Dead Sites

Alvaro Enciso

In
the early hours of a Tuesday morning, an old man drives a Jeep out of Tucson
and onto Highway 286
toward the Arizona desert and the first of three sites he’ll visit where the
remains of migrants were found. He has made this trip once a week for the past
six years. Three crosses four feet tall and two feet wide, each one a different
color, blue, blue-green and rust, rattle in back. Heat from the sun warms the
windshield and a woman in the passenger seat, Alicia Baucom, cracks her window
to shrieks of air still cool from the night. A second Jeep carries a man and
two women who, like Alicia, have volunteered to help plant the crosses. Flat
land covered with cactus and scrub juniper slanted by wind unfurls into
distant, bare mountains peaked against domes of blue sky slowly revealing
itself two hours after dawn, and as the Jeeps rush down the highway, also known
as Sasabe Road, the old man, 73-year-old artist Alvaro Enciso, asks Alicia the
names of the dead migrants.

—The
one found in 2006 is unidentified, she says. The man discovered in 2015 has a
name, Valentine Guzman Flores. Thirty. Found December 29 near Three Points.
Skeletal remains. Death unknown. The third was found in 2017. His name is
Felipe Vargas. Also thirty. Found near Sasabe on June 8. Hyperthermia. Dead
less than a day. Coroner said he was fully fleshed.

—The
first two could have died long before they were found, Alvaro says.

He
hunches over the steering wheel and makes no further comment and Alicia doesn’t
speak either. She has been helping Alvaro just five months, replacing another
volunteer who broke down after he and Alvaro found a migrant’s body nearly a
year ago. The volunteer sought counseling. It was one thing to hear about
people dying in the desert but it was quite another to see a body.

Alvaro
collects information on dead migrants from the Pima County coroner’s office.
Last year, the medical examiner recorded the remains of 127 dead migrants.
Before 2000, the bodies of fewer than five migrants were found
each year. However, in 2001, the number soared to 79 and then to 151
the year after that. The number of annual migrant deaths since then has
remained well above 100.

As
he follows the highway, Alvaro notices workers laying asphalt, shoveling it off
the back of a truck, the air stung by its sharp odor as a roller inches toward
them, and two border-patrol agents lean against pickups and watch the men work.
They are either chasing someone, Alvaro says of the agents, or they’ve given
up. They don’t move as he passes them, heads down staring through dark
sunglasses at the steaming asphalt.

Alvaro
often encounters border-patrol agents. A few times he’s tripped a sensor and
they converged from nowhere to check him out. He explained his purpose and
showed them his crosses and they were cool. He had no problem with them and
doesn’t now. They have a job to do; some are good and some are bad. If they see
someone in the middle of nowhere, they get suspicious. Alvaro understands that.
He shoots the shit with them, complains about the heat. Many of them aren’t
familiar with deserts because they were raised outside of Arizona. They’ve seen
earthworms but nothing bigger and worms don’t bite. Rattlesnakes do. They worry
about snakes.

Alvaro
recalls the spring of 2017 when the border patrol could have been a problem. He
and some volunteers found a man in the desert walking south toward Mexico. He
was delirious and thought he was headed north to Phoenix. He had no food or
water. Alvaro considered his options: he could call the border patrol, give the
man something to eat and drink, or leave him to his fate. He could not,
however, transport him. If the border patrol stopped him, he could be charged
with harboring. But the man needed medical attention. How was he to say I can’t
help you, to a desperate man? Sometimes, he reasoned, laws have to be violated.
The volunteers had their own car and drove the man to a safe house. Alvaro
doesn’t remember his name but he was told later that he ate eleven pancakes,
three sausages, three cups of fresh fruit, two glasses of orange juice and five
pieces of toast his first night. He had come from Honduras and it took him two
weeks to recuperate. When he left, the staff gave him directions to Phoenix but
he didn’t make it. The border patrol picked him up.

*

Alvaro
had been unaware of migrants dying in the desert when he moved from northern
New Mexico to Tucson in 2011. He started walking migrant trails and imagined
himself crossing borders on foot. The idea appealed to him as something
romantic, people entering the United States seeking the opportunities he had.
He noticed all sorts of debris, rusted cans of sardines, sausages, beans and
other food migrants had brought with them. He collected the cans and
accumulated a huge mound to use for his art. Every can told a story of the
person who ate from it. He didn’t know if the story had a happy ending but the
can was there for him to imagine a life.

Two
years later, he took a four-hour orientation with Tucson Samaritans, a group of
more than one hundred volunteers who go into the desert seven days a week to
assist migrants. The presenter showed a map of southern Arizona covered with
red dots. Each dot represented a spot where a migrant’s body had been
found. From 2001 through 2018, the remains of 3,011 migrants
have been recovered in southern Arizona. No estimates have been offered for the
numbers not found.

Alvaro
wondered what happened to those people. He searched those locations for
anything that gave substance to those who had died. He lay on his back and
stared into an unrevealing desert sky and felt only the emptiness of his
surroundings, its nothingness that had absorbed suffering and death.

Alvaro
felt a bond with the dead through his own sense of not belonging. He was not a
gringo but he didn’t consider himself Hispanic, either. He rarely hung out with
Spanish-speaking
people, and
when he did, he assumed a different character than when he spoke English. Who
was he? He had been born in Colombia. He had left everything he knew, his
family, his country, to live in a place that was and was not his home. He began
contemplating how, as an artist, he could convey the quandary of his existence
with the experiences of dead migrants caught between the countries they were
leaving and their visions of America.

As
a first step, Alvaro snapped photographs of what he called dead sites, but a photo could not
capture the absent bodies of migrants. He hired a woman and had her wear a
black dress and drove her to the desert to be photographed. He shot beautiful
pictures of her against the sparse landscape but a woman in a black dress, a
strikingly mournful figure, said nothing about the people who had perished. He
made sculptures of red dots but they weighed too much to transport to the dead
sites. Next, he sprayed red dots on the ground like graffiti but the dots alone
conveyed nothing.

The
idea of building crosses came to him as he combed through books about Roman
history. The Romans, he read, crucified many people, not only Jesus. They left
them exposed to the sun and elements until they died. The same, he believed,
was happening to migrants. Through its immigration policies, the U.S.
government was forcing them to follow the most difficult routes north to kill
them. Where the two pieces of a cross intersected formed the nucleus of an
encounter between poor peasants of the south and the American giant of the
north and the encounter was fatal. Goliath won.

Alvaro understood that not everyone would agree with his overtly political analogy. However, he was not seeking approval but laying a philosophical foundation to buttress his ideas to mark the dead sites with crosses. Absent politics, a cross would also have meaning, not as Christian symbol (—Forget religion, Alvaro tells the volunteers. Death is very democratic. Death has no interest in faith.), but as a secular, geometric one. A cross consists of vertical and horizontal lines. Alive, people stand erect. Dead, they lie flat. Life and death existed in the same image.

*

As
a child, Alvaro had learned to accept absence. He grew up in a shanty in
Villavicencio, Colombia, a frontier town where men earned a living raising
cattle and selling marijuana. He did not wear shoes his first five years at
school. In the evenings, he gathered dead birds from cockfights for his mother
to cook, or he would walk to the slaughterhouse and collect blood to eat with
his rice because they could not afford meat. His mother had few soft edges. She
warned him against daydreaming. Dreams, she said, won’t deliver him from
poverty.

Alvaro
never saw his father. He was married to another woman and considered Alvaro’s
mother his mistress. In 1996, when he turned fifty, Alvaro returned to Colombia
and tracked him down in Honda, a village not far from where he grew up. His
father owned a big house near a cemetery and had a little store and everybody
who went to the cemetery stopped there for food and flowers. He assumed Alvaro wanted
money.

I
don’t need your money, Alvaro told him. I’m not angry with you. I have no
feelings toward you. I just want to know who you are.

They
spoke for a short time. His father appeared indifferent that Alvaro, his only
son, the result of a one-night fling, had appeared out of nowhere. It was
like looking in a mirror, Alvaro reflected afterward. His father’s disinterest,
his lack of empathy, were characteristics Alvaro shared. A woman he had dated
in New York told him, “You
don’t ask about my life or daughters. Your interest lasts only one night.” He
received her words as a revelation and on his flight back to the states he
thought of them again and decided that it although he felt bad his father was
the way he was he did not have to be like him.

They
never saw each other again. Blind, sick and unable to walk, Alvaro’s father
died two years later.

*

When he was a boy, Alvaro’s watched Hollywood movies at a theater where
his mother worked. On screen, actors smoked long cigarettes and ate in
restaurants. He saw dashing detectives and strutting cowboys. That was the life
he wanted. In 1967, when he was almost twenty-one, an aunt in Queens offered to
fly him to New York. She didn’t have to ask twice.

New
York made an impression. The tall buildings, the busy streets, the stores with
all the elegantly dressed people. He loved the seasons, especially winter. That
something could fall from the sky and turn him white left him amazed and a
believer in miracles. He thought pizza and canned foods with decorative labels
the most wonderful of meals. He sorted through trash, an odd assortment of
junk: high-school sports trophies, beat-up bowling balls, picture frames and
other garbage. Get
this out of my house,
his aunt scolded, but he continued adding to his collection. He had never had
these things. Ownership represented the promise of America. With his aunt’s
help he applied for citizenship and received his green card. He also registered
with the selective service without fully understanding what that meant but he
felt he was on his way.

However,
Alvaro soon faced difficulties. His aunt’s American husband disliked him and
kicked him out of the house two months after he arrived. Homeless and fearful
of returning to Colombia a failure, he went to a church and prayed. God, he
begged, you need to cut me a break. I’m screwed here. Any bone you can send my
way, I’d appreciate. You’re the guy who’s supposed to help.

Two
months later he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Having no skills,
he joked, they put me in the infantry. It was not the divine intervention he
had sought but it got him off the street. His commanding officers trained him
to hate the Vietnamese and kill them and he did. Today, he doesn’t see a
connection between the person he was then and the man he is now. He was young,
naive and stupid. He lacked compassion. He believes that with each cross he
puts up today he atones for his actions in Vietnam.

*

After
his service, Alvaro returned to New York. He visited an Army buddy in New
Mexico and fell in love with the desert, awed by its immense limitlessness, and
promised to return and live there some day. Back in New York, he drove cabs,
mopped the floors of a peep show and working as a photographer’s assistant. He
attended college and graduate school and earned three master’s degrees in
anthropology, Latin American Studies and Contemporary Hispanic Studies. In
1980, he took a job with the Department of Health and Human Services and stayed
for almost twenty years before he got tired of the nine-to-five grind and
decided to pursue an artistic career. He had always liked to draw. His savings,
pension and veterans’ benefits would support him. With art, he rationalized, he
didn’t need credentials.

In
1999, he moved to Placitas, New Mexico, an old hippy town north of Albuquerque,
and bought a house. For two years he read books on philosophy and art
criticism. He built boxes with cutout figures representative of the American
West. He took large canvases and painted layers and layers of the same color
paint in varying shades and made frames for them. It’s not bad, he thought, but it may not be
good art.
Over the years, however, people bought his work and he felt their approval in
the money they paid him and that in turn gave him the impetus to do more
serious work that would encompass his ideas of being an outsider. After more
than ten years in Placitas, Alvaro felt the need for a more urban environment.
Albuquerque was close by but he wanted a city with a better reputation for the
arts. That led him to Tucson.

*

A
hawk flies above the Jeep as Alvaro drives deeper into the desert, the sun
higher but the air still cool although he feels it warming. Gusts rise off mountains
sweeping the air ahead of it, fanning dust. Alvaro pulls off the road and parks
near the spot where the remains of the nameless 2006 migrant were found. He had
put up a cross for him last year. A migrant sleeping nearby awoke, startled to
see him. Don’t worry, Alvaro said, I’m here for a cross, nothing more.

Alvaro
doesn’t know what happened, but a short time later someone destroyed the cross.
Hunters have used his crosses for target practice. Other people break and
remove them. He went to a swap meet one afternoon and saw one for sale. The
cross he had placed here looked like it had been hit by a sledgehammer.

Stepping
out of the Jeep, Alvaro stands stoop-shouldered and adjusts his cap. He wears
jeans that pool around his ankles and a long-sleeve shirt with triangular
patterns that restrains his paunch. Gray hair falls to his neck and he removes
his glasses and rubs his eyes.

—Keep
talk to a minimum, Alvaro says. We’re going to a location where someone died.

He
takes a blue cross from the back of the Jeep. Slivers of tin cans decorate the
wood. A red dot on another piece of tin fills the center. Friends give him
paint, off-white, beige, bland colors he brightens with whatever he has on hand
in his shop.

The
volunteers unload a shovel, bucket, bottled water and a bag of cement and
follow Alvaro. The noise of their steps breaks against small stones and the
scraping sound tears at the air like a ripped sheet.

Alvaro
moves cautiously between jumping cholla cactus, whose stinging thorns collect
like burs and can easily penetrate clothing. Blankets, shoulder packs, worn
sandals, plastic water jugs and other supplies discarded by migrants litter the
ground. They may have camped here. They may have been picked up by family or
border patrol. Their abandoned possessions offer Alvaro no hint of their fate.

He
searches the ground for bones. In 2017, a man driving home from a casino
stopped to piss and saw a human skull. The skull belonged to forty-four-year-old
Nancy Ganoza, from Peru, who had disappeared in the desert in 2009, cause of
death unknown. A DNA sample found a match in New Jersey where her two daughters
and husband lived. Her family flew to Tucson and Alvaro built a cross and they
joined him to raise it where her skull was found. Her husband propped a photograph
against the cross below a red dot. She had black hair down to her shoulders and
a winsome smile and she squinted as if she was facing the sun. Five candles
surrounded the base of the cross and a white rosary with a crucifix hung
loosely from it, and a circle of prickly pear cactus threw shadows beneath the
twisted branches of velvet mesquite. Alvaro had planted dozens of crosses for
people by then. Sometimes he knew their names but he did not know them. Until now. The
intimate presence of Nancy’s family brought him to tears.

Nancy Ganoza’s cross

It’s
so sad, Alvaro thinks now. All of it. Each death haunting. All of
them tragic, some beyond tragic. Not too long ago Alvaro built a cross for a young man
who had died from hanging, a suicide, the medical examiner concluded. Alvaro
could not conceive the agony and utter hopelessness that he must have
experienced. Knowing it was too much to go on. Deciding with what strength he
had left to take his own life rather than die of thirst,
starvation, heatstroke, hyperthermia, or madness.

The most disturbing moment for Alvaro, however, occurred last August when he found
a body in the Roskruge mountain range, a remote area close to Tucson. Five
miles from a paved highway, four miles from some houses but still in the middle
of nowhere. He had just put up a cross and was following a stone path back to
his Jeep when he disturbed two rattlesnakes and his heart was racing from
surprise and fear, the sound of their rattles still in his ears, when he saw a
dead woman. For a moment, his reaction was similar to entering a room and
encountering
someone he
had not expected.

A
sharp odor rose from the corpse. The bones remained intact and her clothes lay
around her, possible torn off by animals. A T-shirt and blue jeans and a cell
phone. She had a pair of yellow-and-pink sneakers that looked new. Very
feminine and small. At first, Alvaro thought she was a child. He called 911. An
autopsy revealed she had suffered hyperthermia and had been dead about two
weeks. She had documents from Guatemala but no identification.

Days
later, Alvaro marked the location with a cross. Was she a mother? he wondered.
Did she leave children behind? What was she running from and to? In the
following weeks he returned and looked for ID but found nothing. He lay on the
ground and traced an outline of his body with flour. He stood and looked at the
image like something from a crime scene. It was his way of sharing himself with
her. Had his life been different, had his aunt not flown him to New York, he
might have died as she had, or like the migrant he is about to acknowledge this
morning, dead without a name.

*

Alvaro
sets down the cross, takes the shovel and digs a hole. He tosses dirt to one
side and when he stops to catch his breath, silence settles around him and he
raises his head to listen to it. He asks Alicia to mix the cement. He watches
her shake it into the bucket, add water and stir it with a stick.

—That’s
enough, Alvaro says.

He
inserts the cross into the hole and holds the top of it as Alicia distributes
the cement. Alvaro asks her if it’s straight and she nods. He continues holding
it as she and the other volunteers collect rocks and stack them in a small
mound around the cross. Once it’s secure, Alvaro steps back and ponders it
within the vast solitude of the desert. Stalwart, like a sentry, unaware that
soon it will be alone and appear quite small, dwarfed by the limitlessness of
its surroundings.

Alicia
removes a flute from her shoulder pack.

—I’d
like to play “Amazing Grace.”

—Play
“Down in the Valley.”

—I
don’t know that one. I hope I can get through this without crying.

—That’s
OK. Someone died here. Crying is what we do.

She
begins playing and Alvaro bows his head. He has put up nine hundred crosses in
six years but has no idea how many still stand. They last five, maybe ten years,
eaten by termites, beaten by weather, turned to dust. Some nuns in a church in
Cochise County heard about what he was doing and designed their own crosses.
They did not place them where migrants died but, as far as Alvaro was
concerned, where it was convenient. Their crosses have no relation to anything.
The word got out that an old man was making crosses and the nuns wanted a piece
of it.

He
does not consider himself an activist. At home, he likes to read, go to
restaurants and play with his dog. He paints pictures with red dots in
fragmented circles and lines to represent a splintered border and the ruptured
lives of those who cross. He only wants the integrity of his project respected.

What’s
happening, he tells himself, is that instead of mellowing he’s becoming
cantankerous in his old age. How does he tell nuns they’re screwing up? They
have a divine license to do what they do. They have God. How does he argue with
God?

I’m
an infidel,
he reminds himself.

As
Alicia plays, the plaintive notes drifting with the wind, Alvaro considers his
own life. With each cross, he commemorates his journey as an immigrant and its
inevitable end. His weekly desert sojourns have become a form of meditation in
which he grieves his own losses, two failed marriages, the death of his mother,
his time in Vietnam, his absent father. He is his father’s son but not his son.
He does not conceal his emotions. He empathizes to the point of tears. He can’t
control what other people do with his art but only what he seeks to achieve
with it: recognition of the dead, solace for himself.

The
struggle of migrants, he knows, will outlive him. More will die today, tomorrow
and long after he has died. He’d like to paint three thousand red dots in a
Tucson gallery but he doubts that will happen. Galleries don’t appreciate art
that won’t sell. He will never build enough crosses.

—That’s
all we know, right? It was a male? Alvaro asks Alicia when she finishes
playing.

—That’s
correct.

—Does
anyone want to say anything?

—I
hope he finds peace, Alicia says.

Alvaro
lets her comment linger. The wind whistles and carries the sound of a semi and
the volunteers shift and twigs break beneath their feet. When the noise of the
truck fades, Alvaro speaks.

—In
2006, thirteen years ago more or less, a man came here looking for the American
dream. He didn’t find it and all of his plans ended here. And those plans and his
dream left a lot of suffering behind with a family that perhaps was hoping for
him to be the person who would send checks back home for them to survive. But
this all ended here. We don’t know his name, but he had a name, a family, and
he had dreams and hopes, he had everything. That’s why we do this, to give this
person presence. To honor this person. But there will always be an empty space
at the dinner table for this person and that takes a long, long time to go away;
in fact, it never will. He’ll always be missing in some way.

At
a loss to say anything more, Alvaro stares at the ground. He wonders how much
longer he’ll mark dead sites. His knees are shot. In the old days, he’d start
at seven, walk three hours to a site and three hours back, up and down
mountains, sometimes not getting home before nightfall. These days, he seeks
clusters, areas where several bodies have been found, so he can put up crosses
without walking too far and adding mileage to the Jeep. It’s old, too.

He picks up the bucket and shovel. The two other sites are close by. He expects to finish before noon, an early day. Next Tuesday, he will return and carry more crosses into the desert and give presence to the anonymous dead with a marker no one will see. Art without a viewer. He considers their shortened lives part of the American myth. Dying for a dream.




Methods of Escape

Picture Credits: Ichigo121212

An Afghan police officer gestures for us to stop. My translator, Zabiullah, pulls our car over. The streets in downtown Kabul on this summer morning in August 2015 remain largely empty of traffic. Shuttered vendor stalls stand like the vacant buildings of a ghost town and dogs jog down the sidewalks, pausing to rummage in the garbage floating in gutters, competing with boys scavenging through the same refuse.

Jogging to the driver’s side, the cop asks Zabiullah to take him to a bus station. Afghan police earn little and often stop cars and request rides when they’re off duty. Turn them down, you pay a fine. I’m a reporter driving to my hotel after attending an uneventful press conference at the presidential palace. I’m not in a hurry and I certainly don’t need the hassle of upsetting an Afghan cop.

—Get in, Zabiullah tells him.

The cop climbs in the back seat and introduces himself, Naim. Like many Afghans he has just one name. He’s starting five days of leave. He got a ride into Kabul from the police station in Sarobi in eastern Afghanistan, about a five-hour drive, and now needs to catch a bus to his home in Bagram, more than sixty miles away.

He’s more than earned his leave, he tells us. One week earlier, he and other members of the Afghan police, Afghan National Army and American special forces participated in a firefight in Uzben, a village near the Tora Bora mountains close to the Pakistan border. Coalition forces lost Osama bin Laden there in 2001.

By the time Naim reached Uzben, insurgents had set fire to trees. American soldiers looked through binoculars but could see nothing beyond the burning trees. It’s safe, they said. Then Taliban fighters swept down from three different directions through the smoke. Naim ran. He saw police officers and some Americans gunned down. Naim hid in the woods until dark, the heat from the fire searing his face.

At ten, maybe eleven at night, Naim crept out of the woods and made his way to the police station in Sarobi, just outside of Uzben. The dispatcher on duty nearly fainted. I thought you were dead, he told Naim. I’m not, Naim said. We’ve told your family you’re dead, the dispatcher said; I’m sorry for this. Naim punched him in the nose. Now it is my turn to apologize, he said.

He stayed at the station two nights. He called his family but his wife thought he was someone pretending to be Naim because the Naim she knew was dead. By the third day, Naim no longer cared about the Taliban and told his commander he had to see his family. The commander gave him two bodyguards and he drove home to Bagram. When his wife opened the door, she screamed, You’re a ghost! Naim insisted he was not a spirit and walked toward her and she began to cry and wail and sank to the ground. He looked around his house. The tables were filled with flowers. A coffin took up a table. Everything had been prepared for his funeral. He started to cry. For two days, he stayed with a friend until his wife believed that he was indeed Naim. After two weeks, he returned to Sarobi and resumed his duties.

—Have you thought of leaving Afghanistan? Zabiullah asks.

—No, Naim says. If I don’t have money to get to a bus stop, how will I have money to get to Europe?

—Good point, Zabiullah agrees. I had the money one year but still I could not get out.

It had been a simple plan: Zabiullah’s wife, Sweetra, was pregnant in 2014 with their first child. They knew a smuggler with contacts in Italy and he got her an Italian woman’s passport. Sweetra would fly to Italy and have the baby in Rome, making him an Italian citizen. Then she would send for Zabiullah. Borrowing money from family and friends, they paid the smuggler $6,000.

Zabiullah drove her to Kabul International Airport the morning of her departure. They tried to stay calm so no one would suspect what they were up to. Don’t cry, Zabiullah told her, or security will know. He watched her board a plane to Dubai. From there, after a long layover, she’d fly to Rome. He felt so happy when she got on the plane without mishap. He returned home and waited for her to call him. When she did, she was crying. He thought she just missed her family but it was much worse than that. Airport security in Dubai had detained her. Her foot was on the first step of the stairs to the plane to Rome when a guard pulled her aside, took her passport and walked her into a bare room with only a table and two chairs. Who made you this? Where did you get it? the guard asked, waving her passport. He spoke Italian and then English. She insisted she was the person in the passport. The guard kept her in the room for hours before he put her on a flight back to Kabul.

—Don’t ever try this again, he warned her.

Zabiullah called the smuggler.

—You have to do something, he said.

—I have connections. Don’t worry.

Zabiullah was not appeased. He had seen people arrested for drugs on TV, shackled from head to foot, and he feared the worst. He felt like he had lost everything. He’d expected not to see her for six months. Now, she was coming back twenty-four hours later with nothing.

—I don’t want her taken off the plane in handcuffs.

—Don’t worry, the smuggler said.

The smuggler picked her up when her plane landed in Kabul. He drove a black SUV and paid off the necessary people. He took her directly from the plane so she would not be escorted through the airport by police. The smuggler called Zabiullah.

—I’m here. I have your wife.

—It was a very sad day for us, Zabiullah tells Naim.

Naim frowns and pats Zabiullah on the back. After September 11th, the Americans came and everything was fine and then it wasn’t, he says. Nothing is sustainable. That is why everyone is leaving. When he was young, he could go anywhere. Now he can’t. He thinks of leaving but how can he? He’ll go if someone pays.

When we reach the bus station near downtown, Zabiullah parks beside a table where three men sit drinking tea beneath the awning of a restaurant. Two yellow buses pocked with rust stand at the curb low to the pavement on nearly deflated tires. A few feet away a bearded man shouts, Why don’t you accept Islam? Do you not want to go to Paradise? Why do you dress like Westerners? Are you not Afghan? Are you not Muslim? The Holy Koran is the ultimate book of Allah. It’s the one true book. Like technology, the Holy Koran is the final update to everything that preceded it. Do you believe the other books are irrelevant now? Whoever does not believe in the Holy Koran is not following Mohammad and will not go to paradise. The Holy Koran is the last book. No one has the right to change it. People who don’t have faith in the Koran don’t go to Paradise. The day of dooms is for everyone. God will judge us all. I am telling you this because on the day of judgement I will be asked by God if I told the people about the holy book. So now I have tried. People will be divided between heaven and hell. I will be rewarded with good things.

The bus drivers listen to him rant. Turning, they notice Naim, Zabiullah and I watching him. Crazy man, a driver named Mukhtar mutters. He gestures for us to join him and offers us tea. We sit. He looks at his watch. Slow day. It may pick up because many people are escaping Afghanistan. He’s had passengers who have sold everything they have to buy a ticket to Iran, including other bus drivers. He knows of two drivers who just reached Europe. A lot return. They spend all their money and then they get caught, deported. Iran, he’s heard, is not kind to refugees but some people never give up. They collect money and go again. Mostly couples or single men. He rarely sees single women leaving. He gets only good girls on his bus, girls who travel with their husbands. He feels sorry for them when they don’t make it. His brother, Mohammad, sitting across from us, tried to get out but got caught in Turkey and deported. He wants to try again.

—You’re crazy, Mukhtar tells him.

—You’re crazy to stay, Mohammad responds.

Mohammad left Kabul in 2014 after he graduated from Bakh University in Mazār-e Sharīf, a city hours north of Kabul. He had grown tired of living day-by-day and by chance. The chance of being struck by a bullet. The chance of being killed in a bomb blast. He survived a bombing in May in Mazār that killed a small boy. Someone had placed an explosive in front of a pharmacy. The boy was walking past, pushing a cart when the bomb went off. At that moment, Mohammad decided to leave Afghanistan. He knew English. He did not have a wife or other obligations binding him to Kabul. He had no reason to stay. He hired a smuggler and the smuggler put him in a group of sixty-five Afghans fleeing to Europe. He knew some of them. They took a bus to Herat and then walked four hours through mountains to cross into Iran. A falling boulder mangled one man’s foot and he was left behind. Another man fell but got up and kept walking. They carried bread and fruit with them and little more. Some of them threw away their food to lighten their loads. A driver the smuggler hired met them in Iran. Sixteen people squeezed into a car and so tightly that their faces turned red. Six others, including Mohammad, piled into the trunk. It was very hard to be inside the trunk. There were some holes so they could breathe but it was impossible to breathe well and it grew very hot. When Mukhtar asked him what it was like, Mohammad told him, If you want to know more, try it yourself. Twelve other people got in a second car. The rest shouldered their way into two other cars. The smuggler said it would take three days to reach Tehran. When they noticed a police checkpoint, everyone scrambled out of the cars, spread out and crept forward on foot and waited for the smuggler to pass through the checkpoint. They got back into the cars, the smuggler shouting, Hurry, hurry! and drove on until the next checkpoint when they got out again. A few people lost their way each time they stopped and were left behind.

Iranian police caught the Afghans in Yazd, a small town outside Tehran. They had passed the main checkpoint but police were patrolling the road and intercepted them as they tried to reunite with the smugglers. The police spoke to them worse than a farmer beating a mule. They cursed and hit them and the migrants cried but did not resist or try to escape. They had accepted all the risks and knew capture was a possibility. Inshallah, they had said when they left Kabul, God willing we will reach Europe. God had not willed it and they were subdued in their failure. The police took them to a custom house where they worked unloading imported goods. After three days, they were taken to a camp for Afghan migrants near the border with Herat and fed them once a day. The Iranians held migrants with no money indefinitely. Mohammad had nearly $2,000. The police took it when they turned him over to Afghan police.

Now, Mohammad wakes up in the middle of the night furious with the way the Iranians treated him. As if he were illiterate, an idiot, an animal. He is twenty-one. He has a degree in economics. He stares into the dark and imagines himself as an animal in the Kabul zoo, unblinking, enraged, trapped.

Mukhtar grips his shoulder as if to shake away the memories of his failed flight. Mohammad looks down the road at the heat lines rivering the distance into murky waves. He intends to try again. One of his neighbors sold their house to pay a smuggler. Mohammad will go with him and twenty-one members of the man’s family. He has heard that Denmark is accepting of refugees while Germany has begun to crack down.

—You’re crazy, Mukhtar says. Our family is here.

—I will send for all of you later.

—It’s too dangerous. Many are thrown into the sea. You have seen all these things on the news.

—I’m going, Mohammad says.

He looks at Naim and Zabiullah.

—How about you?

They both shrug. They know the stories of people leaving by bus, on foot and not making it. Zabiullah and his wife didn’t make it. Naim has no money to try. They must get exhausted thinking about it. Tired of dreams. Tired of plans. Everyone just wants out. They just want a visa. A piece of paper. That’s all it takes. I know. I have it.

Naim asks Mohammad which bus goes to Bagram. Mohammad tells him and Naim stands. He thanks Zabiullah and me for the ride. His light blue, sweat-stained uniform sags off his thin body and his sunken eyes droop with sleepless nights. He looks forward to seeing his family and forgetting for a while the risks of his job. He receives threatening phone calls from the Taliban. If he returns to Uzben they will kill him. He makes a point of not traveling outside of Sarobi.

—Good luck, Zabiullah tells him.

Naim lets out a long breath. He won’t let threats deter him. When so much could go wrong, it’s important, he says, to keep his life simple.