Ben Doherty, South Asia Correspondent
But perhaps his greatest crime was teaching girls to read.
Rauf – not his real name – can no longer live in Afghanistan. He is hiding in a south Asian country. His family cannot contact him, and the friends he once sheltered with have told him it is no longer safe for him to stay.
Sitting in a secure room in a foreign city, far distant from his homeland, Rauf remains wary. He faces the door as we speak, and asks that the curtains be closed. He describes an isolation that has enveloped his entire existence: ”I see only one friend. Always, always I am very lonely.”
Rauf is one of the 438 asylum seekers, mostly ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, who boarded the undersized and ill-prepared Palapa 1 in Jakarta on August 23, 2001. When the engine failed, barely 24 hours later, the stricken vessel began to take on water until, nearly three days later, the asylum seekers were rescued by the Norwegian freighter Tampa, and entered Australian political history. They found themselves pawns in a standoff between the Australian, Indonesian and Norwegian governments over where they should go, played out against the backdrop of a federal election campaign dominated by border protection issues. After nearly a month of argument, allegation, and court challenge over their fate, the Tampa asylum seekers were taken to the Pacific Island of Nauru, the first conscripts of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution. Ultimately, 208 would be granted asylum in New Zealand. Australia accepted 28, and Canada, Norway and Sweden smaller numbers again. Some 179 were sent back to Afghanistan.
A decade on from the Tampa, The Saturday Age has spent six months tracking ”Tampa returnees” who were sent back to Afghanistan from Nauru. The group, bound together by two years in detention on a remote and isolated island, has splintered. Few keep in contact. Few can. Rumours of what has happened to others are passed on through chance meetings and common contacts. Many Tampa returnees have simply disappeared: walked to work one day and never come back. Others have fled again, to Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, on to Europe or back to Australia. Some – it has been reported as many as 20 – have been killed by the Taliban in their homes and villages. Others have died trying to escape again.
After being returned to Afghanistan from Nauru in 2003, Rauf moved back to his village in the Jhagori Valley in the central province of Ghazni. The schools there had been ruined, the buildings robbed of books and stationery, the teachers chased out of town. Rauf had taught English to other asylum seekers in detention on Nauru so, using what little money his family could gather, and funds from international donors, he set up literacy centres in some of the poorest communities in Afghanistan.
In one village in Uruzgan, where not a single woman or girl could read, he started teaching girls in a tent school.
”On the third day, the Taliban attacked,” he says, his voice faltering. ”It was just becoming dark, they had come there by motorbikes [and]everything they took, the stationery, the books, they burned the tents. They destroyed everything.”
Other schools survived longer. From one centre in Qarabagh, 34 women were able to graduate a basic literacy course. But last year, Rauf was kidnapped, bundled into a car, blindfolded and beaten for five days before he was released, having been threatened that unless he paid off his captors, they would come back and kill him.
Two other returnees, Mohammad Ali and his friend Mohammad Hussain were sent back to Afghanistan in 2002 and tried to settle back into their village in Maidan Wardak. Within weeks, Ali’s brother Baqer, 17, was killed by a home-made Talib bomb. Ali and Hussain stayed. The Taliban came and burned down their homes, destroyed their crops and stole their animals. When they didn’t leave, Talibs kidnapped and beat them.
Finally, Ali fled to the relative anonymity of Kabul, Hussain to Pakistan, then to Iran, raising money working as a carpet knitter. Eventually, he boarded another leaky, overcrowded boat, this one taking him from Turkey across the Aegean in a final desperate effort to reach Europe. He never made it.
”He couldn’t stay in Afghanistan,” Ali says, ”he couldn’t work, he couldn’t find a home, he couldn’t live without fear because they were coming for him, so he tried to go. He tried to go to Greece, he was very close, but then the boat became broken and sank. He drowned, they all drowned, all asylum seekers.”
Sitting in the carpet shop where he works, Ali says his life now is a shadow of what it was. His family owned a carpet business before he left for Australia. They sold it all to finance his trip.
”I feel bad for my family. Previously we had our own business and we had savings. But we sold everything, our shop, our carpets, our house, to buy the smugglers for me. And now I am back in Afghanistan and we have very little.”
Financial ruin is one of the common threads that run through the Tampa returnees’ stories. While some of the asylum seekers were poor, seeking economic opportunity as well as safety, many on board the Tampa were people of means. Several who spoke with The Saturday Age were business owners in the days before the Taliban. They sold everything they owned – businesses, stock, homes and cars – to finance their efforts to get to Australia.
Despite Afghanistan’s shaky wartime economy, some have since managed to rebuild lives of relative prosperity, but the great majority eke out an existence on Afghanistan’s crowded margins.
Abdul Rahman Sohrabi ran a second-hand furniture store in Kabul before the Taliban kidnapped him. The shop is someone else’s now.
He drives a taxi in an Afghan city, splitting shifts with his cousin, a fellow Tampa returnee.
”I have this taxi on rent. I pay the owner 500 Afghanis ($10.30) per day, and any more money I make for myself. I can only feed my children with that. Day by day we are going into more poverty. How would the director of a company feel if he had to come back to be the labourer. That’s how I am.”
Fractured families is another recurring theme.
Shir Ahmad’s eldest child was kidnapped when the family’s political enemies came to his house looking for him. He paid a massive bribe to have his 19-year-old son released and then told him to flee. He does not expect to ever see him again. ”I said to him: ‘you must run now … don’t come back, because you know what happens to people here’.”
Naim Akbari’s wife and seven children live in his home village in Jhagori. He sends them money when he can, from wherever he is, occasionally as close as a couple of hundred kilometres. ”I have seen my family only twice in the past five years, they are in my home, but I cannot go to my village, it is not safe for me there. The Taliban will kill me. I personally think I have been in hell, not on earth, but I was forced to, what can I do?”
Perhaps the most common thread through the Tampa returnees’ stories – wherever the past decade has taken them – is the corrosive sense that they are not yet safe. They have lost family members, seen fellow asylum seekers killed. They have been kidnapped, beaten and robbed, frozen out of jobs and reduced to begging. They have faced death threats and had their homes razed.
The story of Mohammad Hussain Mirzaee, told repeatedly to The Saturday Age across south and central Asia, seems to haunt many of the returnees.
In 2008, Mirzaee, a Tampa returnee and a former anti-Taliban fighter, was caught by insurgents and dragged to his home village. There, in front of 35 members of his family, he was beaten and thrown down a well. His tormentors threw a hand grenade down after him, decapitating him. Naim Akbari was his friend on Nauru. ”We all worry, because who is next? This is the ending story of all of us.”
Rauf can only pray that it will not be his story. Since last year’s kidnapping, he has been on the run, moving between houses, cities and countries. ”I cannot return,” he says. ”They will come for me again, and they can do anything. No one can stop [them]. They will kill me.”
Now, a decade after his first attempt to reach Australia failed, Rauf is trying again. He has been recognised by the UNHCR as a refugee, and is applying for a protection visa, having been denied one last year. ”I want to go legally,” he says. ”To Australia I hope, but anywhere, and I hope soon, because I cannot live like this.”