Afghans in Nepal await resettlement

(From right) Mohamad Arif Ahamadi, his wife Safika and sons Siar and Zuber. Photos: MUKESH POKHREL

Ever since the most recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, they had been fleeing Kandahar and Kabul to Kathmandu in the hope of third-country asylum. 

They have been waiting in limbo for years, and have been watching the shocking images from Kabul airport of their compatriots trying to escape the Taliban. This has dashed their hopes of ever returning to their homeland, but raised the prospect of a speedier asylum process.

Humayun Shahzad, an Afghan refugee living in Kathmandu, has not been able to sleep ever since the Taliban began their rapid advance across Afghanistan last month that led to the collapse of the Afghan government. 

“I have been watching what is happening in Afghanistan, and thinking about our friends and family still there,” says Shahzad, who has been spending sleepless nights ever since the Taliban’s rapid takeover and the collapse of the Afghan government.

“On the one hand, I have had to constantly think about how I will manage to support my family without a job here in Nepal, on the other there is also the worry about what the Taliban will do to my country,” Shahzad adds. 

Like dozens of other Afghan families languishing in Kathmandu, Shahzad fled first to India and then came to Kathmandu, hoping it would be easier to apply for asylum here. 

Taliban forces had vastly weakened in the first six years after the US-occupied Afghanistan. However, the militants then began to tighten their stranglehold in and around rural Afghanan, leaving many with the choice of either following along, or escaping their harsh rule. 

Shahzad was operating a successful photography business in Grishk district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, and chose the latter. He took his family and flew to Delhi, and then to  Kathmandu in 2014.

C R Ahmed had never imagined that he would one day have to flee the country that he had been born and raised in. He owned a thriving gold shop in Kandahar, and lived happily with his family through all the years of Soviet occupation, the mujahideen war, the American bombings. But when the Taliban took over for the first time more than two decades ago, he left.

"The Taliban ruined Afghanistan,” says Ahmed. “They will ruin it again.”

The Taliban grew out of the US-backed mujahideen fighters who drove out the Soviet military in the 1990s. They became radicalised after coming to power, and were finally banished to the fringes after the US occupied Afghanistan in 2001 following the 11 September attacks — exactly 20 years this week.

The Americans retaliated against al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, and initiated a state-building process with elections and governments that they backed. But corruption and mismanagement allowed the Taliban to regroup, conduct horrendous terrorist attacks against civilians and inflict heavy casualties on US and NATO forces.

The West finally lost its will to fight, and US forces abruptly left Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to take rapid control. Provincial capitals fell one by one, as Afghan forces either surrendered or were routed. 

The whole of August, the world witnessed heart-wrenching scenes of thousands of Afghans flocking to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, clinging to the undercarriage of aircrafts in an attempt to flee the return of the Taliban.

At the time of their departure, American and coalition forces had evacuated more than 122,000 of their nationals, diplomats, and Afghan allies from Kabul. But not everyone made it out when the last US Air Force C-17 flew out on 31 August. 

The Afghan refugees in Nepal left long before the recent upheavals, but say they escaped because they knew what was coming if the Taliban took over.

Zubair Ahmed recalls the Taliban’s oppressive regime making it impossible for Afghans to continue to live in the country of their birth.

"Many of us Afghans wanted to educate our children, especially our daughters, and see them go on to become doctors and professionals, but the Taliban would not allow it,” says Zubair Ahmed. “And women were not allowed to leave the house. We saw what the Taliban did 20 years ago, we know what they are capable of.”

With the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan once again, the doors have all but closed on the chances of Afghans in Nepal ever returning home. But life here in Nepal, while certainly safer, has not been easy at all — especially with already meagre employment opportunities drying up due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Murtuza Jaffrey, 37, owned and operated a welding shop in Kandahar Province, but was forced to flee his home with his family after the Taliban threatened him for doing welding jobs for the American military. When they fled Afghanistan, his family was forced to separate. Jaffrey and his four children came to Nepal via India. Meanwhile, his mother and four siblings went to Iran.

For Jaffery, the years in Kathmandu have been a constant struggle for survival. The pandemic, however, has made it especially difficult— he is now without a job, and has not been able to pay his rent for two months. Moreover, the Rs18,000 annual grant that the UNHCR provided for each of his children’s education has stopped in the last two years.  

Like Jaffrey, Mohammad Arif Ahmadi operated a successful business in Kandahar and was contracted to install bars on the doors and windows of buildings for the Americans. 

“The work was good, but the Taliban would not let us live in peace, they threatened to kill me for helping the Americans,” recalls Ahmadi, who believes that Afghanistan has fallen back into the hands of “terrorists” following the Taliban victory. 

Unable to live in constant fear for his life, Ahmadi, his wife and four sons decided to leave Afghanistan and come to Kathmandu seven years ago. The family has been struggling to make ends meet ever since. The pandemic-induced closures have made it worse for the family, four of whom worked at various grill and welding shops in Kathmandu. 

“We do fine as long as we can find work,” says Sophika Ahmadi, “But when the jobs dry up, we are not even able to feed ourselves for the day.”

For all the Afghans struggling to get through every day in Kathmandu, the journey from Afghanistan to Nepal has been long and painful. A few, like Ahmadi and Jaffrey, paid traffickers as much as $2,000 for each family member to come to Nepal — a country unfamiliar to them in terms of language, culture and geography.

Similarly, Humayun Shahzad came to Kathmandu after a broker he met in Delhi convinced him to move to Nepal, which he described as a beautiful country where he could find better opportunities. The broker charged Shahzad’s nine-member family $1,000 per person just to come from New Delhi to Kathmandu. They used up all their savings from selling their possessions in Afghanistan for the trip.

“We had thought the price was worth it because Nepal was a faraway place, but the broker brought us here within two days,” Seven years later, his family is still here, and struggling to stay afloat.

Shahzad was convinced to come to Kathmandu by brokers who assured him that the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Nepal would provide him with the necessary support. But the reality in Nepal has been vastly different, and Afghans living in Nepal believe that the UNHCR has abandoned refugees like them.

Now, Afghans living in Nepal have one main demand, that they be compensated for their time living in Nepal, and be resettled in third countries. Additionally, the refugees have also been imploring the Nepal government to exempt them from having to pay the fines for staying in Nepal without a visa.

Without any meaningful support from UNHCR, and running out of money, the future for Afghan refugees in Nepal looks bleak.

For Murtuza Jaffrey, circumstances here have worsened to the point that he is considering going back to Afghanistan, and taking his chances with the Taliban, a sentiment he says other Afghans in Kathmandu echo.

“If we return to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill us, and that will be it,” says Jaffrey. “Here, we feel like we are dying day by day.”