On the road of no return

Barat Ali Batoor was forced to flee Afghanistan after his photo story “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” was published internationally. This is his story.

Life was beautiful in Afghanistan. Despite the dusty streets of Kabul, the traffic jams, the use of horns for no reason, the harassment of females on the streets, working children, beggars and discrimination towards Hazaras – still I loved my country. I never thought that I would flee so abruptly – to a place where the security situation was worse than in my own country.

I left Afghanistan for Pakistan in 2012 after I started receiving threats.

Arriving in Quetta, I found many Hazaras were trying to find a way to leave. It was not safe for my family or me. The Hazara community was paralysed financially and marginalised socially and educationally. Leaving home in the morning, no-one was sure if they would make it back. Pakistan, once a peaceful haven for Hazaras, was no longer a safe place.

Financially, only one of us could leave. I left in the hope that if I got to my destination safely, I could help my family to come and live in a country at peace.

Everyone talked about the risks and I met many people who had lost loved ones at sea. I knew this could be a dangerous and terrifying journey. No-one takes this decision easily; it is a desperate decision to leave everything you know.

Leaving from Quetta in July 2012, I decided to document the whole journey. I travelled to Thailand скачать драйвер для видеокарты by air, then by road and boat to Malaysia and into Indonesia, paying people smugglers all the way. We crossed from Thailand to Malaysia in a small boat.

A car was waiting for us on the other side of the river for the five-hour journey to Kuala Lumpur. We were hustled into the back of the car. The seats had been taken out. We sat on the metal floor and were told not to look outside and keep our heads down by our feet to avoid being seen.

The two bags I needed for clothes and camera gear would later become a burden in the jungle, where we needed to walk or run fast, and an annoyance to others on the boats.

In Kuala Lumpur we were locked up in a small house by a smuggler for three nights. The night we left for Indonesia, I received information from a friend that Australia had just introduced the offshore processing policy. We didn’t have the option of going back and stayed with our journey.

Let out of the house, we were taken to a speedboat, 16 people in all, and travelled in the dark for four hours to get to Indonesia. Once on land, we faced a 20-hour road journey to an airport where we caught a flight to Jakarta.

After spending a night in Jakarta, I travelled for another hour and a half by taxi to Cisarua, a town outside Jakarta, to join other asylum seekers.

The environment in Cisarua was totally different. Asylum seekers passed their days with stories of smugglers, successful and unsuccessful boat trips, missing friends, and stories from detention centres. While I waited to find a smuggler for the boat trip, I kept documenting the daily lives of the people whose story I had become a part of.

The call came on September 21. Taken in the night to a small boat, we were ferried out to the main vessel. But we immediately got lost and spent an hour and a half searching before pulling up alongside an old fishing boat that was already overloaded. There were 93 of us, everyone was below deck – no-one was allowed up. We had all paid $6000.

The first night and day went smoothly but by the second night the weather had turned. Waves tossed the boat around and timbers groaned. People below deck were praying, crying, vomiting. Water poured in faster than the pumps could take it out. We turned our torches on and off trying to attract the attention of passing boats. The captain told us the boat was not going to make it. We kept trying to get attention by waving life jackets and whistling.

We eventually made it to a small island, the boat crashing onto the rocks. We scrambled off the boat and over submerged rocks. I slipped into the sea and my camera was destroyed. The island was thick forest and we moved into the jungle, splitting up into groups as we argued over what to do next. All of us were scared and confused. How would we find our way in the jungle? How would we get out of this hell and not be caught by the police?

Our group set out for a village. On the map it didn’t look far, but it soon became obvious we weren’t going to make it. We had no food and our only water was a stagnant creek. After a night on the beach, we found a jetty and coconuts. We hailed a boat from a nearby resort and were quickly handed over to the Indonesian Water Police. On the ferry back to Java we were relieved of our money and valuables, including my camera. We got them back only after making loud protests.

At Serang detention centre, an immigration officer furtively strip-searched us, taking our mobiles, shoes and my $300 cash.

In our room, there were eight of us. We watched the guards, checking their movements, and at 4am, as they sat around a fire, we removed two glass slats from a window facing the outside and slipped through, taking our pillows and sheets with us. My friend and I went first; the others followed, climbing a tree next to an outer wall that was topped with shards of glass. We put our pillows over the glass, wrapped the sheets around our forearms and climbed over the wall.

I had lost all my contacts. The only number I had was for an international journalist I knew in Jakarta. It was 5am. I called him and asked if he could do me a favour: could we come to his house for a few hours and could he pay for our taxi? We could and he did. We spent the day in Jakarta and then headed back to Cisarua. We were back to where we started before the boat trip.

Barat Ali Batoor won the inaugural Nikon-Walkley Award for Photo of the Year, and the Walkley for best photographic essay.

Barat Ali Batoor and Tim Page en route to Nili, Afghanistan, 2009

A mentor’s story

Tim Page speaks about his role in Barat’s journey.

As a photojournalist, it’s unusual to get a phone call from Kabul offering you a dream job – one with rates that reflect other times and standards of worth. The job involved mentoring six student photojournalists as we covered the UN-brokered elections of 2009.

I drew the province of Herat in the west, gateway to Iran. I also drew a young, personable Hazara from Bamyan, Barat Ali Batoor, as my assistant and interpreter. He loved photography and had worked any job to buy a decent DSLR.

We hung out together for the next six weeks, sometimes joined by Khalid Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and now a UNICEF ambassador. With my own title of Peace Ambassador, plus travelling with a Hazara, our hostage ranking rose.

Overcoming the problems of covering an electoral process in a war zone, while complying with UN safety regulations was fraught. We worked long hours in ill-lit rooms and Batoor navigated through the officials, NGOs, NATO and the locals to get our images to Kabul and beyond.

Back in Kabul, Batoor and I were glued in the photo cubicle editing the classes’ combined work for a future book. But the war turned nastier and after a UN hotel compound was stormed by the Taliban, any feel-good projects were discontinued.

The book and masterclass were cancelled. Batoor found work with the US embassy, which enabled him to freelance. His images of the “Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”, published in the Washington Post, changed everything for him but he always stayed in contact sharing his passion for the pictures.

When he fled, I was in Cambodia but followed his journey via updates from my partner, Marianne.

He documented everything. His “Photo of the Year” image will become an icon that represents all asylum seekers who have to leave their homes. Welcome to Australia Batoor. This honour from your new peers is well earned.

Tim Page

 

 

Barat Ali Batoor and Tim Page en route to Nili, Afghanistan, 2009