“Never come back here to Afghanistan,” my mother keeps telling me.
The story below is a true account of a young Afghan journalist/social activist who made her way to Pakistan after the fall of Kabul. A few key details, including her name, have been omitted or changed to protect her identity and ensure her privacy/security.
Trigger warning: The narrative contains descriptions of graphic violence, physical and emotional trauma as well as suicidal ideation.
August 15, 2021
The day Kabul fell is the day I tried to kill myself.
It wasn’t a carefully thought out plan, nor a particularly serious attempt. As the panic, chaos and terror of what was happening around me amplified, I felt it was the only option to keep my family safe.
We were all in one small, rented room deep inside the city — me (age 23), my mother and father, my three brothers (19, 15 and 11), my sister (17) and my grandmother. It was a small room without the most elementary necessities. We didn’t even have enough pillows for each of us. This was the best my father could manage though, given the circumstances. We’d already fled from our home in Ghazni. And now we were trapped, and I was a target, putting my family in harm’s way.
Since arriving in Kabul, I had been campaigning and organising protests to support the national army of Afghanistan. My last programme was on the 13th of August. It was a really big crowd; there were hundreds of people there along with lots of media. Our army was there too, wearing their beautiful uniforms. I took to the stage and addressed them on behalf of civil society, saying we support you.
I read one of my poems out to the crowd, and my spirits were high. Yes, we were hearing about fighting in other provinces from our neighbours in Kabul, but we were all so sure the capital could not be taken. It was inconceivable. Afghanistan is developed now, a part of the UN. We can’t be abandoned by the rest of the world. Help will come. Our army will hold.
But the 15th of August came. And it happened.
Even early that morning, I felt ill at ease. My brother asked me to cook him his favourite dish, but we were low on vegetables. I told him I wasn’t feeling well, but he was very insistent. At 11:30am, he forced me to go and get the vegetables.
I exited our home and immediately ran into crowds of people running helter skelter.
I asked what was wrong, why are you running?
Kabul is falling, everyone will be killed. If you are on the streets, you will be shot. Go back home, I was told.
I felt real fear. I was telling myself it can’t be true. I started to call my friends and scoured the news.
It was true. Kabul had fallen. The takeover was peaceful; it was not a war, but my phone was crowded with news of people being arrested or killed or going missing. Houses were being searched for government officials, members of the media and political activists.
The stores were closed so I went back home with no vegetables. Breakfast didn’t matter though. All of us started crying, because we didn’t know what to do and our parents were not around. My grandmother said that other people have a house, but we don’t have a house, what should we do? We don’t have anyone here in the city. What should we do, where should we go? We just cried and prayed together.
Night came and I was terrified.
I was hearing all sorts of rumours about search operations being led to capture people. I wasn’t actually scared of dying — I was more afraid of what took place 20 years ago. The stories of what happened to young women who were taken. I was also thinking about my family and my siblings. They were all really scared, especially my grandmother because she had actually seen what had taken place back then.
Thankfully, my parents came to us that same night, having finally abandoned our home in Ghazni. The place had become a battleground; unlivable due to a nearby police station and the immense crossfire that took place over days.
I’m not sure how they entered Kabul and I didn’t know they were coming. My mother just knocked on the door and I opened it, overjoyed. I noticed she was not wearing any shoes, such was their rushed journey to reach us. But we were all together at last and for a moment, we were happy. If an accident happened to us now, at least it would happen to all of us together.
My condition was worsening though. I was imagining and reimagining a knock on the door, followed by an attack on our house. Many people went to Kabul Airport that evening and were evacuated to foreign countries — we did not, and as the minutes ticked by, I was filled with dread.
At this moment, one of my friends, Jake, who is an American journalist, called me on my phone.
“Hey, what’s going on over there? I want to interview you and share it on my platform.”
He was asking me about how the situation “made me feel”, and the absurdity of it all made me really sad, so I asked him: “What do you want to ask me?”.
“I wanna share your voice with the world”.
“What do you want to share? We are dying. Do you want to show the world how we are dying? I am going to die soon, so share it with the world, I’m going to kill myself because there is no other option for me”. I said this and cut the call, then turned off my phone.
That’s when I started looking for pills. I figured if there was no ‘me’, then there was no errant female journalist to arrest. I found 20 assorted medicines, popped them all and curled up in the hallway outside, away from the rest.
I dreamed of the past and the future I feared I had lost.
The first scar
Our family home is in Ghazni. It’s 2015, and a battle is raging outside. The house is next to a police station, which has left us especially vulnerable.
I am in the bathroom when I hear a loud roar, then everything goes dark for 10 minutes. After I come to, I see the floor is covered in blood. It takes me some time to connect the dots — I am alone in the bathroom, which means this is my blood.
I try to pull my clothes and headscarf on as best as I can. As I do so, I see that my foot is badly wounded. So is my stomach, my chest. I see shredded parts of me lying on the floor. A rocket had hit our home you see, and parts of it had struck my body. The scars remain, as does the memory.
I am unable to get up due to the injuries. I am sure someone will come rescue me though. There is less pain and more shock. I look at the bone protruding through my foot and think about never being able to walk again and what that will be like — how I will never be able to achieve my dream of becoming a journalist and what that will mean for my family.
You see, I’m the eldest sibling and also the first girl born to the family since my elderly aunts. This made me very important to them, especially my grandfather, who really loved me. He was an illiterate man and I unfortunately did not get to know him too well before he passed on, but he instructed me to be confident and brave as he wished for me to be a journalist. He was a fan of the ‘*Tamadun’* TV channel — an international channel of Afghanistan — and greatly admired one brave female news anchor. He told me he hoped to see me on TV one day, perhaps at a big conference, speaking in front of thousands of people while everyone clapped for me.
It was this dream that I began to pursue from a very early age. I wanted to be a journalist, and my parents supported me the whole way, especially my father.
I think about all these things and more as I lie there on the bathroom floor and wait patiently to be rescued. Thirty minutes pass before my father is able to collect all my other siblings and family members. Then a search for me begins. One of my siblings mentions I must be in the bathroom. My mother comes to the door and calls out to me, asking what has happened.
I tell her to stay calm. I tell her I am injured. The door is jammed shut but eventually it opens. My mother sees all the blood and rushes to help me. A scarf is wrapped around my leg wound and I am hauled off to the hospital.
I stay in surgery from 7pm till 11pm. At this point, the doctors tell my parents they can’t do anything further for me and I must be taken to Kabul for treatment. We get into an ambulance — me, my father and a relative. This whole time I am plagued by fear — the fear that I will never walk again.
We reach the government hospital at 2am. At first, they do not accept me as a patient, saying it is “very late at night” and there are no doctors available. I am losing blood though and my father kicks up a fuss. Finally, I am admitted and it’s back to surgery.
They work on my feet and legs. My arm has a piece of the rocket lodged in it as well. The doctors say I won’t be able to walk for 4-5 years, but my father says, “Don’t worry, I will take you to the best private hospitals and you will be fine”. After six surgeries, it all works out. I still have pieces of that rocket inside me, and my left foot and arm still hurt. I feel the pain when I’m doing laundry, using cold water, or walking. Especially during the winter and cold weather.
But I can walk. And I walk faster than most.
A hand to my chest
It’s 2018, and I’m finally achieving my dream. I’ve started working as a reporter.
It’s my first year of university but I’ve already secured a job with the national radio and TV in Herat. I spend all day interacting with people in the media — Facebook is my primary medium to build connections and share my work. I’m a good speaker, and my English is better than most, so I find lots of opportunities to work as a presenter or speaker on behalf of various organisations.
I’ll be honest — I’m also very interested in connecting with famous people. I’m ambitious and hope to make it big, and connecting with hundreds of people on social media seems the best path forward.
When I’m called in for a position at the TV department of the national TV station, I lie in the interview. I say I’m in my third year of university, and convince them I’m a professional reporter thanks to a lot of prior research and a healthy dose of confidence. I go as far as describing all the new programmes I hope to launch one day for both TV and radio, and how hiring me guarantees these shows will come to them.
My first story is about a lady in Herat who is running a shop all on her own — something that was fairly uncommon at the time in Afghanistan. It’s a fairly interesting story, and a fairly safe one.
What follows a few assignments later is not.
My team and I are sent to cover a protest in a place called Gozar in Herat. It’s very unsafe, but I am not aware of this. I’m with my colleagues, our cameraman and our driver at just a little distance from the crowd when the bomb goes off.
The rest are fine. The camera and equipment are fine too.
I’m not. Shrapnel from the bomb hits me and I end up flung under a table. The injury isn’t as serious as the rocket attack at home, but this experience is different. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many dead bodies all in one place at the same time. I later find out that around nine people died in the attack and another 10 were injured, including myself. But what I remember most distinctly isn’t my injury.
I wake up under the table with a severed hand lying on my chest.
I am in shock. I don’t know that it’s not my hand. It is both a surreal and terrifying realisation, and the thoughts that follow as I lie there with this severed hand are to stay with me forever.
Eventually my colleagues come and rescue me, and I see the hand slide off my chest. I realise it isn’t mine. I’m reminded again that I am a ‘Daughter of War’, even though I dearly wish not to be.
It’s 2020 and I’ve been spending a lot of time daydreaming about the UN. I imagine myself to be an Afghan delegate arriving at a session, and a huge audience is cheering me on. It’s that same childhood dream, the vision my grandfather always hoped to see one day.
I realise I need to excel at English in order to get to the UN, so I’ve spent quite some time working on my language skills. I’m planning on applying for a Fulbright scholarship as university nears its end. I’m also studying extra hard towards giving my TOEFL fairly soon. I really want to go abroad for my Master’s degree. Perhaps the US, perhaps Europe. I haven’t decided at the moment.
The daydream turns to sleep. I’m on a bus travelling back to my family home for summer break. My friends are with me, but we’ve all got separate seats spread out across the vehicle.
I don’t remember the exact time it happens, but a bomb explodes next to us. When I open my eyes, I see twisted metal and a lot of dead bodies around me. The bus has toppled over onto its side. I’m injured but it’s not too serious. I’m mostly in shock from what I’m seeing.
I can see the people around me. Their eyes are open as if they are looking at me. Their hands are severed, their faces are cut, and even some heads are severed.
One of the faces is that of my roommate. Half her head is missing, but her eyes are open and staring at me. Another friend, who was like a brother to me and constantly supported my drive to be a journalist is also dead. Most of his face is missing too. It’s somehow both burnt and cut. I see him and I call out to him again and again. I keep hoping he’s alive, even with just half his face. I know it’s a false hope but I hold onto it for some time. I call out to him several more times. I call out to all six of my friends on the bus, but they are all dead.
In total, more than 30 people die while 40 survive, and I am one of the survivors.
I stay in the hospital for five days, then go directly to the dormitory rather than continue my journey home. My parents come to me in Herat and try to convince me to come home, but I tell them I have to stay at the dormitory and continue my lessons.
The university is closed and my mental health suffers, but I am more driven than ever. Losing my friends has made me strong. I know I have to become a good journalist and speak on behalf of all the people who died that day. I know I must study my lessons and get good grades for them.
That semester, I get a 98 per cent score in my studies, which is the highest I ever achieved.
Covid, and the end
Across the rest of 2020, university life goes extremely well. I like my teachers and they like me as I’m constantly studying while also working in the media, as well as teaching English at the elementary level at a nearby education centre.
I’ve never travelled abroad, but now I fully plan to. I participate in a ‘Model United Nations’ competition held by the US Embassy, playing the role of an Afghan delegate for the WHO. I’m very fortunately selected as the best speaker, and 12 participants, including myself, are selected to take part in an international competition to be held in France. The US Embassy plans to support our travel there and stay for two months.
The competition is set for September 23, 2020, so I work on getting my passport and other documents in order. The excitement reaches fever pitch — so much so that I do not pay much attention to the coming pandemic that will completely disrupt my life.
The coronavirus spreads. The competition is cancelled, and I am forced to go home.
In Ghazni, my internet connection is not good at all, so I am unable to follow my university lectures live or keep up with online learning. I try to catch up by reading books and I work hard on my project. “The effects of wall paintings on society”, but I fall behind despite my best efforts.
Then the war starts up again, and this time it is very dangerous. Throughout my childhood, I’ve spent upwards of two years sleeping in our kitchen because it is the only room that provides safety from shattered glass and stray rockets. Throughout my university time, I’d begged my parents to move to Herat and out of Ghazni, but circumstances simply did not allow it.
So now, we sleep in our neighbour’s home till that becomes far too dangerous as well. It’s at this point that my father decides to rent a small space in Kabul for us to hunker down till the war subsides and the Afghan government takes control again.
It never subsides though, and the Afghan government never takes control again.
Kabul has fallen and I have popped as many pills as I can find.
Escape to Chaman border
I do not die. Instead, I sleep for many hours and then wake with a headache and guilt but also a new sense of direction. I figure if the medicines have failed to kill me, I’m obligated to stay alive, obligated to fight the situation, and obligated to find a way forward. I am, after all, ‘Daughter of War’. In a sense, my whole life has prepared me for this moment.
And this moment requires an escape to Pakistan.
My father tells me that I need to get out of the country. He says it isn’t safe for me as I am both a journalist and an activist. I have been in too many processions and been the voice of too many protests, given that I am a good speaker.
He tells me, “I cannot leave the family here, so you and your brother must take all your things and go to Pakistan through the Chaman border. It is the only option.” I do not have a visa to enter Pakistan, but we hope my brother and I can illegally enter the country from the border.
I wear my mom’s clothes and a face mask and we run out of Kabul. Just us two. Me, age 23, my brother, age 19. My style is exactly that of an old woman, and the disguise works well. There aren’t a lot of checkpoints on the way because the main focus is on residential areas. We hop into cars with sympathetic locals and make it through with little difficulty.
It is August 30, 2021, when we arrive at the border, only to discover that there are thousands of people trying to get into Pakistan, just like us. The situation is awful. We are surrounded by people, including elderly women, suffering patients and scared children.
My brother and I camp out for two nights on the border trying as hard as we can to cross over. I even walk up to some Pakistani security personnel and beg them to let us cross. I speak to them in Persian which they do not understand. They reply back in Urdu which I do not understand, but it is clear they want us to turn back and go home.
I don’t share that I’m a journalist and my life may be under threat. I don’t speak in English either, as my father told me it would be a grave mistake. In retrospect, I wish I had spoken in English and told them my story. I’m sure they would have permitted me to enter. But two days and two nights pass, and my brother and I are scared as the border situation is dangerous.
We decide to turn back and return to Kabul.
The interview that changed everything
Jake, the American journalist I know, calls me again, and this time I answer because I am beyond despair. The situation is hopeless. I am unable to enter Pakistan. I figure if I am to be captured and killed, or worse, I should just go ahead and tell my story to the world.
I agree to an interview with him. I tell him I wish to do it showing my face and using my name. He is uncomfortable with the idea as he is scared for my safety. I tell him I am aware of the risks and I’m willing to go ahead with it. He says he will hide my face. I tell him I will not do the interview hidden. I want the world to know that I am brave and willing to stand up for what I believe in, no matter how difficult that is.
So we go ahead with the interview, and Jake publishes it on his website and YouTube and a few other platforms he runs. I speak about what is happening in Afghanistan, the conditions of the people here and my own experiences and understanding of the takeover.
A short while later, Jake is approached by a young woman who has watched the interview and wishes to help me. She claims she can help me get out of Afghanistan.
He goes ahead and shares my contact information with her and she contacts me with a plan of action that sees my life change forever.
Escape to Pakistan
The young woman works for a small radio station in the United States. She tells me that she is in touch with a team that can get me out of Afghanistan and over to Pakistan. The team itself consists of locals but I am also put in touch with a man from the United Kingdom who provides financial support to help people escape the country.
I think the people in Afghanistan have been connected to the UK man for a long time, working together. From our conversation, I understand he is possibly a government worker connected to a human rights protection agency.
I don’t know how much of what they say is true, I just have to trust them. I am told the team will come find me and give me a call. When I am contacted, the driver will say, “I’m the doctor, is this the patient that called?”, to which I must reply, “Yes we called, but your patient is in serious condition so you must come now”.
The call happens. I answer correctly. The team asks for my address and I give it to them.
All of this is really scary, and my mental state is not good.
These are strangers who are telling me I don’t have any legal documents so they will take me away to a safe house in Kabul where I must stay hidden indefinitely till they can make the documents necessary for me to enter Pakistan.
The word ‘safe house’ is particularly frightening for me. I’m very suspicious of the whole plan and what will take place in this safe house. I share my fears with my father and he says I cannot do this alone — he will accompany me. I inform the team that I need one member of my family along with me. They are hesitant, but finally agree to add my father to the escape plan.
Unlike me, my mom is very happy about this plan. “Go with them and nothing will happen to you. You will go far away from me, but at least you will be alive, so just go with them”. That’s the last thing she says to me in person. We both cry.
Later that day, we arrive at the safe house and the grim reality kicks in. It is just a single room with a window whose curtains are to be forever drawn shut. We cannot see outside, and we are not allowed outside. “You cannot trust the neighbours and the people in this area, because if they see something abnormal in this house they will report it. You cannot venture outside,” we are instructed. We are also told we cannot contact our family during the stay. I cannot use my mobile phone for communication of any kind.
Once again, I have to simply trust the people trying to help me.
One month passes by, and conditions are extremely difficult. I feel very disturbed and I miss the outdoors. I keep asking my father what the outside world is like, and he keeps telling me he doesn’t know, but he’s sure it is beautiful. The worst aspect is not having any timeline of when we will get out, why we have to wait this long and how we will eventually escape.
Another month passes by and there is still no update. We have internet and it is the only thing keeping me sane, but with my Facebook account deactivated and WhatsApp disconnected I find little solace here.
Another month passes by. The UK man assures us that things are okay. “You will get out of this situation, just enjoy the peaceful time you have in the room. I know conditions are hard but it is the only option to keep you safe”. I don’t feel at peace though; I feel time and space eroding. This period is even harder than when I was hospitalised and unable to walk. I cannot possibly explain it in words; it is excruciating, and my father is suffering similarly. I hate this room more than anything I have hated in my life.
Finally, after three months of living like this, we are told that our passports and papers are ready. It is now time to exit the room and visit the passport office for biometric verification. I hate this room, but I’m also afraid of the outside world. But it’s time to step up.
When we finally exit the room, the experience of simply observing humans again is surreal, but in a good way. I feel free and somewhat safe hidden behind a face mask.
In truth, the visit is very straightforward. The people at the office are paid off to speed up the process. I do my biometrics and we return home. Two days later, we receive our passports and apply for Pakistani visas. I receive a medical visa in 4-5 days and everything is set. I’m told that a medical visa is the fastest one to get, and the accompanying medical papers are guaranteed to get me across. I’m a cancer patient you see, and I must travel to Pakistan for treatment, with my father as attendant. We are briefed on how to arrive and cross the border. What to say and what to do.
We arrive at the border at 9am on a Monday, and I have loved Mondays ever since. A very tall official asks us where we want to go. We hand over the documents and they work. Finally, we can enter Pakistan.
I am deliriously happy as I believe at the very least, I will be free here. When we cross over, the Pakistani security personnel are very kind and respectful towards us which surprises me a little, especially as on our side of the border, I saw only fighting and people shouting at each other and at officials.
I feel respected and valued, and I finally start speaking in English. There is a cheerful exchange of greetings and goodbyes and then we are on our own, in Pakistan, and free.
I receive a call from the UK man. He congratulates us on a successful crossing and then says this is all he can do for us — there is no further help coming, we are on our own — and encourages us to head to Islamabad to restart our lives.
We have just one laptop bag between us, my father and I. It’s packed with one dress for me, one set of clothes for my father, $200 in cash and nothing else. We have our phones, though I’ve deleted nearly everything off mine. I don’t have any documents either, aside from those needed for the journey. The rest I had been obligated to destroy. I’d taken photos of them, then burned them back in Kabul.
It is December, 2021 and I am free.
I call my mother, and by chance the phone connects. What she says to me is very painful though. “Thank God you are out of this situation. Never come back here to Afghanistan.”
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine, we will be together,” I reply.
Survival in Islamabad
We have arrived in winter time, and Islamabad is cold. To be precise, Bhara Kahu is cold. That is where we make a beeline for because most of the Afghan refugees are there. Also, the rent is lower than most other areas.
Everything is new for me here. I have never met Pakistani people before or thought about our neighbour much. I had just assumed it was a country like any other — one that dislikes Afghans and closes its borders to us during crises. I think perhaps Pakistanis wouldn’t wish to communicate with us, just like other people in other parts of the world. For a lot of people, being Afghan equals being a terrorist; they think we are just a nation that fights and wages war. I fear Pakistanis would see us and treat us in the same way.
It turns out that I am quite wrong. I backtrack on these misconceptions as I make firm friends here. That’s not to say the first few months aren’t difficult though. They are extremely difficult.
For one, I had assumed the UK man would assist me out of Pakistan. I thought we would be in Pakistan for 2-3 weeks or a month at most before exiting to another country.
This is not the case.
A few days in, I call the UK man and he’s very clear. “I kept you safe in Afghanistan, made you documents, and got you into Pakistan which is a far safer place. Beyond this, I cannot do anything for you.”
It is very hard for me to hear. I have no clue as to how we’re going to survive. I feel myself sinking into a deep depression, but I don’t tell my father anything about the call or our predicament. I fear the hopelessness will be too much for him to bear, worrying about me, my life and future, and the rest of our family still stuck in Afghanistan.
I try to focus on the most critical task at hand — finding housing for us. We don’t know anyone in Pakistan and our $200 only totalled Rs30,000. You can’t imagine how hard it is to find housing when this is all you have. We settle on renting a single room inside a house at Rs9,000 per month. Once we account for electricity, water and gas we barely have enough money for any food.
The landlord is a good man, but he demands the rent on time, exactly at the start of each month. What makes it even harder for me is that my father has been supporting me his whole life, and now, with the language barrier, he can’t do anything to support us. This new reality is very difficult for him, and I feel shy in discussing money issues, but I know I have to support us both. Yes, there are a few organisations working to aid Afghans, but I am unable to find them right away, and no one at the border had shared such information.
I quickly realise I have one very useful skill though — I can speak English, unlike nearly all the Afghan people in the area. Most of the refugees have no way to communicate with Pakistanis to seek help or resolve issues. And so, I begin to work as a translator for anyone and everyone who needs help. I accompany them to the hospital, to shops, to ministries and more.
Within a week, I have achieved a fame of sorts. My WhatsApp number spreads far and wide across the community and I receive dozens of messages and calls daily. It is all for free though. I do it all as a volunteer service because I know the economic situation of these people is the same as mine, if not worse. They too must be trying to buy enough food for one meal a day.
I need money, but I can not find it in me to charge anyone. So many of us are living in the street.
One day, I come across a widow with two children huddled on the side of a road. It is winter time and quite cold so I ask the lady why she is out here. She tells me she doesn’t have any money for rent, she only had enough savings to reach Islamabad from the Chaman border. Her children are very small — 2 and 3 years old. She shares that her husband had been in the Afghan army and was killed during the fighting. She had to flee her home and come to Pakistan to protect herself and her children. She tells me she has nowhere to go now, and doesn’t know what to do.
So I resolve to help her.
There is a Pakistani man in Bhara Kahu who can speak Persian. He runs a small association that helps refugees with winter clothes. I find him once and he tells me about his activities. I tell him that there are many people here who need winter clothes. I introduce the woman to that man, and he offers to pay for her rent through his association. After that, the man helps many families that I introduce him to; all the families I find living on the streets. Most of them are widows as well.
I still have that widow’s number, and we stay in touch. She’s doing quite well as the organisation is still helping her, and she also registered herself with the UNHCR. I also find a job for her. An educational centre needed a cleaner, so I ask them if they would be okay with an Afghan lady working for them. They say yes, so I introduce her to the school, and she is working there for a good salary even now.
This is how I spend my first few months in Pakistan. Helping whoever I can, but earning very little. In truth, my mental health is really bad at this stage because of those three months in the Kabul safe house and the stress of leaving home for a new country, clubbed with dwindling money.
When despair and depression begin to set in, I sit by my little table and write. I write about my past and the journey to Pakistan, but quite often I switch to writing about my future. I write a short story about myself — there is the hall of the United Nations, and there I stand as the delegate of Afghanistan, giving a speech about the current situation and the struggle of our people. Thousands of people listen intently to what I have to say, and then when I end my speech, they all stand up and start clapping.
I don’t know why I love this story so much, or why I picture it so often. But it gives me energy and hope. And I need both because I have no choice — I must support myself and my father, or we will sink.
Girl, 23, seeking cancer
Two months in and it’s now difficult to manage any dinner at all.
Two months in and my medical visa has expired.
I feel myself sinking as I research how to renew my visa. I find out that I can apply for an extension, but I will need to have updated medical papers in hand.
I need a doctor, so I search the internet and find one. He isn’t a cancer doctor, but he is a good doctor. I try to lie and say the visit is related to severe stomach issues but he figures me out within minutes. I then tell him, truthfully, that I need to extend my visa, and that will require him to write that I need to stay in Pakistan for another six months. He says, “Okay, I’ll do it for you”. I ask him if by any chance he can make papers indicating my father should stay as well, and he does that too, for free.
With the papers in hand, I apply for a visa extension online. It costs Rs10,000 but it must be done. I receive a tracking ID and the wait begins.
Almost 40 days go by and I receive no update, so I make a call to find out why. I share my tracking ID with the man on the phone, and I’m told, “Sorry, your visa has been cancelled. We cannot give you an extension because your visa is medical and you don’t have the specific medical papers required. Your sickness needs to be very serious to get an extension, otherwise we cannot give it”.
Despair sets in. I feel lost and abandoned in Bhara Kahu. In desperation, I return to the doctor and tell him my visa has been cancelled.
“I want to be a cancer patient … Can you give me papers for cancer? And cancer medicines too? I need to have cancer to stay in Pakistan.”
He is both shocked and surprised, but also very kind. He says he cannot help me with cancer, but since my English is so good perhaps I can work as an interpreter at the hospital. There are many refugees who visit and cannot explain what their ailments are.
I perk up. I finally realise this can change everything.
A job in hand
I work as an interpreter at the hospital for three days, before running into the same problem as before. The refugees streaming in are in dire straits, barely able to afford the hospital fees, let alone pay for an interpreter.
I am also very paranoid about working here, given that I’m now living illegally in Pakistan. The police have the right to deport me, and I fear they will. I keep waiting to be caught out, but the moment never comes. As it turns out, this simply doesn’t happen. No one I know of has ever been caught and deported for living here illegally, and it is a blessing.
As luck would have it, I meet an Afghani girl who works for an organisation helping Afghan refugees in Pakistan. She says she wants an assistant to aid her in a survey, would I be interested? I tell her I am, and we agree to meet formally.
I lie during the interview. I am asked if I have a valid passport and visa, to which I reply yes, of course. A visa extension happens to be in process, but I have a tracking ID that allows me to stay in the country. They accept this explanation and I get my first job in Pakistan as a surveyor with a monthly salary of Rs30,000 — enough to easily support me and my father.
Two months later, another even better job comes my way. I now work as an interpreter for a human rights organisation that I truly love, with people that really support me and feel like family. I earn a lot more now, and the organisation — to whom I had also lied about my visa status — helps me get a new visit visa.
An uncertain future
Life is good now, but I still find myself slipping into depression on quieter days.
I think about the Bachelor’s degree I had nearly earned. I had been a few examinations away from completing university, but now, with all my documents burnt, with no option to return and no option to collect new documents without picking them up in-person, I feel very despondent. I sometimes lie and tell people I have a Bachelor’s degree. It tends to make me feel better, but I do wish to graduate someday.
I miss being a journalist and activist too. I realise I may never be one again, especially as a year has gone by now and my past, my records, my previous news reports and political activities will have been well documented, making me a forever target.
I miss my family. It is really hard to communicate with them as they are back in Ghazni and the area has very poor to non-existent internet connectivity. My mother has had to trek to the top of hills and mountains to find a signal to call me. She still says the same thing to me over again, “Never come back”.
My parents talk sometimes, and I can see my father misses the family greatly. I can see the suffering in his face and behaviour, and the guilt haunts me. He gave up his wife, his mother, his other children and a normal life where he could work and communicate with people, all because of me and my security issues.
I miss myself too. I sometimes feel this weak girl in Pakistan isn’t me, as I was always strong in Afghanistan. I do work towards becoming stronger, and I have over time, but it’s a constant struggle.
Pakistan is good. It’s a safe and calm place. I have a lot of close friends here. It is a good country to live in, but I don’t have many opportunities here. I can’t study because universities are too expensive, scholarships too few, and besides, I haven’t been issued a Proof Of Registration card that would allow me to study here. There are hundreds of things I can’t do because of a lack of policies and systems for refugees.
I also want to go abroad to study and earn well so I can give my siblings a future worth living. My brother is just 11 years old and all he has experienced has been with the backdrop of war and fighting. I want to move my whole family to a safe and peaceful place.
One particularly melancholy evening, my father nudged me out of bed and insisted we head up to Damn-e-Koh to enjoy the forest and the view of Islamabad from up in the hills. My mental state was not good, but I agreed to go, and once I got there, I felt my spirits lift a little. The view was wonderful, and I felt free again.
I saw a big Pakistan flag there, and I walked over and kissed it. A number of people stared at this act, and one Pakistani lady came up to chat with me.
“Why did you kiss the Pakistani flag?” she asked, “Why not save that for an Afghan flag?”.
I explained myself to her.
I feel that flags are a defining symbol of a country, and all symbols of a country are holy. It doesn’t matter if the symbol is that of Pakistan, Afghanistan or some other place — the symbol itself is an expression of the best of what the nation stands for.
And that is why I kissed the flag. It is holy and it gives me hope for the future.