Born as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan: My early childhood memories

Me as a baby in Pakistan

Time has a very different concept in Afghanistan than it has in Europe. What I mean by this is simply that dates and times seem to be everything, but mean mostly nothing or not much in my country. Ask most Afghans when they are born, especially those in their 20s and above, and chances are they either don’t know, chose a birth date of their liking or will turn towards friends and relatives to find an answer. The first time I have ever been asked about my birthday when I was registered as a newly arrived refugee in Germany. Dumbfounded by the question I called my family, but even they were not sure which year I was born. As a result I heard different estimates from my mom, my dad and my grandfather. Dates are just not important and have little relevance especially during times of conflict and hardship. Added to that our calendar is not based on the Gregorian but the Islamic calender. Furthermore, once the civil war broke out in the 80s and 90s the Afghan government according to media reports did not have a system for registering child birth. A UN report states in this regards:” In Afghanistan, even though national legislation requires registration of children at birth, 23 years of conflict decimated both the administrative mechanisms and the social institutions that support them” .

My parents’ marriage and my family

The memory of my first years in life is fragmented, but I decided to share what I do remember from those years. Please don’t rely on what I tell you about numbers of Just like was and still is the case with many marriages in Afghanistan, also my parents was arranged. It happened when my grandmother went to visit my grandfather’s sister in the village where she used to live that she came across my mom. Upon her return to Pakistan, where my dad and his family already used to live at the time, she spoke to my dad about

My dad, my sister and me

my mom and not too long afterwards the marriage took place. You might find it interesting to know that it was only after the wedding had taken place that my parents have seen each other’s faces for the first time. But my dad got lucky considering that my mom is pretty. Not too long afterwards, I was born as my parents’ first child as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan’s Peshawar. Conflicts and fighting were already a part of daily life in Afghanistan back then. When I was born nobody recorded neither the date nor the year, it simply did not matter. Approximately the first 2 to 3 years of my life – and I say approximately deliberately as nobody in my family can tell exactly – took place in Pakistan, before my family decided to relocate to Afghanistan for the first time. Already before we did relocate however, my sister was also born as my parents’ second out of six child. I do not have many memories of our relocation as I was too young at the time to remember today. What I do remember though is that I would occasionally I did still spend prolonged times – sometimes two weeks, other times a month – in Pakistan whenever my grandmother took me with her.


Living in Kabul under the Taliban

When we returned to Kabul the Taliban was already in power, but the situation was still somewhat calm and tolerable. The Taliban did neither allow music, nor TV or any other form of entertainment. At times my family took the risk of defying the rules though: In what we called our safe room we would cover the window of it to the point that not even light could penetrate it and lower the volume as much as possible in order to watch TV. What I also remember are incidents of the Taliban’s morality police patrolling the streets and causing especially problems for young people. Men and women at the time were not allowed to walk side by side outside unless closely related family members (i.e. husband and wife). One day for example the police had stopped my uncle when he was walking outside with his mother. The Taliban’s police stopped him and asked: “What are you doing with this woman?” “She is my mother”, he replied. Not believing him they arrested him nonetheless and kept him in detention for two days before they eventually released him. Cutting off people’s hands as a punishment for stealing has also been a regular occurrence during those days. Due to that and as a means of deterrence, when walking outside in the streets, you would very often see hands hanging from trees: After having cut of a limb from a thief, the Taliban would then display it publicly by hanging it at trees next to roads that are frequently passed.

During those short years in Kabul two of my uncles have been somewhat known or famous football players, with one of them having played for the Shiva team for instance. At times my dad took me along with him to watch their matches at the stadium. More often than not though, before the start of a match the Taliban would use the stadium for public executions. I remember the day very well when I saw such an execution for the first time. The Taliban brought a guy into the stadium and forced him to kneel down. They then turned to the father of the person he supposedly had killed and asked: “What do you want us to do with this criminal? If you want him to be executed we will do it.” And so the guy got killed. Shortly before they killed him my dad initially turned to me saying: “You don’t need to watch this”, covering my eyes with his face, but I said: “Not necessary dad, I can do this with my own hand.” But curiosity got the better half of me and so I slightly moved my hand to observe the incident. I cannot put in words how observing this made me feel, I was shocked, horrified and saddened. But it didn’t remain the only time I saw this. Other times I saw similar incidents on TV, one time it had actually affected a woman that was executed by the Taliban.

My family’s work and means of income

Before our relocation and during the few years we lived in Kabul after our relocation before we had to flee to Pakistan again, my dad was involved with the carpet business. He would not only trade carpets between Pakistan and Afghanistan but also had a small shop in Kabul selling strings used to make carpets. But my family was also involved in the weaving and making of carpets and whenever a few carpets were completed, my uncle, dad or grandfather would then bring them to Pakistan and sell them there. When I grew a little bit older I got more involved in this work. Today I probably know every possible way by which you can cross the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan through the mountains for the following reasons: At times we would bring between 10 and 20 carpets with us, but too many times border guards and police on both sides would demand substantial bribes to let us pass. In order to bypass the problem and to avoid the loss of money we needed for our subsistence, we would avoid official border crossings and seek alternative routes. Often enough we would have to spend nights in the mountains and forests along the way as well. My father tells me about those times that things were not always easy and that we had to take risks, but that at least our financial situation was okay and we got by without too many challenges.

Fleeing to Pakistan again

Meanwhile, the political and security situation in Afghanistan took a turn for the worse. Due to that parts of my dad’s family, that still used to live in Pakistan, try to persuade us to return to Pakistan to avoid risks posed by the Taliban’s severe restrictions of freedom in my country and also because daily commodities such as electricity were more readily available. When the fighting was too intense we would spend days and nights in the basement of our house. With the bombings and rocket fires increasing more and more people fled to Pakistan and so did mine eventually as well. We had to leave our house and shop behind and in the process lost everything and were left with nothing, like countless other families too.

At the beginning of our second escape to Pakistan my parents initially had enrolled me in school. But that did not last longer than two months, because my parents could not afford the fee anymore. Nevertheless I remember how I learnt to spell in my language during that time or how we one day brought cake and food for the teachers to school. I also remember how strict one of the teachers has been about pupils being on time. Twice I got hit on my hand with a stick quite badly for having arrived late. My dad’s financial situation worsened more and more to the point that we had neither money nor food. He could not pursue the carpet business anymore. The only work that was left from time to time was buying carpets from his previous clients and reselling in return for a very small commission. Sometimes my dad could not come home for 2 to 3 days and I remember the feeling of hunger. Today I keep telling my new friends in Germany, that they cannot imagine what hunger feels like. During those years our accommodations were composed of one room and one toilet. In the toilet we did everything from washing to cooking. We also had to change our shelter often since landlords regularly and unexpectedly increased the rents. Not being able to afford the place no more we were forced to look for new accommodation. It was during those years that I started to help my dad making money and started to get involved in carpet weaving.

The fondest memories I have from those years are family celebrations, the Army Stadium in Peshawar, food distributions from UN agencies as well as playing cricket and football:

UNICEF/WFP: Since our extended family members faced similar situations they could not help us either. Actually the only Afghan families that have been better off than others during those times where those who had family members in Europe, North America or Australia and thus were sent money from abroad. This second time in Pakistan we stayed for probably around 5 or 6 years I was told and two more brothers of mine were born. Thankfully my younger brothers would receive biscuits from UNICEF or the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which is what helped to keep them alive and fed.

Family Celebrations: I came to love family celebrations. It is customary in my country to hand out sweets to children during family celebrations, so it was probably back then that I fell in love with chocolates in particular. Family celebrations were the only times that there was a lot of food and sweets available.

The Army Stadium in Peshawar is a small amusement park for families Picture:

Army Stadium: The Army Stadium in Peshawar is a well-known amusement park and as little child I always wanted to go because it was a place known for games, toys, football and good food. But buying a ticket to enter the place was USD 2, so something we could not afford. However, twice I got lucky enough: One time an uncle of mine living in Australia took me during one of his visits; and another time I was allowed to go with my cousins during Eid, one of our religious holidays.

Cricket and football: Playing cricket on the roof top of the houses in which we had rented a room often enough got me in trouble with our neighbors, but I still greatly enjoyed playing it with my cousins; every time we finished our carpet work around 4pm I would go to a nearby park, where you did not have to pay an entrance fee, to play football;

The US invasion

For some reason I also remember the day that former US president Bush announced the invasion of my country and the intent to remove the Taliban from power. I was at my aunt’s house in Peshawar at the time and watching Scooby-Doo on TV. My aunt was terrified at the prospect of the upcoming war since my uncle, namely her husband, was in Kabul during those days. Later on we were told that he had to spend a few days and nights in the basement of a house in Kabul until the situation allowed him to leave and escape. It did not take long and my entire family from my mom’s as well as my dad’s side arrived in Pakistan to escape the ongoing war. As soon as the situation improved, maybe one or two years after the invasion my family decided to relocate again. There was nothing for us in Pakistan and according to father’s thinking at the time going back could only improve our situation.

Relocating to Kabul again
The second time we left Pakistan I remember much better than the first time. Together with about four or five other families we were cramped into a small truck and made our way to the official border crossing. The car could only move very slowly as it was overloaded with people and our belongings. Not far from the border at a big place we stopped and registered our names before crossing into Afghanistan. In return for that we have received food from the World Food Programme, flower and oil I remember. Also upon arrival in Kabul we were provided with clothes and food by UN agencies for some time. Organizations, that I believe belonged to our government, would also come visit and ask if we do have a house. When my father said no, we were promised to be provided with a plot of land later – a promise that was never fulfilled. During those early years after the Taliban’s downfall a lot of development aid poured into my country but least of it reached the people that would have really been in need of it. Greed among those responsible for distribution prevented it from happening. As was written in an article of “The Guardian”, a news outlet in the UK, by someone who worked in my country for years: “And where was the money was coming from? It came from the pockets of the taxpayers in EU, UK, US, Canada, and Australia.I have since left Afghanistan, but I was recently reminded of my former life when European leaders gathered in Brussels to give $3bn (£2.45bn) to Afghanistan. The UK alone announced £750m in aid for the coming three years. As a former government official, and a former UN staffer in Afghanistan, I have concerns about how this money will be spent. What safeguards are in place to ensure that the money benefits Afghans? Will a farmer in a remote village benefit from these donations after they seep through various corrupted layers of government?  I worry that Europe has given the Afghan government a blank cheque.”