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What Now for Afghans Desperate to Flee? 


An US Air Force aircraft takes off from the airport in Kabul on August 30, 2021. - Rockets were fired at Kabul's airport on August 30 where US troops were racing to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan and evacuate allies under the threat of Islamic State group attacks. (AF

Many Afghans harbor a bitter sense of betrayal. Others lament being left behind by Western governments they worked with over the past two decades but say they have little time for recriminations now and are focused on how they can get out of Afghanistan.

Some are drawing hope from the Taliban’s promise to Western governments that once the final evacuation flights depart Tuesday, they won’t block Afghans who have legal documents, including passports and visas, from leaving the country on commercial flights when they resume.

But will the Taliban keep its promise?

Few are taking the pledge made by Taliban leaders to dozens of countries at face value. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken added a note of caution Sunday during an interview with American broadcaster ABC when challenged whether the Taliban will make good on the promise. “I’m not saying we should trust the Taliban on anything,” he said.

Fear

Several Afghans speaking with VOA by phone from Kabul fear the pledge might be broken. Those who worked with Western missions or security forces worry about securing or renewing their passports, and those of family members, when government services resume in the Afghan capital. They suspect they might be on Taliban watch-lists and if they turn up to renew passports, or line up outside embassies to make visa applications, they could be detained.

"I personally don't know about the future and how can I plan when I have no idea what changes will come in the next few minutes or hours,” said Aalem, who worked with U.S.-sponsored youth-oriented educational and cultural programs. He seems bewildered and in a state of shock that he was unable to get his staff out, let alone himself and his family. He asked not to be clearly identified in this story for security reasons — a request made by other Afghans.

Several Afghans who spoke with VOA since Sunday said they are trying to explore overland routes out of the country and say they fear that the Taliban will return slowly but surely to impose the same kind of oppressive rule they did in the 1990s. Women who have no male partners or relatives to accompany them on a trek out of Afghanistan are especially alarmed at the thought of going overland to neighboring countries.

“I certainly think it might not be possible for us,” said a 23-year-old, who also worked with the U.S. government. She and her sister are scared at what they might encounter overland. But they also say they won’t leave their mother behind, who is too frail to make an arduous and uncertain journey.

“There's no safe way for us, whether it is to Pakistan or Iran” says Esin, a 22-year-old student. She is hiding, along with her mother and two sisters. A student, Esin worked as a volunteer for the U.S. government. “Most of the roads are in the hands of the Taliban and under their rule and it will be very dangerous,” she said.

As the Afghan evacuation was unfolding, NGOs and Western officials were being inundated by pleas from Afghans to help get them out. An Afghan who provided services for U.S. NGOs wrote last week to the manager of one project: “I am especially worried about the unclear fate of my two young daughters. The Taliban has come to my home several times for questioning, and neighbors have filmed their arrival. At the moment, I am with my family in a secret location in Kabul. But I am not feeling secure and they can reach me anytime. Please, please help me and my family, our life is in your hands.”

The manager responded, “I wish I had the authority to do more for you and your family.”

The desperate appeals made in hurried phone calls and increasingly frantic emails from thousands of Afghans were harrowing for officials and NGO workers who received them. They scrambled to find them flights, to get them included on evacuation lists or to secure visas for them, aching often with guilt that people who’d worked for them for years were now possibly being left in harm’s way.

“We have been burning up the phones, comparing notes, and trying to guide our staff to safety,” an NGO executive told VOA. He asked for his name to be withheld. His NGO managed to evacuate 300 people but has left more than 200 behind.

Exploring all options

Like Afghans wanting to flee, some Western NGOs are also exploring overland routes to Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, most of which are officially closed, but all of which are being crossed illegally by Afghans desperate enough to entrust their lives to smugglers.


“We have not yet seen mass cross-border movement,” says Kathryn Mahoney, the global spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, UNCHR. “The large-scale displacement is still inside Afghanistan, where 3.5 million people have been displaced from their homes,” she told VOA. She said the agency’s border monitors have, though, reported several thousand crossing the border into Pakistan. “And we know from the Iranian authorities that several thousands of people have recently arrived from Afghanistan,” Mahoney continued.

Afghan activists in Pakistan say they reckon 10,000 Hazara Shia have managed to cross into Pakistan the past ten days. The Hazara faced violent persecution from the Taliban in the 1990s because of their ethnicity and Shi’ite Muslim adherence.

Mahoney said the UNCHR has been “intensifying our calls, I would say over the last week, to neighboring countries asking for the borders to be kept open.” She continued: “I think what's really important to remind everybody is that Iran and Pakistan have been hosting most refugees who left Afghanistan over the past four decades. So they are not new to this. But we can't take that for granted.” .

While welcoming the airlifts as “acts of solidarity,” Mahoney says they have “only benefited a very tiny fraction of the millions of Afghans who have been displaced.”

Western governments have already started negotiations with some neighboring countries to reopen their borders, including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Western officials say.

In the meantime, some nonprofits are already assessing overland routes. “We have started a course of action development, to use a military term,” says Adam DeMarco, an American military veteran and spokesperson for Allied Airlift 21, a non-profit that has been helping with the evacuations.

"There are some opportunities. And we are using what we have with open-source intelligence to scope out overland routes and to assess the security threats and the danger,” he told VOA in a phone call.

DeMarco said routes to Pakistan could be among the most dangerous because either they go through Taliban heartlands or through the Afghan provinces of Konar and Nangahar, strongholds of the Islamic Stated affiliate, which claimed responsibility for last week’s suicide bombing at Kabul airport. “In a lot of the conversations we're having, we're not even taking them into consideration, really,” he added.

The safest routes inside Afghanistan are likely to be those heading to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he says, but then if anti-Taliban forces in the North led by Ahmad Massoud do mount an insurgency the “risk is that we might be sending people through the front lines of a civil war.” DeMarco says underground railroad type operations will be unsustainable in the long run unless they are being supported by Western governments and international organizations.

The Tajikistan and Uzbekistan borders are currently closed to Afghans. Mohammad Zahir Agbar, Afghanistan’s ambassador in Dushanbe, told VOA he expects the Tajiks will start allowing Afghans to cross, if they get international support to handle the new refugees. “I do believe they are going to open the borders,” he said.

Uzbekistan seems less inclined to do so and has been deterring Western organizations from setting up to run evacuation operations, according to Jake Simkin, a conflict photographer who left Afghanistan last week.

Simkin says crossing the border into Uzbekistan is highly hazardous with Uzbek border guards ready to shoot. He has helped several U.S. nationals and residents enter Uzbekistan, but for Afghans it is almost impossible. “The Uzbeks have their army deployed to stop people,” he told VOA. “There is a wide river and some Afghans made rafts out of plastic bottles and tried to cross,” he says.

They did not succeed.

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