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Fear and uncertainty rule the lives of colleagues in Afghanistan

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While some Afghan colleagues have been evacuated, most are still inside the country. We talked to some of them, both women and men. Their stories are harrowing. Their commitment is awe-inspiring. "Next to losing my life, losing democracy is the most horrible thing."

They were carrying their country forward, cherished their university degrees, their freedom, and pursued their careers. They held their leaders accountable and were young leaders themselves. Now, Afghanistan's post-2001 educated 'democracy generation' is in shock. They are trying to fathom what has been taken away from them, and from their country, after the Taliban takeover.

"Even policemen were fleeing. That, in particular, was a shocking thing to see."

Just like in all the countries we work in, Cordaid staff in Afghanistan almost exclusively comprises local professionals. Skilled Afghan women and men who grew up in the post-Taliban era, all of them proud to be part of this democracy generation. Designing, coordinating, and running aid, relief, and peacebuilding activities in the most challenging circumstances. Because, even though they did taste freedom, excelled at university, and were part of building a new Afghanistan, there was still a war going on. There was still a lot to be done.

Possible targets

Now, after the fall of Kabul on August 15, they feel that everything they did and stood for has turned them into a possible target. Some worked in social sectors supporting communities to improve their well-being. Others trained young entrepreneurs to improve their businesses. They alleviated poverty, improved access to basic healthcare services, offered humanitarian assistance. All of this was, and is, part of international support efforts. Now, with the Taliban in power, they just don't know if they can still do their job. And how what they did in the past will affect their future.

People adapt in order to survive. For women, keeping a low profile practically boils down to staying inside and hide. For weeks and weeks.

Part of our healthcare and relief operations are still ongoing, many of them in areas that already were under Taliban control for years. But with the regime change, a lot of other activities have been put on hold. How things will turn remains to be seen, as Taliban policies vis-à-vis international NGOs are in the making and no official guidelines or restrictions have been issued. Meanwhile, the lives of our aid professionals are in limbo.

"The past two months we have moved places three times, just to hide and keep a low profile."

What that means comes a little bit to light when listening to them. We had online talks with four colleagues who are still in Afghanistan, two women, two men. For obvious reasons, we have left out all personal references.

When Kabul fell

"On August 15, I saw Kabul collapse", says one male colleague. "I was in a meeting at the office, in the morning. At 10 AM, someone shouted that the Taliban were entering the city. Chaos started. The whole city sought refuge. Everybody ran."

"For me, being young, it was impossible to imagine Taliban forces inside the capital. It was totally new. Suddenly, we were surrounded by them. Once I was outside, I saw how unusually big traffic jams had completely clogged the city. Those who could still find a taxi had to pay insane prices. I couldn't find any."

Can I still study? Do I have money for food? Can I go out, to the shops, to the office? And, not unimportantly, what should I wear?

"Kabul is huge. I walked 8 kilometres, crossed a mountain. It was 8 PM when I got home. Seeing the city, that day, was traumatizing. Office employees, shopkeepers, everybody was running. Women were crying in the streets. Even policemen were fleeing. That, in particular, was a shocking thing to see. The ones you call when you need help were on the run. I can't imagine what it must have been like for my female colleagues, going out in the streets, finding a way out."

'Worst day in my life'

The answer to that question is simple. This is what a female colleague says about the day when the city of Herat fell to the Taliban a couple of days earlier: "It was the worst day in my life. That day, we women lost everything."

Another male colleague recalls that same day. "Immediately after we heard that they had entered the city, I burnt sensitive and confidential documents. Trying to get home was really hard. Once I got there, I didn't leave the house for three days."

"At home stress levels are very high. I try to support my wife as much as I can."

More than by armed fighting Herat and Kabul seem to have collapsed by rumours and fear. "I didn't see any fighters that day. We knew they had entered. The rumours spread fast and caused panic", says one colleague.

Social media exploded. "Everybody tried to reach friends and family, saying the Taliban had come", says a Herat colleague. "I did see them, patrolling in front of Parliament and in other important places, but only after I ventured into the city after three days", says someone from Kabul.

Fears and dilemmas

After the first rush for safety, other fears and dilemmas pop up. What about my kids? Can they still go to school? Can I still study? Do I have money for food? Can I go out, to the shops, to the office? And, not unimportantly, what should I wear? Suddenly, wearing a tie in the street or at the office, has become an issue.

For women, the options are practically nil. If you go out there's only one dress code. But then again, going out alone is not even an option.

One male colleague feels at risk for many reasons. His past and current civil society work, his ethnic background. "And my wife is a police officer. Like me, she needs to hide."

"Courageous women went out to demonstrate in the streets. That has stopped. Now, fear is ruling."

This colleague, like many others, unsuccessfully tried to leave the country. He is now minimizing risks as much as he can. "At home, I have destroyed all documents that could be incriminating. Old passports, appreciations letters, you name it. I thought about destroying my diplomas but I couldn't and hid them under the floor. I graduated abroad, in psychology and development economics."

Finding a cheap place is impossible

"The past two months we have moved places three times, just to hide and keep a low profile. First, we moved back to our place of origin in Bamyan, but we are too well known there. Kabul is bigger and therefore relatively safer. Financially, it's very harsh. Finding a cheap place is impossible. I have to ask friends for money. At home stress levels are very high. I try to support my wife as much as I can, also as a psychologist. Me, I can still go to the office now and again. But she has been locked inside for months now. She is desperate. The fear of being caught is extreme."

To be on the safe side

Colleagues have drastically dropped their social media activities. "Only on Twitter do I still dare to express my pain and frustration", says someone. Some male colleagues decided to grow a beard and switch to Afghani dress, as a way of adapting and coping with social pressure under Taliban rule. They accept beards as part of the new normal.

Like shaving, wearing jeans is also risky. "So far, no official dress rules have been imposed. Nobody really knows what is allowed and what isn't. To be on the safe side people have stopped dressing and behaving the way they were used to", says the same colleague. "A few weeks back armed men beat up a man because he wore a pair of jeans", he adds.

"I know a brother of someone who worked as an interpreter for the Americans. He was killed."

Not sticking to Taliban dress codes is not necessarily a form of resistance. "People just have habits. Adapting is like trial and error", the same person says. "There was resistance right after Kabul fell. Courageous women went out to demonstrate in the streets. That has stopped after some of these women were badly beaten. Now, fear is ruling."

One colleague still has a clean-shaven face when he shows up on Teams. "My wife simply can't stand seeing me with a beard."

House-to-house searches

There are a lot of stories of house-to-house searches and people disappearing. Of killings taking place. Sometimes these are vague rumours, on social media, adding to the panic. Sometimes they come from people our colleagues consider reliable sources.

"There are people with guns everywhere", one colleague says. "They don't wear uniforms, you can't know who is who. I know a brother of someone who worked as an interpreter for the Americans. He was killed. All this adds to the fear that all of us connected to the international community can be targeted by anyone with a gun," he adds.

"We hear stories of others who work with INGOs whose apartments are being searched. Of house-to-house searches. When will they knock on our door? They haven't yet, but I see armed men going around my block every day. At night I can't sleep. Like others, I have burnt all documents that link me to the international community. I stay inside as much as possible."

'When I leave, they will come after my family'

"Even when there might come official instructions from those in power now, you never really know what will happen if armed groups knock on your door", he adds. "There are so many different armed groups going around in the city. They all have their own rules. When someone gets killed, no one knows why it happened, who did it, even who was killed. There is no law, no order. Gunmen feel they are accountable to no one. It all adds to the fear and chaos."

This same colleague, a single man whose father was assassinated when he was very young, explains why evacuation and a life in exile is no option for him if his family cannot come with him. "My mother and four brothers depend on me. And, more importantly, when I leave, they will come after my family. In no way will I expose them to additional threats."

'We have lost everything we have achieved'

For our female colleagues, the rupture with the way they used to live and work couldn't be deeper.

A colleague from Herat: "Before, I could travel, do field missions. I monitored activities in the remotest areas. All this has stopped. I have degrees in Law and in Political Sciences, participated in female leadership training courses, worked with colleagues in different parts of Afghanistan. And I collaborate with colleagues in other parts of the world. Now, I can hardly leave my house. I could be lashed. Some women I know went out and voiced their discontent. They were lashed. Some had their cell phones taken from them."

Female colleagues are doubly isolated, by the regime shift forcing them to stay at home, and by the limited internet access.

"In the past decades, we had successfully fought for our basic rights. Now, our rights to education, to work, to social life are crushed. We have lost everything we had achieved."

A colleague in Kabul: "We all face risks and challenges. But men, at least, can still go about. They can go to work, to shopping malls, to swimming pools. We can do nothing. As a woman, I feel both the pressure that comes from the new regime and from society. More than before, people call you names when you go out in the street as a woman on your own. You can't take that risk. At least, I don't. I don't go out, because I don't want to cause the slightest discussion. I stay away from the internet, I am even cautious using my phone."

Bad internet hits women harder

Female colleagues are doubly isolated, by the regime shift forcing them to stay at home, and by the limited internet access. "Men are allowed to go to the office, with a solid ICT infrastructure. We are forced to work from home with limited internet access. Making it much more difficult to do our work. And to stay connected", someone explains.

"Addressing the humanitarian needs of the poorest people should be the first priority."

The mental burden is big. "When you are forced to stay at home, it's not easy to control your mind. We hear stories of other people who worked with the international community being chased and taken away. Will they come for us? We don't know what will happen tomorrow. Female Afghan colleagues from different places in the country try to support each other in WhatsApp groups. We have to stay strong and positive. We have to face this", says someone.

Economic crisis, humanitarian crisis

Closely linked to the security crisis is the rapidly increasing economic hardship. As one colleague says: "I am filled with fear that my job will be taken by a man, who can still travel and visit project locations. Being a single woman and head of a household, economically that would be disastrous. Basic commodities such as gas, rice, and oil, have more than doubled over the past weeks."

"In the capital, poor people are queuing to get some nan, Afghan bread, for free. The queues are getting longer. In fact, half the Afghan population is having a hard time surviving and is in need of humanitarian aid. We are all seeking ways to adapt and manage our fears and insecurities. But overall, addressing the humanitarian needs of the poorest people should be the first priority", says another colleague.

When we were kids

Afghans from the democracy generation were kids when the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 until 2001. They all have recollections. "I remember seeing women being lashed in public. Once, our neighbour asked to hide in our house. She was afraid of being lashed, because she had gone to the bazaar without a mahram (male escort)", one female colleague says.

"Now, 20 years later, if we go out ourselves, we might be lashed ourselves", says another woman.

"I remember that time very well", says the colleague who recently moved places three times for security reasons. "War displaced us three times when I was a kid. The last time, when I was 9, armed men burnt down our house. We lived in Bamyan, in a war zone where Taliban fighters fought those who still resisted. Those years were the hardest in my life. Worse than today's situation. I really hope we can prevent a full-blown war from erupting again."

We can't afford another war

No one knows if and how Cordaid will continue to operate in Afghanistan, with 100+ national and non-evacuated staff all working and living in similar conditions as described by the four colleagues we talked to. Intricate and delicate deliberations will tell. Meanwhile, our people on the ground keep wanting to campaign for every inch of freedom and tolerance. For themselves and for their country.

"We can't afford another war. We can't afford to only focus on the bad and the negative. Most media do exactly that, especially foreign media. They are inflaming the situation. We, inside Afghanistan, pay the price for that", says a Kabul-based colleague.

"When all NGOs and INGOs, the EU and IMF join hands we can change things for the better in Afghanistan."

"Instead of focusing on day-to-day matters and short-term frustrations and making big statements, we want every word said and every step taken with extreme care. Just to make sure we do everything possible to keep the possibility of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan alive. Moderacy, reconciliation, and dialogue are what we need to seek now. Especially the international community. No more oil on the fire, please. Not again."

"Not all the Taliban are extremists", he continues. "We need to talk, negotiate, seek a middle ground. The Taliban, in 2021, are keen on gaining international recognition. Advocacy can work if Afghan and international NGOs join forces. We can exert pressure and negotiate in favour of women's rights, human rights, of tolerance. Especially given the immense humanitarian needs in the country. They need international support and aid. When all NGOs and INGOs, the EU and IMF join hands we can change things for the better in Afghanistan."

The importance of inclusivity

He goes back to 2001 when the Taliban were defeated. "The new leaders immediately decided to keep the Taliban out of the new power circles at all cost. That was a big mistake. Real dialogue could have spared us a lot of trouble. Even though the tables have turned now, let's keep trying to talk. Even in this dark hour, we shouldn't abandon the vision of an inclusive Afghanistan. An Afghanistan for men and women, for all ethnicities."

His male colleague from Bamyan can only stress the importance of inclusivity. "Today's Taliban are more eager to be accepted by the international community. And today's Afghans are not the same as 20 years ago. They are a lot more educated, more conscious, more vocal, more connected to the world. It is the fruit of 20 years of democracy, of better education. Of social media. At the moment, no one can really speak out publicly. Armed men only retaliate with armed violence. A friend of mine had her hand broken when she took part in a peaceful demonstration. But that doesn't mean pressure doesn't work. It does. The international community can do a lot. And we Afghans from the democracy generation, can and must organize ourselves in due time."

"Next to losing my life, losing democracy, for me, is the most horrible thing. Minorities, like the one I belong to, have been excluded. But in the past decades we participated in parliament, in governance. We had the feeling we were being represented. We went to universities. Just like Afghan women, we had started shaking off shackles of repression and exclusion."

The collapse of peoples' minds

"Now, in just a few weeks, our democratic institutions have collapsed. My biggest fear is that peoples' minds, after tasting democracy, will also close and collapse. That the politics of fear and extremism will last too long and people will give up. That the culture of hate and violence will win. It will be unbearable."

"My little daughter asks me why I never go out anymore."

"Meanwhile", he concludes, "I try not to succumb to depression. I don't read the news, stay away from social media. Above all, I support my wife, who is locked up in our house. I devise scenarios of survival and of escape. And I keep hoping that the combined efforts of civil society and the international community will still allow us to find a way out. And save us from descending into darkness."

'All I ask is to be protected'

Kabul has changed. When she looks out of the window, in the home that has become her prison, our female colleague sees a different city. "This huge city is quiet. It used to be crowded. People going to work, to their shops. Young women and men going to universities. Now, it's empty. Silenced. The men you see in the streets all carry a big weight. They think about how to make ends meet. About security. Me, all I ask, as part of an international NGO, as part of the Dutch support in Afghanistan, is to be protected."

In Herat, another female colleague is hiding inside as well. "My little daughter asks me why I never go out anymore, and buy something nice for her. 'Because of the Taliban', I say. She gets angry and says things I cannot repeat. She has the age I had when the Taliban came to power in 1996. Her dream is to become a teacher. And the next day, a doctor. Or to do what I do. I can only hope she can go to school, study, have a career, and taste freedom. Like me, until a few weeks back."

Text and interviews by Frank van Lierde