“You are the painter of your life,” wrote Zaki Anwari on his Facebook page last week. “Do not give your paintbrush to anyone else.” It was the last thing that the young Afghan footballer wrote before his death.
The remains of the nineteen-year-old were found in one of the wheel wells of a US aircraft when it landed in Doha from Kabul. It was the same aircraft seen on TV and social media as it took off surrounded by a large crowd of Afghans desperate to escape from the Taliban. Looking for a better life elsewhere, Anwari did not know that the plane would carry him into the next life.
Migration has been seen by many Afghans as the only option for many years. Getting to Europe, the US, or Canada is a dream, especially for young people disheartened by conflict, unemployment, and difficult living conditions in Afghanistan. Clinging to an American aircraft was the only way out for a young man like Zaki Anwari. It was a fateful decision. I know, because I made a similar decision eight years ago in Egypt.
Our story is the same: the fear of an unknown destiny; fleeing the homeland; trying to find a safe haven, and risking everything in exchange for the one opportunity you come across. Eight years ago, the Egyptian regime tried to kill me after it committed the most heinous massacre in modern Egyptian history in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. I decided to risk everything and take the first flight to Turkey without looking back.
I wept out of sadness as I left my homeland. Maybe Anwari also cried, but out of fear. At least I had a seat on the aircraft; he didn’t. As the plane swept down the runway at Cairo International Airport my heart almost stopped as I worried about the future awaiting me. Anwari’s heart stopped when the wheels of the US aircraft crushed him a few moments after take-off.
When you feel that your life is endangered and you are constantly frustrated by your living conditions, you are pushed to make life or death decisions. Anwari made his decision, just as I made mine.
He did not wait to see if the situation would calm down in Afghanistan. He did not give the brush to the Taliban or any other party to paint his life story. Instead, he chose to paint it himself. He is now an Afghan icon that the world talks about, with sorrow and pride for this young man’s courage.Those who criticise Anwari and his reckless decision to cling to the aircraft reminded me of comments made by far-right officials and some Western political personalities who have criticised the influx of refugees in Europe over recent years. Refugees, they say, are “invaders” who covet better economic conditions and government support in Europe. Such critics overlook the fact that their governments are often part of the problem which has driven refugees to make potentially life-threatening migrations in the first place.
I would not have left my country, leaving my life and profession as a dentist in Egypt behind, and seeking political asylum in Britain if it was not for the unprecedented political support provided by Western governments, including Britain’s led by David Cameron, for the military coup headed by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt in July 2013. Perhaps Zaki Anwari would not have felt that he had to risk his life if the US had not occupied Afghanistan twenty years ago with the support of other Western powers. We will never know.
Can anyone blame Anwari for being born in a country occupied by Western armies and deprived of freedom and independence, while being torn by conflicts and armed groups, and thinking that migration and asylum are the better options? Why should we blame those who risk their lives in rubber boats to cross the sea towards a better life in Europe?
If some parties are to be criticised, it should be the dictatorial regimes in the Arab countries as well as the Western states that provide political, financial, and moral cover for these regimes. Their support enables the dictators to stay in power, no matter what the cost in terms of human suffering and life.
I feel very sad when I think of the fate of Zaki Anwari. That could have been me. That’s why I feel a responsibility to share his story and the suffering of his people so that nobody has to make such decisions, with the same catastrophic result, again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.