A former government employee, he now sells produce in the bazaars of Kabul and bears witness to Taliban treachery.
In August of last year, I was busy keeping up with events in Kabul and writing about them in the hopes that it would get people everywhere to put pressure on their governments to help rescue those at risk in the country, in particular the translators and other Locally Employed Civilians who had once worked for NATO/ISAF coalition forces.
About half an hour after hearing that the last flights had departed from Hamid Karzai International Airport, I received a message on social media from someone in Kabul. He was desperately looking to get out of Afghanistan and was seeking my assistance to do so. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a thing that I could do for him at that point, but I promised him that I would do whatever I could to help him.
Al had once worked as an interpreter for the Canadians on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams as a part of ISAF, and as such he was in danger of being killed by the Taliban. Unfortunately, Al had been employed by one of the many shady fly-by-night companies that had been hired by the various coalition countries with troops in Afghanistan, leaving him without the required proof of employment he would need for a Special Immigrant Visa in Canada or elsewhere. He is one of the untold thousands who were left behind by Canada and the numerous other foreign governments that sent troops there.
Nearly one year on, Al and his family remain stuck in Kabul, surviving at first on what savings Al had managed to put away. It eventually ran out after a few months, and Al needed to find some means of providing for his family. Another job in his field was completely out of the question meaning he would have to find something else, only there wasn’t exactly a lot of work to be found in Kabul of any kind. They had already lost the home they had owned and were living in when the Taliban suddenly took over the capital and many residences within it. Now they were living in something that was more ramshackle, but they were at least together. Unless he could find a way to provide for his family, they would have to part ways, his wife and kids moving in with her brother, and Al on his own somewhere, not knowing whether his family would ever be together again. Never again seeing his children, whom he refers to as his jewels, is what he fears the most. Ultimately, he would do what many other entrepreneurial Afghan men have done and go into business for himself selling goods from a cart at the local bazaars, and on occasion, at the side of the road.
Seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, thousands of men across Kabul load up their wheeled trolleys and head to one of the capital’s many open-air markets, where they sell almost anything that one might find in a western department store, and probably more than a few things that you most definitely would not find in one. There are even Trolleymen who sell hot or cold drinks and as well as packs of cigarettes in a variety of brands like Seven Stars and Mild88s from Japan, as well as Marlboro and other American brands. They even sell the cheaper locally made cigarettes, that that you really can’t be sure don’t contain any cow manure that isn’t listed on the ingredients. It’s mostly these Trolleymen that work the overnight hours, sometimes in a bazaar, sometimes along the side of a road, like pop-up convenience stores.
No matter what country you are in, going into business for yourself, assuming you’re allowed to in the first place, can be a risky proposition. This is especially the case in those countries where haggling over the price is a part of the culture, something we in the West aren’t all that familiar with since the price is the price whenever we go shopping. Businesses that operate this way are extremely sensitive to the pressures of supply and demand, as the retail prices that they can sell their merchandise for are driven directly by the demand in the market in which they are selling. If demand should unexpectedly tank in a particular marketplace, it can mean immediate ruination for some of these Trolleymen.
The alarm on Al’s phone wakes him at 5AM, and he gets out of bed trying not to wake up his sleeping wife. His kids are still asleep at this early hour as he heads to the kitchen to make himself a breakfast consisting of a cup of tea and a toffee before he heads out the door to work. He makes his way to retrieve his trolley from where he keeps it near the market where he will buy the produce that he will sell that day. It can change from one day to another, okra one day and peaches the next, it all depends on what is available and what the prices are like.
I ask him where the fruits and vegetables that he sells come from, expecting that some might come from abroad and I’m surprised when he tells me that it all comes from within Afghanistan. They can grow a variety of fruits and vegetables because of the different growing climates within the country without having to rely on imports from other countries. This means that people can enjoy cherries, peaches, and other seasonal fruits along with things like okra, cucumber, and potatoes. Once he arrives at the market, he will then know what he will have available for him to sell that day.
Afghanistan’s chief export is produce with Pakistan being one of its largest importers, as the country can grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in its various climate zones. Vegetables such as potato, onion, carrot, tomato, pepper, okra, cucumber, cauliflower, pumpkin, and eggplant are staples of the bazaars, and apricots, apples, cherries, melons, and grapes are among the many fruits that Afghanistan has to offer. Al tells me that he makes better money selling fruit than he does when he sells vegetables. The margins are considerably better, meaning that he can make more money selling a smaller amount of fruit as compared to vegetables.
He bought his trolley in March, paying 4,600AFG (about $50USD) for a used cart with new ones going for around 6,000AFG (about $65USD). They will typically weigh a few hundred pounds and even on wheels moving them for any kind of distance can prove to be a workout. Add say another 50 or 60 Kilograms or more in merchandise onto it, and Al really starts feeling the burn as he navigates his way through the streets of Kabul to the places that he frequently sells from. The oppressive daytime heat of Kabul in the summer is also a huge drain on his energy and he needs to be sure to carry several litres of water along in order to keep himself hydrated. On many of the hottest days, he will wait until after 5 o’clock in the afternoon to head to the bazaar, as the day begins to cool down some.
Al usually puts in a six-day work week, he typically takes a day off in order to spend time with his family. He has a son in elementary school, so he spends some time helping with homework lessons. When he is able, Al takes his wife and kids out for a picnic lunch, a special treat whenever he has been able to earn enough money in the bazaar. Some days are busy, and then there are others that are absolutely abysmal, days he says when children are the only ones who are coming out to buy anything. With 60 KGs of okra on his trolley to unload, a day like this could see him dropping his prices early and often, hoping that he might at least be able to break even. On average he says that he makes between 250AFG and 300AFG per day, or about $3USD. It doesn’t sound like very much, and it really isn’t, but it’s just enough for him to squeak by every month. It covers the rent on the small two-bedroom house they live in, which sustained some minor damage during last month’s major earthquake.
It wasn’t very long after that temblor however that Taliban officials began going through the bazaars in order to levy a new municipal tax on the Trolleymen. They were imposing a fee of 50 Afghanis per stall per day from all the Trolleymen selling goods in the bazaars, or roughly $0.50USD. There were some who resisted and refused to pay, so the Taliban dealt with them by beating the crap out of the poor merchant and throwing them and their trolley’s out of the bazaar and onto the street.
I then had to explain to Al what a “shakedown” was, showing him the similarities between paying the “municipal levy” to the Taliban and the way some business owners in the United States pay members of organized crime “protection” money. He agreed that my word was by far better suited to the situation. A few days after this he informs me that the Taliban have amended the formula for calculating how much they would be ripping off each Trolleyman. Instead of a flat fee, the amount payable would now vary according to the size of each trolley. The rate would be set at 100AFG per square meter of trolley.
Based on the size of his trolley, Al was having to pay over 150 Afghanis per day to sell in the bazaar, and other Trolleymen were seeing similar increases. This would effectively wipe out most of what he takes in daily, leaving him with very little left over to support his family, and he wouldn’t be alone. Thousands of Trolleymen across Kabul risked holding a demonstration, in response to the massive increases on a tax that had been thrust upon them with no warning. The Trolleymen were successful in putting some pressure on the authorities, thanks to some local and international media coverage of the demonstration, seeing the amount of the tax lowered slightly. Having said that, Al is still paying more than twice the original rate of 50 Afghanis per day.
Using numbers that Al has provided me as to the approximate number of trolleys in his district and multiplying that number by the number of districts in Kabul (twenty-two), I calculated that the Taliban were collecting tax equivalent to somewhere between $17,500(USD) and $20,000(USD) per day from the Trolleymen. He’s beyond angry and frustrated, having to give so much of what he earns to the people he considers murderers and butchers, but he has very little choice in the matter right now. He explains to me how it all works, and it sounds like Al and many other Trolleymen are getting the dirty end of the stick.
There are those Trolleymen who are known as “stake holders”, the ones who have been in the bazaars for some time and make the highest sales, typically earning 1,000 Afghanis per day at an absolute minimum. These vendors have established preferential spots in the bazaars, and they also pay taxes at a much better rate than others. Then, there are the guys like Al, who haven’t reached that level, or even come anywhere near it. They end up paying a bigger proportion of their earnings, and the idea of making at least 1,000 Afghanis per day is but a dream.
Alternately, they can set up shop on the side of the road somewhere and pay no taxes, however, they will also make far fewer sales than they would in a bazaar. He also points out to me that there are “official” hours of business in the bazaars, those hours being 8AM to 4PM daily, which tend to be the busiest hours of the day. What this means is that there will be Taliban officials on hand during those times who are there to collect the levy from the Trolleymen. Many vendors simply wait until later in the day, 5PM and after, to set up in the bazaar, but this draws the ire of many of the more seasoned veterans who abide by the “official” hours.
Every day, beggars come to him asking for handouts, the vast majority of them being drug addicts. Initially, I found this surprising, but then after some consideration, I figured that it shouldn’t have been a great surprise at all. Afghanistan is after all the supplier of much of the world’s heroin, and the Taliban have done nothing to put a stop to it. In fact, they seem to be rather flexible in their enforcement of Islamic law, ignoring it completely whenever it is convenient for them, which are usually those instances where they could be making a lot of money from illicit activities.
He tells me that there have always been heroin addicts wandering the streets of Kabul, but their numbers increased dramatically over the last year. Many are what Al calls “new” addicts, ones whose addictions began over that same period, and they consist primarily of former Afghan National Army troops and former Afghan Federal Police officers. The Taliban seem quite content to leave these men to die on the streets while taking their money and providing them with the poison that will ultimately kill them. Al isn’t sure how much heroin goes for on the streets, but he’s sure it couldn’t be very much considering its availability.
This is the plight of perhaps hundreds of thousands of other Trollymen in Kabul and in the other cities, towns, and villages of Afghanistan. I hate that this man I now call a friend and brother must live like this, and it serves to motivate me to do what I have to do in order to get him and his family over here. It is a story that the world needs to hear because there are so few stories to come out of Afghanistan that tell of the everyday lives of the people who live there. The world needs to know about the daily struggles that the average family in Afghanistan now faces under Taliban rule.
I also thought that the world needed to hear about how the Taliban are using heroin not only as a means of generating revenue, but also to effectively neutralize any potential future threats to itself from former members of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, and done so without the need to fire a shot. The Taliban will not be subject to international backlash as would happen if they were to summarily shoot and butcher thousands of men. Instead, these poor souls will be considered just another tragic image among the many others that are to be seen in the stories and reports published by the international media.