No One Will See Me Again Forever
The boat H and the other 80 asylum seekers would travel in was massive, so big that it could not get to the shore, making it necessary for them to split in two groups on smaller boats that would meet the larger one an hour later.
But when they reached the rendezvous spot, H saw the new ship was not massive at all, just a little bigger than the smaller boats that could barely hold 40. The smugglers said, never mind, just get on board. You had no choice. Or just bad choices: drown or get picked up by the Indonesian police and thrown in a cell of 12 people meant for six, where only six would sleep at a time and the rest would stand and watch the others sleep.
One of H’s companions had experienced one of these cells. The cell almost never saw sunlight; the only glimpse of light was at feeding times when food would be shoved in from a hole in the roof. H had no trouble imagining this cell or making sense of it. His was a problem of space. The little space he took up on Earth was already too much. If he lay down for good, if he drowned, if he burned or rotted, turned to dust, his space problem would be solved.
On the second night, H thought they might be arriving because the boat was slowing. But soon he noticed the frightened expressions of the crew and saw them trying to fix the engine. That night, the wind-driven waves smashed into the boat. His thoughts were louder than the sobs and shouts, than the waves as they cracked over the deck. He couldn’t swim and he saw himself die 100 times that night, his last thoughts of his mother as the water filled the empty spaces in his lungs.
By the second night, the crew still hadn’t fixed the engine and the boat continued to drift.
By the third night, they had no idea where they were, and water covered everything. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t eat, and he couldn’t sleep. He just kept thinking, how will I die? How will I die?”, this track wearing a groove into his mind so deep his terror would never be able to scale the canyon walls and leave him.
He approached the thought, I don’t swim as though it were a maths problem; something to study that might be solved with logic or clarity of mind. But he had no clarity and the thought that he couldn’t swim was unsolvable, as was the larger problem that he would never see his family again. He was only 17 and this was the first time he’d ever been separated from them.
On the fifth day, they were rescued by the Australian Navy. That was three years ago. Now this thin young man in the checkered shirt and glasses sits across from you and your 21-year-old daughter in a restaurant in Sydney, Australia. As she listens to him, she sits expressionless and still, but in her eyes a reflection of the waters in which H nearly perished is almost visible.
“We were lucky,” H says, taking a sip of tea, his tone not one of happiness but of weariness, too much weariness for someone as young as he is.
Every night, he’s drowning. He’s sinking. Or the Taliban are after him. He sleeps three hours at best—if only he could get by on no sleep. His cries wake his housemates, and one of them places a hand on his trembling shoulder, or his head, wooing him back from the depths of the deaths that might have been, that still might be in his future. He’s lived in this begrudging country for three years, but any day he can be sent back. One day, he received a call and was told never to talk to “the media” about his experiences, but he believes that someone should tell the stories of people like him. He has to do something positive with each day or else there’s nothing to live for. His father, a doctor who saved hundreds of lives, the first in his Hazara community, told him to go to school and give back to the community. It doesn’t matter what community, as long as it’s a human being.
Most days, he doesn’t think about the future because he believes he has none. When he calls his mother, he’s not just saying hello.
“Imagine your family is in a war zone and you can’t do anything to protect them,” he said.
Last month, his younger brother was beaten. There’s no more money to send his brother so he can join him, and even if his mother could somehow spirit him out of Afghanistan, he wouldn’t even be as fortunate as H. If he didn’t drown at sea, the authorities would bring him to the barren island nation of Nauru off Australia’s northern coast, where they’re sticking all refugees now, vowing never to let them settle here.
He does what he can to help asylum seekers like himself, reading letters, filling out forms, teaching computer literacy one night a week. He received a call about a family in the refugee camp, whose two high-school age daughters were, every morning, escorted by guards to school and every afternoon escorted back. He couldn’t stop crying for 30 minutes when he met them. They didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just human beings. They just came here to seek protection. Is that too much to ask? Now the girls want to go to university. H and some others were able to secure a scholarship for them at the University of Western Sydney, where they will be escorted back and forth in the same manner, as though they are criminals.
“Mentally we are not safe,” H tells you and your daughter. He knew a man who poured petrol on himself and set himself on fire. Another friend’s entire family died in the same instant in a bomb blast.
When he first arrived, he knew no English. But now he speaks fluently with a soft Aussie accent, perhaps the only permanent residue this country will leave on him if he’s sent away—that and the education he received thanks to some compassionate people at a local college. When he graduated, he called up his mother while he was wearing his graduation robes.
“Can you believe it?” he said. “I’m wearing the clothes.”
His brother had wanted to wear the clothes of graduation, but in his second year at university, the Taliban stopped the car in which he was a passenger, took him from the vehicle and executed him on the side of the road for being Hazara. His father had wanted to see his sons wear the clothes, but he, too, was taken away by the Taliban and murdered. A year ago, an uncle was murdered. Two months ago, a cousin.
“Is there any way this might change?” you ask him, because you’re used to solutions to problems. You have grown up believing in positive outcomes.
H closes his eyes and is silent and you can see that he is trying not to break down.
“I have cancer,” he says. “I don’t have a chance to say how long I’m living. I don’t have a voice. The moment I go to the media, I’m gone. No one will see me again forever. The day I land in Afghanistan, I’m dead. But I’m trying to do good before I die. I can’t go anywhere else. I have no travel document. I can’t see a normal goal like a normal human being. My short goal when I wake up in the morning, I think, let’s do something today. At the end of the day, we’re all human. We don’t have to scare from each other. You have to sit with someone to listen. Just to sit as a human being and listen.”
A part of you doesn’t want to listen because, well, it’s hard, it’s difficult, you have your own problems, and how is this going to affect your daughter? You’re not sure she can take any more of his story. You’re not sure if you can. H has no choice but to listen to his own story as he tells it.
“How do you feel about Afghanistan?” you ask.
“I love Afghanistan. It’s my country.”
This is not the answer you expect. How can you love a country that wants you dead, that persecutes you and everyone of your kind? He perhaps doesn’t notice the shock in your eyes and continues in his patient voice.
“I belong to that part of the world. But I don’t like it. Every day of my life, it’s been war. I didn’t have a single day to be happy, to enjoy. Every single day there was discrimination. I’m tired of that community. I’m tired of the land. I don’t have a single good memory of . . . that day was so beautiful. That land took my friends, my family.”
Then how, you ask, can you say you love it?
“I love it because of my family. I spent a lot of time in a particular house, with a particular people. If my family wasn’t in Afghanistan, I would never go back, not for a day, not for a single moment.”
Isn’t it strange, you think, that our first reaction is to say we love our countries when what we love is much less abstract than a nation? You love, for instance, the person sitting beside you. You will always be loyal to her. People do not have their own flags, their own colours, their national bird, or national flower. They do not have anthems or pledges. Their borders are as physical as their bodies and as lasting as their mortal lives. Our loyalty to the people we love is so much simpler, yet at the same time it is so much more complex than our love for our nations. You ask this person beside you, this exclave of yourself, if she has any questions for H. Yes, she does. She wants to know if there’s anywhere in Sydney, any special place that he likes to go. At first, he doesn’t know what to make of the question, and you’re not entirely sure either. It’s only when you excuse yourself to visit the bathroom that he talks to her and tells her how he fortunate she is to have a father.
Yes, there is a place he likes to visit, she reports to you later. His favourite place in Sydney is the Opera House, where he likes to sit and look out at the sea. His friends think that’s strange because he has nightmares about the sea, but he wants to look at the sea because it’s endless and he likes to imagine his life that way.
You ask him when his birthday is, not because you want to know his sign or know when to give him a present, but because you want to know how close he is in age to your daughter. Their lives are so different from one another but you think that they are probably not far apart in years.
Even this is a difficult question. When he was rescued by the Australian Navy he was taken to Christmas Island for processing, where his interrogators insisted that he was 18, not 17. Eighteen meant he was just another refugee. Seventeen meant he had to be looked after. Seventeen meant they’d have to send him to school. Add the problem of being too young to his problem of taking up too much space. His fake birthday, the one his interrogators gave him is 31 December. His real birthday, you learn, is 11 days older than your daughter.
Several weeks later, you’ll read in The Guardian of a Hazara man who has lost his appeal and will be deported from Australia within a week or so. The papers don’t give his name because he fears that if the Taliban learn it, they’ll look for him and kill him upon his return. This man, you learn with guilty relief, is twice H’s age. The article states that the Australian government considers the violence faced by the Hazaras similar to that faced by other ethnic minorities. Nothing special. Just the usual: massacres, beheadings, summary executions, and torture.
After you part with H, you and your daughter walk back to the hotel, at first stunned silent, but then talking almost faster than you can think, as though recounting some near-death experience of your own. Under the circumstances, your walk home feels more like an escape. You tell each other your lives have been changed by this encounter with H, but have they? These tragedies seem as endless as the oceans that would drown us.
Robin Hemley is a Senior Editor for Panorama.