Montreal

Hiding from the Taliban in Kabul: 'My sin is that I am born in this country, and I am a woman'

As the Taliban takes over the Afghan capital and residents scramble to leave the country, groups are calling on countries offering humanitarian support to relax visa requirements. Radio-Canada spoke with an Afghan woman stranded in Kabul who is trying to leave for the U.K., where she is registered to study.

A woman recounts her experience in the Afghan capital as the Taliban take over

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul on Monday. Thousands of people packed into the Afghan capital's airport, rushing the tarmac and pushing onto planes in desperate attempts to flee the country after the Taliban overthrew the Western-backed government. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

Mina remembers the first time the Taliban took over her country, in the mid-1990s.

"When the Taliban came, I was four years old. I remember small details of when they broke into our house, as my father at the time worked with the government," she recounted in a series of text and voice messages sent to Radio-Canada from Kabul.

Thankfully, she says, her father had already fled, and the family was able to make it to Pakistan. They lived there in exile until the American intervention in 2001.

"Why did the U.S. government come in, if they were to leave us like this again?" she said. "Now after 25 years, I am back in the same situation. I am traumatized. The trauma is washing back."

For days, Mina has been trying to flee Afghanistan to get to safety after the Taliban gained control over most of the country, including the capital, Kabul. Western-educated and English-speaking, she asked Radio-Canada to withhold her real name and omit details about her job to protect her identity, as this information could put her in danger.

On Sunday and Monday, three different flights she had booked to leave the country were abruptly cancelled.

WATCH | Desperate Afghans flock to Kabul airport in attempts to flee: 

Desperate Afghans flock to Kabul airport in attempts to flee

4 months ago
2:21
As the Taliban tightens its hold on Afghanistan, desperate people flocked to Kabul’s airport as a last resort to try and get onto planes headed west. 2:21

"The airline personnel and the police who do the check-ins all suddenly disappeared. And then the gate to the runway was opened and everyone just rushed into the airplane," she said of the first missed flight, which was destined to go to Pakistan.

"People with or without passports, with or without tickets. The plane never flew, the crew wasn't there."

For women, options increasingly limited

Even though she has been accepted into a British university this fall, Mina says she was required to go to Pakistan in order to obtain the necessary British travel documents, as there is no British consulate in Afghanistan.

"If a consulate was here, I could have applied for a U.K. visa, gotten my visa, and I may have been in the U.K. now."

I think that all Western countries that played a role in Afghanistan have a responsibility to step up and support the humanitarian impact of our actions in those countries.- Andrew Rusk, founder of Not Left Behind

For safety reasons, her family has dispersed throughout Kabul to hide in different locations. This has limited Mina's escape options, as she cannot return to the airport without a man accompanying her.

"I don't have any male relatives to go with, and they might kill me if I am without mahram," she said, referring to a male chaperone."

As the Taliban continues their offensive, stranded citizens are flocking to the airport in Kabul, which has erupted into violent chaos. Mina says that many of her relatives are still there waiting for a flight out, sending reports of gunfire and injuries.

Those in hiding are scrambling to erase any trace of Western influence from their lives. On Monday morning, Mina says, Taliban officials were searching houses looking for government officials or activists.

Women with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, on Monday. (Reuters)

As a preventive measure, her employer has pulled down its website, which featured pictures of Mina and her colleagues, and she has hidden all proof of her academic and professional achievements. "Initially I was thinking of destroying my educational documents,'' she said. "But then I don't know, if I get out of the country I might need my documents and that might create problems for me.

"I closed the doors of my office yesterday, I don't know if I will ever return back to my office where I invested my whole life," she said. "My sin is that I was born in this country, and I am a woman."

Mina says her Western contacts haven't been able to help.

"We did contact the ministries of foreign affairs of the U.K. and the U.S. asking for their help and support, but they said, 'We can't help.' I don't know how they cannot help their own graduates and they know that our life is at risk because of them, because we studied there."

Western countries need to step up, advocate says

Several politicians, activists and human rights advocates are calling on Western countries to ease visa requirements for Afghan nationals.

"I think that all Western countries that played a role in Afghanistan have a responsibility to step up and support the humanitarian impact of our actions in those countries," Andrew Rusk, founder of the advocacy group Not Left Behind, said in an interview.

His organization, which was created to raise awareness of the persecution experienced by Afghan nationals who helped Canadian military members, is now advocating for the relaxation of visa requirements.

"We need to ensure that the bureaucratic obstacles that are currently keeping good people from getting to safety aren't there," Rusk said.

WATCH | Canadian vet 'absolutely livid' at Canada's response to fall of Kabul: 

Canadian vet 'absolutely livid' at Canada's response to fall of Kabul

4 months ago
8:30
Canadian veterans are calling on Ottawa to do more to get Afghans to safety. Retired corporal Robin Rickards says Justin Trudeau 'just slammed the door shut' on Afghan citizens' escape from the Taliban. 8:30

Locked in her house and separated from many of her loved ones, Mina said that Afghan women have already lost their freedom.

"Normally I wear jeans or tights or scarves and just a normal T-shirt," she said.

"But now I am wearing a hijab with a scarf, just at home, so if they enter I am fully covered and they won't hit us. Imagine, I don't have the freedom to wear what I want to wear inside my house."

Fears for the future

Mina said she fears what will happen to her if she remains stranded in Afghanistan.

"The Taliban don't like women to go outside the house, and if a woman has travelled to the U.K. or the U.S. without a mahram, how are they going to treat that woman," she asked. "The situation is so bad, people are so afraid of the future."

She says foreign governments need to adjust their immigration requirements to the realities on the ground. Canada, for example, has promised asylum to those facing the wrath of the Taliban, such as journalists, interpreters and activists. However, this help only extends to Afghan nationals who had already succeeded in leaving the country.

"Canada says they will accept refugees, but for that you have to be referred by UNHCR in a third country. How can one get to a third country with all borders closed?"

The federal Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship did not answer specific questions pertaining to help it plans to provide to Afghan nationals still stranded in the country, simply reiterating its plan to help 20,000 Afghans who have already left.

On Monday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters his team was focused on the evacuation of British nationals and Afghan nationals who had served the U.K.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brigitte Noël

Journalist

Brigitte Noël is a journalist with the investigative program Enquête at Radio-Canada.

now