The high mountains of Tamaki were covered with white glistening snow. The morning breeze was hitting against a small window. Next to the window an old brown pot with sundried flowers. One side of the window was covered with thick layers of plastic, keeping it closed and preventing the cold wind from sneaking inside the home.
Early morning I was born during the civil war. The first sounds that embraced my ears were the sounds of bullets coming from far. I was born right at the middle of a frontier. Tamaki share borders with Jaghori and another three districts populated with ethnic Pushtoons. In order to attack Jaghori and other Hazara districts, the Taliban most of whom are of Pushtoon ethnicity, had to bypass Tamaki.
Months passed and the winter snow started to melt down little by little. The fighting increased and a shadow of threat was lurking above Tamaki. We had to leave our mountains, our sanctuary; it was no longer safe for us. In the middle of the night my family left Tamaki, crossing the most dangerous borders in the world and arrived in Quetta, Pakistan. I was forced into displacement as a baby, now I sit here in Indonesia as a refugee, still searching for asylum.
I grew up in Queeta and was never told about the mountains on which I was born. Yet I feel a deep sense of connection to my birthplace and sometimes try to imagine what Afghanistan looks like today.
The sun had set, and dusk settled over the hills. My brother was standing at the gate of our house, ready to depart for Australia. When he left, he told me, “ Khadim look after the family.” This marked a change in my life. Before I could live my childhood, I was forced to act like a man. I started working at a young age to support my family. From time to time my relatives and the community told me what to do and what not to do. There were no boundaries to their expectations. It was not long until I became the image of their expectations. I was deprived of my childhood.
When I see, the kids running around the Learning Centre, I become nostalgic for a childhood that I never had. Often, I break the frontiers of social norms and play with the kids, to relive my childhood. Life here is very difficult, I try to play my part to make it easier for them. In the Learning Centre there are people who have suffered all their lives and are doing a lot to contribute. People who never got the chance to play are providing a safe space for these children to play. People, who did not have the right to study, are creating an opportunity for these kids to study.
In Quetta we did not have that space. There it was not a matter of creating a better livelihood, every day was a struggle for survival. We were satisfied with our lives because we had safety, although it was fragile. But that safety was short-lived. Quetta became a graveyard for Hazaras. Extremist’s networks publically declared a Jihad against the Hazaras. There were daily bomb blasts and many people lost their lives ethnic targeting.
On the evening of the 20th of September 2011 I was on my cycle towards Bolan Hospital. A few hours before I heard that a bus was stopped on the way and Hazaras were pulled out of the bus and shot. Several times, the police stopped me. Each time I told them, “I have to go and find my friend among the dead bodies. I have to go.”
When I arrived all I could see was dead bodies. The floor was red with blood and its stench --- my nose. Women were were hitting their head and wailing. My body was shaking. I was feeling cold. I started searching for my friend Mushtaq. I looked at each body, but some of them were unrecognisable. Many were shot a few times. I even saw dead men who had a big whole in his eyes. I couldn’t look at his eyes. I quickly turned to the body next to his. I saw Ahmed Shah carrying a dead body. He was very young back then and he was struggling. I asked him where is Mushtaq’s body. He said it is the first one. I quickly rushed back to see him. I looked down; half of his face was not there. His school was wide open. His clothes filled with blood. I started screaming. I shook him to wake him up and the guards forced me out of the hospital. I left crying all the way home.
When I arrived home, my mother was standing in front of the house. She quickly took my bloodstained clothes off. All night I couldn’t sleep, I just cried. From then on, I started having nightmares. My mum started sleeping next to me. She would always put a Quran under my pillow and read a Sura before she slept.
Travelling became really challenging. We were locked inside Hazara town. People were afraid to travel outside. I was in a Karate national team and I wanted to go and participate in the competitions, but my mother was begging me not to leave. Once again, I was a prisoner of boundaries. I felt like the limited and familiar space was eating me.
Refugees have a lot of time to sit and reflect about their lives. We have nothing else to do. Every second we ask ourselves, ‘where to next?’ The Taliban is fighting for power and for an ideology. If they are experiencing the death, then have a wide boundary that stretches beyond life on earth. For them dying on the battlefield as a martyr is a ---ticket to heaven. States intervene in other countries for their national interests. Warlords in Afghanistan fight to preserve their power. We, the civilians on the other hand, die because of their ideologies and political pursuits. We have nothing to fight for. All we do is struggle to live for another minute, another hour, another day.
On the 16th of February 2013 my sister called from Australia. She asked, “how is everyone?’ I replied, “Everyone is well. A few days ago an agent took me in Passport office and my teacher agreed to pay for my travel cost to Australia.’ ‘But’ she said. Before I could answer my mum stepped in the room and asked, “Is it your sister?” I passed the telephone to my mother and left the room. I stood outside the door and listened to their conversation. With a lump in her throat my mother said, “If he wants to leave, he can leave. It is all up to him. Before I was worried and did not let him go outside of the area. Now the times have changed, this is not a place for him.’ After hearing this I left and went on the roof. It was sunny. I saw a group of women from far, holding plastic bags full of vegetables and fruits in their hands. I watched as they walked further and further. A white Suzikie drove past and they disappeared in the dust. I looked down, the kids were holding strings in their hands, and kites were flying in the sky. I started tracking it. Slowly I closed my eyes and started breathing towards the sky. There I stretched my imagination as far as I could. I could already taste freedom and life. I let it touch me. I felt the warm wind on my skin and let it dance through my fingers. I started hearing shouts from the bellow. The old watchmaker was arguing with his wife, and their kids were following from the behind. They were our neighbours. His leg was injured in a mass shooting. He always said, “Allah has spared me because Allah loves my children. He did not want my kids to live without a father.”
Suddenly a fear struck me. I started doubting my plans. I started asking myself, “What are your options. Is it better to die in the hands of terrorists or get a 50/50 percent chance of death or life?” For how long can I live here, held captive?” What if they come and kill me?” These questions were crafting waves of uncertainty in my mind.
I quickly dressed up, collected my books and pens, and left for school. On the way I was still thinking about leaving Pakistan. But I was still very apprehensive. I thought if I leave here, where would I go. What if I am not accepted?” On the way kids were running around with their school uniform on. An old man was walking quickly towards the market with his --- of fruits and vegetables. Maybe he wanted to sell them and go home early and buy something for his children. I checked my watch to make sure I am not late. As soon as I rushed towards the school, there was a loud explosion. I grabbed my head and quickly rushed near the wall. Everyone was running towards nowhere. They were just running. People start screaming and crying. There were many wounded people coming towards the end of the road . The dust from the explosion was still tracking its way to the ground. People were sitting next to wounded and dead bodies and crying. I was numb. I just stood and observed.
After one week, the community buried the bodies; two of my best friends were amongst them. It was not a normal funeral. Before we used our hands to dig in a grave. More than 126 people were killed. They used a machine to dig graves. There were some dead bodies where only small kids were sitting beside them. There were no elders. Near my classmates body there was only her mother because her father was in a detention centre in Darwin Australia. My classmate had a big dream; she wanted to be a well-known fashion designer. Borders did not limit her dream; her dreams surpassed all the possible obstacles that one could think off.
Standing on the graveyard, I kept shaking my hand and murmuring under my breath, “this is not fair, this is not fair.” I felt a sense of obligation .I felt like I owed something to my friends. That day they died in the bomb blast, and they were buried under the ground. The world does not know about them, their dreams, and their stories. They too, like other victims, became a number to be added to the death toll. There I decided it is better to leave than wait for death to come.
The situation was getting worse day by day. A time came when death became so normal. There was not a major uproar about it. The perpetrators were killing to go to heaven. The victim’s families accepted the death of their families as fate or Allah’s will. They tried to heal their wounds by being proud that their loved ones died as martyrs. Everyday we woke up to the sound of Mullah calling people to join a funeral, “attention, attention, yesterday 4 people were martyred, today we will be holding a prayer for them.” Death was no longer peculiar. Amongst this believers were I, a non-believer who did not have a God nor a heaven. All I knew was that I wanted to leave my life on earth. In my eyes the massacres could not be justified. No religious doctrine could justify the brutal bloodshed that I witnessed everyday.
I felt pain and my heart were burning for my people. The killings became news headline in the area, and a few days later it was forgotten. Nothing was left of it but transitory memories and the pain of a mother who could not forget the image of his son. I felt a strong sense of responsibility within me. I wanted to let people know what is going on in Quetta. I wanted to tell them about my best friend’s story. I wanted to revive her voice. This led me into the world of film.
I approached people and was able to bring a group of 7 people together. We wanted to make a short film about Zuleikha’s life. I could not finish it, as I had to leave Pakistan
I had a flight from Islamabad to Buket Thailand. With a small Hazara hat and a back-pack I left Pakistan. When I was on the flight towards Thailand, all the way I was thinking- “perhaps the Thailand authorities are waiting for us at the airport.” As we got closer to the airport, I felt sick in the stomach. I thought someone was watching me, waiting for the right moment to capture me. The passengers were looking at us strangely. Maybe because we looked suspicious to them. My friend got a call from Pakistan. It was the smuggler. After hanging up, he slowly approached me and whispered, “the smuggler said do not get out of the airport. Wait until I tell you which counter to go to.” We got out of the plane, people were walking very slowly. I felt like I had to run. My heart started to beat faster and faster. I could not taste my mouth, it was dry. This was my first time on an international flight with fake passport in my hand. I was very confused. We ranged the smuggler. Nearly everyone from our flight was out of the airport. We were scared that the guards might approach as and ask why we are not moving. But the smuggler told us to wait as he had to confirm. After a long time he ranged us and said, “go to counter 6.” We lined up at counter 6. Me and my friends looked at each other. His face was pale, and I am sure that mine did not look any better than his. I was scared. The people standing at the counters were the smuggler’s agent. We were able to bypass it. As soon as we stepped out of the airport, I finally let the air out of my mouth and took a breath. One day, I want to cross borders as a recognised person. As a human, without fear of being caught or being harmed.
A driver picked us up from the airport at around 3 am. There were three of us in the car plus the driver. We stayed in the hotel for two hours. Early in the morning the driver dropped us off at the border and told us to go inside the jungle, someone is waiting for us.
We walked and as he said, there was a man sitting there. He raised his hands, indicating that he is the smuggler. He was a young boy, around 18 years of age. He looked like a dangerous person. He was very skinny and had half-healed cuts/marks all over his body. I was scared, he reached out his hands, and I approached him with apprehension. He stretched his arms deeper into the jungle, and moved his hands, signalling us to follow. He started running; we had no choice but to run after him. Only he knew where to go. We were running in jungle for one or two hours. I did not know what I am running towards, but I had to trust the men who were leading us, I had no other choice.
Existence is contingent on free will. It is the ability to make decision and take voluntary actions. But at that moment, everything was vague for me. But existence also involves senselessness, danger, and vulnerability. At that moment, free will did not matter not matter to me. My whole being was destined towards one goal – survival. When the threat to your survival is obvious, there is nothing but fear and an intense desire to live.
In that jungle I realised the fragility of ‘being.’ In this big world, I was struggling to find a space to ‘be’. I could have died in the jungle out of fatigue, or the agents could have killed me and my friend. But I survived. There are hundreds of people whose dead bodies are resting under the seabed. They failed to cross the ultimate frontier to reach safety.
After a while we sat down to rest. I realised that blood was dribbling from my arms. I touched my arms, my skin had pilled off. Suddenly I felt the pain. My clothes were stained with dark red blood. The sweat from my neck was trailing its way down to my body, when it reached the wound on my arm, the wound stang badly. Around us there was so many clothes. There were a few traditional patterned Hazaragi dresses amongst them.
Their families must have knitted the clothes with the string of their heart. Weaving hope and love to keep their traveller safe during their voyage. I saw the men’s clothes, but I am unaware of their fates. Some of them may now be languishing behind barbed wires in detention centres, some may have drowned in the hope of reaching safety, the lucky ones may have resettled.
From far we could hear the sound afternoon Azaan calling for prayers. Even, in that moment, the shouts of mullah were following me. We got up and started walking. We finally reached the border between Indonesia and Malaysia. There was big wires in front of us. There was a big whole in the wire, the smuggler went first. I tried to go after him, but my bag got stuck to the wire. I pulled it hard and fell on my back. We crossed the border and finally we reached Malaysia. A car was waiting for us. The car took us in another Jungle. We were taken inside a small wooden house. There were some people living in the jungle. The little children were naked; the women were wearing leaves on their hips and chests. Inside the house, there were writings on the wall in Farsi. People had written their memories, dated. I touched the writing and felt that so many Khadims has crossed this path. Some of whom reached their destination, others who lost their lives in an attempt to live.
At night we travelled towards Kalalumpur in a small bus. Someone picked us up from the bus and took us to a hotel. Finally we got to rest. We could not go outside. One of the smugglers came twice a day brining us food. The hotel was located near a busy market. There were parties every night. Prostitutes were waiting on the side of the road blowing kisses to the cars passing by. After 4 days the smugglers came and took us out of the hotel. We sat in a taxi and left. We arrived near the sea. The taxi drivers moved his hand towards the sea, signalling that we should go there. Then we got a boat and journeyed towards Indonesia. There were 18 of us plus 3 smugglers. We were on the water for more than five hours. I experienced, joy, fear and death. A guy sitting close to me was holding the Quran close to him and was often kissing it. After a while, the smugglers told us that they had lost the way. Everyone started panicking. I thought this is the end. At that time all I could think about was my mother. I was worried that what would she do if I die. Luckily after sailing on the water for ages, we could sea a jungle. Everyone’s spirit lifted up. We all started cheering and laughing. Finally we reached Sumitra Island in Indonesia.
We stepped out of the boat and started walking towards the Jungle. I felt jubilant, finally I could breathe. Everyone had seasick and was walking exhaustively. The sound of silence echoed around us. I started talking to myself, trying to draw a map of my journey. As the knots of my weary shoulders started opening, I began paying attention to my surrounding. Above the tree brunches, time to time, I saw a light peeking inside. The breeze was hitting against the leaves. The air was humid. After months, I was able to put a pause to fear and anxiety. I took a big gulp of fresh air. I feel like I was born in that jungle.
The smugglers organised a flight for us to Jakarta. I tried to take a boat towards Australia, but each time I failed. I decided to stay. After settling down, I felt safe in Indonesia. I could no longer hear the sounds of bullets. No one asked me about my identity. In Indonesia, people did not expect anything of me; they accepted me as they received me.
Slowly I realised there was a fear in the refugee community. No one wanted to talk about themselves and their experience. Everyone was escaping from themselves. They feared that if they talked, it would harm their case. Sometimes we are even forced not to be ourselves, in order to protect our livelihood.
If the Australian media asked me, “why have you come here?” and answers that question with prejudice and ignorance, I too have the right to speak and say why I have come.
Self-representation is integral to identity creation. When you portray yourself in front o the world, it is organic, real, and authentic. When I read Australian news, we were being represented in negative terms. We were labelled as queue-jumpers, boat-people, and sometimes even a terrorist. Our humanity is unrecognised. I wanted to speak to the world and raise my voice.
I started filming with my phone. No one took me seriously. My friends said, you are crazy, try to survive and do not put yourself into trouble. The more they laughed at the idea, the more I was encouraged to raise my voice and theirs. I took the risk. I wanted to be myself.
My friends and me started a school for the children. Through the establishment of the school we were able to connect with each other and built a community. Everyone had experienced displacement, discrimination, and persecution. They had lost power over themselves. The school represents a revival of identity. We finally found our aim in the midst of uncertainty – our aim was education. Finally we felt like we owned our bodies and our stories.
Now people started approaching us and wanted us to tell them our story. Our stories were no longer fabricated. When people report about us, the now uses words such as “hope”, “education”, “ community” and “strength” to define us.
Now I film and my work is being exhibited internationally. I am happy that my voice now transcends frontiers of states and minds. It connects me to people on the other side of the border, who empathise with me, and with home I empathise. Through this connection, we have been able to recognise our common humanity.
My experience of connecting with people all over the world through my films, has extended the boundaries of my thoughts. My humanity was always defined by boundaries. I do not limit myself to boundary. I feel like I am a citizen of this world. I belong to nowhere but everywhere simultaneously. I live above and beyond frontiers.