Afghans Queue Desperately for Passports for Chance To Escape
Afghans queue for hours in hopes of obtaining a passport to leave the country. Photo obtained by VICE

‘No Way Out’: Afghans Queue Desperately for Passports for Chance to Escape

Thousands fled as the Taliban entered Kabul, forcing the closure of the passport department and shutting down hopes of those longing to leave.
August 16, 2021, 1:43am

As the Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday, VICE World News spoke to one young man who was among the thousands of Afghans desperately applying for a passport.

He had managed to finish his biometrics and was on the verge of completing his documents when the chaos started.

“People heard the Taliban entered Kabul,” he told VICE World News. “People panicked and there was a huge rush to leave. I had to leave as well.”

Forced to exit the building, the man witnessed scenes of unrest on the streets. “Everyone was trying to escape the city by cars and walking,” he said.

By the afternoon, the Taliban held all of Afghanistan’s border crossings, leaving Kabul airport as the only way out of the country. Over the past weeks—as the U.S. finalized the withdrawal of their troops after 20 years of war—the Taliban gained territory and took control of key cities at an aggressive pace. In the days prior, anxious Afghans had started a mad scramble to leave, fearing the loss of freedoms and a return to previous life under Taliban rule. Airlines reported full capacity in their flights for weeks. 

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But for most Afghans, the majority of whom are without travel documents, let alone the means to travel, purchasing a flight ticket is a pipe dream.

Away from the airport, long queues of men, women, and children snaked the streets around the passport department on Sunday morning. Those in line didn’t know if their hours of waiting would lead to anything. 

“I applied 20 days ago for a passport, and I came today for my biometrics,” another Afghan man, who sat outside waiting for his turn, told VICE World News. He said he came at 3 a.m. but was still waiting as of 8:30 a.m.

“It’s so difficult to get a passport as a regular person,” he added. “But members of parliament and people in power can get passports for their relatives quickly.”

In the end, many went home empty-handed as the building was forced to close down with the arrival of the Taliban. The man sitting outside said leaving the country anytime soon was close to impossible, as he didn’t know when the passport department would resume operations.

But even for those with a passport, getting a visa to a third country presents yet another obstacle.

Another Afghan woman interviewed by VICE World News has eight months left in her passport. She too attempted to apply to extend its validity on Sunday, but was caught in the panic of the Taliban’s speedy arrival. “No embassy will give me a visa,” she said. She added that flights to India and Turkey are still available, but that she is unable to afford a flight to Turkey, and her travel agency advised her to renew her passport before applying for an Indian visa. 

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Afghanistan has the worst-ranked passport in the world, with most countries requiring a multitude of documents before granting visas to Afghan passport holders. 

The woman, who lived through Taliban rule in the 90s, told VICE World News she just wants to get out, as she fears for her life as a woman. “There is no way out for us. I just want to escape from Afghanistan and find refuge in another country.” 

The flurry to escape reached a breaking point on Sunday, as U.S. and other countries mobilized to evacuate their diplomatic staff from the Afghanistan capital and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani himself fled, fueling widespread panic among Afghan civilians who tried to do the same. In a video stream from Al-Jazeera, dozens of Taliban fighters holding guns were seen entering the presidential palace and making their way through the marbled halls of the building, before taking a seat behind the presidential desk and taking photos signaling a full takeover.

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Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Photo: AP/Zabi Karimi

On Sunday evening, 60 countries issued a joint statement calling for “the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country.” The statement added that “Afghans and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so,” and asked that “roads, airports and border crossing must remain open.”

International and domestic flights continued to operate, but the airport was in havoc. Images from the ground show crowds of people on the runway where commercial planes were parked. Those with plane tickets were unsure if their pre-booked flights would come, while other flights were cancelled. Meanwhile, helicopters flew in and out evacuating diplomats and embassy personnel throughout the day. U.S. residents were told by the embassy to shelter in place as gunfire was heard at the airport.

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In an interview with the BBC, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen attempted to reassure fleeing Afghans that they “should not have worries.”

“We want them to stay,” he said. “The fears are not based on reality.” Shaheen said the Taliban “want to avoid bloodshed and destruction,” and that in the next few days, the people can expect a peaceful transfer of power from the government to the Taliban, and gave assurances that everyone can resume their normal lives. “We want all embassies to continue their work,” he added.

Shaheen also said women “should not be scared” and “they can live their lives normally” including preserving their right to work and education.

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Smoke rises next to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. Taliban fighters entered the outskirts of the Afghan capital on Sunday, further tightening their grip on the country as panicked workers fled government offices and helicopters landed at the embassy. Photo: AP/Rahmat Gul

The Taliban were in power in Afghanistan from 1996, until they were overthrown in 2001 by a U.S.-backed government. Under Taliban rule, the Islamic fundamentalist group prohibited girls from going to school and women from working; banned music, movies and television; and were accused of various human rights abuses, particularly as their brand of justice strictly followed their interpretation of Sharia law. 

But while Afghans await what lies ahead under this new Taliban government, the fear of a possible return to previous life is forcing many who had never wanted to leave home to attempt an escape.

“I never wanted to leave my country. But unfortunately the situation and things changed so quickly. We lost all achievement that we had in 20 years. We had a military, a government and everything—at least I was hopeful for a peaceful country. Now there is no hope,” the man who’d been on the verge of completing his passport application said. He added that he ultimately decided to try and leave to give his children a chance for a brighter future.

“I need to leave this country. But I don’t know where, I just need a place with security, safety, and opportunity of education and work.”

Update 08/16/2021: The story has been updated to further anonymize sources.