Afghan Sikhs leave their own country: What has come along, what they left behind

"It has been four months since the attack on March 25 but my daughter still trembles in fear....

Poonam Kaur holds tight a doll. It was a gift from her paternal aunt, while the eight year old was leaving Kabul two days ago. Probably that’s the only good memory that Poonam, one of the youngest victims of the Islamic State (IS) sponsored terror attack at Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib Kabul this year, has carried along with her, while leaving Afghanistan for India. The memories of the attack has scarred Poonam forever.

“It has been four months since the attack on March 25 but my daughter still trembles in fear. She screams in the night, gets nightmares and asks ‘why did they attack us? We were just sitting there and having prasad. Who were they? Unhone mere dada ko kyu maara? Unhone sabko kyu maara? (why did they kill my grandfather, why did they kill everyone). After we came here, she is a little better,”says Malmeet Kaur (26), Poonam’s mother, who was born in Kabul.

Poonam had suffered shrapnel injury in an eye and on head and neck. Malmeet along with her husband Gurjeet Singh (33), two other children — Mandeep Singh (9) and Parwin Singh (3) — have been evacuated to India in the first batch of 11 Afghan Sikhs...

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...“The day we left Kabul, our country, her bua gave her this doll. She said ‘tum jao, hum bhi aa rahe hain’. This pain of leaving our own country, our own people, this will never go but now we want to forget everything, about Kabul, about Afghanistan. Through the years of war and bombings, atrocities and disrespect, and even after 2018 Jalalabad attack that wiped out our community elders, we continued to stay there. But the gurdwara attack, left us all heartbroken. Apna desh hai par ab bhoolna chahte hain,” says Malmeet, whose father-in-law Sardar Singh and seven other family members died in the attack including three-year old Tanya. “I start feeling unwell when I think of the day when innocent people from our community were butchered. Luckily, my daughter escaped death,” she adds...

...“I was born in Kabul, grew up and got married there. But I was told that we will be leaving in 24 hours. I just packed some clothes…nothing else. Children couldn’t even pick their toys. We said hurried goodbyes at the gurdwara. But more than the materialistic things, I think we are carrying along memories of Kabul – good, bad, worse. What we want to leave behind is that fear in which we lived there 24×7. We couldn’t move out, our children couldn’t enjoy life, our men and children were abused for being Sikh, threatened and forced to cut their hair. We chose to move now because future of our children is the most important,” says Malmeet...

“Earlier children used to attend school at gurdwara but after the attack, that too was closed. It was impossible for our kids to attend other schools. They were never treated respectfully,” alleges Malmeet, who had been living in two rooms at Gurdwara Mansa Singh ji for last eight years.

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“I do not want my children to remember anything about Kabul. It will be years before memories fade for my daughter. He grandfather was killed in front of her eyes. He was distributing prasad when he was shot. She still tries to enact what happened then and says ‘isko aise maara, dada ko aise maara’,” says Malmeet. “It is painful but truth is Afghanistan is no more our country. There is no respect for Sikhs and Hindus there. Most used to say that we should convert to Islam to be accepted in society. We always remained indoors, not just because of fear of another attack but also because of abuses and humiliation we would face for just being Sikhs,” she adds.

For Gurjeet Singh, it won’t be possible to forget about the tight lanes of Shor Bazar with several big and small gurdwaras, the strong aroma of sumptuous dal, roti, karha prasad and kheer that were cooked in langar and which he grew up eating. He can never forget the city where he was born, got married and had children. “Our elders always used to say ‘apna desh tey apni qaum kadey ni chadni, kuch vi hoje (Don’t leave our country, our community ever). We saw war, bombings, rockets, explosions in Afghanistan but stayed put. Even after Jalalabad attack in 2018 that killed 19 of our community elders, we chose to live there. But this year, the gurdwara attack left us all heartbroken. Iss vaar saada sabar tey dil dono tutt gaye (This time, our patience and hearts were left broken). I have come to India for better future of my children. What have they seen in life yet,” says Gurjeet, who used to run an ayurvedic medicines shop in Kabul.

“That day, I had stopped my father from going to gurdwara and he scolded me for doing so. It was the first time ever that a terrorist stormed inside a gurdwara and killed people. If gurdwaras, which are our homes there, aren’t safe, then there was no hope left,” he said. “My father used to say that we don’t have to run away even if there is an attack but have to face them and protect our gurdwaras. But the day I lost him, I was shattered. I decided to leave,” adds Gurjeet, whose mother and a brother are still in Kabul.

The couple says that all they want now is a fresh start in India, a job and good education for the three children. “Our first priority is to get daughter’s eye surgery done. Kabul mein achhe din bhi guzaare jab sab theek tha. Par hamare sab bande shaheed ho gaye. Koi apna nahi raha. Ab aage badhna hai aur yahin rehna hai. Ab hum kabhi waapis nahi jaa rahe (Some good days were also spent in Kabul when all was good but our community people were killed on that soil. There was no one we could call our own. Now it’s time to move on, live in India. We aren’t going back ever now)”.

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