“Qaachaaq is like breaking into someone’s home,” said Sajid while pouring me tea in his dimly lit and dreadfully untidy room in what appeared to be Istanbul’s inner-city slums. He gave the analogy to describe illegal migration or immigration—otherwise known as qaachaaq in the parlance of people who help individuals cross illegally into another country or several countries to reach their destination. These words reflected the wisdom of this sixteen-year-old displaced Pashtun-Afghan, mature beyond his years. Endless wars, death, destruction and displacements multiple times over the past four decades are the reasons why Sajid thought, looked and acted like a grown-up man already. I met Sajid in the Hacıhüsrev neighborhood of Istanbul’s Beyoglu district where I am currently living for my Ph.D. fieldwork at Koç and Boğaziçi Universities.
Qaachaaq is a Persian word, which literally means leakage. Figuratively, it can also be used to refer to illegal trafficking of goods and humans through porous border territories from one country into another. Derived from qaachaaq, qaachaqbar (singular) and qaachaqbaraan (plural) are used to refer to professionals who deal in qaachaqbari or trafficking drugs, arms, petrol and also humans among other things. In Pashto, the word for qaachaaq is koch, adjacent to the Turkish göç. Koch or göç means legal or illegal migration—in this context obviously the illegal type. The person who immigrates illegally is known as kaçak in Turkish.
Sajid, a kaçak himself, had started working around the age of ten in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Working through multiple odd jobs for five years, about a year ago he eventually decided to leave home. His aged father did not want him to leave, but for Sajid the time had come. He could not deal with the worsening economic and security situation of the country anymore. The journey to Turkey was not easy, though. The two-month-long crossing would cost him about US$ 1,200, and included long car rides, walks and runs, all of it during the constant threat of being arrested or shot by Iranian and Turkish border guards. In recent months, Turkey’s border has been quite unfriendly to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan as fears grip the country in the aftermath of the Taliban’s control.
One of the most arduous parts of this ordeal was being shuffled around by dealers who usually shove about fifteen migrants in a four-door sedan for days or weeks. Some were forced into the trunk of the car, feeling desperate for space and fresh air while the rest would pile up on one another in the back seat. “The driver pushed us into the trunk and even kicked us when we protested and closed the trunk on us,” Sajid said. “Normally four or five guys are huddled together in a tiny trunk. They don’t care if we cry and implore them to stop during the three or four-hour journey at a time,” said Ahmed, who was shivering from clod and had wrapped himself in a thick blanket because he had just taken shower and his long hair was still wet.
Sajid lives with a dozen other young Afghan boys in extremely poor conditions in one of Istanbul’s most dangerous neighbourhoods, where they work as garbage collectors. I felt the danger from wandering its dark alleys and abandoned homes, which is where I met Sajid and his friends. I heard them speaking Pashto and turned back to say ‘hi.’ I accompanied them to their wataaq (residence in Pashto) to have tea and listen to their experiences. I realized the danger further when upon requesting a cab through Uber one of them said that the driver might not come here because it is too dangerous. But luckily the driver showed up and I reached home safely.
Anyway, the work they do is not easy for several reasons. It is the lowest and the most difficult of menial labours. They walk with chakchas (handcarts) on their backs around the city’s steep streets for about half of the day and six days a week. During my hours-long strolls almost every day, I see young boys like Sajid and his roommates, exerting full force on pulling their carts up and down the streets. If you have ever been to Istanbul, you will know how hard it is to carry yourself on its streets, let alone a loaded chakcha on your back.
Then there is the fear of authorities. “We cannot catch a break from the police, who can arrest, jail and deport us any time,” Sajid, who seemed more interested in the conversation than others, complained. This has caused a certainty of uncertainty in their lives. Some of them have been arrested and deported and others have spent months in prison several times. One of their friends was taken by the police a month ago and his whereabouts remain unknown until now. “We don’t understand what they want from us. Sometimes they arrest us and free us after a month or two and sometimes they deport us,” said Sajid.
Asadullah, another seventeen-year-old boy, recently arrived in Istanbul. His main reason for leaving home was the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021. Born in Peshawar, Pakistan, he returned to his homeland along with his family at the beginning of Ashraf Ghani’s second presidential term in 2019. Like many diasporic Afghans, his family was hopeful that peace, freedom and democracy had come to Afghanistan and life would improve by the day.
But they did not know it was the calm before the storm. The ongoing conflict between the government and Taliban had taken lives for decades, but many Afghans thought – or at least that is what the government in Kabul claimed – that the bloodshed and sacrifices would be worth attaining freedom and democracy. There were also other Afghans who did not want the two parties to continue fighting and worried more about their lives than about freedom. A few urged both parties to stop fighting and to sit together for a durable solution to the problem, but such pleas fell on deaf ears.
“Poverty and hunger have gone to another level. People can’t afford simple bread under the Taliban,” Sajid said while puffing out his cigarette. “When my father said ‘Don’t leave,’ I told him, ‘I want you to be at home and be happy. Thank god I am a grown-up man and will earn for you and the family,’” he continued while flicking ash into a paper cup. Prior to arriving in Istanbul, he worked for a year in Kabul, and had returned home to Nangarhar the day before Eid.
“I spent four days at home and left when my father did not want me to leave. But I left anyway. Then my uncle called me and said that my father had agreed to allow me to go but wanted me to say goodbye to him. I went home one last time and he told me again not to leave. I said I can’t stay anymore, so I left,” Sajid explained. Most of the boys leave without consent and call their parents for prayers after they arrive in Turkey. “Old parents don’t allow it because their time is almost done but young parents think about their children’s future,” he explained. “Most young guys don’t see eye to eye with their fathers anyways anymore,” Akbar, another young man, intervened.
Some physical wounds were quite obvious on their hands and feet. Akbar’s right foot had two bad gashes which seemed to have been caused by the dirt and unhygienic work environment. They seemed to be getting worse
Critics of illegal migration claim that many of these young boys bring harsh life conditions upon themselves. They choose to leave of their own accord rather than necessarily due to endangering life circumstances, they contend. They argue that these young boys can use the money (they give to smugglers) to start a business at home. Furthermore, they assert that the really poor ones choose to stay in the country. There may be some truth to these claims, but they do not invalidate the need and desire to flee, if for no other reason but to escape the suffering and trauma of the past several decades. Seeking physical, psychological and economic safety is their basic right.
As a political asylee myself for the past nine years in the United States, I can’t emphasize enough that very few people choose to leave everything—home, parents, friends and their whole life—behind on their terms. Many feel forced for economic, political, religious and intellectual reasons to give up on an entire life and seek to rebuild from scratch elsewhere. As per the poor who ‘choose’ to stay behind, a lot of times they do not have the means to pay for escaping. If they did, they would most probably choose to leave too. Such is the level of helplessness of many in this unfair world that even escape is not free.
I spent about two hours in their room and twelve guys gathered, entering one by one after coming back from work. Like Sajid, every one of them greeted me with respect as their elder and each newcomer into the room asked others if they had served me tea and whether I was cold. War, violence, poverty and homelessness had taken everything from them but their generosity, endemic to the Pashtun-Afghan character.
The loss and sadness in their eyes and the melancholy and uncertainty on their faces were the unmistakably indelible scars of endless war, in which their parents and they have grown up. Suicide bombs, bloodshed, destruction of property and poverty are all they have known for years. The desperation to flee to a new, safe and prosperous place is born out of the past trauma and the dream of a better future. The future for which they risked separation, homelessness and even their lives. Woefully, the United States’ completely chaotic and abrupt withdrawal and handing over the country to the Taliban have increased fear and desperation and the urgency of many to leave.
When I asked what they thought about the Taliban, they said there is some degree of peace but it has not stopped the violence. People find dead bodies on the streets every day. The economic situation is extremely bad. Some people can’t even buy green tobacco, which apparently used to be one of the cheapest items in the market. The Taliban say we are bringing Islam to Afghanistan. What do you think about that? I asked. “Afghans are Muslims. They have always been Muslims. What the Taliban claim does not make sense,” said Rasool with his head down and his brimmed hat hiding his face.
“We came here because we did not want to be Kochadubs (“street dogs” in Pashto),” said Sajid. It is a term used to define guys who wander the streets without a purpose. “We needed work and a purpose in life. Although it is hard, we are grateful to be here. We don’t have lives, but we can support our families back home,” he continued. Many of his friends concurred with him. Their gratefulness and confidence in the most difficult life conditions spoke of their strong character. However, it of course does not mean they are not hurt to be away from home and that they don’t have wounds.
Some physical wounds were quite obvious on their hands and feet. Akbar’s right foot had two bad gashes which seemed to have been caused by the dirt and unhygienic work environment. They seemed to be getting worse. He said to me, “Mama (“maternal uncle,” an address of respect in Pashto), in Turkey, wounds don’t heal fast. They take a long time.”
He was referring to his foot when I asked what happened to it. Ahmed echoed what Akbar said.
Sadly, their wounds are not only physical. They are psychological too. Akbar’s foot may heal but what about his psychological wounds? What about the loss of home? Who is responsible? What are the United States, its NATO allies and the world doing? What is Turkey doing? These boys came here hoping to recover from the past loss and heal, but their present life conditions are doing the opposite to their minds and bodies. It would be tragic and shameful if Akbar’s fear, that wounds don’t heal fast in Turkey, turns out to be true in the coming months and years. And one hopes that the Pakistani state and society have been more friendly and supportive toward Afghans who have fled across the border for safety after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.
Names have been changed for the privacy and security of individuals mentioned in the story.
Aslam Kakar is a Ph.D. Candidate and part-time instructor in the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers University, Newark, USA. Currently, he is a guest researcher at Koc and Bogazici universities in Istanbul, Turkey. His Ph.D. dissertation compares the social movements of Kurds in Turkey and Pashtuns in Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @aslam_kakar