“For the past three nights I haven’t been able to get any sleep,” says Aaron. “Because of what’s been happening in Afghanistan, and what my people – especially my family – have been going through. It’s just beyond imagination.”
Aaron, 34, lives in Australia – but his mother, father, brother, sisters and uncles all live in Kabul. He is one of many Afghans abroad who are worried about their extended family at home, especially for the women and children, and are anxiously waiting to hear from their relatives on the ground.
At the time of the phone call, Aaron had not yet heard from his own family in Kabul.
Other members of the Afghan diaspora that VICE World News spoke with echoed his feelings. Another Afghan living in Australia described the situation in his home country as “heartbreaking,” and said that the swiftly escalating events of the past 48 hours had “shattered the the people of Afghanistan and Afghans living abroad, including in Australia.”
He said many people within the Afghan community are in shock, particularly those whose family members were “in the frontline trying to defend their lands, houses, and their freedom.”
On Sunday, heavily-armed Taliban fighters swept through the Afghan capital, dozens of them entering the abandoned presidential palace and negotiating to replace the collapsed Western-backed government. Embattled President Ashraf Ghani fled the city; throngs of panicked civilians flocked to the airports in a desperate attempt to escape; and by evening, the Taliban had declared their dominion over Afghanistan, the culmination of a swift resurgence campaign that saw the Islamic fundamentalist group taking control over the country in the space of mere weeks.
“I didn’t expect this. I was still thinking that it would take a few months before they could even reach the districts of Kabul province, let alone the capital city falling into their hands,” says Aaron, who asked that his surname be omitted out of fear for his family’s safety. “We never ever thought that the Afghan government would collapse that fast.”
The Taliban is yet to formally declare the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – the name given to the country under Taliban rule before the militants were ousted by U.S.-led forces in the wake of 9/11 – and the militants have told the media that they aim to hold talks in the coming days regarding the formation of an “open, inclusive Islamic government.” The future is uncertain; the dust is only just beginning to settle. But for people like Aaron, there are serious fears that the safety of family and friends who now find themselves trapped in Taliban-occupied Afghanistan is at grave peril. As he puts it: “Anything could happen.”
Speaking to VICE World News over the phone on Monday, Aaron described the Taliban’s occupation of Kabul as an “absolute shock” that has “badly impacted the Afghan people.”
“I need to speak to them to see what’s happening … I’m very worried about their safety, because we don’t know what will happen to them,” he says of his family. He had been planning to move them out of Afghanistan for years, he says, but a staggering demand for Afghan passports meant that it never ended up happening.
“I don’t know what I should do in this uncertain situation where I am unable to even get them out of Afghanistan … I feel helpless because I am unable to do anything for my family. But this is the situation that most Afghans are in.”
Since the Taliban seized control of Kabul, governments around the world have announced plans to accelerate the evacuation of their own personnel and civilians from Afghanistan. The U.S. declared that it would send 1,000 troops directly to the capital; Russia said it would evacuate some of its Afghanistan embassy's roughly 100 staff; and Turkey sought to reassure its citizens stuck in Kabul that the embassy was working to ensure their safety.
Meanwhile, Australia on Monday afternoon approved a military evacuation plan to rescue its own citizens in Afghanistan, as well as Afghans who once served with the Australian Defence Force. A government source told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it was “unclear” when they would be able to safely land in Kabul, but insisted that they were planning a rescue mission for when “the situation allows.”
“We never ever thought that the Afghan government would collapse that fast.”
For veterans and activists who have been calling on the Australian government to accelerate the extraction of vulnerable allies in Afghanistan for months, though, the gesture is too little too late.
“We’ve been calling on them to take action since May this year, and the reality is had the government engaged with us several months ago, we would have been able to reach I think 100 percent of the people that have assisted us,” Jason Scanes, an Australian army veteran who served in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013, told VICE World News. “Because of the slow-moving government, and politicians that don’t want to lead and make decisive decisions, we’re probably going to reach 40 or 50 percent of those people that assisted us – so we’re really half doing the job.”
Scanes, who founded the veteran advocacy group Forsaken Fighters, said he wasn’t surprised by how quickly the Taliban managed to seize Kabul after Western forces withdrew from Afghanistan – and he doesn’t think the Australian government should be either. But he has grave fears for those Afghan civilian staff who worked alongside Western forces and now find themselves stranded under Taliban rule.
Speaking to Afghan interpreters on a daily basis, Scanes said he’s been getting an up-to-date picture of the situation as it’s unfolded on the ground – “and it’s truly distressing to watch the videos and see the pictures that are being sent back to us.”
Over the past few weeks he has been wrestling with feelings of sadness for the Afghan people, fear for his “mates” who have been left behind, and anger at the Australian government for neglecting to treat their plight with commensurate urgency. But today, some 20 years after Australian troops first deployed to Afghanistan to liberate it from the very people who now sit in the presidential palace, he is also having to confront feelings of futility.
“There’s a lot of mixed emotions about, you know, ‘was it all worth it?’ ‘What did we achieve?’” he said. “Everybody who deployed to Afghanistan will reconcile their own contribution. But [what] I think our forces can be very proud of is that we gave a lot of people in Afghanistan, for two decades, a lot of hope.”
“There’s a lot of mixed emotions about, you know, ‘was it all worth it?’ ‘What did we achieve?’”
Now, he said, he and other Australian veterans are having to “bear the burden” of what will happen to those who have been left behind, as the Taliban set about undoing the work of Western forces.
“There will be no mercy shown by the Taliban for these individuals; to think that they’re just going to be able to integrate back in and live under the Taliban regime I think is very far-fetched. The interpreters will not be let go, and if they are found to have been working with us they will be killed.”
Aaron remembers what life was like under Taliban rule.
As a 9-year-old attending primary school in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan he remembers being forced to sit on the bare ground, with no shade, donning a black turban in 45-degree heat. Naked sun so hot it gave him nose bleeds. Chemistry, Maths, Physics and Geometry had all been removed from his school curriculum and were replaced by Arabic books that “made no sense to us.” People were banned from shaving their beards; everyone, children included, was forced to pray and go to mosques five times a day. If they didn’t they would be punished.
“I was hardly learning anything from school because of the stress and anxiety I had,” he says. “Now imagine living in that situation permanently.”
Aaron has borne witness to the various phases of Afghanistan’s transition in and out of Taliban control. He was there when the U.S. invaded in 2001; there when the country was wrested from the grip of the militant organisation; there when “we had full freedom: to wear what you want to wear, eat what you want to eat, travel whenever you want, shave your beard, listen to music, go to the cinema, join clubs.” He was there when, in the mid-2000s, suicide bombers started attacking public towns, markets and playgrounds. And in 2012 he fled the country when his own life was put at risk.
“I used to work for an American NGO and two Australian companies in Afghanistan, and unfortunately working for these organisations made it very unsafe for me to stay there anymore,” he says. “So I was forced to flee Afghanistan and seek asylum in Australia.”
Since then, Aaron has lived in constant anxiety over the safety of his family remaining in Afghanistan. Last year he managed to obtain a visa for one of his brothers so that he could migrate to Europe via Uzbekistan, after his company director was assassinated in Kabul. Aaron’s brother worked for a project funded by the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, and that made both him and his boss targets of the Taliban. Militants put a bomb in the director’s rubbish bin; when he went to move it, it exploded.
“After he was killed I sent my family to Uzbekistan,” Aaron explains. “But unfortunately they didn’t extend their visas because the only visa that was available to my family there was a tourist visa for three months, which was costly and in some situations impossible to renew.”
Now, given everything that’s happened in the past days and weeks, he’s more worried for their safety than ever.
“I feel helpless because I am unable to do anything for my family. But this is the situation that most Afghans are in.”
“People are very worried and shocked about the news we received on Sunday,” he says. “I want to stay positive, because I am a positive person. I’m very grateful for being here in Australia, because I’m safe here, and although physically I cannot do anything for my people, I can have my voice. I feel empowered because we can still fight for justice. However, I am very worried for my extended family and for my people. Especially for Afghan women. I believe they will be deprived of their human rights.”
He’s been watching social media closely in order to stay updated on the situation there. And despite his resilient attempts to stay positive, he admits that “it’s hurting.”
“All these achievements in the past 25 years, including Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan – about 32 lives lost for nothing, and billions of billions of dollars invested in different infrastructure for Afghanistan to become independent. The work that was involved, promoting the human rights and equality of men and women. It’s all just for nothing now.
“When you think about that, it really hurts.”
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