THOSE THAT WALK AMONG US

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Now living in the Inner West, Women’s Rights Activist Khalida recounts her and her husband’s recent desperate escape from Afghanistan.

Three days after the fall of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, my husband Reza received a late-night message about the Australian Government’s evacuation process in Kabul.

In a world of depression, sadness, hopelessness, and despair, this news revived a strange energy in us and we did not sleep all night long, but we did not know the details of the news.

We were uncertain, with a list of positives and negatives, wondering whether we should take the risk of going out there and passing through many dangerous checkpoints to find our way through random bullets to the airport to start a new life or stay put and suffer the impending persecution or even death awaiting us.

Since I am a naturally positive thinker, I balanced the realistic concerns, potential risk analysis, and rational fears of my husband, and we chose to take a leap of faith into the unknown.

Reza urgently emailed the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and explained to them that he is an Australian resident at risk in Afghanistan, stranded due to COVID-19 imposed international border restrictions.

He also explained that my life is also in danger since I have been an Afghan women’s rights activist with seven years of work experience with international organisations, and a history of defending human rights and advocating for women’s rights and gender equality.

We were waiting for the email reply from the Ministry; I felt as though the more we waited the longer the hours became. However, it was not the first night that we went without sleep. We had not slept well since July 15th 2021 when hundreds of Afghan Defense Force soldiers were killed in rural provinces and the major cities began falling into the hands of the Taliban, one after another.

Followed by the displacement of tens of thousands of Afghans to Kabul, the president fleeing the country, the silence of the international community and the US government, Afghanistan’s ally against the Taliban, and chaos all around the country – these all contributed to our anxiety.

Since the time the Taliban took over Kabul, we had been isolated in our house yet did not even feel safe inside our home as we had no trust in the Taliban’s so-called amnesty. Every moment I feared that one of them will knock on the door and identify us.

Finally, at 2:00 a.m, the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade replied to our email and ended our long wait. It was an incredible moment. Before going to the airport, we had to handle multiple tasks and responsibilities, like packing our essentials, talking with employers about delivering office computers and data, calling our home owner and delivering the keys, informing our parents and siblings who were in different parts of Kabul isolated like us.

Even before the report about Australia’s evacuation plan we were aware of the challenges with US flights – the dangerous and fluid scene of the crowd around the airport, the falling of six people from military airplanes, the trampled women and kids, brutality of the Taliban, and the overall chaos in the evacuation process. These discouraged us from attempting an escape. We stayed isolated at home, wishing for a miracle to happen.

We made up our minds to act. Early in the morning, we fully covered ourselves in the traditional way and left our home, taking a taxi to the airport. I was staring at Kabul in a final goodbye. I felt the trees, streets, sky, and earth were all as sad as I was. At that moment Kabul was not a dreamy city with busy roads and heavy traffic, open shops with loud music, hurried pedestrians, school children, groups of friends chatting on streets, but empty roads, closed stores, and total silence (except for the noise of Taliban gunfire).

I could not believe that this was Kabul where I lived all my life with love, passion, and excitement.  I did not realize how fast we drove; in a blink of an eye, we reached the airport. The driver refrained from entering the airport roads due to the uncontrolled crowds roaming the place, so we paid and got out.

We were standing in the middle of the airport street and were supposed to take ourselves to the Northern Gate based on the Australian Ministry’s email directions. We walked four more kilometers from the point where we left the taxi, walking in a crowd of tens of thousands of displaced and threatened Afghans attempting to flee the country. People from all walks of life, including Afghans of different backgrounds and foreign nationals, were on the streets rushing towards the airport gates.

Though they had different backgrounds and faces, they shared common feelings of fear, sadness, pain, stress, hopelessness, and hidden wounds. I imagined each of them felt as I did exactly as we faced the same situation. Most people would not leave Afghanistan if the Taliban were not there, in particular the older refugees. They were leaving to rescue their younger family members’ futures since the elders themselves had lived through war their entire lifetime.

I saw the crowd around me and the chaotic situation, but I imagined approaching the gate, showing our documents to the soldiers and Australian air force members, and entering the airport. But there was a distance like the earth and the moon between my imagination and the reality we faced.

The closer we got to the airport, the tighter the crowd became. The Northern Gate was surround by over ten thousand people; I could not even recognize the northern avenue, main street, entrance ways, main gate, or the security checkpoints from before. I was totally surprised as we neared the airport gate. There was no border, no block, no rule, and no regulation. The barrier between the foreign troops and civilians was dangerous barbed wire.

There we realized that only eligible people with valid documents after first obtaining Taliban permission and subsequently foreign forces’ confirmation could enter the airport. But the crowd was too frenzied and out of control for that rule to be enforced.

Due to deafening noise, I could not hear anything. We tried to understand by seeing only. We gradually moved towards the gate, hoping to find a chance to show our documents and enter the gate. Each Taliban guard had a weapon and a lash; whenever people attempted to move towards the gate, the Taliban ruthlessly lashed them and released warning shots.

The Taliban did not appear to care about women, children, the old, weak or disabled at all. The gunfire was as if they were in a stronghold and entrenched against their enemies, harsher even than we had heard about them. There was no need for bullets at all, especially as there were many pregnant women and children. I was very scared and did not want to move forward anymore, as he thought the Taliban were using rubber bullets just to scare the crowd and warn people, realizing later that all bullets were real, after a young man was shot dead in front of us while attempting to bypass the wall to the airport.

I was staring at the gate to try to understand what was going on, what the Taliban criteria was for letting people inside, and the international forces’ confirmation points. I was sunk in thought when I was suddenly pushed to the Taliban side and a huge group of people from behind tried to move closer to the gate. For a moment I lost my balance and could not stand. I was nearly trampled by the crowd.

Men, women, kids, and Taliban were all mixed together. No one could hear anything, the cacophony of children and women crying, the gruff voices of the Taliban and their gunfire and lashes filled the space.

I was trying to rescue myself at the same time I was looking at my husband who was also stuck in the crowd with two rucksacks with our essentials. That painful moment I cannot express in words. I had only watched such scenes in movies, had never seen them in real life. That wave of a crowd rushing from the street towards the gate lasted about 15 minutes and during that time I almost died. A pregnant lady lost consciousness, young men fell on the barbed wire and could not stand as they were hanging on the wires, a child was trampled, and a Talib shot a woman in her leg. I could only see this much, what happened next around us I do not remember as I lost my awareness for a while before dragging myself out of the crowd.

Once again, I fell to the ground and could not breathe properly. I felt my face flushed and my body senseless. Tall people were standing around me, trampling my feet. I had no other wish at that moment but just to come out of the crowd alive. I removed my scarf and sneakers, and left my handbag. I pushed back the tall men and shouted at them to stay calm, as kids were being trampled there. I stepped towards my husband as the Taliban were beating him with their guns and lashing his back.

My husband was in a critical situation, he could not move and the Taliban were continuously beating him. I shouted at the Taliban not to beat him, but nothing helped; he knelt down, his face was pale and he could not get up anymore. I asked him to forget the bags, and rescue himself, that nothing was more important than his life. But he did not put down the bags as our educational documents and work computers were inside them.

I shouted that I was leaving, I asked the people around us to clear a way so we could depart. We gradually left the crowd and reached the road which was only three meters away from the crowd we were stuck in. I thanked God for a second chance to live.

We were covered with dust and mud, as if we were World War II soldiers fighting the enemies nonstop for months. I had no shoes, with torn clothes, wounded feet, and a terrible appearance. I called my father for help. He brought shoes for me and took us home, meeting us miles from the airport to avoid the crowd.

The first attempt was enough for us; we thought we should not try to push through the crowd again. But we did not give up. We went home to rest and tried again, and again. We went through many difficulties and made many failed attempts to enter the airport from different gates, at different times, early morning, midnight, afternoon, and evening. But every time we were confronted by the same situation – wild Taliban shooting volleys, silent international forces, chaotic crowds, and a completely uncertain future.

We attempted the airport seven times in all, on August 19, 20, 21, and 22. The evening of August 22 a miracle happened – a stranger offered, for a fee, to accompany us to a different gate where there were no Taliban that night. We agreed and decided to trust him, following his lead.

When we reached the gate (Camp Baron), we saw the same situation, but our guide said that if we had valid documents we could definitely pass the wall as those soldiers (the Australian Army) check carefully. We said, yes, we have valid documents, so he had us follow him to the actual gate. We walked over thirty minutes in a very narrow, dark, and complicated path. I was very scared, worrying perhaps this man is a fraud trying to scam us; there was no crowd this way; it was a completely new place for me, although we had lived in Kabul many years.

We eventually found that our guide was honest, there was another path where there was no Taliban, no gunfire, and initially no crowd as it had been recently opened. Many people were there, wishing to enter the gate. The international troops were checking documents and letting people inside the airport.

We easily reached the Australian forces and showed our documents, and entered past the wall inside the airport. When we reached the other side of the wall, we were overjoyed, thinking that we would fly out immediately. But once again, disappointments engulfed us.

The Australian officials put us in a car and drove us to a military camp where we had to sleep on dust and wait for days without food and water as we had lost our bag outside the airport. We were told to sleep there at night, that they will talk to us about our flights the next day. It was a very difficult night because I was wearing just a light dress when we passed through the gate, but we had to sleep on cold hard ground, without any kind of mattress or even a throw. In the morning we asked about flights, and they said we would need to wait because priority was given to Australian passport holders and permanent residents.

I was upset because I did not even have an Australian visa, only my husband had. Every moment in that camp became emotionally harder than it was outside. The Taliban tortured us physically outside the airport and the strict rules for traveling to Australia tortured us emotionally. At 9:00 am on August 23rd Australian troops checked everyone’s documents and put blue bracelets on those who held Australian passports, or visas, but not for us. I talked several times with the officials, explaining that my husband is a resident of Australia, but they declined to help, responding that we should have a visa to take a flight.

A female soldier advised my husband to apply for an emergency visa for me. Doing so was extremely difficult, there was barely any internet signal, no place to charge a phone, no place to sit and fill a complicated immigration form. My husband tried many times, the sun was burning us, sitting on the dusty dirt with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, stress, the pressure of the visa application, but he would not give up.

Finally, my husband’s friend in Melbourne helped us file an application for a visa and we received an acknowledgement of received application at 3:00pm on August 24th. How we spent those difficult moments, I wish I could write all the details. In short, we showed the visa application acknowledgment to the officials and they finally put that blue bracelet on our wrists. We joined a large group of people who were ready to fly and were guided to the military plane.

I couldn’t fully believe it until we got close to the plane. I thought they would stop us for another reason at any moment, but tried to stay positive. The soldiers lined us up like school children. It was the first time we had taken a military flight, with no seats, no seatbelts, and no reception formalities, simply sitting on the floor with other passengers like a herd of sheep.

Three hours passed very quickly and we landed in Dubai. We were transferred by bus from the airport to an Australian military camp. Australian soldiers in Dubai welcomed us warmly, we stayed at that camp and were able to rest. After the processing of our documents, we were transferred to Australia on August 31st, and we spent another fourteen days in mandatory quarantine in Sydney.

We have been living in the inner west of Melbourne for some time now and the Australian Government kindly provides for our daily needs. We can’t thank the government of Australia enough for their continuous service and support, and for saving our lives.

We have already lost three family members who served in the previous government’s security forces, and currently have three former-military members in our family who are under persecution by the Taliban. I just wish they would find a way to rescue our trapped families who remain in Afghanistan.

To donate to the Afghan children and families Winter Appeal a grassroots fundraiser facilitated by Khalida and other inner west Afghan refugees go to: www.chuffed.org/project/support-for-starving-afghans-in-crisis-facing-cold-winter  

100% of donation go directly to those in need in Afghanistan. 

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