KABUL, Afghanistan — Their desperate journey out of Afghanistan, en route to safer lives in Europe, had taken months through high mountains and treacherous deserts.
They survived bullets, beatings and insults from border guards. Bandits stripped them of nearly everything except their shoes and clothes — which over the months of the journey they would wash in whatever puddle or pool was available, laying the clothes out in the sun to dry and then wear again.
But their migration halted suddenly in Turkey, and now they were being deported to a home country racked by war. I flew with them on the return flight to Kabul from Istanbul that finally ended their hopes. It took just five hours last month.
From the oval windows of the packed airplane, many of the at least 60 young men (all flying for the first time) looked down with amazement at the vast darkness beneath them. They smiled at the cruel reality of it all, as they tried to explain to me what they were feeling.
“It took us so long to get there, and now the trip is so short,” said Mohammed Dawood, 19.
Mr. Dawood is from Bati Kot district, a spot in eastern Afghanistan that is under siege by the Taliban and vulnerable to Islamic State loyalists. He left for Europe when three of his friends were killed in a blast targeting a cricket match.
“They were all just like you and me — one was about to get married,” he told me. “I said ‘enough.’”
Since January, Turkey has deported more than 17,000 Afghans, according to Afghan officials, most of whom were trying to make it to Europe. Nearly 1,200 others have been returned from other European and Asian countries, either voluntarily or by force.
Turkey is a central stop on the most important refugee route frequented by Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others, many of whom then board boats to try to make it to Europe by sea.
From the peak of about 850,000 people arriving in Europe via Turkey by sea in 2015, the numbers dropped to 173,000 in 2016, according to United Nations figures. So far this year, about 29,000 people have arrived by sea.
While entry into Europe has become difficult, thousands of Afghans continue to arrive in Turkey through Iran. But the Turkish government has been quickly turning new arrivals right back around.
“The Turkish police would tell us, ‘We are sending you home — your leader has agreed, because the population there is decreasing,’” said Fazul Rahman, 21.
For the young Afghans, none of it made sense — not the deal with Europe, not the possible agreement of their own government opening the way for their deportation. How could they be denied a simple right to a better life?
They see it more simply: They tried, they were caught, they will try again.
Still, for the moment, they were buckled into their seats, headed to homes in Afghan places that appear frequently in the news for attacks.
Some on the plane tried to figure out the entertainment system on their screens (one found his way to an Indian movie, another to a Quran recitation). Others were thankful for the first warm meal in weeks: grilled meatballs with rice and vegetables. Shoes came off aching feet.
A flight attendant walked the aisles every hour or so, spraying air freshener. When some of the men couldn’t figure out how to open the lavatory doors, she stepped in to help them push in the folding door.
“We have been through such hunger. We didn’t taste cooked food for a long time,” said Abdul Mohammed, 19, gaptoothed and skinny in a black T-shirt. “For 15 days, we were detained at a place where they only gave us a slice of bread, a candy bar and some water.”
Mr. Mohammed, from Maidan Wardak Province, worked for nearly three years as a transport shepherd of sorts. He would be given dozens of sheep and his task was to walk for days, resting in bleak deserts and mountain ridges at night, to bring the sheep to traders on the other side of the border in Pakistan.
He said the hardship of his countless journeys as a shepherd, with only a cane and a dog for protection, were nothing compared with what he saw on the way to Turkey. Border guards spit at the group of migrants he came with, and held a gun to their heads. For days, as they walked, they took turns carrying a friend whose feet had blistered. His cousin, Akbar Khan, was taken from them by the police in Iran and he has had no word of him.
As the plane gained altitude, many of them clung to their seats, their discomfort visible.
“This was nothing,” Mr. Mohammed said, putting up a brave face. “You don’t know what I have seen.”
After the plane had landed, Ezzatullah Tanha, 21, would board a bus to Dand e Ghori, in the northern province of Baghlan. Afghan commandos have fought difficult battles there against the Taliban.
Mr. Tanha comes from a farming family. He and his three brothers grew onions and melons. Their father was killed by a roadside mine in the 1990s, when he was just 3.
When the fighting became intense in recent years, disrupting any hopes of farming a decent harvest, Mr. Tanha paid a smuggler $1,500 and set off for Iran.
“There would be as many as 33 people in the back of a Datsun,” he said, referring to the trucks that would drive them through the deserts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. “The smugglers would load all of us and have us all stand next to each other, and then say ‘sit.’ Half of us couldn’t sit — there was no space.”
Mr. Tanha said Iranian border guards repeatedly fired at them. He saw at least two dead bodies on the way, just lying in the desert. At one point, the truck they were stuffed into flipped.
“There was one person whose back broke: They just dropped him at a bathroom on the way so the police doesn’t see him,” he said. “We all left.”
He added, “What I saw — it disgusted me from life.”
When the plane landed about 7 a.m. Kabul time, the young men had no part in the jostling to get out. They remained seated as flight attendants urged other passengers already opening the overhead bins to wait.
After almost everyone else had exited, and following a considerable delay (as if they waited for a miracle — that the plane might take off, with them on board) they emerged one by one. Most of them carried nothing but an empty plastic bag with their name and case number written on it, given to them by a refugee agency.
Some limped from their blisters. Others walked in their sandals, their shoes long fallen apart, to a special queue where they would be processed. One young man, scrawny in tight jeans, looked lost. He dragged his feet, the disappointment of a shattered dream, a simple wish of a better life, clearly written on his face.
Days later, I spoke to Mr. Tanha, who had reached home in Baghlan Province. He was happy to see his family, but it was difficult to explain to them why he hadn’t made it.
He said he was waiting for Ramadan to finish before he made another attempt.
“I will try again,” he said. “There is nothing here.”
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