Berlin, Germany – When the first mortar smashed into the rock-studded ground just a couple of dozen metres away from where Afghan filmmaker Masih Tajzai and his crew stood, they decided to carry on filming.
It was early 2015 and they had been shooting a documentary for an international aid organisation in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province. The first week had gone smoothly. But as they interviewed locals, members of the Taliban started to take notice of the outsiders.
It took three more shells over the next few days before they were persuaded to wrap up filming and return to the Afghan capital, Kabul.
“They really wanted to kill us,” recalls the 29-year-old, wearing a snug leather jacket and sitting in the room that has become his new home at a cramped refugee camp in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg area.
As Masih tells his story, his roommates crowd around to listen. Then others join from the adjacent rooms. One man translates for those who don’t speak English.
Masih says he was glad to be back in Kabul with his wife and two small children after his brush with mortality. But then faces he recognised from Kunar started appearing in his neighbourhood.
“I saw some of the same people [who were in Kunar],” he says. “I was saying to myself, ‘Are they following me? Am I a clear target for them?'”
Masih was overcome with fear. Aware that he had to move quickly, he was only able to arrange a smuggler for himself, hoping to make it to Germany and then apply for family reunification.
“They could have easily come and killed me,” he says. “That’s why I decided to leave Afghanistan.”
He set out for Europe within days and joined the ranks of the more than 2.6 million other Afghans who, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, live in exile as refugees.
A refugee twice over
It wasn’t the first time he’d been made a refugee. In 1997, when he was just 10, he’d fled Afghanistan with his parents as the Taliban carried out sectarian attacks. “We had to leave the country,” he says.
Masih’s family moved back to Afghanistan when the US invaded in 2001, hoping that the Taliban would be ousted and security would finally take root, he says.
As the years went by, he decided he wanted to be an actor and filmmaker. Masih says he worked with the BBC, French media outlets and local news agencies on documentaries and other projects before launching his own production company in 2008.
He smiles proudly as he speaks of his work as a director trainee on Buzkashi Boys, a 2012 film about two young Afghan boys who dream of becoming successful athletes in the national sport of Buzkashi, a polo-like game in which a headless goat cadaver replaces a ball.
“We had a crew from Hollywood come,” he says. “It was in a warzone, but it was an amazing experience to do this film.”
The Buzkashi Boys was later nominated for an Academy Award and won an array of film prizes, including Best Drama at the 2012 LA Shorts Fest and Best Cinematography at the UK Film Festival that year.
Masih looks back on this period warmly, recalling how he travelled to places like the United Arab Emirates and India for film screenings.
‘In the Taliban’s crosshairs’
He is surprised that he didn’t fall foul of the Taliban sooner. After all, he’d been making documentaries and short promotional films for the Afghan government and security forces, as well as for local and international organisations.
“It’s true that it’s very hard to work in a warzone. You can be easily targeted by Taliban or ISIL,” he says, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS) armed group that emerged in Afghanistan in 2015 after already taking root in Syria, Iraq and other places.
“If they recognise you as a director, actor or filmmaker, you can be targeted. For me, it was very difficult because I worked with international crews.”
While Masih’s life story is remarkable, the tragic conditions of his departure are common. Ahmad Shuja, a Kabul-based research associate for Human Rights Watch, explains that people who work with foreign organisations or governments are often targeted by the Taliban and groups like it.
“If you have an association with any foreign entity or even the Afghan government – even as a civilian – you’re in the crosshairs of the Taliban,” he tells Al Jazeera.
‘We were close to dying’
Like so many others who made the treacherous trek from Afghanistan to Europe, Masih’s first stop was in neighbouring Iran. From there, he says he joined a dozen Afghans who walked through the mountains for 27 hours before reaching Turkey.
“The Iranian army shot at us,” he remembers. “We were close to dying in those mountains.”
As he waited to make contact with smugglers in Turkey, the days turned to weeks. In October 2015, smugglers eventually took Masih and fellow travellers to a forest near Izmir, a departure point for many refugees, where they camped for three days while waiting for the waters to calm.
But Turkish soldiers arrested them before they were able to depart by boat. “The Turkish army locked us up in a gymnasium for 15 days,” he says.
Upon being released, they camped for two days near another departure point before boarding a flimsy rubber vessel for the Greek islands.
“It was difficult because we didn’t have much hope. The person who steered the boat didn’t know how to do it at all,” he remembers, explaining that the smugglers gave one of the refugees a crash course in manning the dinghy.
Masih describes three hours of children crying as waves splashed cold water on to the boat. “It was one of the most difficult moments of my life. We were thinking that this was the most dangerous decision we’d ever taken because we didn’t know … if we’d die at sea.”
They made it to European shores, joining more than one million refugees and migrants who risked the Mediterranean to find safety in 2015.
As he narrates his tale, many in his impromptu audience nod, their faces betraying their own memories of treacherous journeys to Europe.
From Greece, the hopeful young filmmaker travelled by foot and bus through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Austria before crossing into Germany.
Now in Germany, Masih hopes to bring his family and pursue his dreams of one day gaining acclaim in the world of cinema. But the future for Afghan refugees is punctuated with question marks.
Last year, Afghanistan endured the largest number of civilian casualties – 11,000 – in a single year since the US-led war started 15 years ago.
Between 2001 and 2014, an estimated 26,270 civilians were killed and another 29,900 injured as a result of that war, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.
In April, the EU revealed a draft plan to deport 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers back to their conflict-ridden homeland, despite the persistent bloodshed and worsening economic conditions.
For his part, Masih fears being sent back to what he feels is certain death. “Afghanistan is not a safe place – the world knows this,” he says. “Please don’t think it’s secure. There is still a war going on. There are still bombs, ISIL, the Taliban and local gangs.”
Despite the looming threat of expulsion, he refuses to abandon his optimism. “I believe that I would have died within a few years if I stayed in Afghanistan. I’m here in Berlin and I’m still alive. I hope I can make my dreams come true.”