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Saturday, January 29, 2022

‘We’ve lost a lot’: Afghan evacuees in Qatar look back on life they left behind


Qatar has been hosting thousands of Afghan and foreign evacuees since the beginning of the Taliban takeover on 15 August, with the number expected to rise as more evacuation operations continue.

Carrying nothing but legal documents, a handful of clothes, and for some, soil from the land of their ancestors, thousands of Afghans have in recent weeks been forced to up-and-leave with little to no warning.

The moments in which the Taliban entered Kabul, some of these people were well-respected doctors working in major hospitals around the country, others were renowned lawyers defending victims in courts – even university students submitting their assignments.

“The university was planning to reopen and we were so happy that we were going to study face-to-face without quarantine. A week ahead, I had my books, my notebooks, my pen—literally everything…I thought [when the Taliban came] I was like, oh no, there’s no university for me anymore,” Fatima, an Afghan evacuee in Qatar whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told Doha News.

Fatima was only one of the hundreds of students that were lucky enough to be evacuated by Qatar amid chaos in Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Many who flocked to the airport as militants rolled into the capital feared for their future. In particular, women were left anxious over the thought of being deprived their basic rights to work and education.

“The most fearful moment that I felt that day was I have been working all these years to help the students, to help street kids and some orphanages. What will happen next? Because if the Taliban get full control of Kabul and other provinces, they will no longer allow me to go outside and work with these kids,” said Zahra [alias], another Afghan university student safely transferred in Qatar.

In the span of 72 hours, Doha was able to evacuate over 300 students, most of whom females, along with more than 200 media personnel, interpreters, and families. Some were placed in temporary compounds in the Qatari capital under the care of foreign ministry officials, others were placed in the US’ Al Udeid Air Base, while some were taken to hotels to stay before moving on to their final destinations.

“We are lucky when we got here, we went to Hyatt Regency, when you’re fleeing your country as a refugee and you’re going to a five star hotel and you’re coming to a very nice villa, I think, we are all very thankful for what the Qatari government has done [for] us,” said Ali [alias] an Afghan man.

Despite the comfort provided in their temporary accommodations, Afghans have yet to process the harsh, unforeseen reality of what has transpired in their home country.

“I had witnessed the Taliban during the 90’s. So that fear of imposing their own choices upon people and imposing them with absolute brutal force, that scares everybody. We are all Muslim Alhamdulilah [thank God] and we know that you cannot impose the religion on somebody,” said Ali.

While some are too young or to remember Taliban rule of the 90s, stories of their oppressive rule have travelled through the elders of their families.

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“I [saw] the kind of pain in the face of my mother, fearing that what if [I] experienced what my mom [had] experienced 20 years ago. She has sacrificed her life for us because she has sacrificed her education and everything to raise us in the Taliban era 20 years ago,” said Zahra, remembering the moment she was forced to depart the country on her own.

As for Fatima, who sat beside Zahra and several other university students safely housed in Qatar, the first time she ever came face to face with the Taliban was at the airport.

“I’ve never met the Taliban because I was really small and they failed back in the 2000s…literally when I first saw them [at the Kabul airport] I was shocked. Like I’m not going, I can’t cross the airport. There’s no way I’m going to just stay here,” said Fatima.

An arduous journey

Videos of Afghans desperate to flee the country surfaced on social media shortly after the Taliban entered the capital city, with many latching onto airplanes and some subsequently falling from the sky, including 17-year-old Afghan football player Zaki Anwari.

While for the rest of the world, booking tickets, boarding a flight and flying to another destination seems like a simple task, the journey wasn’t as simple for these Afghans.

At the height of the mass airlift operation in Kabul, the airport was controlled by US and foreign troops who were scrambling to evacuate their own personnel and those who worked alongside them in Afghanistan. The sheer magnitude of crowds at the facility was a lot to handle even for the world’s most trained soldiers.

Surrounding the airport were Taliban militants who were posted just yards away from what was described as “no-man’s land”. Qatar was one of the few countries that managed to facilitate the movement of evacuees through Taliban checkpoints as well as these voids.

Many Afghans were forced to wait for hours, some, even days, to secure a seat on a flight to Doha. Qatari officials on the ground, including the ambassador of the Gulf state himself, were working hard on the ground to personally accompany and transfer evacuees from their homes to the airport.

“We had to spend the night in the vehicle. We couldn’t get any sleep at all. And at like early morning, around four or five, we were able to enter the gate in a really horrific way, because the gates would open and close for a short period of time,” said Fatima.

After missing the first opening of the gates, the cars were unable to pass and the girls were not sure whether they would be one of the few lucky people to pass through the Taliban-controlled area. A Qatari soldier later convinced the militants to cross the no-man’s land to finally reach the US-controlled area.

“The Talib [Taliban militant] was moving forward, shooting others so that they would pave the way for us. He was hitting people with guns and shooting. People were just trying to catch us, just pushing us, scratching our hands,” said Fatima, recounting the horrors of her trip.

As for Zahra, her fellow university student, she had to find a taxi to transport her to the airport, without knowing if she would be turned back.

‘Largest airlift of people in history’ not possible without Qatar: Biden

“When I tried, I said that my name [was] on the Qatar embassy’s list and there were people inside waiting for me. They said ‘no, no way at any cost, we don’t let our daughters to go to a foreign country with foreigners and study so you should stay here. We are here to protect you’,” she said.

Zahra said she was yelled at and threatened with a gun. 

“I had no choice, but to leave the area and try the next day with these [her fellow students] friends. So it was kind of scary, but we saw the real face of Taliban,” said Zahra.

Afghans being evacuated by Qatar would be contacted by staff members at the diplomatic mission who process their details ahead of their move. Once it is safe to do so, the evacuees are then instructed to go to a hotel used by Qatar’s ambassador to Kabul, Saeed bin Mubarak Al Khayarin, where they are met with relevant personnel.

If an evacuee is at high risk and needs to pass through Taliban checkpoints to reach the hotel, Qatari staff would meet them at a safer destination.

For father-of-three Ali, the evacuation was also facilitated through the Qatari embassy, however, his trip was much quicker and shorter.

“My journey to Qatar would not be a very good reflection of what thousands of people are going through…even the two hours that we spent, it was not easy… the Taliban were fighting in there to disperse people. It was scary, especially for the children” said Ali, who was with his family at the time.

Several of his colleagues were unable to make it despite their many attempts to get to the airport, forcing them to spend two-to-three days on the streets along with thousands of others desperate to flee.

Dangerous overcrowding was caused by rumours that quickly spread suggesting those who get to the airport would be flown to places like Canada, Germany or the US.

“People died because of the crowd, people got suffocated, especially children…I think at least three or four people died because when the Taliban were firing in the air, one bullet hit the electricity line and that cable fell down on people,” said the father of three.

On 26 August, many more died.

Islamic State-affiliated suicide bombers who infiltrated the crowds at the airport killed 183 people, including 13 American service members.

A life left behind and an uncertain future

“We lost a lot. We lost the country, we lost our hope for the country. I lost my business. I lost my profession. I lost my reputation over there, I lost my home. I left everything behind. I’m just here with my kids, which I’m very thankful for that, but at the same time, there’s so much more that we have lost,” said Ali.

Ali, a lawyer, was an active member of the community back home and helped younger Afghans pursue their dreams as attorneys to help develop their country.

“What can I do to have the sort of living that I have, which is going to be very difficult? I don’t think I can be the same person anywhere else in the world that I was in Afghanistan,” he added.

With only a passport, some clothes and a little bit of soil from Afghanistan, Zahra was left with no choice other than to start her life from square one, leaving behind the children she assisted in her homeland.

“The first night I arrived here I couldn’t sleep too, but then when the internet [was] fixed, I contacted people in Afghanistan, my friends, social activist women, my parents. They were kind of happy that at least I survived and I’m safe, but they were worrying about their future because all the women that I contacted were home, no one dares to go outside to go to offices,” she said.

As university students with an entire life ahead of them, the Taliban’s rule took them by surprise and brought an immediate halt to their education.

In the room next door, some Afghan girls continued to work on assignments in Qatar despite being so far away from home.

Qatar has taken ‘full responsibility’ for evacuating Afghans, foreigners in Kabul: FM

“There’s lot’s of uncertainties…we’re just hoping to get an education because we have been working hard in Afghanistan to build all these improvements we have today,” said Zahra, a keen teacher with dreams to give back to her community in Afghanistan.

“I hope that this is all a plan. That these politicians, they’re playing with their politics and then it will end so soon, so we can go back. But if they continue this way, I don’t see any future,” she added.

As for Fatima, a political science student, she hopes to publish a book or an article about her journey to Qatar to share the realities of her now upheaved life.

“I knew that someday I’ll think about my life before evacuation not during evacuation, that was all,” said Fatima, who also wants to help people in her home country.

When asked if she sees a way back to Afghanistan, she said,“I mean, we do see a way back because it’s a role that is has growing within us every day – a sense of humanity, you know, helping people that were all left behind.”

For Ali, the uncertainty of his future adds to the weight of responsibility for his children and wife.

“[To] the international community, I would say that this is the time that people of Afghanistan need them. We should not really limit Afghanistan to 80,000, 100,000 people that the international community has committed to take them out,” he said.

I think this is the time to stand by the side of the people of Afghanistan,” added Ali.

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