The Afghan man with the long beard, white turban, and worn farmer’s hands led his wife, draped all in a flowing dark blue burka, into a small office booth in Kabul.
They had traveled far, some 350 miles from their snow-blanketed home village of Spin Boldak on the Pakistani border, to use the white phone in the room to speak to their imprisoned son.
The phone is a direct connection to the prison at Bagram, north of Kabul, organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to connect Afghan families to thousands of detainees.
Families are allowed four 20-minute calls each year, and two face-to-face visits – brief connections that are deeply meaningful to tight-knit Afghan families whose sons are held on charges of terrorism or being Taliban insurgents.
In a war that has barely eased since US troops first arrived in 2001 – adding America’s longest-ever war to the decades of conflict that have torn at Afghanistan’s social fabric – the family ties are a brief ray of light in a world of incarceration and uncertainty.
The phone rings, and Amir-jan – a prisoner arrested in 2014 after returning from religious studies in Pakistan – is on the line. Father Ahmad-jan anxiously picks up the handset and speaks to his son.
Mother Bibi-shirina leans close to listen too, before taking the handset herself and speaking to her beloved son.
Such calls are strictly monitored by Afghan officials, who cut them off if they stray beyond family news. But in its brief time, this call yields only furrowed concern, a few smiles, and, inevitably, tears for the gaping hole left by a prisoner in a family.
“I have only one hope for his release, to see his face. My only hope is to see him,” says Bibi-shirina, wiping away tears with fingers dyed orange-brown by henna, then pulling back her burka to reveal her face.
They have visited Amir-jan three times at Bagram prison, but there is always thick glass between them during the hour-long visits, and prison guards standing watch. Five days a week, the ICRC organizes six buses to the prison complex carrying 42 families, and 400 such calls a week from call centers like this one.
The ICRC reimburses travel expenses, often from distant rural areas, for these six contacts per year.
“This is our condition,” says Ahmad-jan, after the call. “He asked about us, the village, how things are. He can’t tell all the facts about himself.”
The family lives in a Taliban stronghold, not far from the southern city of Kandahar. They say Amir-jan was pursuing religious studies when the Taliban tried to recruit him, asking him to join their jihad. He refused, they say, and they sent him to Chaman, 10 miles away across the Pakistan border, to continue his studies.
When Amir-jan returned, he was arrested the moment he stepped out of the car by Afghan intelligence officials. He was carrying 100 books and accused of being a Taliban member – a charge the family denies.
“It’s too difficult for me,” says Ahmad-jan, tearfully. “It’s like I am on fire.”
Human rights activists say Afghan security forces often make spurious charges, or use torture to exact confessions. Corruption in the system also means that sentences can be reduced or charges dropped for cash – a solution usually out of the reach of poor families like those in the waiting room of this call center.
The ICRC says it will “drastically reduce” its footprint in Afghanistan, after three separate shooting and kidnapping incidents in 2017.
But one program that won’t be cut, among a string of others deemed essential, are visits to detainees to “ensure they are treated humanely and with dignity,” according to ICRC statements. In 2017, 26,000 detainees were being held, and of those, more than 5,000 kept in touch with their families through the ICRC’s phone call and family visits program.
“They really calm down, especially when they see their families [and] they exchange the news,” says Mir Afghan Afzali, the ICRC officer in charge of this Kabul call center, who himself joined the ICRC in 1996 in Kandahar.
“They are aware of what is going on with their families, and the families know exactly what is going on with their detainee – I think that relaxes both,” he says.
“We are supporting security detainees wherever they are,” says Mr. Afzali. But families have no direct access to them without going through the ICRC, which finances the program. These days the prison adjacent to the US airbase at Bagram is officially called the Parwan Detention Facility, an attempt at rebranding after its notorious history as a post-9/11 holding site for Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, two of whom were beaten to death in 2002.
Families could never directly see their detained sons when the Americans were first in charge up to 2008, and the ICRC facilitated handwritten messages between them, usually once every five or six months. The call program and then family visits were negotiated by the ICRC in 2008, and then with Afghan authorities after they took full control of detainees in 2014.
Calls are rare, but they exist
Today there are hotlines where families can register and are given a time and date for calls or visits.
To the families, those moments are rare enough, but at least they happen. Mohammed Issa Khan journeyed for 14 hours from northwestern Faryab province with a younger son, for example, to use one of the ICRC’s phones to speak to his imprisoned son, Abdul Ali. He has made three face-to-face visits, and – with a dark blue hat to ward off winter cold, a thick beard and no moustache – he picks up the phone handset hungrily.
After sharing news, he hands the phone to his younger son, who smiles broadly as he cradles the handset and catches up with his older brother. Abdul Ali is serving an 18-year sentence for fighting for the Taliban, though Mr. Khan claims his son is “100 percent not Taliban.”
Abdul Ali was 18 when he was arrested, a student of religion who his father says was caught in crossfire during a gun battle between the Taliban and Afghan police. He was shot in the foot, which had to be amputated.
“Maybe the Taliban brought him to fight under pressure,” suggests Khan. “Yes, he was fighting.”
Still, the personal connection could not be more valuable to this Afghan family, as it is to so many others.
“It’s too important to me, because he is my son, and you know the corrupt government prepared a strong file against him – if I paid, the file would not be so strong against him,” says the father. “We are very poor.”