Book Review - The Lightless Sky

One of Gulwali Passarlay’s proudest moments was carrying the Olympic Torch during its tour of Britain in 2012. He had arrived here five years earlier as an Afghan refugee, a traumatised teenager who had  endured the most horrific hardship as he travelled across Europe to be re-united with his brother. Recalling Fabio Geda’s international bestseller, In the Sea There Are Crocodiles, Passarlay offers a similarly gripping account of a life-threatening journey to freedom.

In 2006, fearing for their safety, his mother arranged for Gulwali and his brother, Hazrat, to leave their rural village and seek sanctuary in the West. Gulwali was just 12 years old, Hazrat 13. Having been suspected of hiding weapons for the Taliban, his father and grandfather were  killed in a shoot-out with US troops. Gulwali and Hazrat were then hounded by the Taliban who wanted them to become freedom fighters and the Americans who wanted them as spies. Their mother paid a smuggler from Kabul $8,000 to get the boys as far as Italy. Then, at Peshawar airport, before their journey had really begun, the brothers were separated and Gulwali’s quest became twofold – to find a safe place for himself, and to locate his brother.

Passarlay vividly evokes the harrowing trek that takes him across Iran and Turkey to Bulgaria, where he is thrown off a moving train then deported back to Iran and imprisoned. He manages to escape, ends up in an overcrowded boat sailing from Turkey to Greece, and narrowly escapes death. Passarlay describes his mixed emotions and the nightmares that he experiences after finding a safe haven in Italy.

On learning that his brother has made it  to England, he heads for Calais. Life in the “Jungle” is recorded in chilling detail. Passarlay sleeps in filthy conditions and relies on charitable food outlets: “The humiliation was hard to bear. Many of the faces I saw spoke of the same thing. In their own countries, these people had power, even the respect of their communities. Here, in the Jungle, we were barely human. We were the beasts that gave this place its name.”

Even after Passarlay arrives in Dover, in the back of a truck transporting bananas, his ordeal is not over. He has to convince the authorities that he is 13 years old. They do not believe him; Denied foster care and the opportunity to go to school, he is sent to live with adult asylum seekers.

The Lightless Sky is a heart-rending read that illuminates the plight of unaccompanied minors forced to leave their homes and loved ones. It is beautifully written (with the help of the journalist Nadene Ghouri) in simple, accessible prose. Rarely does Passarlay display self-pity and his fierce intelligence is apparent throughout. He also sheds light on the nefarious world of the smugglers who treat their human cargo with so little compassion. Describing the contempt of one agent, Passarlay observes sadly: “We were the scum who would make him rich.” His powerful account is a testament to the courage of all those fleeing conflict in search of safety.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday