As the Taliban claimed territory last summer, Mir Abdullah Miri and his cousin Aziz both planned to flee their homes in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan. Mir, an educational researcher, made it to the Afghan capital and tried to get on a flight, while Aziz, a cellphone programmer, decided to cross into Iran on foot with his wife and two young children, hoping to reach relatives in Germany. After Aziz and his family set off through Afghanistan’s southern desert, Mir was left to untangle the mystery of what really happened to them in that desolate wilderness, where thousands of Afghans have risked their lives in search of a way out.

Transcript

A quick warning: This episode includes descriptions of a traumatic experience. Please listen at your discretion.

Leila (translated voiceover): I couldn’t walk. My toenails were completely ripped off. All my toenails were torn off on the way. I felt it myself. I couldn’t sit down to take off my shoes, but I could feel that my toenails were coming off.

I had to take care of my children. I had fallen in several places, and my eyes were closed. All I could hear was my daughter and son crying.

Mir Abdullah Miri: When the Taliban seized Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Leila’s husband, Aziz, quickly started planning the family’s exit from the country. Their attempt to leave would irreversibly change their lives — and mine.

Leila (translated voiceover): I don’t know who had given me water. It was a stranger. One of them offered to carry my daughter, but I didn’t trust them. I was worried he might take my daughter and run away or something.

[Theme music]

Mir Abdullah Miri: This is No Way Home, a production of The Intercept and New America.

In this four-part series you’ll hear stories that were found, developed, and reported by Afghans like me, who have been forced into exile.

Our stories reflect what we saw with our own eyes and what we and our families have experienced firsthand since the U.S. military pulled out, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took over last summer.

This is Episode Two: “The Desert of Death.”

[Theme music ends]

Mir Abdullah Miri: My name is Mir Abdullah Miri. I’m an educational researcher living in the U.K. Around this time last year, I was still in Afghanistan, fighting to get out. And so was my cousin, Aziz.

The last time I saw Aziz, he was standing in front of the cellphone store where he worked in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan. Located in the western part of the country, the city has been home to many renowned poets, writers, and artists. A jewel along the Silk Road, Herat has long been coveted by conquerors and occupiers.

[Sounds of gunfire]

In July of 2021, Taliban fighters were intensifying their attacks in Herat. This was about a month before they would take control of the capital, Kabul.

That day in front of the cellphone store, Aziz and I had a short conversation. He told me about his plans to leave the country and settle in Germany. He had an uncle and cousin there. His wife, Leila, said Aziz wanted a better life for their kids.

Leila (translated voiceover): He would say, “I don’t like raising my son here. My son should go and study somewhere he deserves.” Because our son knew the English alphabet and was smart.

Aziz: Ice.

Amir: Ice.

Aziz: Ice.

Amir: Ice.

Aziz: Cream.

Amir: Cream.

Aziz: Ice cream.

Amir: Ice cream.

Aziz: Cookie ice cream.

Leila: Aziz would say, “He is a waste here. I want to raise my son somewhere he deserves.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz wanted to raise his children somewhere where they could go to school, play, and have fun. But getting to Germany was going to be more difficult for Aziz and his family than I realized the last time I saw him.

For reasons that will become apparent, I’m using pseudonyms for all of the subjects in this story.

Leila (translated voiceover): Both Aziz and I had passports. Our passports had expired. Our son and newborn daughter didn’t have a passport.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The original plan was to get to Germany through Iran, then Turkey. But because Aziz and his family didn’t have passports or proper travel documents, their options for getting there were limited.

[Sounds from passport office]

Following the collapse of the government, Afghanistan’s passport offices were flooded with people. They were forced to close because of malfunctioning biometric equipment, leaving thousands of Afghans stranded.

Leila (translated voiceover): Aziz would say, “I can’t afford to go illegally from Islam Qala border. I will go from Nimroz with my uncle because he has taken this route before.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Islam Qala is a town in Afghanistan on the border with Iran. It’s much closer to Herat than Nimroz, but also more heavily patrolled.

Nimroz, a province in the southwestern part of Afghanistan, borders Iran and Pakistan. It’s a well-known smuggling hub, where drugs, people, money, and more are trafficked between borders.

Leila (translated voiceover): I think he would not have taken this illegal route if the passport office had been open.

Mir Abdullah Miri: To make the journey, Aziz sold his laptop. He learned from relatives that his uncle Ahmad wanted to go to Iran, so he would come along too. Leila’s dad knew a smuggler in Herat who could help them get there.

The day Aziz decided to leave the country, he wrote on Facebook, “Goodbye Afghanistan, Goodbye Herat.”

That same day, Aziz visited his aunt to say goodbye and ask for her blessing. They waited to hear from the smuggler.

Leila (translated voiceover): We were supposed to exactly go at 4 o’clock on Friday. Our bags were packed in the morning. We were ready to go, but it did not happen, and the smuggler called us and said that we would go tomorrow. The next day, again, it did not happen and was delayed to the next day, which was Sunday, when he called and told us that on Monday at 4:00 p.m., he would definitely move us from Herat to Nimroz.

Mir Abdullah Miri: On Monday, August 30, 2021, two weeks after the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban had taken control of the country, Aziz posted on Facebook: “O God, send blessings upon Muhammad and the Progeny of Muhammad.” Perhaps a sign that he was nervous about the journey ahead.

The Journey Begins

[Sounds of the Herat bus terminal]

Mir Abdullah Miri: Later that day, Aziz, his wife, their 3-year-old son, and infant daughter, and his uncle, along with his wife and their baby, went to the Herat bus terminal.

Leila: We only had taken one extra set of clothes, because I had a little daughter who was a newborn. So I took a small bag with medicines and syrups for my son because he had dust allergies, and formula milk, boiled water, and a baby bottle for my daughter. I knew that there might not be water and food available during this trip, and I may not be able to breastfeed my daughter.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The smuggler was supposed to take Aziz’s family across the border, but they only had about a third of what they needed in cash to pay him. They also needed money to cover travel expenses like food, lodging, and transportation along the way.

They told the smuggler they would pay the rest when they arrived in Iran. They set off to Nimroz to meet the smuggler.

[Sounds of crowds in Nimroz]

Leila (translated voiceover): Once we arrived in Nimroz, all the crossing points were closed. It was very crowded in Nimroz. There was no car that we could take. We stayed there four nights. After four nights, I told Aziz that it was not possible: “Now that it is impossible to go, let’s return home.” He told me that he would not return even if he died during this journey.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Fearing life under the Taliban and economic collapse, hundreds of thousands of people across the country have tried to flee. Although the desert and mountainous terrain is treacherous, Nimroz is easier for people to cross into Iran illegally.

Hotels were packed. The deserts and mountains were crowded with people. Everyone wanted to leave. While they were waiting for the smuggler, Leila and Aziz got into an argument.

Leila (translated voiceover): I told him that we have our house; we have everything. We don’t care if others leave. Let’s return. Aziz said, “Had I known you are like this, I wouldn’t have married you.” He even told me, “Even if I get killed, I won’t return home. Bury me in Iran next to my father’s grave if I die. I won’t return to Afghanistan.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Migration from Afghanistan rose in the months before the Afghan government fell to the Taliban.

VOA: The number of Afghans crossing the border illegally has increased by 30 to 40 percent since May, when international forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban increased its attacks.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The number of people trying to leave was still high at the end of August last year.

Afghans make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Over 2 million Afghan refugees are registered in Iran and Pakistan, which together are home to about three-quarters of Afghan refugees. At least 1,500 Afghans have lost their lives on migration routes across Asia and Europe since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration; most of those deaths occurred while crossing into Iran.

Since there is so little official data on the deaths of migrants, the actual figure is probably much higher. Most of these deaths occur along the Afghanistan-Iran route that Aziz and his family chose.

Afghan refugees have had devastating experiences in Iran. In May 2020, 23 Afghan migrants who were trying to cross the border to Iran drowned in the Harirud River after Iranian border guards beat them and forced them to jump into the water. A month later, Iranian police shot at a car carrying Afghan migrants. The car burst into flames; three people died.

[Sounds from the streets of Qom, Iran]

Aziz had grown up in Qom, Iran. His parents had migrated there during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s. When Aziz was 7, his dad died in a traffic accident. At the time, Aziz’s mom was only 20 years old, left to raise three kids. To make ends meet, she cleaned their neighbors’ houses. As a kid, Aziz would work half a day and go to school the other half. After finishing high school, he was no longer eligible for free education in Iran.

In 2008, seven years after the U.S. military arrived in Afghanistan, Aziz and his family moved to Herat. It took Aziz a few years to get used to living in Afghanistan. He started working as a software programmer at a cellphone store. Leila and Aziz married in 2015. A few years later, he got his bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Aziz grew to love Herat. He used to call himself Aziz HRT — short for Herat — a nickname he chose to show his regard for his new home. Even his Facebook pictures had the caption “Aziz HRT.” For several years, Aziz lived a normal life in Herat, until insecurity and conflict in the country increased, leading many Afghans to flee their homes.

As the economy weakened, Aziz struggled to make ends meet. He began thinking about getting a new job or a part-time job, but he didn’t succeed because almost everyone had a similar problem.

[Sounds from Nimroz]

Mir Abdullah Miri: Back in Nimroz, Leila and Aziz were growing impatient. They still hadn’t heard from the smuggler. They had no information about their border crossing or know what to expect.

When they finally got a hold of the smuggler the next day, he told them to keep waiting. Aziz, Ahmad, and their wives and children were sharing a space with five other families.

Leila (translated voiceover): It is a place where you cannot make a call, and no one helps you [if you] cry out of pain.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila described their time in Nimroz.

Leila (translated voiceover): We lived on fruits like melon and watermelon. During the four nights in Nimroz, in our initial place, we could make calls and were in contact. The internet also worked but not properly. We were told to hide our phones. I even took my marriage ring off my finger. I was told to hide my ring because we would be chased.

From Smuggler to Smuggler

Mir Abdullah Miri: After four days and no progress, Aziz found a new smuggler, Khalil, with the help of a family friend.

It’s not hard to find a smuggler in Nimroz who will agree to take you across the border for the right price.

Leila (translated voiceover): The smuggler said, “It’s up to you. You have a choice to make: All border crossings are closed, except Kalagan, which requires four hours of walking.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Khalil, the new smuggler Aziz found, warned that the only route open to them was not safe for a family with two young children. But Aziz insisted.

Leila (translated voiceover): It was Friday, and the smuggler himself moved us to a new lodging place. He didn’t charge us for the place, but he charged us for the food. The food was like what you’d cook for a small child. And because the food is not enough, the child won’t get full. He would charge us 200 Afghani per person for that food.

Mir Abdullah Miri: It was very expensive for them, and the accommodations were sparse.

Leila (translated voiceover): The new place was inside the city. It was inside the city but in the backstreets. It was a ruined house and had two floors. Married people were on one floor; singles were on the other floor. The women and children were on one side of the room, and the men — whether their husbands, brothers, and everyone else — were on the other side of the room. There was only a curtain between men and women.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Before I continue, let me explain how smugglers work in this part of the country.

Smuggling networks work with sarafs: basically freelance financial agents. The sarafs act as intermediaries between smugglers and migrants. Migrants usually pay the sarafs in advance, but the money is only handed over to the smuggler once the client has reached his destination.

Migrants are usually divided into groups of 5 to 10. They rely on their guides for information about the geography and length of the trip. Throughout the journey, they’re passed from one smuggler to another, all part of the same network.

The new smuggler gave them a phone number and told them to use it if they got lost. Khalil told them that they were now Abdullah Kaj’s people, another smuggler. He told them what to expect from the journey.

Leila (translated voiceover): He told us to put the phone number in each child’s pocket, so they could be found in case they were lost along the way.

Mir Abdullah Miri: By rickshaws, the smuggler took Leila, Aziz, their two children, his uncle, and his uncle’s family to a place where another set of smugglers would meet them.

Leila (translated voiceover): The weather was unbearably hot. We were in a desert. It was not in our control. We didn’t have the choice to decide [when to go and how to go]. When you say “smuggling,” it’s clear from its name. It’s not for you to say. You have to bear it.

All the children were crying; even my son and my daughter were crying. I didn’t know how to calm them.

Mir Abdullah Miri: In the desert, they arrived to find pickup trucks and cars.

Leila (translated voiceover): The cars were not that comfortable to sit in. They were worn-out Toyotas. It was me, my two children, my uncle’s wife, two other women — who were our distant relatives — with a child each, plus the bags we had. We were crammed into the second row of the cabin with difficulty. The men had to sit on the back of the truck.

Mir Abdullah Miri: After about nine hours, they were dropped off near a tent in the desert in Pakistan. About an hour later, another car drove them through the desert and hills.

Leila (translated voiceover): Around 2:00 to 2:30 am, I had a Nokia phone with myself, and I was able to check the time. He stopped near a hill and told us to rest there, and they would move us again at 5:00 a.m. There were so many people sleeping there who had arrived earlier. There were cars and one tent there. They were all migrants. When we stopped there, the vehicle remained with us and the guy went somewhere else. There, my daughter was crying a lot and did not take anything. I mean, I couldn’t sleep from 2:30 am — when we arrived there — until 5:00 am until they moved us.

There, it was full of sand, thorns, and thistles. Because we were so bone-tired and exhausted, we laid down there without even thinking if it was sand, rock, clumps of earth, or whatever. My son didn’t eat at all during the way. Whatever I give him, he would throw up. He would even throw up a drop of water I give him.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The next morning, they left at 5:00 a.m. The driver spoke Balochi on the phone, a language spoken in the region they were passing through between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

It is known as Dasht-e Margo, or the Desert of Death. Leila and Aziz didn’t realize this.

Four hours later, they were dropped off at a site with little shade, just a few palm trees and no water.

Leila (translated voiceover): After an hour, two cars came. They asked, “Who are Abdullah Kaj’s people?”

Mir Abdullah Miri: That’s the smuggler.

Leila (translated voiceover): “We are,” we said. The men raised their hands. The smugglers said that the men would go in one car and the women in another.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz didn’t want the families separated. He insisted on being able to travel together with his wife and children.

Leila (translated voiceover): The smuggler told Aziz, “Wait here. Once you’re burnt in the sun here until the evening, then you will regret it.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: And so they were left in the desert.

Leila (translated voiceover): But we didn’t know that the weather would get that hot under those palm trees.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Every few hours, they would change places, chasing the shade of the palm trees. Finally, about eight hours later, a pickup truck pulled up, and people crowded around it. Aziz and his family were allowed in. They were put on the back of the pickup truck.

Leila (translated voiceover): The driver would drive so fast. He told us to hold fast. If anything like the bags, our kids, or ourselves fall, he would not stop for us to take our kids because there are patrol cars all around us.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Along the way, each family had to pay people at different checkpoints.

Leila (translated voiceover): Most of our money was spent paying the Taliban and the Baloch tribespeople along the way. They would take money from everyone, both families and singles. Those who did not have money, they would hit them.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila shared a story about a young man traveling with them.

Leila (translated voiceover): He gave his bag and his phone to us to hide because the poor man said, “These are all I had. Hide them because I have nothing else, and I might end up hungry and thirsty.” When the Taliban searched and couldn’t find anything, they hit him as much as they could.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Around midnight, they arrived at a place called Abbas Hostel, where they would be staying for the night. It had no roof — so they huddled under the desert sky.

Leila (translated voiceover): It wasn’t a hostel. It was a big compound with four walls and two doors. I should tell you, it was like a moat. It was water and dirt. There was no place to sit. We finally decided to sit next to a toilet on the dry ground, in the dirt. We had no option except to sit there. There, we ate no food and drank no water — nothing.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The next stop was at the mountains on the Pakistan-Iran border. By that point, two nights had passed since they had left Nimroz. They reached the mountains in the evening and were told to rest for two hours. They had a long walk ahead.

Leila (translated voiceover): Once he dropped us off there, we walked a few steps. We sat at the top of the mountain. Aziz was too tired to sit. He lay there on the rocks. Our son was also lying there, next to his dad.

There was no one we could buy food or water from. We had taken only some dried bread with us since we knew that dried bread doesn’t go bad easily.

[Sounds of motorbikes]

Mir Abdullah Miri: A few smugglers on motorbikes showed up at 9:00 p.m. and divided the group in two and assigned each to a different smuggler: “Mojib Baloch” and “Asmaan.” Aziz and his family were told that Asmaan would be their smuggler.

They were told to shout “Asmaan! Asmaan!” whenever they were lost, since the route was dark and crowded.

Leila (translated voiceover): All of us had to walk. It was too dark to see anything. In fact, we couldn’t see ahead of us. Our small mobile phone had a light, but the smuggler even told us to [keep it] off because if police patrols saw it, they would follow and find us.

The smuggler was on a motorbike, and he would himself go two, three mountains ahead of us and stand on the top of a mountain and signal us with his big light, asking us to follow him. He told us if we didn’t follow him, we would be left behind.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz had a backpack and carried his 3-year-old son, Amir. Leila carried their baby daughter in her arms. Aziz and Leila walked together, holding hands.

Leila (translated voiceover): My son was crying a lot. As Aziz walked, he would put Amir down, held his hand, and asked him to follow him. Within minutes, he’d put him back on his shoulder. I held my daughter’s hand. Amir would cry a lot and say things like, “Daddy, I’m sleepy. Daddy, I’m hungry. Daddy, I’m dying.” His daddy was silent.

Mir Abdullah Miri: They hadn’t walked more than 30 minutes before Aziz couldn’t go any further.

Leila (translated voiceover): Once Aziz couldn’t walk, in the dark, a man approached us and offered to carry our bags because my son was crying a lot and my daughter had also started crying at this point. We even stopped and sat down to rest in a few places. But the guy took our bag and soon disappeared with our water and food.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila called for their uncle, Ahmad. The route was crowded with donkeys and motorbikes that typically smuggled gas, but since nearly all the borders were now closed, the business of smuggling humans was booming.

Aziz was in pain.

Leila (translated voiceover): Aziz would moan and cry “Aakh, aakh.” [expression of pain]

Mir Abdullah Miri: They stopped a man on a motorbike to ask about taking the family the rest of the way.

Leila (translated voiceover): The motorbiker looked very scary. Aziz talked to the motorbiker and asked how much he would take us. The guy said, “400,000 tomans per person.” Aziz said, “I don’t mind. It’s me, my wife, and my children.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz agreed to pay the fee, which was around 1,200 Afghani or $14, but they needed to make it down the steep mountain first. Uncle Ahmad helped Aziz down. Leila and the rest of the family followed closely.

Leila (translated voiceover): When the motorbiker stopped there, he would shout out, “Amir? Leila? Amir? Leila?” I would reply, “We are here. We are here.” He was worried about us a lot.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Once they reached the bottom of the mountain, Aziz sat on the ground in pain and even more exhausted.

Leila (translated voiceover): He was conscious, but he couldn’t find people to help him get on the motorbike. I implored some people to get him on the motorbike. Six people put him on the motorbike.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Ahmad would accompany Aziz on the motorbike with the smuggler. Leila was left with the children and her uncle Ahmad’s family. The plan was to meet at the next hostel in Iran.

Leila was growing tired too, now carrying her two children on her own. After two and a half hours, the motorbike driver came back alone. He told Leila that they took Aziz to the hospital.

Leila (translated voiceover): I got worried and I asked, “What has happened that you took him to the hospital?” “His blood pressure had gone up,” he replied.

He lied to me.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The smuggler had come back to take her and the children down the mountain. Initially, she refused to go with him. But she was so tired, she ultimately gave in.

Leila (translated voiceover): The smuggler forced my son on his motorbike. Then I sat on his motorbike with my daughter. I was crying and asking him, “Where did you take my husband?” “We took him to hospital. Now I will take you there,” he replied. My son was crying a lot. He would tell my son to stop crying, as he would take us to his dad.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The smuggler didn’t take them to the hospital as he had promised. He took them here and there, Leila said it felt like he was stalling.

They had crossed the border into Iran. But it would be awhile before she would see their Uncle Ahmad again.

Leila (translated voiceover): Suddenly I saw Uncle Ahmad from behind us.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Ahmad told Leila that he would take her to see Aziz. He took her to Zahedan, a city in Iran. Once there, Ahmad told her, Aziz was in a hospital in Afghanistan. So they would need to return.

Leila was overwhelmed, anxious, and frustrated. She had been told so many contradictory things about Aziz. No one was giving her clear answers. Her children were crying, and she cried with them, begging others to tell her what happened to her husband.

In order to get back to Afghanistan, they had to turn themselves into the authorities in Zahedan. Because they didn’t have the proper travel documents and crossed into Iran illegally, they had to be deported back home.

After spending a few days and nights in Iran, they were deported to Afghanistan on September 12, 2021.

No Clear Answers

I was sitting in a Kabul hotel when I received a call from my brother, Omid. My family and I had received word that the U.K. government would evacuate us. I was told that I was eligible to be relocated to England because I was working as a trainer with the British Council. But chaos at the airport, and then the suicide bombing, grounded commercial flights.

Omid told me that Aziz was missing after trying to cross the Afghanistan-Iran border. Together we began trying to find Aziz.

Omid, who lives in Herat, had an Iranian visa. He set off to look for Aziz in Iran. Ahmad had told Omid that he wasn’t sure if Aziz was still alive. Ahmad had told other relatives that Aziz was in Khash, a city in Iran.

But while searching for Aziz, Omid learned that his body was actually in a hospital in Saravan, a city in southeastern Iran, 100 miles away from Khash. The hospital staff told Omid that Aziz’s body had been discovered by villagers in Saravan, which wasn’t far from where he was supposed to meet Leila.

Aziz’s body had been in the desert for a couple of days before it was taken to the hospital on September 9, 2021, they told Omid. According to the hospital report, Aziz died of three things: the first, being hit by a hard object; the second, head injuries and concussions; and the third, a cerebral hemorrhage. His brain was bleeding. When Omid saw Aziz’s body, he noticed that his clothes were torn.

Aziz’s death remains a mystery. What happened to him? Did he fall? Was he pushed? Was he beaten? Did he suffer a heart attack? Did anyone help him, or did they leave him behind? Did he have time to realize what was happening? Was he alone when he died? And why was Ahmad giving conflicting stories?

I’ve talked to those who were directly or indirectly involved in this trip and who had information about Aziz and his decision to leave the country. We all have tried retracing Aziz’s steps.

When I asked Ahmad what happened to Aziz, he revealed more than he had told Leila:

Ahmad (translated voiceover): Finally, as we approached the hostel, I saw Aziz have three hiccups on the motorbike, like someone who was breathing his last breaths. I took him to the hostel. When I took him to the hostel, I put him on my lap and called him nephew, nephew, breathe, breathe, but he didn’t breathe at all.

There were 3 to 4 people in the hostel. I asked them to check him, he is my nephew, why he is not breathing. I was pushing his chest to help him breathe, but nothing helped; he couldn’t breathe.

A guy at the hostel told me Aziz had died. May he rest in peace.

I was told not to tell Leila about Aziz’s death because if she cried, all the travelers would be fucked up.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Meaning it could put them all in danger of being captured by the police.

Ahmad (translated voiceover): I asked the smuggler what happened to my nephew. He told me, “We took him to the hospital to give electric shock, we took him to the morgue.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila doesn’t understand why Ahmad wouldn’t tell anyone what really happened. When they got back to Herat, everyone would ask Ahmad to tell them everything, and according to Leila, Ahmad would say, “This was everything.”

She has her own theories.

Leila (translated voiceover): I think Aziz fell off the mountain because Ahmad was so frail, and as he was helping Aziz get off the motorbike, he must have fallen.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The mystery surrounding Aziz’s death has torn our family apart. We’ve all been left to speculate about what actually happened and whether anyone could have helped Aziz or saved him.

Illegal migration is a difficult decision. Many uncertainties await the traveler. The journey becomes even harder when you start from a war-torn country like Afghanistan, at a moment when power is shifting, when many people are terrified and running for the exits.

Afghanistan has had confusing policies to prevent or discourage the use of smugglers. Only recently has the Taliban ordered a ban on migration from Nimroz to Iran. But it’s been reported that those who pay bribes to the Taliban border guards can continue their journey.

Leila (translated voiceover): Aziz was someone who loved his family. He loved his children. He always said, “Leaving home is like leaving your soul.” When he left home, he indeed left his soul behind.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Since Aziz passed away, his family has been struggling. Leila and her children live with Aziz’s mom and brother. They don’t have any source of income and rely on the little money Aziz’s brother gives them to cover living costs.

Leila: When Aziz died, my daughter was two and half months old. I had to pay for diapers, medicine, and doctors. Once we got back, I had to spend a lot on my kids’ health. My son has a blood infection. Even now, if he gets a microbe in his body, we have to pay a lot for his treatment.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila worries about the future of her children.

Leila (translated voiceover): All the dreams Aziz and I had as a couple were buried. Now, the only dream I have is for my children to get educated in a good place.

Mir Abdullah Miri: When I talked to Leila about this, she fought back tears.

Leila (translated voiceover): I just want from my God that whatever good or bad memories I had here in Afghanistan, I leave them in Afghanistan. I even just want to be somewhere where I can put up a tent, where I can live with my children, because there are no good memories left for us from Afghanistan. And even today my son cried for about an hour, saying, “Mommy, I want to see my dad’s clothes. Open dad’s closet so I can see my dad’s clothes.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: She worries about the trauma her son, Amir, still carries. He’s scared all the time. When he’s sleeping, even when Leila is next to him, he wakes up and cries, “Where’s my mommy?”

Leila (translated voiceover): Every night when he goes to bed, he does not fall asleep until he recalls those days. He says, “Mommy, when I grow up, I won’t take you to the mountains. I’m afraid of mountains.”

[Credits]

Mir Abdullah Miri: Next time on No Way Home.

Maryam Barak: What I’m about to tell you is a different kind of Afghan refugee story. It isn’t about the struggle to get out of Kabul or a dramatic life-and-death journey. Instead, it’s about adapting to life in a new country, about finding hope — despite all we have left behind.

Qader Kazimizada: We didn’t even have any choice. There was no choice, because at that moment, the only thing was important was to get out from Kabul.

They were drinking, shouting, fighting during the night at the corridor. I was always awake and standing behind the door in order to avoid if they come at the door, because my family is here, my wife is here, my children are here. They will be scared.

We are learning Italiano, trying to get integrated with the people, with Italian people.

Mir Abdullah Miri: No Way Home is a production of The Intercept and New America’s Afghanistan Observatory Scholars program.

This episode was written and reported by me, Mir Abdullah Miri.

Our executive producer and editor is Vanessa Gezari.

Supervising producer and editor is Laura Flynn.

Candace Rondeaux is the director of Future Frontlines Program-New America and project editor.

Ali Yawar Adili is the Afghanistan Observatory project coordinator.

Jose Olivares helped with production.

Rick Kwan mixed this episode.

Zach Young composed our theme music.

Legal review by David Bralow.

Fact checking by Emily Schneider.

Awista Ayub is the director and project manager of New America’s Fellows Program.

Voiceovers by Humaira Rahbin and Ali Yawar Adili.

To learn more, visit theintercept.com where you can find transcripts and art of the show. Philipp Hubert is our visual designer and Nara Shin our copy editor.

Roger Hodge is editor-in-chief of The Intercept.

If you want to give us feedback or have any questions, email us at [email protected]

Thanks, so much, for listening.