The Smuggler

London Review of Books, Jul. 5, 2016

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The Dari word qachaqbar means ‘the one with illicit goods’, but when I hear it in Kabul I don’t think of drugs or arms but people. Afghans have been leaving since the Soviet invasion in the 1970s, but after 2014, when foreign troops pulled out, the leaving changed pace: in 2015, more than 200,000 Afghans left for Europe alone. Every Afghan friend I had in Kabul – even those with a chance of doing well at home – told me of their visits to qachaqbars. They were to be found in quiet backrooms of businesses that served as fronts, or in unofficial wings of official travel agencies, or behind partitions at busy family-style restaurants, or at tea houses, or in car parks.

I met Humayoon Haideri through a former smuggler, whom I’ll call Muhammad. Muhammad had spent his youth smuggling – ‘arms in, drugs out’ – and had accumulated a lot of money and many scars. When Muhammad introduced me to a man who called himself Haideri, he said he trusted him with his life and that I could too. They could say that because they both know that if the trust was breached it would be open season. Terror is the currency these men trade with, but they are unfailingly warm with their friends.

Haideri always wears tracksuits, and is always sweaty. I thought of him as a doer. He delivers – promise, people, goods – and he approaches every task, however small, with zeal. Every missed call is returned; when he says he’ll call on Saturday, he calls on Saturday. Whenever he pours me tea, he follows the custom – pour, swirl, empty, pour again – with some theatre. When it gets warmer and the ice cubes melt in my fizzy lemonade, he throws my drink out with a flourish and gets me another. It’s this sort of care and precision that allows him to run a lucrative business without any discernible paperwork.

I have never met anyone more blithe about the contrast between their self-image and the facts of their life. He sees himself as an entrepreneur bringing a much needed service to market. He is helping people realise their dreams – it just so happens that these dreams involve extra-legal measures. Others see him as the villainous head of a transnational syndicate who charges usurious sums – $8000 per person in the off season and $10,000 or more in the peak – to send men, women and occasionally children into harm’s way. Haideri estimates that he makes upwards of $100,000 a year, in a country where a soldier’s monthly salary is little more than $100. His fellow smugglers guess that he makes much more.

Haideri, now 43, has smuggled for twenty years. He counts many police as close friends, and his social diary is filled with the weddings of sons and daughters of Iranian border guards, Baloch tribal elders and police chiefs of border towns. When his contacts on the ground fail him, he only has to call his friends at the Turkish consulate or the office of the country’s vice president.

He still accompanies his customers once or twice a month to Nimroz, in Afghanistan’s south-western corner, a lawless frontier town on the border with Iran and Pakistan. The road from Kabul to Nimroz is pockmarked with roadside bombs and insurgent checkpoints, but he considers making the first leg of the journey himself crucial to maintaining quality of service. When he began as a smuggler, he would walk for hours on foot, but in recent years he has let his colleagues do this most treacherous part of the trip. He still wears tracksuits, but now he has a potbelly.

We went for a walk one Saturday afternoon through his neighbourhood in the westernmost end of Kabul, a place called Dasht-e Archi. Everyone seemed to know him. It took us twice as long as it should have done to get anywhere because he’d be stopped every few paces by a passerby who wanted to thank him for paying for their daughter’s tuition or their mother’s medical treatment. Later, in a vocational training centre he had set up, Haideri showed me a book in which he kept note of all those he’d helped: page after page of sorrowful women. He wanted to go through them together so I could hear their stories. This one was a widow, her husband killed in a fire. Here was a spinster, alone in the world but for Haideri. They were being taught how to run a small business. Some made noodles and sold them on the street. Others became dressmakers. They were grateful for his help, their lifeline, and didn’t ask about the source of his wealth. Whatever guilt he felt about breaking the law – though it wasn’t clear to me he felt much – appeared to be offset by his philanthropic activities. He seemed to absolve himself of blame this way. We later watched televised debates on the ongoing peace negotiations together. I played with his toddler, his fourth child from a second wife. The girl, her arms heavy with bangles, wanted to play with her father’s many phones and keys, and Haideri let her. After I left for the long car ride back east, he checked on me to make sure I got home OK.

Unlike others in the trade, he didn’t seem fazed by an expected fall in the numbers leaving Afghanistan and he wasn’t intending to give up the business for something less dangerous. In a different time, he might have become a police officer, his childhood dream, or a librarian, his plan for retirement, but for now there was money to be made.

Afghans continue to leave. Nearly 40,000 have arrived in Europe since the beginning of the year. Many of my friends continue to run emotional audits that come out in favour of leaving: clearly a saner option than continuing to live in a country that has failed them with depressing consistency. Last year, Haideri and his colleagues smuggled 10,000 Afghans into Europe. The number this year was projected to be around 7000. According to his estimates, he would make $5.6 million.

Read at lrb.co.uk.