After the Taliban took Kabul on Sunday, Kuldeep Singh and his family abandoned their longtime home and sought refuge at a local gurdwara, a place of religious worship for Sikhs.
“The streets were filled with crowds of people running around and screaming and abandoned cars on the road,” Singh told VICE World News. “We tried to go to the airport and leave the country, but all flights were getting cancelled and thousands of civilians were stranded.”
Singh is among nearly 300 Sikhs and Hindus who are staying together at the gurdwara as they wait for updates. His name, along with others interviewed for this article, have been changed for their protection.
Soon after coming to power, the Taliban assured all religious minority groups that they would remain safe. Representatives reportedly visited the gurdwara on Monday to urge those taking shelter to return home. They also allegedly confiscated all arms and weapons held by the security guards and encouraged everyone to carry on with their lives.
But the fundamentalist Islamic militants’ appalling past treatment of religious minorities in the country has Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Zoroastrians, on edge.
When last in power from 1996 to 2001, the militants forced religious minority groups like Hindus and Sikhs to wear yellow badges to identify them as non-Muslims, which many compared to the yellow stars Jews were made to wear in Nazi Germany. They were also forced to wear Burqas and, according to international aid organisations, were oppressed, harassed and even killed for showing any displays towards their faith.
A survey released in February 2019 by the Porsesh Research and Studies Organisation (PRSO), an independent nonprofit research organisation based in Kabul, found the overwhelming majority of Hindus and Sikhs interviewed in Afghanistan feared for their personal safety.
According to the Pew Research Center, less than 0.3 percent of the 34 million Afghans belong to a minority religious group. The population in Afghanistan is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and the constitution enshrines Islam as the state religion. Minorities are allowed to practice their faith, but not publicly.
Few believe the Taliban’s recent assurances to religious minorities.
“For the last few days, we have been seeing photos and videos and hearing stories of them beating up women and children,” Navjyot Sidhu, an Afghan-origin Sikh who is currently hiding in the country, told VICE World News.
“As a Sikh, I am scared for my life.”
In 2018, a suicide bombing in the Afghan city of Jaladabad left 19 dead. Most of the victims were Sikhs. Two year later, in 2020, suicide bombers attacked the Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 25 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for both these attacks, which led to thousands of religious minorities fleeing the country after growing afraid of increasing extremism.
Harbhajan Chaddha, a pharmacy owner, lost many friends and community members in these attacks. He sent his elderly parents to India eight years ago, and is now waiting to be evacuated so he can join them.
“The Taliban is now saying we have nothing to fear, and we hope that’s the case. But I feel while there are some moderate representatives, there are also extremists who are uneducated and may attack us if they disagree with us.”
“Our priority is to get our women and children out of the country as we are concerned about their safety,” said Chaddha. He added that ongoing protests against the Taliban were adding to the uncertainty. “It feels like war and violence can break out any second. We are terrified.”
Ravi Singh, a spokesperson for nonprofit Khalsa Aid, told VICE World News that anxiety is growing as many find no way to leave the country.
“They thought they would be airlifted in a few days. Now they feel abandoned,” Singh said.
Christians in Afghanistan, a country which charities have ranked as one of the worst in the world for members of their faith, are also in hiding.
“Some who worked for the government now face reprisals, and any identified as Christians could be killed,” said a church leader.
Azza Karam, the secretary general of Religions for Peace and former chair of the UN’s Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development, told VICE World News that the Taliban operates like a theocracy, “which by definition are not respectful of minority religious groups since they believe one religion is supreme.”
But even as thousands are trying to escape Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, some have made the unusual decision to stay on. A social media post highlighted the story of a Hindu priest who has reportedly refused to leave his ancestral temple, despite the dangers involved.
And there’s Zebulon Simentov, the last Jew in Afghanistan, who has refused to flee in the face of rising tensions, even as he says he is considered an “infidel” by the Taliban. Simentov, who said he was once kidnapped by the Taliban militants who tried forcibly convert him to Islam, says he is intent on staying back to take care of the last synagogue in Afghanistan.
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