Asylum fixers

Wahidallah fled Afghanistan because journalists got him into trouble. So I got him into Britain. But how would he adapt to new life?
August 19, 2001

Photo: Gustavo Montes de Oca

This article was first published in August 2001

When Wahidallah woke up on his first day in London three years ago, he was appalled. Allah, he thought, must be playing some kind of trick. He had fled Afghanistan via Pakistan, where for several weeks he was treated as a second-class citizen, cold-shouldered in the bazaars of Islamabad and unable to work. There, he had been just another penniless refugee from beyond the Hindu Kush. Here, on the other side of the globe, it was as if nothing had changed. His neighbours were Pakistani, all the way up and down his street. Wahidallah rang me in shock. "Pakis!" he hissed down the phone. "The Pakis are everywhere!"

I tried to reassure him, which felt odd. He had been my fixer and interpreter in Afghanistan in 1997; now the boot was on the other foot. I explained that London was not Islamabad, it was a big multicultural city; this was simply how it was in certain parts of E6. Britain, I added, was home to well over half a million Pakistanis; the East End was one of their biggest centres. Wahidallah was amazed.

Although there are concentrations, there is no clearly defined community of Afghans in London. Not yet, at least. In March Afghanistan became, for the first time, the main source country of applicants for asylum in Britain. In May, 900 Afghans applied—more than double the number in May last year, and nearly twice as many as their nearest rivals for the statistical top spot, the Somalis.

The emergence of Afghans at the head of Britain's asylum league is a measure of the increasing misery of life under the Taliban regime. The summer fighting season is under way again, a regular feature of life in Afghanistan for more than 20 years. This year the fighting follows an almost unprecedented two-year drought. In February, aid workers in the northwest of the country reported 80,000 displaced people subsisting on roots and leaves.

The Taliban remain unmoved. For them, death is merely the portal to a glorious afterlife. The Talib militia which captured Jalalabad in September 1996 drove truck after truck in a straight line through a minefield so wide that the defenders hadn't bothered to deploy on that side of the town. Witnesses described trucks crammed with flag-waving fighters who sang out to Allah as they died.

Deaf to international criticism, the Taliban have since circumscribed the work of aid agencies, and heightened their own isolation by refusing to hand over the terrorist Osama bin Ladin. This spring, in a gesture of breathtaking spitefulness, they blew up their greatest national monument, the 1,800-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan.

In spring 1998, Wahidallah's brother, Amanullah, guided me to the monument in central Afghanistan. Together we climbed onto the Buddhas' heads where we sat, 165 feet above the ground, gazing out at the mountains. Amanullah wept when news of the destruction reached him. "Those people," he cried. "They want to destroy everything."

Three years ago, when I agreed to help Wahidallah into this country, famine was not yet an issue in Afghanistan. But political persecution was, and Wahidallah had a clear-cut case. He was granted full asylum here in the autumn of 1998. But his immigrant story is not over yet. Last summer Wahidallah, now 23, was joined by his two brothers, who arrived at Dover in the fashionable way, hidden in the back of a truck. The rest of the family—parents and sisters—are in hiding in Lahore following a perilous escape through the mountains. They, too, want to come to Britain as soon as possible.

I was warned off helping Wahidallah by friends, and particularly by foreign correspondents familiar with the ways of the third world fixer. In some parts of the world, anyone with two words of English seems to think they qualify for a British passport; and that we lucky ones already on the inside have an obligation to assist. I discussed helping Wahidallah into Britain with a friend of mine, an old central Asia hand. She predicted that Wahidallah would quickly sink into depression when his new life failed to meet expectations. Far from his natural environment, he would throw himself upon his only sure source of financial (and emotional) support: me. Didn't I realise, asked the friend, that an Afghan is for life, not just for Christmas?

I was susceptible to this line of thinking. When I agreed to help Wahidallah, therefore, I set stringent conditions. I would help get him into the country, and guide him through the paperwork. I would act as a referee, and even procure a lawyer. But that, I made clear, was it. Once in, he would be on his own. Only in the direst emergency would I become re-engaged.

Wahidallah eagerly agreed to everything. As he would, I mused, cynically. He was a penniless exile, squatting on a sofa in the Islamabad offices of Associated Press, desperate to go anywhere. I doubted that my conditions would be met. But it seemed a sensible line to take, a standard behind which I might take moral cover if things went wrong. Besides, I wanted to help him.

I met Wahidallah in May 1997, on my first visit to his country. He was barely 20, a chubby, biddable medical student with an endearingly sweet tooth. His English was, frankly, poor, but better than that of the others offering themselves as fixers. When I arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif, his home town, he was already working with a Newsweek journalist. Mazar was at that time headquarters to the so-called Northern Alliance, the shaky coalition of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazara Shi'ites and others who were holding out against the Taliban. The zealots from the south were preparing to press them hard on two fronts as soon as the snows had melted. The town was on a war footing, its people jumping at the gunfire which periodically burst from various quarters.

I joined the Newsweek man in a helicopter stuffed with landmines, bound for the western front, where we interviewed the legendary Mujaheddin leader, Ismail Khan. Khan was uncomplimentary about some of his allies—a stance which endangered the anti-Taliban Alliance. I reported what he said.

The first hint of trouble for Wahidallah came a few days later, back in Mazar, after my interview had appeared in the Independent. The BBC World Service had picked up the article and broadcast it to the region on their Dari service. It was a big day in Mazar. The Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum had organised a parade, a Soviet-style show of strength complete with tanks, mounted cavalry, and an absurd troop of brick-chopping karate experts (Bruce Lee is hugely popular), designed to show the queasy populace that the Alliance was sound.

Wahidallah, generally to be found two feet from my left elbow, disappeared. He reappeared eight hours later with two blossoming black eyes. He had been abducted, he said, by Dostum's secret police, and interrogated with fists. Why, they wanted to know, had he helped foreign journalists? Didn't he realise it was an interpreter's duty to suppress information damaging to the Alliance's interests? As a Pashtun—the same ethnicity as the Taliban—was he perhaps sympathetic to their cause? Wahidallah dismissed the policemen as "stupid."

His nonchalance worried me. The authorities would do nothing serious while the western press were involved; but what would happen in our absence? A fortnight later the Alliance collapsed and the Taliban took Mazar. Although they did not manage to hold the city until the following year, this initial victory won international recognition for the Talibs as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers. Mazar, until then untouched by war, was inducted into the horrors of urban guerrilla warfare. Wahidallah found work with David Loyn of the BBC, who wrote in the Guardian about what happened next. In the lawless chaos which followed occupation, Loyn had his satellite broadcasting gear and his cameras, worth £50,000, looted at gunpoint by Hazara Shi'ite militia. He asked Wahidallah to intercede with General Ruzi, the local commander, to persuade him to recover the equipment. The fixer of every other western journalist in town had long since abandoned his charge. But Wahidallah agreed. It was a decision which would have everlasting implications for him and his family—and which he will always regret.

I had interviewed Ruzi a fortnight before, during a lull in the fighting. We watched his men netting partridge chicks among the meadow flowers on the plain. He struck me as an urbane and educated man.

There was nothing urbane about General Ruzi now. His troops quickly found the looters and drove them handcuffed to Loyn's hotel with the cameras. A crowd gathered. The looters were denounced, and one of them was randomly singled out for execution. Both Loyn and Wahidallah went down on their knees in a plea for clemency, but Ruzi would have none of it. The thief was shot dead where he stood.

Days later, as the situation deteriorated, western journalists together with the UN and representatives of almost every NGO, were evacuated. Wahidallah was alone. One night, the sons and nephews of the executed looter came looking for revenge. His role in the arrest was no secret. With only minutes to spare, Wahidallah ran out of the back door. He didn't stop running for two weeks, until he reached Pakistan. That was where I found him a year later, annoying everyone he knew with constant supplications for help. All he wanted, he said, was to go to the west. I listened, because I thought we owed him. After all, he was in a mess because he had worked with foreign journalists.

In the three years since Wahidallah emerged, wide-eyed, through the arrivals gate at Heathrow, a shoulder bag on one arm, a rolled up carpet under the other (a present for me), I have been proved entirely wrong in my initial misgivings. Wahidallah has stuck rigidly to his word. At no time has he been a burden, nor given me cause to regret my decision to help. He was met at the airport by a fellow Afghan, a distant family friend, who spirited him off to the East End of London, where he has lived ever since.

I kept to my part of the bargain. I wrote letters of reference, including the one which allowed him to elicit a British visa in Islamabad. I steered him through the initial paperwork. I collaborated with his immigration lawyers, and went with him to see his MP, Tony Banks, who promised to intercede on his behalf. The decision backlog at the Home Office was then huge—even now, it stands at about 30,000—but a word from Banks helped Wahidallah to jump the queue.

We had fun along the way. In his first week here, I took him to Tesco and showed him fresh fruit, vegetables, meat. Everything was new. He wandered the aisles in a daze. I introduced him to an avocado. He was suspicious at first—"Is this fruit?" he asked, "Is it alcohol?"—but later, when he tasted it, he pronounced it "delicious, like a nut." I felt like Henry Higgins in Pygmalion. The family friend took him to Southend and showed him the sea for the first time. Wahidallah was oddly unimpressed. "Big," he said.

He later told me that by far the greatest shock, once he had recovered from the number of Pakistanis, was the women. Back home, even before the Taliban conquered the north, they were seldom visible. But in London he was bombarded with the female form, on advertising hoardings, on television, and in the flesh—in the summer, lots of flesh. He couldn't help staring. Twice, on the tube, he was cautioned for it.

To survive, Wahidallah copied everyone else in Upton Park, and signed on for unemployment benefit. He enrolled at a local college, intent on becoming a doctor. He topped up his dole money with some terrible part-time jobs. He was a bus-boy in an East End samosa joint. Briefly, he arranged fruit for an Arab potentate in his Ascot palace, but it cost most of his pay just to get there. He delivered pizza, but that career, too, was cut short when he fell off his moped and almost broke a leg.

I phoned him periodically. Despite the vicissitudes, he remained consistently cheerful. It was, I think, an object lesson in the resilience of the national character. Wahidallah had two mainstays: love of God, and love of family. Large chunks of his paltry income were spent on sending messages to his family via dubious satellite link-ups in Germany and elsewhere. Sometimes it was impossible to reach Mazar by telephone—in which case the messages had to be relayed by travellers entering from Pakistan. Weeks, sometimes months would go by with no more than snippets of news from home.

The news was often bad—and never worse than when the Taliban, at the second attempt, captured Mazar in August 1998. Following the failed offensive the previous year, large numbers of Talib militiamen, captured by the Alliance, had been herded into containers, left out in the desert, and baked to death. On their return to Mazar the Taliban were in no mood for clemency.

The Talibs broadcast the rules of their new regime from the muezzin towers of the Blue Mosque in the city: burqas for the women, beards for the men; no music, no television, no kite-flying, no partridge-fighting. They came to Wahidallah's home. The family's previous collaboration with foreign journalists was well known. They were thought locally to be richer than average, so the father was bullied for money. When he refused, he and his youngest son, Amanullah, were arrested. For several nail-biting weeks, there was no word at all from Mazar.

Wahidallah never complained. But there were occasions when I saw him ill with worry. While his brother and father were in prison he lost weight; he became pale and uncharacteristically nervous. He was sustained by his faith. He still attends the local mosque, insists on halal food, and is paranoid about alcohol, convinced that all westerners are plotting to turn him to the bottle. (As a man with a soft spot for fizzy drinks, he thinks the alcopop industry is little short of the devil's work.)

Perhaps his paranoia was well founded. He understood that to survive in an alien environment, an exile requires great self-discipline. When he arrived, he fell in with a group of Afghans who had lost that quality. Some of them had been in London for years, and had gone to seed. Wahidallah described with horror how they drank, and smoked chars, and fought with one another—the politics of an Asian civil war transposed into an East End bedsit. "Crazy people," Wahidallah said with a shake of the head.

They all had something in common, however: homesickness. They were miserable at being cut off from their families. According to Wahidallah, it was all that some of them ever talked about. The difference, he said, was one of attitude. They had given up hope, allowing themselves to be seduced by the west. They had betrayed their honour, their dignity, their identity as Afghans and Muslims. Consequently, they were caught in an East End poverty trap, hostages to the black economy.

He, on the other hand, would not be so foolish. He would never let his new world optimism become contaminated by despair. At the time, these men were the only people Wahidallah knew in London, but he soon disassociated himself from them. For him, loneliness was preferable to exposure to corrupting influences.

In decisively rejecting western temptation in this way, Wahidallah was embracing a curiously Afghan form of puritanism. Part of me admires this very much: it has an austerity and rigour which we in the modern west have lost. It has certainly served him well during hard times in London. But I can also see the dangers of such purity. The seeds of the Taliban movement are visible in Wahidallah's attitude.

In general, he has proved a model of adaptability to East End life. These days he speaks English with an estuarine glottal stop, says "innit" a lot, and has developed a kind of street wisdom. He has learned the racial zones of the ghetto with a survivor's intuition: "this part is Paki, this part black," he explains.

Afghans, Wahidallah has discovered, have a certain street cred in London. It is partly to do with their reputation for fierceness. After all, they resisted the Russian army for a decade. But it is also to do with drugs. Afghanistan is the leading supplier of the world's heaviest narcotic, and this translates into instant respect in certain quarters. His views on the opium trade are unprintable, but Wahidallah has no qualms about exploiting the kudos which goes with it.

Wahidallah now lives in a cheaply furnished but clean flat at the top of a subsidised student block in Stratford. He has a television, a video, and a new desktop computer, procured at one quarter of the high street price through "a friend at PC World." He is studying to become a computer programmer, his medical ambitions now realistically shelved. He will qualify soon—in sha'allah, as he would say. By night, he works as a security guard, patrolling building sites in a borrowed uniform, or doing his homework when the supervisor isn't watching.

Meanwhile, he has established a reputation for wizardry with immigration forms. There are signs, indeed, that he is becoming a one-man asylum advisory service—and not just to Afghans. He looks settled and confident. I recently took my girlfriend, Monika, to lunch with him and his brothers. Far from any Asian zone, his block of flats is mostly inhabited by blacks. I asked him how he got on with his neighbours: "Bloody niggers," he grinned. I was shocked. Had he been mugged? Broken into? Wahidallah shook his head. "It's their music," he said. "All day, all night: boom-dada-boom-dada-boom-dada."

When Wahidallah arrived in London he was everyone's friend, regardless of colour or creed. But that was just a new world survival tactic. Of course there was racial differentiation in his home town, too. How could there not be? Mazar-i-Sharif stands at the ancient crossroads of Central Asia—a place where ethnic Uzbeks mingle with Tajiks, Turkmeni, Hazara Shi'ites, Pashtuns, Arabs, Mongols. Besides, Wahidallah's talk about niggers was not deeply felt but learned. It came straight off the street.

We sat cross-legged on newspaper spread out on his floor, eating a vast lunch which he and his brothers had painstakingly prepared: tea, nuts and dates, greasy mutton broth in a coffee mug, Kabuli pilau, reheated chips from a fast food store, Fanta. A video played in the background, the sound turned down. It showed fuzzy, hand-held footage of an Afghan firefight. Every so often the picture jumped crazily, as an incoming shell landed near the cameraman. I asked Wahidallah where the pictures were from. He was indifferent. "Somewhere in Afghanistan. Do you want to see more? I have more." He pointed at a stack of other, identical home-recorded tapes.

Monika, who has blonde hair, must have seemed like a visitor from outer space to the brothers, still only recently arrived in London. They sallied out of the kitchen and served me before Monika, which they did with their eyes averted in the traditional way. Then they disappeared for the rest of the meal. Wahidallah, on the other hand, sat pasha-like, munching contentedly, demonstrating how it should be done.

There have been times when Wahidallah's foreignness seemed incorrigible. In 1998, during a period when he was especially broke, I suggested that he might like to do some gardening for my parents. I negotiated an hourly wage—about three times more than the standard rate in an East End pizza parlour. He worked all day; but when the time for payment came, he refused to accept it, to the acute embarrassment of my father. He placed his right hand on his heart, and with a slight bow, serenely explained that he could not possibly allow himself to be remunerated by the honoured father of his sponsor.

This was no mere gesture. Wahidallah, a well brought-up Pashtun, was acting according to the principles of Pashtunwali, the tribal code of honour and indebtedness which, in a distorted form, underpins Taliban thinking. I later told him off for refusing his pay, arguing that he would have to learn to adapt to his new western environment. Wahidallah just smiled, infuriating in his righteousness.

In 1999, when I was working abroad, he sent me an e-mail addressed to "James, my commander." Containing news of his studies and other chat, it was signed "Your small mate and friend, Wahidallah." At first I thought the language merely quaint. Then I realised that he meant it. He was mine to command. He and his family were beholden to me and my family. This was Pashtunwali in the raw.

Ever since the gardening incident, Wahidallah has asked after my mother, my father, my brother and sisters at the start of every conversation. This is not just for form's sake. It is because, for Afghans, the family is the centre of all human happiness. To Wahidallah, dividing the family is like cutting off an arm. The reunification of his family is the all-sustaining focus of his life, and he is working tirelessly for it.

This sounds sweet to western ears, but Wahidallah is no sentimentalist. He wants his family to join him so that his father can arrange his marriage. Separated from their families, Afghans tend to wilt, or to go off the rails. The grass roots of the Taliban are made up of orphans. When their parents were killed in the war against the Soviets, they were dumped in medressahs and turned into Koran-reciting zealots.

Wahidallah's brothers are already here. Amanullah, the youngest, who served time in a Taliban jail, looks safe enough. He had his feet broken with rifle butts and will probably always have difficulty walking. He has been granted "exceptional leave to remain"—a temporary designation which can last up to four years and allows you to work. Thanks to poor legal advice full asylum was refused at the first attempt but should be won on appeal. For the older brother, Ahmed—a qualified surgeon back home in Mazar—the future is less certain. He was not arrested, and cannot therefore claim to have been directly persecuted, although he might have expected it if he had stayed. His application has simply been refused.

The brothers share a weekly government grant between them, comprising a booklet of 48 vouchers worth £1 and £20 cash. The vouchers are only redeemable in certain shops. Buying halal meat sometimes means walking a couple of miles (public transport is generally beyond their means). To start with the brothers lived on housing benefit in Upton Park, but now share a room in a house near Wahidallah, who pays £30 a week rent. This is dirt cheap. The landlord, naturally, is claiming full housing benefit for them, and pocketing the difference—a commonplace arrangement all over the East End.

Their aged father, meanwhile, is in permanently poor health in Lahore. The authorities in Pakistan, unable to cope with the sheer numbers of refugees (recent estimates put the figure at 1.7m), have begun arbitrarily to deport Afghans back over the border. His parents and sisters cannot work in Lahore and currently survive on the £200 a month that Wahidallah is sending. He is about to launch the legal process that will, he hopes, allow them to join him in London.

I asked Wahidallah how he was managing to support his parents and his brothers on a security guard's salary. It transpires that he is not. He has recently developed a new and lucrative sideline selling half-price mobile telephone accessories in the local market—"proper Afghan business," as he calls it. I didn't like to ask where the stock came from.

Last year some 10,000 asylum applicants in Britain were successful, compared to almost 77,000 who were refused both asylum and exceptional leave to remain. The home office has promised further crackdowns. "However compassionate you feel about the consequences of civil war," Jack Straw said during the election, "most of those consequences have to be dealt with... where the conflict is taking place."

For more than two decades in Afghanistan, peace initiatives have come and gone. None has stopped the fighting. UN sanctions were tightened in December, but the Taliban do not care. The lengths to which some Afghans will go to escape the regime was illustrated by the extended family who, in February last year, hijacked a jet and diverted it to Stansted—not out of fanaticism, but simply to seek asylum.

Wahidallah's impulse to unite his family transcends politics. If those left behind in Pakistan cannot reach Britain legally, they will find some other way, as water finds its own level. Meanwhile, for those who are already here, the process of assimilation into British society is under way.

Names in this article have been changed.