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Facebook, Firecrackers, and War: The Story of Afghanistan’s New Year’s Babies

How were thousands of Afghan refugees all born on January 1st? The answer lies at the intersection of warfare and the digital age.
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“When was I born, Mother jan?” is a common question that enters Hikmat Noori’s household conversations; usually at family gatherings after dinner, over chai and a serving of the sweetest fruits the season has to offer to Afghanistan.

“I think it was around six months before your cousin Idrees was born,” Noori’s mother answers, after much thought. “And when was Idrees born, Khala jan?” Noori then asks his aunt, the mother of his cousin Idrees. “I don’t know; we didn’t keep a record of births during the war,” she responds.

For Noori and his siblings, their date of birth and the circumstance that surround it are always a matter of fascination, shrouded in mystery, not unlike most of Afghanistan’s young population born during the chaos and turmoil of a war that clutched the country for decades.

Noori and his family are not alone in only having a vague guess at their family birthdates. As a result of the war, first against the invading Soviet forces and later between the many Afghan warlords themselves, a lot of young Afghans born in the late 1980s and early ’90s were not registered at birth, due to lack of government infrastructure. Some of those born during the later years of the Taliban regime were unregistered and have little idea of when, exactly, they were born. Some are unclear about even the year of their birth.

A large number of these undocumented children eventually assumed dates either closest to the one they believe to be their read birthdate, or the easiest to remember, January 1st being most common among those. And so arose a phenomenon — a generation of young men and women observing their birthday on the first day of the Gregorian calendar. Anyone who has even a few Afghan friends on social media is familiar with the wave of birthday notifications that come every January 1st — sometimes as many as 400.

“We often look for clues about our birth date from what little details our parents and relatives can remember,” says Noori, who, unlike most, picked January 15th as his birthdate, though he doesn’t know what year it was, and as such is unclear about how old he really is. “But these clues are seldom helpful. For instance, my aunt says I was 40 days old when my uncle passed away, but they never kept a record of when he died. They tell us that my brother was born on the first day of the Eid-e-Qurban, but we still don’t know which year,” he adds, pointing out how the date of observation for the Islamic holiday Eid changes every year on a Gregorian calendar.

When the war in Afghanistan ended along with the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, a semblance of government, backed by the United States, came into existence with President Hamid Karzai at the helm, and bureaucracy took roots. With it came an urgent need for official documents — the minimum requirement to obtain access to even the most basic rights.

For this very reason, Article 7 of the United Nations Children’s Fund’s Convention on the Rights of the Child specifies that every child has the right to be registered at birth without any discrimination. “The child who is not registered at birth is in danger of being denied the right to an official identity, a recognised name and a nationality,” UNICEF explains.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also cites concerns about the situation of children who, in legal terms, do not exist. “With no document to prove how old they are — or even who they are — they are likely to join the millions facing discrimination and lack of access to basic services such as health and education,” it reads.

“Birth registration was not a priority for our parents surviving the war or escaping it.”

“But birth registration was not a priority for our parents surviving the war or escaping it,” explains Baryalai Samadzai. Samadzai, who was born in the basement of a home in Kabul, hidden away from the bombs and rockets that often rained down on the capital city. “My father was an Air Force pilot working with the Afghan government during the war in the late ’80s. Amid the falling bombs, there was little time to document births and deaths.”

Samadzai, who now lives in Jalalabad, picked January 1st as his birthday simply because it was the default option when he joined Facebook, adding that he isn’t even sure of the year he was born. “It could have been 1989 or 1990, but we don’t know for sure. And since I’ve never really needed a government document, I never had it officially registered,” he adds. But if ever he does, he will continue to use January 1st as his official date for documents.

For many Afghans, having a birth certificate or the Afghan national ID, called Tazkira, is a critical source for obtaining government services and rights. This is especially pertinent for those Afghan refugees returning to Afghanistan. “Those who lived in Pakistan didn’t need the Tazkira, because their refugee card was sufficient,” explains Noori, adding that no other documentation is needed to get a refugee card that is issued by Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority.

But when the refugees returned to Afghanistan after war, the refugee card was not sufficient to ensure reintegration into the society. To live in Afghanistan as citizens, they needed the Tazkira. “Without a Tazkira, you can’t buy a house or get an electricity connection or enroll for government schools and universities,” Samadzai elaborates.

To obtain a Tazkira, one is required to produce either their father or paternal uncle’s Tazkira, who might not have this document, likely to have been lost during conflict and displacement. The already complex process is further complicated by confusions surrounding birth and age. “For those of us returning from refuge, without real birthdates, the government officials documented the age that we appeared to be, not the one we said we were,” Noori explains.

“There is no place in a Tazkira to document one’s date of birth. Instead there is a column for age, and it is usually filled out by the official based on what he perceives your age to be at the time the application was made,” he adds, displaying a copy of his Tazkira which claims Noori was 20 years of age as of 1384 (2006 on the Gregorian calendar). “Nazar ba chaher-e-zahiri” it reads, which in Dari translates to “based on physical appearance.”

Officials working in the governor’s office, the authority that issues Tazkiras across all provinces of Afghanistan, have developed their own tested methods of determining a person’s age. Noori recalls an incident involving a boy who was applying for the Tazkira the same time as he was. The young man’s claim of being 16 years old was rejected by the official handling his case. “The official asked him to lift his pants, looked at his legs and declared that he was much older than 16 years, even though the boy kept insisting he was indeed 16.”

This arbitrary choice of age is made regularly, regardless of how old returning refugees really are. Even in the unlikely case they do know their age, they often have no evidence to prove it. Not every Afghan with a January 1st birthday has an unrecorded birth. “My mother maintained a notebook and ensured she noted the birth of all her children, war or no war,” shares Sayed Muqaddar Wahdat. Although there are many in his family who do not know their birthday, Wahdat is proud of the fact that his family kept track of this special day. Yet, despite the informal record, Wahdat’s birth was never officially registered until after he returned from refuge to Kabul at the end of the war. “We had a burden of problems — economic, social, etc. Our priorities were different then.”

Even for those who did have their birthdays registered, it wasn’t an easy ride. “I’m the first ever child in my family to have been born at the hospital,” says Maryam Shahi, who was born as a refugee in Iran. A birth certificate was issued to her parents, but their status as refugees meant that there was little stability in their lives. Protecting and securing lives took precedence over protecting documents and Shahi’s birth certificate was lost, along with the recollection of her exact birthdate. “I was born in the winter of early 1986. I’m not sure whether it was January 1st or some days later,” she says. “My dad did note it down in one of his poetry books, but it wasn’t the exact date, and when we came back to Kabul, my parents had my Tazkira made with January 1st as my birthdate.”

Legal and logistical hurdles aside, birthdays, or the lack of one, can be a painful reminder for many. “I do feel bad when I think about it. Talking to you right now, I’m a little ashamed that I don’t even know the year of my birth, let alone the month and date,” Samadzai adds solemnly. Their collective stories are a window into the grim realities of war.

Even as this generation of Afghans attempts to move beyond decades of conflict, the complexities of the situation offer a reminder to the realities of the past — a time when the need for survival trumped bureaucracy, and protecting lives was more important than saving documents. The increasing need for documentation has led to mass registrations among Afghans, forcing them to formally pick a date of birth and year (else one will be picked for them), however inaccurate it may be. For some, January 1st was convenient, the first date they thought of; for others, it was easier to remember, or simply the date they picked on social media, a platform they registered even for before they registered with the government. Whatever the reason may be, January 1st evolved as an unspoken, undeclared mass movement bringing together Afghans from all backgrounds.

Bittersweet as these New Year birthdays may be, some among them indulge in group celebrations that take place around the city. While January 1st for most people around the world is a day of happy new beginnings, conversations at January 1st parties in Afghanistan often drift toward a memory of darker times. Even amid laughter, someone will inevitably jest about the present phenomenon: a direct result of how something so tragic created an unusual bond for Afghanistan’s invisible children.