‘Our dreams are dying with every passing day
I MET Nasir Ahmed Mulkkhalli, a 36-year-old Afghan refugee in India on a rainy summer evening in Delhi, India’s capital city. I was sitting in a cafe at Lajpat Nagar - popularly known as Delhi’s “Little Kabul” with a fellow journalist and friend when Nasir walked in.
At above six feet and with a well-toned physique, Nasir still looked the soldier that he used to be nine years back. A Pashtun (member of the Afghan from the Ghazni province in southeastern Afghanistan), Nasir served as a commando in the special forces of the Afghan National Army, when he was abducted by the Taliban on February 20, 2012.
On that fateful day, Nasir was returning home from his base for a holiday. He took a circa, a typical Afghan taxi, from the city of Ghazni for his village. Before his destination, Taliban soldiers stopped his taxi at a place called Moshaky.
Nasir said: “I am a Muslim, but they called me a kafir (person who disbelieves in God) as I was wearing my uniform. I and my family had been threatened many times since I joined the army, but we didn’t pay heed. This time they caught me. They pulled me out of the taxi and hurled abuse at me first. Then they hit me with the butt of their guns. I was unarmed, and they had sophisticated guns. Guns that we used in the army.”
Nasir paused for a moment at this point. He seemed to be living that moment in his head for a while and then continued: “They beat me up, stripped me of my uniform, and took me to one of their hideouts. I was tortured for 19 days continuously. They would put me through third-degree torture throughout the day. I was sure that they were going to kill me.”
Nasir was lucky to belong to a well-to-do family. He said: “When I was counting my days, the Taliban suddenly released me one day. My family had contacted the Taliban leadership at Quetta (in Pakistan) and had to pay them six hundred thousand Afghani for my release. They released me in the middle of the desert in only my kameez (a shirt-like garment), without shoes, without water. I walked for miles before I reached a village where I got food and shelter in a house. Those people helped me to get back home. I couldn’t get out of the house for a month due to the trauma that I had gone through in those 19 days.”
After some days, Nasir resumed his duty at the Mazar-e Sharif army camp. His brother got threat calls from the Taliban again. This time the family could not take the risk and decided to send Nasir out of the country.
Nasir being an ex-army personnel, was asked how he felt about the Afghanistan National Army surrendering to the Taliban so easily. The soldier remained silent for a while and then said: “There are a lot of talks going on about the Afghan army being composed of mostly Pashtuns, and there are a lot of speculations that the soldiers laid down their arms in front of the Taliban because they are Pashtuns too. I can assure you, no Afghan soldier is a traitor.
“We Afghans can lay down our lives for honor and the motherland. We were trained well by the American forces. Though our pieces of equipment were always not as good as the ones that the Americans used, our zeal and morale were high. The foreign forces were fighting for their agenda, we were fighting for our motherland. Whatever fishy act happened was at the top level. The soldiers only did what they were ordered to do,”
Ghazni was taken over by the Taliban almost two months before they reached Kabul. Since then all the shops, schools, offices, and every other place of work has shut down in Nasir’s village.
His mother and sister are at home with his two brothers and his uncles in their village at Ghazni. Since the Taliban takeover, Nasir has been extremely worried about his 16-year-old sister who is a good student and wants to go for higher studies.
Nasir said: “I need to get my sister out of there anyhow. I do not trust the Taliban and whatever they are saying on TV. They are talking about giving rights to women in front of the international media, but all the schools are closed in my village. Women are not being allowed to go out of the house. My sister has not gone to school since they took over our village. The Taliban beat up women on the streets of Kabul, who were protesting to ensure their rights. The Talibs are a worse virus than Corona.”
Nasir brought out his phone to show me pictures of his family. As he scrolled through the photo gallery, he stopped at one screen-shot of a video call with his brothers and his sister. It has been many years, the siblings have just talked over video calls.
Nasir’s eyes got moist when he showed me a photograph of his father, who passed away recently. His father was an ardent fan of Bollywood films and had made him watch Sholay, a blockbuster Bollywood film of the 1970s almost a hundred times. The Taliban had got into their house and broken the television set. Talibs had also punished them for watching films.
Amidst our conversation, Nasir’s friend, and the owner of the cafe, Qais Haijzada, came to the table with three bowls of simai, an Afghan dessert. Nasir introduced us and we invited him to join us.
Qais, 36, is from Kabul. He fled from Afghanistan in 2018, after being attacked by the Taliban.
Qais said: “I owned a hotel called Gulstan Band Qargha in the Band Qargha region near Kabul, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful places in Afghanistan. I was getting a lot of threat calls from the Taliban. They extorted a lot of money from businessmen like me, and then one day they attacked my hotel. Three of my guards died in the firing.”
He also owned an amusement park in Golay Hesa Awal Khair Khana. His hotel and the amusement park have shut down since the incident, thus stopping the source of all his income.
Qais now lives in Delhi with his wife and four children. With the saved-up money almost exhausted in the last three years, his only source of income is the cafe which he runs with his Indian business partner.
He lives in fear constantly and worries about his family members who are still living in Kabul. Qais said: “The Taliban is practicing completely different from what they are preaching. Women have already been forbidden from going out without a male family member. I am worried about my old parents and my sister. Things are getting worse every day.”
His sister was supposed to join her husband in Canada, but her visa did not come on time. Now, she has no idea when she can leave the country, and the family is spending sleepless nights with the Taliban patrolling the streets of Kabul.
Nasir has been a soldier and Qais a successful businessman in their country. Their heart aches for home, while they fight for a better quality of life in India. The UN refugee card ensures their human rights, but gives them, what they called a half-life.
Nasir said: “This is another kind of jail that we are living in now. It is an open-air jail where we can see the sky, move around, but that is all. With a refugee card, we cannot open a bank account or take a bank loan, we cannot take a SIM card in our name, we cannot buy a house or car.
“We cannot start a business in our name. Are we going to live like this forever for no faults of ours? Seems like our life’s dream is dying slowly with every passing day.”
It was time for us to leave. The conversation and the simai had been sumptuous. As soon as the interview was over, Qais asked one of the waiters to turn up the music. I was a little amazed at this sudden change of ambiance.
My friend Samantak, who frequents “Little Kabul” often, sensed my amazement and said: “This is the Afghan spirit. They always bounce back.”