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7 February 2022

Afghans who fled to Pakistan now find their lives blocked at every turn

Refugees from the country know they were lucky to escape the Taliban, but now find themselves homeless, stateless and broke.

By Lynne O'Donnell

ISLAMABAD – In a small hotel on the upper floors of a commercial centre in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, a group of Afghans that fled from Kabul after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan are anxiously waiting to restart their lives.

They hardly sleep, they say, and are often ill from the stress, the food, the change in climate. These five families, some of them with three generations, were evacuated from Kabul with the help of a Canadian charity, between 15 and 25 September, and came only with what they could carry.

They are running out of money – like all Afghans, they have not been able to access their own bank accounts due to Western sanctions on financial dealings with the Taliban. They have already violated the terms of their one-year Pakistan visas, which require them to leave the country every two months.

“We have nowhere to go,” said 25-year-old Mosawer, who asked that his surname not be used. He said they cannot even use local Sim cards as registration is linked to a number allotted to them by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) when they applied for refugee status. “When the visa expires, everything is blocked,” he said.

They are among some 300,000 to 400,000 Afghans who have come to neighbouring Pakistan since the Afghan republic collapsed. They’re hoping for resettlement in Canada or the US, but have no idea how long their limbo will last.

Among them is Khatera Ahmadi, 24. She was newly married when her life as a presenter and producer at Zan TV came to an end. “Zan” means “woman” in Afghanistan’s main languages, Dari and Pashto. The station was run by and for women.

It was closed down almost immediately when the Taliban took power on 15 August 2021 and began enforcing strict controls on women, effectively scrubbing them from public life. Ahmadi thought it best to heed the death threats she had been receiving for more than a year.

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Sitting on an overstuffed sofa and sipping thick, sweet Pakistani chai, Ahmadi searched her phone for the letter her family back in Kabul received a couple of weeks ago from the Taliban. In it, they accused Ahmadi of misleading the public about their true nature, of being associated with the “Western era”, for which they said she will never be forgiven. “We will kill you,” she read from the letter.

She had a miscarriage in November, she said, “because of the stress”. As she talked, her husband, Abdullah Khan Khaleqyar, gazed at her, then looked at his feet.

[See also: Afghanistan under the Taliban: “We’re going to see death on a large scale this winter”]

The Taliban regularly killed professional and high-profile women, as well as journalists, rights advocates, government employees and anyone perceived to be against its brand of Islamist extremism. This brutality escalated after a bilateral agreement was signed with the then-US president, Donald Trump. He pledged a military drawdown that effectively ensured the Taliban’s victory after 20 years of insurgency.

The repression has continued under the Taliban’s interim government. The UN says that at least six rights activists have disappeared in recent weeks. Afghans inside and outside the country believe many more people have been arbitrarily detained, tortured or killed, some just for their ethnicity or religion.

Nasir Kaihan is a Shia Muslim from the Hazara minority. He was educated in the US, and was working with the UN’s Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) – each alone enough to earn him a Taliban disappearance, if not a death sentence. He said that after being evacuated from Kabul by the UN in late September, he got tired of being overcharged for miserable guest-house accommodation in Islamabad and so has rented a flat for his family of four.

Now homeless, stateless, unemployed and awaiting resettlement, he said he was determined not to make the same mistake his father did the last time the Islamists were in power, from 1996 to 2001. “He was younger and had all his energy and he wanted to invest it in Afghanistan,” Kaihan, 34, said.

Instead, the father saw Nasir, his eldest son, become a religious extremist thanks to the Taliban school curriculum. His two daughters missed out on education altogether.

“I would learn basic numeracy by counting bullets,” Kaihan said. Reading was recitation of jihadist slogans. History lessons were about the violent end met by one ruler after another. His oldest sister, now 37 and married with three children, finally graduated from high school last year.

“The same pattern still continues. That’s why my dad was so into immigrating this time, because he would see my children facing the same fate as I did in the Nineties: my daughter dropping out of school, my son getting exposed to extremist content at school. This situation is not acceptable.”

Now the sole supporter of his family – his father, his 18-year-old twin brothers, two other siblings now in hiding, as well as his wife and two children aged seven and five – Kaihan watches his savings dwindle as he waits to hear if he has been accepted for a fellowship at an American university.

[See also: “What have we got ourselves into?” The hotel that became home to 150 Afghan refugees]

Life in Pakistan is expensive, with inflation soaring to 13 per cent in January, up from 12.3 per cent in December, according to official figures. Unemployment is over 4 per cent.

Many Afghans say they are overcharged for accommodation, their desperation taken advantage of. There are few jobs for locals, let alone for outsiders who do not speak Urdu and don’t really want to settle.

Those who have made it out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan know they are among the lucky few, yet they fret for family left behind. Retribution is collective and their relatives are vulnerable.

A glimmer of hope emerged this week, with news that evacuation flights will soon resume after a two-month suspension, during which time, Afghan sources said, Taliban gunmen searched for safehouses in Kabul and other cities, looking for people waiting to escape.

Azizullah Shinwari, 52, said he has seen it all before. “When I was 16, my family came to Peshawar to escape the [Soviet] war,” he said, cradling his two-year-old grandson in the hotel he and his family have lived in for almost five months.

“I never thought this would happen again. We are living in the same situation, facing a dark future. I’m worried about my son, my grandchildren. It would be good if we could get resettled soon, and life could start again,” he said.

[See also: Afghanistan shows the dream of remaking the world is over]

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