2015 saw the BBC broadcast a UK version of Da Pulay Poray in English for the fourth time – and the last. There is no doubt that Pakistan and Afghanistan slipped far down the UK political agenda when British troops withdrew from that part of the world and we were told before we even started making the programme that our contract was coming to an end.
We also knew that the PACT Radio soap which was the basis of our UK broadcast had changed radically in the four years of our broadcasts, and that we would not now have time to reflect those changes fully. For the original, Da Pulay Poray had moved from the wild Pak-Afghan borders to the no-less-wild Afghan heartland. In the Afghan broadcasts, key characters who were well-integrated refugees of long-standing in the borders village where the serial started out were now returning to their homeland village near Jalalabad, trying to recapture their old lives – as well as their old homes. The series examines, through characters we love and drama which envelopes us, the difficulties and joys of going home.
PACT Radio’s new focus on the globally important subject of returning refugees really showed PACT to be ahead of its time. Our UK soap followed lamely and perhaps reluctantly. Why oh why does it have to change, we asked? Why must characters be uprooted from our lovely mountain soap to find themselves in a new place with new dangers? And just when the structure of our annual broadcasts was becoming recognisable and comfortable for UK listeners too!
It is a fact known to soap-makers that audiences traditionally hate any structural changes to their soaps. They want to know what to expect, they feel safe with the familiar and characters become like members of their own family. And now all of this was threatened and none of us liked it. So, here, at least, soap-making was becoming like real life. Don’t we all want our lives as well as our soaps to continue without huge disruption or dislocation? In other words, our distaste for the upheaval was right at the heart of the programme’s new content. Because no one wants to be a refugee.
So in the last UK series of Da Pulay Poray we did see two families trying to decide whether they could really become refugees again – specifically, in their case, returning refugees. They returned not because their old village was so safe now but because it was beginning to look safer than their adopted village. And so they fled once more, back to where they came from. Complex issues face returning refugees, both practical and emotional. Could we go? Should we? Must we? But we came here and built our lives from nothing, how can we leave this behind? In a way we know this time what awaits us – and in a way we don’t. What about all the red tape? And when we get there – will we safely be able to reclaim our old land and home? And how well will we re-integrate with those who remained behind?
Listeners hoping that all would be well for Mewa Gul and his family once the move was made were disappointed. The returning refugees, buoyed up by a little UN cash, got back to their old village, much of it bombed and its fields potentially mined, to find the landowner refusing to release their land or their home. Worse, they instantly encountered gun-toting men who demanded their political support when they would have preferred to remain neutral. Like many a refugee, they had decided that neutrality must be the safest position. And then they found that were was no safe position.
It was here, looking into an uncertain future, longing for their adopted past, that we had to leave our refugees. Another family, that of Sardar Aka, was following behind them, almost certain to face similar disappointments and threats. We asked for a few more years’ broadcasts to develop PACT’s theme. We argued to the BBC’s commissioning editor that the issue of returning refugees would certainly prove to be a highly significant one this century and that we wanted to tackle it now.
At the time of commissioning, a whole year ago, our argument must have been easy to ignore. Since then, refugees from Syria and Africa have moved north in numbers that are beginning to terrify Europe. The issue must seem less remote now – but its new proximity came too late to keep Da Pulay Poray on the air in the UK.
The whole team, actors and production staff, had become firm friends and we recorded our last series with a certain wistfulness, promising to meet again. When we finished recording one wet, dark January evening in central London, we hugged each other and then scattered across the city into the night.
By: Liz Rigbey, Writer and Director of An Everyday Story of Afghan Folk