How one activist was smuggled out of Afghanistan: ‘There were dozens of Taliban checkpoints’
As the Taliban continues its campaign against activists in Afghanistan, countless Afghans have attempted to escape the country, either by land or air. The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a women’s rights activist who, fearing retribution from the Taliban, made the desperate decision to cross the border out of Afghanistan as soon as the militant group descended on Kabul on August 15, with the help of a smuggler. She told us her story.
Since the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021, tens of thousands of Afghans have fled the country. The Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul has been a scene of chaos for more than a week, as foreign governments frantically evacuate their embassy staff and Afghan auxiliaries.
Foreign governments have been facilitating the evacuation of Afghans who worked directly with their embassies or military forces. However, Afghan activists who have worked around the country with NGOs and associations dedicated to human rights, democracy and the protection of minority groups, such as women, have faced greater obstacles.
The Taliban have set up checkpoints on roads within Kabul, throughout the country, and at border crossings. Witnesses say they have been screening names at these checkpoints to find activists and individuals who have collaborated with foreign governments, making it near impossible for people at risk to travel around the country or reach the airport. The UN refugee agency UNHCR said on August 20 that Afghans at risk from the Taliban have “no clear way out” of the country.
The Taliban has also ramped up its offensive against Afghan journalists and activists seen as posing a threat to the Islamist group’s regime. Witnesses across Afghanistan report that Taliban fighters have already begun conducting targeted searches for people on their blacklist.
>> Read more on The Observers: ‘I knew they’d come for us': Afghan journalists, activists report Taliban reprisals
Some desperate activists fearing reprisals from the Taliban had to act quickly when the militant group descended upon Kabul on August 15.
‘I was able to find a smuggler with the help of some friends’
Nahid (not her real name) is an Afghan women’s rights activist who was living in Kabul. She has received multiple threats from the Taliban over the years, and moved quickly to leave the country with her children when she heard the group had surrounded the Afghan capital.
The first thing I did the morning that I heard the Taliban had occupied Kabul [on August 15] was to go to the market and buy a chador [Editor’s note: an Islamic scarf that covers the hair and body] since I knew it would be impossible to move around without one. I knew that everything the Taliban would say about people’s safety is a lie: I knew I had to save my life and protect my children’s safety.
I was able to find a smuggler with the help of some friends. He told me I would have to get to Kandahar myself [Editor’s note: a 500 km journey] and we would have to pay 10,000 Afghanis [around €100] for each person. The price is usually between 10,000 and 17,000 Afghanis for each person [between €100 and €170].
The banks were closed so we couldn’t get our money. We just ran with the little we had in our pockets. Most people are like us, they had no money. Many of the Afghan refugees are in the same situation and they have nothing, they just live in the mosques and depend on local people for donations.
Now - People line up outside closed banks in Kabul to take out money pic.twitter.com/GxSPDV1iOf— Muslim Shirzad (@MuslimShirzad) August 24, 2021
‘Each time they stopped us and checked us, I would have a panic attack’
I took a car to go to Kandahar, and on the road, there were dozens of Taliban checkpoints. I don’t know how many there were, but each time they stopped us and checked us, I would have a panic attack, seeing their beards and terrifying AK-47s. They treated people savagely, opening up and searching through their suitcases at midnight. The entire way, I didn’t take off my chador, for fear of the Taliban. I was afraid that at any moment they would point at me and say ‘Get out of the car.’ I didn’t have any documents with me and I had reset my cellphone so I would have no information anywhere on me.
Taliban have set up checkpoints in Kandahar pic.twitter.com/OLF3O8AJnn— امارت اسلامی اردو (@EIAUrdu) August 21, 2021
When we got to the city, the smuggler came to pick us up. He had connections with the Taliban and they knew him, so we could pass through the next checkpoints without raising suspicions and being checked by the fighters.
When we reached the border post, there was an ocean of people there – it was like every person in Afghanistan was there. I saw some families get split up at the border, children lost their parents. In the first days of Taliban control, the borders were not as restricted as they are today. The smuggler gave us some ID cards so that the Pakistani guards would let us onto their territory. We didn’t eat for a day, we didn’t drink water all day, it was hot, it was hell on earth.
Several days after the Taliban takeover, Pakistani officials increased controls on their side of a major border checkpoint with Afghanistan at Torkham, saying they made the vetting process at the border more strict in order to keep disguised militants from crossing.
The Taliban has been taking control of major border crossings around Afghanistan since July. However, several thousand Afghans were able to cross the border into Pakistan shortly after the group captured Kabul.
Everything we have worked for for 20 years just went up in smoke, we made a life trying to make a good country for our children and it all was for nothing. Now I’m in a safer place in Pakistan, and that’s why I have decided to talk openly, to say what happened to me and what is happening to my countrymen under the Taliban regime.
But, I cannot stay here either. First, because I am here illegally and the Pakistani government does nothing to support us. On the other hand, it’s dangerous: there have been multiple terrorist attacks here too [Editor’s note: the Pakistani Taliban, a Pakistani group with links to the Afghan Taliban, is currently active in the city Nahid is staying in]. I need to go somewhere where my kids can move around freely with no fear, where they can continue their studies, somewhere we can work. The international community must help us.
Close to 1.5 million Afghan refugees fled to neighbouring Pakistan in 2020, according to UNHCR. On August 17, 2021, the UN refugee agency issued a non-return advisory, calling for a ban on forced returns of Afghan refugees who have their asylum claims rejected.