Displaced Afghans share stories of their journey from home to the safety of uncertainty
The two Taliban militants threatened to shoot Fakhria Naistani and her fellow scholar in the head if they made their “headaches worse” by requesting to pass them again, as they denied them access to the airport gate’s entry road.
The altercation forced Naistani and the 30 travellers in her group to head for Kabul airport’s abysmal Abbey Gate entrance, the site of the recent terrorist attack that killed around at least 100 Afghans and 13 US Servicemen.
“You can’t go through the main road access because of the number of people there. There are thousands and thousands of people. So you are forced to walk through the sewage canal – that is the side where the soldiers are standing and you have a better chance of speaking to them,” said the 30-year-old in a video call from the safety of her hotel room in London.
“We were trying to keep the children and ourselves from getting crushed but you have to be careful and hold your bag in front of you so you don’t get robbed. There were many thieves looking for an opportunity to steal and one almost got inside my husband’s bag,” she said. “But what could we do. There was no other choice,” she added.
After several hours of pushing through the crowd, she finally reached British soldiers and managed to provide them with the group’s documentation. One by one they were helped over the two-metre wall by the “friendly and culturally respectful” young soldiers.
When Naistani finally made it through she was overwhelmed with emotion and fell into uncontrollable tears, a moment she captured in a picture with the caption “We finally made it” on Twitter.
The viral tweet was a moment of joy for those who had been campaigning for her and her fellow scholars to come to the UK. However, she also fell victim to online abuse from people who accused her of being a coward for leaving her country.
“They don’t understand that you are trying to live, to be allowed to read a simple book. We don’t trust the Taliban. These are the people that made women sit at home,” she said.
After an overnight stay at Kabul’s airport grounds, she and around 400 others arrived in Dubai via a military plane, where they were provided with food, blankets and other necessities.
Finally they boarded an early flight to London on Wednesday morning and arrived around noon, but it would be another 13 hours before Naistani was processed through immigration and arrived at her hotel.
Although Naistani had plans to travel to the UK to begin her studies, she had never imagined that life as she knew it would be over in Afghanistan and her world would be reduced to the small bag in her hotel room.
What had been mostly an exciting year for her, succeeding in fulfilling the requirements of her university conditions, getting married and gaining acceptance into the Chevening programme, a scholarship that funds one-year master’s degrees at UK universities, soon turned into chaos and uncertainty.
First, as a result of her country gradually falling into the hands of Taliban and then by the UK Foreign Office blocking the Chevening students from taking up their scholarships in early August, a decision that caused outrage inside and outside of the UK and was ultimately reversed after fierce campaigning by activists and some MPs.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, after three days, Naistani and her travel companions, including her husband and mother-in-law, were finally in a space that offered them a warm bed and a shower. Without wasting any time she jumped in the shower to wash off the sewage and the stench of her entire ordeal. This would be her home for at least the next 10-days while they quarantined.
However, not all the Chevening scholars have made it to London.
Amrullah Mohammad Yousuf and his wife, who is a US citizen, left the country with only the clothes on their backs.
The pair rushed to Kabul airport on August 17, two days after the fall of Kabul and before thousands of people had flocked to the streets, carrying only his wife’s documents, which included his expired passport, with the intention of enquiring about their options. To their surprise they were allowed inside the airport and placed on a flight to Doha.
The couple spent four days in a camp in DohaThey were then flown to Washington DC and transferred to a camp in Virginia for an overnight stay where they were able to clean up, obtain some fresh clothes, sanitary items and eat thanks to a group of Afghan volunteers who had organised to help their countrymen and women.
The pair finally arrived at a military camp in Texas, USA, and have been staying in a room with roughly 20 other people ever since.
“The situation was getting more terrifying and my wife insisted we make arrangements for leaving. We thought we were just going to ask some questions, I didn’t think we would be leaving,” said Mohammad Yousuf from a military camp in Texas.
The hardships of the journey did not leave them unscathed and his wife had to be admitted to a hospital in Texas for medical treatment.
The Chevening scholar’s stress worsened when he received word from his family in Kabul that militants had gone to his home on two separate occasions and asked for him by name. He thinks the fact that he worked for the UN and privately on government projects may have made him a target.
“I’m really frightened for my family. The situation there (Afghanistan) is devastating and scary. I have to find a way of getting them out of the country, anywhere,” he said worriedly.
But Mohammad Yousuf’s troubles and journey are far from over. He is trying to find a way to get from the US to the UK with an expired passport to attend his master’s course in Construction Project Management at Birmingham University. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. It took me seven years to get accepted into the Chevening programme. I can’t lose this opportunity. I will do whatever I can to get there,” he said with conviction.
The staff at the Chevening programme have been working tirelessly to coordinate with the UK immigration authorities to find a solution that can get him to travel but with the university course set to begin in early September he has no choice but to request permission to study online until he is in the UK. He has even asked a relative in Texas to arrange for a laptop to be brought to the camp for him so he can start preparing.
“We have to use our pen to move forward, not anything else, this is what my mother instilled in us. I will study day and night, hopefully one day I can return to my country to help build it,” he said.
In the rush and chaos to evacuate, not everyone managed to leave with their loved ones. Mohsin, a 41-year-old who worked for an international organisation connected to the UN was evacuated alone on a charter flight to Pakistan.
Into the unknownMohsin’s position placed him in grave danger and he and others like him were given a few hours’ notice to pack a small bag and leave for the airport.
Mohsin’s family were supposed to join him in Islamabad on a subsequent flight. However, the deteriorating security situation at Kabul airport saw those plans cancelled. When and how they will be able to join Mohsin is unknown.
“I have no sleep and I am constantly worried for my family. There are no good days ahead. To be a refugee and be without a country is a horrendous feeling. Your mind is consumed with what will happen next? When will I see my family again? How long will I be in this foreign country? Will I be able to go back? Our future is completely unknown, it is a very unsettling thought,” said a traumatised Mohsin from his temporary location in Islamabad.
“I left my whole life behind. Everything that I had worked so hard to build over the years, turned to dust overnight,” said Mohsin, who did not want his real identity shared for fear of retaliation against his family in Afghanistan.
“We have a bitter experience with these people (Taliban) and their ways. They say they will not take any action against people who worked with the government but that remains to be seen. That has not been our experience with them previously,” he said.
Mohsin had ample opportunities to leave his country and make a different life for himself abroad. However, he chose to stay to bring change in his country.
“I always thought that if I leave, who would be left behind to build the country? I wanted to serve. We had a lot of hope for Afghanistan and its future, but it is all gone,” he said.
“I want to go back and continue to serve Afghanistan but I don’t see how that could be possible in the near future,” said a sombre Mohsin.
Working for the government or foreign entities are not the only reasons that have caused Afghans to fear for their lives and future.
Poet Ramin Mazhar and his new bride, who both worked for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, had to flee Kabul to ensure they were not persecuted by the Taliban for his outspoken views about their extreme ideology.
Mazhar’s poems, which often criticised the Taliban, had brought his name to the forefront of Kabul’s cultural scene.
As the Taliban began to take over province after province he was warned by friends to prepare for the possibility of leaving the country. Reluctantly he filled in the required paperwork. As Kabul fell he witnessed the life he knew disappear and he requested to leave the country.
The French authorities granted his request and arrangements were made to evacuate him. He and his wife were met at a prearranged location late in the evening, taken to Kabul airport by car and flown to Abu Dhabi before boarding a flight to Paris.
Over the last few months Mazhar and his wife had spent their time and savings preparing for their new home and life together only to leave it all behind.
The mountain of books he had collected over the years and had planned to share with university students is left to an uncertain fate in Kabul. Mazhar got away with only a few items of clothing and his laptop and poems.
“I loved everything about my city but everything fell apart. Now I am in a strange city. Don’t know anyone or the language and we have to start from zero,” he said on the phone from Paris.
Although over 100,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan, a large number of Afghans’ attempts to flee to safety were unsuccessful and many have been left behind. The UN refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday, up to half a million Afghans could flee their homeland in the coming months.
Ahmad spent years working in security for the American special forces, the Canadian military and more recently as a driver for the UN. He never thought his country would disintegrate as it did or that the people he considered as allies would leave with such haste.
The 35-year-old, whose real name is not shared for his safety, now fears for his life and for the lives of his wife and four children. He has spent the last two weeks moving from home to home, avoiding staying in the same place for too long.
He tried to reach the British soldiers at Kabul airport to show them his UN credentials but he could not get close enough given that tens of thousands of people who had gathered in hopes of leaving on one of the flights out of the country. He tried applying for the US Special Immigration Visa (SIV) and has reached out to the British authorities to help him evacuate. However all his attempts have failed so far.
“I worked shoulder to shoulder with the international people, we helped them. To think they now will not protect us is a drowning thought,” he said on the phone from Kabul.
“We had a lot of hopes and dreams for this country. There were many issues but we were comfortable. Now there is no more hope left. What will happen to us? What will happen to my daughters under the Taliban?” he said, explaining that he had hoped they would study and make a good life for themselves.
“They (Taliban) say they will not do anything to us but how can we trust them? And there are many stories of them going door to door and taking people away,” he said.
A group of artists, none of whom can be named for their safety, and their families, totalling about 50 people, have been pushed into hiding. Their crime? Actively pushing for women’s rights and change in their society’s conservative ways through their art. Some had received rendezvous locations and evacuation times only to be left with no contact when they arrived.
Gulf News is aware of at least two such cases of last minute evacuation cancellations due to what was cited as security threats.
They are currently in Afghanistan and as the evacuation flights come to a halt their hopes of leaving have faded. They say they await to see what fate has in store for them and if they are able to find other ways of leaving the country.
Naistani also has close family members who despite having the right documentation were unable to leave and are now in grave danger. As the paths out of the country grow narrower so do fears for their safety.
“It is really hard to leave your loved ones behind. Afghans don’t deserve this.,” she said.
When, where and how she will be reunited with her family is unknown.
Sarvy Geranpayeh is a journalist who reports on international affairs.
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