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Afghanistan: Fighting fear, finding freedom

As the hope of return and recovery dims, Afghans living in South India are left with anguish and anxiety, watching  the fate of their beloved homeland being rewritten by the Taliban 

Published: 08th September 2021 06:11 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th September 2021 10:00 AM   |  A+A-

Photo: AFP

By Express News Service

Life in Afghanistan will never be back to normal again, laments Abdul Malik*, an Afghan researcher at Kerala University, Thiruvananthapuram. As the world seems to be coming face to face with this realisation, with the return of the Taliban to a land that has faced terror and turbulence for too long, the truth hits harder for Afghans far from home. With their country setting the clock back by two decades, ‘home’ will never be the same for the generation that took wing in the pursuit of unrestrained dreams. 

Fear strikes

Abdul, living in Kerala since 2019, thinks going back home might remain a dream forever. While the situation in the Bamiyan Province, where he hails from, is not as bad as in Kabul, he says there is still reason to be scared. “People everywhere are scared of the Taliban regime. The Taliban is now in Afghanistan, and it is a reality. Though they are saying that they are there for everyone, they are targeting everyone. People are afraid for their future and somehow want to leave the country, which is very difficult at this point,” he says.

“‘The Taliban has mellowed down. They might not be brutal anymore’. News bulletins and articles nonchalantly mention this; people living far from my country turning the Taliban surge into a dinner-table conversation is amusing. What is mellow? What is not brutal about this reappearance?” asks 20-something Wazhma Hakim*, who has, over the years, made Chennai her home.

“I’ve always missed my family. But what usually keeps you going is the fact that they are safe wherever they are. Now, with the Taliban takeover, that thought has broken into pieces and I have been having sleepless nights,” shares Abed Khan*, who is pursuing his Masters degree in Chennai. The 21-year-old’s voice quivers in fear as he struggles to talk to us about his life and memories of home. “I have been living in anxiety since I heard of the Taliban’s advance. I fear for my life, my family’s safety. Isn’t it a curse when you can’t reveal your identity even though you are 2,000-odd kilometres away?” he questions, breaking down. 

The first thing Hakim Khan Hoshmand did after hearing about the Taliban taking over city after city on the way to the capital was to call home. According to the BTech student in Bengaluru, over 25 students are staying at the hostel, and all of them were collectively shocked. He was among the many who had planned on going back to the country soon. “My parents have gone into hiding because my brother worked for the government and the Taliban is after him,” shares the 23-year-old.

A past of trauma

Wazhma, who calls Chennai her temporary haven, says she had planned to return home to provide a better life for her maamaan (mother), who had raised her single-handedly amid all that turbulence. But, she hasn’t spoken to her mother since July, for it was no longer deemed safe. “The last words from her to me were Bia ba milaawegu, dear (See you later, dear). But when is ‘later’?” While Wazhma had led her entire life in US-occupied Afghanistan, her mother had witnessed the worst of the Taliban’s regime. “She was one of the many from her generation who was affected by the Taliban’s views. She has, growing up, seen women and girls stoned and lashed, she’s been confined to her home, she was denied (the freedom) to walk outside, and is also a survivor of sexual assault by the Taliban. She continues to live with the trauma. But, she gave me wings, and now I am here, doing what I love. But I don’t have a lot of hope. I don’t think I will meet her again. I fear for her life, but I don’t want to go back,” she says, almost tearing up.

Abed had dreamed of returning home and setting up a school for girls in Kabul or Kandahar. But, Abdul reports that his 35-year-old sister is already out of her teaching job. Though it’s been two decades since the Taliban rule, the country had been the site of frequent attacks and gradual assimilation by the terror organisation. This has scarred many from this generation of peace too. Riitesh Panndya, while not an Afghan and now far removed from its uncertain future, finds himself reliving his direct encounters with the Taliban when he had been employed in Afghanistan. The Bengaluru-based entrepreneur was in the restroom of his house in Kabul on the night of May 2, 2012, when he heard two explosions.

His bedroom window had given way on the impact, and the neighbourhood was fraught with screams and the sound of bullets. All this had been a mere 15 days after the tech company he worked for (in the vicinity of many embassies) was attacked. “Thirty people attacked our compound. It started at 6.30 am and went on till afternoon. The security guards of our expat housing community were killed,” he shares. Riitesh could never enter the bedroom again; he took to sleeping on the couch. While he came back home soon after, he is one of the few in his circles who has an accurate idea of how bad things can get for his Afghani friends. Abed is petrified. “My family doesn’t want me to come back. They said, ‘Home is not home’. Rocket blast, explosion, terror attacks…all I can do is pray.” 

Home in hazard

Just days before the Taliban marched in, Hamid Bharaam returned to Kabul, his hometown, after completing his post-graduation in Mass Communication from Hyderabad’s EFLU (English and Foreign Languages University). He had hoped to pursue a career in journalism. Now, it doesn’t seem plausible. “I had applied to many media organisations in Afghanistan. If I apply now, I might be questioned a lot as I have completed my studies in a foreign country,” he says. He had applied to South Asian University in Delhi for a PhD course; but, he could not make it to his exams, and chances of getting a visa are pretty slim. He would like to return to Hyderabad, to the organisation he had interned at, but it seems to be a distant dream.

Amanullah Noori, a musician, has the clock ticking on his exit as he attempts to flee to the USA. For, when the dust settles, it’s the arts and artists who take the hit, isn’t it? While Noori’s manager seems to have found a way out for him, his cousin Zaraha Bayat hasn’t been so lucky. “I have not been able to go to school ever since I landed in Kabul. We are not able to go to the airports because the “big guys” (Taliban) guarding them do not let us leave the country,” says Bayat, who is planning to go to Tajikistan with her family.

While people like Bayat and Hamid could still remain safe under these climes, things are already edging towards life or death for the likes of journalist Baseer* and Hazrat Khan Hoshmand, a member of the Civil Society and Human Rights Network in Afghanistan. A student of the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, Baseer says that journalists are always a target and that’s why he’s trying to flee the country. “They are snatching the mobile phones of journalists and even beating up some of them. At the airport, I was also beaten on my back. They threatened my colleagues and me, clicked a picture of us, and warned us that they will put us in prison if we are seen covering such news. I have 10 years of experience in media. I also teach journalism in Kabul, and in this tough situation, I do not know how we will work,” he says. At this point, he would welcome any country willing to provide asylum, he adds.

On the other hand, Hazrat had returned to Kabul after completing a mass communication course from St Philomena’s College, Mysuru. During his time here, he — a member of the Afghan National Association in Karnataka — had been active in serving the needs of Afghan students in Bengaluru and Mysuru. Returning home, he had kept up his involvement in social organisations. Now, he’s in trouble. “The Taliban first approached me at my house and asked me to reveal all the data related to the human rights work we undertake. They want to take control of the property, money, and, freedom of expression from us. My neighbours helped me negotiate with them, but they have threatened to come after me if I don’t comply with their demands,” says the 33-year-old, who works in the finance department of the Human Rights Network. He is negotiating with NGOs to find a safe passage to Germany or Canada, but  is finding it difficult to financially support his brothers studying in a college in Bengaluru. 

Younus Shafee, vice president of the Afghan Students Association (ASA) in Hyderabad, doesn’t want to return home but his visa is set to expire soon. Mohammad Yousaf Khanmirzoy, ASA’s president, points out that money is a concern for students.

When Baseer talks of the Taliban having no intention to offer immunity to people who work for foreign companies, social activists, politicians, or Afghan forces, and has even banned music everywhere, Shareef*, a student of EFLU, remembers a time when things were peaceful. But, Wazhma goes back further — a time of koftas, boranee banjan and sheer khurma; of going to the market with her mother every weekend, the fragrance of spices and rose petals and perfumes; of lavish spreads and cousins partaking in the casual revelry. There’s no saying when such simple pleasures would be commonplace and free from fear again. And so they wait.

*Names changed to protect identity. 

Found and Lost

  • In 2001, Women for Afghan Women (WAW) was founded. It is the largest non-government Afghan women’s rights organisation in the world.
  • In 2004, the constitution of the country had provisions that guaranteed women’s rights and quotas to ensure they are part of different political processes. Women joined the army and police forces, trained as surgeons, judges and prosecutors, and worked as journalists, translators and television presenters.
  • In 2004, three years after the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan sent women athletes to the Olympics for the first time.  
  • In 2005, Hematologist Habiba Sarabi became the first female governor in Afghanistan. She also served as Minister of Women’s Affairs. 
  • In 2008, Azra Jafari became the first female mayor of Nili, the capital of Daykundi Province.
  • In 2008, it was reported that nearly a dozen of television stations had all-female anchors
  • as well as female producers.
  • In 2009, the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law was decreed by then President Hamid Karzai. The law makes 22 acts toward women, criminal offences.
  • In 2012, Niloofar Rahmani became the first female pilot in the Afghan Air Force pilot training programme to fly solo in a fixed-wing aircraft. 
  • In 2012, Meena Rahmani opened a bowling alley, called ‘Strikers’ — the country’s first.
  • In 2014, women made up 16.1% of the labour force in Afghanistan.
  • In 2015, Negin Khpolwak, a 17-year-old, became Afghanistan’s first female music conductor.  
  • In 2015, Kabul University began the first master’s degree course in gender and women’s studies.  
  • In 2015, Afghanistan held its first marathon. Among those who ran the entire marathon was one woman, Zainab, who became the first Afghan woman to run in a marathon within her country.
  • In 2017, a group of women opened an all-female restaurant for the first time in Balkh province.
  • As of 2018, Roya Rahmani was the first-ever female Afghan ambassador to the United States.
  • In 2018, Kazakhstan reached an agreement with the European Union that the EU would contribute two million euros to train and educate Afghan women in Kazakhstan.
  • In September 2020, Afghanistan secured a seat on the UN Commission on the Status of Women for the first time.
  • In 2020, former President Ashraf Ghani signed an amendment allowing women to include their names on their children’s birth certificates and identification cards.
  • In Feb 2021, Kam Air operated the first flight with an all-female crew, including an Afghan pilot, in a domestic flight from Kabul to Herat.

Written by:  Roshne  Balasubramanian, Anupama Mili, Sanath Prasad, Shreya Veronica, Vidya Iyengar
Edited by: Kannalmozhi Kabilan



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