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Since the Taliban arrived in Kabul on August 15, 2021, thousands of Afghans have tried to leave the country, by land or air. The Observers editorial staff spoke with a women’s rights activist who, fearing retaliation from the Taliban, decided to use the help of a smuggler to leave Afghanistan illegally. She recounts her journey through dozens of Taliban checkpoints.
Since the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021, tens of thousands of Afghans have fled the country. Foreign powers are trying to evacuate their nationals, as well as Afghan personnel who have worked for foreign embassies and armed forces, but chaos at the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport makes access difficult. Afghan activists with no direct connection to foreign powers, who have worked in NGOs for the defense of human rights, democracy and women’s rights, find it even more difficult to leave.
The Taliban have set up checkpoints on roads in Kabul and across the country, as well as at border posts. Witnesses say the Taliban are checking the names of people who pass by to find activists or people who have worked with foreign governments. United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said, on August 20, 2021, that “the vast majority of Afghans are unable to leave the country through regular channels”.
The Taliban have tightened the noose around journalists and activists considered a threat by the Islamist group. According to witnesses, they have already started conducting targeted searches to find people on their priority target list.
>> Read on the Observers website: “I knew they would come and get us”: Afghan activists hunted down by the Taliban
“I managed to find a smuggler with the help of my friends”
Nahid * is an Afghan women’s rights activist who lived in Kabul. She has received several threats from the Taliban in recent years. She tried to leave the country with her children as soon as she learned that the Islamist group had surrounded the capital.
The first thing I did when I heard that the Taliban had occupied Kabul [le 15 août] was to go to the market to buy a chador [grand voile couvrant la tête et le corps et laissant apparaître le visage, NDLR] because I knew that it would now be impossible to move around without it. I knew that everything the Taliban was going to say about keeping people safe was a lie: I knew I had to save my life and protect my children.
I managed to find a smuggler with the help of my friends. He told me I should go to Kandahar [à 500 km de Kaboul, NDLR] by my own means, and then had to pay 10,000 afghanis per person [environ 100 euros, NDLR]. The price is usually between 10,000 and 17,000 afghanis per person [entre 100 et 170 euros].
The banks were closed, so we couldn’t withdraw money. We left with what little we had in our pockets. Most people, like us, had no money. Many Afghan refugees are in the same situation and have nothing, they just live in mosques and depend on the generosity of local people.
Now – People line up outside closed banks in Kabul to take out money pic.twitter.com/GxSPDV1iOf
– Muslim Shirzad (@MuslimShirzad) August 24, 2021
These photos posted to Twitter on August 24, 2021 show a crowd of people lining up outside a bank in Kabul to try to withdraw money.
“Every time I checked, I was in a panic “
On the road to Kandahar, we passed dozens of Taliban checkpoints. Every time I checked, I was in a panic, seeing the beards and the AK-47s. They treated travelers like savages, opening and searching their suitcases at midnight. All the way, I did not take off my chador, for fear of the Taliban. I was afraid that all of a sudden they would point their finger at me and say, “Get out of the car!”. I had no papers with me and had reset my cell phone so they couldn’t find any information about me.
Taliban have set up checkpoints in Kandahar pic.twitter.com/OLF3O8AJnn
– امارت اسلامی اردو (@EIAUrdu) August 21, 2021
These photos of a checkpoint in Kandahar were posted on Twitter on August 21, 2021 by the Taliban’s Urdu Twitter account.
When we got to Kandahar, the smuggler came to get us. He had contacts among the Taliban, so we were able to pass through the checkpoints without raising suspicion or being checked by the fighters.
The border post was packed with people – it was as if all the people of Afghanistan were here. I saw families separated at the border, children who had lost their parents. In the first days after the arrival of the Taliban, the borders were not as tightly controlled as they are today. The smuggler gave us identity cards so that the Pakistani border guards would let us enter their territory. We had not eaten or drunk in a day, it was hot, it was hell on earth.
Several days after the Taliban arrived in Kabul, Pakistani authorities have strengthened controls at the border post in Torkhan, according to them to prevent the passage of militants dressed as civilians.
The Taliban have taken control of important border posts since July 2021. Several thousand Afghans nevertheless managed to cross the border with Pakistan shortly after August 15, 2021.
Everything we had worked for for 20 years has gone up in smoke. We have spent our lives trying to build a good country for our children to live in, all for nothing. Now I am safer in Pakistan which is why I have decided to speak openly about what happened to me and what is happening to my compatriots under the Taliban. But I can’t stay here. On the one hand, because I am here illegally and the Pakistani state is doing nothing to support us. On the other hand, because it’s dangerous: there have been several terrorist attacks here too [les Taliban pakistanais, un groupe pakistanais lié aux Taliban d’Afghanistan, est actif dans la ville où vit actuellement Nahid, NDLR]. I need to go somewhere where my children can move around freely without fear, where they can continue to go to school and find a job. The international community must help us.
About 1.4 million Afghan refugees fled to neighboring Pakistan in 2020, according to UNHCR. The United Nations Refugee Agency asked states on August 17, 2021 to stop deportations to Afghanistan refugees whose asylum applications have been refused.
* The first name has been changed.