Fear and loathing: fate of the Left Behind
Paris/Kabul, January 19
Faisal* lives in dread of the knock at the door, that fateful tap that could so easily spell the end for him, his wife and two tiny children. When there is an unexpected call they huddle under the stairs, leaving his mother or father to answer.
For them, fresh air is a rare commodity, stolen in furtive lungfuls in the tiny garden between the honeysuckle and the breeze-block wall that separates them from their neighbours. Sitting in the thin winter sunshine, Faisal talks to me down a secure line.
“The money we managed to save working as journalists has now run out and soon the rent for February is due,” he whispers down the encrypted line. “I don’t know what we’ll do.” In the background the three year old boy is playing with a couple of toys they managed to rescue before fleeing from their previous accommodation.
They are now in a nondescript suburb of Kabul having been betrayed to the Taliban by an old friend and former colleague back in October. “Thankfully the trap they had set for me was revealed by another colleague and I had just enough time to scoop up the family and run.”
His parents have joined them as Faisal’s father lost his job, along with so many Afghans, when the Taliban seized power again in mid-August last year. It soon became apparent that the “allies” for whom he and Sara had worked – a full decade in Faisal’s case – were not going to get them out any time soon.
“We save money by living together with my parents but now it has run out we have no idea what follows. I don’t know where – or even if – my children will grow up.” The daughter is clutching a green balloon and is held aloft by her mother to absorb the final rays of the afternoon sun.
Sara worked for the past two years as a TV cameraman, to the derision of the many who thought it an unbecoming job for a woman – the work of a prostitute. Faisal has worked as a journalist since he was 18 while gaining qualifications in international relations at a private university.
“I had a rocky start as I knew nothing about journalism and had to bluff my way. But I became a regular TV presenter and news reporter, risking my life many times. I covered the terrorist attacks by the Taliban and lost many good colleagues.
“I have done dozens of reports highlighting the crimes of the Taliban and ISIS and calling them terrorist groups. Although the Taliban have declared a general amnesty they are looking to arrest journalists and dissidents who have worked against their interests for the past 20 years. Once arrested they are taken to an unknown location. Dozens of journalists have been arrested by the Taliban and some have been severely beaten. More than five have been killed since August.
“A total of 231 media outlets have had to close and 6,400 journalists have lost their jobs since 15 August, according to Reporters Sans Frontières. Women journalists have been hit hardest,” says Faisal, who for the past four years also ran an NGO focused on helping women build careers during Afghanistan’s brief period of enlightenment.
He says that what is getting out about the Taliban on its return to power is only a fraction of what is really going on. “A very small part of the tragedy. It is horrible and hard to imagine what is happening to people all over the country. Particularly against non-Pashtuns, especially Hazaras. They killed a young Hazara woman at a checkpoint when she was returning home from her friend’s wedding.
“Then there was the forced migration of 400 Hazara families in Gizab-Daykundi; the forcible eviction of ethnic Uzbeks in Northern Afghanistan. Arbitrary torture of people by members of this group. The killing of four women including a human rights activist in northern Afghanistan. And the killing of more than 100 former Afghan security forces by the Taliban, not to mention the slaughter of youngsters for the “crime” of listening to music.”
For some western governments the Legion of the Left Behind, like Faisal and Sara, are merely embarrassing statistics, recriminating figures on an excel spreadsheet. But like a stubborn stain, they refuse to go away, no matter how much the actualité is massaged.
Earlier this month it became apparent that Britain had been playing hard and fast with the claimed number of rescued refugees. Home Office minister Victoria Atkins, in an unguarded moment in the House of Commons, revealed how the government had included those already settled in the UK amongst the 20,000 they had promised to help over the next four years.
The Guardian reports that the Home Office is now accused of failing to prioritise the most vulnerable Afghans, the most loyal servants of the truth as well as the British task force, “including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk” after the fall of Kabul.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, questioned why the government was counting UK nationals on a scheme meant to prioritise those trapped in Afghanistan.
“Clearly British nationals and their families should get support, but why are they being counted in the resettlement scheme? She [Atkins] will know there is huge concern about rumours that government departments have been trading people and trying to shunt people around in order to reduce the number of people who will be supported, and she will understand how deeply shameful that would be if it were true,” she said.
The policy launched in August by Boris Johnson and Priti Patel stated: “Priority will be given to women and girls, and religious and other minorities, who are most at risk of human rights abuses and dehumanising treatment by the Taliban.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP and the party’s former leader, said Atkins words earlier this month appeared to completely undermine this pledge. “This represents a total betrayal of people in grave danger. The ministers responsible for this callous decision – which will cost lives – should hang their heads in shame,” he said.
Albania, Rwanda and Ecuador have opened their doors widest to Afghan refugees since August, according to Martin Bright of the Index of Censorship. They are currently working on a structure for helping Afghan journalists.
Back in the all too real world of Kabul, Faisal, 28, pays a monthly rent of $100 for his small three-bedroom house which the six of them share. He dares not go to the shops or hang out the washing. Their life is one of waiting to see whether their application for a new life in the UK, France or Germany comes to anything.
“ISIS has also returned. We are Hazara shiites hated by both ISIS and the Taliban. Couple that with my TV exposure of their terrorism – you can imagine that we will not last long if they catch up with us. We would be killed if discovered, of that there can be no doubt.
“After August 2021, a few limited governments evacuated a number of journalists from Afghanistan. However, there are currently a large number of at-risk journalists still left behind in Afghanistan. I am in contact with more than 300 who, like me, are trying to flee the country. These journalists face many safety and financial challenges.”
Some of the last creatures to make it out of Kabul in August were a plane load of stray dogs and cats, exfiltrated with a maximum of publicity by the flamboyant ex-Royal Marine, Pen Farthing, while journalists, interpreters and others who had risked their lives for the allied forces were left on the tarmac. This caused much ill feeling.
The aforementioned survey by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association (AIJA) shows a radical change in the Afghan media landscape since the Taliban took power. Women journalists have been hit hardest, with four out of five no longer working.
RSF reports that more than four out of every ten media outlets have disappeared and 60% of journalists and media employees are no longer able to work. Women have suffered much more than men: 84% of them have lost their jobs.
The arrival of the Taliban has radically changed the media landscape. Of the 543 media outlets tallied in Afghanistan at the start of the summer, only 312 were still operating at the end of November. This means that 43% of Afghan media outlets disappeared in the space of three months.
*The AEJ has withheld Faisal’s real name.