Blood feuds, battles and bandits – a refugee’s journey
Unlike the armed-to-the-teeth Australian soldiers alongside him, young Afghan Nabi went into combat wielding only his language skills.
Nabi worked for three years as an interpreter for Australian, Dutch and US forces in Oruzgan Province, Afghanistan, as they attempted to neutralise Taliban fighting units while training up local soldiers in the Afghan National Army (ANA).
As a speaker of the four major language groups in Afghanistan and also fluent in English, he was a key man for Australian troops there being able to communicate with their Afghan counterparts as well as civilian officials.
His is a life marked by Dickensian drudgery, Shakespearean tragedy, and a medieval-style blood feud.
In his 32 years, Nabi has had to flee his home four times; he’s been targeted by extremist groups, forced as a 12-year-old to sell fruit on the streets to feed his family and he’s survived two wars.
But he’s also rubbed shoulders with Prime Ministers and NATO commanders and held down key jobs with western military and diplomatic organisations.
His father was murdered as a result of a 35-year-old tribal quarrel. But he is now living in Melbourne as a refugee and has four children of his own.
Nabi’s story is one full of incredible resilience, unbridled optimism and good humour; and as many twists and turns as the mountain paths of his homeland.
“My father was a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, in the north of Afghanistan, but I grew up in Kabul,” Nabi said this week.
“He was a Mujahideen who fought against the Russians but he had to flee the country eventually to escape them. He went to Pakistan – to a place called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province on the border with Afghanistan – and once known as North-West Frontier Province.
“My mother and siblings and I joined him there and that’s where I started school and began learning languages and where I came across English for the first time,” said Nabi, who did not want to use his full name for fear of reprisals against his family still in Afghanistan.
But when the Russians left and the communist regime collapsed the family moved back to Kabul in 1991. Nabi was six.
“At that time in Pakistan, my father was a senior Mujahideen and we often hosted fighters in our house as they passed through on their way to fight the Russians,” Nabi said.
Back in his home city Nabi resumed his schooling until the arrival of the Taliban in the late 1990s.
“There were problems; my father was a Tajik and my mother was Pashtun which is an unusual thing in Afghanistan.
When they married it wasn’t a problem but it became a subject of tension,” Nabi said.
“And then one day there were some Pakistani Taliban fighters playing cricket on our school ground. I went to tell them that we needed the ground to play football and one of them slapped me and abused me. My mother stopped me from going to that school,” he said.
During the Taliban’s reign Nabi’s father became a target because of his Tajik ethnicity and was forced to flee the country again.
“He was detained by the Taliban for a month and was beaten so badly he couldn’t walk. When they let him go, he fled to Pakistan,” he said.
This left Nabi as head of the family and, at the age of 12, responsible for the livelihoods of his five sisters, brother, mother and step-mother.
“I became the man of the family as the eldest son and I had to do everything because the Taliban would not let females out of the houses where they lived,” he said.
Nabi’s father had a shop selling shoes and other goods but it failed under the strict regulations of the Taliban and when the family had exhausted its savings, Nabi was forced to sell fruit and cigarettes on the street to makes ends meet.
“This was a tough time in my life, my education had been basically stopped, my family had lost everything and when our money ran out I was forced to work selling on the streets,” he said.
“The Taliban were always questioning me about my father but I had no idea where he had gone.
“But I always wanted to study and I dreamed that I would have a bright future and that I could maybe get somewhere and be a success,” Nabi said.
When a message came from his father that he was alive and well in Pakistan, Nabi travelled there alone as a 13-year-old at the urging of his 90-year-old grandfather, who wanted news of his own son.
“So I went to Pakistan. It was a new experience for me; I had never travelled so far alone before. I found my father but he could not come back to Afghanistan because of the Taliban and when I got back to Kabul my grandfather had died. He died not having seen his son (my father) again.”
Forced by their penurious circumstances to sell the family house and with little money and fewer prospects, Nabi took his family to Pakistan to be with his father.
They lived for two years in a refugee camp at Nasir Bagh, which became famous when the photograph of Afghan girl Sharbat Gula with her piercing green eyes appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985. The camp was closed in 2002.
Nabi tried to study a little in the camp but he and his father worked as labourers to support the family.
His father was forced to flee yet again when some Pakistan-based extremists learned of his presence in the area. This time the fled to Iran.
“The local Taliban intelligence people in Pakistan were looking for my father so he went to Quetta and then to Iran. We had no word from him for a year and a half,” Nabi said.
At 14 or 15 he was again the head of the family and working hard to take care of everyone.
Finally a message and some money came from Iran.
“My father sent money and asked me to bring the family to Iran. I gave half of it to a smuggler and we went to Iran in 1999,” Nabi said.
“We found my father and we lived there is reasonably good conditions until 2004.
“My father and I worked as painters and labouring in construction and we could live quite well compared to the camp,” he said.
It was in Iran that Nabi fell in love with the English language.
“I had friend in Iran also from Afghanistan who had been an English teacher in Kabul and I asked him to help me improve my English. He gave me some books and we talked in English and I fell in love with the language,” Nabi said.
With the ejection of the Taliban from Kabul and the establishment of the Karzai regime in 2004, Nabi’s family returned home.
“We had a little money we had saved in Iran so we could resettle in Afghanistan. We rented a house and looked for jobs,” Nabi said.
“It was really tough to find a job and I ended up labouring again and selling fruit,” he said.
Nabi said his father had the opportunity to work for the Karzai Government bet declined because of his stance against corruption.
Back in Kabul, Nabi resumed his studies as he worked to support his family. But then almost for the first time in his short life of fear, drudgery and exile, opportunity came knocking.
Through the recommendation of a cousin who was working with the ANA, Nabi was offered a job as an interpreter with Dutch coalition forces.
“I took a bus to Kandahar and the Dutch officer who hired me and we took a chopper flight to the air base in Oruzgan. Sitting in front of me was a US four star general,” Nabi said.
He ended up working with Australian, Dutch, US and French army units translating in their conversations with Afghan troops and local officials.
“I went to the battlefield with these people. I was in body armour on the front line alongside them,” Nabi said.
He worked with Australia’s special operations Task Force 66 which was tasked with eliminating key Taliban leaders and also with Australian soldiers posted to the Reconstruction Task Force (RTF) who were building schools, hospitals and repairing infrastructure.
Nabi tells of being on one operation to capture a Taliban explosives engineer.
“It was four in the morning and commandoes had surrounded a compound looking for this man. There was fire fight and two Afghan soldiers were killed,” he said.
“It was very scary and confusing but I survived it,” Nabi said.
He spent three and half years in the field working long hours alongside coalition troops and became invaluable because he was able to speak Pashtu, Dari, and English.
But as Nabi’s fortunes improved, tragedy struck. His father was murdered by a cousin; the result of 35-year-old tribal blood feud.
“After I got this job my father was shot dead by one of his cousins. It was something to do with a quarrel and some tribal tensions that started 35 years earlier,” Nabi said.
“My father as not really involved but because he was related to one of the people who was involved, he was targeted,” he said.
“It was terrible. I was very close to my father and I was again the only person to hold the family together.
“At that time I challenged myself to do everything I could to help my family,” he said.
In 2009 Nabi was offered an office job as supervisor of the US army’s interpreters in Oruzgan Province and subsequently met some Australia diplomats who offered him a job with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
He joined DFAT as a language and cultural advisor in 2011 helping to deliver Australia’s aid and reconstruction program in Afghanistan.
“I loved this job. I was able to provide advice about local cultural and political matters and I could also understand the Aussie accent because I had worked with Australian soldiers,” Nabi said.
“These DFAT people were different from the military. They were very professional and very committed. I was proud of the work we did.
“I attended meetings with provincial officials and senior coalition officers talking about issues around development, health care and education. I really enjoyed the work and met some great people. I was very happy,” he said.
In his new role, he met Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard and defence minister Stephen Smith; and even the commander of US forces in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal.
Recently married and with a new family, Nabi got a job at the Australian embassy in Kabul liaising with Afghan government officials.
But his return to his home city was not without its problems.
“The people who had killed my father had joined the Taliban to escape justice and then they came after me,” Nabi said.
“They put a tag on me and my family as a supporter of the ‘infidels’, the ‘invaders’ because I had worked for the coalition. Life became very dangerous for me and my family,” he said.
So when the Australian Government offered resettlement visas to people who had worked with Australian forces in Afghanistan, Nabi had no option but to apply for one.
He put in a request to have his extended family – including his mother and sisters – to come to Australia. But it was refused and only his own immediate family were issued visas.
His wife and three children arrived in Melbourne last August and since then they have had another daughter.
Nabi has undertaken a course for professional migrants with refugee and migrant settlement agency AMES Australia and is now looking for work and planning further study.
“I am very happy to be here. My family is safe and my kids have a chance to do whatever they want,” he said.
“I also have a chance to be successful. I would love to work helping other migrants and to give back to Australia. That is my dream,” he said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist