Two images have so far encapsulated the Afghanistan tragedy. One shows the moment a wailing baby is handed over to an American soldier at Kabul airport by its parents who obviously believe any other life will be better for their child than the one held in store in their own country. In the other, two men (to the naked eye they appear like two little dots in the sky) are seen falling to their deaths from the underside of a US military plane shortly after takeoff. A third body was later found in the wheel carriage of the same aircraft. These people chose death over staying in a country plunging into darkness. Their tragic deaths demonstrated in the most heartbreaking manner that every “migrant,” every “refugee” who falls from the sky, who drowns in the Mediterranean Sea, who is murdered by criminals, doesn’t leave their country and kin just to bother people in other countries, to deprive others of a living, or to cause political turmoil. They flee because they are at risk, because they have no hope. They can no longer ward off the enemy, the hunger, the environmental disaster. The only option is to run away. And when we like and sympathize with these people, we talk about them in an abstract manner. We see them but we don’t really see them.
Until we do. Until we see the gaze of Zaki Anwari, like we saw the dead body of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler lying face down on an Aegean beach, a few years ago. Zaki was one of those who dropped from the American aircraft. He was 17 and played for the national youth soccer team. I read about Zaki after his death was confirmed by Afghanistan’s sports federation, and it seemed appropriate that I write about him here. Perhaps I would have done so in an abstract manner only to demonstrate the desperation of a people so often impacted by tragedy. But when I opened the photo of him on my desktop, my heart broke. I sensed that loss of hope. The picture shows a fine grown young man. He is wearing the red No 10 shirt of the Afghan national team. He is staring into the lens with a serious, thoughtful gaze. It’s as if he is looking at the opportunities that lie ahead of him. At the same time, it’s like he can see a shadow in the distance; one can discern a hint of fear or mistrust in his eye. His gaze is intelligent and crisp, serious and responsible; it is not a cheerful gaze. A representative from Afghanistan’s sports federation told The New York Times Zaki had come from a poor family in Kabul and had worked hard to achieve his dream of playing for the national soccer team while also attending school. He does not look like someone that would do something foolish, frivolous or dangerous. And yet he killed himself.
The question is how many girls and boys, how many women and men will be so desperate as to, in one way or another, resist the Taliban, placing their life on the flip of the coin as Zaki did? How many will flee? Can the Taliban deal with a situation where 63 percent of around 40 million Afghans are in deep poverty and the country relies on outside aid, where 46 percent of the population are under 15 years of age, where women will be shut out of work and public life? Right now, the Taliban may not be at risk of foreign intervention. However, they must deal with the needs of the people and their own weaknesses. Will they cooperate with foreign governments and international organizations, if only to remain in power, insisting on a sad re-enactment of the darkest past? Or will they come to understand that they are responsible for the wellbeing of the people and seek to rally all of society behind that effort? Afghanistan has so many problems that the country’s trajectory will soon become evident. Regrettably, the country’s neighbors are also governed by prejudice that obstructs progress and economic growth. Pakistan and Iran are in for major developments. They can play a key role in Afghanistan developments no more than Afghanistan can affect their own course. The sudden, irresponsible withdrawal of the US and other forces has brought disaster upon many Afghans but it has also forced many of the neighboring states to face up to their responsibilities. The challenges they are facing require groundbreaking solutions, not more of the same old reactionism.
Zaki with the No 10 jersey could have been part of any squad across the world. In Brazil, in England, in France or in Greece, his prospects would depend on his talent and, to some degree, his luck. His gaze would be fixed firmly on the future. In that photo of him that the world is left with today, it’s as if he is gazing at us yet sees nothing but the abyss.