This is the story of a Turkmen refugee who fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Balochistan province during the 80s, in the peak of the Cold War. Balochistan houses many refugees from Afghanistan, who came in waves during the Afghanistan’s Civil War, and to the present day. Turkmen people are from Turkmenistan, which is along the northern border of Afghanistan. This piece is based around the true story of Lale. Main events and specific details are based on an interview with Lale. Lale’s family migrated from Turkmenistan into Afghanistan in the early 1900s. This is part of an ongoing series titled Dastane Gul meaning “Stories of Flowers.” This series will chronicle different groups in South Asia and their stories of hardship, perseverance, and identity.
Lale’s family had made a steady living in Afghanistan. Her grandfather had invested in a leather business, and as a result, unlike other minorities displaced in southern Afghanistan, her family had a good house, a good living, and were enjoying their relatively peaceful life. They had recently shifted from a mud hut to a concrete house, with thick wooden doors that even the wind couldn’t compromise. They had imported china from Iran and had beds in each room. This changed, however, when the Civil War broke out. Lale was around 6 years old when Afghanistan divided between communists, parchami (communists), and mujahid. To Lale and her Turkmen family, neither parchami and mujahid mattered. However, Lale’s family started to run into trouble with these two opposing sides. The parchami and the mujahideen both wanted to take Lale’s unmarried uncles as foot soldiers in their army. One of Lale’s uncles was in university, studying to become a professional, while the other was working in a shop. Single men were seen as a commodity by any militant group, as they were young and able to fight in different forces. The mujahideen saw those who were studying as threats because of their more conservative views on education, so they targeted Lale’s uncle who was studying.
Although life was peaceful, it was relative. Twice her house had been raided by forces on both sides of the conflict. The first time, the mujahideen came to her house looking for her single uncle. He stealthily hid in the storage room that kept preserved food, a big bag of grain blocking the mujahid’s view of Lale’s uncle. The second time, their house was raided by communists, and when the group of investigators came to the door, her uncles jumped above the gates into their neighbor’s homes. The neighbors quickly gave both uncles burkas, which they immediately donned. For the time-being, they were safe. Lale reminisced often about the sense of community that had come with their humble living; however, this sense of living was under people who were inherently different than Lale – Lale was Turkmen and her neighbors were mostly Farsiwan and Pashtun. In any case, the neighbors were loyal and vouched for Lale’s family, and they did the same for their neighbors.
The parchami and mujahid would take a boy when his leg hair started to grow, a sign of maturity and adulthood, so her family regularly burned the youngest uncle’s leg hair. He was fifteen. Shaving was too obvious and it would leave evidence of cut hairs behind, so burning the hair off was the most foolproof way of maintaining a youthful image. Lale remembered the adults whispering, as they held a lighter in a dim room, “if they see kids with leg hair, they will take him to war.”
Alas, two of her uncles were taken – one by the parchami and one by the mujahideen. Lale’s father and her two uncles were on their way to Pakistan when the mujahideen caught one of Lale’s uncles on the road. The other uncle was taken to a government cell, operated with the parchami. At this point, it was up to Lale’s father to break his two brothers free. Lale’s father had many connections, he was known as Khalifa Ibrahim, a kind-hearted, self-sacrificing man who would do whatever it took for the good of the people. Lale’s father tried to find connections to get his brothers out of the armies’ clutches. For the mujahideen, her father went to the outskirts of the mountainous areas of southern Afghanistan and took 50,000 Afghani, dozens of crates of fruits, and sheeps as bribes for the mujahideen. The mujahid welcomed him as a “guest” while they brought in Lale’s uncle in handcuffs. He was finally free.
The other uncle was given freedom in a different way; Lale didn’t remember. She did remember, however, her father saying that the government worked in more subtle ways, juxtaposed to the mujahid, who were blunt and obvious in their wants and needs.
After his brothers were caught, Lale’s father realized that he could not stay in Afghanistan any longer. It was getting too dangerous to not be involved with the parchami or the mujahid; as Turkmen, Lale’s family saw the parchami as incompetent, and the mujahid as warlords, each one perpetuating his own ethnic superiority and power dynamics which would ultimately affect them negatively, no matter who won. To this day, Lale believes certain mujahid are much more glamorized than they should be. Lale’s father, sensing the inevitable, sought two alternatives. One was fleeing to Iran, the other, seeking refuge in Pakistan. First, Lale’s father took his brothers to Iran, where he left them, albeit with concern. You see, in Iran, there were huge amounts of drugs being used in the area where Lale’s father left his brothers – he feared that his brothers would become addicted, so he sought another other option: migrating to Pakistan.
Lale’s father had a friend who was able to smuggle women and children into Pakistan. He reached out to an old Afghan grandpa to smuggle his wife and kids. Lale was ecstatic – as a six-year-old kid, her heart was set on Pakistan, the land of the pure. She thought Pakistan would be a garden of ease, one that would allow her family to live in peace and prosperity. To prepare for the journey, Lale’s mother and relatives started selling their belongings. At first their beds went, then their china, then finally, even their most personal belongings, until all they had left was clothes. Lale’s mother hid things in her burka, and off they set. The older Afghan grandpa was a sort of a community leader; he helped Lale and her family tremendously. The family went from Kandahar to Boldak to Pishin. At one point, the guards at the checkpoint in Pakistan slapped around the old Afghan grandpa to the point that his white turban fell to the desert ground and rolled away. He would cry “have mercy, have mercy!” as he would point to the zanana, or women and children. Switching car after car, motorcycle after motorcycle, they finally reached Chaman. Chaman means grass. Lale still had high hopes for Pakistan – she wanted to reach the lush, grassy, and green area that Chaman was supposed to be. Instead, what awaited her was the rugged, dry desert of Balochistan. Lale had lost her shoes on one of the endless switching of vehicles, and her feet hit the thorny plants, thorny plants that only grow in the desert. Her feet were scorched and throbbing. Her mother scolded Lale’s hopes, “The only things that grow in the desert are thorns!” but Lale still waited for moist and springy ground, covered with moss and green and life.
Not only was the journey into Pakistan hard, but the conditions of food and water were scarce. At one village, Lale and her family begged for water, and when she finally took a sip, the water was so salty that as it ran down her throat, she felt her throat drying and leaving a sour taste in her mouth before the water even reached her stomach. At the end of this journey was Saranan, an old railway station in Balochistan, an hour or two away from Quetta. Saranan was nothing but dry, drought-like, rugged, dangerous. There were crevices where water should be, holes where people might fall into, places where one could disappear and never be seen again. Saranan was also a refugee area; there were tribes of Pashtun, Farsiwan, Turkmen, and Uzbek people. Everyone had built their own communities in Saranan; a caravan of caravans.
Lale and her family were reunited with her father, who had reached Saranan a couple days beforehand. Her grandfather’s community was in Saranan – finally, her family was in one place together! Lale’s family was given tents of their own, and they went to see their relatives. The chai was sour. The next day, Lale’s family met their northern Turkmen counterparts. Lale’s family was from southern Afghanistan, due to a policy where Turkmen tribes from the north of Afghanistan were forcibly displaced to the south of Afghanistan in order to “diversify” Afghanistan. As a result, Lale’s family were called “Pashtun Turkmen” because they were forced to assimilate into local Afghan culture, instead of being able to keep their Turkmen lineage and culture. Lale’s family wore shalwar kameez and pardah, whereas the north Turkmen tribes wore Turkic headgear and observed a more nomadic lifestyle. Despite being acquainted with this difference, Lale felt some peace with these Turkmen – they looked like her and her family. The refugee camp, albeit being set in a rugged, dry landscape, was now home for Lale, where she expected the land of the pure, of green meadows and lush forests, but instead found a community of her own that would travel in her blood in the years after.
to be continued