These two Afghan TU students fled their country

Head over heels, Khesraw Shinwari left Kabul days after the Taliban invasion. Fellow student Ali (fictitious name) fled in the late 1990s and sees history repeating itself.

Dawn in Kabul. (Photo: Mohammad Rahmani / Unsplash)

Master’s student Khesraw Shinwari found himself in the middle of the chaos. He was on a family visit to Kabul. A week after the Taliban took the city, he finally managed to wrestle his way into the city’s airport. Delta spoke to him about the situation in his motherland and his recent experiences. Delta also spoke to Ali, a Master’s student in Electrical Engineering, who fled from Afghanistan to the Netherlands in the late 1990s (as a three-year-old toddler) with his parents and sisters. Then, too, the Taliban seized power and panic reigned. History is repeating itself, only now Ali sees it from a distance.

Khesraw Shinwari: ‘Taliban made small talk with everyone’

Khesraw Shinwari, who is married to a Dutch woman, came to the Netherlands in 2020. He enrolled in the Construction Management and Engineering master’s. In early July, he and his wife went to Kabul for a family visit. His parents, brothers and sister live in the Afghan capital. On 15 August, the Taliban were standing at the gates of the city and he had to leave the city in a hurry. His wife had left two days earlier, when there seemed little reason to panic.

Was it difficult to get to the airport?
“The Taliban just let us through. At checkpoints they made small talk with everyone. They told us that they themselves could hardly believe that they had been able to ride into town on their motorcycles. They were very friendly. They wanted to know if everything was going well and they wanted to make sure that no one had experienced anything nasty. I believe they are trying to cultivate good will. They will show their true face in a while.

“Getting to the airport was not difficult. Getting inside the walls of the airport was difficult though. There were tens of thousands of people at the gates, many of them without valid papers to leave the country. My first attempt to enter was in vain. For six hours I stood in front of a gate hoping that something would happen, that the gate would open. At 2 a.m. I returned home. I feared that I would not be able to fly away and was already making plans to drive to Pakistan or Iran by car.

“But the next day I went to another gate. There I spoke to American and British servicemen, but they informed me that they could do nothing for me. The Swedish soldiers were more helpful. At least I believe they were Swedes. They went to get the Dutch soldiers who then let me in.

“There I witnessed unpleasant scenes: men, women and children being dragged away from the airport by their necks and feet because they had no valid papers. I flew on a military plane to Islamabad and from there on a scheduled flight to the Netherlands.”

Your wife had left two days earlier. Why?
“That was simply how we had planned our vacation. I was to fly back on the 26th, she on the 13th. Before leaving she did say to me that she thought it would be wise if I went back at the same time. The Taliban were gaining a lot of ground in the country, but at the time it was unthinkable that they would enter the city within two days. Everyone thought it would take months. They had few people and the Afghan army was much bigger.”

What is the situation like for your family?
“Difficult. My father worked for the Ministry of Education as an author of textbooks. But now he has no job. My sister worked for an agency that organises elections. She too no longer has a job. They have no income at all. I hope the situation will change. I can’t send money now either, since the money traffic with Afghanistan has been stopped. Moreover, as a student I don’t have much money. I have considered quitting my studies and looking for work so that I can send money when the money traffic starts up again. But of course, ending a study is also a waste. I don’t really know what to do.”

Ali, Electrical Engineering master’s student: ‘I may only realise later that this crisis is taking its toll on me

Ali is not your real name. Why are you using a fictitious name?
“I was wondering whether to do so or not. What is the chance that a story in a university newspaper ends up with the Taliban? I thought the chance was small, but you never know. I still have family in Afghanistan, an uncle and aunt. They are not politically active, so the danger of reprisals is not that great for them. But still.”

One of your uncles works with Western organisations and was just able to flee from Kabul with his family and your grandmother on time. Were you and your family relieved when he phoned you from the airport?
“I live with my parents and see the stress that they are under from close up. My mother especially as it was her brother and mother who fled. Her brother works for various Western peace organisations which may put him in danger. So yes, we were enormously relieved. My mother phoned them continuously to check if they were still alive. They were able to get onto one of the last flights out last weekend. I don’t know exactly how they ended up at the airport. They are now on their way to the United States. It was the first country to accept their visa application. They are now in transit in Qatar. They could hardly bring anything with them. My uncle had even run out of prepay phone credit, but I could arrange it for him from here.”

Are you worried about your family members who are still there?
“They are not politically active, so the Taliban won’t go after them. But their lives will be restricted from now on. This will affect my aunt especially. The Taliban want to turn back time and go back to the time when women were expected to stay indoors. They always talk about Sharia but that is nonsense. Afghans have lived under Sharia law for years. It depends how you interpret Islam. The Taliban are actually cultural extremists that are using a certain interpretation of Islam as an excuse to push through their agenda.”

You volunteer for the Voice of Afghan Women NGO. What does that entail?
“The organisation is now called the Voice of All Women. My mother set up the organisation to help women understand their rights. Many Afghan women do not know that they have just as many rights as men in the Netherlands. The organisation now works with people from many other countries. During the corona pandemic we also did other things, like distributing food. Many people lost their incomes because of the crisis and could use all the help they could get. We will probably start seeing a bigger flow of refugees from Afghanistan and will have more work to do.”

Are your studies suffering under the circumstances in Afghanistan?
“At the moment I don’t believe so. But I may only realise later that this crisis is taking its toll and that I was less able to concentrate.”

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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