In her 32 years, Narges had never, ever stepped out of her home district, let alone risked her life to flee her country.
“The Talibs stopped our bus and started checking everyone. My heart was pounding so hard that I could hear it. I knew they were hunting down former Afghan soldiers and killing them. My husband, with one missing leg, was easily identifiable as one,” says Narges, a mother of three from Afghanistan’s Qaysar district. (All names in this story have been changed.) Her husband lost a leg in an explosion a few years ago while on duty. Afraid that he would be killed by the Taliban, she had convinced him to flee the country, and now the family of five were on a bus from Kabul to Nimruz to try to cross the border into Iran. With not enough money and no documents to legally immigrate, their only option was to cross the border illegally by paying a smuggler. But this route was perhaps the riskiest of all, she says: “There is a Taliban check post every few kilometers.”
Like Narges, many other Afghan women tried to flee the country before the Americans wound down their Afghanistan mission earlier this week. These are the stories of three of them who, over the last two weeks, risked it all to flee the Taliban.
“I haven’t stepped out of my house for the last two weeks. I am really scared. Two days ago, the Taliban took hold of my city,” said 24-year-old Aysel over the phone from Herat. The country’s third-largest city, had been taken on Aug. 12. Aysel, who works with a major international NGO, said she and some other Afghan staff immediately got on the phone with their manager to seek help.
“My manager told us to scan all our important documents—diplomas, transcripts, and certificates—and then burn them,” she said, her voice choking. Aysel had worked hard over the years to get a graduate degree from Herat University and then find work with an international organization. In addition, she taught girls who could not go to school for free in the evening at home. “If the Taliban raid our homes and find [these documents], then these very achievements that I am so proud of will become the cause of my death.”
Her American manager had told the Afghan staff to apply for Priority 2 (P-2) immigration to the United States under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. “I am scared but hopeful of getting to America. I work with an American organization and I think I will get some priority. I will talk to my father about it today,” said Aysel, sounding cautious but mildly excited.
Given the crisis in Afghanistan, on Aug. 2 the U.S. government set up a new “Priority 2” category for Afghan nationals within USRAP. Afghan nationals and their immediate families who may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation but aren’t able to get a Special Immigrant Visa are eligible, as are Afghans like Aysel who work for U.S. nongovernmental organizations.
But the visa comes with a major catch, one that Aysel wasn’t aware of initially. All P-2 program applicants must leave Afghanistan and travel to a third country to begin the adjudication process. This can involve a stay of 12–14 months in a third country—without any U.S. support—with no guarantee of an eventual visa.
Meanwhile, almost 800 kilometers away, 59-year-old Roghaye in Kabul frantically searched through her old work certificates. Unlike Aysel, she didn’t want to burn them but to instead take them to Baron Hotel near the Kabul airport. “If I can get an entry there, I will be able to prove to the soldiers that I worked for eight years with an organization, teaching U.S. and NATO forces Farsi. If they see my service then they will take me and my son to America,” she said confidently.
In the past few weeks, the Baron Hotel had become a place for Afghans to come to try to get on an evacuation.
“I will go there tomorrow. Wish me luck,” said Roghaye.
Less than 24 hours after Roghaye said this, the Taliban reached Kabul, and President Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed. Roghaye tried her luck that day at the Baron but couldn’t even make it to the gate.
A widow, Roghaye worked for more than eight years with Afghan and NATO forces as a language and literary trainer. She says this makes her a target for the Taliban and that, as a single woman, it would be impossible for her to survive and stay protected under the new Taliban regime. Undeterred by her failure to enter the airport, she said that in a few days she would try again.
“I know they will take me on the plane. I am old and a single woman and I worked for them when I was capable,” she said, keeping her dreams of finding a safe haven in America alive.
While Roghaye’s optimism made her stay put in Kabul, Narges’ fear for her husband’s life had her and her family flee to the Afghan-Iran border. “While the hunger was hard to fight, the fear of being caught by the Taliban was even worse,” she said.
“On the bus from Kabul to Nimruz, we got very lucky. The Talibs did not question my husband and we carried on with our journey,” said Narges. After traveling for more than 10 hours, they reached the border town. There her husband contacted Mohammed, one of the many smugglers who takes Afghans across to Iran.
“Usually, we see single men wanting to come to Iran for work but in the last few months
many families with women and girls are trying to cross the border,” said 24-year-old Mohammed, who has been doing this for the last six years.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned about the impact of the conflict on women and girls, stating that almost 80 percent of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children.
Narges, her three children, and her husband spent that night in Nimruz. Early next morning the family of five and another five people were squeezed into a car. Two others were packed off in the trunk of the car as well. “There were very few breaks in the journey to the Iran border and almost no food and water for my children. But while the hunger was hard to fight, the fear of being caught by the Taliban was far worse,” said Narges.
On reaching Zahedan, a city in Iran bordering Afghanistan, Narges felt slightly relieved. They had escaped the Taliban, but she knew that if the Iranian police caught them, they could be deported back immediately.
“From Zahedan, we changed cars to go to the city of Karaj in Iran. At every police check post, our smuggler would get us out of the car. We would then walk from behind the check post and meet the car at the other end,” said Narges. “I would shush my three boys to make less noise as we tried to hide from the police. I carried my youngest boy on my back and held the hands of the other two. My husband with his one leg can’t be burdened much,” said Narges.
Over the next 10 days, Narges followed the news about Afghanistan from Iran. Aysel, in Herat, consulted her father on their family finances to see if travel to a third country to apply for the Priority 2 USRAP program would be possible. And Roghaye, in Kabul, got pushed around in a crowd outside the Baron Hotel every day but couldn’t get through the gate.
In the morning, Roghaye finally made it through the gate. “The crowd pushed so hard that I got pushed across the gate,” she said. Once inside, she approached many American soldiers with her documents. “They all just said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ ”
Roghaye said she wanted to keep trying until sunset, but an incident that afternoon broke her spirit. “The Taliban and the U.S. soldiers fired in the air to disperse the crowd, and a young girl’s mother was shot. She died right in front of my eyes,” said Roghaye.
Roghaye walked back home, hours before an explosion outside the Baron Hotel and a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed more than 160 people.
“It’s better to die in my own house than at the airport,” said Roghaye, her initial optimism fading.
That night Aysel sent me a text: “Things are really bad now.” Her father announced to the family that the move to the third country to access a Priority 2 resettlement was not an option for them. “We don’t have so much money and can’t sustain our family in a foreign country while waiting without a guarantee for the United States to take us,” said Aysel. “The only country we can afford to go to is Iran, but the U.S. will not accept P-2 resettlement from there. So, this is it for me, for us.”
Meanwhile in Iran, Narges and her husband have found no work. “Afghans are treated very poorly here. No one wants to give us work. How will we survive and feed our children?” she asked.
Aug. 31–Sept. 1
The United States completed its 20-year-long mission, with the last plane flying out at midnight. Almost 116,000 people were airlifted within the past two weeks. Roghaye, Aysel, Narges, and many other Afghan women were not among them.
Next morning, a voice message from Aysel: “I ask from the United States and the world that if you cannot help us, then please destroy Afghanistan with an atomic bomb. We believe that dying once is better than dying every day.”
Sedighe Abbasi assisted with the reporting of this story.