As images of chaos emerged from Kabul, a group of Afghans watched nervously from afar in the congested lanes of a neighborhood in the Indian capital, having escaped the country but still distraught over the fates of relatives back home.
Arif Ahmad, who said he worked for the previous government, is one of them. Ahmad, whose name has been changed for his protection like others in this story, fled to New Delhi on one of the last flights out of Kabul as Taliban forces closed in, after struggling for weeks to procure a visa.
He is now trying to build a new life in the neighborhood of Lajpat Nagar, renting a small, dingy room that was locked for months before he moved in. But his thoughts are back in Kabul with his wife and two sons, whom he was forced to leave behind while they try to secure travel documents.
“They will kill my whole family and I won’t be able to do anything,'' Ahmad told VICE World News, breaking down several times during an interview. For the last two days, Ahmad has been regularly visiting embassies with the hope of rescuing his family and bringing them to India to join him.
For over a decade, Lajpat Nagar, sometimes referred to as Little Kabul, has been home to Afghan refugees and immigrants who’ve sought new lives in India. Now, it is filled with new arrivals from a country gripped by fear.
Like Ahmad’s family, millions of Afghans face an uncertain future after the fundamentalist Islamic group, which controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, regained control this week. Nearly 400,000 citizens were already forced out of their homes as violence intensified at the beginning of the year, joining 2.9 million Afghans internally displaced across the country since the end of 2020, according to the UN refugee agency.
India, which has been hosting refugees from Afghanistan since the 1990s, has seen a fresh influx in recent weeks, up through the last commercial flight on August 15 that arrived carrying 129 passengers.
Hamid Muhammadi, a 20-year-old Afghan student who’s also taken up residence in Lajpat Nagar, was on board.
“I was lucky enough to have a visa that allowed me to leave the country, unlike my neighbours who had no money or resources to escape,” Muhammadi said.
Not far from Ahmad and Muhammadi lives Abdul Turtughi, a 26-year-old ethnic minority from Afghanistan, who along with his wife arrived in Delhi on a medical visa a week ago.
The young Afghan left his parents behind for a kidney treatment, promising to come back to them in a couple of weeks, and take them to India. But now he can’t go back, and he worries about what might happen to his parents. “The Taliban is dangerous for us and they have been killing minorities for years,” Turtughi said. “We are losing our home to terrorists.”
During the Taliban’s five-year rule in Afghanistan, they severely curtailed the rights of women, banned popular entertainment, and carried out executions and amputations. The group also banned music, television and films. Even as women enjoyed far more freedoms during the 20-year war between the Taliban and U.S. forces, there have been multiple instances of militant groups attacking women who disobeyed their guidelines.
The new Taliban regime has promised a “peaceful” transition, encouraged women to come work with the government, and projected a more modest tone since descending on the capital with alarming speed. But many doubt the promises, especially women watching from abroad who are already seeing ominous signs that things aren’t what they seem.
Hiba Ghulam, a social media influencer with almost 300,000 followers on Instagram – even more than erstwhile President Ashraf Ghani – also managed to flee the country. She is also a fashion designer who ran a boutique in Afghanistan until it was forcibly shut earlier this week. She came to Turkey for a business trip a month ago, and decided to stay on after she saw the situation in her country deteriorate.
“My father was killed three years ago because he was working for the government,” she told VICE World News from Istanbul. “My mother also works for the government, but she can’t continue working. Women cannot work in Afghanistan anymore. In the last two days, they (Taliban fighters) have come to knock on our door thrice. My family is so afraid, they cannot leave home.”
Ghulam is desperately trying to get visas so her family can flee to India, Dubai or Turkey. However, her own visa has expired, and she is uncertain whether she will receive an extension to stay.
“Most of the Afghans are getting rejected, and they are being deported back to Afghanistan. I fear I will be one of them,” she said.
As a social media influencer, she often encouraged women to start their own business or get into modelling. Now, she believes, her job makes her a prime target for the Taliban.
“A few days ago, the Taliban stopped my delivery guy and beat him up after they saw my name on a package from my boutique, which is named after me,” she said.
Sameya Ahmed, an 18-year-old YouTuber, TikToker and designer from Afghanistan with more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, is in a similar situation. Ahmed came to Dubai about a month ago for work, and was encouraged to stay on by friends and family who were worried about her returning to Afghanistan as the Taliban gained more and more territory.
“Three months back, everyone was telling me ‘Taliban is coming’”, she said.
Ahmed is now being tagged in several posts asking her to speak up about what’s happening back home. She fears she can no longer earn money as a social media personality since a majority of her followers are still in Afghanistan and may face a social media ban. “It used to be good before,” she said.
Sariya Ansari, who runs a consultancy helping Afghan refugees and immigrants come to Europe, said she returned to Kabul from Germany in 2018. Now she is back in Germany after an attack last week near her house in the Afghan capital. She warned of a “huge flow of refugees” from the country following the Taliban takeover, comparing the situation to the migrant crisis in Europe that started to unfold in 2014. But the lack of official services in the country have added an extra layer of complication.
“If my clients from Afghanistan can’t go out and get a passport renewal or a document from a government office, it’s impossible for me to do my work,” she said.
For those still trying to get out, anxieties are mounting by the day.
“As the Taliban forces slowly gained control, we began to receive death threats. I am terrified for my life, as well as the lives of all my friends and family,” Ahmed Sharifi, a youth leader who worked with the election commission, told VICE World News.
Sensing that the Taliban insurgency would soon take over, Sharifi applied to the Indian embassy for a visa on August 8. He was supposed to get the required documents on August 18. But Kabul fell. Now, he is waiting in terror.
“I am growing my beard and wearing long kurtas instead of pants so I can disguise myself. We are now face-to-face with murderers out for our blood.”