Wahidallah fled Afghanistan because journalists got him into trouble. So I got him into Britain. But how would he adapt to new life?by James Fergusson / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
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.