‘So, I belong to an ethnic group called Hazara, it’s one of the minority ethnic groups in Afghanistan that has been persecuted for over almost two centuries now because of our ethnicity, our religion, our values and beliefs. We have been denied our basic human rights,’ such as access to education and health care, Zaki says. ‘My grandfather wasn't allowed to go to school because of his ethnicity and because of his religion.’
'We are Muslim, but we are Shia,’ he says. ‘In a country like Afghanistan, you could be killed because of the way you practice your Muslim beliefs.'
Hazaras were sold as slaves in Kabul markets a century ago, and systematic discrimination endured long since. Law kept Hazaras from serving in the military, government jobs, and higher education, and in the rural areas they were denied public services. Physically distinct, with Asiatic features, the more secular, intellectual Hazara community grew more out of step as Sunni extremism took hold in the late 1990s, when the Taliban declared Jihad on them. Thousands of Hazaras lost their lives in mass killings.
Yet when Zaki’s father was a young man, before the Taliban, things were briefly better in Afghanistan for Hazara people. '[My father was] the first person in our entire family who went to school. It was a big deal for the whole family, and everyone was proud of him – and then he managed to get into university. He did medical science, and he became the doctor that people needed, and he opened his medical centre in the town that we were from. He was very well respected in the village.
'He saved hundreds of lives, because [before his clinic opened] there were times the roads were blocked – people didn't get any medical attention, they had to travel to Kabul, but they couldn't go through – so they were dying with very basic sickness.
'His dream was to see his kids to go to university, and to see his kids get a degree and give back to the community, the way he was giving.'
When Zaki is a child, Afghanistan is a landscape of war. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, United States troops moved in and over years waged battle in shifting alliances with Afghan warlords, against the Taliban. Zaki’s village is surrounded by Taliban, but only when he leaves the village for high school does he fully understand that there is something different about being a Hazara boy.
Suddenly the teachers won't answer questions he asks. Hazaras are marked down even when they do the same work. 'Everyone is making fun of you because you look different, with the small eyes and a round face,' he says. 'But that wasn’t a big deal for me. I’m, like, whatever, going to the classroom, doing my studies, as my father was asking [me] to do.'
And he has his brother at school. 'His name was Ali, and he was…' Zaki’s voice trails off.
'I had an older brother, which….'
He stops again. Apologises. Wonders whether to say. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and keeps them closed. 'So, my brother finished high school – and I never saw Dad super-happy like that in his life, where he was very proud. Then, you could see that in him – it was like, “Yes! You made it, and you're going to university.”’
But. 'It's a shame to say, but Afghanistan is a country where being a university student makes you a criminal for the Taliban.'
The Hazara boys know about Taliban checkpoints. They know to dress inconspicuously on the bus between the village and the city, riding what’s known as ‘Death Road’, where attacks and kidnappings are not uncommon. Never to carry student ID. Zaki’s brother Ali is in his second year, and he knows the drill, maybe too well. Coming home for the summer holidays, he throws on a coat without checking the pockets.
‘They found the ID in his pocket, and they just beheaded him on the spot. For being a university student. To teach other young people in the bus a lesson.’
'Losing my brother, it was a huge deal for our family, and for my father – because he didn’t just lose his son but also his dream,' Zaki says.
'Still, he was telling me that he had me. You know, although we were going through a very tough time back then, he was hoping that I would go to university and I would finish it.'
The Taliban would have other ideas.
Zaki’s father felt impervious to the dangers that had claimed his eldest son. Maybe it was a kind of stubbornness, or pride – the same stuff that helped him overcome so many obstacles on his way to becoming a doctor.
'Afghanistan is a very strange country, where if you're a doctor, if you're an educated man, if you work for government ... you're basically criminal. So if the Taliban find you – which they will, because you if you travel out of Kabul or other cities, they have their own checkpoints …' Zaki’s voice trails off again.
It is a year after his brother’s murder. Zaki is in Year 12. A US military ‘surge’ is petering out, emboldening the Taliban, whose abuses became endemic in areas under their control. The family is always reminding Zaki’s father, pleading with him to take extra precautions as he drives his van to the city with lists of needed medicines, written in English, and back with the stock.
The van is stopped, searched.
'Normally when they kill people,' Zaki says, 'they kill them overnight, brutally, and then they leave the body on the road the next day.
'For my father, we couldn’t find any sign of him.'
The clinic sees patients no more.
It doesn’t end there. A doctor with English-labelled medicines must be allied with the enemy, according to the Taliban. That’s reason enough to go after the family, too. Even as they search for their father’s body, the family is accused of working for Americans, too, and a ‘guilty family’ has a higher price to pay.
'So, when they took my father away, they were sending letters and sending people, [demanding] for me to go to them,’ Zaki says. Mafia tactics, but more official; the terrorists of the Taliban have their own letterhead. Their message? ‘Like, they have to literally kill someone in the family, so the family is “cleaned up” then. And I was the oldest son.' Time to run.
'My Mum had to move town… she was trying to hide me as much as she could,' Zaki says. 'But it didn’t take that long, even when we moved to Kabul, they found us. They were after me really bad.'
Zaki’s mother knew she couldn’t protect him forever at home. She set out every day, searching for a way to keep him safe, alive. 'She’s never been to school. She can’t read and write. But she is smart,' says Zaki. 'She knew that people go overseas and leave Afghanistan, so she was thinking that was the only option for me.'
While she would have preferred to get him out in an orderly ‘legal’ way, she ran into a series of obstacles. Passports are hard for Hazaras to obtain, but Zaki’s mother doesn’t stop until she gets him one; one imagines bribes can help. Then she learns that the countries that receive refugees, such as Australia and the United States, generally won’t provide visas to Hazaras even when they have passports, because of the risk that they might claim asylum once they get there. 'She was upset,' Zaki says. Outrunning the Taliban, her time is growing short.
'One day she comes home and she was – she was happy but she was really sad. I’d never seen Mum in that situation, where she was happy and she was crying and she was giving me hugs. She was telling me that she found these people smuggling out of Afghanistan. And I was like, “Yeah, that's good.” And Mum, she was like, ‘“No, they are saying that it's very risky. There's a 90 per cent chance that you will die before getting to a safe country.”' Bad odds, until you run them against your chances with the Taliban.
Are asylum seekers who travel to Australia without a visa ‘jumping the queue’?
There is no ‘queue’ for people seeking asylum. There is a common misconception that if refugees just waited in camps overseas, they would eventually be resettled, but people fleeing harm do not always get to choose where they travel to. There is also no guarantee of resettlement. Fewer than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees are resettled annually.
For these reasons, international law states that if a person enters a country without a visa seeking asylum, they should not be treated as illegal or be subjected to any disadvantage.
For more information see the Kaldor Centre’s factsheet on resettlement. You may also be interested in this Refugee Council of Australia analysis of global resettlement data from 2004-2018.
The night before the journey begins, his mother coaxes him to close his eyes. But Zaki stays awake to watch his young brothers and sisters and his mother, possibly for the last time.
'We didn’t know which country I was going to, I didn’t know who I was meeting. The only thing shared with my Mum was: “We’re taking your son to a safe country, it costs money, it could cost his life.” That’s it.'
He is 16 years old when a man comes and takes him away from his family to the airport.