The Rootless

By Azim Salimy

The dogs were barking. Beyond them a deep and dark silence stretched out endlessly. Apart from the police, the intimidating darkness was also terrifying. There was a very small light far away which was changing colour—blue, red, blue, red—over and over again. We couldn’t see anything else. Ali said, “It’s time to run,” but I was really scared, and my heartbeat started racing lub-dup, lub-dup, faster and faster. I could hear it. I said to him, “Ali, I’m really scared.” He paused and said, “you can do it! Now, we have to run, otherwise, we won’t make it by the morning! It’s our last night here on this mountain. If we don’t manage to go tonight, we will die here.”

There was no food left to eat, and little to drink. Ali pointed at a bottle of water, “this is our last drink. You see, it would be better to get arrested than to die of hunger. We will die here if we don’t go tonight.”

“I know, but we have to find a second way. It’s not wise to chase after our death when we know it’s ambushing us right here. Police will again beat us to death, take our clothes, and leave us to freeze in this cold winter.”

“I know, but what’s our alternative?” he said.  “I promise you, we’ll make it.” He was confident enough, and he knew what he wanted to do. Then he added, “I don’t have anything to lose. All I hope is that being on the other side of this mountain by tomorrow we will see morning. I know how dangerous it is, and I know there’s a risk of being arrested or shot by the police. But do you know how beautiful it is over there? There is an abundance of beautiful things to see on the other side of the mountain. I want to see them, I want to smell them, I want to sense them. We’ll take another risk, and it will be worth it. Don’t be so cynical. You’ll remember this night forever. I see light at the end of this darkness. There is something bright waiting for us. Tomorrow, at least you will have a story to tell and a memory that will last a lifetime.”

I interrupted, and said, “you know what? We don’t make stories and memories. All we make tonight is pain and then more pain. We are pain!”

He smiled at me and said, “you’re so naive. I’m going to count to three. Then we run with heart.” He took a deep breath then started to count 1, 2…I closed my eyes and dreamed of being beyond the mountains, far away from here, beyond this cold night, sleeping on the roof and staring at the stars. Ali said “three,” but I didn’t run. I was drowning in my dreams, playing hide-and-seek with Gulsom. He grabbed my shoulder and shoved me forwards, it shocked me to the core. “Now,” he screamed.


Ali and I grew up in a small village in Afghanistan, Zard Sang. Zard Sang was our paradise. It was located in a very beautiful green valley. Old houses stood side by side. We could hear our neighbours through the walls. Our kitchen was dark, and the walls were covered in black smoke, but still the most delicious foods were served there. We had the pure four seasons of the year: in Spring the mountain around our village was green and the blue sky was like an ocean above us; in Summer we had a peaceful nature, warm, calm, and the sun was bright and shining; Autumn was my favourite, colourful trees, the yellow leaves were falling down, giving me the most beautiful sense that life should be lived, otherwise one day we will all fall down like the leaves and become dust in the air; I loved it, making peace with nature and all the small creatures living in its heart; Winter was its own season. On the first day of Winter every year we had a massive snowfall and the mountain and the village were covered like a white blanket had been thrown over us. It was cold outside, but peoples’ hearts were warm and alive. My older sister used to gather all the village kids in our small dark kitchen and entertain them. She was really good at storytelling, and we would spend hours listening to her.

During the warm seasons, I would sleep on the roof and Ali would join me. We would stare at the stars and count them. The sky was full of stars and the moon was the queen. My grandma always used to say that everyone has a star in the sky, and we stayed awake all night to find ours. Ali was older than me and we found two stars which were as close as our hearts. He had already chosen the brighter one, so the other one was mine. I was jealous of him, but he convinced me that he was the older one, and anyway one day we would swap. I was gazing at Ali’s bright star and as I stared at it for many hours it grew darker and darker. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a bad omen. I asked my grandma, What does it mean? She told me it was a sign of gradual death. “A gradual death?” I asked her. She explained more but I didn’t understand it at that time. I never told Ali about it, because I couldn’t imagine that it would be true, and I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted a happy ending!

During the day we played “Bride and Groom ” together with his sister, Gulsom.  My favourite part was when Gulsom was the bride. Gulsom was a very beautiful girl with big blue eyes. There was something fascinating in her eyes, like a hypnosis, or a magical power. Her eyes were blue, large, and attractive. Everyone in the village liked her and this was a source of indescribable pain for me. I loved her, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it because it was a sign of unloyalty to my friend, Ali. I didn’t want to ruin it. It is not good to be in love with your best friend’s sister, but it was hard to convince my heart.

Life was going on, we were at school and people were busy farming, until one day when we returned from school and everybody was talking about an attack on the neighbouring village. That was the point at which life changed, and a new phenomenon called “Taliban” appeared. They attacked our village the next day as people were sleeping. They killed as many defenceless people as they could, bodies over bodies, blood flooded the village. Zard Sang became a ghost village with thousands of dead bodies. It was dawn when my uncle arrived at our house and told us what he’d seen in Zard Sang, and how he managed to escape. My house and Ali’s house were two kilometres away from Zard Sang. We found each other in a panic and then ran to the mountains.

At that point, as a teenager, I was confused about all that was happening around us, and I never ever could imagine where we were going and what was waiting for us next. But soon I realized that a journey had started, a journey that never sounded good, and a journey that could not end well. Our journey had an ocean of pain, sorrow, humiliation, homelessness, hopelessness, and desperation built in. We started floating on this ocean and our hands reached up to the sky for a drop of rain, a drop of rain to make us wet, to make us heavier, to soak us, to drown, and to be sucked down. We fled to find a new place where we could feel at home again, to feel a new sense of belonging, but home was a mirage to us! The journey left us breathless, motionless, and made us close our eyes forever.

The survivors, including my family and Ali’s family, in the next few days fled from the mountain to major cities, such as Kabul, and Herat. My family and Ali’s family settled in Kabul, but we couldn’t find safety there either. We were called refugees and outsiders by locals, and everyday there were explosions and fighting. We had no choice but to seek refuge in another place. Ali and I fled to Iran. We had to leave our families behind. I remember the day that we left, everyone was crying, and Ali was kissing Gulsom’s hand and promising her that he will come back one day, and that we would play “Bride and Groom” again. He promised her that when we came back she would be able to go to school. She cried and cried, but we had to leave. I remember the tears, the flow, the river…


Ali was my hero! That night on the mountain he was brave and fearless, and because of his bravery, we managed to cross the border. By the morning, we were on the other side of the mountain. We walked all morning, until we came across a deep cold river, and we had to swim. As soon as we crossed the river we were ambushed by a group of police. They arrested us and took us to a prison; Ali told me that they were speaking Greek. The next day they separated us and took me to a camp for minors.

One day, after two months in the camp, a security guard came and said to me that I had a visitor. I knew it was Ali. I ran to the door, and he was waiting outside. We hugged and cried for a long time, then he told me everything. He told me that he had been moved to Athens and after receiving his papers he started working there. And now that he was working he set out to find me and could now visit me.

We weren’t able to see each other often, but he came when he could. He brought news about our families and their situation. When he visited me, we talked for hours and hours. We had a routine; we would go to the sea together, the blue sea that reminded me of Gulsom’s beautiful eyes. I had a strong desire to go to the sea, to swim, play, and stare at the waves; however, it didn’t last long. Ali stopped coming to see me and hundreds of thoughts crossed my mind every day. What had happened to him? Why was he not visiting anymore? Have I done something wrong?

I remembered once he told me that, “Being a refugee is like being a tree cut from its root and planted in a new environment. If it can’t adapt to the new environment, it will die.” He was right. His roots had grown into new ground. He didn’t come anymore. I texted him, I called him, and I asked his friends. I didn’t know what had happened to him, where was he? Was he alive or dead? He was gone! I was disappointed and couldn’t do anything. Two years passed like that, and I had no news about him. Luckily, I soon got my papers and could move out of the camp. It was time for me to do something, to find out what had happened to him. I moved to Athens where Ali had been working. I started searching for him, and after a few days I found the place where he had been working, but he wasn’t there either. They told me Ali had suddenly stopped coming, and that they don’t know where he was.

I kept searching for him. I did whatever I could to find him. He had become a bird flying into the sky, he had become a rain drop and vanished in the ground. He was gone! I didn’t stop searching for him, but my heart was telling me that something bad had happened, and it was killing me from inside every single day. I was disappointed and helpless. Then one day on the way back home from work, I saw him. He was sleeping on the street beside many other people who were also sleeping. At first, I didn’t recognize him. I couldn’t bear to see him like this. He wasn’t my Ali anymore, and he wasn’t the person that I knew before or the person that I was searching for.  He was too weak to move, and he was all skin and bones. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got closer to him and looked into his eyes. I knelt down, took his face in my hands and screamed, and then I slapped myself. I cried my heart out. Ali was gone! His gradual death came true—he was a drug addict. After an hour of sitting near him he stirred and moved his head. He opened his eyes and looked at me, but his eyes were red and bloodshot, then he smiled. He was too weak to speak, but I could read his eyes. His red eyes spoke of a loss, a sorrow, a death.

I took him home and then he told me that Gulsom had been killed in a bomb explosion in Kabul. Ali was sentenced to live with the pain. He was strong but when the whole universe was united to pour salt on his wounds he had to bear it somehow. He looked for something to make his pain less severe; he was the brighter star that was getting darker and darker; he was the lit candle, burning himself up. He had become an alcoholic and started drinking too much, but that was a temporary solution for him. He started taking drugs so that he could forget everything. His roots could not adapt to the new environment. He was all dried out by the wind coming from the bloody streets of Kabul.

When I was a kid, my grandma used to say that the earth is round. Today we have to live with pain, but tomorrow it won’t be the same, our luck is on the other side of the earth. It will come to us, but we have to be patient. It was an exception for him, the earth stopped spinning when it came to Ali. His faith was brown, grey, dark deep, like a black ash…

A friend, a brother on my shoulder, a body, a breathless body, a boneless body. I was feeling his pain in my toes, in my bones, in my heart. Ali was dying, and I couldn’t do anything for him. I took Ali to many hospitals and they all refused to care for him. They would tell me that they couldn’t hospitalize him. I decided to look after him myself. I promised to not leave him alone on this journey. We came from the same village and we made this journey together. We had the same wound—the death of Gulsom! We had promised to end this together, but the walls were thicker and stronger than our desires.

On a hot summer night, I got home late from work. It was a miserable night, and I had a weird feeling. The sky was black and there were no stars. The city was very quiet, and it seemed like people were in a deep sleep. That night the moon wasn’t the shiny and glorious queen of the night. A black cloud had also covered the whole sky.  I stepped into the room, and it was as dark as a grave. As I was walking to turn on the light I stepped on a body. It was Ali. He was on the floor, breathless and motionless. I lifted him up, his face looked pale. He opened his eyes, and he whispered into my ear that he couldn’t breathe. I was terrified and didn’t know what to do. I called the ambulance, but they put me on hold. Something was pushing me toward the window. I strode to the window and looked out, searching for Ali’s star in the dead dark sky, and I saw nothing. Although I knew it was dark outside, still I felt a shock in my heart, and I fell from the windowsill back into the room, hitting my head. When I woke up Ali’s face was right beside me. Again, he whispered into my ear that he wasn’t able to breathe. The air was too thick and heavy. He hugged me, he smiled, his mouth was opening and closing like a fish out of water gasping for air. A big tear rolled down his cheek, then he closed his eyes. I hugged him, and then I turned my head toward the window and closed my eyes.

22 April, 2023