Afghanistan’s refugees: Dying for a better life

A family who lost both of their children at sea describe returning to Afghanistan with nothing but two small coffins.

Afghanistan - Please do not use
A photo of Elaheh, 8, who perished at sea when the boat her family was in sank in the Mediterranean [Jawad Jalali/Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan – The pain etched on refugee faces on Greek and Turkish shores does not remain there. For many Afghans, it follows them home as they are deported back to Afghanistan – the bodies of their drowned loved ones, if they are found, in tow.

Loss followed Massoud Ahmad, 35, and his wife, Weeda Jan, 32, back to Kabul on December 28, along with the bodies of their two children – Gholam Seddiq, nine, and Elaheh, eight.

“They were the top of their class,” says Ahmad, wiping tears from his eyes. He lets the tea in front of him grow cold as he tells his story.

He has been crying since the December night when, about 15 minutes into their journey, the boat his family was travelling in tipped after the engine failed and the waves did their worst. All 21 people on board, including the captain, fell into the frigid sea, as the boat rose up, then disappeared into the water.

“We called the coastguard emergency number 20,000 times in 20 minutes. They said someone was coming. No one came,” Ahmad explains.

People started dying within a couple of hours – “first the children”, says Ahmad. Gholam Seddiq and Elaheh were among them.

“We couldn’t hold on to them,” he says. “The waves hit us hard and they drifted away from us. We just couldn’t hold them.

“I said to my wife, ‘Let’s take off our life vests and sink. Let’s go. We’ve lost our children.’ She said, ‘Hold on a little longer,'” Ahmad remembers.

Weeda Jan was three months pregnant.

For nine or 10 hours they screamed for help in the bitterly cold sea. Then, after sun up, a fishing boat found them, weak and dehydrated, with some other survivors. They didn’t have the strength to lift themselves in, so had to pulled up and on to the boat.

“We’d been screaming and crying for hours, swallowing salt water, freezing,” says Ahmad.

They waited for a Turkish rescue boat, which took them to a clinic in the coastal town of Kusadasi. That was where Weeda Jan was told that she’d miscarried.

“So in total, we lost three children,” Ahmad says. “Everyone was crying – the doctors, everyone,” he adds. He is still crying.

The bodies of their children were found within a day – two among the 3,771 who died crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece last year.

“They asked us to identify our children’s bodies. I didn’t have the courage – I said to my wife, ‘You go’. She said, ‘No, you go’,” he remembers.

In the end, they both went to identify Elaheh and Gholam Seddiq.

“We saw our children among the others, including the captain,” Ahmad explains. 

With the bodies of their children, they were processed quickly for deportation and sent to the Aydin refugee camp.

“People get stuck there for months. But my wife cried and cried until they let us go – it took a couple of days,” he says, adding that they were sent to Istanbul, where they collected their deportation papers.

They returned to Afghanistan with nothing but two small coffins.

A photo of Gholam Seddiq, 9, who died at sea when the boat his family was in sank in the Mediterranean Sea [Jawad Jalali/Al Jazeera] 
A photo of Gholam Seddiq, 9, who died at sea when the boat his family was in sank in the Mediterranean Sea [Jawad Jalali/Al Jazeera] 

‘I had to leave for the future of my family’

But why had they left their country? Ahmad had a good job as a sound designer for Tolo TV by day, and was a successful guitarist by night, playing private parties all over town.

“When the Taliban said they were going to attack Tolo, I knew I had to leave, for the future of my family,” he says.

Afghan media has been under increasing threat from the Taliban, who accuse it of spreading propaganda and being biased.

So the family flew to Turkey with visas, paid the highest rate for the most stable boat available and ensured they all had life jackets. In fact, everyone but the captain, an Afghan from Badakhshan, had a life jacket.

“I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a life jacket?’ and he said, ‘Me, I do this trip four times a day,’ – he wasn’t worried,” says Ahmad.

“But the engine failed. It just … failed,” he says, with a small, bitter laugh. “Burned. Something. We don’t know why.” Only six of the 21 on board survived.

Less than a month after they had returned to Kabul, the Taliban attacked a minibus carrying Tolo staff, killing seven and injuring 26.

The network has offered him his job back, but Ahmad says he is not stable enough to drive a car, let alone work.

His wife, he says, “has received a terrible shock. For maybe two or three weeks, she neither laughed nor cried … She needs the kinds of doctors and medicines that we don’t have here.”

Ahmad does not speak of their financial difficulties or what others think of the loss he and his wife have suffered. All he can see is their grief.

He wants to leave Afghanistan, he says, because “Everywhere I look, I’m crushed by the memory of my children – it makes me crazy … ‘Oh, it’s 1:30, so the car should be dropping them off at a home from school,’ things like that,” he explains in a hushed, trembling voice.

They don’t keep any reminders of the children around, he says. In fact, he has deleted most of the photos of Elaheh and Gholam Seddiq from his phone, “so my wife doesn’t become fixated.

“But where to go? Who can help? All these European countries regret accepting us in the first place,” he says. And talking about it to sympathetic people won’t help. 

“I’ve lost my children. Nothing will bring them back. Will talking about it fix my life?” he asks. 

Families suffering losses similar to Ahmad’s are increasingly being referred for psychological services and therapy, explains Wais Aria, the executive director of Tabish, a social health NGO focusing on mental health. 

But seeking psychotherapy still carries something of a stigma in Afghanistan, a country with limited mental health services, Aria says.

“We’re seeing an increase in these cases, and also in the cases of mothers who are traumatised when they send their children to Europe and never hear back from them – they wonder what has happened,” he adds. 

“We’re also seeing more cases of general hopelessness, in people who have been deported from Europe, in families where not everyone survived the journey.”

“Of course, they need help and support, but we are struggling to provide what they need.”

Follow D Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz

Source: Al Jazeera