Afghans in Italy fear for their compatriots left behind
As the Italian government hopes to fly more people out of Afghanistan following the August 31 deadline, there is great worry within Italy’s Afghan community about the situation back home and people at special risk from the Taliban.
Following the swift Taliban takeover in Afghanistan on August 15, dozens of flights have brought hundreds of Western nationals and Afghan workers to safety in Europe.
Italy claimed to be the EU country that has taken in the largest number of Afghan refugees, with nearly 5,000 evacuated in recent days since the Taliban captured the capital of Kabul.
The lucky 4,890 evacuees rescued from feared reprisals before the last US troops pulled out by the August 31 deadline are mostly Afghans who worked directly with foreign missions and their families.
"Rights groups treat the Taliban rebranding with scepticism, warning that some of the hard-fought gains made by women in the two decades since the Taliban were defeated could be rolled back"
Among them is 26-year-old Amina, an Afghan coordinator of Nove Onlus, an Italian NGO working for women's rights in Afghanistan. The organisation managed to evacuate some 150 civilians on August 22 with the help of Italian diplomatic and military authorities. In the previous week, the NGO’s Italian staff had made huge efforts to bring Afghan collaborators safely to Rome.
In three days of attempts, the group on the high-risk people list finally succeeded in reaching Kabul airport during the night. This was thanks to a system that was set up by Nove Onlus members of wearing a red handkerchief on their wrist to identify themselves to the Italian military at the airport for evacuation.
It took hours to guide the civilians to the main access gates. Amina was one of the first 20 people to succeed in reaching the airport after she braved blocks and dangers along the route. She threw herself into a drain and plunged up to her knees in the mud, getting past the huge crowds, in order to reach the entrance gate. Before being brought inside, she went to retrieve all the women she had promised to rescue who were still missing in the crowd.
With a mix of relief and sorrow, Amina who asked to use a pseudonym for her own protection told The New Arab, “My three sisters, two brothers and I made it out of the country.” She is undergoing her 10-day COVID quarantine as she waits to be relocated and start her new life in Italy. The day her evacuation flight landed in Rome, she was thankful she had saved herself and others in need, but also felt sadness about leaving her homeland.
Together with her siblings, the charity worker had previously tried twice to enter Kabul's chaotic airport. However, it proved very risky to pass through the gates and to surpass the human mass safely, with thousands of people desperate to escape the Taliban. On her second attempt, she feared she would die in the stampede. After initially considering taking her father and mother to the airport with them, she felt that she could not put their lives in such danger.
“We had two choices: lack of safety or immediate death,” she explained saying they were forced to leave their parents behind. “We know they’re not in a safe place, but at least we kept them away from a deadly situation.”
"We had two choices: lack of safety or immediate death"
Worries of high hazard have grown following the twin suicide bomb attacks at Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate on August 26, claimed by an Islamic State group local affiliate, that killed at least 170 Afghans alongside 13 American military personnel.
The young woman feels very uncertain about her country, and fears for her loved ones. “I’m here, but my heart and mind are in Afghanistan,” she uttered. “People are about to enter a very dark future under the Taliban rule, especially women.”
Her concerns are not only for her parents, but for her two little nieces (aged 3 and 5) who are at risk of being banned from going to school, as well as her female friends who have kept themselves out of sight for their own safety. One close friend is a public employee at the ministry of education, another is a university teacher.
There is a rising alarm for Afghan women and girls after the Taliban forced working women to quit their jobs and stay at home, admitting they were not safe in the presence of the militant group's soldiers.
Taliban leaders have tried to show a more moderate face since its return to power, promising to respect progress made in women’s rights, however only according to the strict interpretation of Shariah, or Islamic law. Rights groups treat the Taliban rebranding with scepticism, warning that some of the hard-fought gains made by women in the two decades since the Taliban were defeated could be rolled back.
During its earlier rule, between the mid 1990s and 2001, the radical group imposed the strict Shariah barring women from education and employment, stopping them from leaving the home without a male relative, and forcing them to wear the burqa.
Taliban officials recently ordered that Afghan girls and boys in their higher education will study in separate classes. They also announced that men would not be allowed to teach girl students.
In the week after the Taliban swept to power, Amina was sending video appeals in which she asked for help, hiding in the basement of her home.
On August 19, Hamed Ahmadi, 40, owner of the restaurant chain Orient Experience in Venice, travelled to Fiumicino airport to greet his sister Zahra, 32, a women’s rights activist and restaurateur, upon her arrival from Kabul with another 200 Afghan evacuees.
“We had lived through frightening days before the evacuation operation, but we managed to take her out in the end,” Hamed said to The New Arab. Half of him is happy, the other half is mournful. The sense of powerlessness in the face of the despair of the countless Afghans seeking to flee the war-ravaged country is too saddening.
“I’m desperately trying to take out my lovely sister from that horrible situation of Kabul… all embassies are closed there and she is completely alone. Please contact me if anyone has any idea," he had made his heartfelt call in a Facebook post at the time the women’s rights advocate was trapped in Kabul. The restaurant entrepreneur has lived in Italy for the past 15 years, the last time he saw her was in 2014.
Thanks to the pleas launched in Italy by her brother, Zahra was saved but she wants to see others who are left behind saved too.
After participating in a protest against the Taliban advance on Kabul, she took refuge in an apartment with some women friends when the militants entered the capital to then plan her escape.
Both the activist and her sibling are committed to helping those they could not rescue, raising awareness on the Afghan question and on the need to immediately establish humanitarian bridges from Kabul to Rome.
These days Hamed constantly receives messages from relatives and friends back home appealing for help. Yet, his greater concern and that of her sister is for people at special risk such as political activists, feminists, interpreters and journalists.
Dozens of women, activists, workers at public institutions and local staff working for foreign organisations are said to be hiding with their families amid reports that the Taliban are going door-to-door in search of Afghans who worked with Westerns.
“At this particular time, all Afghanistan is my family. We continue to act and speak up about what is right for our people,” he pledged.
"The sense of powerlessness in the face of the despair of the countless Afghans seeking to flee the war-ravaged country is too saddening"
He explained that that the rules enforced by the Taliban vary depending on local commanders and the communities themselves, resulting in a lack of coordination and shifting orders.
“Women are certainly the ones paying the highest price in all of this since they are being denied the most fundamental rights in everyday life,” the young entrepreneur emphasised.
Zahra who’s now far from the life she was building, and from her affections left behind, is determined to fight for others. She is monitoring an evacuation list of at-risk people, mostly friends of hers including fellow women activists, female students and civil servants, and hoping to bring them to Italy via a humanitarian corridor when possible.
The women’s activist is striving to give a voice to people in Afghanistan, and helping to ensure a dignified life for the newly arrived Afghan men and women in Italy.
Western countries stopped civilian airlifts from Afghanistan in the wake of late August’s deadly blasts outside the airport.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio recently vowed "not to abandon" vulnerable groups after the end of evacuations.
“There are still so many Afghan nationals waiting to be evacuated, and we can no longer do that with the airlift,” Di Maio said adding that “a second, more difficult phase” of the evacuations process would now commence.
Scores of Afghan citizens, including those most at risk, are still waiting for a flight out. Amina hopes to coordinate other airlifts or any emergency efforts when they will become possible. While in Italy, she is planning to pursue a masters degree in gender studies. Her dream is to return to Afghanistan one day and change her country.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec