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When Living Means Leaving

by Claudia McDonnell
photos by Rev. Leon V. Kofod


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Many centuries have passed since Mary and Joseph, under cover of darkness, fled Judea with their infant Son to save Him from certain death. But the blight of persecution is perennial; it disrupts the lives of people today even as it drove the Holy Family into exile. Jesus is a refugee again, this time in the persons of more than a million Afghans, who have fled their homeland to escape religious and political oppression.

The Marxist coup that seized control of the Afghan government in 1978 tried to change traditional forms of land ownership and education. It curtailed religious freedom. Dissenting citizens staged strikes; there were riots, and many were killed in the streets. The government began to imprison anyone who was thought to be opposed to its policies, including scholars, religious leaders, and civil servants. Citizens were removed from their homes arbitrarily, sometimes during the night, and detained in secret without trial.

Despite the silence of the government, word leaked out that many Afghans were being tortured and executed.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979, thousands of refugees began streaming on foot through the mountain passes leading into Pakistan. There they found shelter in hastily assembled camps – primitive tent villages providing no more than the basic means of survival. Those who were fortunate enough to obtain a visitor’s visa and the necessary fare sought asylum in Germany or the United States.

Wherever they go, the refugees hold in common a tragic past and an uncertain future.

“I never hid my faith and my hostility to Communism,” says Noor. He is a young shopkeeper who closed his store to protest the ruling regime. Two of Noor’s cousins were equally vocal in their protests. They were executed. Noor says that if he returns to Afghanistan, he too will lose his life.

Sultan Muhammad is an accountant who denounced the Communists at work and among his friends. He was put in jail, where he was beaten severely and given electric shocks whenever he tried to sleep. He worries about his parents, brother, and sister, who are still in Afghanistan, since he cannot communicate with them.

Karim, a young lawyer, escaped into Pakistan with his wife. He had been imprisoned with members of his family, some of whom were later executed. The government confiscated their land and their money. Karim came to the United States “because it is free.” But he and his wife want to return to a free Afghanistan.

Most Afghans are Muslims, and they are deeply devoted to God and to Islam. Over and over again, when they are asked why they were arrested or why they fled, refugees answer, “Because I am a good Muslim, and I am opposed to atheism.” The regime in power not only subjected them to a political system they could not support; it interfered with their religious beliefs and practices, which are the very substance of their lives. They had no choice but to rebel.

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Tags: Refugees War Soviet Union Afghanistan