The Forgotten Soldiers of Lesvos

An Afghan refugee in Greece looks at a photo of his fellow mujahideen fighters, including Ahmad Shah Masood (center) who was assassinated by Al-Qaeda on September 9, 2001 as a thank you gift to the Taliban.

The Trump supporters were right — militants are among the refugees arriving in Europe. Men who know how shoot a gun, kill their enemy, and pluck an aircraft of the sky. They are fanatic in their beliefs and relentless in their objectives. Our land is ours and we are willing to give up our lives for it. Those men are now among us. But they’re not the kind we had been warned about.

Of the 12,000 who have arrived on the Greek islands since March 20, there are among them elderly Afghan men. For nearly forty years, these men were at war. At first, against the Soviets, then in a bloody civil war, and finally against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They furthered Western regional and global military objectives, armed on a diet of political jihad and unlimited American-made arms. There were periods of relative calm, during which time they started families and took up a trade. But when they were needed, they were right back on the battlefield. One must have either a deluded sense of probability or a death-wish to continue the fight for so long.

But now, these men are washing up on Europe’s shores. They look less like the Kalashnikov-bearing guerillas in magazine spreads and more like, well, someone’s grandfather. Some use walking sticks. Some have visible gunshot wounds, torture burns, or obvious improperly set-bones. Many have arthritis, heart problems, or difficulty breathing. All have weather-beaten skin and white hair.

Though their fighting days are behind them, they are still at the crosshairs of their enemy. The Taliban are now taking revenge on these men by hunting down their sons. Many of their children left for Europe months or years before. They followed behind, having accepted defeat. With their last gasps of energy and health, they traveled with smugglers through Iran, through Turkey, and finally to the Greek islands, only to find the doors of Europe slammed in their faces.

No longer able to fight, many Afghan men have fled to Europe to escape certain death by the Taliban. In return for fighting against the greatest enemies of the West, they are abandoned at camps made of tents like this one.

They now spend their days restlessly rambling about in the camp. They congregate at the camp’s public areas, and the scene almost makes me smile — they look like retirees passing their time on a park bench, spitting politics, swapping stories of their glory days, or just enjoying the stillness this part of their life affords them. I wave to them, they smile back and place their hands on their hearts to greet me. It’s only when I come close enough to see the look in their eyes that I’m snapped back into reality. This is no retiree village or city park. They’ve survived countless bullets and bombs, their sense of self-worth has been destroyed. There is honor in death. This is the humiliating doomsday they wished would have never come.

They proudly show me their military ID cards. They used to be young and handsome and brave. They defeated the Soviet Union. Now they’re at the mercy of smugglers and out-of-place foreigners like me for even basic communication. For a culture with such an emphasis on pride and masculinity, I imagine it isn’t easy for them. Still, macho men they are not. Sometimes when we drive away from the camp in the evening, I spot them taking long walks along the shore with their wives. I wonder what they talk about on these walks, the past or the future. They’ve told me they’re unable to shake the memories of war and that they scream in their sleep. They dream of the battlefield, both unable to escape it and perhaps also see it as the only place where they felt like they had some control over their lives.

When I tell them where I grew up, one laughs and tells me Americans aren’t skilled fighters — they’re only good at bombing from the sky. He says it with a combination of love and respect, with a side of humor, a moment where he feels like a champion and not the man sleeping on the floor of a plastic UNHCR tent. There is disappointment. I don’t know exactly at what. I don’t even know if he knows. Perhaps at the way it all turned out.

***

In the time that I’ve been here in Greece, I’ve received many messages from friends back home and met volunteers here who have shown amazing support and shared incredible words of empathy and humble appreciation for the conditions that resulted in people fleeing their homelands. But some have been more critical of them, especially of the men. “Why don’t they stay behind and fight? Why run away? Why leave it to other militaries to take care of?” Well these men did, for decades, and now they are sitting ducks. They are tired, they are injured, and they are vulnerable. Many have told me that they fought against the Taliban up until the day they left Afghanistan. Some left for a time to Iran or Pakistan. They had tried to return, only to find the people they fought against waiting for them at their homes. Others never left. They stayed and fought until the day they couldn’t any longer.

Back home in the US, we have two national holidays to honor our troops: one of the fallen soldiers and one for the survivors of war. Our military men and women are so well-respected they are practically revered, and at every opportunity thanked for their service, for keeping our country safe and for protecting our freedoms. National monuments are erected in their honor. Our soldiers are our heroes.

But are soldiers still heroes when they lose? Should a soldier have our respect more when they’ve won, or when they’ve lost and there’s nothing to show for their sacrifices? Should I be thanking these men for their service? For fighting for so long while families like mine left? Does it that make them brave or foolish? I’m not sure, but somehow I don’t feel worthy in their presence.

Photos by Claire Thomas (www.clairethomas.photoshelter.com)