- The Taliban were hunting me for being gay
- Escaping Afghanistan was terrifying
- But I made it to Pakistan and hoped my life would change
ISLAMABAD, Sept 29 (Openly) - It is September 29, 2022, and I am sitting in my hideous room in a hotel in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, waiting for my Afghan passport to arrive back from the British Embassy.
Despite so many hardships, taking so many risks and working so hard to leave my home in Afghanistan and arrive somewhere safe, I have no hope that it will contain a British visa.
Thousands of miles to the west, in Britain, there is education, opportunity and, most importantly, no one waiting to force me to be someone I am not or torture me for being myself, a gay Afghan man.
Back in Afghanistan, I hear that Taliban soldiers have already been to my parents' house with an arrest warrant.
Although my mum and dad were thankfully not told what the charges were, every day I read stories about what they do to people like me who are still there.
I arrived in Pakistan five months ago, having fled Afghanistan in fear of my life.
As a gay man, my arrest would have meant imprisonment, torture and possible death.
I had previously spent 10 months hiding in the house of one of my cousins in Kabul.
I did not have a passport, and the Taliban had closed the passport office, so people would not be able to leave the country. They had effectively taken the nation hostage.
As I hid in my cousin's house, I contacted four different officials, offering bribes to gain a passport. One of them absconded with my money. I was utterly depressed.
Finally, a miracle: one of the officials agreed to take my money – and help me gain my passport.
My last day in Afghanistan was May 5, 2022. I had grown a beard and moustache and wore a turban to look like the new rulers.
I had no one to say goodbye to and no one to hug, as visiting my parents before I left would have been too risky.
As I sat in my room and packed my clothes, I started to cry, realising that pain, suffering and loneliness were inevitable for me as a 20-year-old gay man in Afghanistan and my only hope was to leave my life far, far behind.
I took what little I had: a rucksack containing a pair of jeans, a few T-shirts, my ancient laptop and two short stories: Fyodor Dostoevsky's "White Nights" and "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho, both of which I had read and reread.
As I stood on the street that afternoon waiting to catch a taxi to the airport, I saw a world destroyed by the Taliban.
Before the fall of Kabul in August 2021, standing on a similar street, I would see children in their school uniforms, chatting and laughing; middle-aged men in suits, who you could tell had a government job and were well off; and teenage girls walking in groups, quizzing each other about what they had learned that day at school.
Women's faces were visible, and there was an equal number of men and women on the streets. The Kabul I'd grown up in had been colourful; now it was black and white.
As I waited for the taxi in the sweltering heat, I saw women in burqas begging for pennies carrying their months-old babies; children who looked as young as seven or eight working on the streets, selling what little they had or could find.
Where were the girls who would normally have been walking to school? The laughter, the day-to-day noise of happy activity and chatter had been replaced by Taliban bomb squads, driving past in their black SUVs.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Crossing the border was the first huge risk I faced.
As well as being terrified about travelling abroad for the first time, especially by myself, I was also afraid of going to Kabul Airport as it was controlled by the Taliban.
I had been thinking about the safest way to escape to Pakistan and realised that at the airport, I would only have to pass a single Taliban checkpoint, whereas crossing the border by land I might be searched several times, increasing the chances of being captured.
As I approached the airport gate, a Taliban officer with long hair and thick beard looked me in the eye and asked for my passport and ticket.
"Where are you going?" he asked in Pashto, one of Afghanistan's two official languages. "I'm going to Pakistan for medical treatment," I replied, as that was the visa my bribes had bought me.
He had my passport and ticket in his hand. What would happen if they knew who I was and that the police were looking for me? At the slightest sign to his colleagues, they could destroy my documents and arrest me on the spot.
After a nerve-wracking few minutes, which saw several families pass me in the queue, he returned my passport and I took my first tentative steps to freedom and a new life.
After a 45-minute flight, the plane landed in Islamabad.
Walking through the airport and seeing new faces, with everyone speaking different languages, I already felt homesick. But I knew I had to go on as if everything was fine.
While I'd been waiting for my flight, I had called my mother.
I told her that I had gained a scholarship to go to university in Pakistan. I could not tell her the truth: that I was gay, and my life was in danger.
So I lied to her. She cried and I cried, but I think - I hoped at that point - that she knew I was doing the right thing.
As I took a taxi from the airport and saw Islamabad unfold before me, I was full of trepidation, but also excitement.
I'd escaped Kabul – and my life was changing for the better – or so I hoped.
This is Part I in a two part series. For more in this series:
(Reporting by Anonymous; editing by Jon Hemming and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit Openly, the LGBTQ+ news website from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.openlynews.com)
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