Hundreds queue for passports in bid to leave Afghanistan

 and agencies

The Guardian
Sun 19 Dec 2021 08.49 EST

Crowds brave sub-zero temperatures after Taliban announces it will resume issuing travel documents

A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint as people queue to enter the passport office in Kabul
A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint as people queue to enter the passport office in Kabul on Sunday. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of people have braved sub-zero temperatures in Afghanistan’s capital to queue outside the passport office, a day after the Taliban government announced it would resume issuing travel documents.

Many began their wait the previous night and most stood patiently in single file – some desperate to leave the country for medical treatment, others to escape the Islamists’ renewed rule. Tense Taliban personnel periodically charged crowds that formed at the front of the queue and at a nearby roadblock.

“We don’t want any suicide attack or explosion to happen,” said a Taliban security operative, Ajmal Toofan, 22, expressing concerns about the dangers of crowding.

The local branch of the Islamic State group, the Taliban’s principal enemy, killed more than 150 people in late August when citizens massed at Kabul airport in a desperate effort to leave during the early days of the new regime.

“Our responsibility here is to protect people,” Toofan added, his gun pointed towards the ground. “But the people are not cooperating.”

He spoke to Agence France-Presse as one of his colleagues pushed a man, who then fell headlong just short of a coil of barbed wire.

Mohammed Osman Akbari, 60, said he was urgently trying to reach Pakistan because dilapidated hospitals at home were unable to complete his heart surgery. Medics “put springs in my heart”, he said, referring to a stent. “They need to be removed and it’s not possible here.”

People queue to enter the passport office at a checkpoint in Kabul
People queue to enter the passport office at a checkpoint in Kabul. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Nearby, ambulances containing people too sick to queue were parked at the side of the road. “The patient has a heart problem,” said an ambulance driver, Muslim Fakhri, 21, referring to a 43-year-old man lying on a stretcher inside his vehicle. An applicant had to be present to ensure the passport is issued, he explained.

‘No one cares’

The Taliban initially stopped issuing passports shortly after their return to power, which came as the previous, western-backed regime imploded in the final stages of a US military withdrawal. In October, authorities reopened the passport office in Kabul only to suspend work days later as a flood of applications caused the biometric equipment to break down.

The office said on Saturday that the issue has been resolved and people whose applications were already being processed could get their documents.

Mursal Rasooli, 26, said she was happy to hear the news. “The situation here is not peaceful,” she told AFP, hugging her two-year-old daughter Bibi Hawa to protect her against the biting cold. “If the situation gets worse than this, then we have the passport” and could flee, she said.

Her husband is in Iran because he could not find work, she added, before expressing concern about skyrocketing prices and a lack of jobs and education for women and girls.

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Issuing passports – and allowing people to leave amid a humanitarian crisis the UN has called an “avalanche of hunger” – is seen as a test of the Taliban’s commitment to the international community.

The Taliban are pressing donors to restore billions of dollars in aid that was suspended when they came to power. A local musician, Omid Naseer, sporting a leather jacket, short beard and unkempt hair, was desperate to leave. For “months now, since the Taliban came [to power], we’ve had no work”, he said. “The artists are most vulnerable, but no one cares.”

Meanwhile, Muslim nations resolved on Sunday to work with the United Nations to try to unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen Afghan assets in a bid to tackle a growing humanitarian crisis.

At a special meeting in Pakistan of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) delegates said they would work “to unlock the financial and banking channels to resume liquidity and flow of financial and humanitarian assistance”.

The meeting was the biggest conference on Afghanistan since the US-backed government fell in August and the Taliban returned to power.

Martin Griffiths, the secretary general of the UN’s humanitarian affairs agency, told the meeting: “We need continued constructive engagement with the de facto authorities in a process of meaningful dialogue to clarify what we expect of each other.

“The consequences of inaction are clear: Afghanistan will collapse, people will run out of hope, and the region – and indeed the world – will see destabilisation increase. Afghanistan’s economy is now in freefall and if we don’t act decisively and with compassion, I fear this fall will pull the entire population with it.

“Twenty-three million people are already facing hunger; health facilities are overflowing with malnourished children; some 70% of teachers are not getting paid and millions of children – Afghanistan’s future – are out of school.

“The value of the Afghani currency is plummeting, trade is wrecked by lack of confidence in the financial sector, and the space for borrowing and investment has constricted dramatically.”

A draft roadmap of the steps the Taliban need to take before sanctions are lifted has been drawn up and has the support of Germany and Qatar. It is likely to be raised on the margins of a meeting in London on Monday between the British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Hundreds queue for passports in bid to leave Afghanistan