‘We have been left to the Taliban’: The Afghans desperate for Britain to get them out of the country
Rahima waited until late in the evening to return to her family home with her brother to collect clothes and documents. She was fully aware of the danger they faced, and hoped that the brief visit would go unnoticed.
But they were spotted, and soon there was banging on the front door, accompanied by threats and demands to enter – the Taliban had arrived.
The Talibs charged in and searched the house looking for Rahima’s husband Ahmed, but he was not there. Rahima refused to say where he was. There was an argument, shouting, and then a shot rang out. One of the fighters had opened fire with his Kalashnikov AK-47, hitting Rahima in the head.
Rahima’s brother and some neighbours rushed her to the nearest hospital. But the same group of Talib fighters turned up there, and ordered the medical staff not to treat the 26-year-old woman.
Unconscious and bleeding heavily from her injury, Rahima was taken to her sister’s house, and then to a private clinic run by a doctor who knew the family. An emergency operation was carried out, but she died soon afterwards.
Ahmed was on the wanted list of a well-known senior Taliban official in the west of the country, who nurtured a hatred for him and had sent men to Kabul to capture or kill him. He had heard of their arrival and moved to another address with his wife.
Ahmed, 42 years old, who has a degree in economics, had worked for the UN, World Bank, and a British company undertaking UK government-contracted projects involving the Afghan administration.
He says he had refused repeated demands from the senior Talib mullah for money from the infrastructure projects he was working on. Each refusal enraged the mullah more, and he vowed retribution on the angrezzi baccha (“son of the English”), as he called Ahmed.
On 17 August last year, two days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Ahmed applied for evacuation under the ARAP (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) scheme with the backing of the British company.
He received a reply from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), saying his application had been received and that “we will endeavour to respond to you as quickly as possible”. Ahmed did not hear anything more.
On 27 August, the day after Isis carried out a suicide bombing at Kabul airport killing 183 people, he fled to Pakistan, where he remains now.
On 8 December last year, Ahmed received an email from an ARAP caseworker, asking him to send the reply he had received from the FCDO on 17 August in response to his application for evacuation. Ahmed forwarded the email.
Last weekend he got another email from the caseworker saying that his original application had been lost, and that his case had had to be resubmitted. This, he fears, could mean that he will return to the back of the queue.
“I think every day about what the Taliban did to my poor wife, how she must have suffered. She may be alive now if only they had allowed treatment at the first hospital. We did not think that my wife would be in any danger. Their quarrel was with me, not her,” he says.
“I had to leave my country through a hole in the fence into Pakistan. I had no choice; the mullah who wanted to kill me is a very powerful man now.
“My trouble with him comes from the work I was doing with western organisations, British organisations. But now I am very worried that they lost my application. Does this mean I have fallen behind other people now? I am getting desperate.”
In November, the Home Office issued new guidelines in relation to those who are eligible for the ARAP scheme. This month the Home Office announced the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which, say aid groups, prioritises those already in the UK at the expense of those who have been left behind.
Ferhana, a 23-year-old student whose family are originally from Gereshk and Lashkar Gar in Helmand, had been involved in education and gender equality projects funded by the British Council in the province and also in Kabul. She asked to join the ARAP scheme in the second week of August, and got back an acknowledgment of receipt of her application from London.
She and her friends had been outspoken in their criticism of Islamists and conservative clerics, and her family were deeply concerned that she might become a target, with the Talibs encircling Kabul and the takeover of the capital all but inevitable.
Ferhana, two of her friends and a cousin – all women – decided to try to get on an evacuation flight three days after the fall of Kabul, amid fears that the turbulence unfolding at the airport would lead to the airlift coming to an abrupt end.
The friends managed to get through, and, after a wait of 36 hours on the road outside the airport, got on planes – one to Germany and the other to the US.
The car carrying Ferhana and her cousin, however, was stopped at a checkpoint operated by the Haqqani network – the Islamist group allied to the Taliban – and was turned back. They tried again after US president Joe Biden announced that he would not extend the timescale for the evacuation. But that was on the day of the Isis airport attack, and the chaos following the violent blast made it impossible to get through.
Ferhana says that her enquiries about her ARAP status have led to the same standard response from London: “Your case is currently being reviewed … due to the volume of applications we are receiving, unfortunately we will not be able to respond to individual emails requesting assistance under ARAP.”
Ferhana and her family moved to a house in another district of Kabul for safety. After a few days she tried to get back to her studies at the university, but the Taliban had imposed a ban on education for girls over the age of 12 – a ban that remains in force.
Ferhana started taking part in the regular protests being held by women asking for the right to education and work.
“My parents were very worried about going to join [the demonstrations] and they got more worried when I got hit a few times by the Talibs. But others have also been beaten; we decided that we must continue to try and get our voices heard,” says Ferhana.
“But then I started receiving threats on social media. We heard from neighbours at our former home that the Taliban had gone there to search. They said I had sold myself to the infidels and had to be taught a lesson. They thought one of the neighbours was lying when he said he did not know where I was, and beat him so badly that he ended up in hospital.”
Two weeks ago the family heard that Ferhana’s uncle, who had in the past worked at the office of the Helmand governor, had been detained by the Taliban in Lashkar Gar and had disappeared. His wife and children were told that he had been killed.
Ferhana now stays at home, deeply apprehensive about the future. She reflects: “It was the Americans and the British who encouraged women to be educated, to get jobs, try to get equality. The programme I was working on in Helmand, especially gender issues, was very difficult in such a conservative society and we faced a lot of opposition. But we continued with it because it was important.
“Now we have been left to the Taliban. We feel hurt and let down. I am hoping something would happen with the ARAP, but I get the same reply each time, so I don’t know if anything will be done. Maybe they just want to forget about us now.”
Zabibullah had worked for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, in a post funded by what was then the Department for International Development through a British company. His job focused on stopping illegal mining – a lucrative source of income for the Taliban and criminal organisations.
“The first messages I got from the Taliban asked why I was working for foreigners. They asked me to stop looking at illegal mining, saying it was none of my business, and when I refused, the threats began”, he recalls.
After the fall of Kabul, the Taliban repeatedly pledged that no retribution would be enacted against opponents or those who had worked for the former government.
Zabibullah decided that he would go to the ministry to see whether he could continue with his job. “Some colleagues heard and called to warn me not to go. They said that my name was on a Taliban execution list and I’d not survive if I went back,” he says.
Zabibullah, 31, moved with his wife and infant son to his parents’ home. He applied for the ARAP scheme, along with seven others who had also worked for a British company contracted to the UK government, but there was no response.
The Taliban patrol during a protest by Afghans outside the building of the former US embassy (EPA)
“The others at least got replies. So I don’t know what happened. I’ve emailed the ARAP people at least 20 times, but I get the same standard reply. I know the ACRS scheme has been announced, but it doesn’t help us at all,” he says.
“I cannot work now, and the situation is very bad, with food shortages and lack of medicine. We had no idea this was going to happen. I feel betrayed; the project we were working on directly affected the Taliban, so it is not surprising that they would want to take revenge on people associated with it. Surely the British government knows what we are facing?”
A British government spokesperson said: “The UK is taking a leading role in the international response to supporting at-risk Afghan citizens and we continue to do all we can to help them to safety. The ACRS provides up to 20,000 women, children and others at risk with a safe and legal route to resettle in the UK. This includes individuals who supported the UK and international community effort in Afghanistan, including those British Council contractors who are most at risk.
“The Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme remains open, and has already helped 7,000 Afghans to safety in the UK. We continue to process applications as quickly as possible and support all those identified to be eligible as a result of their work for the UK government.”
*The names of the Afghan nationals in this article have been changed for reasons of security