This Christmas, remember those we left behind in Afghanistan
Lynne O’Donnell has been overwhelmed by requests for help from those who were not evacuated in August – and are now being failed by a system that that is as incompetent as it is morally contemptible
December 17, 2021 (Tortoise)—Subhan is a 23-year-old gay man desperate to leave Afghanistan before the Taliban find him and punish him for his homosexuality. His father and brothers beat him often, he says, and someone he used to call a friend has threatened to betray him unless he becomes his sex slave.
Subhan (a name he has chosen, to hide his real identity) believes the Taliban will kill him if they find him, and so he rarely leaves his home. “I tried to commit suicide but I could not,” he said. “And now that Afghanistan is under Taliban control, I am in a big pit of misery and my future is unknown and my life is in danger.”
He is one of hundreds of people who have contacted me in the four months since the Taliban took control again of Afghanistan on 15 August. Anyone they regard as the enemy is being hunted down, threatened, intimidated, disappeared, incarcerated, tortured and, in some cases, killed, brutally, in front of their children.
Corpses hang from trees and bridges. Headless bodies are thrown in gutters. Afghanistan has become a land of horror beyond imagining. There is no law, only anarchy, violence and impunity.
While the Taliban occupy themselves with revenge – and with ensuring women disappear beneath their burqas – the economy has imploded, the value of the national currency has plummeted, and tens of millions of people don’t have enough to eat.
The Taliban’s leaders, many of whom are blacklisted terrorists, say famine is a test from God. They pilfer emergency aid supplies that reach the country through the legal mesh of U.S. and U.N. sanctions.
The international community has frozen Afghanistan’s financial assets, which means that people inside and outside the country cannot access their own money in their own bank accounts. The private banking sector is rapidly collapsing.
Western governments promised never to abandon Afghan people who supported their democratic experiment and war against the Taliban’s insurgency, but they have done just that.
Untold thousands of people at extreme risk of Taliban retribution have been left behind. Many are in hiding, desperately reaching out to anyone they believe might be able to help them.
Our leaders, mired in the shame of losing a war they said for 20 years they were winning, have turned away; ceding the task of extracting people like Subhan to private citizens who are spending their own time and money doing the job that governments are now refusing to do.
Such citizens have to contend with the Government’s anti-immigrant sentiment, general complacency, incompetence and increasingly restrictive rules that clearly aim “to keep the numbers down as low as possible,” as the Labour MP, Kevan Jones, put it in a House of Commons defence select committee hearing in November.
Around 100,000 people were evacuated in the weeks after the Taliban victory. Subsequent “whistle-blower” accounts have detailed the internal fiascos while the politicians extended their summer holidays.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace says only 200 people eligible for resettlement in the UK remain in Afghanistan. By contrast, the U.S. State Department puts the number of people who have applied for visas and shelter after working with American forces at 60,000.
Across the Western world, people with compassion and empathy are compiling lists, raising money, cajoling the wealthy to donate the use of their private jets. They are learning about the complexities of laissez passer – travel arrangements for those without usual documentation – as they talk governments into letting planes land en route to third countries. They are sidestepping the Taliban with their own underground railroads, and even risking accusations of human trafficking.
My in-boxes overflow with messages from people in Afghanistan, some I know, many I have never met. From senior advisers to the last president, to women now trapped in their homes by the Taliban’s misogyny: they find me on every social media platform and beg for my help to reach safety.
Some simply say: “Please help me.” Others list jobs, academic qualifications and the reasons they are in danger. Some send long autobiographies and attach resumes and photographs; others ramble or seek to explain what makes them so special. Some just say “Hi” or “Hello”. Most of the messages I receive are very sad. A few are phishing expeditions from Taliban trolls.
When Subhan reached out to me, he said he had contacted Afghan and international gay support groups, but has yet to receive a response. A lot of people say that – they reach out, sometimes to diplomats who promised them help, but hear nothing back.
One man said his father was a police officer in a prison where Taliban had been held. “Now they threaten my father, if they find him they will kill him and all of my family. Pls help us.” (sic)
A woman in a southern city said she opened a beauty parlour after her soldier husband was killed fighting the insurgency. After the Taliban took power, they forced her to close her business and stay home. She can’t go outside without a male relative, but she has none. “Can you help me take care of my children during the winter?” she asked.
Masooma Rezaie, 34, was a Master Staff Sergeant in the Afghan Air Force, trained in Turkey at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer. She is a Hazara, a minority, mostly Shia community historically targeted by the Taliban.
When the Taliban arrived, she said, “my colleagues ran in all directions,” and she had to make her way home via back alleys. She burned or buried her uniform and equipment. After a couple of days spent hiding under the bed at a friend’s home, she fled over the eastern border into Pakistan after bribing guards on both sides.
Human rights groups have reported Taliban killings of former military personnel, of Hazaras and Shiites, and the appalling treatment of women. Masooma Resaie ticks a lot of boxes, but no help has come.
Neelam Raina and Brad Blitz are London-based academics who formed the Afghanistan Solidarity Coalition, a loose alliance of academics, researchers, women’s and human rights advocates and LGBTQI activists. They came together, Raina said, “to help people who no one else will help”.
They raised £500,000 and have so far got 80 people out of Afghanistan. The money covered the costs of flights, visas, accommodation, health care and insurance, and other necessities.
As long as those 80 people cannot get to Britain, funds will be needed to cover their costs. Yet now they have reached a third country, they are considered “safe” and could no longer be eligible to relocate to Britain. They have reached limbo.
I have spoken with Afghan people in Albania, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They are, of course, relieved to be alive and out of the Taliban’s reach.
But many say they feel abandoned and betrayed, unwanted, and unwelcome in the countries they have arrived in, pressured to apply for asylum, which takes them off government books and into the global refugee bureaucracy, restricting their freedom to move, work, live, sometimes for many years.
My friend and colleague, Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Massoud Hossaini – with whom I spent the last three months of the war reporting from frontlines across the country – has been trapped in the Netherlands since we left Kabul on the last commercial flight before the Taliban takeover.
He has three job offers in London, but the UK government treats him like it treats everyone these days: He is completely ignored. “It’s like I don’t exist,” he said.
Raina, Blitz and others working to help abandoned Afghans have the same experience. Emails disappear into the ether. Telephone calls ring out or the numbers no longer exist. Government websites have no information or links. The wall is high and wide and impregnable.
The British government spent £3.5 billion on development in Afghanistan in the 20 years after the Taliban were ousted in October 2001, in retaliation for supporting al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks.
In that time, Britain employed thousands of Afghans either directly or as partners, grantees, or contractors. Their mere association with the British government makes them vulnerable to Taliban retribution. Entire families are condemned by association.
Victoria Atkins, the Minister for Afghan Resettlement at the Home Office, says up to 12,000 Afghans have arrived in the UK, about half of them children, since the republic’s collapse.
Around 4,000 people have been allocated housing, Atkins told the Home Affairs Committee in mid-November. The rest remain in “bridging accommodation,” which usually means hotels, whole families to one room, many of their children as yet unable to go to school.
Most people who arrived in the UK from Afghanistan, evacuated as part of Operation Pitting or under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy, were given six months’ access to public funds, housing and employment. Their status is being converted to “indefinite leave to remain”, Atkins said.
On December 14, the Home Office narrowed the eligibility criteria for Afghan people who worked for British interests, and their dependents, in a move clearly designed to further limit the number of people who enter the country.
Raina, a professor of development and design at Middlesex University, has hardly slept since the collapse of the Afghan republic. She is haunted by the stories and photographs she receives daily of what is happening to the people of Afghanistan.
The changes to the eligibility criteria – made during the parliamentary debate on tightened pre-Christmas pandemic restrictions – confirmed her suspicions that the UK’s immigration policy is not just devoid of responsibility, it is actively racist.
As Blitz and I share Indian snacks in the open kitchen of Raina’s home in West London, she assesses the genesis of her own thought process as she has dealt with the results of Britain’s abrogation of responsibility for people who worked for UK defence, diplomacy and development in Afghanistan.
“In August it was a case of incompetence,” she said, referring to the well-documented failures of the evacuation after the Taliban takeover.
“In September, it was negligence. In October, it was willful negligence. In November, it was willful negligence with the intention to harm. Now, in December, it is willful intention to harm, with conspiracy,” she said.
“You can’t blame chaos forever, it is not chaos. Now the regulations shrink the parameters for getting into this country. It is evil, but it is predictable evil. Others do it in the night, but the Tories do it in the glare of daylight,” she said.
The Afghanistan Solidarity Coalition began with attempts to extract Afghan researchers who had worked in eastern Afghanistan on a government-funded project examining the impact on women of long-term forced displacement, said Blitz, a professor of international politics at University College London. (Raina’s part in this multi-year project connected women’s livelihood schemes to production of exquisite embroideries.)
One researcher on the project had studied in Poland, and as the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in early August, careening towards the collapse that anyone paying attention could see was inevitable, his Polish classmates offered to help him leave.
Blitz got involved, he said, building relationships across the world with people who wanted to help. “We were a small group and we started to repeat the process. This was just the starting point – can we get people to Poland?
“We tried with European Union and NATO countries, reaching out whenever anyone responded.” That outreach took them to the Balkans – Blitz’s old stomping ground as a graduate student at Stanford University, working on issues of ethnic conflict and genocide – the Maldives, Canada, Austria, the United States and Mexico.
Their group now has a list of 1,500 names of people they believe are in serious danger from the Taliban and need urgent extraction. Blitz says the list grows by 20-30 names a day. He calls Wallace’s figure of 200 a “gross under-estimate of people who are at extreme risk”.
Through their work, these people supported British interests in Afghanistan, Blitz said, but apparently, and inexplicably, don’t qualify for protection. Hundreds of similar groups, in Britain, Europe and the United States, also have lists many-thousands long.
What western bureaucracies fail to grasp in assessing people for relocation, Blitz said, is the nature of collective guilt, which means not just the one person who worked for the NATO effort faces danger, but their entire family.
“Part of the problem is the failure to understand Afghan culture, society or family structure, which is inter-generational and cooperative,” he said.
Attempts to split up family groups, even to force women to travel alone, raised questions for Blitz and Raina about whether this is done with the knowledge that most people will not leave their families behind – and thus keep those numbers low.
Case in point: a good friend who was an advisor to a senior official was offered help by the government of Norway. He was told his mother would only be welcome if his father also accepted asylum. His father didn’t want to leave Kabul, and his sister would not go without their mother. My friend could not trust his father to resist Taliban demands that his sister forcefully marry one of their fighters, a reward for victory. So he wouldn’t leave her behind. Result: none of them went to Norway.
Raina describes what is happening in Afghanistan as a “human-made disaster of epic proportions”.
“Britain’s experiments with democracy and gender equality in Afghanistan have put people’s health and life at risk. The silent policy changes shall cause violence and possibly death for those who stood with us through the experiment, believing in a better future for a war-ravaged nation,” she said.
“Step one would be to accept that the war was lost, but to no longer use Afghans as collateral. Or step one would be to accept that the battle was lost, but the war carries on with blood of Afghans continuing to be spilt.”
Photograph by Hector Retamal/AFP