On the Black Way

Traveling the World's Largest Underground Railroad for Afghan Refugees

Afghan refugees sit on a truck as they wait for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees registration centre in Mommand Dara distirict in Jalalabad province, November 20, 2012. Parwiz / Reuters

One winter afternoon in 2010, a smiling, gaunt young man, about five feet nine, with short hair and a wispy beard, walked into the hujra (male guest room) of a red brick house in Birmingham, England. He wore jeans, a windbreaker, and two T-shirts. He was barefoot because he had left his shoes at the front door. He sat on a sofa and our host, a social worker that I will call Ahmed (he wishes to remain nameless to protect his work with Afghan refugees), brought in a pot of green tea.

The boy’s name is Bhahar Gul, which means “spring flower” in Pashto, language of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and western Pakistan. According to the most recent census, there are also 78,000 Pashtuns living in Birmingham. Many of them are descendants of men who worked for the British Army in the North-West Frontier Province of India, which today constitutes the frontier areas of Pakistan. Around 2005, however, the Afghan boys, refugees from war, started to arrive.

Like Bhahar, they have come on the Tora Larah, the Black Way, which is one of the longest and most dangerous migrations in the world. “I am from Saokayi, a village in Kunar Province,” Bhahar began. His house, made of baked mud and stone, was near the Kunar River, which runs along the northern Afghan-Pakistani border. On one shore, farmers use wood plows and harvest the wheat that grows in the deep valleys with a scythe. On the other are rocky lowlands and a thin line of stark, jagged mountains. Beyond them lies Pakistan.

Growing up, Bhahar said, “war was everywhere.” He knew a boy who blew himself up, along with a U.S. Army vehicle, on the road near their house. “People say that the ISI [Pakistani military intelligence] kidnaps boys and trains them to be suicide bombers. Boys from my village disappeared. So many people have been killed. People say that the Taliban, al Qaeda, the government, the Americans --

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