Desperate Afghans still await flights to flee Taliban

By: AFP      Published: 12:22 PM, 9 Sep, 2021
Desperate Afghans still await flights to flee Taliban
File photo of Afghan women on Kabul streets.

When thousands of Afghans hoping to escape the incoming Taliban regime were cut off from Kabul airport last month, many started searching for alternative ways to flee.

Hundreds made a daring dash for the airport at Mazar-i-Sharif -- a city some 300 kilometres (185 miles) to the north on a route that had become punctuated with Taliban checkpoints.

Some managed to board charter planes crowdfunded by individuals and businesses, but many others are still waiting for permission. 

"Several hundred more are waiting in Mazar-i-Sharif," said Nama Vanier, from development and research firm Sayara, who has secured private funding for two Airbus A340 passenger jets for 680 Afghans.

"They are people from aid agencies, people who worked for foreign companies and journalists -- including a female reporter who suffered an assassination attempt," she added.

Vanier, who successfully helped 51 Afghans and their families board flights from Kabul, said the holdup often came from Washington. 

"It is our impression that, if there was strong support from the American authorities, the Taliban would be accommodating," said Vanier.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was working round the clock to facilitate the flights, but had limited on-ground resources.

"We've made clear to the Taliban –- that these charters need to be able to depart," he said Wednesday.

He said the United States was also pressing the Taliban to reopen Kabul airport for civilian flights so that those who want to can leave Afghanistan safely.

- 'Cheated' -

Marina LeGree, from women's rights group Ascend Athletics, is trying to evacuate a group of young Afghan women and their families. "Nothing is moving," she said. "We feel sold out."

Eric Montalvo, a former US soldier and lawyer involved in the evacuation attempt from Mazar-i-Sharif, accused the United States of failing to deliver the paperwork needed for the Afghans to leave.

A frenzied two-week international airlift operation out of Kabul saw more than 123,000 foreign nationals and Afghans evacuated, before the last US soldier flew out ahead of an August 31 deadline to end their 20-year war.

Farid Ahmadi had been due to fly out on August 26 but hours before his flight, an Islamic State-Khorasan suicide bomber detonated outside the airport, killing scores of people.

In the middle of the night, Ahmadi got a call telling him to go to Mazar-i-Sharif instead.

He gathered his colleagues and their families, and together crowded onto a bus for a nine-hour ride.

Taliban soldiers stopped the bus several times on its slow journey.

"We told them we were going to a wedding," Ahmadi said. "All the families were afraid. The children weren't talking, they weren't playing."

Arriving in Mazar-i-Sharif, they laid low for three days.

Then, just hours before the last US soldiers left Afghanistan, Ahmadi's group got the green light, and their plane took off.

- International effort -

Behind the Mazar-i-Sharif flights lay a remarkable effort, sometimes down to the coordination of just a handful of determined individuals.

"We had friends, former colleagues, people who were at risk, who asked us for help -- but they were not on the lists of embassies," said Clemence Qint from Magenta, a consultancy company providing governance advice.

"So we started working on our own evacuations."

Facebook chartered one to airlift its employees, and others needing help.

"In the process of assisting Facebook employees and close partners to leave Afghanistan, we joined an effort to help a group of journalists and their families who were in grave danger," the social media giant said in a statement.

Mexico said it would welcome 175 Afghans, including more than 100 from the communications group that owns Tolo News, who plan to continue on to the United States.

"We spent three days telling each other that the flight was going to leave... then there was a bureaucratic barrier, an administrative barrier, or because someone didn't pick up their phone," said Qint.

Farid Ahmadi described the relief when the wheels of his plane finally took off from Mazar-i-Sharif.

"Everyone was crying," he said. "No one could believe we had done it."

Afghans fear for jobs and money

As a nurse at one of Kabul's main hospitals, Latifa Alizada was the breadwinner for her family, providing for her three young boys and unemployed husband.

Now -- since the Taliban rolled into Afghanistan's capital -- she too is jobless, and worried about the future.

The 27-year-old left her role at Jamhuriat Hospital because the hardline Islamist group said salaries would not be paid, and imposed rules that would force her to wear a face veil and be segregated from male colleagues. 

"I have left my job because there is no salary. There is no salary at all," she said, holding the hands of two of her boys who chewed on sweetcorn cobs.

"If I go there, they say 'do not work with this style of dress. Do not work with men. Work with women'. This is impossible," she told AFP at a street market in Kabul.

"For us, there is no difference between men and women, because we are medical workers."

Afghans like Alizada worry about what lies ahead under the Taliban.

Food prices have gone up at markets, the cost of fuel has risen and there are fewer opportunities to make money.

The United Nations this week warned prices for essential goods were soaring in Afghanistan, adding: "There are fears of food shortages, higher inflation, and a slump in the currency all resulting in an intensification of the humanitarian emergency across the country."

Many  government services are no longer functioning, while the international community -- which has long propped up the aid-dependent economy -- hesitates over funding Afghanistan

- Cash in short supply -

In some sectors that are operating, the Taliban have offered wildly different salaries.

A former customs official, who did not want to be named for security reasons, told AFP he had worked at the Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan for more than seven years.

Under the previous government he earned about $240 per month, but the Taliban said they would pay him just $110.

"It is up to you if you want to continue your job, or quit," the Taliban told him.

The official said he resigned after weighing up his salary against the cost of the long commute to work.

The sight of big crowds queueing to get into banks to access cash is now commonplace across Afghanistan

The country's central bank only has access to a fraction of its usual financing, cut off from the international banking system and access to the country's foreign currency reserves.

It means cash is in short supply and the Taliban are enforcing a withdrawal limit of $200 per person each week.

In the capital on Wednesday about 150 men jostled in the midday sun outside a branch of Kabul Bank, where government employees under the last administration held accounts.

An armed security guard clutched an electric cable to use as a whip in case the crowd grew too boisterous as they queued for one of the two ATMs. 

Abdullah told AFP he travelled overnight from the northeastern province of Takhar, which borders Tajikistan, to get to the branch at the crack of dawn -- and he was still at the back of the queue at noon.

- Worried about the future -

"The problem is that after the collapse of the government, all the banks were closed," the 31-year-old former army commando said.

He told AFP that some soldiers like him could not access their salaries in the months leading up to the Taliban takeover in mid-August. 

"I was at my post for three or four months. My salary was in the bank and I couldn't get it," he said.

Other members of the security forces complained of not getting paid at all in the months leading up to the Taliban takeover.   

A kitchenware shopkeeper in the capital, who did not want to give his name for security reasons, told AFP had no customers.

"Since the changes, all business has stopped," he said, sitting on a stool in front of his empty store.

"We are facing lots of problems. People are staying in their homes because there are no jobs. There is no-one to buy from us."

With high rents and next-to-no income, he worried about looking after his family of five.

"We cannot find the money to feed ourselves. People are concerned about how to find their meals, morning and night. Everyone is worried about their future."