Afghan exiles in Moscow look anxiously homeward

Harassed and beaten, most long for return

November 29, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - As Afghanistan's political factions meet in Germany to try to reach agreement on how best to piece together their shattered country, hundreds of merchants in a dingy hotel complex here are praying that the talks succeed.

Over the past two decades, Afghanistan has been stripped of most of its professionals, civil servants and technical experts, people crucial for running a modern state. Many are here, wondering if they should return.

Educated Afghans living in the West "are well off, they have legal status, and their children go to school - you can't expect them to return," says Gullam Muhammed, the unofficial leader of Moscow's Afghan community. In Moscow, it is different, he says.

"Even my 7-year-old, when she sees Afghanistan on television, she always asks us, `When are we going back?'"

Deprived of official status, harassed by police and increasingly preyed on by thugs, most Afghans here say they have little reason to remain in Russia, where many have lived for more than a decade.

"Of course we will leave, as soon as we find out that life is going to be normal there," says Abdul Habibullah, a former army colonel who now peddles key rings, pens and knickknacks. "We don't have any home here."

For Habibullah, as for most Afghans in Moscow, life revolves around the Hotel Sevastopol, a cluster of gray concrete slab structures dominated by two 16-story high-rises southwest of the central city. In what were originally tiny hotel rooms, exiled politicians, generals, journalists and engineers hawk cheap necklaces, battery-powered toy cars, Turkish leather coats and, although the sellers are Muslims, Christmas lights.

Bargain-hunting Muscovites bundled in winter clothes line up outside to pay the 12-cent entrance fee. Some shoppers bolt glasses of vodka at the bar in the lobby before jostling their way down the corridors, painted a purplish green, or cramming into shops jammed with merchandise.

Presiding over this transplanted Oriental bazaar is Muhammed, a beefy man with broad features and a hairbrush mustache, who once governed Afghanistan's Kunar province in the Hindu Kush mountains north of Jalalabad. The 43-year-old father of five serves as president of the nonprofit Afghan Business Center, the equivalent of the community's tribal council.

The association, in addition to running the market, publishes a newspaper, negotiates with the complex's Russian owners and has spent years trying to persuade the Kremlin to release Russia's Afghan refugees from legal limbo.

It has been a losing battle. Although Afghan elders such as Muhammed have managed to get resident visas, he says the vast majority are in Russia illegally. Their illegal status means they can't send children to public schools, are ineligible for state-supplied health care and are subject to constant harassment by corrupt officials who know that the Afghans can't complain to authorities.

In his second-floor office, Muhammed nervously watches a bank of television monitors linked to cameras at the hotel entrances. With the rise in attacks on dark-skinned foreigners in Moscow, he and other Afghans increasingly fear for their safety.

Hundreds of youths, believed to be followers of the ultra-rightist Russian National Unity group, attacked merchants from Asia and the Caucasus in a Moscow market Oct. 30. After clashing with police, about 300 youths slipped away to the Hotel Sevastopol. There, armed with iron pipes and brass knuckles, they savagely beat more than a dozen Afghan shopkeepers. A 40-year-old immigrant died.

Habibullah was on the first floor of the Sevastopol with his 5-year-old son when the assault began around 9 p.m.

"The hooligans are here!" shouted a man with a bloody face. Habibullah dragged his son up 11 flights of stairs and locked his shop door until the rampage ended.

It was only the latest in a series of escalating attacks on Afghans. Habibullah said he was assaulted in a Moscow metro station in 1998. The toughs broke 13 of his teeth.

A one-time officer in the army of Kabul's former Communist regime, Habibullah thought the Russian government would welcome one who had fought on the side of the Kremlin. But when he applied for residency papers, Russian officials were unimpressed.

"They said to me, `Why not go work for the Taliban?' And I said, `To me, the Taliban are strangers, are foreigners. I would be a traitor to my motherland.'"

Afghans say police routinely stop them to demand documents they are officially denied. By law, they are supposed to be fined $3 the first time they are caught, warned the second and deported the third. Instead, they say, the police demand bribes, often several times a day. Police even come to the Sevastopol, some merchants say, to collect monthly payoffs.

Amir Shafikullah, 23, an Afghan without a residency permit who works in a shop selling shoes and Turkish-made leather coats, said police often search him and seize whatever cash he is carrying. Other officials can be just as predatory.

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