Kabul Diary — Lost Generation

“Where is Omeid?”

“He went to Sweden.”

“What about Hussein?”

“Germany.”

“Fraidoon?”

“Germany also.”

“That kid who washed the sandals, with the funny eye?”

“Mahmood? He got as far as Turkey but no one has heard from him.”

I’m back at the Lajaward swim club, an old favorite haunt. So many new faces. This is ground zero for the Afghan migrant crisis: young guys working long, tedious hours for just a few dollars a day, no future, no opportunity. Their families scrape together five or ten thousand bucks and send them off with smugglers in the hope of something better.

I wrote about this youth diaspora in a Newsweek article last year. They aren’t fleeing burning villages or imminent peril. They’re victims of boredom and hopelessness. And a lot of them are being sent back. I heard somewhere that Afghanistan is now the biggest recipient of Afghan refugees.

I’m here with my friend S. We swap our shoes for plastic sandals, grab a towel and the uniform blue swim trunks and head out to the locker room. These swim clubs are popping up all over the city, a pricey luxury (at eight bucks) for those who can afford it: indoor pool, sauna, salt beds, steam room, cold bath, hot tub.

The pool is murky and cold but we don’t care. We swim a few laps, dive for a water bottle. Word is out, and more workers come to the pool’s edge to shake my hand. “Where have you been?” Another homecoming, but bittersweet, remembering those who made the treacherous journey and won’t be back.

Most of the Afghans congregate in the shallow area because they can’t swim. I watch a stout bearded man venture out into the deep end wearing red floaties on his arms, scared and giggling.

We spend a few minutes in the bubbling hot tub where a man with a crisp British accent invites us to join him in the cold bath. We plunge with him into the freezing water and try to hold a conversation through chattering teeth. His name is Sadiq. He works for the British Embassy. His parents live in America but he’s never been there.

We move to the sauna where guys lie stretched out on the wooden bench giving each other vigorous massages. Sadiq wants to go into the import/export trade. It’s interesting that someone with an American visa would want to stay here, much less start a business. Sadiq believes there’s money to be made selling Afghan nuts abroad. “The surface has barely been scratched.”

But how do you run a business if the country collapses into civil war? How do you export walnuts from Baghlan or dried apricots from Paghman when there’s almost no government presence and the roads are blocked by Taliban checkpoints?

I like Sadiq. He has the sort of sturdy optimism that this country needs. While everyone else is trying to get the hell out, he wants to build on the country’s agricultural greatness. He’ll either get rich or get killed trying. His industriousness will make him a target. As Mujtaba says, the dogs only bark when you’re moving.

Back in the locker room I run into white-haired X. He’s an American in his mid-sixties who came here 13 years ago to find his fortune. He lives in a house with no armed guard, drives around in a Toyota station wagon. Security threats mean nothing to him. He doesn’t consider himself a target, and somehow this makes it so. As we’re the only kharejis who come here, the workers jokingly refer to him as my daddy. We agree to meet at his house for dinner one evening, sample his latest batch of homemade wine.

Refreshed, S. and I set off into the cold night. We’ve had a good time. And I’ve made a new friend. Sadiq lives only a block from my building. “Come visit. We must continue this conversation over strong tea.”

The streets are dark. The electricity is only on for half the day, and there are no streetlights here anyway. The houses and apartments are black save for the flicker of lamps behind curtains. S. and I narrowly avoid a huge sinkhole. Ghostly figures stride past, their steps lit by the dim lights of their phones. To me this is the safest time to be out, when we’re all just dark silhouettes. But S. insists on walking me back to my apartment.

He shows me a picture he took on his phone, one of the pool boys showing off a tattoo, something still relatively unknown here. S. translates the Arabic letters: I won’t go to heaven if my mother isn’t there.

Will Everett is the author of We’ll Live Tomorrow.