War reporter Matthieu Aikins recounts his flight from Afghanistan with an international coalition aide

In 2015, the journalist and former correspondent in Kabul had accompanied an Afghan national on the road to Europe. He recounts this trip in his latest book “The Humble Are Not Afraid of Water”.

“It was at the end of 2015, […] under the weight of the people, the border had opened”, writes Matthieu Aikins in his book “The humble do not fear the water” (The naked don’t fear the water), published this year by Seuil/Sous- floor.

The book focuses on the great wave of migration to Europe in 2015, and in particular on the journey that the journalist himself made Omar*, an Afghan migrant.

Matthieu Aikins, correspondent for the New York Times, is the winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. As a war reporter, he has worked in many conflict zones, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the years, Matthieu Aikins returned to Afghanistan several times and lived in Kabul for a few years when international coalition forces were still present in the country.

Omar was born and raised in exile in Iran before returning to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002. At the time, the Afghan capital was “broken”, writes Matthieu Aikins, “but people had hope.”

Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins. Credit: Kiana Hayeri

Matthieu Aikins was 24 when he arrived in Afghanistan in 2009 as a reporter. At that time, Omar had already worked as a translator for several contingents of the international collation and was fluent in English.

The paths of the two men cross when Omar agrees to accompany the journalist on a dangerous mission in southern Afghanistan.

Omar had ‘always dreamed of living in the West, but his aspiration grew more pressing as the civil war [en Afghanistan] intensified and that his city was torn apart by the bombardments”, writes Matthieu Aikins. Several relatives of Omar had already managed to leave Afghanistan. When he in turn tries to obtain a visa thanks to his work for the American army, he lacks certain documents to obtain his exit ticket.

In 2015, exhausted by seven years of reporting in Afghanistan, the Canadian wanted to move on. But he doesn’t want to leave Omar behind and returns to Kabul on a flight from Iran. “I had my friend in mind. I didn’t have a plan yet, but an idea was taking shape.”

“No one knew how long the miracle would last”

Their idea is to go to Turkey and then reach Greece, before going up the Balkan route to Austria or Germany, like what thousands of people will do in 2015 to flee the conflicts in Syria, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

>> To (re)read: Balkan route, a clear but unexplained increase in migrant crossings

“Nobody knew how long the miracle would last”, writes the author facing European borders which suddenly seemed to be open. “Thousands of people were now disembarking every day in small boats. A million people were going to cross into Europe. And Omar and I were going to cross with them.”

Matthieu Aikins says he looks “strangely Afghan” and that he is often taken for an Afghan during his travels. To accompany Omar without attracting attention, the journalist changes his name and calls himself Habib.

People are taking these crazy risks, because they are fleeing even more deadly wars”

“Once launched, we couldn’t go back. As we were in danger of being searched, I had to leave behind the American and Canadian passports that allowed me to move so easily in this world full of borders.”

“I was obviously scared, you have to be crazy not to be scared,” Matthieu Aikins told InfoMigrants.

But he knows from his experience as a war reporter that being on the road with smugglers is less frightening than being “under bombardment from Saudi jets in Yemen, or under direct fire in Aleppo, Syria. That’s why people take these crazy risks, because they’re fleeing even more deadly wars.”

A makeshift embarkation off the island of Lesbos. Credit: Picture Alliance
A makeshift embarkation off the island of Lesbos. Credit: Picture Alliance

Accompanied by another couple of acquaintances, Matthieu Aikins and Omar head first towards the Iranian-Pakistani border, hoping that the smugglers they have hired will keep their word.

“Despite all these border walls, people continued to pass. All these walls did not prevent people from crossing, they just enriched the smugglers”, he explains.

The world of traffickers

“The more the borders are defended, the more people have to pay for smugglers and the more these trafficking economies grow. One of the things that interested me was to come face to face with these smugglers, to demystify them and to seeing them as the human beings they are. I think they have become very convenient scapegoats for the humanitarian disasters that are happening on our borders.”

>> To (re)read: “It’s a year stolen by the Taliban”: Nilofar, a young Afghan on the road to exile

The two men will be in contact with many traffickers. Each smuggler has a specialty and takes care of part of the journey before transferring the migrants to the next smugglers. Often, they seem friendly, even caring, especially at first. It is afterwards that migrants often discover that they have been deceived and lied to.

“There is often a client-provider relationship, and sometimes even friendship and compassion in the reality of interactions between smugglers and migrants. But most of the time it is not an industry that encourages kindness or honesty, there is also a lot of exploitation. The traffickers face the border police, because one would not exist without the other.”

Journalist or friend

During the trip, Matthieu Aikins had to juggle between his job as a journalist and his role as a friend. “Omar often turned to me for help and advice. It was a recurring conflict. I was on this trip as a journalist, but I was also accompanying my friend, and I was also with other human beings who sometimes needed help. I couldn’t just act like I was watching these people like a scientist in a lab.”

Migrants fleeing Afghanistan seeking to reach Greece from Cezme in Turkey. Credit: Imago
Migrants fleeing Afghanistan seeking to reach Greece from Cezme in Turkey. Credit: Imago

Unlike Omar, the journalist knows that he has always had an escape route to cover his passport. “I could make a phone call and find a solution.”

In certain situations, however, calling on outside help could have compromised Omar with the smugglers.

“Even though I shared a tent with him in a camp or took risks for my physical integrity when we found ourselves on a small inflatable boat, I never had the illusion of really understanding what it feels like. to be in this situation, because a lot of the trauma comes from uncertainty and feeling vulnerable.”

Omar now lives in Europe with his family and eventually obtained papers. As soon as he can, Matthieu Aikins continues to visit him. “It’s not easy to be a new European, to integrate and find your bearings in a new country, but given what happened last summer in Afghanistan (the takeover of Taliban), they are all happy to be gone when they still could.”

Being displaced is “more difficult than you imagine. You lose your language, your culture, and there is social isolation. I think people often have regrets or fantasize about going back. Nobody really want to uproot themselves and lose their language and their social world, especially Afghans who are used to a traditional society. But they know they can’t go back at the moment.”

>> To (re)read: “I felt broken”: meeting with Afghan filmmaker Jawed Taiman

Since this trip in 2015, Matthieu Aikins has returned several times to Afghanistan, a country he continues to hold close to his heart.

“But this heart is broken, the world we had there has been shattered forever. We cannot forget that this world was built on the back of military occupation, war, waste of trillions of dollars I miss Kabul, I miss my friends, I mourn what Afghans lost, their world, their future, what this liberal class of Kabul had, but I don’t shed many tears for this expatriate bubble we were in.”

*Name has been changed.

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War reporter Matthieu Aikins recounts his flight from Afghanistan with an international coalition aide