women children kabul airport afghan
Women with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: The young team of volunteers in Kabul were up early on Saturday morning collecting aid for the thousands of displaced Afghans who had fled to the capital as war between the Taliban and government forces had intensified in the northern provinces a week earlier.

The group of men and women, mostly in their 20s, had paused their own lives over the last four days to provide aid to the most desperate of the displaced. Their operation began early in the morning and ended at about 1 or 2am.

“The situation is far worse than what we thought. There are so many people displaced, we just can’t get to everyone,” said an out of breath but energetic Shahed Farhoosh on the phone, in between rushing from camp to camp to deliver the aid.

“Every house in Kabul is filled with people who have fled. There are displaced people all over the city; in parks, streets, everywhere,” said the co-founder of Pol-e-Sorkh Cultural Centre in Kabul before excusing himself for what was intended to be a short pause in the conversation while he and his team assisted people.

Across Kabul volunteer groups had rapidly formed to help their fellow countrymen and women who had left their homes in a hurry and with very little.

Mohammad and Reza, 35-year-old friends, had been horrified with what they discovered when they investigated the situation four days earlier.

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People who fled to Kabul to escape the war in their areas living in parks. Most tents, blankets and food are donated. Image Credit: Supplied

“People didn’t even have a rug under them. They were just on the ground in the parks, in the streets. There was no bathroom, no water,” said Reza.

“There were young women who were sleeping on the ground, with no cover and no privacy,” said Reza, as he explained the situation could draw unwanted male attention and endanger them.

Plan of action

The pair, along with a group of about 10 other friends, immediately formed a plan of action to collect necessities such as tents, baby formula, sanitary products for women, food and medication. They coordinated with the municipality to provide portable toilets to the parks and even organised for an ambulance on standby near the sites. Next they formed a Facebook site, Emergency Support to Internally Displaced People in Kabul, and were quickly overwhelmed with donations, mostly from Afghans.

Aware that over 56 per cent of Afghans lived in poverty and continuous donations of money or food would not be a realistic expectation, the group planned, distributed and spent cautiously.

The government, which had been overwhelmed and distracted with events around the country, had also finally stepped in and organised for families to move to mosques, schools and even orphanages.

Distressing reports such as a pregnant woman giving birth in an open park without even a makeshift screen or coverage and people, especially children, requiring urgent medical attention soon added doctors to the group of volunteers.

One such doctor was Dr Bahram Siddiqi, a general surgeon and a sports medicine specialist who also serves as Afghanistan’s national football team doctor. He had been hopping from camp to camp every evening after his daily work, seeing hundreds of patients in often crowded and unsanitary environments.

Medical attended needed

Several women had given birth at the camps without a doctor present and now needed medical attention and almost all his female patients suffered from “stomach issues” caused by extreme stress.

“It is difficult, especially for women who will have no privacy in the crowded visitation area. They try to whisper their condition in my ear. Some would beg for a female gynaecologist and we promise to try and find them one,” he said.

As for corona, “Afghans joke there are far deadlier issues here than corona,” he said as he laughed and confirmed that he saw no signs of anyone with shortness of breath or other signs of the disease.

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Doctors seeing patients at the parks and even streets. They carry bags of medications with them to treat people. Image Credit: Supplied

It would be over three hours before Farhoosh, who had vowed to return in 15 minutes, reappeared. A broken, spiritless voice re-emerged.

After an initial struggle to form a sentence he said, “We’ve received some bad news, Mazar-i-Sharif has fallen.”

The fall of this commercially important city in the north made Kabul the only city still not under Taliban control on Saturday evening. With insurgents surrounding the capital, Kabul’s capture was now inevitable.

Farhoosh tried hard to regain his composure but the shock was too great for the 25-year-old who was left uncertain of what the future held in store for him.

He and his friends had worked tirelessly to open one of Kabul’s largest cultural centres in April 2021, a rare sight in a city that often had to carry cultural activities in secret for fear of an attack from fanatics who considered arts against their version of Islam.

Kabul Afghan street ambulance
Ambulances are used to see people who may be on the streets. Image Credit: Supplied

The centre was equipped with a coffee shop, a bookstore, stalls that sold handmade Afghan rugs and crafts, art classes that taught music, painting, writing and calligraphy. It hosted a flower shop run by a young woman, also scarce in the conservative city that is not used to seeing women in sales positions.

The space had become an instant hub for “the culture lovers, journalists, artists and forward thinkers of Kabul.”

“We opened this place with a heart full of dreams. We wanted to show the world we are book lovers, we are friendly, don’t be afraid of us. We are not violent. We are not supporters of wars. We are not killers,” said Farhoosh.

“We are living in an extremely scary and desperate time. Will they allow us to continue our operations? I don’t know,” said a distraught Farhoosh.

Banned poets

Book exhibitions and poetry sessions were some of the more popular and regular events held by Pol-e-Sorkh Cultural Centre. Saman, a 26-year-old poet, had become a regular attendee. He fears subjects he and his friends discuss, love and foolish extreme ideology, would be banned under the Taliban and even punished.

“I look at my friends and I don’t want any of them to die,” he said. “Many of them have been Taliban critics, I don’t want them to die,” he added before falling into a heavy silence.

Saman has good reason to be afraid. His childhood memories of a tree coated in black tape ripped from confiscated banned music cassettes and videotapes by the Taliban or watching a man get beaten and dragged away by the group are still fresh in his mind.

As the Taliban had advanced through the country he said there were also reports of Taliban going door to door and killing their critics.”A satirist was killed, a historian was killed,” he said.

A few days earlier he was heartbroken when he witnessed a group of youngsters donate their toys to displaced children.

“I looked at the children and all I could think was their future had been sold with this deal. Under the Taliban rule they will be taught hate. They’ll even turn men against women. Taliban teachings are dangerous,” he said.

“We fought for the rest of the world so 9/11 would not be repeated. The whole world is in danger with this takeover,” he added.

Saman was unsure whether he would be able to continue to live in his country. For the time being he knew he had to stay under the radar and not draw attention to himself but he could not imagine a world where he did not write poetry from his heart.

“I just don’t know what will happen to us. Afghanistan is turning into ashes in front of our eyes.”

The contemporary artists

Saman’s fears of being censored, banned or worse persecuted are echoed by other artists, especially women.

“First and foremost, it will be women who will be affected under a Taliban government, then the journalists, the artists and people who work in the cultural fields,” said Jahan Ara Rafi, a Kabul based contemporary artist and teacher whose work was a massive hit in Abu Dhabi at a 2019 exhibition in the capital. The event would turn out to be her last exhibition to date as the Covid pandemic and her country’s fading security drove her work online.

During the last war Rafi and her family were forced to flee to Pakistan so she could continue to have an education. She was able to return to Kabul in 2002 when the Taliban were ousted and attend university.

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Jahan Ara Rafi, Kabul-based contemporary artist, is afraid she will not be able to continue her art or work under a Taliban government which would drive her to leave the country. Image Credit: Supplied

As a young woman in Afghanistan Rafi may get harassed for taking a stroll and cannot go out alone at night. She can get intimidated or insulted if she drives, her art is not always welcome by those who do not understand it and holding a simple exhibition can turn into a security risk for her. However, she refused to leave her country again and worked on developing cultural fields and female artists.

She made women’s plights the theme of her work, presenting their will and strength in overcoming limitations with long or bent necks immersed in bold colours.

Now her future in Kabul remains uncertain.

“It’s a heavy word asylum. No one wants to leave their homeland and go to a country they don’t know, a new language, a new culture. But you are forced to accept everything when you become a refugee,” Rafi said.

“There is no way I can stay here and live under a government that censors me, that wants to stop my work, my art and limit me,” she said. “This is the same Talib that stopped us from going to school and forced women to stay at home, to only be allowed out with a male companion. They haven’t changed,” added Rafi.

Being out of the country and its pandemonium did not make an Afghan’s decision about the future any less stressful.

Robaba Mohammadi was in Dubai with two of her siblings as the Taliban advanced towards Kabul, making it impossible for them to return. The 21-year-old painter and singer had already been a target of an extremist’s attack in 2020.

“Artists have been put in a very difficult situation. Many of my work was stopped after we were attacked. If I go back I wont be able to continue with my art or even leave the house. It will be hell,” said Mohammadi who prides herself in being active.

Mohammadi had become a symbol of hope for many girls and people with disabilities in her country through her persistence to pursue her dreams despite her inability to walk or use her hands. She refused to be locked away in a room, as people with disabilities often are in her culture. And in 2019 together with her siblings she went on to establish a cultural centre to help young Afghans, especially those with disabilities.

As her popularity grew she began to receive threats and intimidation for singing in public and not covering her hair and body fully. Then in March 2020 her centre was a target of a grenade attack as she and her brother, Ali, slept inside. Ali’s quick thinking got them to the small room’s door before the blast went off. Luckily they escaped with minor physical injuries.

The trio were now occupied in desperately trying to figure out which country would grant them asylum and wondered about the fate of the rest of their family in Afghanistan.

“We are extremely worried for our families at home and our people. We are constantly calling them. They are very stressed too and it is getting far too late and complicated for them to leave,” said a distressed Mohammadi.

Fall of Kabul

On Sunday morning Taliban forces had entered Kabul and the nightmare so many in the city dreaded had become a reality. People flooded the banks to withdraw their savings as uncertainty grew.

By Sunday evening a different type of fear was creeping in and many began to lock themselves indoors.

It was not just the armed Taliban in the streets of Kabul that had scared people off. News of freed prisoners from the notorious Pul-e-Charki prison, which housed former Daesh and Al Qaida fighters, roaming the streets had put people further on edge.

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Displaced families and children in Kabul. Image Credit: Supplied

“It’s just not safe to go out tonight,” said Dr. Siddiqi.

Over the years Dr Siddiqui had experienced several close calls with suicide bombers in Afghanistan but having previously lived as a refugee he did not want to leave his country. He was now reconsidering his options.

“I don’t want my sons to study under the Taliban,” said the father of two.

“These world leaders came, did what they wanted and they left.

It’s like they took a grenade, pulled the pin, ran and left us with the blast,” said Siddiqi.

Mohammad, who had also had to flee to Pakistan as a child, had avoided leaving his country too. But now he was not so sure.

“It is a very tough and unsettling situation. We know something terrible is coming,” he said.

“The way the situation has evolved over the last few months has completely undone all the work that was carried out over the last 20 years,” said Mohammad.

He worried about the majority of Afghans who did not have the luxury of leaving the country.

“In the 1990s we could easily travel to India, Iran, Pakistan but that has all changed and borders are closed. People are going to suffer,” said Mohammad.

“We are living in the peak of fear,” he said.

As for what would happen to the thousands who were still displaced in Kabul, Reza expected many would return to their homes when the roads opened.

“There are two types of people here; those who have fled because they were in the middle of the gunfire and those who lived in such bad conditions that thought there might be a better life for them in Kabul,” he said. Reza suspected those in the first category would return home when the situation had calmed down. Others may choose to stay in Kabul to earn a better living.

By late Sunday evening Mohammad and Reza’s group’s emergency fund raising Facebook site announced they were postponing donations while they assessed the situation and would provide further updates when they had more information.

The displaced Afghans in the camps had to do without seeing the volunteers on Sunday evening. When the city would be secure enough to allow the volunteers to get aid to them again was anybody’s guess. And how many of them would still be in the country?

*Some of the people in the story were given assumed names.

- Sarvy Geranpayeh is a journalist who reports on international affairs.