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Afghanistan adieu: Battle to evacuate friends, colleagues and staff from Kabul as Taliban tightens grip


Susan Marx is a South African-American international human rights practitioner who lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2007-2010. She specialises in gender-based violence, anti-human trafficking, rule of law and other human rights programmes. She holds an MSt in International Human Rights Law from Oxford University, an MA from UCLA, and a BA from the University of Southern California. She has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Solomon Islands, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. She currently works in Eswatini and lives in Pretoria, South Africa, from where she continues to assist in evacuation attempts for her colleagues and staff from Kabul.

My days are filled with desperate emails and WhatsApp messages from colleagues and staff such as my former chowkidar (a male domestic servant), who has three kids the same age as mine, to female judges and human rights activists, pleading for me to help them get out of Afghanistan. Many have a Taliban bounty on their head. I add them to a database of names in the desperate hope that they make it on to some list.

Last week, the United States officially withdrew the last of its troops from Afghanistan 20 years after invading the country in retribution for the 9/11 attacks. Along with its armies, diplomats, and contractors, the administration also withdrew the hope of thousands of Afghans who have spent the past two decades reimagining their lives, based largely on the promise that Afghanistan would not be abandoned again.

The betrayal of this promise has been captured by the poignant footage of Afghans apparently falling off a US military aircraft as it takes off from the Hamid Karzai International Airport, reminiscent of the photo of the helicopter above the US embassy in Saigon, Vietnam during America’s last ignoble retreat.

While this image has been etched into our memories, a far less visible movement has been running behind the scenes since the announcement of the impending withdrawal in which private citizens around the world are cooperating to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans who are at risk of retribution from the Taliban. The effort has been dubbed the “Digital Dunkirk” in reference to the infamous World War 2 evacuation of Allied troops from the French port of Dunkirk in which private fishing and pleasure boats assisted with evacuating troops from the damaged harbour after British military ships were unable to do so.

The current effort was initially led by military veterans who served in Afghanistan to evacuate their translators and immediate family, but the group soon grew to include over 1,500 members, including former diplomats, humanitarian aid workers and journalists to find ways of getting colleagues, staff, and their families out of Afghanistan before the Taliban could get to them.

Today, there is an entire generation of Afghans who have grown up without the scars of Taliban rule, who reigned over most of the country between 1996-2001 and imposed a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic canonical) law. During the Taliban’s previous reign, they frequently used beheadings, mass executions, forced marriage, and other unimaginable human rights violations to maintain power.

I moved to Afghanistan in early 2007, after a year doing humanitarian work in another US-led war in Iraq. Afghanistan in 2007 was awash in the hopes and dreams about what the development efforts led by the US and the Nato alliance would bring to those who longed for an education, opportunity, and freedom — none more so than the roughly 20 million women who had been brutally oppressed by the Taliban.

I initially worked for a French NGO as a humanitarian aid worker covering the northern regions of Afghanistan, based out of the historic city of Mazar-i-Sharif. There, I helped to build shelters for the thousands of Afghans returning from refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran where many had spent the better part of 30 years hiding from various wars and other problems plaguing their beloved homeland.

When I encountered these returning families, I was always struck by the feeling of relief that they were finally able to return home, though most of them had lost access to their ancestral land in the decades they spent cooped up in refugee camps abroad. I remember often contemplating the choices that Afghans had to make to end up where they were — either in a shelter in their own country, void of land, access to jobs or family, or, alternatively stuck in a refugee camp in a quasi-hostile country for years, and sometimes decades, in some citizenry twilight zone with the only silver lining being that they had escaped the Taliban. It always seemed like such an impossible choice — yet one all too familiar to Afghans.

I eventually moved to Kabul to work on women’s rights. Specifically, expanding a coalition of male supporters of women’s rights by partnering with reform-minded Islamic religious leaders to spread a more moderate message of women’s rights, even if we did not always refer to it as such, opting for more culturally acceptable terms like “happy families” and other forms of education. Working closely with local clerics to draft appropriate material for their Afghan audience, we were able to introduce concepts of the importance of educating girls, of women being able to work because it increased household income and the general wellbeing of the family, of other notions of equality — maintaining a careful Islamic approach to it.

Back then, I lived in a house in the Taimani neighbourhood of Kabul with my UN-employed husband. We moved about the city and the country relatively freely, even though we did not drive ourselves, and I always wore a traditional scarf loosely draped around my face to cover my blonde hair. We dined at several restaurants and hosted elaborate dinners prepared with a combination of ingredients from the local market and that which we managed to smuggle in our hand luggage (such as mushrooms, cilantro, and cranberries for our annual Thanksgiving). Highlights included hosting a US four-Star general and the civilian head of Nato, alongside female Afghan judges and a former Taliban fighter; a dinner hosting the head of a UN agency; and our epic Thanksgiving dinners for over 50 guests — including many Americans who had not celebrated a traditional Thanksgiving in decades.

By this time, especially in Kabul, many women were working either in government or for the expansive NGO and private sector. They were earning their own income, delaying marriage, and in many instances shunning the more restrictive sharia law promoted by the Taliban who took control of their country and their freedom for nearly a decade at that point.  

By the time I arrived in Kabul, security had already started deteriorating with a growing insurgency. Suicide bombings were rare before 2005 but increased steadily every year since then. In 2008, there were attacks on both the UN compound in Mazar-e-Sharif and the luxury Serena Hotel which was attacked by a group of militants in a complex attack using suicide vests and weapons to terrorise the patrons of the hotel and spa (some of whom were our friends) for hours before the situation was brought under control.

The reality on the ground though is despite tens of thousands of Afghans trying to flee during the chaotic withdrawal, only the lucky and connected ones made it through, with many paying with their lives including a family member of my husband’s former driver.

During these years, several aid workers and journalist friends were kidnapped or killed, and I had my first taste (literally) of explosives when the Indian embassy was attacked in July 2008 in a suicide bomb that occurred at 08h30 mere blocks from where I was working at my desk in the NGO office. Cleaning the shattered glass off my desk and floor, I appreciated then why we always applied a thick plastic cling film to all our office and residential windows.

While these internationally linked events made headlines and resulted in the ever-tightening security controls on Western diplomats and aid workers around the country, Afghans, and especially Afghan women, soldiered on. They had, for all the challenges in the country at the time, won hard-fought freedoms of studying, working, and travelling. As compared to the strict Islamic law imposed by the Taliban, which required women to wear a burqa, a garment even more conservative than that of any of the neighbouring countries, in which not even the eyes are visible, and restricting women from leaving the home, except if escorted by a male relative, with harsh physical punishment and even death for bringing “shame” onto a family. Afghan women were hard at work to turn things around.

During my time in Afghanistan, I watched as women blazed a new future professionally, academically, and in sports. Women took up mountaineering, skateboarding and even cycling — all activities they were previously not only banned from doing but would likely lead to summary execution by their Taliban rulers. The US-led invasion and the subsequent influx of aid money, international workers, job opportunities, expanding academic and other freedoms allowed educated Afghans to forget, and women and young Afghans to dream.

Like so many of my colleagues, I have spent the better part of the past two weeks trying desperately to add these Afghans to evacuation lists of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy — and quite frankly anyone else who would take them. Some are being processed as close as Uganda, however, South Africa for its part recently denied entry to 126 Afghan refugees, which according to the anti-human trafficking NGO Exitus, is akin to Pretoria “signing [their] death certificates” and prompting legal action against the government.

Meanwhile, my days are still filled with desperate emails and WhatsApp messages from colleagues and staff such as my former chowkidar, who has three kids the same age as mine, to female judges and human rights activists, pleading for me to help them get out, many explaining that they have a bounty on their head by the Taliban. I tell them that I cannot promise them anything, but I add them to a database of names in the desperate hope that they make it on to some list.

The reality on the ground though is despite tens of thousands of Afghans trying to flee during the chaotic withdrawal, only the lucky and connected ones made it through, with many paying with their lives including a family member of my husband’s former driver.

With Kabul airport now fully controlled by the Taliban, no one yet knows if or when flights will resume — and there are reports that the Taliban is currently preventing six stranded evacuation flights from leaving the airport in Mazar-i-Sharif. Additionally, reports of beheadings, taking girls as sex slaves, acid attacks and other abuses on those suspected to have worked with the Americans, are surfacing in the media, and the more personal ones on our coordination pages.

And all we can do is to continue to respond to the pleas from friends and colleagues, to pass on messages about potential escapes through land borders into neighbouring countries, hoping desperately that the Taliban does not intercept communications.

But the events of the past few weeks are taking a toll. Our terrified Afghan colleagues are now in hiding in their houses in Kabul and elsewhere, with instructions to upload any important documents to the cloud and burn hard copies, and to delete any social media profiles and contact details to any foreign-sounding names on their phones. They are running out of money and food and being visited by the Taliban who are asking pointed questions.

Those who were lucky enough to get out of the airport are now stuck in limbo in places like Qatar, Tajikistan and several other locations with the prospect of having to spend two or more years there as refugees before other countries will allow them in, while those left behind contemplate the new normal.

For those of us on the outside, we feel burned out as we neglect our own wellbeing and families in the process. Since working on this effort, I have refrained from social media updates, including of our first post-Covid trip to see my husband’s family in the US for the first time in two years. Somehow a photo of my kids on a rollercoaster in Wisconsin seems insensitive and serves as a reminder of my privilege to move around freely. Instead, hundreds of us continue to play a perverted Schindler role, keeping a list of hopeful Afghans and trying to assist in determining the merit of an individual’s case.

Where does all this leave not only the dedicated Afghans who worked with “us” to further the cause of a project or belief, but what about those who were sold into a promise of a new normal? How does that young woman who attended Kabul University, followed up by an international study abroad programme to the US or Europe, and culminating in a job at an international NGO or the UN, but who chose to return to her beloved Afghanistan to help to build it, survive now?

Despite an extensive PR campaign by the Taliban proclaiming moderation, including that they will allow girls to be educated and women to work, the Taliban is not an entity that should be trusted. While they claim moderation to the media, word on the street is that house searches have already begun to find those individuals who collaborated with the US and other foreign allies. This places all our former colleagues in direct harm, and we have a moral obligation to assist.

How do we continue to try and promise hope to those that we have so cruelly abandoned and left behind with nothing but a broken dream of freedom and democracy after 20 years of lies by the US and others? What do we say to our Afghan friends who now have no choice but to try and leave, but who will never stop loving Afghanistan?

In memoriam and in peace. Salaam Alaikum. DM


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