‘There were dozens of Taliban checkpoints’

As the Taliban continue their campaign against activists in Afghanistan, countless Afghans have attempted to flee the country, either by land or air. The JowharObservers team spoke with a women’s rights activist who, fearing retaliation from the Taliban, made the desperate decision to cross the border out of Afghanistan as soon as the militant group arrived in Kabul on August 15, with the help of a smuggler. She told us her story.

Since the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021, tens of thousands of Afghans have fled the country. Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport has been a scene of chaos for more than a week, as foreign governments frantically evacuate their Afghan embassy staff and auxiliaries.

Foreign governments have been facilitating the evacuation of Afghans who worked directly with their embassies or military forces. However, Afghan activists who have worked across the country with NGOs and associations dedicated to human rights, democracy and the protection of minority groups, such as women, have faced greater obstacles.

The Taliban have set up checkpoints on Kabul’s roads, across the country, and at border crossings. Witnesses say they have been checking names at these checkpoints to find activists and individuals who have collaborated with foreign governments, making it nearly impossible for people at risk to travel across the country or reach the airport. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on August 20 that Afghans at risk from the Taliban “have no clear exit” from the country.

The Taliban have also stepped up their offensive against Afghan journalists and activists considered a threat to the Islamist group’s regime. Witnesses across Afghanistan report that Taliban fighters have already begun conducting targeted searches for people on their blacklist.

>> Read more on The Observers: ‘I knew they were coming for us’: Afghan journalists and activists report on Taliban retaliation

Some activists desperate for fear of retaliation from the Taliban had to act quickly when the militant group descended on Kabul on August 15.

‘I was able to find a smuggler with the help of some friends’

Nahid (not her real name) is an Afghan women’s rights activist living in Kabul. He has received multiple threats from the Taliban over the years and moved quickly to leave the country with his children when he heard that the group had surrounded the Afghan capital.

The first thing I did the morning I learned that the Taliban had occupied Kabul [on August 15] it was to go to the market and buy a chador [Editor’s note: an Islamic scarf that covers the hair and body] since I knew it would be impossible to move without one. I knew that everything the Taliban would say about people’s safety is a lie: I knew that I had to save my life and protect the safety of my children.

I was able to find a smuggler with the help of some friends. He told me that I would have to get to Kandahar myself. [Editor’s note: a 500 km journey] and we would have to pay 10,000 afghans [around €100] For each person. The price is usually between 10,000 and 17,000 Afghans for each person. [between €100 and €170].

Banks were closed so we couldn’t get our money. We just ran with what little we had in our pockets. Most of the people are like us, they had no money. Many of the Afghan refugees are in the same situation and have nothing, they simply live in mosques and depend on the local population for donations.

Now: People line up in front of closed banks in Kabul to get money pic.twitter.com/GxSPDV1iOf

– Muslim Shirzad (@MuslimShirzad) August 24, 2021 Photos posted to Twitter on August 24 show crowds of people lining up at a bank in Kabul to withdraw cash. ‘Every time they stopped us and checked us, I had a panic attack’

I took a car to Kandahar and there were dozens of Taliban checkpoints on the road. I don’t know how many there were, but every time they stopped us and searched us, I would have a panic attack when I saw their terrifying beards and AK-47s. They treated people savagely, opening up and searching their bags at midnight. All the way, I didn’t take off my chador, for fear of the Taliban. I was afraid that at any moment they would point at me and say ‘Get out of the car’. I had no documents with me and I had reset my cell phone to have no information about me.

The Taliban have established checkpoints in Kandahar pic.twitter.com/OLF3O8AJnn

– امارت اسلامی اردو (@EIAUrdu) August 21, 2021 Photos posted to Twitter on August 21 by the Taliban’s Urdu Twitter page show Taliban fighters at a checkpoint in Kandahar.

When we got to town, the smuggler came to pick us up. He had connections to the Taliban and they knew him, so we could go through the following checkpoints without arousing suspicion and without being checked by the fighters.

When we got to the border post, there was an ocean of people there, it was as if all the people from Afghanistan were there. I saw some families split up at the border, the children lost their parents. In the early days of Taliban control, borders weren’t as tight as they are today. The smuggler gave us some identification cards for the Pakistani guards to let us into their territory. We didn’t eat for a day, we didn’t drink water all day, it was hot, it was hell on earth.

Several days after the Taliban took office, Pakistani officials increased checks on their side of a major border checkpoint with Afghanistan in Torkham, saying they made the investigation process at the border more stringent to prevent it from the militants in disguise will cross.

The Taliban have been taking control of the main border crossings around Afghanistan since July. However, several thousand Afghans were able to cross the border into Pakistan shortly after the group captured Kabul.

Everything we have worked for for 20 years is gone, we made a life trying to make a good country for our children and it was all in vain. Now I am in a safer place in Pakistan, and that is why I have decided to speak openly, to say what happened to me and what is happening to my compatriots under the Taliban regime.

But I can’t stay here either. First, because I am here illegally and the Pakistani government does nothing to support us. On the other hand, it is dangerous: here too there have been multiple terrorist attacks. [Editor’s note: the Pakistani Taliban, a Pakistani group with links to the Afghan Taliban, is currently active in the city Nahid is staying in]. I need to go somewhere where my children can move freely without fear, where they can continue their studies, where we can work. The international community must help us.

About 1.5 million Afghan refugees fled to neighboring Pakistan in 2020, according to UNHCR. On August 17, 2021, the UN refugee agency issued a notice of no return, calling for a ban on the forced returns of Afghan refugees whose asylum applications were rejected.

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