The Times (not online), 28 January 2022
In Kyiv’s streets, where Ukrainians talk boldly and brashly of war, or just ignore its approach, stranded Afghans who only a few months ago escaped conflict in their own country are watching with jaded eyes, readying themselves for what may come.
“I thought Kabul would resist for months but it fell in days,” said Masouma Tajik, a refugee. “Things can move so fast. My Ukrainian friends still sound so confident that they will never be oppressed again, that the worst will not come. I tell them, ‘you haven’t seen how fast the worst can happen, what the unexpected looks like, how suddenly things can change’.”
Freedom remains elusive for 22-year-old data analyst from Herat, who fled from the Taliban aboard a cargo plane from Kabul airport last August with her friend Sahar Merzaie, and now peace seems fragile too.
The two young women are among 600 Afghans who escaped from their falling capital and ended up trapped in Ukraine. While many in Kyiv appear curiously oblivious to their country’s impending fate, Masouma and Sahar are hoarding rations, cash reserves and checking potential escape routes as they watch for signs of a Russian attack.
“The night before the Taliban took Kabul, I was on a balcony in the city talking to a friend on the phone,” recalled Sahar, a 28-year-old mathematics graduate, as she looked out of the window at the unconcerned rhythm of Kyiv’s streets. “There was no sign or sound of fighting, but I noticed a sudden suffocating silence, a stillness. I realised at that moment something bad was coming, that I was standing in a silence before a storm. Now I wait once more to feel like that again.”
When they climbed aboard a military cargo plane in Kabul airport on August 21 last year, amid scenes of bedlam, Masouma’s pride was still stinging from being whipped by the Taliban. Both women had their ears ringing with the repeated sound of close-range gunfire and aircraft engines. Their dreams of escaping to freedom did not last long.
“I had no idea where my eventual destination would be, just that I was escaping from war and the Taliban, I was leaving,” said Sahar. “Yet now I am stranded once more, trapped in a land where I am an illegal immigrant who cannot leave, and where war once more haunts our days.”
Heralded by the country’s media and supported personally by President Zelensky, Ukraine’s rescue missions to evacuate desperate Afghan refugees lasted for weeks after the last British or American planes departed from Kabul. But once inside the former Soviet state, some of the rescued Afghans were placed in closed detention camps; others found that gridlocked local bureaucracy quickly made them “illegal immigrants”, holding them in a land they could not leave and were unable even to open a bank account.
“I was taken from the plane in a bus to a closed detention facility near the border with Belarus,” said Fazila Haidary, 26, an air stewardess with Afghanistan’s Kam Air who, with her sister Shagufa, was on duty in Kabul airport the night of the Taliban’s sudden entry to Kabul. The two women quickly ditched their stewardesses’ uniforms in a lavatory and climbed up a ladder into the one civilian plane that was waiting to take off as mobs swarmed onto the runway. Neither sister had any idea where the aircraft was heading.
“The next day we found ourselves behind gates and wire in Ukraine,” Fazila recalled, “in a section neighbouring one holding convicts. We had no Wi-Fi, no sim cards, no TV … filthy conditions and were fed rice with insects in it.”
They remained in detention for two weeks, before being allowed to rent accommodation in Kyiv, using borrowed money. Now they cannot leave the country, but also have no visa allowing them rights to stay. Regular calls to the UNHCR refugee agency’s office in Kyiv have only worsened their fears.
“The UNHCR staff say there is no plan for us,” Fazila said. “They sound unconcerned and say that Ukraine is still not in danger, that we are part of a global problem they cannot solve. Sometimes I get angry. I tell them I have rights to asylum. I warn them that in just a few hours my president fled; that a government can fall in the click of a finger; that the Taliban only had light weapons — but the Russians have much more than that.”
“If had known what was waiting for us here, I would never have got aboard that plane that day: anywhere was better than Ukraine,” she added miserably.
For other Afghans in exile, contacting relatives back home only adds to the stress.
“My wife and five children in Kabul have had to move home five times as the Taliban come round searching for me,” said Abdul Kabir Nazary, 36, who had been a major heading the Afghan Interpol unit at Kabul airport. On duty at the airport as the Taliban surrounded it, knowing he was a wanted man, he climbed aboard the same plane to Kyiv as the stewardesses, hoping he could later arrange for his family to follow him. “[Now] I am trapped here worrying about them. They are trapped there worrying about me. Our lives are haunted by war,” he told The Times.
Tears come quickly for those scarred by war. Masouma Tajik, who is learning Russian and researching information of previous conflicts involving Russian forces for an idea of what may come, said she had cried at the sound of overhead jets on a Ukrainian military parade. But her experience has made her philosophical, as well as scared.
“I have had to accept that as an immigrant raised in war, I don’t live in the world I would wish,” she told me. “Everywhere I go there seems to be challenge and conflict. I cannot focus on the place I want to get to as it makes me anxious. Instead, I must recognise that war may be coming again and work out how I respond to that. We Afghan diaspora know war, and we know how to adapt.”
Her friend Sahar said she was trying to find possible accommodation near the US embassy, for greater security. “I think the area may be less likely to be hit by missiles,” she explained, but added: “I cannot bear the thought that war will chase me again, so far from my family.”
Eking cash-in-hand work, or borrowing rent, they talk with Ukrainian friends about the price of freedom, about the relativism of liberty and rights: about what is worth fighting for and what should be fled.
“I admire the confidence of my Ukrainian friends,” Masouma finished. “I like the pride they have in what they have achieved here, their values and liberties. I like their certainty that things will be okay even if I don’t think it is true. I feel war is coming, but perhaps I do not fear it as much as I did before: can the result be something worse for women here, than being whipped as they walk down a street?”
This article was last updated on 3 Feb 2022