hear Zabihullah mention a principle of Pashtunwali, an ethical code governing societal norms of majority of Pashtuns. As I find out later, in spite of not being alone in his noble belief, neither the sizable  numbers of determined anti-Taliban fighters in his community, nor his resolve alone will be enough to shield him from the ever-stronger network of corruption and violence governing the town left to the caprice of local warlords. “Going out at night means you’re either a Talib or dead,” he explains looking straight into my eyes. “I was thinking: they will come and attack, it is inevitable.”

Fearing for his family’s life, he buys a used Kalashnikov on the black market and hangs it on the wall in the living room. The cycle of tantalizing moments of hope and the following snapback to violence repeats itself in Afghanistan all too often — and by buying an illegal weapon, Zabihullah realizes his life, as he dreamed it, was over. A new cycle of violence has begun.

OF TV EVENINGS, GRENADES, AND BLOOD-STAINED CARPETS

It was a few days later, at midnight, when Taliban came to make good on its threat. Zabihullah is sure he was watching TV with his father in their living room, yet ever since the explosion a few moments later, he can’t piece together the little details: what was on, was he laughing, was he afraid. But he can clearly remember that the Talibs didn’t trouble themselves with knocking or talking, they simply threw a grenade through the window right in front of his legs.

The explosion kills his father almost instantly, while, at the same time, it throws Zabihullah against the wall and injures badly his arms and abdomen. His head ringing dizzyingly, confused and bleeding, he manages to crawl to the Kalashnikov still hanging on the wall and shoots through the newly-formed hole in the room at the Talibs standing outside.

He believes to have hit two of them, and, after a few minutes of unbroken silence, he realizes that any more men that might have been present during the attack, are long gone. Apparently, the fear of more policemen from his unit being hidden in the house is enough for them to disperse. 

The last thing he remembers before passing out is crawling in agonizing pain towards his father's lifeless body and holding it in his arms. It seems that fighting for ideals in Afghanistan collects its debts in pieces of one’s own flesh. This time the payment was laid bare all over the carpets suddenly colored red.

 
GOODBYE AFGHANISTAN

No one would blame you of an overly developed sense of justice if you believed that being trained by the West to fight its declared worst enemy would count for something — especially after losing your father and barely escaping his fate yourself — but most would think you naive. The disinterest in fates of people, whom foreigners’ dreamed up policies so routinely endangered, was deafening. Abandoned by his own anemic government, international community and US military, most people connected to the West, either as translators, drivers or western-trained policemen, never receive any help after their lives are thoroughly dismantled by Taliban.

And still, the abandonment was not the worst part of the attack’s aftermath, Zabihullah says. Having just woken up in the hospital with a heavy head the next morning, he found two policemen standing over his bed. Imposing in stature and deceptively quiet, they were insistent in their demands for answers about the previous night’s happenings. Curiously enough though, their investigation didn’t revolve around the death of his father or the grenades that landed in Zabihullah’s living room; they focused on the illegal Kalashnikov he bought in hopes of protecting the lives of his family.

Surprised, I ask Zabihullah about why a Kalashnikov would be more important to his colleagues than finding the people responsible for his suffering. I notice him fighting a smirk on his face, but, as far as I understand, his customary respect towards me as a guest in his home doesn’t allow him to betray any more bemusement by my naiveté. “They were corrupt, paid by the Taliban to put me to jail for the illegal Kalashnikov — but really for fighting their Taliban friends. They were police only by wearing uniform, but it means nothing.” I recoil at the notion of such a perfect capture of every level of the state — and cringe with embarrassment at my own obliviousness.

Everything that follows is just a drug-induced blur. Not being able to speak and his body aching, he remembers the two policemen leaving and threatening to come back to take him to prison after his wounds heal. His mother imploring him to escape Afghanistan or else her husband’s death be in vain. Realizing he’d be in ever more danger if he stayed in his country. Considering staying to fight — and immediately recognizing the danger in which this would put the rest of his family.

And all the while stuck in that dirty hospital bed, seeing his father’s blood-soaked body on the floor every time he closed his eyes. It was then and there that he decided to leave for the safety of Europe. Still hurting, he escapes the hospital before the policemen come back and arranges for a low-profile transport to Pakistan. “I exit my country on the first day of the third month. I cry.”

IRAN HEAVY ON MY WRISTS

The basic tropes in stories of escaping one’s country I gathered over the weeks spent in the refugee centers of Italy often repeat themselves with an astonishing regularity. Ranging from the unpreparedness for a months-long journey and its perils — all the way to the vague idea about where and what their destination country actually is. Zabihullah says he considered finding refuge in Italy already at the hospital, but he definitely settled on it only after meeting the first Italian — a carabiniere with a wide grin saying “Welcome!” — adding that his was the first friendly face on European soil he saw.

Unbeknownst to him, reaching this friendly policeman would come more than eight grueling months after his hospital release and only after overcoming countless perils on the way. Heavy on his mind that morning, standing alone on a bustling street of Quetta, a Pakistani town known for its tranquil fruit orchards and skillful smugglers, were his first steps towards Tehran. Having scraped together money from his family, he pays an agent to get him to Tehran; his wounds still showing in small bruises and deeper cuts all over his body.

If arriving to Tehran was easy enough, it was the pushing forward that proves difficult. The marks of his injuries betray his precarious situation and bring him more trouble. Suspecting he might be an “illegal refugee”, the Iranian police catches him on the street and transfers him straight to a deportation center in Isfahan; then, due to lack of space, to a detention camp in the infamous Iranian prison of Ghezel Hesar where he spends next 4 months with hundreds of other refugees clumped together with Iranian criminal convicts. 

Losing hope is an exercise that repeats itself with a crushing regularity until, one day, it suddenly becomes a second nature. A feeling so deeply committed to the muscle memory of their hearts that there’s only so much they can do not to slip into desperation. “You try to slow your anger. And then, then you wait for a miracle,” he says averting his gaze.

A SERIES OF RANSOM EVENTS

As is often the case with the powerless left at the mercy of strongmen,  getting out of the detention center is a question of paying some form of ransom money. The guards inform Zabihullah of a $1000 fee for a lawyer to argue his case in front of a judge. And it is here, at the beginning of his journey, that a refugee learns the first lesson of traversing unfriendly territories: there is often no freedom without a phone call home. And immediately after that: asking your parents for help slams them with crushing agony. “You see,” Zabihullah says, “they don’t have the money and you don’t have the options.”

Zabihullah ends up being released after his first paid hearing in front of the judge — leaving his family indebted to loan predators even further in the process. Resolved not to waste the opportunity given to him by his parents, he decides to head towards Turkey on foot.

Finding smugglers is not difficult in Iran — or anywhere along the smuggling routes of Asia and Europe for that matter — the crucial part is picking the ones that will not disappear with your money half-way through. Zabihullah meets one that seems honest enough on the outskirts of Karaj, a city some 50 kilometers from Tehran, and agrees to be taken to the Turkish town of Doğubeyazıt in the comfort of a car. The deal breaks apart very soon however as he is dropped off in front of a forest close to the mountainous border crossing of Bazargan and told to run as fast as he can. It seems protesting is of no use and thus, with little else to do, Zabihullah says goodbye and closes the door of the car.

Running through the bitingly damp air of the forest, future seems uncertain. He can hear the Iranian police firing shots at the small group of refugees he involuntarily becomes a part of, but there is no time to look around and count how many drop dead. His mind is punishingly blank with fear and, at the time, it seemed that it was only the desperate survival instinct that fuelsed his legs long past his lungs failed him. “I don’t know how I survived. I don’t. Very few of us reached Turkey,” he tells me visibly shaken by the vivid memory.

I look at Zabihullah and I involuntarily wonder aloud how many more things can a human being survive and still have the will to push on. “Many more,” he replies and tells me of his kidnapping in Turkey.

IT IS A HAPPY ENDING, BUT NOT YET

“I stop running, there is a road in the forest and a man on a big horse comes and tells me: I have food for you, come with me. I’m hungry, I cannot breathe, I’m crying, I don’t know what to do and I don’t know where I am. I walk next to him, me and a few others. We arrive at a house, he is a smuggler. There are many more smugglers inside and many refugees too. They put knives on our throats and tell us: $2000 and we will let you go. If you don’t send it, we will charge $100 a day. You don’t give money, I cut your ear, nose, fingers.”

It doesn’t take long to understand that he just escaped death by Iranian bullets only to end up at the mercy of heartless kidnappers. The house is locked, its windows boarded and all-in-all, there are 80 people inside. The smugglers turn out to be Kurdish and ruthless: there is little food for days and just one toilet bowl to be shared by all. Days pass and the only meal they are brought is a stale block of cheese.

In Zabihullah’s recounting, out of desperation and anger, he manages to persuade the others to stage a revolt. With a blunt knife they are left with for cutting the cheese, they attack the smugglers, overpower and tie them and escape through the only unboarded window on the bathroom ceiling.

“Don’t worry, it is a happy ending, but not yet,” he adds after a refugee friend from Pakistan, who has been sitting with us for the last hour, releases a sigh — evidently reliving similar episodes of his own escape in memories brought on by Zabihullah’s account.  

For a moment there it seems that Zabihullah is trying to tell me of learning a crucial lesson which, as a human being, he could not bring bring himself to believe for a long time: that the cruelty he’s witnessing on his journey is the default state of the world. And thus, that as a refugee, you’re a smuggler’s ATM, a kidnapper’s torture board and a slavemaster’s property. His face betrays, even though for an instant only, an immense disillusionment that is then immediately tucked away under his calm demeanor.

And still, talking to him for hours, I understand that this lesson does not take into account the totality of his experience. It is astonishing that even after surviving all of this, the people I talk to still have faith left in the goodness of humanity and refuse to believe that the principal motive of human existence is extracting profit from human misery. I suspect that a Turkish policeman he meets soon has a lot to do with his not losing all hope.

A BIT OF JUSTICE, A BIT OF FEAR

Walking along the road westwards, barely an hour after the group manages to escape the kidnapper’s house, they are stopped by the police. Only a few submit to them voluntarily — Zabihullah among them — the others escape into the woods. “I have no food, no money, and I don’t want to be kidnapped again,” he tells me after I give him an incredulous look. “And telling the police about the kidnaping feels like justice. There is someone to help you, there is someone who cares.” The policemen decide to take them back to the house and, in front of their eyes, apprehend the kidnappers.

Zabihullah shifts on his chair and breaths out: “It felt so good to see them in handcuffs,” shaking his head in disbelief and with a smile on his face. “I was so happy. But then the police told us they want to deport us back to Iran. Please don’t, please, I can’t go back. I cried.” 

Obstacles faced by people traversing countries that don’t want them are manyfold — from hunger and cold, all the way to the ruthless kidnappers — yet in my mind it is the police that takes the crown in the nuanced shade of cruelty they have to enforce. Even though most countries outside of Europe de facto opt for deportation of refugees — and many refugees know it — being sent back must be one of the harshest punishments they face. Not only do you suddenly, without a possibility of recourse, lose all your hope of ever reaching safety — but everything that you survived up to the point — all the sacrifices, bleeding foot sores and hungry cold nights — are rendered inconsequential in the space of a single second. The feeling of despair must be soul-crushing.

“What happens then, did you have to go back?” I ask. “The policeman sees all of us crying and leaves us in the room for an hour without saying anything. When he comes back, he puts a bus ticket to Istanbul in my hand and tells me to go. I’m free.”

ON TURKISH VS. EUROPEAN KINDNESS

Upon arriving to Istanbul, Zabihullah goes to a branch of Western Union and asks his mother to send him more money to continue. He understands that he is indebting the family even further, but what is his choice? “Turkey will not give me papers without a passport. I need to go on.”

He finds a smuggler and stays for more than two weeks in the city. It is not by choice, but because crossing from there, through Edrine, to Bulgaria, is not an easy task. The smugglers that he finds and pays $3000 for the privilege of being dropped off in the middle of a Turkish border, tell him that there is a lot of police on the Bulgarian side these days.

This is nothing surprising. It is the end of September 2014, just a few months after the European Union border authority, Frontex, decides to  fortify the outer confines of the EU and, by increasing its budget, sends a sizable sum of money to the Bulgarian police to secure it. This cash boost — and a new mandate to protect “Europe from a flood of immigrants” — proves to be dehumanizing to both the patrollers and the people crossing the borders. Reports of police brutality and shootings perpetrated by the Bulgarian border patrols litter the websites of human rights watchdogs. It is easy to understand then why so many refugees choose the unsafe boat ride through the narrow channel between Turkey and Greek islands over being subjected to the infamy of a border crossing known for shooting at them.

And, thus, not having much money for a boat and having to pick the land route as the next step, the difference between the kindness of a Turkish policeman, who gave the group the tickets to Istanbul, and his European counterpart in Bulgaria, could not be starker in Zabihullah’s case. In spite of not meeting their cruelty on the border with Turkey as many others have, he encounters it at the other end of the country, near the town of Dragoman. Having crossed the width of the state in a series of treks on foot and short cheap minivan rides — sleeping on train stations and in damp forests — he reaches the town and overnights in corner of an abandoned warehouse. In the morning, he buys a loaf of bread and a plasticky sleeping bag and sets out on foot towards Serbia. Both the bread and the sleeping bag are going to come in handy.

Only a few kilometers into his haul towards the Serbian border, he hears the police screaming behind his back: “Stop! Stop!” Faced with shrinking options, he tries to run but doesn’t manage to escape. “They are big. I take one step, they take two. They grab me, shout at me, punch me and shock me with electricity; then bring me to a line of people they caught before.”

Two policemen apparently start creating a daisy chain of refugees by intertwining handcuffs between their hands — all the while another one is responsible for tasering and stripping them of their clothes. “They scream at us: where is your money?! Where is your phone?!”

Stories of Bulgarian police tasering, beating, forcibly stripping to underwear and sending hounds that mangle the legs of refugees are nothing uncommon among the people I interview in the last months (->story of Mubashir). What’s more, the reported practice of tearing the clothes of refugees to get to the little hidden money sewn into the lining of their jeans or sweatpants, leaves them for hours without protection against cold weather — and a policeman a few hundred dollars richer.

IN A PLASTIC BAG, DOGS CAN'T SMELL YOU

Zabihullah sees an opportunity. “The three policemen were distracted with a man who wanted to fight them. I still didn’t have any handcuffs on, so I crouched and then ran for the thick wood in the hills next to the police car.”
 
His feet are violet and swollen, his shoes are full of holes and let the cold air and water in; running is difficult but fear of capture is stronger. Patrols roam the hills and, during the first night, Zabihullah sees rays of flashlights and hears dogs barking in in the distance. “They can smell me, what do I do?” From his rucksack, he takes out the damp loaf of bread, eats a bit and then pulls out a sleeping bag he bought in Dragoman. “I couldn’t go any further without rest. I stopped moving. I packed myself in the plastic bag so that the dogs could not smell me and waited through the night hoping I will survive.”

The next morning the patrols were nowhere to be found. After eating another piece of the bread, he decides to walk along the ridge of the hill and follow the road winding in the valley below. He realizes he crossed into Serbia after seeing long lines of trucks parked on the road underneath him. It takes him 5 days in a damp cold forest altogether until he finally reaches Pirot, a town in Serbia, where he pays $300, his last money, to a taxi driver to take him to Belgrade.

SERBIANS HELP, CROATS RETURN, HUNGARIANS DON'T CARE

The Serbian policewoman, who he approaches out of desperation and hunger in Belgrade, helps him first with 500 Serbian dinars for food and a new pair of shoes, then with a 50€ banknote for which he buys a sim card with a data plan to figure out where to go next. “All is good. I have a phone, I have some money, I have food. I’m not afraid anymore.” Chewing on the cheap sandwich bought on the street and looking at a map on his phone, he decides the best option is to try to go to Croatia and cross to Italy from there. After a day’s worth of walking and hitching short rides, he reaches the border, crosses it and hides in the storage compartment of a truck parked along the road and seemingly headed deeper into the Croat hinterlands. 

However, all the wading through the frigid forests in wet shoes and flimsy clothes eventually catches up with him. Suffering from a bad cold and a fever — in spite trying to be as quiet as possible — he is discovered in a fragile state after the truck stops at a gas station and his coughing is audible through its rubbery covers. Police is called, he is fingerprinted and, without any medical help, returned swiftly to Serbia’s town of Subotica — all in the space of a few hours. He overnights in a temporary refugee camp set up there, in his pockets only 1€ coin left.

The next day, the camp staff is handing out train tickets for Hungary and thus, in the afternoon, he ends up in Szeged, a small provincial town on the south of the country. Trying to buy a bus ticket to Budapest, no one wants to accept his 1€ or help him out with the rest of the sum. Wanting to buy a juice box in a shop, the woman at the cash register refuses to sell it to him because, according to Zabihullah’s words, he looks like a refugee and she doesn’t like it. He notices everyone in the town using bicycles to get around and just before the sundown, he manages to steal an old one sitting unlocked under a tree. On it, he hopes to reach the more than 170 kilometers distant Hungarian capital of Budapest.

The plan goes south when a police Jeep shows up just past the town confines and starts chasing him, eventually bringing him to a stop and a swift surrender. Fearing similar treatment as in Bulgaria, he doesn’t know what to expect. The police is kind though: “I show to them I’m thirsty and they give me a bottle of water. They don’t tell me anything, just put me on a night bus full of refugees.”

The bus is headed for a refugee center in Debrecen where he is fingerprinted for the second time after arriving to the European Union. After two days of very little water and no food, he eats and sleeps there and feels safe. “I don’t think about anything else, only sleeping. I’m tired, my head doesn’t work and I’m still coughing. My feet are not violet anymore though.”

"NO, ITALY"

The next few days are a quick succession of events: a free train ride to Budapest, then Vienna. In Vienna, from money given to him by another Afghan refugee he meets there, he buys a 96€ ticket to Bolzano, a town nested in a narrow valley separating two ranges of Italian Alps. White snow caps are visible on the mountain peaks hovering over the city; and it is here, just past midnight and wandering hopelessly around the wind-battered central square, where he meets the carabiniere with a big smile.

“Welcome to Italy. Do you want something?”
“I need asylum.” “Not in a different country?” “No. Italy.”

The policeman takes him to a station, weighs him, fingerprints him and puts a paper in his hands which states that he has officially requested asylum in the country and thus should return to the the immigration office 4 months later for a hearing. Winter has arrived early this year. It is November 16th 2014 — eight and a half months after getting out of the Afghan hospital — and Zabihullah feels he has finally reached a place from which he will not be thrown out or shipped away on a train. He doesn’t fear physical abuse and he knows Taliban cannot reach him here.

In spite of sleeping in the open in the freezing cold of Bolzano parks for the following four months — and sometimes in refugee and homeless dormitories or train stations — and eating at local charities, he feels that Italy treated him well. His first friendly face helped him be reassured: I’m welcome, I’m home.

Zabihullah is now waiting for his asylum claim to be processed in Badolato, a small abandoned town in the south of Italy that hosts a 20-person refugee center designed to better integrate asylum seekers into the Italian society. Talking to a commission that will evaluate his story this past October, almost a year after his arrival in Italy and almost two years after the attack, felt nerve-wrecking, yet he hopes for the best. He cannot imagine going back.

I ask him: “What is your dream, Zabihullah?”
“I want to learn good Italian. I want to find simple work. I want to have a life.”

Denis BosnicComment