Robert Fisk: A poet on the run in Fortress Europe

I can't help you, I say. I will write about you. I will try to pump some compassion out of the authorities

The Independent

Published: 05 November 2005

Mohamed sits on the chair beside me in Amsterdam and opens his little book of poetry. His verse slopes down the page in delicate Persian script, the Dari language of his native Afghanistan. "God, why in the name of Islam is there all this killing, why all this anti-people killing ... the only chairs left in my country are chairs for the government, those who want to destroy Afghanistan." He reads his words of anger slowly, gently interrupted by an old chiming Dutch clock. Outside, the Herengracht canal slides gently beneath the rain. It would be difficult to find anywhere that least resembles Kabul.

"The donkeys came to Afghanistan, Massoud, Rahbani and the rest," Mohamed reads on. "All the people were waiting for the donkeys. Gulbudin said these donkeys have no tails - 'only I have a tail, so I shall have a ministry,' he said. The donkeys are now in the government." Donkeys may be nice, friendly beasts to us, but to call anyone in the Muslim world a khar - a donkey - is as insulting as you can get. Mohamed was talking about the "mujahedin" guerrilla fighters who moved into Kabul after the Russian withdrawal in 1990, an arrival that presaged years of civil war atrocities which left at least 65,000 Afghans dead. This was the conflict which so sickened the anti-Soviet fighter Osama bin Laden that he left Afghanistan for Sudan.

Mohamed looks at me - a small energetic man with dark, sharp eyes. "I wanted future generations to know what we went through, to understand our pain," he says to me. I couldn't stop myself writing this poetry." This was his mistake. Betrayed to the "mujahedin", he was thrown into a foul prison in Kabul, rescued only by the intercession of his father. The Taliban came next and Mohamed could not prevent his pen from betraying him again. "I kept my poetry 'under the table', as we say, but someone at my office found a poem I had written called Out of Work and told the boss who was a mullah." When he knew that he had been discovered, Mohamed ran in terror from his office to his father's home.

Mohamed seems to spend his life on the run. He and his wife and three children live in the north of Holland, desperate to stay in the land to which they fled six years ago, but the courts - in the new spirit of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Europe - have rejected their pleas to stay. Mohamed's papers have expired. Now he waited in fear for the policeman who would demand: "Your papers please." A family friend, Hoji Abdul-Rahman, originally arranged for Mohamed and his family to flee Kabul for Jalalabad and then across the Afghan border to Pakistan where "Hoji" - an honorific title bestowed on those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca - obtained fake visas and passports that enabled them to fly to Holland. "I went straight to the police to tell them we were here," Mohamed said. "They were very good to us. They told us to register at Zevenaar as asylum-seekers, which we did."

He was housed in a small Dutch village where the local people treated the Afghan family with great kindness. "They always came to see us in our flat and gave us food and invited us to their homes," Mohamed said, producing a sad poem entitled Thank You for Everything in tribute to the Dutch people. But fate struck Mohamed again. Had the last of four court hearings into his case have dated his refugee status from the day he arrived in Holland rather than that of his first visit to Zevenaar in 2000 - which was delayed because the Dutch authorities were enjoying the week-long millennium celebrations - he would probably have qualified for permanent refugee status.

"But the court dated my arrival from the delayed registration at Zevenaar and told me my family had to leave Holland. They said that the Taliban had been defeated and that Afghanistan was now a 'democracy'. But they wouldn't accept that Karzai's government includes many of the 'mujahedin' warlords who locked me up in prison. They will do the same again." Which is probably true. But now Mohamed, his wife and three children - one of them born in Holland - wait for the police to take them to Schipol airport for the long journey back to their dangerous homeland.

The ferocious murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh and the callous behaviour of his Muslim murderer - who announced in court that he felt no compassion for van Gogh's family - has hardened Dutch government hearts just as the rioting in Clichy-sous-Bois has hardened those of Messrs Sarkozy and Chirac. So what am I to say to Mohamed as he sits hunched in the deep, soft armchair of my hotel room, clutching his poetry book and his sack of expired refugee papers, a mechanical engineer with a foreign language degree from a Ukrainian university who must now clear garbage from Dutch apartment blocks to earn money? I can't help you, I say quietly. I will write about you. I will try to pump some compassion out of the authorities. But the days of such humanity - if they ever existed in Britain - have run out.

Next day, I am giving a lecture in the Belgian city of Antwerp when a man in the audience starts to berate me. "Why should we help Afghans or Iraqis or other Muslims when their own governments treat them like shit?" he asked. "Why should we have to save them from their own people. Why do we have to treat them better?" I explain that it was us - we, the West - who armed the "mujahedin" to fight the Russians and then ignored Afghanistan when it collapsed into civil war, that we nurtured the Taliban via Saudi Arabia and Pakistan when we thought we could negotiate with them for a gas pipeline across Afghanistan, that the current US ambassador in Iraq - that other blood-drenched democratic success story - was once involved with the company Unocal, which negotiated with the Taliban over the pipeline route, that Karzai had also been working for Unocal. To no avail.

Our new moral compass, it seems, is no longer "Saddam was worse than us" but "why should we treat Muslims any better than they treat each other?". And now we know that the CIA is holding other Muslims in bunkers deep beneath the earth of democratic Romania and brave old democratic Poland for a little torture, what hope is there for Mohamed? For him - and for us in Britain soon if Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara gets his way - it will be a familiar story from Europe's dark past. Vos papiers, Monseiur. Arbeitspapiere, bitte schön. Your papers, please.