“Harassed here too”: Afghan artists find no refuge in Pakistan | Pakistan

Ajmal Haikalzada, 44, first became a refugee when his artist father left Afghanistan for Pakistan during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. In 2001, then a musician, he returned, singing and performing throughout his native country after the United States overthrew the Taliban.

Two decades later, he fled again when the Taliban took control of Kabul.

Now in Peshawar, Pakistan, Haikalzada said that after the return of the Taliban, musicians and artists were confined to their homes, musical institutions were closed and musicians hid their instruments. They had heard stories of the Taliban destroying musical instruments in Kabul.

But neighboring Pakistan has not provided the security it hoped for. Last month, Haikalzada was arrested at the start of the crackdown on Afghan refugees.

“Since Afghanistan was no longer a country of artists, I sold all my musical instruments to save my life. I thought we could play music and preserve our art in Pakistan, but we were wrong,” Haikalzada said.

“The police asked for my national identity card and on seeing it they arrested me because I am an unregistered refugee.” He was released two days later.

The same thing happened in May to Nadeem Shah, 24, one of four Afghan musicians arrested on suspicion of being in Pakistan illegally. “We are asked to provide proof of registration, which we do not have,” he said.

“It becomes difficult to convince the police that we are artists forced to flee. No one leaves their home by choice – it was a matter of survival, because of which we left a piece of ourselves at home. But there too, we are harassed.

Pakistan has hosted at least 1.4 million registered refugees and more than 1.5 million unregistered refugees without legal status since the 1980s. Hundreds and thousands of Afghans fled to Pakistan last year after the Taliban took control of Kabul. They are applying for registered refugee status because the country is facing an economic crisis.

In the capital, Islamabad, more than 450 Afghan families live in makeshift houses and camp near the press club to demand registration or settlement in a third country. The police have dispersed them with violencedrawing criticism from civil society groups.

Ustad Sanam Gul, center, plays with Haikalzada and Nadeem Shah, far right. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch/The Guardian

Pakistani organizations including Hunari Tolana, Hunar Kor and Mafkoora have campaigned for the rights of more than 150 Afghan artists registered with them.

Hayat Roghani, the president of Mafkoora, said he asked the UN refugee agency, UNHCR and Pakistani authorities to provide proof of registration for Afghan artists. “We are just asking for PORs for Afghan artists who should be allowed to travel and perform in Pakistan,” he said.

Kainat Tufan, 22, a singer who has appeared on various television channels in Afghanistan, wore a veil to hide her tattoos and disguised herself as a smuggler’s wife to cross into Pakistan.

“We spent a month in Kabul after the takeover, helpless, crying and hungry. Those who were able to flee did so immediately. I gave my Afghan passport and ID to borrow $200 (£169) to travel to Pakistan through Spin Boldak,” she said.

“I had to flee because Afghanistan is no longer a land for women and there is no place for artists. There is not even a place for women as a whole. It has become a country dominated by men. We women want our space back.

The crackdown in Peshawar prompted a musical protest by Afghan and Pakistani artists in the city, who performed, chanted slogans and held signs, demanding the release of arrested musicians.

Ustad Sanam Gul, 50, a renowned Afghan musician who fled to Pakistan, was among them. Gul came from a long line of musicians and had earned the title of Ustad (teacher) of the state, with more than 60 students under his tutelage in his two academies in Kabul and Jalalabad.

After the fall of Kabul, he opened a gas station, but it was destroyed by the Taliban, who told him he could not work because he had promoted music and performed for the state.

Playing his dholak, a small double-headed drum, Gul said: “My students and other musicians tried to convince the Taliban to allow us to continue working, but to no avail. A friend’s music academy in Kabul was destroyed by the Taliban. For music and the arts, Afghanistan has closed its doors.

He said music doesn’t just connect hearts, but nations: “The Taliban should allow music and I also ask the authorities in Pakistan to help us play and connect with [the] masses, instead of harassing and watching us.

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