Afghan film star in French exile after death threats

The feted star of an internationally-acclaimed film, Afghan actress Marina Golbahari, and her husband have been chased from their home to the brink of suicide in a filthy French asylum shelter after she was photographed without a veil.

Afghan film star in French exile after death threats
Afghan actress Marina Golbahari and her husband Noor in Paris. Photo: AFP

Fearing for their lives, the couple has kept a low profile since they arrived five months ago for a film festival.

“We never thought of staying,” said her husband Noorullah Azizi. “We hardly packed anything.”

But death threats back home against them and their family, they said, ruled out a return.

Golbahari was only 10 in late 2001 when she was plucked from the streets of Kabul and catapulted to stardom as the heroine of the Golden Globe-winning film “Osama”.

She had been selling magazines on the streets of the capital and witnessed the violence of the recently-toppled Taliban regime first hand when her father was beaten in front of her.

In the film, she played a girl who disguises herself as a boy during the Taliban's rule so that she can walk freely on the street.

“Osama” was a hit and made Golbahari, now 24, an instant star in her country.

“Cinema is my life,” she told AFP. “In a film, I can say everything about my people.”

Azizi also found a way out of grinding poverty through Afghanistan's burgeoning film industry.

He grew up in Pakistan among the millions of Afghan refugees who had fled the Soviet war of the 1980s.

Now 28, he recalls a childhood spent sleeping in a tent and working in a shoe factory, before returning to Kabul and trying his hand at a thousand and one jobs.

He finally turned to acting, where his muscular physique and square jaw brought him roles as police officers and soldiers fighting the Taliban.

“I was happy. I had everything,” he said.

Azizi and Golbahari met on Facebook and quickly fell in love, but the match was not welcomed by Azizi's family who refused to attend the marriage last September.

“They were ashamed of my wife because she is an actress and the whole world can see her photo,” he said.

But in early October 2015, more serious trouble arose.

A picture of Golbahari, head uncovered, at the Busan festival in South Korea drew the ire of conservatives. She was branded a prostitute on social media, adding to the family's shame.

The imam in her local village of Kapisa announced that she should not return, which Azizi said translates as: “She must die.”

Soon after, a bomb was thrown into their garden in Kabul but failed to explode. Telephone threats started to pour in, and the couple were forced to move from house to house.

In mid-November, they flew to Nantes in western France where Golbahari was appearing in a festival.

But their families, who had also received death threats, told them they had to stay away.

Golbahari was thrust to stardom as the heroine in the Golden Globe-winning film “Osama”. AFP

The couple have found themselves in a decrepit shelter for asylum-seekers in Dreux, 90 kilometres (56 miles) outside Paris. Their small green and violet room looks out over a roof full of discarded rubbish.

Golbahari has struggled to cope with the forced exile. She has attempted suicide and is now on anti-depressants.

“I dreamed of living in France, but not like this,” she said.

The couple are particularly worried about running into fellow Afghans.

“It's very important that no-one recognises Marina,” said Azizi, who locks his wife in the room every time he leaves to make sure no one gets to her and carries out the death sentence passed by conservative imams a world away.

To avoid detection, Golbahari remains tightly veiled in public — a cruel twist in the tale, given the way their nightmare began.

“When you are an actor or actress in Afghanistan, or part of a film, you are accused of being an infidel, you are always in danger,” said Siddiq Barmak, the director of “Osama”, who also became a refugee in France a year ago.

Since the withdrawal of most international forces from Kabul in mid-2014, a wave of religious conservatism has washed over the country — “and not only from the Taliban”, said Barmak.

Nearly 3,700 civilians died in the ongoing conflict last year according to the UN — a record for the past decade.

The increase in violence has sparked a fresh exodus from the country, particularly among Kabul's middle-class liberals.

Golbahari's appearance at the Korean film festival coincided with two major events in the city of Kunduz — its temporary seizure by the Taliban and the bombing by US forces of a Doctors Without Borders hospital.

Around the same time a local-language BBC channel also screened “Osama”.

Back in her dank room, Golbahari sees little hope.

“Before, I dreamed of the future,” she said. “Now I think only of the past.”


How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.