Why do so many Afghans have birthdays on January 1?
What happens when generations of a country, born during a war, have no knowledge of their birth date? In Afghanistan, such circumstances led to an interesting phenomenon. After the war, people needed an official birthday to make use of various opportunities. A surprisingly high number ended up choosing January 1. January 1 has now become for Afghans a commemoration of years of strife.
How did generations lose out on official birth records?
In the 1980-90s, Afghanistan was struggling to cope with protracted wars. During that period, the government had no system to register births. ID cards and drivers' licenses were a rarity in the impoverished nation. The Tazkiras, Afghanistan's IDs, doesn't have a space for date of birth either; age on it is "determined based on physical appearance".
Lack of official records had serious consequences
Birth registration is of utmost importance: such records help reunite families after crises, help children get refugee status, and is 'proof' of someone's existence. After the war, there were visas and jobs to apply for, which required birthdays. Social media penetration also increased, which also needed people's birthdays. The UN ranked Afghanistan among the 10 countries with the largest number of unregistered children.
So how did the January 1 trend come about?
Faced with a choice, it was easy to choose January 1 for many, many Afghans. Those who know their actual birthday in the Islamic Hijri calendar also often end up using January 1 to avoid the hassle of having to convert it. In many cases, the US State Department chose the date themselves for refugees of war-ravaged countries other than Afghanistan too.
A sober commemoration rather than boisterous "birthday" celebrations
For Afghans, the January 1 mass birthdays are more a memory of the war than an occasion to celebrate. "Though I celebrate my birthday on January 1, I always feel it's not my real date of birth and I don't feel well," says 26-year-old Ihsanullah.
Afghan officials are now trying to correct the situation
Now the authorities are trying to change things. In recent years, many Afghan hospitals have started issuing birth certificates for newborns. The government has been planning to issue e-Tazkiras which would include birth date, but it has been on hold. For now, famous actor Basir Mujahid, cricketer Hasti Gul Abid, and politician Mohammad Daud Daud celebrate their birthdays on January 1.
Lakhs of people in other countries have Jan1 birth dates
It's one case when people don't know their actual birth date, but another when they know it but can't produce documents when they are enlisting as refugees. In all such cases, it is common practice for the UNHCR to assign January 1 as the birth date. Today, lakhs of people in Vietnam, Sudan and Somalia, and refugees from Syria etc share the birth date.