Mohammad Hussain fled from Afghanistan to Delhi three months ago. He was an interpreter with the Italian forces deployed in the southern and western parts of Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force. He was with them for nine months, and had earlier served with American troops in the same capacity for five months. The Italians suspected him of spying against them for a local Islamic faction. He escaped to India before they could nab him. “They would have killed me had they seen me again,” says Hussain.
He is restless. He is shy. His face seems to have aged prematurely. And he doesn’t trust people easily. He is constantly on his guard. At the age of 24, he has learnt to live life dangerously. It has taken a heavy toll on him. “My sorrow is not in my heart, but in my head,” he says. He keenly explains exactly how that feels. “It is the worst kind of sadness. It feels like my brain is going to explode.” He snuffs tobacco to escape that feeling (never drinks, though). Nothing really helps. When it gets too much, he stops eating, talking, and tries his best to empty his mind by walking aimlessly for hours on end. “I roam around like a vagabond till I am calm enough to be human,” he says.
Hussain also picks fights. Just a fortnight ago, he fought with two Sikh boys in his neighbourhood and sustained an injury on his forehead. “I don’t want to hear what people are saying. I can’t stay put at any one place for more than a couple of hours. I am always on red alert,” he says, as if a disaster is looming large.
He says he misses his mother the most—he loved the qurut (made of drained curd) she would make for him. He craves being cared for, being pampered. What he wants most of all is to feel at home.
Strangely and to his credit, he harbours no bitterness. He is, instead, hugely regretful. “Italians are good at only two things: coffee and football,” he says with ready acrid wit, “They are terrible chess players. I never lost a game to them. They don’t apply their minds.” Hussain claims he was treated well by them, but not his countrymen. That’s not to say that he was perpetually on their side. “The Italians were cheats. They detained innocents, [labelled them] terrorists and supporters of the Taliban to persecute them,” he says.
Hussain’s job entailed extensive travel for various operations across the western frontier of Afghanistan.
“We flew on Russian-built Mi-35 helicopters,” he adds with a rare gleam in his eyes.
However, talking about the Italians is like reliving his plight. “I was made to leave my own country by illegitimate occupants,” he says. Disenchantment is a ticking time bomb that he sits on. A story not very different from that of other young men in Afghanistan, where avenues for a better life are few. As he speaks, the restlessness in Hussain grows, he rubs his forehead, becomes jittery, and says with an air of impatience, “Can we talk about something else?”
Hussain started working when he was only five years old. The youngest of nine brothers and four sisters, he would herd cattle in his home town of Jihah in the Farah province. His eldest brother is a doctor in a government hospital in Hirak, western Afghanistan. When he was 14, he moved to live with his brother, and started school from Class IV. He worked hard and finished his schooling when he was 20, passing two classes every year. Hussain wanted to join university. But he got a job instead, as an interpreter with the American forces, since he could speak a few English words.
The work required him to travel extensively across Afghanistan, which he loved doing anyway. According to him, 90 per cent of the Afghan population is neither rich nor poor. There is no abject poverty in Afghanistan, like in India, that co-exists with filthy affluence. Very few are rich, less than 1 per cent. They are the ones who can afford to have two or three wives. Afghan women, he believes, are “free” within the four walls of their homes.
Agriculture is the only source of sustenance for most people. But the paucity of water has taken epidemic proportions in many parts of Afghanistan. Poppy is the only crop that seems to flourish here, and has given Afghanistan the dubious distinction of being the top producer of opium in the world. But that cannot provide a source of livelihood to a whole country. Hussain claims that eight of every ten Afghans in the western part of the country immigrate illegally to Iran for work. “My seven brothers, who are all uneducated, work as construction labourers in Iran,” he says.
Hussain objects to the presence of American forces in Afghanistan, but he also has a sense of adulation when he speaks of them. “[America] is the only country in the world that can occupy another country and force a change in the political order,” he says. But he knows that the American claim that they are there to help restore democracy is a “farce”. Their true intent, he believes, is to extract and exploit natural resources. Hussain is particularly critical of the extraction of ammonium nitrate by Americans in Afghanistan.
He says there are mixed feelings about American ‘occupation’ among Afghans. The good thing is that when they arrived 11 years ago, they ended the Taliban rule. That is still seen as the silver lining to everything else they did afterwards. “The people don’t like American occupation for religious reasons,” Hussain elaborates, “People construe American presence akin to religious interference.”
Hussain is certain that America does not want peace in Afghanistan. If peace returns to the country, there will be no need of American presence any longer. They will be thrown out of the country, like the Soviets.
He sees an unholy nexus between America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI). The CIA is in touch with the ISI, which in turn supports the Taliban, who kill innocents in Afghanistan. “If the Americans seriously want to broker peace in Afghanistan, they can do it in a day. The Taliban’s AK-47 is no match for America’s far superior might on land and in the air: jets, guns, everything. Why then won’t the Americans stop the Taliban?”
Hussain says Pakistan is truly hated in Afghanistan, much more than the US. India, as he sees it, is the only country that wants peace in Afghanistan.
In Delhi, Hussain lives with an Afghan community in Jungpura in central Delhi. Now that he’s here, he’s decided that he wants to resume his education and find work.
Three meetings later, Hussain feels comfortable enough talking of his life explicitly. He orders a double shot of espresso at a coffee shop in Khan Market. “Italians like strong coffee,” he jokes. He speaks English well enough, carries a vague American accent, but sometimes struggles to find the right word to explain his thoughts.
“I know five kinds of people,” he lists, “Afghani, Iranian, Italian, American and Indian.”
When he first moved to Delhi, he had a room to himself. He now stays for free in a restaurant, sleeping on the floor on a blanket and a cushion to rest his head. His sleep hours are fixed: 1 am to 8 am. “This accounts for 90 per cent of the sleep I need,” he says. The sleep deficit accumulates every day. “I can’t sleep the whole day when the air-conditioners are running. When I get to sleep [after the restaurant closes], that is when the air-conditioners are switched off.”
His experience of India is still impressionist; he thinks Delhi has the best roads in the world. He also swims regularly at a club in South Delhi. This is also a catchment area for potential girlfriends. He says the women in Kabul and other big towns in Afghanistan are far more liberated than their Indian counterparts. His conclusion is based on a sample size of five Indian girlfriends he’s had so far. There was an occasion when he had two at a time. He stopped seeing one of them because she refused to come with him to his room. The other stopped seeing him when she saw him talking to another girl. He agrees, “Patience is what I lack.”
His job as an interpreter paid him well, the reason that he has been able to splurge in India. As he says, he spent a total of $4,000 in his three months of stay in India on “nothing worthwhile”. A major part of it went into preparing papers and paying touts who promised to organise political asylum for him in Canada. He owns a Dell laptop that he purchased in Kabul for $500. He uses it to make several online job applications a day.
He has a Facebook account where he has written what he aspires to be: a student of Delhi University. He wants to study political science. His ambition is to be a politician and liberate his country from the physical, economic and psychological occupation of the West. “I want to learn how the West runs its countries and use the knowledge to deal with it in my country,” he says. Education, he says, is an important input that the youth in Afghanistan desperately needs. “It will change how the young plan their future,” he says, contrasting his aspirations with those of his uneducated brothers.
For Hussain, money makes its presence felt the most in its absence. He is fast running out of his reserves, and with it his ability to deal with the rest of the world, which he dubs as “unfair to me”. He has to find a job soon. He dreams of opening an ophthalmic clinic in Jungpura for Afghan refugees, inspired by his eye specialist brother. He has even convinced a local to partner the project with him. He made many rounds of a government office to learn how this can be achieved, but was never allowed entry.
A constant ‘no’ to all his initiatives is beginning to wear him down. He counts the number of ‘nos’ he faces on his long fingers: family, job, education, relationship, home, country and then pauses before saying “no future”. He says he cries when he is alone, and is often tempted to end his life. “Suicide is very easy. You just need a sharp object,” he says, tensing his neck to show the vein that takes blood to the brain. “Just snap it here,” he demonstrates, tensing his finger like a knife.
“My mother will die of sorrow,” he says next, the only consideration that has prevented him from taking this extreme step that he describes so casually.