Afghan Refugees: Personal Reflections by Nazes Afroz
Written and Photographed by Nazes Afroz
Since 1979, with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Afghans had formed the third-largest displaced people in the world, behind the Syrians and Venezuelans in the last four decades. There are still 2.2 million Afghan refugees living in neighbouring countries. With the fall of the Taliban after the US-led war in 2001, many Afghans returned, hoping to rebuild their nation. In June 2002, I flew from Dubai to Kabul, when the first Loya Jirga or the Grand Council (mass national gathering of representatives from the various ethnic, religious, and tribal communities in Afghanistan) were meeting to decide the country’s future. Most of the in-flight Afghan passengers were living in various countries for years. When the pilot announced that the flight had entered the Afghan airspace, the returnees clapped while bursting into joyful tears. I could immediately feel the pain of my fellow passengers, their long physical and emotional separation and simultaneously the excitement of returning to their homeland — a first-hand experience that will be etched in my mind forever.
As the recent news of the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan came in, television and social media were filled with stories of desperate Afghans trying to leave their country. Within a week of Kabul falling into Taliban hands, such news no longer felt impersonal. Talking to my friends, former colleagues, and acquaintances in Afghanistan, I grappled with individual narratives of fleeing and evacuation. Two young Afghans, whom I have known for years reached out with replies to my anxious queries about their well-being and that of families. One lives in Washington DC, where he pursued higher studies after working for the Afghan government for a few years. He anxiously called to move his two brothers holding government jobs and their parents as NGO workers to any country. After a couple of weeks, he informed me that his family could reach Paris with help from a few friends and he was now waiting to take them to the USA.
Another message came from a young friend living in Canada who was caught in Kabul after the Taliban marched into the capital. Within a week, he and his two brothers were fortunately evacuated by the Canadian military. But they had to leave behind their ageing parents in Kabul, amidst the looming chaos of violent, harsh and uncertain rules of the Taliban. These personal messages of appeal, seeking a way out despite family estrangement, are in sharp contrast to hopeful Afghans returning united from Pakistan and Iran, nearly two decades ago. The current overtake by Talibans has fuelled skepticism among the Afghan returnees, deeply entrenched in a collective memory of fear of the Taliban’s brutal legacy between 1996 and 2001. Despite the ongoing Taliban promises of a more inclusive transition of power, the ethnic divisions from within sustain the ground reality of uncertain times and another surge in refugee exodus. As I write in the light of several fragmented personal messages, I am haunted by the days of empty ghost villages in the harsh mountain terrains where peace and hope seem ever so distant.
Photos were taken by Nazes Afroz, Afghanistan 2002.
Nazes Afroz is the former Executive Editor for the South and Central Asia region of the BBC World Service. He is currently based in Delhi, doing his own independent writing and photography projects.