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Death's Echo

Pictures in My Heart is a collection of personal stories that illustrate how Hazara families who arrived in 1999 and 2001 persevered in Afghanistan, and how they have found new hope in Australia.The publisher of Pictures in My Heart has kindly permitted The Point Magazine to feature some of the book’s personal stories. Here is the first story from Younis Yousefi.

War

All my adult life I have lived in lawless places. All I have known is the AK47. Now, coming here, to this country full of laws, it is hard to understand. In Australia, there is so much talking: through conversation you acknowledge one another’s problems. Everything is done with words. In Afghanistan, you don’t have this. The gun speaks the language. In a lawful society you can live your life, move around. Over there, moving around is dangerous.

Before the Taliban, we had the Russians. They tried to take control in every part of the country. If people didn’t obey, they would use force. We were constantly fighting the Russians because we wanted to keep them out of our area to stop them having control over the way we lived. After the Russians left, there was much unrest, a time of civil war. There were different factions to deal with. When the Taliban came to power, they made the rules – just one party, one government. You can see they have ruined the whole world, exporting trouble everywhere. With the Taliban, you were not allowed to watch TV, listen to music. It was forbidden to have in your home, photos of your family. They did so many bad things in our area, especially to women; they had no regard for women whatsoever.

The Taliban forced us to make donations for the fighting. They kept writing letters demanding money. But the money they took left us with almost nothing; we were unable to support ourselves. What were we supposed to do? We were told: ‘If you want to live, pay up! If not, then don’t!’

They said we would be put on the front line to kill; if we didn’t kill there would be a line behind us who would kill us. They would tell us who to kill. But I knew the people I was ordered to kill. How could I do that? Kill people I knew? But there was no choice. It was kill or be killed, point blank. Men from our village were taken by the Taliban to join the war and they never came back. We had only two options – pay them or join them. 

"When I left Afghanistan my father was still alive. At nearly 90, he still farmed. By this time, the Taliban had taken my brother and I knew it was just a matter of time before I was next. When I left, my father was really upset: ‘You should not have to leave Afghanistan! This is our country.’"

– Younis Yousefi

It wasn’t every now and then they came demanding money, it was every day. One of the big problems was that in the Taliban were foreigners, not just Afghans. Someone dressed in white and claiming to be Taliban would come around in the morning to collect money. Then, in the afternoon, someone in dark dress would appear, saying they were Pashtoon. You couldn’t see their faces, only their eyes, so you didn’t really know who they were – they could even be the same person! 

My car was confiscated. The Taliban needed to transport stones from the quarry to make defence bunkers. They filled the confiscated cars, having stripped out the interiors. No one was able to stop them. It was brute force. It was pointless protesting. You were powerless. They had no problem killing you to get your car. 

Killing people in Afghanistan is easy. For example, if you tell someone, ‘I don’t like this person. Can you kill him for me?’ In twenty minutes it’s done and dusted; they will bring you the head.

No reporters were allowed where the Taliban carried out their tortures and fighting. That is why the public do not know. Even now, there are no reporters where the Taliban are. With beheadings, you only see dismembered bodies, not the act. If they ever throw open the book on Afghanistan it would be full of horrific stories, betrayals. The world would find it hard to believe that these things can happen to people. 

The Taliban forbade any schooling after year six. They wanted law enforcement, not education. They didn’t want anyone to challenge or question, so their whole focus was on war, guns and lawlessness. The Taliban create an atmosphere of fear; keeping people ignorant was part of that strategy. Life in the village meant surviving one day at a time. It was all people thought about. Unless you are educated, unless you have opportunities, you remain what you are. If you are blind, you remain blind your whole life, never knowing anything else. It is a terrible thing for a kid not to go to school. Education was very important, an integral part of my community. In my area, opportunities were taken by the women to receive a good education but when the Taliban came, they forced women to stay home. 

Younis Yousefi, My House, 2004, unfired clay handpainted

Before the Taliban

Even in pre-Taliban days, there were many problems because we were Hazara. There wasn’t enough money to run the school. Everything was self-funded. Money meant for food was set aside by families to send kids to school. Many succeeded in getting educated, finding work in government offices until the government started beheading them, for being Hazara and educated.

It’s hard to describe how it was. Before the Taliban came, our way of life could be maintained, despite the difficulties of having to do everything for ourselves. There were no shops; it was a basic life. But we were in our own land. There was no rent, water was free. One simply worked and lived off the land. My father was also an itinerant salesman. He had no car but he did have a donkey. He would take his donkey, buy goods, and, over two to three days, roam around selling. He made just enough to provide basics and ensure our family’s survival. He was the village Elder, ready to resolve local issues or conflict. He acted as judge or mediator. This was how disputes were dealt with, as they had been for generations.

Life was very traditional, marked by festivals and celebrations for weddings and religious occasions. The whole village would gather. In the second month of summer we had the harvest festival. There were wrestling tournaments, and my father would always participate. He was a very strong, healthy man. I often heard him boast to his friends that he was still wrestling at 60, ready to take on anyone, even a man half his age. He would boast, ‘I may be 60 but I can force your back to the ground …’ on bare earth, not like on the mats here. You had to be very fit. All the men in the village would gather around to watch.

When I left Afghanistan my father was still alive. At nearly 90, he still farmed. By this time, the Taliban had taken my brother and I knew it was just a matter of time before I was next. When I left, my father was really upset: ‘You should not have to leave Afghanistan! This is our country.’

He succumbed to stress and the psychological pressures of losing his sons. He passed away soon after I left.

Safety

I had to leave for my own safety. I realised that the most important thing is safety; without security you cannot have a life. Here in Australia you can go freely, travel anywhere with peace of mind. I notice that in Australia, I don’t think as much and my mind is not preoccupied with all the thoughts I used to have. In Afghanistan, I could not travel to Kandahar or Kabul or Herat. If I did, there was no certain return. Going is easy, coming back very difficult. In Australia, we know when we leave for work that our house will still be there on our return, our children will be there, waiting for us. Back in Afghanistan when you go out in the morning, you never know if you’ll be back in the afternoon or if there’ll be a home to return to. So we are grateful for the sense of security here – but home is home.

We should never forget our past. The kids born here don’t know anything about our culture and traditions. We should try and teach them the old-fashioned things, the cultural and regional traditions that shaped our country, Afghanistan. For example when they come home from school, we talk to our kids in our language rather than English. There’s not much here that we can show them in terms of the cultural aspects of Afghanistan, only religious books and teaching them various traditions. But there is a part that is missing; they miss that link. We have a saying in our country: It is better to be the poorest person in your village than the richest in a strange land. But it is good here. It’s safe.

This story was taken from an interview in March 2009 with an interpreter. 

Excerpt from Pictures in My Heart: Seeking Refuge – Afghanistan to Australia 
Edited by Fiona Hamilton 
[Wakefield Press 2015]

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