Winter in the Jardin Villemin

One of the joys of my last job in Afghanistan was getting to know my team. Of them all there was one young man in particular, let us call him Q, who was a pleasure to work with. (Before continuing, let me note that the use of the past tense does not suggest his demise.) Not particularly well educated, he had a curiosity and intelligence that put him beyond many his senior. It wasn’t always the case. He had been kidnapped with an expatriate member of staff and held for almost a month, forced across the mountains under the threat of death. Unsurprisingly, he had been severely knocked by the experience and it took him a long time to recover. To see him re-engage and build up his confidence was a good sight.

Last year he married, and was charmingly full of love. He was taking on more responsibility at work, and as I prepared to leave I was keen to recommend him to my manager and replacement, fearing to lose him from my department were he promoted but knowing he deserved it. In my last few days in Kabul it was decided that he would travel to France to attend a board meeting and some training courses. Within the organisation this signified great praise, and trust. Discussing it with my manager we felt that, recently married as he was, with much to look forward to, he would not abscond.

Not long after that meeting and I was walking up the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris on a bright free day and happened to pass the Jardin Villemin. It was here that several dozen Afghan asylum seekers had been camping out until they were forced out by the police, who were still conspicuously present when I strolled by. France is not known in Europe for having the most compassionate attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees. As in the Jardin Villemin, the state prefers to let them fend for themselves, until they become a public nuisance.

Some time later, and Q was in Paris. Where he did a runner. Hearing this I sent him an innocuous email asking him how his trip had been. Fantastic, said Q. But while in Kabul he had been threatened by people unknown who told him to do jihad and to spy on the kafirs and inform them of their movements. So he was not going back.

I did not believe him. It didn’t add up; this man’s background, a story that sounded too well angled to expatriates’ fears, plausible with no possibility of proof. And I was angry with him. For betraying my and the organisation’s trust, for making it harder to get visas for his Afghan colleagues to travel to Europe for training, for leaving his wife and family, and for what I felt to be his naivete in trying to seek asylum, not fully realising the new world of torment opening up to him in places such as the Jardin Villemin. I had spoken with him and many others back in Afghanistan about the difficulties facing asylum seekers in Europe, trying to tell them that the streets are not paved with gold as many seemed to think. It always felt like they never believed me, but I thought Q had more sense.

Unkindly, I did not hide all of these thoughts in my reply to Q. I told him I thought he had made a stupid mistake. Without saying I did not believe him, I told him the authorities were very unlikely to believe his story, and asked aloud if it would not be better to spend the next years with his family rather than struggling to survive in a foreign and unfriendly land. I tried to assure him that my (brutal) honesty was from a friend who cared for his well being, but he was not best pleased.

The intensity of his reply took me aback. An unpleasant part of me wondered if it was partly due to his realising the situation he had put himself in. The rest of me had to guiltily admit that no, I did not know what it was like to be kidnapped and to face death and to be threatened and to be followed and no, I did not know that when he had gone they had, he wrote, phoned his wife and threatened her and she was taken sick and had to go to hospital then moved back to her parents’ house in a different city.


I didn’t know how to reply to that. I moderated my response, said I did not think he was a bad person but was simply worried for him. Which is true. I haven’t heard from Q since then. Someone else told me he was going to try and get to Scandinavia, which would be a fairly sensible move considering. How a person sans papiers gets from France to Scandinavia I have faint idea. Or maybe he is sleeping under a bush in the Jardin Villemin. Wherever, I wish him well.

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7 Responses to “Winter in the Jardin Villemin”

  1. Zartosht Ariana Says:

    Ah, Hary Rud, If you had a more complete picture of the pain and shame of Afghans,you might have understood the plight of Q and most Afghans.GET this firmly implanted in your mind: most afghans,women and men are very abused during their upbringing;about 70-90% of young boys have been sexually molested and beaten and women are denied their liberty and many are beaten by relatives and husbands.
    You have no idea regarding the depth of the pain and shame the Afghans endure everyday and will never disclose it to others as loss of honor is even a greater pain! You have no idea how dark and evil the Islamic culture is!!Afghans are very friendly to outsiders because they find Westerners safe to mingle with ,they are not likely to be abused by them or dishonored.So when Afghans get a chance to enter Western countries,they are desperate not go back to that shame and pain even if they have endure undesirable attitudes there.Here they find peace of mind which they don’t have back home:out of sight,out of mind!I hope you get a better picture of the extreme brutality of the Islamic culture in Afghanistan now,i guarantee this info is correct,not exaggerated at all,although Afghans will deny it to save face,to save honor!The points made here will explain their unexpected behavior.If you just knew how oppressive and how dark and how evil Islamic customs and culture is, and knew it thoroughly,you would have had a more complete picture of that tortured land,tortured by Islamic edicts and customs enforced by the threat of beheading.Most people in the West don’t fully realize how the lives of the majority of the inhabitants of Islamic countries are devastated by these hellish Islamic impositions and how little they can do to change them due to the ever present threat of beheading.these are stark facts as the realities of Islamic customs are very bitter indeed!

  2. Fehmeen Says:

    Zartosht, you’re right when you say sexual and physical abuse is common in this area (Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan) and I really don’t understand why things are this bad. I can safely say this has nothing to do with Islam because the religion forbids homosexuality and severely restricts inter-gender contact.

    The basic explanation I hear from people around me is that people who do this are simply frustrated and have no self-control or discipline. But there are still no reasons as to why so many people are like this.

    FYI, it’s not only these two countries. Unreported sexual abuse is common in A LOT of middle eastern countries. Pick up a copy of the Princess and you’ll be shocked.

  3. Mona Says:

    “Unreported sexual abuse is common in A LOT of middle eastern countries.”

    It is common in every single country in the world. There is no religious or cultural monopoly on abuse.

    Harry Rud, thank you for sharing a very compelling story which must have been difficult to write.

  4. harryrud Says:

    Yeah, what Mona said. Plus, Zartosht, umm, no. Islam is not ‘dark and evil’. I am thinking you are from Afghanistan so am slightly intrigued, but no. Just no.

  5. Mariam Says:

    Thank you for your humility, Harry Rud.

    Zartosht — Abuse is common in war torn countries, but your hastiness about Islam as “evil” is unnecessary and incorrect. “Islam” has been politicized and manipulated to be imposed on people in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. We must recognized the difference between true Islam, which brings peace and solace to millions around the world, and the manipulation of an “Islam” imposed by extremists to exert control.

  6. Transitionland Says:

    :::Slams face against keyboard:::

    Hi, Harry. I’m working in Afghanistan now, and am dealing with this very issue.

    It’s sad and infuriating in equal measures.

  7. FreeWorld Says:

    Now Harry, this is very rich coming from someone who has a passport and can leave the country at any time, being there and worked in other third world countries, I don’t blame them for seeking asylum, but these Afghans are naive they should try Indonesia and hop on a boat to Australian waters, and within three months one is granted permanent residency. He was kidnapped surely your organization can help him right now in his moment of despair and assist him getting asylum, but no our Harry is very much concerned about his status and that of his organizations’. Who cares he almost got killed when kidnapped and the scars he still carries.

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