The lost Afghans of Delhi: Taliban fear grips those away from home too

The dreaded Islamists are back and Afghan refugees who have family and friends back home are gripped with fear and anxiety
Afghan people outside the US Embassy in New Delhi on Thursday. (Photo | Shekhar Yadav, EPS)
Afghan people outside the US Embassy in New Delhi on Thursday. (Photo | Shekhar Yadav, EPS)

The tremors of the Taliban invasion have shaken the 16,000-odd Afghan refugees living in Delhi, mostly in Lajpat Nagar in last three days, they seem to have vanished from Delhi’s streets, markets and restaurants. Many of them had escaped the Soviet invasion of Kabul in 1979. Even after the Taliban regime fell in 2001, the exodus never stopped. 

Now, the dreaded Islamists are back and Afghan refugees who have family and friends back home are gripped by anxiety. One of them, the owner of a general store, moved to Delhi from Kabul 16 years ago. The silence is poignant. Where have all his fellow Afghanis gone? “They are too terrified to step out of their homes. Despite being thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, the shock has jolted them. Their main fear is that they will be ousted from India too.” Several of his friends are scrambling for visa extensions. “India will never be their true home, nor can they go back to Afghanistan,” he laments. Five of his friends have contacted the Canadian embassy in Delhi in hope of migrating there. “No matter how much we try, we don’t feel at home. People are reluctant to give us jobs. They label us outsiders. My girls face harassment every day. The other day a man catcalled my daughter and told her to go back to her country,” he admits. 

An eerie silence pervades Kasturba Niketan in Lajpat Nagar II, where many naanwais (makers of Afghani naans) like Rahim Bassar live and work. Bassar, an old gentleman with a long white bread, is afraid for his life but cannot stay home. He has to earn to feed his family.  Abdul-Fattah, who owns a small meat shop, is concerned about his cousin Bizhan, who studies at Kabul University. Bizhan has threatened to commit suicide, Abdul-Fattah says. “The Taliban don’t understand the idea of human rights. Their conquest will only exacerbate injustice and inequalities. Afghanistan has been sent 20 years back.” 

An Afghan national buying carpets
An Afghan national buying carpets

The girls have it the worst. Says 22-year-old Aadela, a student of history at Delhi University, “People in Afghanistan are not the only ones impacted. We have escaped a traumatic life, but every day here is a struggle too. People stare at us like we are ghosts. We are judged. I have been propositioned a couple of times. People don’t understand the concept of refugees.” Aadela reveals that her family has been getting death threats. “They know we are here,” she says referring to the Taliban. Her friend Zehen, 21 (name changed), also a Delhi University student, is worried for her young cousins back home.


“The girls spent a lot of money and time on education, hoping to get good jobs. Now they are chained at home again. My brother’s best friend’s brother burned his academic certificates. Everything he earned has been reduced to ashes,” Zehen mourns. She fears the misogynistic Sharia law. “Girls won’t be able to study, work or vote. Their mobility will be restricted. Public executions will keep people scared and suppressed. Journalists will  be detained or killed for speaking their mind,” she says. 

Then there is Zoya Siddiqui, an accountant based in Afghanistan, who is visiting friends in Delhi. “I can see the past staring right into the future. I have seen people stoned to death for adultery in the past. Women have been executed for wearing ‘revealing’ clothes. Journalists have been detained or killed for speaking their minds. Back in the day, it was mandatory for windows on the ground and first floors of any building to be shut or covered so that the women could not be seen. My mother and elder sister stayed home always, too frightened to commit an unintentional mistake. We will be shackled under burqas once again.”

Another Afghan refugee, a mother of two, who lives in Khirki Extension, has not eaten in two days. Anxiety has killed her appetite. She escaped Afghanistan hoping for a better future for her children. Even though her family lives in Afghanistan, she is unwilling to return; yet not hearing from them is making her jittery. Her Afghan neighbour has been calling up UNICEF for help but has to make do with assurances. 

Equally worried are Afghan minorities such as Sikhs and Hindus in Afghanistan, though the Taliban have guaranteed their safety. Satwant Kaur, who lives in Delhi now, escaped when her husband died in a terror attack. The rest of her family is stuck in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban took over, she has been praying at the Lajpat Nagar gurdwara for their safety. Their hopes are flying on a wing and a prayer.

“We will be shackled under burqas once again. Already our mothers and sisters have been living in fear.” Zoya Siddiqui

An Afghan Woman’s Story

I am an Afghan woman. My family fled the US-backed proxy war against the Soviet Union. You have been told it is a civil war—we Afghans have killed each other but mainly on the bankroll of foreign governments who divide to conquer. The Afghanistan you see today has its roots in the British occupation of India, exacerbated by the USSR and USA. Regional powers like Pakistan, Iran, China and Gulf Arab states have all co-conspired with imperialists to reach their hands under my land for its resources. $3 trillion worth. Your pharmaceutical companies bet on us too; 80 percent of the world’s opium is Afghan-grown. 

People from my region do not live in a post-colonial world; we exist within the legacies that empires leave behind. We come clawing to your shores where we are told we don’t belong. But we’re very familiar with you—we’ve seen the name of your countries everywhere; on the side of humvees, on the propaganda leaflets dropped from jets, in the mouths of women your soldiers raped.

Today you flood my DMs and say you care, is this what it took? 241,000 deaths? That’s the official number, but it’s hard to count bodies when they’re piles of flesh. Drug addiction up 300 percent? Babies born with deformities because of radiation from your bombs? Our diaspora communities ravaged with trauma? My mother and father are living ghosts you’ve created, they don’t haunt you but I bear witness to their pain every day. 

You play the towers falling on 9/11 every year. My people do not have the luxury. My people are constant gardeners, planting flowers on top of mass graves. We have too many dates to grieve; your 9/11 is our 24/7. We exist within these systems that were meant to kill us, and while you sit in privilege, we fight amongst ourselves, our morale lowered each time, we grow closer to believing there is nothing left to salvage.

Look what you’ve done. I hope it haunts you.

Madina Wardak on Instagram (edited)

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