‘Lay low and stay home’: The only option for Afghans targeted by Taliban

More than a week after the Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul, Afghans are still desperately trying to find ways to leave the country, by land or air. For Afghan social activists, who are particularly at risk of being targeted by the Taliban, the prospect of leaving the country has become more and more remote. 

A photo posted on August 19 on pro-Taliban social networks shows a group of Taliban fighters in uniform in the provincial capital of Qalat.
A photo posted on August 19 on pro-Taliban social networks shows a group of Taliban fighters in uniform in the provincial capital of Qalat. © Observers

Afghans who worked around the country for NGOs and associations promoting democracy and rights for groups like women, ethnic minorities and the disabled face a triple challenge. First, they have to get to Kabul without being caught by the Taliban. Then they have to get a letter from a foreign government giving them a place on an evacuation flight. Then they have to physically get to the airport. 

The Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul has been a scene of chaos this week as foreign countries continue conducting evacuations of their embassy staff and Afghan auxiliaries. The United States says it has evacuated – or helped evacuate – around 37,000 people since the Taliban takeover. 

Thousands of people have been flocking to the airport, frantically trying to get on a flight out of Afghanistan before the deadline for US troops to fully withdraw on August 31. 

While the US and other allied governments have set up evacuation procedures for Afghans who worked directly for them, activists have to use whatever foreign connections they have to get papers giving them seats on planes leaving Kabul. 

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People in Kabul have been facing armed troops, barbed wire and Taliban checkpoints, as well as a complicated evacuation procedure, before they are able to get on a flight.  

Taliban fighters man a checkpoint in Kabul.

Meanwhile, the danger posed to activists in Afghanistan is ramping up, as the Taliban has begun targeting individuals who are seen as a threat to its regime. Our Observers around Afghanistan have reported that Taliban fighters are conducting door-to-door searches to find individuals on their blacklists. 

The Taliban is even going to local mosques and talking to police officers to collect information on activists. 

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Fearing reprisals from the Taliban, activists around Afghanistan continue to hide out, as opportunities to leave the country remain difficult.

‘All the border control posts are closed’

Shahin, a human rights activist, made the journey from his town in northern Afghanistan to Kabul.

Until last week, I didn’t even want to leave my hometown for Kabul, but now, the only thing I can think about is how to leave Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter where I go, I just can’t stay here. I don’t want to give the Taliban the pleasure of killing me. 

I have asked for a visa from multiple countries, but none of them has answered me yet. I even checked the roads with some friends who live near the borders with Pakistan and Iran. But all the border control posts are closed. Only merchandise can move in or out of Afghanistan, not people. There are some people that have gone to border posts only to get stuck there. 

On the other hand, going to Kabul airport is useless too. No one can get on a plane, and there’s chaos around the airport: you can get injured, or even killed. On top of that, there are Taliban checkpoints on the road. 

The only option I see now is to just lay low and stay home.

‘My only viable option at the time was to go to Kabul’

Zafar, another human rights activist, is hiding out in Kabul after making the journey from his hometown.

When the Taliban occupied my region, I had to run away. I was well-known in my town for my human rights work and speaking openly against the Taliban. My only viable option at the time was to go to Kabul since I thought that Ghani’s government and the US would do anything to defend it. I thought I would be safe there, but no, a day later, the Taliban took Kabul. Now I feel naive to trust them, even that little bit. If I’d known they would betray us like this, I would have gone the other way, close to the border, and found a smuggler to get me out of the country, just like many others did at the time. But now I’m stuck here and I can’t even leave my friend’s house.

The Taliban is also in control of all the major official border crossing points, making land crossings particularly difficult for those attempting to flee the country. With the Taliban in control of regional airports and patrolling roads, it’s close to impossible for targeted activists and journalists to move through the country in hopes of reaching the airport. 

Although some activists were able to reach Kabul before the capital fell to the Taliban, others are still trapped in their towns, fearing imminent searches by Taliban fighters. 

‘It’s been more than a week that I’m hiding here. I’m out of food and money’

In eastern Afghanistan, Ariana, a human rights activist, was not able to leave her town before the arrival of the Taliban. She is now in hiding:

I have a disability, so as soon as I come out of hiding, the Taliban will recognise me and arrest me. I’m sick – I can’t ask people to come and help me because it’s dangerous, not only for me if the Taliban follow them to me, but for them as well. It’s been more than a week that I’m hiding here. I’m out of food and money. Even if I take the risk and come out of hiding, the banks are closed and I can’t get the money I need to do some urgent errands. I can’t see a doctor either. I’m just waiting here to die.