This is an edited version of Maiwand’s essay from Correspondences: An anthology to call for an end to direct provision, edited by Stephen Rea and Jessica Traynor. The essay was originally published under the pseudonym, Batur Nadir.
We have included other excerpts from Correspondences in our winter issue. We are also supporting the project by selling the anthology through our website. Proceeds go to MASI – the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland.
For the previous two weeks in Kabul rival forces had pounded each other. Then came a short ceasefire that provided an opportunity for escape. It was a scorching summer’s day.
On the way out, I saw a lot of people fleeing. Wounded children being carted in wheelbarrows. People piggybacking their essential belongings: rags, mattresses, cooking pots. I saw a lot of dead bodies, swollen and smelling like dead and rotting rats. Children were screaming and the elderly recited verses from the Koran. They all wanted to get out of Kote Sangi.
Exiting the dusty alleys of our neighbourhood, we entered Kote Sangi Chowk, a roundabout where smells of gunpowder were still fresh. Entire blocks of shops and schools were turned into rubble. I heard heavy firing followed by rocket explosions. I saw men and women falling in the street. I saw a man drop his disabled grandmother from his back so that he could escape the gunfire.
We were the lucky ones who made it safely to Kompany area, where we paid a tall, dust-stained and bearded lorry driver to get us to Maidan Shar, Kharoto village, where we were to stay in my maternal uncle’s house until the war was over in Kabul.
The road was dusty and very bumpy. The faster the car travelled, the more dust and jolting we received. Scorched by the sun and choked with dust, we finally arrived. Scars and wounds from the Soviet War were still visible: bombed-out houses, rusty corpses of Russian tanks lying in their graves.
Dublin (First Direct Provision Hostel)
As an asylum seeker, I was not allowed to work or cook, could not avail of training facilities, and faced restrictions in relation to visitors and travel. I was given €19.10 a week and three meals a day while awaiting the decision of my asylum application. I was accommodated in a short-stay hostel while awaiting relocation to another hostel outside Dublin. The hostel was an old building, white plaster crumbling off its walls, but I thought I was living in a mansion. I had food in my belly, a roof over my head and I had no fear of falling rockets. What else could an Afghani man fleeing from hell ask for in life? After a short stay I was transferred to Carlow.
I didn’t know much about Carlow. The next morning, four of us refugees (I was with two Somali men and one Sudani) were loaded onto a bus like a herd of sheep. I slept on the bus, not having had any sleep the night before. I woke to the driver’s voice shouting: ‘Wake up, we have arrived!’
Construction work had temporarily blocked the entrance so the driver parked the bus in the station and walked with us to the hostel. Rain had just ceased and water was still falling from the branches of trees. Clouds were dispersing and the wet earth emitted that pleasant after-rain odour. Across from the station a bunch of robins were occupying a willow tree. They were screaming and quarrelling. It is said that robins – like humans – exhibit aggressive territorial behaviour.
The bus driver held a black umbrella in his right hand like a tour guide, and we waddled behind him like baby elephants following their mother. As we passed through Carlow town centre, one of the Somali lads, a lad with a long neck, became tired of carrying his bag of clothes in his hands, so he placed the bag on his head. I smiled to myself. It reminded me of the village in Afghanistan, when my mother and other ladies carried pots, buckets and baskets in this way. Much to my surprise, he abruptly unloaded the bag from his head when his countrymen gave him an angry look and said something to him in the Somali language. Perhaps he told him it was not suitable behaviour for this country.
Over the next few months, I settled into the Milverton House, met many people and became familiar with the rules and regulations. One morning, I rose too late. The clock on the blue-painted wall showed me half past nine.
Downstairs, the kitchen stank of chlorine bleach mingled with the rancid smell of oil. Breakfast was finished. I implored a staff member for a drink of orange but I was not given it. I had to wait until lunch to eat. My €19 weekly entitlement had been spent on buying a Mach 3 razor and a lottery ticket, and out of the remaining two euros I had bought a bottle of 7up because I had a tummy bug.
The man who refused me the orange was abusive: ‘Are you stupid or what! Don’t you see my hands are busy?’
Later, in the TV room, I sat on a red, cigarette-burnt sofa in a pensive mood. My feelings of indignation rose not from the denial of orange juice but from the offensive words. After all, the man who said them had been an asylum seeker like me only a few years before.
‘You have to fucking go to bed early to get up early, bud,’ Mark, a kitchen orderly, said.
‘I can’t sleep early,’ I replied.
‘Every day you’re sitting on your ass on this sofa, dandling this fucking remote control. Find work or do something to make you tired.’
‘I am not allowed to work,’ I nearly shouted in response. ‘How can I work?’
‘Would you do some volunteer work in a charity shop?’
‘Yes!’ I replied, and my heart was lighter that night at the prospect of having something to do.
Next morning, light rain had splattered the earth, and the weather was still cloudy. When Mark and I reached the charity shop a woman in her mid-thirties was smoking outside.
‘Howya, Joanne, I have an Afghani volunteer for you,’ Mark said.
An expression of alarm spread across Joanne’s face.
Inside the shop, I sniffed the dampness of old clothes. Alison, in her late twenties, was sorting bric-a-brac behind the counter. The moment I entered the shop an uncanny feeling told me that Joanne and Alison disliked me. One day, not long after, I eavesdropped on them talking about me while I was sorting clothes.
‘How is the foreign lad?’ Alison asked.
‘He seems nice, but kind of weird,’ Joanne replied.
‘Yeah, they are all nicey-nicey,’ Alison whispered. ‘Let him get his passport, he will wipe out the country.’
After two years in Carlow, my application was returned, denied. The door to the future seemed to close that day. I was facing deportation back to Afghanistan. The letter inside its brown envelope tore me to pieces. Gloomier still, the hostel in Carlow was closing. Residents were to be relocated to New Ross, County Wexford. At that time, I felt like a caged bird with broken wings seeing other birds flying freely in the vast sky: the vast sky with no borders, no limits and no disparity between people.
En Route to New Ross
Summer has gone and winter is in its place. It is a chilly, foggy day; light flakes of snow are descending. About twenty of us are waiting for the bus. Everyone is wearing heavy clothing, holding bags that contain the sum total of our personal belongings. Some seem happy, some seem moody, some are chatty, some are reflecting, some are puffing on cigarettes, and some are puffing out warm air onto their hands.
Miles pass with no houses and then, in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a hill, a house appears with smoke flying from its chimney and a bulb shining in its kitchen. I imagine people living in a house like this with their parents, brothers, sisters, relatives, smiling, gossiping, chatting with no worries about deportation or relocation. This thought makes me envious, and I lament the hierarchy of human life. Some people spend their entire life in pain, due to the accident of being born in the wrong country; they are considered stupid, poor, uncivilised and outcast from the society. These thoughts pass through me, then disappear when my gaze falls on a row of trees standing on a stretch of road near New Ross, extending their limbs from either side to form a canopy.
The ‘Old Rectory’ hostel was located on high ground opposite the River Barrow. Living standards here were a lot higher than my previous two locations. The rooms were clean, with two to three people sharing. The dining hall was spacious and the reception area had a snooker table. At this stage I was a grown man of twenty-eight but inside I felt like a child. My days were riddled with anxieties and my nights were haunted by nightmares from Afghanistan.
Infidels Make Everything (The Spoils of War)
Kids in the village of Kharoto were a lot different to kids in Kabul: here they moseyed around barefoot, grazed sheep, fetched water, collected dung and played marbles all day long. They had rough skin, chapped hands and feet.
In the village, it intrigued me to see an egg left on top of one of the children’s graves. Later, I found out that the child had been found with an egg in his hand when his dead body was dug out from under the rubble of a bombed-out bunker. Then, as a mark of respect to the child’s memory, people often put an egg on his grave.
As a young boy, I was drawn to one particular kid, named Younis. He was well-mannered, lanky, with a brown complexion, almond-shaped nomadic blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and a wide, flat nose. He was about twelve.
Around that time, Pakistani merchants were coming to the village to buy shrapnel, fragments of destroyed tanks, shells or other objects thrown out by explosions. They paid one thousand Afghani in exchange for one kilogram of shrapnel, which would then be exported to Pakistan to be melted and cast into new iron. This business of collecting and selling was a source of income, but to think of it now makes my stomach cringe, because Russian scientists also made booby trap bombs to resemble toys, so that children might pick them up. Those toys had wounded or killed many Afghani children, leaving them with hands and feet blown away. (The irony is that those toy bombs were a direct copy of an American device used in Vietnam, the BLU-43B.) I still wonder how on earth civilised men in white coats, enlightened by science and reason, can ever think that children are part of their war.
One morning, at sunrise, Younis and I embarked on a quest to collect shrapnel. We were soaked in sweat by the time we reached the top of Kharoto mountain. The sun was glaring and sweat trickled down our faces. By lunch we had gathered enough shrapnel to fill two plastic buckets. I accidentally came upon two piles of debris which turned out to be large missiles half sunk into the ground.
‘Look here!’ I shouted to Younis. ‘Two big ones!’
‘Too heavy,’ he whispered. But after a moment of reflection he said, ‘Let’s cut bushes to put on top of these metals.’
‘But why?’ I asked, a little bewildered.
‘If anyone sees these, they will bring shovels and dig them out,’ Younis replied.
‘But they are too heavy to be taken down to the village,’ I countered.
Younis narrowed his eyes. ‘They can be rolled down from the mountain, you softie Kabuli.’
We became very tired after hours roving over those mountains. We sat under the shadow of a big stone and stretched our legs. It was a great relief whenever the cool mountain breeze touched my face, but I was feeling extremely hungry. Younis took out a piece of bread from his pocket, tore it in two and gave half to me. A few metres away, my gaze fell on a rusty battery.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘There is another toy bomb.’
Younis went close, picked it up. ‘No, this is not a bomb, it’s a battery. The mujahideen use it for Mokhabera.’
‘Mokhabera? What is this?’ I asked.
‘It is what that the mujahideen use to talk to each other from a distance without seeing each other.’
Younis had an attitude of pride in his tone, and a feeling of inferiority rose inside me. To boost my fragile ego, I tried to show off my shrewdness.
‘Do you know electricity? We had electricity in Kabul.’
‘No, I have never heard of it, never seen it,’ Younis replied.
‘You go and press a button on the wall,’ I said. ‘This brings light under the ceiling, which is a lot brighter than the light in a lantern.’
Now, I have been living in Ireland for many years. I have made a lot of friends and I am well-integrated into Irish society. I feel a sense of kinship with Irish people, maybe due to the shared histories between the country of my birth, Afghanistan, and my newly adopted country, both moulded in the despair of war, oppression and immigration. I embarked on a perilous journey coming to Ireland, encountered life-threatening situations, reached so many uninviting and unwelcome shores, saw the best and the worst of humanity—all in search of a peaceful life. I came to Ireland under the pretext of starting a new life and hoping to forget the past. But we are creatures of memory and story: man is trapped in the past just as the past is trapped in the man. I could have never guessed all those years ago that one day I would end up here, carrying Younis with me, and others too—all these memories of innocence, of experience.