The story of Rohullah Yakobi, and a 20-year war
Content warning: This podcast discusses topics which listeners may find disturbing, including torture.
[News clips: the Taliban taking over Afghanistan]
Basia Cummings, narrating: This is a story that starts with a pair of trainers. A prized pair, a few sizes too big for the kid wearing them.
Rohullah Yakobi (Roh): It’s not Air Force, but it’s just one of those Pakistani makes called Servis trainers. It was a bit, you know, a number or two bigger than my feet. And he stopped me and driving along in my dad’s car, and he actually ordered me to take off my shoes and I did.
Basia, narrating: A Taliban fighter, sitting high in a Russian UAZ 4×4 takes the trainers from this 12-year-old kid.
Roh: And then called me to jump in, it was late afternoon. And then I’m thinking this guy has taken my shoes and he’s going to give me a ride back home.
Basia, narrating: But they don’t take him home.
In the Hazarajat, the central highlands of Afghanistan, it’s 1999.
And this 12-year-old boy is kidnapped.
Roh: It’s almost, you know, the evening prayer calls from the mosque. It’s getting dark and I’m kind of starting to get worried and pleading with this man saying okay, at least let me go home because it’s getting late. My, you know, my stepmother and my, you know, the family will get worried.
Basia, narrating: The boy’s father is a commander in the local militia.
The soldiers take him to a building that his dad’s been using to plot the resistance against the Taliban.
Only, his dad isn’t there.
Instead, it’s been turned into a torture chamber.
Roh: It was a concrete building which my father used as a base, they had taken over that they were using that as their base.
So they didn’t let me go off the car. They drove me to that base and then it didn’t feel real. You know, and they just opened one of the doors and pushed me in and it’s this just little dark room.
And I see my uncle sitting there and yeah, I was, I was crying. I’m just a child. And there was this, there was another man lying on his side at the other end of the room and he was groaning of pain and I don’t know what’s really going on. So it just does not feel real.
Basia, narrating: It’s a day that starts with a pair of stolen trainers, and ends in the torture of a 12-year-old boy.
I’m Basia Cummings, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast.
And in this episode, I’m going to tell you the story of a boy, now a man, called Rohullah Yakobi, or Roh.
It’s a story really, of a daring escape that starts in a village in central Afghanistan and ends, sort of, in Wolverhampton.
But of course, this isn’t just the story of a little boy’s escape.
[News clip: Taliban fighters inside the presidential palace]
Basia, narrating: And I need to be honest with you here. I’ve written and rewritten this introduction so many times in the last week and the same goes for the rest of this podcast.
Because over one weekend, faster than almost anyone, everyone – the White House, No. 10, international journalists, military experts, even people in Kabul thought they might – the story changed.
[News clip: Taliban begin to takeover parts of Afghanistan]
Basia, narrating: And so it’s become so much more urgent, a story that’s unfolding before our very eyes about a cycle.
[News clip: The Taliban have not been this strong since the US drove them out 20 years ago.]
Basia, narrating: Which, 25 years later, is starting all over again.
[News clips: Taliban begin to takeover parts of Afghanistan]
Basia, narrating: And Roh’s story. Well it begins again. It’s what thousands of children could now expect, as the Taliban takes control once again.
[Clip: Soviets invading Afghanistan]
Basia, narrating: Roh was born in the village of Anguri, to Riza Yakobi, a commander in the local militia who had fought the Soviets in the early 1980s.
By the time that Roh was born, in 1987, he was a child of war.
Even his name, Rohullah, was chosen by his father’s fellow commanders – a nod of thanks to the Iranian Ayatollah who had supported their fight against the Communists.
Roh: So we belong to the Hazara community, the community that I came from, and what I remember, was, you know, the, the Hazarajat region, as it’s known is very mountainous, rugged, and, poor, and of course, deprived.
[Clip: Hazara descendants of Genghis Khan]
Basia, narrating: The Soviets fought in Afghanistan for a long, hard nine years, supporting the Communist forces, while the Americans armed the Mujahideen – the Islamists – in a proxy fight in the ideological stalemate of east vs west.
And in the Hazarajat, Roh’s early life was lived in the bright light of his father’s bravery on the battlefield.
Roh: And, you know, from as far back as I remember my, my dad given what he was and what he was doing, was always at the center of things going on in the area. So my time would really be spent, being the son of the commander who’d become known as being brave and whose parents had always worried about him, never returning home and who would come home in the middle of the night and then disappear for another two or three weeks and come back.
And it was always that. Him being present and not being present at the same time.
And as I grew up, I realised that he had a position, and I became more and more interested in, you know, sitting along with him in the corner of the room where he was holding his meetings and I was kind of beginning to understand the complexities of, you know, structures within which they were working from a very young age.
Basia, narrating: Two years after Roh was born, the Soviets withdrew their forces – 1989. They were hardly going to fund a foreign war when at home, the USSR was collapsing.
But already, another conflict was brewing.
The Islamist groups once armed by the Americans were beginning to hunt for power and by the time that Roh was seven years old, in 1995, a new force had arrived.
They brought with them, to this exhausted population, the promise of peace.
[Clip: the Taliban in the 1990s]
Basia, narrating: But of course, as we know, the opposite became true.
Executions were commonplace. Public amputations. Blockades of food and supplies. Women were stripped of their rights. They were barred from working outside their homes, they couldn’t leave without a male escort. Girls were no longer allowed to go to school.
Lynne O’Donnell: The Taliban is a pretty unreconstructed if you like organisation and during its five year attempt at running the country here, there was nothing. Women weren’t allowed to work, they weren’t allowed outside their homes without the company of male relatives and in full hijab, girls were not allowed to go to school.
Basia, narrating: This is Lynne O’Donnell, Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017. And on a WiFi connection that miraculously held up, she talked to me from Kabul.
Lynne: Men had to grow beards, science was just ignored, didn’t exist, it was a pretty tough place. Music wasn’t allowed, even kite flying which is a traditional Afghan pastime wasn’t permitted. The Taliban made their capitol down in Kandahar down in the south and they had only two countries that recognised them diplomatically, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Basia, narrating: And the important thing to know about Roh and his family, is that they’re Hazaras.
And the Hazaras were, in Afghanistan’s patchwork population of ethnicities and tribes, a target.
Lynne: The Hazara people are Shia and the Taliban, like most Afghans are Sunnis. But Afghan Islam is informed by a history of Buddhism as the Buddhists in Bamiyan would attest that it’s fairly moderate, the Taliban are extreme.
And, the Shia Hazaras are also Asiatic people. They’re not of European extraction if you like. They look Chinese, Mongolian and they account for about 15 percent of the population. They were very, very badly treated under the Taliban, there are documented massacres but the discrimination against the Hazaras didn’t start with the Taliban it goes back at least a hundred years
Basia, narrating: As the Taliban began to encroach on the Hazarajat in the late 1990s, Riza, Roh’s father, was a key figure in the resistance.
And Roh was this tiny spectator in a war in which his dad, his hero, was a central character.
Basia: And as a young sort of 7, 8, 9 year old, what did you know of the Taliban? How did they lumen in your, in your mind and your imagination?
Roh: One of the things that I actually might, you know, we were really very keen on at least given my father’s position was we had a Panasonic you know radio cassette, one of those old ones. When my father was at home, all we did at least on the, you know, the top of hours, we used to listen to BBC radio, the Persian service, broadcast from London.
So we used to listen to the news all the time and also the rest of the time we listened to music, which, you know, many people in the village didn’t do.
And the other thing that registered for me was when the Taliban captured Kabul, and it was, we were having breakfast, bread and black tea. So my dad’s listening to the radio, to the BBC radio.
[Clip: BBC News, Kabul has fallen]
Roh: Kabul has fallen. That is when they captured Kabul and then killed the last communist president of Afghanistan, Dr. Najibullah and put his corpse in a city square.
So, you know, from a very young age, as I began to piece together what’s really going on around me, the Taliban became synonymous with brutality and savagery really.
Basia, narrating: In the years after 1996, more than a million Afghans fled to Pakistan.
And up in the mountains, Roh’s family couldn’t escape the brutality that was now spreading around the country.
He lost a baby brother to malnutrition.
His father was away for long stretches of time, and he was left with his mother, who suffered from epilepsy.
He carried the shame of her condition, as villagers around him muttered that she was cursed or that she was bewitched.
But thanks to the Hazara commitment to education and to a secular education in particular, he learned to read and write – unlike a lot of children across the rest of the country.
All the time, he watched, and listened, from the corners of rooms, reading his father’s communiques by candlelight.
Basia: And so what happened? I think it would be in 1999 when you were 12.
Roh: Yeah 1998 where after two plus years of, you know, complete blockade on Hazarajat, the Taliban you know like we see today, for example, they managed a blistering attack and advance on northern Afghanistan slowly you know went down towards the capital of the Hazari region, the ancient city.
[News clips: the Taliban’s advance on northern Afghanistan]
Roh: So when the Bamiyan fell, the rest of them just crumbled one after another. You know, one of the things that Taliban did was you know, when they captured Mazara-i-Sharif, I think in one day they killed up to 10,000 Hazaras and every step of the way, they advanced towards the Hazar region, they, again, you know, repeated the massacres.
One of the most notorious things the Taliban did when they captured Mazara-i-Sharif was they put a slogan out to say that if you’re a, Tajik go to Tajikistan, if you’re an Uzbeks, go to Uzbekistan, if you’re a Hazara, go to the graveyard.
You know one of their other warnings was that if you’re a Hazara, you either convert to real Islam, which means Sunni Islam, or if you don’t, leave the country and if you don’t do that, we’ll kill you.
So, you know, parts of the Hazara region were kind of falling one after another.
And the Taliban began sending messages out from the Pashtun areas to say, okay, what is your position? What do you want to do? Are you going to fight? Or are you going to surrender?
Basia, narrating: The Taliban was gaining power – and confidence.
And another force was becoming more prominent too.
[News clip: al-Qaeda sets off explosions at Kenya’s US embassy]
Basia, narrating: And one of the men thought to be behind the attacks, Osama bin-Laden, the leader of a 10-year-old Islamist group called al-Qaeda, ‘the base’, they’d taken shelter in Afghanistan and developed a particular, brutal brand of extremism, allied with the Taliban.
The American retribution was swift.
[News clip: US retaliates to the bombing of its embassies]
Basia, narrating: Within two weeks, President Bill Clinton had ordered strikes on an Al-Qaeda base in the south-east.
[Clip: President Bill Clinton speaking about the bombings]
Basia, narrating: In the Hazarajat, the Taliban were gaining ground too and Roh’s father, he was cornered. It looked like his militia had two options: surrender, or…
Roh: You know the first time I heard the work kamikaze was then. I didn’t know what it meant.
So we had commanders who’d come from other regions of Hazarajat where, you know, that left their positions and had come to our region thinking, okay, at least we’ll see some action here. I, you know, at the time we had a guest house full of commanders who had left and come to our area.
And, you know, I think in preparation for that handover, you know, my dad and his men and the commanders all around the region, what they were doing was trying to hide their stockpiles of weapons and to make sure that, you know, the weapons don’t fall in the Taliban’s hands. And so they had to kind of be very strict and who they actually chose to be their confidant and helping them to, you know, to bury all those weapons.
But it was always kind of, you have to deceive the Taliban to make sure that they don’t about the amount of weapons that you have and there was this commander, he had a few soldiers injured and he had his own hand injured as well, and my job, as the son of the commander as a child was to take food and tea and you know to the guest room.
One of the things they usually did was in return they gave me money, you know as a gift I suppose. So I was doing it for money as well. And I used to sit there in the corner and listen to what they said and one of the commanders actually said to another, they were discussing about, okay we cannot convince my father in a sense to fight, but what we have to do is go and fight somewhere else. We need to see some action. If we’re going to die we’re going to die and one of them said, let’s do a kamikaze and I’m just sitting there. So I am, you know, year six of school so I can read and write. I understand the world around me. I’ve listened to enough radio so I know what’s going on and the movers and shakers of the things I became really curious as to what this kamikaze meant and one of them tried to explain to the rest.
And one of them said kamikaze means we go on a suicide mission and that’s all. And they all agreed. You know, it’s just astonishing, but they did.
And I later heard from my father that all of them were killed, you know, within a few weeks of leaving our area and they actually did the kamikaze.
Basia, narrating: His dad didn’t go on a suicide mission.
Instead, he negotiated to hand over control to the Taliban. He gave over weapons, and facilitated a retreat.
Roh: I think it was just that, you know, in collaboration with the local elders, my father and, you know, the group that they belonged to managed and negotiated which was, you know, probably very painful for my father to do, negotiated a peaceful handover of the district to the Taliban so they could come in and then my father and his men would, you know, would leave.
But of course the Taliban’s hope was that they would, you know, they’d be able to catch my father and, you know, all other commanders who were in that region, but they were prepared for it so when the district was handed over to the Taliban, I remember that I was a child and going to this central mosque and that is where the handover was complete.
The night after that my father collects, I think it was his elder brother who kind of came to him and said, look, you’ve got to leave now.
Basia: So you were at home when this happened?
Roh: Yes. So, you know, I, you know, he just grabbed my hand and gave me a kiss and that’s when, off he went. It was more difficult for him.
But it was, it was actually from a very young age, it was very difficult for him to leave like that you know, he was, he was a warrior and you know, he’d seen his, his school and you know that’s how I, even from that very young age of 11, then I could feel how difficult it was for him to swallow.
Basia, narrating: Roh’s father disappeared.
And now, Taliban soldiers were targeting the militia and their families that had been left behind.
Roh: By the Spring of 1999 they began hoovering around arresting people associated to my father. And then one by one they used to go missing for, you know, a day or two and they come back loose. So when it became more and more in essence, by July, 1999, when I was the oldest male left untouched by the Taliban.
So by then the Taliban had extracted a lot of weapons stockpiled around by pinpointing and getting confessions from people, associated to my father, and then taking them out, and then saying, okay, you know, you do so then my uncles one by one went and were tortured. So it was a hot day in July that they came after me as well.
So it was a school midterm. It was the last day of the summer holidays and one of my uncles was missing. One of the eldest uncles. And his wife said, okay go and find out where your uncle is.
Basia, narrating: His uncle hadn’t been seen for three days.
At the bazaar, Roh comes across the Taliban soldier. The soldier who takes his trainers, and with them – I suppose you could say, the last crumbs of childhood.
Which is how we find ourselves back in that concrete room.
Roh: And I, you know I was crying, I’m just a child, I’ve never experienced something like this. And it had gotten dark, so I think somebody from, somebody opened the door and gave us three pieces of bread for us to eat.
My uncle, he kind of played the patriarch role in the family and he’s you know the person who everyone goes to and he was always known as the disciplinary man of the family and he would always discipline us and we were you know really scared of him and he was not known to be one of the smiling faces of the family.
And he didn’t explain, he just embraced me so naturally and so quickly. And began talking to me to say you know I’ve been here for the past three days and they’ve brought you in to bring shame to the family to show to the rest of the people that, you know, we, you know, we’ve taken the youngest or the oldest, or every member of the family that we’ve got no limit.
And I’m thinking back now, he turned into a philosopher esque personality where we’re having this dry bread and he’s trying to console me saying that we should be proud to be sitting to, to be where we were.
And the fact that among all these people in the village and the district, we are the ones they feel being threatened from is something that we should always remain proud of. And I suppose that he’d been thinking over the last three days of being tortured really, really deeply about that and he turned into that person who was really kind and he was trying to, you know, kiss me on the cheek and console me to say these things that, you know, they will not harm you.
They’re just brought you here to put pressure on me, but know this, that there’ll be a tomorrow. And they’ll always be proud and that we are you know that we are proud people and they are trying to destroy that very pride in us. And then they took my uncle away and I could hear him being tortured and screaming. And then he came back about an hour later. So he didn’t say a thing. I just touched his head and it was wet with blood and, and he didn’t say a thing for the rest of the night.
Basia, narrating: When morning broke, the prisoners were called out of their cells. Roh saw his uncle in the daylight. He was limping.
It was really bright outside, he remembers.
And then, Roh hears his own name called.
Roh: There was this Taliban commander, I suppose he was their commander. He was sitting cross-legged, and his turban was on his side, he was preparing breakfast and he asked me to go and sit next to him. So we’re sitting cross-legged next to each other and I’m shivering with fear. And his first question was, so boy, you don’t know where your father is? And I said no, he didn’t say anything when he left. And he said, your uncle says he doesn’t know either. And I said, no he probably doesn’t. And then he said do you have any weapons stored around the house?
And I said I don’t know any of these things, I’ve been going to my school. And then he took the teapot off and I don’t know what actually moved in his head. He was so kind of, you know, during his questioning was so gentle and I’m just sitting here next to him and he took his spoon and put it on the fire and I said, okay, I didn’t think of anything. And then, you know, within a minute or two, when the food was hot, he used his turban to grab the teaspoon. And before I realised he started tapping on my side with this heated teaspoon. I just froze.
I felt cold. I didn’t know what really was happening to me and then I just scream and then the two men, my uncle and the other man from the cells began shouting cursing. You know, you let the little boy go. The Taliban had some messages from the village elders, that you should let the child go.
And then he just, you know, the sun was out and he just let me go. And I, I just ran and I’ve never been back since, I’ve never seen the village again.
Basia, narrating: As soon he made it home, his family knew they had to send him away.
It was arranged almost immediately.
Roh: They arranged through family friends for me to get out, on the back of motorbikes. The last time I actually glimpsed at the village I was on the back of a motorbike.
And so they thought it’d be safer for me to, you know, take refuge with my uncle in, at the Heartland of the Taliban where in Helmand. And I had a cousin with me the day after, you know, within a day, we were in Kandahar, the capital of the Taliban.
[Clip: Kandahar in 1999]
Roh: And I had to sleep rough for a night in a scrapyard just about, I think probably less than a hundred meters away from the Taliban leaders’ compound.
Basia, narrating: But this, if you can believe it, was only the beginning.
Roh: My uncle had no money. He only had 1000 Pakistani rupees. Which could take us to the capital of the province. And then he decided okay, let me give you one kilogram of opium. You can sell it in Lashkar, it can give you enough money, make you enough money to, and then use the money to get you to Iran.
And then we agreed. So I took the thousand rupee, the kilogram of opium and it was easy to find a buyer. And then this family relative, my dad’s cousin, he says, no, don’t sell it here. We’ll take it to Kandahar, it’s worth more money in Kandahar.
So we go to Kandahar, he again says don’t worry, we’ll sell it in the Pakistan Afghanistan border, it’ll be worth more money. So the morning after we arrive in Kandahar, we are on our way to the Pakistan Afghanistan border, a town called Spin Buldak where the Taliban had recently massacred a lot of people.
And on the way, the way between the city of Kandahar, you pass the Kandahar airport. And also what you pass is behind the Kandahar airport, al-Qaeda had a base there where Osama Bin Laden was based there.
So we’re in this Toyota Corolla, you know, jam packed and I’m holding my bag of opium and we’ve just passed Kandahar airport.
The car comes into a stop and then we see a convoy of SUV’s and Toyota pickups, whoozing past us. And then this man sitting at the front, by then I’m kind of semi fluent in Pashto, the Pashtun language. And then he says, the man says, Osama in Pashto, says he was Osama. So we’d actually come face to face with Bin Laden’s convoy.
And he was on his way from his base to come down to probably meet the Taliban leader. And I’m thinking now, isn’t this really mad? Did I really pass ways with Bin Laden holding a bag of opium in the back of the car?
Basia: It’s just sort of unbelievable isn’t it? And at that time as a twelve-year-old, were you sort of thinking that? Were you thinking, is this my life?
Roh: No because it was just normal life. There was nothing surprising about it, you’re in Afghanistan. And then we get to this border town and you remember because of the Hazaras because of our persecution, the abuse that we were suffering. We were actually a commodity, no other community had to be smuggled into Pakistan and back but the Hazaras.
And now I’m telling this, my dad’s cousin, we have to sell the opium here because I need the money to give them to Pakistan said, no, don’t sell it here we’ll sell it in Pakistan, carry it with you to Pakistan and then we’ll sell it with more money. And I’m just a naive 12-year-old boy who does not realise what he’s actually up to.
And then as soon as we get smuggled into, you know, the Pakistani border town, he comes to me and says, from now, until we get to the destination, you don’t know me. And I don’t know you. So we get into this city coach and then he sits right in the front and puts me right in the back and I don’t realise why.
And I’m holding this bag of opium at least inside a, you know, in another bag so it doesn’t show.
Basia: And forgive my naivety here, but what does it mean to hold the back of opium? What form is it?
Roh: The exact thing you take off with poppies.
Basia: A kilogram of opium paste?
Roh: 100% sure. You know I don’t know the street value now, probably I’d be a millionaire I don’t know.
And I sit at the back of this car, you know, have this bag and opium when it’s heated up a bit it smells really strong. And, and this old Pashtun man comes and sits next to me, I’m holding this bag, I’ve got a turban on. And then he says, in Pashto, he says, what have you got? You know really kind of amazed.
And I say opium. And he just pricks my ear and says, do you know what you’re getting yourself into? And I said no. And then he says, do you know that you will have your head chopped off for this?
I said, no. And he asked me to take my turban off so I take my turban off and he wrapped the bag with my turban and takes it and puts the bag on his lap.
I’m just thinking about how selfless of that man.
And he just grabbed the bag from me and put it on his lap and says, from now on, until you get to our destination, this bag belongs to me. And then we go and arrive at our destination in the city.
And he looks up at me and says, do you have anybody who will look after you? There is a family relative who is in this very car. And then he said, be careful if you don’t know anyone here I am prepared to look after you until we get somebody, I’ve got relatives in the city, I’m going to see my son in the city. I can take you with me, but he was a Pashtun I couldn’t trust the Pashtun. You know, the Taliban were a Pashtun.
In Kandahar city, my cousin was beaten up for being Hazara and hen he said okay, he gave me the bag and said, okay, make sure you’ve got somebody who will look after you. And you know what, the next morning that family relative took the opium away and I never saw him again.
Basia: And you never got the money?
Roh: No, and I was just left destitute and it was Christmas day, 2000.
Basia, narrating: Roh remembered the date exactly because on Christmas Eve, when he arrived in Quetta, Pakistan, he heard on the radio that an Air India plane had been hijacked.
[News clip of the Kandahar hijacking]
Roh: There was this man selling bananas. I’d never seen bananas before and I gave him some money, I think some of that money I gave him and took one banana so my first banana. It was Christmas day 2000 and then the rest of the money I had, there was another man sitting cross-legged and you know, it was a fortune teller. So I tell him, you know, I’m so desperate to see what’s going to happen to me. So I say okay, how much is it for you to tell my fortune? And he says, I don’t know how much money have you got?
I said this much. He said, give me that money, I’ll tell you your fortune. So I give him my hand and he reads my palm and says, you’ll grow rich, you’ll have two wives, each will give you two girls. And it hasn’t materialised yet, at least, you know, I neither have two wives, nor two girls, I’m not rich.
Basia: But maybe it was something to cling onto in that dark moment in your, in your journey.
Basia, narrating: He made it across the border and into Iran.
And there, he settled for a while. He was working, aged 13 now, as a child labourer.
He had no idea where his dad was – if he was dead or alive.
[News clips: 9/11 attack]
Roh: So we, we just finished work and I’m sent to buy some bread from the shop and I go into the shop and there was a small TV screen behind the counter and I see buildings on fire and, you know, two tall towers falling and smoke and fire.
And the TV is on mute so I buy my food and everything that I need without actually giving a thought of what’s really, what’s going on there and maybe it’s a movie or something, or, you know, whatever’s going on there so I come and bring the bread home for dinner and we had a handheld radio where we always kind of listened and kept in touch and when I went home from seeing thoe pictures and listening to the radio that evening thinking, oh my God, what’s really happened? And then fingers were immediately being pointed to Bin Laden.
Basia, narrating: In this small shop in an Iranian village, Roh sees what the whole world sees: the deadliest terror attack on US soil in history.
George Bush: The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts… we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harboured them.
[Clips: International response to the 9/11]
Basia, narrating: It’s a moment that everyone over a certain age can no doubt remember. I got home from school and watched it on rolling news on my TV, safe, with my family.
For Roh, what was unfolding had an entirely different meaning, a vivid connection to his life and the forces that were shaping it.
Within a month of the attack, coalition forces retaliated.
President George W. Bush signed into law a joint resolution authorising the use of force against those who were responsible for attacking the United States.
[Clip: George W Bush announcing the United States’ response]
Roh: I think it was at night time, but I was getting from work or to work on the street where this Iranian man, you know, old man driving his tractor stopped and, and shouted at me saying Afghan boy, America’s attacked Afghanistan and the Taliban are being obliterated.
[News clip: America enters Afghanistan]
Roh: And those were the words, probably the sweetest words I’ve ever heard anyone mutter to me.
Basia, narrating: Roh was ecstatic.
Roh: And I fell to my knees I’m just this child, you know, like the burden of that pain was so heavy just I fell to my knees and thinking, I can’t believe this. This is, you know, George Bush has given us the hope that we all hoped.
Basia, narrating: Progress was swift.
[News clips: America in Afghanistan]
Basia, narrating: October turned to November.
… to December.
In one decisive week, the Taliban was beaten back. Coalition forces and the Northern Alliance took city after city – Taloqan, Bamiyan, Herat, Kabul, and finally Jalalabad.
Britain, under a Labour government with Tony Blair as Prime Minister, hailed it as a victory, calling it “a total vindication of the strategy we have worked out from the beginning” he said.
Tony Blair: We will not stop until our mission is complete… we will not flinch from doing what is necessary to complete it. We will not fail…
Basia, narrating: And there’s something remarkable isn’t there, in listening to this defining period in Britain and America’s foreign wars through the experiences of this 12-year-old.
Roh: And then what happened is that after 9/11, we were working in this village at a construction site in the birthplace of Ayatallah Rafsanhjani who was one of the founders of the Iranian revolution and I called this man who was a contact of mine for people from my village and what we used to do is occasionally call that man to say has anybody left a message for me? Has anybody, you know, have I received a letter or something from home? And, you know, if I had a message to be relayed to, you know, to somebody who was on his way home, so I could do that. And if I had money to be sent, I would send it to him and he would hold it for me.
So he was that kind of, you know, the go-to man, and then it was after 9/11 I gave that man a call and he was my nephew who’s the same age as me from school and he said, oh, we’ve had a call from your father and you have not called us for two weeks and we have a call. I think, he said I think it’s your father and he’s left a number for you to call back.
So he gave me this number 0, 0, 4, 4. I’m thinking, what fresh hell is this? What number is this? And he gave me the number and the next morning I go to this telephone shop and asked them to connect me to this number.
So it was the idea that my dad was alive, I couldn’t sleep for the night. So just to think that he’s got a telephone number for me to contact him. It was just surreal.
Basia, narrating: Three years after he had last seen him, with a final kiss on the cheek, Roh discovered that his dad was alive. His dad had made it through Turkey, Italy, and through Calais. He’d claimed political asylum in England and he was now living in, of all places, Wolverhampton, in the Midlands, 7,000 kilometers from where he had last been seen.
[News clip: America forces the Taliban out of Afghanistan]
Basia, narrating: Once the Taliban were forced out in 2001, the situation for Afghan citizens began to improve.
The coalition focus shifted, it became a reconstruction project, an experiment in nation-building.
George W. Bush: By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall.
Basia, narrating: And the Hazaras, persecuted for more than a century, seized the opportunities that were now open to them.
Lynne: What happened after 2001 was a development and development for everybody. Roads, hospitals, education.
So it’s not that they had the most to gain they certainly took huge advantage of the opportunities that they were given, they’re an immensely well-educated people, they excel. The person who got the highest score on the university entrance exams last year was a Hazara girl. That’s an amazing achievement.
I would say that they certainly are amongst those who have the most to lose with the Taliban coming back.
Basia, narrating: After reaching his dad on the phone, Roh was now in touch with his family once again and it was agreed that he would travel back to Quetta, in Pakistan. From there, he would wait for a family reunion visa, so he could join his Dad.
And with everything going on you’ve got to remember that Roh was a teenager. And at this moment in this story he did what all teenagers do – he fell in love.
He met a girl, called Tahira, at a local language school. He got her a ring. And he got his dad to agree to his condition – that he wasn’t coming to the UK unless he could get engaged.
And all around him, the geopolitical tectonic plates as it were, were shifting.
[Clip: invasion of Iraq]
Basia, narrating: As the world watched Iraq, the Taliban regrouped and a resurgence began.
Taliban gunmen started to cross the porous border from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan.
But the British, and the Americans, they had made a commitment: they would stay and help the Afghans. They promised to help reconstruct the country, as the security situation deteriorated all over again.
[News clip: British troops in Camp Bastion]
Basia, narrating: Over 3,000 British troops were sent to help with those efforts. They operated out of Camp Bastion, a specially built base in the desert near Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
These places had been milestones in Roh’s own escape – now, they were the heartlands of a ‘neverending war’. The Taliban was playing a long game.
And though things were moving for Roh and he was closer than ever to escaping, the situation around him was deteriorating.
Roh: It was in November 2004 that we eventually got reunited again, when we received our visas in Pakistan, I went to the travel agency and asked them, I want to go to Manchester.
Basia, narrating: Why Manchester? Well it’s simple of course. David Beckham. Roh had read about him and listened to stories about him on the radio when he was in Iran and Pakistan.
Roh: I love the city of Manchester. I love Manchester United. So I have, I have a very valid reason to support Manchester United, you know, nobody can call me a glory hunter.
And so, although my father had moved to Wolverhampton, working at a factory, what I did was make sure that we got a ticket, plane ticket, landing in Manchester.
Basia: Tell me about that moment. I find it so incredibly moving the idea of you’re going into a travel agent and saying I want to go to Manchester. Just yeah, amazing.
Roh: Yeah and it was just, you know, there are things that you, the words fail to, to convey really, especially if English isn’t your first language. We were all in tears as soon as the plane landed over Manchester and thinking all the grey and the red brick houses lined up together and all I was trying to do was figure out where Old Trafford was.
We land and I see him kind of, you know, far cry from what he was. He’s very thin, frail looking man, he’s lost a lot of weight and he’s greyer than he was, his hands are rough and that he’d worked seven months without a day off seven days a week, to make sure that we had enough money to be able to buy our plane tickets.
Basia, narrating: It would be natural to think that this was Roh’s happy ending. That he’d made it to safety. Back to his beloved dad.
But of course that’s naive.
He knew no English. He was scarred, physically and psychologically. He’d left loved ones behind.
With his father, he began to lead quite a strange double life. One I think he’s probably still leading.
He’s intimately and emotionally tied to what is happening in Afghanistan, and yet trying to build a life for himself far away.
From Wolverhampton, he watched as America’s political landscape changed…
[Clip: Barack Obama speaking after winning the 2008 election]
Basia, narrating: the new President, and his vice president Joe Biden, announced a change in approach to the war.
Barack Obama: Afghanistan is not lost, but for several years it has moved backwards. There’s no imminent threat of the government being overthrown, but the Taliban has gained momentum. Al Qaeda has not reemerged in Afghanistan in the same numbers as before 9/11, but they retain their safe havens along the border. And our forces lack the full support they need to effectively train and partner with Afghan security forces and better secure the population.
Basia, narrating: Barack Obama approved a longstanding request for more troops. 30,000.
Barack Obama: In short: the status quo is not sustainable.
Basia, narrating: But he also set out a time-frame. The beginning of the end, if that wasn’t too optimistic.
After 18 months, he said, troops will begin to come home.
Barack Obama: These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.
Basia, narrating: And there were changes in Britain too.
[News clips: David Cameron winning the 2010 UK election]
Basia, narrating: That year, 2010, a transition plan was put in place.
A handover to Afghan forces, despite really widespread concern that they just weren’t ready yet.
And a year later, a decisive victory.
[News clip: Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden has been killed]
Basia, narrating: In this time, in Wolverhampton, Roh had saved enough money to travel back to Pakistan to marry Tahira.
And he’d started to learn English, too. Mostly from listening to radio – Radio 4, 5Live. It was, as you can hear, a pretty good education.
His English is, I’d say perfect now, but you can hear that hint of the Midlands in his accent, mixed with the richness of the Persian and Pashto from his mother tongue.
But there was not a lot of lightness to his life.
Roh: The heavy burden, which is, you know, really painful to me, the heavy burden of carrying that load of pain with me from Afghanistan. I’m also, you know, getting added onto it by everything that’s going on, you know, whether it’s losing a family friend or whether it’s having a friend injured or killed in an attack. The load’s just bigger, gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
Basia, narrating: And the west was growing tired of the war.
Peace talks gave way to more peace talks.
The Taliban continued to pressure Afghan troops. The US and the UK had invested billions.
And then, came Joe Biden’s victory in 2020…
[News clip: Joe Biden winning 2020 presidential election]
Basia, narrating: and an announcement.
[Clip: Joe Biden announcing American troops will be returning home]
Basia, narrating: He picked up on a plan that was instigated 10 years ago. He “forcibly stamped his views on a policy he had long debated… but never controlled”, as the New York Times wrote.
He declared an end to the nation’s longest war.
But in doing so, he also ignored warnings from his military advisers. They said that this departure would prompt a resurgence of the very same terror threats that had drawn hundreds of thousands of troops there in the first place, two decades ago.
And the brutal truth is, it’s done exactly that. With breath-taking and dizzying speed.
In the weeks after that announcement, Taliban attacks began to ramp up once again. Attacks that followed old targets and old prejudices.
Lynne: In May, there was an attack on a girls’ school.
[News clip: Attack on girls’ school in Kabul]
Lynne: about a hundred people were killed and it was very specifically targeted at young Hazara girls as they were coming out of school.
Exactly a year earlier, there was a complex attack as they’re called against the maternity ward of a hospital in the same neighborhood. Gunmen went in with automatic weapons and shot women in labor and newborn babies in cribs. It doesn’t really get much worse than that.
And these sort of attacks really instill a feeling amongst Hazara people, that there is a genocidal policy against them.
Basia, narrating: The Taliban seized key rural areas. In many places they were met with very little resistance.
The Afghan forces, trained and supported for so long, just weren’t ready.
[News clips: Kunduz and Kandahar falling, August 2021]
Basia, narrating: And yet still, the withdrawal of troops continued.
Just a few weeks ago, Roh’s uncle, a man called Rahim was captured by the Taliban. And he was tortured to death: his eyes were gouged out and his limbs had been crushed.
Roh: There are days that you think you feel guilty about surviving, you know, that you think that you run out unscathed, despite all the, you know, the pain and the scars that you continue to carry.
I felt an immense amount of shame as well to think, you know, I’m sitting at the comfort of my home, you know, being able to at least get out of the house and never feel about anything happened to my children and can happen to my wife and it can happen to my self.
Basia, narrating: From Wolverhampton, this son of a 20-year-war, Roh watched as the Taliban once again regained control.
A slow-moving horror that had, in those final days, seemed to click into fast-forward.
[News clips: Kabul falling and chaos at the airport]
Basia, narrating: When I spoke to Lynne just over a week ago, she spoke of Kabul as a city that was bursting at the seams. And as the Taliban advanced and it was clear that they were going to take the city, Lynne was one of the lucky people who was able to leave before the chaos really started at the airport and she made it to Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Basia: everything moved with such unbelievable speed that when we spoke on Thursday, you said, I’m sitting in a city that is bursting at the scenes and you know, under two days later, the thing that everyone was, was worried about happened faster than I think anyone really realised.
So just talk me through how it, how the city changed over those two days and what’s happened.
Lynne: There had been an audio message circulating amongst some people that there was going to be a prison riot.
There’s a big prison, big, very nasty prison in Kabul called Pul-e-Charkhi and in other cities, the Taliban have staged prison breakouts because most of the people in the prisons are Taliban fighters, and this is how they scare the city and boost their numbers. And I had sent it to some friends and said how genuine do you think this is?
And one said it’s fake and one said, this is going to happen within 72 hours. And it happened within 24 hours.
And I was busy on Saturday doing, you know, working and final packing and stuff. And a friend of mine who worked in the government at a very high level, came over and walked in the door with a phone glued to his ear and pacing and walking in circles and said to me, when he finally got off the phone, everybody’s gone.
He’d come from the palace and he said, everybody’s gone.
Basia: Well Lynne thank you, it just felt so important to somehow… because we had this conversation four days ago but that now feels like another world away from where we are now.
Lynne: Yes but it is now, they were drinking illegal alcohol and having a laugh and, you know, just, just being ourselves four days ago and the whole world has changed and we saw it coming. And now it’s here, now we have to deal with it.
Basia, narrating: And there is, everywhere now, talk of an immense betrayal. Of a shameful abandonment of the Afghans who had helped coalition forces. Criticism of the speed of the withdrawal.
This is Johnny Mercer, a British former defence minister and former soldier who did three tours in Afghanistan.
Johnny Mercer: The thing they always had over us was that they had the time. Right. So they always knew that the Western, the west commitment to Afghanistan would not be enduring. And that, that was something we could never sort of get over.
You know, us troops were in Germany until very recently, 60 years later, these things take time, you know, invading a country, a lot of politicians coming on. I think, you know, this is my war. Here’s a time to make a name myself. Whereas these things are proper 50, 60 year projects. So maybe, you know, maybe we are going too soon.
I don’t know. But you know, that’s a, that’s a fair debate. Yeah. I think what is unfair is to take the rug from under these people’s feats. None of them should put in a call on the radio for five, for example, and for that not to be answered, we have the ability to support them and we should be doing so in that way.
Basia, narrating: But Biden, he remains resolute.
Joe Biden: I stand squarely behind my decision. After twenty years, I’ve learnt the hard way, that there was never a good time…
Basia, narrating: There are many questions for which we don’t yet know the answers.
There is a rumour, if you can call it that, that this is a more moderate Taliban than the one that tortured Roh when he was just a boy. More moderate if you can believe it that burst into a maternity ward and murdered women and newborn babies.
Basia, narrating: And the Taliban of course are keen to cultivate this image, too.
[Clip: Taliban press conference]
Basia, narrating: But for Roh, this isn’t really a question. He knows too well the true horror of what’s about to be unleashed. That news conference? That’s all just PR.
Roh: I have not been able to find a word to express it. I still feel numb. But the overall emotion has been one of deep anxiety. I’m still kind of scared of touching my phone and, you know, getting a message from a friend where something’s gone wrong. I find it more intense than I used to, when I was a kid and the Taliban took over, my overarching concern was that of the safety of my father. Now it’s different. It’s more intense. I understand what’s at stake.
Basia, narrating: His dad, who drives a taxi in Wolverhampton, is struggling. He’s withdrawn. He didn’t feel safe enough to talk to me for this podcast.
Roh: He’s gone very much into himself. He doesn’t, he doesn’t talk much really, which is understandable.
Basia, narrating: When I first started speaking to Roh, I really did think that I was making a podcast about the past.
About how one man’s life was woven in and out of a devastating war that, over 20 years, has shaped him and transformed the country.
But I was of course, totally wrong about that. This is actually a story about the future.
Roh now works in a bank but he’s an activist and a writer and he works part-time for a think tank. And Roh’s son who was born to him and Tahira when they met as young refugees, has just turned 13.
Nearly the same age that Roh was when he was burned with those molten hot spoons.
And so this is a story about a cycle that has just been reset.
After 20 years, hundreds of thousands of troops, billions of dollars, thousands of deaths.
Earlier this year, Roh returned to Afghanistan and he took his son.
Roh: I was 12 when I actually fled Afghanistan so it was kind of a real, you know, he was 12 returning to Afghanistan. Unfortunately we couldn’t go back to the village where I came from, we made a trip towards the north of Kabul to, you know, the Pancho valley where, you know, I just sat in a corner in this beautiful picturesque area where in the late nineties the Taliban had obliterated the area and destroyed all the vineyards and burned all the houses. So I was kind of overlooking the beautiful part of the world and the vineyards are back, you know, they’re all green and the farmers are back and, and it just looks so nice.
And just to make a point probably to myself, I’ve taken a bottle of red wine from Kabul there.
So I just sat on a rock and, you know, drank that bottle of red wine and said, you know, you never have, you’ll probably never have the opportunity to go to Afghanistan and pacing the vineyards, the very vineyards, the Taliban torched. And they’re green again and you’re having a bottle of red wine, which is actually the best bottle that I’ve ever drunk.
Basia, narrating: That valley, at the time that I wrote this, was the last area to remain free of the Taliban. It had declared itself a pocket of resistance, a small place of freedom.
And for that brief moment, for Roh and his son, it was a place of freedom too, for these sons of Afghanistan.