In exile and always dreaming of home 

In exile and always dreaming of home 

There is nothing as haunted and powerless as a leader who has lost their land and their people

Like the cold outside, melancholy hangs thick in the air at a restaurant in Dushanbe, where leaders, politicians, thinkers, writers and journalists, all part of a conference on Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban forces, meet. Many of those in the room are in exile — from the guests to the waiters and the poets and singers. Afghanistan’s most famous folk singer, Amir Jan Sabori, is among those who have been twice exiled. He left his homeland first in 1996 when the Taliban claimed Kabul and killed artists and musicians they saw as anti-Islam. Mr. Sabori’s songs of love, longing and parting are as much about his feelings for his homeland as anything else, and the entire gathering claps and sings along with him.

The conference itself begins with the song “ Watan Ishq Tu Iftekharam (Homeland, I am proud of your love)”. Fawzia Koofi, a former member of parliament, can’t hold back her tears as young Afghan children, all exiles too, sing its verses. “Exile is like a slow-motion death,” she tells me. She says she relives again and again the day she felt she had to leave her country, especially for the safety of her daughters, after living for weeks under house arrest in Kabul last year. Ms. Koofi was shot twice — in 2010 and 2020 — but she says she doesn’t fear physical risk to her life. She wants to return, if she can do so without legitimising the Taliban.

As a journalist, one meets many leaders, but there is nothing as haunted and powerless as a leader who has lost their land and their people. While millions choose to migrate to other countries in search of better lives, there is always a community of politicians and leaders whose only desire while living abroad is to return home, regardless of the risks. No comfort or luxury in any other part of the world ever makes up for the love, adulation, and power they feel in their own countries. This is what explains former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s need to return to Pakistan in 2007 — in interviews she gave me during a visit to Delhi, and over the telephone from London and Dubai, she spoke incessantly only of the day she would go home. On the day she did, a massive bombing on her convoy from the airport killed more than 140 people. She survived and remained in Pakistan, but was killed brutally two months later.

In Saudi Arabia, during his first exile when he was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif referred to his beautiful palace as a “golden cage” and spent his time counting the days to his return. When I asked Maldive’s former President Mohamed Nasheed how being in exile in the U.K. was different, he said simply “I don’t put any pictures up while I’m here, and my bags are always ready for my return. You can live anywhere, but you have only one home.” Nasheed was badly injured in a bomb blast in Male 2021, but returned once more.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most prominent leader, who has been jailed by the military junta that overthrew her government in 2021, gave up not only her home in the U.K. in 1988, but her children too. She could not go back to see her husband who was dying of cancer because she feared that the junta would not let her back into her homeland. In Yangon in 2012, when she was standing for her first election after being released from nearly 15 years of house arrest, I asked her if the sacrifices had been worth it. She said she missed her children, but could not give up the love of her people.

Many of these leaders have been accused of betraying their people through actions taken while in power in their country. But what is indisputable is their commitment to somehow ending their exiles abroad and returning home, regardless of the risks of imprisonment and death. When I think of what drives them, I am reminded of author Salman Rushdie’s words in The Satanic Verses, and in his recounting of the trauma he felt as an exile in Joseph Anton: A Memoir: “Exile is an endless paradox: looking forward by always looking back. The exile is a ball hurled high into the air. He hangs there, frozen in time, translated into a photograph; denied motion, suspended impossibly above his native earth, he awaits the inevitable moment at which the photograph must begin to move, and the earth reclaim its own.”

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