Following Narrow Escape From Taliban, Afghan Citizen Looks to Europe After US Visa Delays
12:34 GMT 15.09.2021 (Updated: 13:12 GMT 15.09.2021)
MOSCOW (Sputnik), Tommy Yang - Facing direct threats from a Taliban* commander, who happens to be a family member, an Afghan national shared with Sputnik the story of his adventurous and desperate escape from Kabul to Turkey and his plans for a future in Europe.
Hearing the news of the rapid advance of Taliban forces towards Kabul
in early August, M (who wished only to be identified by the first letter of his name) sensed imminent danger because of one simple reason: his aunt's husband was a Taliban commander.
"One night, my aunt called me and told me: 'Escape from your home and hide, because my husband will seek revenge from you if the Taliban reaches Kabul'", M told Sputnik.
M explained that his aunt's husband became a Taliban commander a few years ago and was arrested by the Afghan government about two years ago. But because of the peace agreement initiated by the United States, his aunt's husband was released last year and joined the Taliban once again upon his release.
"He is currently the commander of about 52,000 Taliban soldiers. He thought that he was arrested because I reported him. He is a radical and he knows how many years I worked with the US government. He thought I was a spy for the Americans", M said.
M, 33, started to work on US government-funded projects in Afghanistan as early as October 2011. Over the last decade, he worked as a production controller, a maintenance supervisor, and a project office manager under various projects initiated by the US Department of Defence and the European Union Commission.
His work with the US-led allied forces in Afghanistan made M a clear target for the Taliban commander who was seeking personal vengeance against him.
With no time to waste, M was forced to try to look for help from human smugglers.
"It was a direct threat at that time and I had to move. I shared my situation with a friend and he gave me a phone number. When I called the number, a man who picked up the phone said he was helping asylum seekers. He asked for $3,000 and I was able to negotiate it down to $2,500", M said.
At around 2 a.m. on 9 August, M set out on a daring adventure to try to flee the country through the land border with Iran.
"At around 2 a.m., he sent a vehicle to pick me up. We drove through the Nimroz Province to the border between Afghanistan and Iran. I stayed one night in Nimroz and the next night he sent another person to help me cross the border into Iran. We walked for about 10-12 hours until the next morning, when we saw a vehicle waiting for us. The vehicle drove us to Teheran [the Iranian capital]", M said.
Six other Afghan refugees joined M in Tehran and the group travelled together in a vehicle to the Iranian border with Turkey. They stayed in a village about 10 miles from the border for one night.
After crossing the land border through a mountainous area, the group had to walk for another 10 hours before reaching a safe house. The next day, they walked through various villages in the Van Province in Turkey.
"In the Van Province, they gave us a document which was issued by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] for refugees. I think that the document was fake, I needed a document to travel. With that document, they booked a bus ticket for us which allowed us to come to Istanbul", M said.
As M left home in a hurry for such a treacherous trip, he did not have time to take any luggage with him.
"I just had a very small bag with some first aid tablets and a bottle of water in it. I also had some cash on me and my mobile phone. That was all I had with me", M said.
M added that his smartphone became his lifeline because it was the only way he could stay in touch with his family and make plans for his future.
Just Like a Bad Dream
When M heard the news of US President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw all US forces
from Afghanistan, he never imagined he'd have to leave the country in such a hurry.
"I thought that the Afghan government would stay in power for at least one more year [after the US withdrawal]. I thought that I could visit a number of embassies in Afghanistan during that period and obtain visas for myself and my family from countries such as India or Tajikistan", he said.
Ironically, the Afghan government collapsed before M could reach his destination in Turkey.
"When I arrived in the Van Province in Turkey, which was about 80 kilometres (about 50 miles) from the border with Iran, I heard the news of the Taliban entering Kabul and taking power in Afghanistan. They collapsed very fast", M said.
The instant collapse of the Afghan government also forced M to make the unimaginable choice as a husband and a parent: to leave his wife and three young children, aged six, five, and two, behind.
"I think this is the only option I have to choose because I cannot work in Istanbul and I cannot bring my family here. The Turkish government is not issuing resident cards to me. This is not a good place for me to stay. If I wait here for SIV, it would take at least 2-3 years. I have to move forward and try to go to Europe, to countries like Italy", he said. "I left my wife and my three children in Afghanistan. It was an emergency and I could not take them out of the country with me. It's a very difficult situation. I think no one else can feel my situation. This situation shocked me. Sometimes, I think I'm in a dream. This is a dream", he said.
Shortly after M left Kabul, his wife told him that three Taliban members came to their home at around 11 p.m. at night in August looking for him.
"They told my wife: 'Find him for me! If you don't find him, I'll punish you all'", M said.
M had to move his wife and three children to his brother-in-law's home after that to keep them safe.
As his wife never worked, his family had to rely on his savings from the work he did for the US-led projects.
With his three children too young to understand what was happening, M had to hide the truth behind his absence from home.
"I discussed with my wife and she agreed that I had to leave. But my children don't know [why I had to leave]. They just thought I was doing a job abroad. That's why when I talk to them daily through WhatsApp, they always ask me: 'Father, please buy me some chocolate'. Or sometimes, they would ask for new toys like a small toy car. They would always tell me: 'Please buy me this, please buy me that'. They're just children", M said.
Only Option Left
What M's children didn't know was that their father not only couldn't make any money for the family while he was in Turkey, but he also needed at least another 7,000 euros (about $8,275) from the family's savings to try to move to Italy and find a job there to support the family.
"I lost everything in my life, everything! I have to start from zero. Right now, I'm trying to reach Europe, especially those countries that issue resident permits that would allow me to work and support my family. And maybe they'll also issue visas for my family to join me", M said.
M submitted his application for a special immigrant visa (SIV) to move to the United States
on 3 August. He obtained seven letters of recommendation from his former American colleagues and he also received a human resources letter from the US entity he worked for to verify his employment history.
After arriving in Turkey, M tried to contact the US Embassy in Ankara and the US Consulate General in Istanbul to inquire about his SIV application status. But he did not receive any positive responses from them.
"I'm trying to reach Europe because the SIV process is very lengthy. I cannot stay here in Istanbul, because the police here are arresting people who don't have proper documents like passports, visas, or official resident cards. I cannot move around the city. I mostly just stay in my room. When I need something, I can only try to walk for 5-10 minutes to buy some food or water and come back at once", he said.
M rented a room in a basement operated by people from Uzbekistan for about 1,200 Turkish lira (about $140) a month. To save money, he tried to limit his three meals per day to around 200 Turkish lira.
As the Turkish government does not have special programmes to accommodate Afghan refugees to work and stay legally in the country, M said the only option he has left is to try to move to a European country where they accept Afghan refugees.
"I think this is the only option I have to choose because I cannot work in Istanbul and I cannot bring my family here. The Turkish government is not issuing resident cards to me. This is not a good place for me to stay. If I wait here for SIV, it would take at least 2-3 years. I have to move forward and try to go to Europe, to countries like Italy", he said.
But for M to move to Italy, he has to rely on human smugglers once again and they're asking for a hefty price tag: 7,000 euros.
M negotiated with some human smugglers and they agreed to allow his wife to transfer the full payment of 7,000 euros to their accounts after M arrives safely in Italy.
"They have a special house in Italy for immigrants. They will only release you, once your family have paid the full amount", M said.
What worries M more is the risky journey that has claimed so many lives of the migrants trying to reach Europe by sea.
"It's very hard to travel from Istanbul to Italy. It's a very dangerous trip. You have to spend 2-3 days in the sea. But this is the only option. We don’t have any other options to select. We have to choose this option. This is between life and death", he said.
M added he could swim very well and he would definitely wear a life jacket while travelling on one of the boats.
"The boat has life jackets and emergency equipment like this. But I think they don't work in the big sea. There could be sharks in the water. It's very hard", he said.
If M's SIV application is approved in the future, he could move to the United States from anywhere in the world despite not having an Afghan passport with him. M explained that this was because the US government had already collected biometric information from him during the vetting process, which would allow him to be easily identified without a proper passport.
But for the foreseeable future, the most realistic goal for M is to try to reach a European country
like Italy and build a stable life for him and his family there.
The lengthy and complicated process to apply for the special immigrant visa to move to the United States would push many Afghan nationals like M to try their luck as a refugee in Europe.
*The Taliban is a terrorist group banned in Russia and many other countries.