When news of Russian troops’ imminent invasion of Ukraine intensified on Wednesday, Bilal Dostzada loaded his wife and son into a car, and like many others in Ukraine, tried to flee. By Friday morning, he was standing near the border with Poland, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, 469 kilometres away from the capital Kyiv where he lives. “We’ve not slept, we have not eaten since yesterday,” the Afghan activist told VICE World News.
“In the news, we’ve read that the border is open to receive us. But ever since I arrived last night, the queues are getting longer, and nobody is letting us enter.”
Dostzada runs a non-governmental organization aimed at helping Afghan refugees, especially undocumented ones, get asylum in Ukraine. But two days ago, he shut down his operations as the news of war loomed. By the time he arrived in Lviv with his family, Russia’s “special military operation” had begun in multiple Ukrainian cities.
On Thursday morning, Russia invaded Ukraine. As the Ukrainian president declared martial law, at least 137 civilians and military personnel have been killed in the conflict. Russian and Ukrainian forces are battling for control, as explosions erupted in the capital city of Kyiv.
Caught in the conflict, around 100,000 Ukrainians are already displaced, according to a “ballpark” estimate by UN refugee agency UNHCR. With air travel shut down, many Ukrainian cities are reporting major road jams as people rush to the borders. Among the ones fleeing, however, are Afghans who had just recently escaped conflict in their own country.
Now, with the Russian invasion, they are reliving their worst nightmare.
“I left behind a very bad situation in Afghanistan,” said Dostzada, who left his homeland for Ukraine in 2019 because of the Taliban. “And now I’m in a bad situation again.”
Behind him in cars, he added, are nearly 100 Afghan refugees from Kyiv and the southern port city of Odessa he has been helping in the country. Some of the refugees had arrived just last year when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan on August 15.
“I feel like we’re on our own,” Dostzada added.
Afghans are one of the largest refugee populations in the world, with 2.6 million displaced. In Ukraine, Afghans are the largest immigrant population, arriving as early as the 1980s. Last year, hundreds of Afghans arrived in the country during evacuation efforts.
The country was also lauded for pulling off a rare mission that saw the armed forces rescue a group of Afghan translators from Kabul the week the Taliban took over. As chaos struck the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, leading to deaths of at least 170 Afghans and over 13 U.S. soldiers, the Ukrainian special forces and aviation reportedly airlifted around 100 Afghans.
Jawed Haqmal, who worked as a translator for the Canadian military in Kandahar, was one of those evacuated by the Ukrainian special forces. On that fateful day, Haqmal could only manage to get half of his family out including his wife and children, while the rest, like his brother and father, had to be left behind because the air carrier ran out of space.
Right now, the scenes he describes from his hotel window in Kyiv – where he has been housed for the last six months while awaiting resettlement in Canada – feel very similar to what he witnessed just before he left Kabul. “There’s a curfew, there’s police everywhere, no food, and everything is closed,” he said. “The same thing happened in Afghanistan.”
But memories of his home are closer to his heart than his new life in Ukraine and a potential one in Canada.
“At least I had food for my family, or a decent shelter over their heads, and even people to talk to. Here, I feel utterly heartbroken.”
Sanaullah Tasmim, 20, left two months after the Taliban takeover as the economic situation worsened, and human rights violations increased. Many of his family members were killed by the Taliban during the takeover, he said. “So to escape from all of that, I moved to Ukraine,” Tasmim said. He had felt fortunate to be able to flee then, to what seemed to be a safer, new beginning.
“I came to Ukraine and I thought I was safe. Our people back home are still facing so many problems. Now here, I see another war, and I feel like I might lose my life here too, just like I felt back at home.”
Tasmim, who lives with other friends from Afghanistan, said he hears sounds of blasts around him, which are not foreign to him having been trapped living in a war all his life in Afghanistan. Now, yet again, he is looking for ways to get out.
“I didn't know that I would come all the way here, and still get stuck in another war. Unfortunately, I’m slowly coming to accept this way of life.”
Sahraa Karimi, an Afghan filmmaker who was evacuated to Poland last year during the Taliban takeover, has been appealing on Twitter about her family in Ukraine. In a tweet, Karimi said that they had been waiting nearly five months to get a visa to Canada, and now they’re stuck in the middle of war. “I just feel hopeless,” Karimi told VICE World News. “My family is stuck.” Her family, she added, are doing okay.
On Thursday, Poland said they will open nine reception centres along its 332-mile border with Ukraine to welcome the refugees. “There will certainly be a wave of refugees arriving in our country,” Poland’s Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski told the media, adding that the country will take in “as many as there will be”, and provide meals and medical care.
Tasmim said that he hopes to move to Spain or even Germany. “If Russia invaded this country, I will not stay back.”
The impact of displacement on Afghans is unprecedented, said Zamir Saar, a former professor in Afghanistan who is now a Global Journalism Fellow in Dalla Lana School of Public Health, in Canada.
The 34-year-old was evacuated from Afghanistan last year with his then pregnant wife to Ukraine, where he lived for three months before moving to Canada.
“I firsthand witnessed the chaos in Kabul, the firing, the stampede, the fear and chaos,” said Saar, who moved to Canada three months ago.
“Even after moving out, we were safe, but we weren’t home. Now with what is happening in Ukraine, things are getting difficult. I hope it doesn’t [get as bad] as it did in Afghanistan.”
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