I have spent a year helping people flee the Taliban: failure is traumatic, success bittersweet

The Guardian
31 August 2022

We are still trying to find ways to get visas – writing letters, appealing to governments – but the options are running out

It was past midnight on 9 August 2021, and I was immersed in writing when my phone pinged: a message from a contact at the Indian embassy in Kabul. They said the Indian mission in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif was evacuating and offered me a seat on the flight.

There were reports the city would collapse soon and fall to the Taliban. I had already left Mazar, but it was hard to imagine that this historic, metropolitan city could topple so easily. It was too well fortified, as I had witnessed during my recent reporting trip, with hundreds of Afghan forces patrolling its gates.

Concern for colleagues gnawed at me. As the US-led foreign troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan, an emboldened Taliban had been taking province after province. They captured Kabul, abandoned by its government, on 15 August and Afghanistan, and particularly its women, lost any semblance of freedom.

I checked in on a friend in Mazar – Dr Akbari, at heightened risk due to her work in reproductive rights among vulnerable women. Akbari had made enemies, in particular with a Taliban commander, by providing contraceptives to his 13-year-old bride, against his wishes.

Staying with Akbari I had witnessed the barrage of horrifying, threatening calls and messages; sometimes 10 in an evening. Yet, she would answer every unknown number, just in case it might be a woman seeking help.

“But what can I do? If I don’t answer the phone or go to work every day, who will help these women?” she said.

As the Taliban surrounded Mazar, Akbari answered one such call. It was the Taliban commander, letting her know they had entered the city and that he would kill her very soon.

In her hospital uniform, with $400 in her purse and her passport, Akbari went directly to the airport, without saying goodbyes to her family, just in time for the last flight out. The airport, she said, was filled with women trying to escape the Taliban.

The same day a young journalist left her home on foot. Much of her work had been critical of the Taliban and their fighters had been threatening to “punish” her.

As stories poured in over the next 24 hours, we tried to find support for Akbari and safe spaces for others in Kabul. Friends offered to hide women reaching Kabul. For those who had visas, we started booking tickets. One we booked was for 22 August, another 17 August – too late be of any use.

The makeshift safe house in Kabul, the last remaining bastion, was filling up as fast as the flights out of Kabul.

On 13 August, a friend in the US called to ask for a contact for a female lawyer in Afghanistan; the US government was putting together a list of Afghan women at risk and issuing them visas to leave “in the worst case scenario”.

All illusions shattered. It didn’t matter that we were bringing women to Kabul, because there was no contingency “in the worst case scenario”. We needed to mobilise, and fast.

I asked my friend to get a few more names to the US government for visas. He asked for a “list” – the first of many we would put together. We created an Excel sheet of more than 50 journalists, doctors, activists, lawyers, politicians. But we didn’t want to seem greedy, so sat down to figure out who to drop. It struck us as extremely wrong we had to decide who “deserved” their place the most. Eventually, we gave 12 names – 10 women and two men – who we believed were most at risk for their work protecting human rights. Several of those on that first list are still in grave danger.

In the next few days, there were several groups created on social media, and we learned of several “lists” being put together for various governments to get vulnerable people out. We started looking for activists, officials, parliamentarians, who could help persuade their governments to take in Afghans.

By the time the Taliban marched into Kabul, my living room was a war room. We were already working on several hundred cases – friends, colleagues, those we had met, people whose stories we had once told – all of whom faced grave risks for having dreamed of a different Afghanistan.

One of the first things we did was to ensure people could stay in communication with us and with loved ones. We sent online phone top-ups to their numbers to ensure they had internet access. Within hours, many Afghans – largely women who could no longer step outside into the chaos to get phone cards – asked for top-ups.

By the second day, we were sending out close to 200. The task grew increasingly unfeasible until the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) stepped in with financial support. Over the next two weeks, we issued phone top-ups to nearly 500 individuals, mostly women in the media on the run.

As we navigated bureaucracies, Afghans navigated Taliban checkpoints, and barricades placed by withdrawing troops. Through huge crowds, wading through muck and drains, pushing forward, at times with children in tow, we guided people to evacuation flights, sharing maps with real-time information about checkpoints gathered from crowdsourced security groups.

One close colleague tried more than 20 times to reach the airport only to be forced back by the foreign troops. He was spotted by a Taliban fighter who lashed him, injuring his eight-month-old baby. He and his wife, also a journalist, remain in hiding, waiting for asylum from any of the many countries whose governments and media they worked with.

On my phone are messages from Afghans, exhausted, frustrated, hurt, betrayed, sometimes determined, other times ready to give up – each one traumatic.

Those first few weeks, before the foreign forces and planes left, we spent every waking hour – and there weren’t enough of those – pleading and negotiating, finding any way to get people out. As news cameras remained focused on Afghanistan, we were able to attract support from governments and organisations, but as media attention panned away, so did the collective sympathy.

It felt as if we were leaving them behind, consigning them to a tragic fate in a miserable environment.

We are still trying to find ways to get people out; writing letters, appealing to governments and organisations. But if there were few options available to them in the past year, there are even fewer now.

The bulk of the work we did then, and still do, is writing letters, emails, statements, filling in forms and organising documents. I must have written more than 200 individual statements, aside from hundreds of emails pleading for support for individual cases and completing the endlessly complex bureaucratic forms. I had spent seven years living in Kabul, and many more reporting about Afghanistan. It was my second home, but it humbled me to realise the vast number of Afghans who I can confidently say were like family to me. As I sat down each day to write statements of the threat they faced, I felt the pressure of encapsulating the entirety of their experience into one page, in a way that will convey the worth of a life to warrant saving it.

It was painful knowing even a successful application meant a family leaving a life they had so carefully built, not knowing if they will return.

It can get extremely frustrating, but I’m reminded of how exceptionally brave and strong these women and men are, persisting in a society ruled by a group eager to stifle their voices. Their resilience inspires.

And what a bittersweet moment it is, when after months of work and advocacy, you wake up to a message: “I have arrived safely in [third country].”

  • Ruchi Kumar is a journalist formerly resident in Kabul
I have spent a year helping people flee the Taliban: failure is traumatic, success bittersweet