The Taliban on their heels

In Germany, Kainat can finally go back to school. Her family fled from a remote Pashtun village still ruled by the Taliban, who forbid her to leave the house. In rural Westphalia, the eleven of them easily make friends as they are all avid football players. All of them except one-year-old Sana who prefers sitting on the ball to kicking it.

part of the photo exhibition “…und plötzlich diese Stille” (…suddenly there is silence), on display in the townhall of Wadersloh, Germany, as of April 20, 2016 >>


Kainat* can still hardly believe that she is back at school. When strangers start talking to her, the 14-year-old shyly looks to the ground until her parents respond for her. Those months in a Taliban village have left their traces; as well as the long escape from the men who took them for government spies. But one after another.

In early 2015, Kainat’s family left their hometown and moved to a Pashtun village south of Kabul together with her uncle Ashraf. After the death of Kainat’s aunt, the widower was overburdened with simultaneously working his farm and taking care of his children, so they promised to help out. When arriving in the village, they were surprised to see men with long beards and women – if ever – covered by burqas. Did this still exist, after the end of Taliban rule?

Like many city dwellers, Kainat and her brothers have gotten accustomed to wearing jeans and T-shirts. “It took us a while before we understood that the Taliban had retreated to the village and fought with the government” says Kainat’s brother Aziz, 17. When it sank in, they immediately regretted their move.



The extremists soon forbid Kainat to be outside let alone attending school. “She stayed home alone and cried a lot,” her mother Farida says. The more Kainat falls silent, the more her mother speaks out. “I want her to have a better life than I had.” Farida repeatedly stresses how important education is to her – even though or perhaps just because she quit school when having her first child at age 16.

“The atmosphere between us – the strangers – and the Taliban grew increasingly tense,” Aziz remembers. “They tried to draw us into their war, and I hated them for that.” They even tried to forbid Aziz and his brothers to attend the regular school and tried to lure them into the Koranic school instead. The boys refused outright. Next, they tried to force the family to hide weapons for them. Still they managed to make excuses.

Finally, when an old man stood at the door insisted on marrying 14-year-old Kainat, they had enough already, packed their belongings and headed back.

Shortly after their departure, the Taliban were back at Kainat uncle’s door. The uncle had wanted to escape together with the family, but as a farmer he did not want to give up his large estates. When he refused to give away their whereabouts to the Taliban, they beat him. Those strangers must have been government spies, they said and threatened to find them at any price.

When they heard this back in their hometown, Kainat’s parents, her uncle Ashraf and her aunt Spogmai sold their clothing store and their apartments at a bargain; there was no time for negotiations. Their escape took one month: They walked across the mountains and further toward the Balkans, where they would join the other refugees.

In the middle of the night, in the middle of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, the engine of their dinghy ran out of petrol. 44 people at the open sea, in panic. When the flood came, the boat was tossed back and forth, and each wave filled it with more water. They drew out the water with their shoes, but the level kept rising. Aziz and his siblings looked at each other and threw their last possession overboard: their laptop with all their memories.

The 44 refugees aboard worked and survived together: One of them had the phone number of the Greek Coast Guards, another had network coverage on his phone and Aziz, well, Aziz spoke English well enough to convince the Greeks of their plight. He sent the officers a screenshot of their GPS coordinates and ten minutes later the rescue ship was there. “First they wanted to bring us back to Turkey,” Aziz recalls. “But when they saw all the small children, they allowed us to enter Europe.“



When Aziz and his family arrived in the Ruhr district, they were moved from one refugee camp to the next. But wherever they arrive, they immediately gained a foothold. For all eleven are crazy about football: Aziz’s three-year-old cousin Muzamil just as much as shy Kainat. Aziz’s brothers immediately joined the refugee’s football team in Cologne. Only one-year-old Sana prefers sitting on the ball to kicking it.

IMG_6769_“If this was an average day in our city in Afghanistan, an explosion at the airport would have gone off in the morning, just to be followed by a suicide attack a little later. Here on the other hand …” Farida laughs. “It is so quiet here! We are walking to the football field through the entire village and are not the least bit afraid.”

They all like to laugh a lot, their relief is palpable. And they have big plans: Farida wants to open a beauty salon. In Afghanistan, many women came to her house to have her pluck their eyebrows. For this, she only needs yarn and a steady hand.

Aziz wants to study medicine to become a dentist. But this almost failed on the first step: As there is no compulsory schoolings for 17-year-olds in Germany, they also do not have a claim to attend school. Instead Aziz only found a local training institution that accepted him. But when the teacher met him – a friendly and conscientious young man who equally discusses politics in English or quickly edits some photos on Photoshop – they advocated for him. Now Aziz attends a highschool in the nearby city and prepares for his high school diploma.

However, it is not even clear whether the family will be allowed stay. President Ashraf Ghani appealed to the federal government to return Afghan refugees. Afghanistan is safe, he argues, and they need the refugees to rebuild it. The German Government gave in to Ghani’s request: Currently not even half of all incoming Afghans are granted asylum. When Syrians ask Aziz why for God’s sake he fled given that the war in Afghanistan is over, Aziz does not say much. Would they understand? And do Syrians and Afghans really need to compare their fates?

* Family names not mentioned due to security reasons

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