“The only difference between them and us is that we managed to escape alive,” said a friend very special to me as she kept her gaze intact on this one dying tree amidst a shadow of greenery.
It was 4.17 pm on Monday as we sat on the same makeshift bench at the same park in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood where we had met ten months before. Drops of sweat drenched my white kurta as the scorching August heat spared nobody. But that did not matter to the girl in her late 20s sitting across from me. Nothing much mattered to her anymore, actually. Only the ageing tree did.
“I hope they don’t chop it off. In the quest to keep everything green and alike, I hope they at least give it enough respect to die on its own, you know?” she said, looking me in the eye for the first time in 16 minutes. She didn’t expect an answer.
It had been less than 24 hours before that her phone began flooding with news notifications, and calls from back home. A home she ran away from when she was threee. From a home that was Kabul.
“I remember everything very faintly,” she whispered as her eyes filled up, though she didn’t allow herself to shed a single tear. “I was a kid. But I have blurry images of my parents taking turns to carry us in their arms, covering our mouths. If either four of us cried or even made a sound, they would have found us in the dark.”
In search of asylum
It was in the mid-1990s that her father, a socialist, political poet and Pashto professor, realised that he had no choice but to extricate himself and his family from the growing occupation of the Afghan mujahideen. Especially fearing for the safety of their daughters, his wife and he bundled their young children and embarked on a journey they never imagined they would have to make.
From Iran to Oman to Pakistan to sometimes back in Afghanistan, they spent years in search of a safe haven. In 2012, they made their way to India and sought the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“My brother has been receiving frantic calls from our friends back home to help them escape like we did,” the sister of three said, helplessly wrestling with her thumbs. “What do we say?”
It was the morning after the fall of the Afghan government and the takeover of the Taliban. With images of the extremist-militant organisation inside the Presidential Palace and aimlessly firing on the streets of Kabul flashing in, horrifying videos of Afghans running towards the Kabul International Airport did as well.
Thousands of citizens gathered – some climbing its walls and some pushing through the gates – hoping to find a flight out. Heart-wrenching videos of desperation and death were on phones everywhere. While the world was outraged in its own way, my friend wasn’t.
Her reluctant smile echoed her hopelessness. Her peculiar calmness penetrated our mutual lack of words. “Soon enough, countries will begin evacuating their own,” she said. “Who will want my 3.9 million Afghans?”
While countries like the United Kingdom, Qatar, Uganda, Canada, Albania and Tajikistan have promised to take in refugees, this still does not amount to more than a quarter of a million people. India has also said it will begin a system of emergency electronic visas for victims of the crisis but it is unclear how many, or more importantly, which Afghans it will be granting refuge to.
However, these numbers meant very little to the Afghan woman in front of me. Anxious about the women in the land she has been away from almost all her life, her concerns were much more immediate – as they were for the other 15,467 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers who are stateless in this country.
“Today, people did not look at me the same way they did two days back,” she said. “They know I belonged to the ones all over the news.”
My friend fumbled at the realisation that the country her family had been living in for the past nine years would probably never look at her as one of its own. The people she walked past every day may have never considered her as one of them. The home her family created may have never been theirs. She realised that there are many more who are about to be displaced across the world and will soon share this feeling.
“What is the difference between you and me?” she said with a tired smile as she finally shed a tear. “That you happened to be born in one land and I in another?”
She turned her gaze back to the dying tree, as wounded as she was. We both just sat there.
Oishika Neogi is a human rights researcher at Karwan e Mohabbat in Delhi, focusing on issues of identity politics and communal violence.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.