6-year-old Bilal returned to Afghanistan as a refugee with his only remaining friend but life had other plans
Afghanistan — The truck wound its way through mountain passes in the predawn darkness, stacked high with the trappings of a refugee life pieced together over 30 years.
The Shah family had been forced out of the haven in Pakistan that their patriarch had found them during the last war, against the Soviets. Now they were returning to Afghanistan, a place in the grips of a newer and longer war that has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing.
They clung to everything they could: tins of clothes, bundles of blankets, pots and pans, 11 charpoy beds, 40 chickens, two pigeons, a goat and more. The women and children, nearly two dozen all together, either rode on the truck’s top or stuffed themselves among the belongings on its back.
Among them was a 6-year-old boy named Bilal, who held tight to a small cage. In it was his parrot, Toti, his only friend in a country he had never been to, and his escape from the lonely days in the desolate gorge they would put up in to start their new lives
The large family built by Dawran Shah, Bilal’s grandfather, was among nearly 100,000 undocumented Afghans who left Pakistan last year.
In Nangarhar province, the rocky region in eastern Afghanistan where they settled, one in every three people is either internally displaced by fighting or is a returned refugee, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
The family’s new neighbourhood is desolate, just a few sparse homes in a mountain gorge. When they unloaded, the women and children cried at the sight of their new home, Shah said. (Many of the homes are built with the help of the Norwegian Refugee Council.)
“Our house there had a balcony, three rooms, and there was also a guest room,” Bilal said of their home in Pakistan. “Here we have two rooms, and they don’t have doors. And we have two tents.”
Bilal was only 4 when he found Toti, in a different country — a greener one, where life seemed abundant.
Bilal’s grandfather, Shah, had settled in the Hashtnaghar area in northwestern Pakistan, fleeing his home in Kunar province not long after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He farmed tomatoes and zucchini, and, over 30 years, grew a large family.
Bilal had accompanied his father, Jamshed, into the fields the day they saw the parrot, perched on a branch of an aspen tree.
“My father shook the branch. Toti fell, and I threw my scarf on it,” Bilal recalled.
How big was Toti?
“It was a baby — this big,” said Bilal, bringing his small fingers together.
Bilal and Toti were inseparable: together at home, together in the fields, together when Bilal was out playing with other children.
“I had 10 friends — Noor Agha, Khan, Mano,” Bilal said. “We would make houses.”
The only times Bilal would put Toti down from his shoulder was to feed the parrot grain and peanuts, or to slide the bird’s cage under his bed at night.
Then came the move. For some refugees, even 30 years in one place is not enough to stay rooted in a new home.
For nearly two weeks after they settled in Nangarhar, Bilal’s father, Jamshed, would try to find work. But each day, he would return with nothing except new debt.
One day, Jamshed broke down.
“All these debts — they need repaying. And when I see you worried like that, I don’t like it,” Shah recalled Jamshed telling him. “Father, will you give me permission?”
Like that, Jamshed joined the army and was sent to the restive south. A war that takes about 50 lives from all sides every day requires new blood.
For Bilal, the new life wasn’t easy. His grandmother died of diabetes there. He didn’t have many friends to play with. His three sisters are young, one of them, Lalmina, disabled by what the family says could be polio.
“I was scared here. My friends were not here, they were left there,” Bilal said. “I got sick; my eyes hurt and I had fever. The doctor gave me pills.”
But Bilal had Toti. All day, the bird would be on his shoulder as they both would climb the mountain behind their new home, and remain there for hours.
“Toti, Toti,” Bilal would call to the bird.
“Toti!” the bird would respond.
Dear departed friend
One night about two months ago, Bilal put Toti in the cage and, like every other night, slid it under the bed. When he woke up in the morning, Toti was on the cage floor, unmoving.
“I sent the picture to my father on the net. I said, ‘Toti is dead’,” Bilal said. “He said, ‘When I come home, I will buy you another one’.”
It’s difficult to know what may have happened to Toti. Bilal’s grandfather says it was a change of climate in Afghanistan — the same reason given for the deaths of the two pigeons and the 40 chickens.
“The cages are empty,” Shah said.
Toti’s death devastated Bilal. He had lost the friend who helped make his days bearable. But, with time, some solace was waiting around the corner. About a 20-minute walk from Bilal’s house, Asadullah Safi was holding classes every day at his house.
An aid group was funding the makeshift school. Bilal started showing up toward the end of that programme, tagging along with Yasir, a relative he liked.
He had no official paperwork, so he couldn’t be registered as a regular student.
Unlike the rest of the 30 children, he had no books, no backpack. But when one of those children dropped out, the family returned the backpack and the books, and Safi gave them to Bilal. Registered under someone else’s name, he began to learn.
The programme has wrapped up, but the children still come for a couple of hours a day, the house a day care of sorts. Once a month, they get a biscuit and juice. They repeat after Safi as he reads out loud from the board.
Bilal is no longer alone. He runs and plays. In a crack in the wall outside his room, Bilal keeps a handful of Toti’s feathers, a shrine to a little friend.
— New York Times News Service