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Monday 27 September 2021, by siawi3



Farid Kasi

Published September 26, 2021 - Updated about 12 hours ago

A file photo from a protest by Afghan Hazaras in Kabul. The community has historically faced persecution in the country | Reuters

The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan has also meant the return of fear for Afghan Hazaras, who faced brutal persecution at the hands of the Taliban during their last stint in power. Thousands of them have made their way across the border to Pakistan, a country with its own history of persecution of the Hazaras. One Afghan Hazara woman shares why she decided to make the move


On a September afternoon, an imambargah on the outskirts of Quetta is quieter than it has been over the past few weeks. The mostly Hazara Afghan refugees who had been living here have been asked to move out because of the fear of a raid.

Some of the refugees who had been staying at the imambargah have temporarily moved to a rented house. Upon entering the house, one is reminded of communal hostel living during college days. One kitchen, five rooms and many residents.

Zahida*, an Afghan woman barely in her thirties, is sitting in the room occupied by her and her family. They clearly have not travelled with many possessions. The most prominent thing is a packet of medicines.

Zahida’s shawl partially hides her amputated leg; her swollen eyes hide many stories. She shares some of them and her long journey with Eos.


On August 15, the world watched in disbelief as the Afghan Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. When President Ashraf Ghani flew out of his country it sent shockwaves around the globe. ‘What now?’ a great many confused commentators wondered in the media. But while those on the outside were coming to terms with how swiftly the Afghan government had fallen, many in Afghanistan had to quickly think of what to do next.

For Zahida, a Hazara woman, the question of ‘What now?’ became relevant in early August, when the Taliban started capturing different cities.

Zahida was a schoolteacher in Herat and her husband owned a medical store there. As the Taliban seemed to move in closer and closer to them, the couple decided to leave for Kabul, which was generally believed to be more secure. Surely, the Taliban forces couldn’t defeat the mighty Afghan army, they thought.

With the Taliban taking control of cities around them, the Hazara couple’s worst fears were coming true. The Hazaras, who now make up an estimated nine percent of Afghanistan’s population, have historically faced prejudice, mistreatment and violence in Afghanistan. But things relatively improved for them after the collapse of the Taliban rule in 2001.

Afghans such as Zahida fear that the Taliban’s return means a return of violence and persecution for the country’s mostly Shia Hazara population.

As the Taliban approached Herat, Zahida and her husband knew it was time for them to leave. Her pay had been pending for the last three months, but the couple decided to leave it behind. They started selling all their belongings at throwaway prices. And, at last, on August 10, they left for Kabul with their children.

Two days later, Herat fell into the hands of the Taliban. They had escaped right in time, they thought. But their troubles were far from over.

In a matter of days, the Taliban would take control of Zahida’s country. And, in a matter of weeks, her family would be one of the thousands of Hazara families seeking refuge across the border in Pakistan.


Photo: Evacuees crowd the interior of a US tranport aircraft en route to Qatar | Reuters

When Zahida’s family reached Kabul, they found the city packed with people from all over Afghanistan. Everyone was rushing towards the capital for security against the Taliban. Many of them were Hazara Shias. The Hazaras were aware of the sectarian discrimination by the Taliban in the past and could simply not afford to trust them.

The family started temporarily staying at a friend’s house while searching for a place for themselves. But their search was cut short when, on August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul.

Fear and confusion could be felt in the air. Kabul had become a textbook example of mayhem and chaos. Everyone started going towards the airport as they were told that US flights were airlifting people to America. The airport became another madhouse; people were climbing on each other, people hanging from planes. “My husband and I decided to wait for a few days because of my health — I am diabetic and cannot afford any fatigue and tension,” says Zahida.

On August 24, Zahida’s family went to the airport. Some of their relatives had gotten on a plane to the US, so they also decided to try their luck. It was tough to get in, with scores of people waiting to escape. “I sat in the shadow of a wall, covered from the top with barbed wire,” she recalls. “With each passing day, we were getting closer to the gate,” she adds.

With the Taliban taking control of cities around them, the Hazara couple’s worst fears were coming true. The Hazaras, who now make up an estimated nine percent of Afghanistan’s population, have historically faced prejudice, mistreatment and violence in Afghanistan.

On August 26, Zahida and her family were almost at the entrance gate when a massive explosion rocked the airport.


Zahida and her family started running towards secure ground. After the blast, firing began. “We were running. I was breathless and ran for not more than 10 minutes when I started feeling pain in my left leg,” she says. “I asked my husband to sit somewhere.”

When she sat on a low wall to recover some energy, she noticed that her trousers were drenched in blood. She asked her husband to see what had happened. “Let me bring a wheelbarrow to carry you to the hospital,” he responded. “Something has hit you.”

It took Zahida’s husband some time to find a wheelbarrow. By the time he returned, the pain was unbearable. Her leg was numb and she couldn’t feel it. “I was almost unconscious when he rushed me to the hospital,” she says.

Even in her condition, Zahida couldn’t help but notice that the hospital was full of people who had been injured in the blast. She was quickly taken to the operation theatre and a bullet was taken out of her leg.

When she woke up, it was close to early morning. The doctor advised Zahida to leave the hospital as they needed the room for treating patients with more severe injuries.

That is when Zahida’s family decided to leave for Quetta, Pakistan.


Zahida’s husband hired a taxi from Kabul that charged them almost 175 dollars (over 29,000 Pakistani rupees) for the nearly 590-kilometre-long journey till Spin Boldak, which neighbours Chaman in Pakistan. It was a long journey, made longer by several checkpoints and dilapidated roads along the way.

“I was continuously taking painkillers, but the excruciating pain wouldn’t go away,” Zahida recalls. “I felt a deep ache in my leg but couldn’t check it because of the burqa I was wearing,” she says.

On the way to Spin Boldak, the family stopped to have lunch at a local hotel. Zahida went to check her leg and saw that it was turning black and blue. She didn’t know what to make of it, and neither did her husband. Besides, while on the road, they had no choice but to ignore it anyway.

The family reached the border 18 hours after they first started in Kabul. A middleman helped them cross the border, charging an additional fee for his services.

Zahida and her family finally reached Quetta early in the morning and went straight to an imambargah. Here they were given breakfast and Zahida fell asleep for a while. Her husband went out to fetch some supplies.

Zahida woke up with a fever and an excruciating pain in her leg. Her husband was sitting next to her. She told him she was not feeling well and needed to go to the doctor. He told her they couldn’t go because they were illegal refugees. She implored him to take her as she felt like she was dying.

Moved by her pleas, the imambargah’s caretaker called a community doctor who examined her and told her to go to a hospital. He said her leg had gangrened. “I didn’t understand him, but it seemed like things were not good,” she recalls. “He said he would sneak us into the Civil Hospital at night.”

They reached the hospital at midnight, where an on-duty doctor examined her. He was of the view that her leg would need to be amputated. “I wanted to die at that moment, but I had to live for my children,” Zahida tells Eos.

Her family was told that the operation would cost 50,000 rupees. They barely had 20,000.

The family asked for money from everyone at the imambargah, which had started to fill up with more Afghan Hazara refugees.

“I never knew I would have to beg for money to cut my leg,” Zahida says. “The next day I was taken to the hospital on two legs and came back with one”


The plight of Hazaras in Pakistan is well-documented. But migrants such as Zahida believe that being here is a safer option than being in Afghanistan right now. Besides, most are only here temporarily and plan to travel further to Iran or Europe.

In a September 21 press conference, the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that they would consider putting women and members of the Hazara community in government positions. But most Hazaras, in Pakistan and back in Afghanistan, remain sceptical of these claims.

If there were any ambiguity about what the return of Taliban rule could mean for the Hazaras, it was removed by an August 19 report by Amnesty International, which found that Taliban fighters had massacred nine Hazara men after taking control of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in July.

“On-the-ground researchers spoke to eyewitnesses who gave harrowing accounts of the killings, which took place between 4-6 July in the village of Mundarakht, Malistan district,” the report says. According to the report, the brutal killings likely represent a small fraction of the total death toll, as the Taliban had cut mobile service in many areas that they had captured, controlling the photographs and videos shared from the regions.

But as the group seized control of the entire country, the violent imagery of what had happened was etched in the memories of those who had witnessed the atrocities. Zahida is just one of them, her amputated leg being a constant reminder of the hysteria and fear that came to Afghanistan with the Taliban rule.

Thousands of other stories remain unheard.


*Name changed to protect identity

The writer is a Chevening Scholar and received his Masters in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 26th, 2021




Muhammad Akbar Notezai

Published September 26, 2021 - Updated about 7 hours ago

Screengrabs of a video uploaded on Twitter that shows thousands of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan via Pakistan | Kiran Sharifi/Twitter

Although the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has not resulted, so far, in the kind of massive refugee influx that Pakistan feared, thousands of refugees are still willing to brave harsh uncertainties in Balochistan’s remote lands to find their way, eventually, to safety in Iran or Europe. But what do they hope awaits them on the other side?

As the sun goes down and the evening sets in, the guests staying at a khwaabgah (rest house) in Mashkhel tehsil of Washuk prepare for maghrib prayers. Children being children, run around in the old haveli in the desert that has been converted to a rest house. They seem to be blissfully unaware of how their life has been upended by the fall of the government in Afghanistan.

Several Afghan families, illegal refugee women and children are temporarily staying at the khwaabgah. The migrants say their namaz and many say a silent prayer for a more certain future.

Hayatullah* is one of the temporary residents here, unaware of what the future might hold for him and his family. Not too long ago, he was a policeman working with the Afghan National Police. Today, he is one of the thousands who have fled Afghanistan and entered Pakistan within the past month.

Although Hayatullah is not Pakhtun, he has dressed like a Pakhtun man. He is wearing a cap and a weskit over shalwar qameez. He clearly wants to avoid drawing attention to himself. Initially, he even tries to hide his previous professional identity while speaking to Eos, but cannot help but reveal it when he gets into the flow of conversation.

As part of a police force that, eventually, had to lay down its arms, Hayatullah saw the Taliban take control of his country from the frontlines. “Within the past two decades, the Taliban’s popularity has risen, and they have emerged victorious after incorporating all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan,” he says, adding that all this was made possible by bad governance by those previously in office, and rampant corruption.

Hayatullah has arrived in Pakistan along with his wife, two children and very little else. He regrets that the life he had built over the past 20 years has been left behind. He and his family aren’t even at the point of starting over yet. At the moment, they are simply on the run.

“We are on the run, because it is crystal clear that the Taliban’s amnesty scheme is a farce,” he says, adding that the “evidence” of this is the thousands of Afghans abandoning their homes to save their lives and seek peaceful places to stay. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) data, over 9,000 Afghan refugees have entered Pakistan since the fall of the Afghan government in August.

Hayatullah left his country over four days ago and, like other Afghans, has been at the mercy of human smugglers to slip into Pakistan. From Pakistan, he plans to move forward and seek refuge in Iran.

“We have an understanding with the human smugglers,” he says while sitting at the khwaabgah with his children and wife. “In case anything goes wrong, they won’t be paid. That is the only assurance we could take.”


There is no end in sight for the Afghan exodus, which has continued over the last four decades. Background interviews with human smugglers suggest that illegal migration has also continued for decades, with many Afghans moving to Iran via Balochistan. While security threats have remained a pertinent concern in the region, it is said that Afghans have also been migrating for economic reasons. With the UNDP estimating that up to 97 percent of Afghanistan’s population might slip below the poverty line by 2022, this issue is only likely to grow.

Due to its geographic proximity and other ethnic and cultural similarities, Pakistan has housed Afghan refugees for decades. According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2020, over 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees were living in Pakistan. As per government estimates, the country currently houses some 3.5 million Afghan refugees.

In 2017, Pakistan started fencing the Durand Line, its 2,634-kilometre-long border with Afghanistan, and the fence is reportedly nearly complete. Among other reasons, Pakistan fenced its border to stop illegal Afghan refugees, who have been entering the country for decades.

But, despite the fact that officially Afghan refugees are not allowed to enter Pakistani territory, they have continued to do so. Most, including Hayatullah’s family and others quoted in this story, enter courtesy of human smugglers, often risking their lives in the process.


Photo: Afghan nationals stand at the Dowqarun border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan | Reuters

The journey taken by most Afghan refugees is a difficult one, that no one would embark on unless they absolutely had to. Over the years, the journey has also ended for some of these refugees in death by starvation.

After arriving in Pakistan, the human smugglers take the illegal immigrants to one of two routes. They are either taken to Rajay in the Chaghi district or Mashkhel in the Washuk district (where Hayatullah and his family are temporarily staying). Rajay, which borders Iran, was the more popular route. But this route is now completely fenced. So the refugees have to head to Mashkhel and from there onwards to Jodar to cross into Iran.

One of the drivers Yousaf* claims that he earns 12,000 rupees a day doing double shifts. Attaullah*, another human smuggler who transports immigrants by motorbike to far flung areas that border Iran, has an even bigger payday. He transports Afghan immigrants on his motorbike and, because other vehicles cannot go near the border unnoticed, the immigrants, including women and children, have no choice but to take the ride. Attaullah, who charges 1,000 rupees per person for the approximately five-kilometre-long ride, has been doing good business with the surge of Afghan immigrants. The young man is saving the money for his upcoming wedding ceremony.

Most people he leaves at the border are hoping to eventually land up in Europe, he says.

Aasiyah is travelling with her two younger brothers and mother. She had to leave her father behind in Afghanistan and does not know where he might be.

But the journey is dangerous and not everyone makes it. Saeed Zehri, a former tehsildar posted in Naukundi town, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, once shared that three bodies of Afghan immigrants were found in the region. The immigrants had died due to thirst and hunger.

Not too long ago, a pick-up truck loaded with Afghan immigrants that was en route to Iran, was captured by robbers. The Frontier Corps got it released after a shoot-out.

Recently, there have also been cases of Punjabi immigrants reportedly dying of thirst and starvation in the same border region, after being left in the lurch by the human smugglers.


A file photo shows Afghan refugees waiting to get registered at a UNHCR centre in Peshawar | AFP

Many families from Afghanistan are forced to take this uncertain journey without the men in their family. Aasiyah’s* is one such family, temporarily staying at another khwaabgah. She is travelling with her two younger brothers and mother. She had to leave her father behind in Afghanistan and does not know where he might be.

Aasiyah used to teach English and work with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Afghanistan. She fears that her work may have led to her father’s disappearance. “My father did not return home and we fear that he was picked up by the Taliban due to my work,” she says, adding that she fears for her father’s life more than the journey ahead.

At the NGO, Aasiyah would help conduct surveys with the Americans. She says that her father was a shopkeeper who had nothing to do with her work. After going into hiding following her father’s mysterious disappearance, Aasiyah felt she had to rely on human smugglers and escape Afghanistan.

The NGO paid her 40,000 Afghanis (about PKR 79,000 at current rates) monthly. She would use the money to attend university herself and had recently started taking shabba (evening) classes. “Everything is ruined now,” she says, as her voice cracks. “I thought I would have a brighter future after completing my studies. Instead, I have become the cause of my father’s abduction for daring to venture out and work with a foreign NGO.”

Yasmeen*, another Afghan woman in her 30s, is also travelling with her elderly mother and three sisters. Her brother, who was a part of the Afghan National Army, was killed in fighting with the Taliban in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. “He was the main breadwinner of our family of four sisters, one brother and a mother... While I used to earn a little income by running a beauty parlour,” she says while sobbing. “The Ashraf Ghani government did not pay us even a penny for his martyrdom.”

When the Afghan government fell, Yasmeen and her family decided it was time to leave. Soon, photographs of defaced hoardings outside beauty parlours in Kabul began appearing in the media.

Yasmeen and her sisters say that they are left with nothing. “We are homeless and countryless,” Yasmeen says, while wiping her tears with her black dupatta.

As fears regarding the Taliban rule’s impact on women’s rights in Afghanistan mount, it is no surprise that more and more women are trying to flee.


Photo: General view of the Chaman border with Pakistan’s flag on one end and the Taliban flag on the other | Reuters

Hailing from Balochistan, anthropologist Dr Hafeez Jamali has spent a considerable amount of time with Afghan immigrants and human smugglers in the border region, and understands the nuances and ground realities better than most.

“Afghanistan has been in a war-like situation since 1979,” he says, adding that, in times of crisis, people temporarily move to different places, only to return home once the conflict is over. However, he adds, if such situations persist over generations, as is the case in Afghanistan, then permanent moves become more common.

He says that when a sufficient number of people from a region or ethnic group migrate because of a conflict, a certain kinship network develops between the migrants in other countries. This network also facilitates their movement in other places. And it motivates others to move to places where they may find peace during war time in their own home country.

“Contrary to the US perception, Afghanistan was not a peaceful country under the US occupation,” Dr Jamali says, adding that during the so-called ‘war on terror’, Afghans had good reason to move out of the country. “Similarly,” he adds, “now that the Taliban have taken over, the number of Afghans leaving the country has increased.”


As more Afghan refugees make their way towards Pakistan, National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf has maintained that, while Pakistan will do whatever is possible to help the Afghans, the country is in “no condition to accept more refugees.”

But not all refugees are embarking on this journey to settle in Pakistan.

Sultan Afridi, a retired assistant director of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), tells Eos that Europe is the destination for most Afghan immigrants.

Afridi has headed the FIA’s anti-human smuggling operations a number of times. In 2009, he and his team arrested human smugglers after at least 46 Afghan immigrants died and 60 became unconscious in a locked container in the Hazarganji area of Quetta. All of the victims were trying to enter Iran through unfrequented routes of Balochistan.

Background interviews with officials suggest that they believe the movement of immigrants will come to an end after the completion of the fence with Afghanistan and Iran.

But not everyone is convinced. Dr Jamali cites the example of the US-Mexico border to point out that these fences alone cannot stop movement. “It is heavily patrolled, guarded and surveilled. Despite all this, people cross it,” says Dr Jamali.

He gives the example of patches on the US-Mexico border, in parts of Arizona and Texas, that are so hot that they are deserted. Yet, bones of migrants are sometimes found here. “They perish but they do not give up,” he adds.

Nonetheless, the number of Afghans entering the country is lesser than what was initially expected by many when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. The fence and more stringent controls on the borders may have contributed to this.

Nonetheless, people such as Hayatullah, Aasiyah and Yasmeen, ready to leave everything behind to escape a conflicted-ridden homeland, will continue to embark on dangerous journeys.

The migrants are fully aware of the possible dangers and the uncertainty ahead, and that a brighter future may not be waiting for them on the other side. Hayatullah sums it up best by saying, “We are headed to a mirage.”


*Name changed to protect identity

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, EOS,* September 26th, 2021*