The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees
By Matthieu Aikins
HarperCollins, US
ISBN: 978-0063058583
336pp.

For the past four decades, Afghans have been fleeing their country because of the security situation, poverty and an insecure future. Aided by human smugglers, they travel first to Turkey, via Pakistan and Iran, then on to Europe. Several hundred thousand Afghan emigrants now live in Europe, as well as in Turkey.

This human smuggling of Afghan migrants is the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins’s debut book The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees.

I wanted to get my hands on Aikins’s book as quickly as possible because I, too, had gone undercover to investigate the smugglers’ trail. This was just before the United States began withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in 2020 and, in the wake of the withdrawal news, a sea of migrants had been pouring into Balochistan, via Afghanistan’s border province of Nimroz, on an almost daily basis.

Disguised as an Afghan migrant, I put myself into the hands of human smugglers for a story — ‘On the Human Smuggling Trail’ — about a preliminary leg of the treacherous journey, from the Chaghi District in Balochistan to Mashkhel, a town in Balochistan’s Washuk District on the Pakistan-Iran border.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning Canadian correspondent puts his own life in jeopardy to tell the story of his fixer fleeing from Afghanistan via Turkey to the Western world

I also wondered if maybe I had encountered Aikins somewhere along the way, or if he had taken the same route that I did.

The primary route for human smuggling cuts through Pakistan’s largest province, Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, because the Afghan-Iran border itself is closed — Irani authorities have built a wall to keep people from crossing over.

War correspondent Aikins arrived in Afghanistan during the US occupation. It was “the spring of 2009” and he “was 24.” He befriended former military interpreter Omar and the two travelled to Kandahar to profile Colonel Abdul Raziq for a magazine. Raziq, commander of the dreaded border police, was ruthlessly fighting the Afghan Taliban at the time.

As Aikins notes on his website, this “breakthrough article” was “eventually taught to US intelligence analysts as part of their training in the region.”

Western journalists in Afghanistan and other developing countries haven’t always had any qualms about duping their local news fixers after completing their assignments, to the extent that they sometimes usurp the locals’ stories to publish in their own name. Aikins does the opposite: he puts his own life in jeopardy to tell the story of his fixer, Omar, on his way from Afghanistan via Turkey to the Western world.

Aikins’s documentation reads like a novel and, since going undercover necessitates a journalist to be an adept liar, he creates a persona for himself, named “Habib.” To justify his foreign accent when speaking Dari — one of Afghanistan’s two most widely spoken languages — he cooks up the explanation that he was “born in Kabul, but Malaysian-raised.”

After a background and overview of the war, Aikins explores the rise in the business of smuggling people out of their desperate circumstances, those involved in this enterprise and the perils of such undertakings. Taking centre stage are Omar and his family.

Omar — not his real name — hails from an ordinary family belonging to Kabul. Like other Afghans, he is disillusioned by the seemingly unending war and the dark future of his country. His family was earlier displaced as refugees to Iran and Pakistan, but felt compelled to return when the US invaded, because the American presence reinvigorated a ray of hope among ordinary, middle class Afghans who were fed up with the conservative Taliban government of the 1990s.

Unfortunately, that ray of hope proves to be short-lived. Yet, Omar continues to live in Kabul. The reason? Laila, the Shia girl with whom the young Sunni man has fallen in love. The influence of Bollywood has clearly pervaded Afghanistan, too, and Omar confides in Aikins that the petite Laila, with her glossy hair and teasing glances, looks like the Indian actress Karisma Kapoor.

Afghan migrants at the Lesbos refugee camp in Greece show their tickets for the boat that will take them to Athens, from where they will continue to Europe
Afghan migrants at the Lesbos refugee camp in Greece show their tickets for the boat that will take them to Athens, from where they will continue to Europe

Looks matter quite a lot in Aikins’s book. He notes that his own facial features are strikingly like those of Kabul’s Hazara, a marginalised ethnic group that has been repressed, oppressed and suppressed throughout Afghanistan’s history, particularly during the reign of King Abdur Rahman Khan in the late 1800s.

When Omar tells him his plans to escape Afghanistan’s economic uncertainty and political instability, Aikins grabs the opportunity to go along with him and write a first-hand account of the experience. He knows that his Hazara-esque appearance and ability to speak Dari will provide him the benefit of the doubt.

He, Omar and another friend, Malik, end up in a safe house operated by smugglers in the Nimroz province. Interestingly, Nimroz has an exceedingly large Baloch population and the smugglers dealing with would-be Afghan migrants are Baloch.

Once in the Nimroz safe house, the gonzo journalist writes: “Beside us was the Dasht-i-Margo, the Desert of Death, a flat expanse of basalt where summer temperatures could exceed [48 degrees Celsius].”

He further writes: “Just beyond us to the west was the Iranian border, with the official crossing over the Bridge of Silk. Ever since the Iranians had built the wall, the smuggler’s route ran south into Pakistan, where the 120-day wind whipped the sand into an impenetrable murk all summer.

The region was known as Balochistan, and the Baloch were a people divided by borders. Entangled in the drug and espionage wars of the tri-border area, they were alternatingly repressed and co-opted by the state. It was the Baloch who took travellers across the shifting desert sands.”

Omar, however, disappoints Aikins and panics — for all good reasons — about crossing illegally into Pakistan as the route is replete with every kind of danger a desolate desert can throw at them. The trio thus prepares to leave the safe house and return to Kabul, but a smuggler asks them to stop.

“Listen to me,” he says to the three men. “I’m going to tell you something because I’m Baloch. The road is bad now. Twenty people were killed on it the other day. Those guys are just sending people out to earn commissions. I’m not Afghan, I’m Baloch! They’re Afghans, and they’re doing it to their own people. Come back after Eid. The situation will be better then, God willing.”

Back in Kabul, Aikins and Omar make a new plan, since Omar has found a legal way to enter Iran. From there, he crosses illegally to Turkey, where Aikins arrives to meet him. The two then continue to Europe via sea, on an inflatable boat. But instead of Italy — where Omar wants to go because he thinks Afghan migrants receive residency papers there much faster than in Germany or Sweden — they end up at the refugee camp in Greece.

This section of the book reminds one immediately of Kurdish journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Boochani’s book is a compilation of thousands of WhatsApp text messages that describe his experience of being detained by Australian authorities on an island in the Pacific.

Aikins mentions Boochani’s book in his own and, in this context, incorporates personal experience, research and reference to tell his readers a story that has rarely been told like this.

The Afghan-centric lens of The Naked Don’t Fear the Water certainly doubled the great personal risks Aikins undertook, but he survived to tell the tale of the Afghan exodus. So did his protagonist, Omar. Unfortunately, many migrants do not have an ending, happy or otherwise.

The reviewer is a member of staff.

He tweets @Akbar_notezai

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 7th, 2022

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