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Kerning Cultures

Aizen – Part 1: I Hate Wednesdays

‘Aizen’ says he’s the most unlucky person in the world. This football-obsessed teenager from Afghanistan grew up in the chaos of Kabul, and at 15, was imprisoned in one of the worst adult prisons in the world. All for a crime he didn’t commit. In this four part series, we’re following Aizen’s journey as he leaves his childhood in Afghanistan behind for what he hopes will be a better life in Europe.

This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and Dana Ballout, with editorial support from Heba El-Sherif. Fact checking was by Eman Elsherif and Deena Sabry, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf. Artwork by Ahmad Salhab. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.


Hosted on Acast. See acast.com/privacy for more information.

[STING]

DANA BALLOUT: Before we start, there’s strong language and mentions of sexual assault in this episode. If you’re around kids or would rather not hear that, consider skipping this one.

DANA BALLOUT: The football Champions League semi-final in 2015 was a huge game: Barcelona versus Bayern Munich.

Millions of fans were tuning in from around the world. In the stadium – the pitch was dry, the night was clear and the seats were full.

It was an evening game – 7:45pm kick off in Barcelona. 

And both teams were giving it their all. There were plenty of fouls and yellow cards during the first half – but 45 minutes in… still 0-0.

Barcelona fans were depending on their team’s leader – Lionel Messi – to do… something  – and get the team to the finals.

One person hoping for Messi to make a move was a teenager sitting in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was midnight his time and he was watching in secret on the TV in the kitchen of his family home.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I used to say Leonardo, I couldn’t say Lionel Messi. I was saying Leonardo Messi.

AL SHAIBANI: You called him Leonardo Messi? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Cause I couldn’t say Lionel, like I don’t know his real name. And my parents never allowed me to watch football. They hate football, any sport, not just football, any sport.

When they all fall asleep, I’d just go and take the TV, take it in my room, and then when they find out in the morning, they just start shouting, “Why he did this again?” I dunno. I just did.

I know it’s weird, but when I watch football, like I feel kinda itchiness in my legs. Like, cause I just want to go and join and play. And it’s just a feelings, you know, like you just enjoy. Sometimes I get emotional for football, like I, I wanna play. 

It was nil-nil… Then Messi scored.

I start shouting. I was so happy. My dad comes like “What’s going on?” I said nothing. Second goal, Messi scored. 

More shouting. Dad comes like, “Why are you shouting? What happened?” I say it’s a mouse there. I couldn’t say anything else.

But he, I think he know that that’s the reason that are like so happy.

DANA BALLOUT: This was Messi’s 77th goal in the Champions League, making him the all-time highest scoring player in the competition. 

And in Afghanistan, Messi was this kid’s hero…

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You know, like people when they pray, they’re like, “Oh, I want go to Jahanam.” [laughs]. I wanna go to Janna. Sorry. Like, I wanna go to Janna, I wanna do this, I wanna do that. Or I wanna be a doctor. I want to be engineer all the time. Just one thing, I wanna be a footballer. All the time when I pray and I just do this dua, I wanna be a footballer.

And every time, like when I was going to sleep and I’m like thinking, “Oh, I’m going to play football in a professional team, and they give me the first game in the last minute and I’m going, I’m scoring a free kick, I’m giving a pass.” I’m like, it was just dreams making all the time. I don’t know why.

When I play football, I forgot everything. Like I’m not in this world, I’m somewhere else. Like I don’t care about anything else. Like the only thing I think about is my game, that I want to win and I want to score. That’s the only thing. Like I forget that I have family. I forget that I’m in which country. I forget where I am going or what’s gonna happen to me. Just the only thing that, and sometimes I say football is the only thing that makes me happy.

DANA BALLOUT: Four years after that game – which Barcelona won by the way – this young, football (soccer?) obsessed kid – had a dream to be the next Lionel Messi. But his reality – would be so completely distant from that dream.

He’d be hundreds of miles from the comfort of that television in the corner of his parents’ kitchen – making his way through the dangerous smugglers’ network that flows from Afghanistan to Europe.

We’re going to try something new with this series – over the next four episodes, we’ll be following Aizen’s journey – from a Kabul prison complex, through snowy mountain passages in Iran, to dingy detention centres in Europe.

This is Part 1: I Hate Wednesdays.

This story comes to us from producer Al Shaibani.

AL SHAIBANI: Hi, this is Al.

I’d like to introduce you to someone very close to my heart. We met two years ago and since then, he’s become like family to me. But we’ll get into how we met later on. 

In the time I’ve known him, he would say things that would puzzle me like “I hate Wednesdays,” or “I am the most unlucky person in the world.” From these, I would gather bits and pieces of his past – some of them would make me laugh and some of them would fill me with despair.

Some time, around 8 months ago, we started to sit down with a microphone to record his story – in part for this podcast, but also to share it with him, before he forgets the details.

I’m going to keep his name anonymous – to protect his identity – so instead we’ll use a pseudonym.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Like a fake name? 

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah. Fake name. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Okay. Aizen. It’s an anime name, but also, I think people use it.

AL SHAIBANI: Who’s the Aizen anime character?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He is actually a villain. But he has a good IQ. He is mastermind, his planning is good. His planning is good.

AL SHAIBANI: Like a lot of teenagers, Aizen is obsessed with anime. In fact, when we were sitting down to record this, he was wearing a t-shirt with another one of his favourite anime characters.

Aizen was born in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, but a few years later, his family moved to the capital Kabul. Specifically, to a neighbourhood called Yakatoot.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): But the school was so far, like it was around one and a half hour walking, but I was a kid. Now, when I remember sometimes, you know, like when I get a bit older and I see, I was like, how did I walk this whole way? When you are a kid, you walk so slowly, kicking everything in the ground. Just go, walk.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His dad, who was already in his late 60s, is a taxi driver and work was never consistent.

That’s also why the family didn’t live in central Kabul. As a kid, Aizen remembers a lot of fields in the area he grew up in, fields where he would go and look for farming work. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): My father’s car was broke, so he was making his car and we don’t have anything for two days. So he was fixing his car and there was nothing to eat. And my mother was pregnant. You know, I had always the feeling to work and find money, but I was not able to do a lot of things.

AL SHAIBANI: So you’re harvesting vegetables?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Oh, we call it ghandana. I dunno what you call it.

AL SHAIBANI: Ghandana?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It looks like spring onion, but it’s not spring onion. Yeah: chives?

AL SHAIBANI: Chives? 

AL SHAIBANI: He pulled out his phone and opened up Google Maps to show me satellite images of the area. Beige square houses and big, green fields.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You see this parking? This was our school.

AL SHAIBANI: Ok.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was like no rooms, nothing. Just small tents. You know this? We live in here. 

In the first, when we arrived was no place. There was all grounds like this is – chives? Chives? Chives. All of this [unclear], I told you, radish. 

I worked for three, four, or like at least five hours. And they give me three things of this – chives? Chives?

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah. Chives.

AL SHAIBANI: For that work, he got paid 20 Afghanis – that’s the local currency – which he used to buy two pieces of bread. He took those back to his mom, with the chives, so she can prepare dinner. When his dad came home and saw this, he started crying. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I always don’t care about myself. Like I just care about my family, not, I don’t care about mom and dad as well. Just my sisters and brother. Because I know that my mom and dad didn’t give me the life that I wanted. But I always say alhamdulillah but I want them to have a good life.

I never did homework. I’m being honest. I never did homework. I don’t like doing it like writing, reading. It was not something for me. In the class, the only thing I was waiting for all the time was the sport lesson so that we can go and play football.

AL SHAIBANI: Of course.

AL SHAIBANI: That was life in Kabul: going to school, hating homework, playing football at every opportunity. Aizen has four siblings: three younger sisters and one younger brother. He’s the eldest.

And as for his parents, he told me they were very strict: his dad was very religious and his mom was angry all the time. His school friends were scared of her. 

There’s something else you should know about Aizen; the way he looks is unlike any Afghan I’ve ever met. He’s about my height, 6ft, with freckled white skin, green-grey eyes and strawberry blonde hair. When he speaks or smiles, he beams a wide string of pearly teeth. But otherwise, he looks very stern. His piercing eyes are intimidating. He’s a little lanky and a lot good-looking. 

All that to say, he looks different, which is a blessing and a curse for Aizen. He remembers an incident back in Kabul when he was walking home from school.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The car of UNICEF, with some soldiers, they stop in front of me. I were like shock, “What’s going on?” They come like, “What are you doing on this street?” But I was not able to speak. I was like, “I didn’t understand.” Then they called the translator. The translator came, they asked me “What are you doing here?” I said, “What? I’m going home. I just finished my class.” They asked me where I’m from – I’m like I’m from here. 

AL SHAIBANI: The American soldier then patted him on the head and told him:

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): “Take care. We don’t want anyone to attack you because you look like us.” And I was like, “Okay, thank you!” And also, when I was a kid, like so small, like two years old, three years old, I was with my mom uncle. The Americans stopped him and say that you steal some American child. You stole it from where, who is this child? He was like no, this is my own…

AL SHAIBANI: Nephew.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah and they were like no no. But they ask a lot and they say okay okay. I was a weird looking child in Afghanistan! [laughs]

AL SHAIBANI: Friends in Kabul used to call him “Al Roosy” – which means ‘The Russian’ because of the way he looks. No one else in his family is blonde or has such fair features. 

For a kid in Afghanistan around this time – 2016, 2017, 2018 – life in Kabul meant growing up around violence.

NEWSREEL: Kabul is still reeling from shock a day after a suicide bomb attack killed more than 100 people and wounded 235…

NEWSREEL: … After a bomb exploded inside a mosque in Kabul…

NEWSREEL: At least 21 people are dead, dozens more wounded…

NEWSREEL: More than 60 people were killed and more than 200 wounded…

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So basically, we lived in Kalalimardan. It was attack always in here, always. Like every time, people die. A lot of people die. A lot. But nobody cares, nobody. 

I remember all of them, clearly. Once a huge explosion that a lot of people died, it happened when I was 11, 12, something. And I was going to study Quran in a far place. I walked around one and a half hour walk, walk, walk, walk, walk to go to – it was a lady who teaching us, we paid for her and she teach us.

AL SHAIBANI: In a madrassa or in her house?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No, she was teaching in her house. She was Qarii. She was so good in teaching. We went early morning and I come back. And the explosion happened. Boom. It was, like, it was so close to me. I didn’t see from which side it happened, but the sound was so close. Like this was shaking, everything. And I was not able to go to – I was scared to go to madrassa for a week. I was like, I don’t wanna go, but, but mother forced me: go. But I was scared.

 Explosions were happening once a week. Sometimes in one day: three, four times. So yeah, like I see, like, this is stuff a lot. Like a lot.

AL SHAIBANI: You hear it and you also see it?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Yeah. It happened one day near to our car. 

AL SHAIBANI: Near to your car?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, our car got damaged. This bruise, but alhamdulillah. Yeah, but nobody get hurt: we’re all family in the car. It was so close… like so so close.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen eventually finished school and actually graduated high school at 15. He was always top of his class so he skipped some academic years.

At first, the exam board refused to give him his high school diploma because he was too young. But after a lot of back and forth (and some money), he got it and started working. 

A distant relative offered him a job at their travel agency, running errands.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He tell me to drive the car and I was only 15. I started driving the car for him.

AL SHAIBANI: To do what? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Do stuff, buy stuff for his home, take his children to a school. Sometimes I had like $10,000 in my bag from this company. Always, I was shaking. If I lose this money, I’m done. I didn’t lose the money. I lost the car [laughs].

One day I took the family to a wedding party. I remembered that I needed to do some job. I took the car and I went to do the job and it was Independence Day of Afghanistan. So the street was closed. I turned back and my friend called me and say, “Oh, let’s go to eat something and go take a shower and come back.” We have like hammams. I was like, okay. I take the car and we go eat. After eating, we went to take a shower. I parked the car. I said to the person, look after the car, because we know that people steal cars. I said, look after the car, I’m coming back in five minutes. I spent four minutes. In my heart, I was like, I need to go and check. I didn’t even dry myself with the towel myself. I just checked the car first. No car. I was shaking. I lost a car which was worth $12,000. 

AL SHAIBANI: This car – a 2006 Toyota Corolla which belonged to the company he was working for – was gone. Aizen called the police to file a report, thinking they would find it.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The police called me and said, “Come to the police station.” I went to the police with my own feet. They said, “Okay, they complained that you steal the car. And second crime: illegally driving.”

AL SHAIBANI: Even though he was only 15, no one had stopped him while he was driving around Kabul. He said no one thought to question his age because he had a beard at the time. A soft one, but a beard nonetheless.

Now, the car he was driving was co-owned by two people: Aizen’s boss and another guy. In this case, the other guy filed a complaint against Aizen and accused him of stealing the car.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, I spent six hours in the station. They make everything, like they say, okay, everything is clear, done. They take me in the car. 

So I went to the children prison. A really weird place. It’s dirty. You don’t have access to phone, you don’t have anything. They give you food two times a day. Just totally rubbish.

You know, I was scared, but I see the guys who were similar to my age. Some of them were older, but they pretend to be younger. But in Afghanistan, you know, nobody cares actually for these things.

AL SHAIBANI: I asked Aizen what kind of crimes these kids were being held for. He said some of them were caught selling drugs, others were accused of being suicide bombers. He mentioned how many of them were from the countryside. Children that have no education and were charged for being terrorists – either because they simply had a long beard or because a phone call to someone in the Taliban was traced back to their phone.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I spent seven days. They took me to the doctor to check my age. And I had my document, like my taskira that say that I’m 15, like I was turning 16 in a few months. Nobody – they actually said that, “no, we don’t believe in this, in his ID”.

And the tebadly, we call it tebadly, the place that they check the age. They say he’s 18. They just, you know how they check, the doctor? They check your penis. They just look to your penis, they take a picture of your hand and say, “Oh, go”. And they send the results. And they take me from children prison to the older people prison.

AL SHAIBANI: He found out later that it was the other owner of the car who paid off the officials to do this botched age test and claim that he’s actually 18. And so Aizen was transferred from juvenile detention to adult prison. All because of this accusation that he’d stolen his boss’s car. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I went there. My first night, there’s a lot of people who do drugs and stuff. And also some people who are kinda pet – what do you call it? Petro. Petro…?

AL SHAIBANI: Paedophile?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Who want to do sex always with kids or, you know, in Afghanistan you have the thing of bacha bazi, who want young boys to stay with them and dance for them.

AL SHAIBANI: Bacha bazi. It’s a Persian phrase that literally translates to ‘boy play’ and it refers to this custom where older men would have young boys dance for them (usually dressed up and with makeup on) and would often sexually abuse them too. It’s another name for sexual slavery, or pedophilia.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was scared. Like, it was my first time in a place like this. So I went, arrive, they come to my room, another said come to my room. Ooooh, this room was huge. 55, 56 sleep near to each other. Different ages, 45, 56, 80, 20, 19. But all upper than 18, I was the only kid in this place.

 

We had kind of a boss in the prison, boss of prisoners. He saw me and he said, “come to me”. He asked me “how old are you?” I was like, 16. He took me to the room. And he said, “you sleep here”. I was like, okay. He was kind of a nice guy. And then I met another one who was the boss of him. He was from Iran. He killed two people in Iran because a fight, they had a kind of family fight. He was huge: muscles, tattoos – oooh. I was scared. He had like a really weird tattoos in his body.

All of his body was with tattoos. He was like an actual criminal. He looks like an actual criminal. Like, his muscle was bigger than my back.

And I was scared of him. He looked so scary, but he was so nice. Like this guy was so nice. And he had five, six phones that everybody came give him 50 Afghani. “Can I call?” They give, “yeah, go call, call to your family and you talk”. 

[Audio: Aizen reading his Pashto & Dari poetry]

When I was in prison, I started writing poetry. What do you call it?

AL SHAIBANI: Poetry. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. I was so good. Like my mind work and I write everything. 

[Audio: Aizen reading his Pashto & Dari poetry]

AL SHAIBANI: Pashto and Dari poetry. When I asked him what kind of things he was writing poetry about, he said I don’t know. Just normal things like friendship, love, Farhad – the character from Farsi folklore. He was sad and remembered the poetry he learnt in school: from poets like Hafez and Nizami.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So he say, okay, “What are you writing every time I see you?” I was like, “I’m writing this”. He said, “Read for me”. Because he was the boss and you cannot say no to him. I read. He was like, “oh, you’re good”. I was like, “Yeah”. “You can write and read?” I was like, “yeah, I finished school”. 

Then the guy called me and said, “come here: you can speak or you can write, read. I’ll give you these five phones, all the phones. Everybody came, take 50 Afghanis. Write how many people you take. And at the end of the day, I will take money from you. And if you want to call, you can call your family every time you want.”

AL SHAIBANI: So basically, Aizen was working as a phone operator in the prison. He would coordinate who was using which phone, for how long, and then collect money from them.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): There was a lot of people who liked kids and stuff. I was so scared. Like I spent 20 days, but I was scared. But I also had someone that protect me. The boss, he loves me a lot. He was so good with me.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen needed this protection: the older men who were into bacha bazi had their eyes on him; especially because he looked different. Aizen’s family came to visit a few times while he was in there. They brought him food, they brought him a bit of money, hoping his case would get resolved soon. But that prison was just a holding place. After 10 days if his case wasn’t resolved, he’d be transferred to a more permanent facility.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): And first time they were transferring from this place to the huge prison of Afghanistan that they call it Pul-e-Charkhi. 

AL SHAIBANI: The main prison? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. 

AL SHAIBANI: Where is it? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s in Kabul. This guy that I was working for, he went to the main person, the police, he said, “I will give you 5,000 Afghani. Don’t transfer him this week as well”.

AL SHAIBANI: Keep him.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Keep him. He said, “I already skipped one week. No, I cannot again. One time I skip just, we need to send him.” And then this guy called his friend who is in the main prison. He’s also a prisoner, but he was Afghani. And said to him that this guy is coming, his name is this. You need to take care of him.

 

AL SHAIBANI: So after 20 days in jail, Aizen was transferred to Pul-e-Charkhi prison, just outside Kabul.

NEWSREEL

AL SHAIBANI: Pul-e-Charkhi is the largest prison in Afghanistan. From above, it looks like a wheel: a circle of building blocks with eight spokes: each one is a massive cell block.

I’ve seen pictures and videos of what this prison looks like on the inside and it’s one of the most grim places you can imagine. Dirty floors, dirty walls. Clothes, shoes, rubbish are littered everywhere. 

The official capacity at Pul-e-Charkhi is 5000. But estimates put the actual number of prisoners there at twice that number: 10,000. Inmates are cramped into rusty, smelly, squalid cells. It’s freezing cold in the winter and sweltering hot in the summer.  

This concrete hell was built in the 70s and was used as a Soviet prison in the 80s. In 2008, when the Americans took over, they spent $18 million dollars on renovating it before they pulled the plug because they saw it as beyond repair. Still, the Americans transferred 250 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay over to Pul-e-Charkhi

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Escaping from here is impossible. Impossible at all. From the main door from the first door until the prisoners is one hour in the car. Totally impossible to escape. It’s huge. 

AL SHAIBANI: What did you see happen there? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): A lot of things. Fighting, people trying to suicide. People complained, “Oh, this guy tried to rape me.” A lot of things happen in there. Some people tried to rape other guys and they complain and they’re fighting and stuff. I got beaten in a fight – I didn’t know that the fight will happen. The fight happened between Pashtun people and Farsi people. They say that they were trying to rape a guy. And they fight. Because I was sleeping with – I was Pashtun. But cause I spoke both languages. I was –

AL SHAIBANI: In the Farsi side. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. They just beat me without reason. 

AL SHAIBANI: Sixteen years old in Pul-e-Charkhi. Charged and treated as an adult for a crime he didn’t commit.

Aizen described how, when he first got there, he was put in a room with people he recognised from the previous prison. But they were into bacha bazi so he was scared to sleep at night – worried that someone would assault him. Not to mention the tensions between the two ethnic groups, the Pashtun side and the Farsi side.

He also described how there’d be no water for days, no access to a shower. Rats and mice everywhere and an unbearable stench.

What helped is that someone knew he was coming: the boss from the previous jail – the guy with all the tattoos – had called and told them to look out for this blond kid.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): His name was Wahid. He was a really nice guy. He said, “You stay with me. Everybody’s look at you”.

It’s not good to say, but when I get attacked, I had a small knife because the guy Wahid, he told me, “keep this, it will happen. I know you, you don’t have a problem, but they have problem.”

So when this attacks started, they beat me a lot. I got beat a lot and I was not planning to use [the knife]. So I didn’t kick someone, but I was putting in the clothes and making the – what do you call it? 

AL SHAIBANI: Tearing the clothes? Cutting?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Like cutting the clothes. That was the only thing.

So the fight finished, they used the spray. The pepper spray. Oof, so bad. And the police come, check, and counting the people that they saw fighting, take a lot of boys. They call it [unclear], which is a small room that you cannot turn. You cannot sit. You need to just stand. For 24 hours.

AL SHAIBANI: When I asked Aizen to read me some of the poetry he wrote, a photo fell out of his notebook from prison. This picture was taken at Pul-e-Charkhi.

I know this sounds unusual, but one of the prisoners had hired a photographer to come in and take a portrait of him and Aizen together. There’s a date stamped in the corner: 10th of October 2017. You can see a concrete room with nothing but dirt on the walls. There are no windows and the lighting is bad. In centre frame Aizen stands next to this other prisoner. Both are wearing traditional Afghan clothes. They’re standing a few feet apart, and looking directly at the camera. Neither one is smiling: Aizen’s stare is charged with terror and fatigue. It’s a haunting image.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I had a court, like judgement in the court. I went one time, they took my name, everything they say, “okay, come next time. We will decide”. They listened to my case and everything and decided, “no, you didn’t do anything. You drove illegally, but you spent three months – it’s a long time for this. So yeah, you’re free. You can go”. 

The court decided to make me free on a Wednesday. But everything was closed on Wednesday. Thursday off, Friday off. Saturday something, one office was off. Sunday I get free. I spent four or five nights without reason. That’s why I’m saying I don’t like Wednesdays.

AL SHAIBANI: When we come back; after three months in jail, Aizen tries to readjust to life on the outside.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You know, it’s just something, when you are in the prison, you think, I’m forever in here. Like you don’t have anything else to talk, think about, I was just praying. So when I come out, I had a beard [laughs], a long beard, and I had white clothes and I come out. I was totally a different person. 

AL SHAIBANI: Once Aizen was out of prison, things weren’t easy. He had missed his entrance exams for university and when he eventually retook them, he didn’t do so well. 

On top of that, he now had a criminal record which meant he couldn’t find any decent work. He tried to clear this record but he would’ve had to pay the officials a bribe to do that – money that he didn’t have.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): For the time I came out of the prison, I don’t think I had a relationship with parents, because I was – as they say, they lost their honour because their son go to jail.

They always say, “because of you, people talking about you, it hurt us”. I was like, but I haven’t done anything wrong. I just lost the car. But I called the police. People are saying, “Oh, he was travelling with the girls in the car that’s why he lost the car.” I was like, I haven’t done anything. Basically the relationship with my parents was – it was not good from the beginning, but it just totally get destroyed. Every day, sitting time to eat, they start: “You don’t work. You don’t do this”.

AL SHAIBANI: Was someone on your side?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No.

AL SHAIBANI: Sisters? brothers?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No. My sister, brother were all young. They cannot say anything in front of … You know, like Middle Eastern parents. You cannot say anything in front of your parents, even if you’re 35 is still for them, you’re 10 years old.

AL SHAIBANI: A prickly relationship with his parents, the cruelty of being locked up without committing a crime, the shame of going to jail. It was becoming unbearable.  His family blamed him for ruining their honour, for losing his job, for not bringing in any money. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Then one day my cousin told me, he said, “If I pay for your travel to go to Europe, will you go?” I was like, “A hundred percent. I’m not gonna say no”. So one day, I think my cousin just told me, like for fun, “Do you wanna go?” I was like, “yeah, I wanna go. I don’t wanna stay anymore”.

AL SHAIBANI: In February 2019, Aizen decided he was going to leave Afghanistan. His cousin – who works in Saudi Arabia – was offering to pay for his journey to Europe. But this wasn’t a plane ticket or a visa fee or a bus pass. For Aizen, the only way out of Afghanistan would be through a labyrinth of smuggler networks and illegal border crossings.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): At first, I was thinking it was fun, because I thought they were not going to send me, they just say. Because it’s a lot of money you spend on someone. And then one day my cousin called me, “go buy some stuff for yourself.” I was like, “Okay.” It was so like quick!

My dad took me in his car to this place, No, yeah, I call it Kampani. From Kampani, you take the buses to Nimroz, it’s 12 hours away to Nimroz. 

I say goodbye to my dad. I’m like, “Yeah, goodbye.” My dad told me, I remember this, he say goodbye and he went, he come back after one hour and he told me, “If you don’t wanna go, turn back now.” I don’t know why he said this. He said like, “I’m not telling you to go. If you don’t wanna go, turn back.”

I know they said a lot of things, but still, I think my dad loved me more than my mom.

DANA BALLOUT: Next time on Kerning Cultures, Aizen says goodbye to Afghanistan.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): “I calculated all of the things. Like 10 days in here, 10 days in here. So my plan was three months in France. I was like, in three months I will be in France.

AL SHAIBANI: Was it something that you’re scared of?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Not really. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of things in Afghanistan, so like people were scared of, “Oh, I was gonna die.” I have like huge experience with this as well. Today or tomorrow, one day. So who cares even if I die?

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and me, Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Eman Alsharif and Deena Sabry, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson. 

Thanks for listening and see you next week.

[STING]

[STING]

DANA BALLOUT: Before we start, there’s strong language and mentions of sexual assault in this episode. If you’re around kids or would rather not hear that, consider skipping this one.

DANA BALLOUT: The football Champions League semi-final in 2015 was a huge game: Barcelona versus Bayern Munich.

Millions of fans were tuning in from around the world. In the stadium – the pitch was dry, the night was clear and the seats were full.

It was an evening game – 7:45pm kick off in Barcelona. 

And both teams were giving it their all. There were plenty of fouls and yellow cards during the first half – but 45 minutes in… still 0-0.

Barcelona fans were depending on their team’s leader – Lionel Messi – to do… something  – and get the team to the finals.

One person hoping for Messi to make a move was a teenager sitting in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was midnight his time and he was watching in secret on the TV in the kitchen of his family home.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I used to say Leonardo, I couldn’t say Lionel Messi. I was saying Leonardo Messi.

AL SHAIBANI: You called him Leonardo Messi? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Cause I couldn’t say Lionel, like I don’t know his real name. And my parents never allowed me to watch football. They hate football, any sport, not just football, any sport.

When they all fall asleep, I’d just go and take the TV, take it in my room, and then when they find out in the morning, they just start shouting, “Why he did this again?” I dunno. I just did.

I know it’s weird, but when I watch football, like I feel kinda itchiness in my legs. Like, cause I just want to go and join and play. And it’s just a feelings, you know, like you just enjoy. Sometimes I get emotional for football, like I, I wanna play. 

It was nil-nil… Then Messi scored.

I start shouting. I was so happy. My dad comes like “What’s going on?” I said nothing. Second goal, Messi scored. 

More shouting. Dad comes like, “Why are you shouting? What happened?” I say it’s a mouse there. I couldn’t say anything else.

But he, I think he know that that’s the reason that are like so happy.

DANA BALLOUT: This was Messi’s 77th goal in the Champions League, making him the all-time highest scoring player in the competition. 

And in Afghanistan, Messi was this kid’s hero…

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You know, like people when they pray, they’re like, “Oh, I want go to Jahanam.” [laughs]. I wanna go to Janna. Sorry. Like, I wanna go to Janna, I wanna do this, I wanna do that. Or I wanna be a doctor. I want to be engineer all the time. Just one thing, I wanna be a footballer. All the time when I pray and I just do this dua, I wanna be a footballer.

And every time, like when I was going to sleep and I’m like thinking, “Oh, I’m going to play football in a professional team, and they give me the first game in the last minute and I’m going, I’m scoring a free kick, I’m giving a pass.” I’m like, it was just dreams making all the time. I don’t know why.

When I play football, I forgot everything. Like I’m not in this world, I’m somewhere else. Like I don’t care about anything else. Like the only thing I think about is my game, that I want to win and I want to score. That’s the only thing. Like I forget that I have family. I forget that I’m in which country. I forget where I am going or what’s gonna happen to me. Just the only thing that, and sometimes I say football is the only thing that makes me happy.

DANA BALLOUT: Four years after that game – which Barcelona won by the way – this young, football (soccer?) obsessed kid – had a dream to be the next Lionel Messi. But his reality – would be so completely distant from that dream.

He’d be hundreds of miles from the comfort of that television in the corner of his parents’ kitchen – making his way through the dangerous smugglers’ network that flows from Afghanistan to Europe.

We’re going to try something new with this series – over the next four episodes, we’ll be following Aizen’s journey – from a Kabul prison complex, through snowy mountain passages in Iran, to dingy detention centres in Europe.

This is Part 1: I Hate Wednesdays.

This story comes to us from producer Al Shaibani.

AL SHAIBANI: Hi, this is Al.

I’d like to introduce you to someone very close to my heart. We met two years ago and since then, he’s become like family to me. But we’ll get into how we met later on. 

In the time I’ve known him, he would say things that would puzzle me like “I hate Wednesdays,” or “I am the most unlucky person in the world.” From these, I would gather bits and pieces of his past – some of them would make me laugh and some of them would fill me with despair.

Some time, around 8 months ago, we started to sit down with a microphone to record his story – in part for this podcast, but also to share it with him, before he forgets the details.

I’m going to keep his name anonymous – to protect his identity – so instead we’ll use a pseudonym.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Like a fake name? 

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah. Fake name. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Okay. Aizen. It’s an anime name, but also, I think people use it.

AL SHAIBANI: Who’s the Aizen anime character?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He is actually a villain. But he has a good IQ. He is mastermind, his planning is good. His planning is good.

AL SHAIBANI: Like a lot of teenagers, Aizen is obsessed with anime. In fact, when we were sitting down to record this, he was wearing a t-shirt with another one of his favourite anime characters.

Aizen was born in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, but a few years later, his family moved to the capital Kabul. Specifically, to a neighbourhood called Yakatoot.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): But the school was so far, like it was around one and a half hour walking, but I was a kid. Now, when I remember sometimes, you know, like when I get a bit older and I see, I was like, how did I walk this whole way? When you are a kid, you walk so slowly, kicking everything in the ground. Just go, walk.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His dad, who was already in his late 60s, is a taxi driver and work was never consistent.

That’s also why the family didn’t live in central Kabul. As a kid, Aizen remembers a lot of fields in the area he grew up in, fields where he would go and look for farming work. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): My father’s car was broke, so he was making his car and we don’t have anything for two days. So he was fixing his car and there was nothing to eat. And my mother was pregnant. You know, I had always the feeling to work and find money, but I was not able to do a lot of things.

AL SHAIBANI: So you’re harvesting vegetables?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Oh, we call it ghandana. I dunno what you call it.

AL SHAIBANI: Ghandana?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It looks like spring onion, but it’s not spring onion. Yeah: chives?

AL SHAIBANI: Chives? 

AL SHAIBANI: He pulled out his phone and opened up Google Maps to show me satellite images of the area. Beige square houses and big, green fields.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You see this parking? This was our school.

AL SHAIBANI: Ok.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It was like no rooms, nothing. Just small tents. You know this? We live in here. 

In the first, when we arrived was no place. There was all grounds like this is – chives? Chives? Chives. All of this [unclear], I told you, radish. 

I worked for three, four, or like at least five hours. And they give me three things of this – chives? Chives?

AL SHAIBANI: Yeah. Chives.

AL SHAIBANI: For that work, he got paid 20 Afghanis – that’s the local currency – which he used to buy two pieces of bread. He took those back to his mom, with the chives, so she can prepare dinner. When his dad came home and saw this, he started crying. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I always don’t care about myself. Like I just care about my family, not, I don’t care about mom and dad as well. Just my sisters and brother. Because I know that my mom and dad didn’t give me the life that I wanted. But I always say alhamdulillah but I want them to have a good life.

I never did homework. I’m being honest. I never did homework. I don’t like doing it like writing, reading. It was not something for me. In the class, the only thing I was waiting for all the time was the sport lesson so that we can go and play football.

AL SHAIBANI: Of course.

AL SHAIBANI: That was life in Kabul: going to school, hating homework, playing football at every opportunity. Aizen has four siblings: three younger sisters and one younger brother. He’s the eldest.

And as for his parents, he told me they were very strict: his dad was very religious and his mom was angry all the time. His school friends were scared of her. 

There’s something else you should know about Aizen; the way he looks is unlike any Afghan I’ve ever met. He’s about my height, 6ft, with freckled white skin, green-grey eyes and strawberry blonde hair. When he speaks or smiles, he beams a wide string of pearly teeth. But otherwise, he looks very stern. His piercing eyes are intimidating. He’s a little lanky and a lot good-looking. 

All that to say, he looks different, which is a blessing and a curse for Aizen. He remembers an incident back in Kabul when he was walking home from school.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The car of UNICEF, with some soldiers, they stop in front of me. I were like shock, “What’s going on?” They come like, “What are you doing on this street?” But I was not able to speak. I was like, “I didn’t understand.” Then they called the translator. The translator came, they asked me “What are you doing here?” I said, “What? I’m going home. I just finished my class.” They asked me where I’m from – I’m like I’m from here. 

AL SHAIBANI: The American soldier then patted him on the head and told him:

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): “Take care. We don’t want anyone to attack you because you look like us.” And I was like, “Okay, thank you!” And also, when I was a kid, like so small, like two years old, three years old, I was with my mom uncle. The Americans stopped him and say that you steal some American child. You stole it from where, who is this child? He was like no, this is my own…

AL SHAIBANI: Nephew.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah and they were like no no. But they ask a lot and they say okay okay. I was a weird looking child in Afghanistan! [laughs]

AL SHAIBANI: Friends in Kabul used to call him “Al Roosy” – which means ‘The Russian’ because of the way he looks. No one else in his family is blonde or has such fair features. 

For a kid in Afghanistan around this time – 2016, 2017, 2018 – life in Kabul meant growing up around violence.

NEWSREEL: Kabul is still reeling from shock a day after a suicide bomb attack killed more than 100 people and wounded 235…

NEWSREEL: … After a bomb exploded inside a mosque in Kabul…

NEWSREEL: At least 21 people are dead, dozens more wounded…

NEWSREEL: More than 60 people were killed and more than 200 wounded…

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So basically, we lived in Kalalimardan. It was attack always in here, always. Like every time, people die. A lot of people die. A lot. But nobody cares, nobody. 

I remember all of them, clearly. Once a huge explosion that a lot of people died, it happened when I was 11, 12, something. And I was going to study Quran in a far place. I walked around one and a half hour walk, walk, walk, walk, walk to go to – it was a lady who teaching us, we paid for her and she teach us.

AL SHAIBANI: In a madrassa or in her house?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No, she was teaching in her house. She was Qarii. She was so good in teaching. We went early morning and I come back. And the explosion happened. Boom. It was, like, it was so close to me. I didn’t see from which side it happened, but the sound was so close. Like this was shaking, everything. And I was not able to go to – I was scared to go to madrassa for a week. I was like, I don’t wanna go, but, but mother forced me: go. But I was scared.

 Explosions were happening once a week. Sometimes in one day: three, four times. So yeah, like I see, like, this is stuff a lot. Like a lot.

AL SHAIBANI: You hear it and you also see it?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Yeah. It happened one day near to our car. 

AL SHAIBANI: Near to your car?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, our car got damaged. This bruise, but alhamdulillah. Yeah, but nobody get hurt: we’re all family in the car. It was so close… like so so close.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen eventually finished school and actually graduated high school at 15. He was always top of his class so he skipped some academic years.

At first, the exam board refused to give him his high school diploma because he was too young. But after a lot of back and forth (and some money), he got it and started working. 

A distant relative offered him a job at their travel agency, running errands.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): He tell me to drive the car and I was only 15. I started driving the car for him.

AL SHAIBANI: To do what? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Do stuff, buy stuff for his home, take his children to a school. Sometimes I had like $10,000 in my bag from this company. Always, I was shaking. If I lose this money, I’m done. I didn’t lose the money. I lost the car [laughs].

One day I took the family to a wedding party. I remembered that I needed to do some job. I took the car and I went to do the job and it was Independence Day of Afghanistan. So the street was closed. I turned back and my friend called me and say, “Oh, let’s go to eat something and go take a shower and come back.” We have like hammams. I was like, okay. I take the car and we go eat. After eating, we went to take a shower. I parked the car. I said to the person, look after the car, because we know that people steal cars. I said, look after the car, I’m coming back in five minutes. I spent four minutes. In my heart, I was like, I need to go and check. I didn’t even dry myself with the towel myself. I just checked the car first. No car. I was shaking. I lost a car which was worth $12,000. 

AL SHAIBANI: This car – a 2006 Toyota Corolla which belonged to the company he was working for – was gone. Aizen called the police to file a report, thinking they would find it.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): The police called me and said, “Come to the police station.” I went to the police with my own feet. They said, “Okay, they complained that you steal the car. And second crime: illegally driving.”

AL SHAIBANI: Even though he was only 15, no one had stopped him while he was driving around Kabul. He said no one thought to question his age because he had a beard at the time. A soft one, but a beard nonetheless.

Now, the car he was driving was co-owned by two people: Aizen’s boss and another guy. In this case, the other guy filed a complaint against Aizen and accused him of stealing the car.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah, I spent six hours in the station. They make everything, like they say, okay, everything is clear, done. They take me in the car. 

So I went to the children prison. A really weird place. It’s dirty. You don’t have access to phone, you don’t have anything. They give you food two times a day. Just totally rubbish.

You know, I was scared, but I see the guys who were similar to my age. Some of them were older, but they pretend to be younger. But in Afghanistan, you know, nobody cares actually for these things.

AL SHAIBANI: I asked Aizen what kind of crimes these kids were being held for. He said some of them were caught selling drugs, others were accused of being suicide bombers. He mentioned how many of them were from the countryside. Children that have no education and were charged for being terrorists – either because they simply had a long beard or because a phone call to someone in the Taliban was traced back to their phone.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I spent seven days. They took me to the doctor to check my age. And I had my document, like my taskira that say that I’m 15, like I was turning 16 in a few months. Nobody – they actually said that, “no, we don’t believe in this, in his ID”.

And the tebadly, we call it tebadly, the place that they check the age. They say he’s 18. They just, you know how they check, the doctor? They check your penis. They just look to your penis, they take a picture of your hand and say, “Oh, go”. And they send the results. And they take me from children prison to the older people prison.

AL SHAIBANI: He found out later that it was the other owner of the car who paid off the officials to do this botched age test and claim that he’s actually 18. And so Aizen was transferred from juvenile detention to adult prison. All because of this accusation that he’d stolen his boss’s car. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I went there. My first night, there’s a lot of people who do drugs and stuff. And also some people who are kinda pet – what do you call it? Petro. Petro…?

AL SHAIBANI: Paedophile?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Who want to do sex always with kids or, you know, in Afghanistan you have the thing of bacha bazi, who want young boys to stay with them and dance for them.

AL SHAIBANI: Bacha bazi. It’s a Persian phrase that literally translates to ‘boy play’ and it refers to this custom where older men would have young boys dance for them (usually dressed up and with makeup on) and would often sexually abuse them too. It’s another name for sexual slavery, or pedophilia.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I was scared. Like, it was my first time in a place like this. So I went, arrive, they come to my room, another said come to my room. Ooooh, this room was huge. 55, 56 sleep near to each other. Different ages, 45, 56, 80, 20, 19. But all upper than 18, I was the only kid in this place.

 

We had kind of a boss in the prison, boss of prisoners. He saw me and he said, “come to me”. He asked me “how old are you?” I was like, 16. He took me to the room. And he said, “you sleep here”. I was like, okay. He was kind of a nice guy. And then I met another one who was the boss of him. He was from Iran. He killed two people in Iran because a fight, they had a kind of family fight. He was huge: muscles, tattoos – oooh. I was scared. He had like a really weird tattoos in his body.

All of his body was with tattoos. He was like an actual criminal. He looks like an actual criminal. Like, his muscle was bigger than my back.

And I was scared of him. He looked so scary, but he was so nice. Like this guy was so nice. And he had five, six phones that everybody came give him 50 Afghani. “Can I call?” They give, “yeah, go call, call to your family and you talk”. 

[Audio: Aizen reading his Pashto & Dari poetry]

When I was in prison, I started writing poetry. What do you call it?

AL SHAIBANI: Poetry. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. I was so good. Like my mind work and I write everything. 

[Audio: Aizen reading his Pashto & Dari poetry]

AL SHAIBANI: Pashto and Dari poetry. When I asked him what kind of things he was writing poetry about, he said I don’t know. Just normal things like friendship, love, Farhad – the character from Farsi folklore. He was sad and remembered the poetry he learnt in school: from poets like Hafez and Nizami.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): So he say, okay, “What are you writing every time I see you?” I was like, “I’m writing this”. He said, “Read for me”. Because he was the boss and you cannot say no to him. I read. He was like, “oh, you’re good”. I was like, “Yeah”. “You can write and read?” I was like, “yeah, I finished school”. 

Then the guy called me and said, “come here: you can speak or you can write, read. I’ll give you these five phones, all the phones. Everybody came, take 50 Afghanis. Write how many people you take. And at the end of the day, I will take money from you. And if you want to call, you can call your family every time you want.”

AL SHAIBANI: So basically, Aizen was working as a phone operator in the prison. He would coordinate who was using which phone, for how long, and then collect money from them.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): There was a lot of people who liked kids and stuff. I was so scared. Like I spent 20 days, but I was scared. But I also had someone that protect me. The boss, he loves me a lot. He was so good with me.

AL SHAIBANI: Aizen needed this protection: the older men who were into bacha bazi had their eyes on him; especially because he looked different. Aizen’s family came to visit a few times while he was in there. They brought him food, they brought him a bit of money, hoping his case would get resolved soon. But that prison was just a holding place. After 10 days if his case wasn’t resolved, he’d be transferred to a more permanent facility.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): And first time they were transferring from this place to the huge prison of Afghanistan that they call it Pul-e-Charkhi. 

AL SHAIBANI: The main prison? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. 

AL SHAIBANI: Where is it? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): It’s in Kabul. This guy that I was working for, he went to the main person, the police, he said, “I will give you 5,000 Afghani. Don’t transfer him this week as well”.

AL SHAIBANI: Keep him.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Keep him. He said, “I already skipped one week. No, I cannot again. One time I skip just, we need to send him.” And then this guy called his friend who is in the main prison. He’s also a prisoner, but he was Afghani. And said to him that this guy is coming, his name is this. You need to take care of him.

 

AL SHAIBANI: So after 20 days in jail, Aizen was transferred to Pul-e-Charkhi prison, just outside Kabul.

NEWSREEL

AL SHAIBANI: Pul-e-Charkhi is the largest prison in Afghanistan. From above, it looks like a wheel: a circle of building blocks with eight spokes: each one is a massive cell block.

I’ve seen pictures and videos of what this prison looks like on the inside and it’s one of the most grim places you can imagine. Dirty floors, dirty walls. Clothes, shoes, rubbish are littered everywhere. 

The official capacity at Pul-e-Charkhi is 5000. But estimates put the actual number of prisoners there at twice that number: 10,000. Inmates are cramped into rusty, smelly, squalid cells. It’s freezing cold in the winter and sweltering hot in the summer.  

This concrete hell was built in the 70s and was used as a Soviet prison in the 80s. In 2008, when the Americans took over, they spent $18 million dollars on renovating it before they pulled the plug because they saw it as beyond repair. Still, the Americans transferred 250 prisoners from Guantanamo Bay over to Pul-e-Charkhi

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Escaping from here is impossible. Impossible at all. From the main door from the first door until the prisoners is one hour in the car. Totally impossible to escape. It’s huge. 

AL SHAIBANI: What did you see happen there? 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): A lot of things. Fighting, people trying to suicide. People complained, “Oh, this guy tried to rape me.” A lot of things happen in there. Some people tried to rape other guys and they complain and they’re fighting and stuff. I got beaten in a fight – I didn’t know that the fight will happen. The fight happened between Pashtun people and Farsi people. They say that they were trying to rape a guy. And they fight. Because I was sleeping with – I was Pashtun. But cause I spoke both languages. I was –

AL SHAIBANI: In the Farsi side. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. They just beat me without reason. 

AL SHAIBANI: Sixteen years old in Pul-e-Charkhi. Charged and treated as an adult for a crime he didn’t commit.

Aizen described how, when he first got there, he was put in a room with people he recognised from the previous prison. But they were into bacha bazi so he was scared to sleep at night – worried that someone would assault him. Not to mention the tensions between the two ethnic groups, the Pashtun side and the Farsi side.

He also described how there’d be no water for days, no access to a shower. Rats and mice everywhere and an unbearable stench.

What helped is that someone knew he was coming: the boss from the previous jail – the guy with all the tattoos – had called and told them to look out for this blond kid.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): His name was Wahid. He was a really nice guy. He said, “You stay with me. Everybody’s look at you”.

It’s not good to say, but when I get attacked, I had a small knife because the guy Wahid, he told me, “keep this, it will happen. I know you, you don’t have a problem, but they have problem.”

So when this attacks started, they beat me a lot. I got beat a lot and I was not planning to use [the knife]. So I didn’t kick someone, but I was putting in the clothes and making the – what do you call it? 

AL SHAIBANI: Tearing the clothes? Cutting?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Yeah. Like cutting the clothes. That was the only thing.

So the fight finished, they used the spray. The pepper spray. Oof, so bad. And the police come, check, and counting the people that they saw fighting, take a lot of boys. They call it [unclear], which is a small room that you cannot turn. You cannot sit. You need to just stand. For 24 hours.

AL SHAIBANI: When I asked Aizen to read me some of the poetry he wrote, a photo fell out of his notebook from prison. This picture was taken at Pul-e-Charkhi.

I know this sounds unusual, but one of the prisoners had hired a photographer to come in and take a portrait of him and Aizen together. There’s a date stamped in the corner: 10th of October 2017. You can see a concrete room with nothing but dirt on the walls. There are no windows and the lighting is bad. In centre frame Aizen stands next to this other prisoner. Both are wearing traditional Afghan clothes. They’re standing a few feet apart, and looking directly at the camera. Neither one is smiling: Aizen’s stare is charged with terror and fatigue. It’s a haunting image.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): I had a court, like judgement in the court. I went one time, they took my name, everything they say, “okay, come next time. We will decide”. They listened to my case and everything and decided, “no, you didn’t do anything. You drove illegally, but you spent three months – it’s a long time for this. So yeah, you’re free. You can go”. 

The court decided to make me free on a Wednesday. But everything was closed on Wednesday. Thursday off, Friday off. Saturday something, one office was off. Sunday I get free. I spent four or five nights without reason. That’s why I’m saying I don’t like Wednesdays.

AL SHAIBANI: When we come back; after three months in jail, Aizen tries to readjust to life on the outside.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): You know, it’s just something, when you are in the prison, you think, I’m forever in here. Like you don’t have anything else to talk, think about, I was just praying. So when I come out, I had a beard [laughs], a long beard, and I had white clothes and I come out. I was totally a different person. 

AL SHAIBANI: Once Aizen was out of prison, things weren’t easy. He had missed his entrance exams for university and when he eventually retook them, he didn’t do so well. 

On top of that, he now had a criminal record which meant he couldn’t find any decent work. He tried to clear this record but he would’ve had to pay the officials a bribe to do that – money that he didn’t have.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): For the time I came out of the prison, I don’t think I had a relationship with parents, because I was – as they say, they lost their honour because their son go to jail.

They always say, “because of you, people talking about you, it hurt us”. I was like, but I haven’t done anything wrong. I just lost the car. But I called the police. People are saying, “Oh, he was travelling with the girls in the car that’s why he lost the car.” I was like, I haven’t done anything. Basically the relationship with my parents was – it was not good from the beginning, but it just totally get destroyed. Every day, sitting time to eat, they start: “You don’t work. You don’t do this”.

AL SHAIBANI: Was someone on your side?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No.

AL SHAIBANI: Sisters? brothers?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): No. My sister, brother were all young. They cannot say anything in front of … You know, like Middle Eastern parents. You cannot say anything in front of your parents, even if you’re 35 is still for them, you’re 10 years old.

AL SHAIBANI: A prickly relationship with his parents, the cruelty of being locked up without committing a crime, the shame of going to jail. It was becoming unbearable.  His family blamed him for ruining their honour, for losing his job, for not bringing in any money. 

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Then one day my cousin told me, he said, “If I pay for your travel to go to Europe, will you go?” I was like, “A hundred percent. I’m not gonna say no”. So one day, I think my cousin just told me, like for fun, “Do you wanna go?” I was like, “yeah, I wanna go. I don’t wanna stay anymore”.

AL SHAIBANI: In February 2019, Aizen decided he was going to leave Afghanistan. His cousin – who works in Saudi Arabia – was offering to pay for his journey to Europe. But this wasn’t a plane ticket or a visa fee or a bus pass. For Aizen, the only way out of Afghanistan would be through a labyrinth of smuggler networks and illegal border crossings.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): At first, I was thinking it was fun, because I thought they were not going to send me, they just say. Because it’s a lot of money you spend on someone. And then one day my cousin called me, “go buy some stuff for yourself.” I was like, “Okay.” It was so like quick!

My dad took me in his car to this place, No, yeah, I call it Kampani. From Kampani, you take the buses to Nimroz, it’s 12 hours away to Nimroz. 

I say goodbye to my dad. I’m like, “Yeah, goodbye.” My dad told me, I remember this, he say goodbye and he went, he come back after one hour and he told me, “If you don’t wanna go, turn back now.” I don’t know why he said this. He said like, “I’m not telling you to go. If you don’t wanna go, turn back.”

I know they said a lot of things, but still, I think my dad loved me more than my mom.

DANA BALLOUT: Next time on Kerning Cultures, Aizen says goodbye to Afghanistan.

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): “I calculated all of the things. Like 10 days in here, 10 days in here. So my plan was three months in France. I was like, in three months I will be in France.

AL SHAIBANI: Was it something that you’re scared of?

AIZEN (PSEUDONYM): Not really. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of things in Afghanistan, so like people were scared of, “Oh, I was gonna die.” I have like huge experience with this as well. Today or tomorrow, one day. So who cares even if I die?

DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by Al Shaibani and edited by Alex Atack and me, Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Eman Alsharif and Deena Sabry, and sound design was by Monzer El Hachem and Paul Alouf. Our team also includes Zeina Dowidar, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson. 

Thanks for listening and see you next week.

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