'We came because you are civilised'

Eye witness: They escaped their country, but not the conflict.
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The Independent Online

When the Taliban ordered the death of Sherzad Ali he put on the black shadori that women wear, so that only his eyes could be seen, and walked across the mountains into Pakistan and safety.

It was an exhausting and perilous journey, but Sherzad could not stay in his homeland without being executed by a regime he was determined to resist. The Taliban had stolen his country and abused his religion, he believed. So Sherzad found refuge in England – but now his neighbours, who knew nothing of Afghanistan before 11 September, see his face, hear his accent, and wonder if he has come to blow them up.

"My father was a carpet merchant," he says as we drink tea together on the tenth floor of a tower block in Birmingham. The view over the M6 is spectacular, but the building is inhospitable. A flat on the ground floor has been burned out. There is a smashed television in the lift.

Sherzad abandoned his politics course at the University of Kabul to join the resistance, organising secret schools for women and libraries of banned books. When the Taliban found he had escaped they shot his mother and brother. "Then they told neighbours they were spies."

The room has a single bed and three chairs. The rest of the flat is bare. BBC News 24 plays in the corner, a purple, flickering image on a set that does not have an aerial. Kabul is half empty, says a voice. Thousands of people are heading for the mountains. Sherzad's father and sister may be among them, if they are lucky and still alive. He has not heard from them since he sought asylum in Britain 14 months ago.

The Afghan community in Birmingham is 2,000 strong, the second biggest in England after London. Some mosques support the Taliban, says Sherzad, which is one reason why the names in this article have been changed.

Sherzad runs the Afghan Youth and Family Association, which will soon hold a peace gathering. He does not wear traditional dress. Those racists who go after Muslims, the ones who beat up an Afghan taxi driver last week and left him paralysed, would walk right past this clean-shaven young man in his black shirt and grey sports jacket.

Unless they heard him speak. On the 94 bus some of our fellow passengers show signs of being uncomfortable with his loud talk about the Taliban. Sherzad appears not to notice. "The world did not want to know about Afghanistan until last Tuesday."

We remove our shoes on the doorstep of an ordinary house in Solihull. This is the home of Khosrow, who fought the Russians and commanded 3,000 men. His wife Maryam was granted asylum in Britain two years ago, with her children. The couple were reunited this summer.

The beard Khosrow wore in Afghanistan is gone. In place of combat fatigues he wears jeans, with a blue striped shirt. His wife is striking, in black trousers and yellow sweater, but it is difficult to hold her gaze. Khosrow has the stillness of a military man who has seen much death. He speaks quietly, precisely, pausing for Sherzad to translate. The five children sense the mood and spread out on the floor. The house has been redecorated, but the lightbulbs are bare. Mahsanam, eight, has a poster on her bedroom door that says she is a Pokemon master.

Maryam brings spiced chicken, salad, bread, aubergine with peppers and yoghurt, and a bottle of Diet Pepsi. Best of all is the platter of spiced lamb dumplings called mantoo. This, says Sherzad, is eaten when clans come together.

Khosrow lost touch with his family when he was captured by the Taliban and taken to prison. "They are never thinking of human rights, or humanity. Torture and killing without a court, without anybody outside knowing. They torture me. There is injury in my leg. That I am alive now is a gift from Allah." He escaped when a friend bribed the right people.

Maryam brings Kabuli plow, rice with almonds, pistachios, sultanas and dried grapes, and lamb that falls from the bone. Khosrow lived in Uzbekhistan for a while before a relative traced the phone number of the wife he thought he had lost. "She did not know that I was alive. She said there is law in England, there are civilised people with higher knowledge. The British embassy issued me with a visa three months ago. I have never seen my youngest son before."

Apples are sliced, then we drink black tea and eat from a dish of almonds, pistachios and dried grapes. Talk turns to those left behind. "In the city there is no electricity, no doctor, no food and no work. In the mountains they have none of those things, but they have freedom. People in Afghanistan are used to the mountains. They are a refuge."

Many of his new neighbours are fearful, but Khosrow is not. "Of what should I be scared? I do not believe it will be a world war. This is not an economic war. This is not a war between non-Islams and Islams. This is acting against smugglers and terrorists. The world has understood this."

Not everyone understands, as the attacks on Muslims show. Some children at his 12-year-old daughter's school called her a terrorist. "We told the social worker, who said she would call the police," says Khosrow. "But most of our neighbours are very kind. We feel as if we are living as guests, not refugees."

Pirooz, the four-year-old boy who only met his father three months ago, is blowing bubbles in his tea. He stops and grins. "What do you think is the future for this boy?" asks Sherzad, a young man older than his years. "We have seen so many children die. And yet we have hope."