When Aziz Amir was deported from the UK back to his native Afghanistan in 2011, he faced a choice: defy the Taliban and risk being murdered, or join them.
Mr Amir, not his real name, chose the latter, not just to preserve his own life, but for the safety of his family who live in areas controlled by the insurgent group.
“Once I returned to my village, it was completely under Taliban control,” he told The National.
The Taliban’s 19-year-battle against the US and NATO forces has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties, unprecedented displacement, an unstable political situation and a weak economy.
Many like Mr Amir have been drawn, coerced or forced to join the many insurgencies that have been increasingly gaining power in Afghanistan.
Now hundreds of young men like 34-year old Mr Aziz spy an opportunity in peace talks between the US and the extremist group. The chance to gain freedom.
Escape and return
Mr Amir left Afghanistan in 2003 on the overthrow of the Taliban regime, at the age of sixteen.
The group still controlled swathes of land, including where Mr Amir’s family resided.
“My family worried that the Taliban might recruit me for their fights with the foreign forces. So they helped me leave,” he said
The journey, with the aid of smugglers, took nine months, passing through Iran and Turkey and eventually to London.
“The next few years seem like a dream now,” he said of the next nine years spent working and living in the Alum Rock area of Birmingham. The relative peace of the UK provided Mr Amir the hope for a better future.
“We weren’t allowed to work freely so we did odd jobs that we could find. It was handwork but it was peaceful. It was a different life,” he said.
“We lived with Indians, Pakistanis and other South Asians. I learned to speak English but we mostly spoke in Urdu. I have friends there. I wish I could go back to London.”
Lasting peace was not on the cards for Mr Amir, however. In 2011 he was arrested and deported for “illegal entry” – he had not registered as a refugee.
He showed The National a letter from the UK Border Agency announcing his date of deportation, flight number and country of origin, but not much else.
“Directions have now been given for your removal from the United Kingdom,” it reads, a sentence that changed Amir’s life forever.
Once he returned to his home village, the pressure to join up ratcheted up. Those deported from abroad, such as Amir, are seen as traitorous.
Join the Taliban or Isis?
“Those deported to Afghanistan are in a very vulnerable situation. They have no social network or support, no money feed themselves, no place to go to,” said Abdul Ghafoor, Director at Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation (AMASO), in Kabul.
“I have seen many cases where we had boys who were forced to live under the bridges in Kabul after their deportations, leaving them vulnerable to negative elements of society.”
Mr Ghafoor describes scenarios involving deportees being either forced or coerced to join the insurgents, or become foot soldiers for the Iranian regime’s Quds force to fight in Syria. “I have at least two recent cases, one of who was just confirmed killed,” he said.
Mr Ghafoor says European governments and international organisations need to do more to protect returnees. A total of 19,390 Afghans were set back from European Union nations between 2015-17, according to Eurostat. Another report notes that 26,900 orders to leave an EU state were issued to Afghans in 2017 and 2018.
“International organisations don’t have any sustainable plans to help the returnees reintegrate in society. They do offer ‘reintegration packages’, but in practice the returnees face a tough time getting them, and are inadequate in support. It can take six to eight months for some deportees to get these packages, so what are they to do in that times?” he said.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it gets to the point that deportees are forced to pick up and join insurgencies for their survival,” he explained.
For Mr Amir the financial aspect was an added incentive to joining the Taliban as a fighter. “There is no corruption here. I also have a job in this time of economic uncertainty,” he added.
The stigma, shame and trauma associated with deportation leaves many susceptible to insurgent groups, said Mr Ghafoor.
“When I talk to some of the deportees, one of their biggest questions is, what should we do here? Join the Taliban or Isis? And unfortunately, there have been cases of deportees who have been radicalised through such networks “ he said.
The ongoing peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban over the past year has provided a glimmer of hope for those like Mr Amir and his family.
On February 29, the US government signed a deal with the Taliban leadership that will result in the withdrawal of foreign troops in Afghanistan, and set the stage for intra-Afghan talks that could effectively end the decades of conflict in the country. But Mr Amir remains cautious.
“Signing a deal with the Americans is not enough, peace should be made with the Afghan government too,” Mr Amir acknowledged, adding that now the “challenges created by Americans were removed, peace [with the Afghan government] will come”.
But like many Afghans, Mr Amir holds on to the hope that if the war ends, he can work to rebuild his life.
“I will start my business as a shopkeeper in the city and live normally in my own country,” he said, adding that he can never return to the city of his youth, but hopes that maybe he can send his children there someday.
“This is not life. The real life is what I lived in London. We could walk to any place we wanted, it was peaceful. When I describe it to my friends [other fighters] here, they don’t believe me that living in London was so peaceful. I am tired of this life.”