Afghans with ties to US who couldn't get out now live in fear

Afghans waving documents at US Marines outside the wall of the airport in Kabul on Aug 22, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (NYTIMES) - Armed Taliban militants were looking for Shah. They knew he worked as an interpreter for the US government, and came to his provincial home at night.

"Someone inside worked for the US Army!" they shouted, threatening to shoot down the door.

Shah had already left for Kabul, where he is now in hiding. But he believes he is a hunted man. "I'm not feeling safe here any more," said Shah, whose application for a special immigrant visa to the United States is still in the works.

"The Taliban fighters say they are not taking revenge, and they are forgiving everybody," he said. "But I can't believe them. Why did they come to my house looking for me?"

There are thousands like Shah, stuck in Afghanistan under a capricious and unpredictable Taliban rule, who did not make it onto US military evacuation flights - those who worked for the US Army or the government, and their families, and who were eligible for US humanitarian visas. They know they are potential targets as the Taliban tightens its grip since taking over Kabul fully this week.

Taliban leaders have pledged to allow those with visas to leave once they reopen the main airport, which remained closed to commercial flights on Friday (Sept 3).

But those like Shah doubt the pledges of a group that they feel they cannot trust and that has ruled Afghanistan ruthlessly before. Trying to leave - or showing a special immigrant visa - could itself expose them to danger if the Taliban reneges on its promises.

So with the Taliban firmly in control on the streets, they have gone into hiding.

One US government contractor and humanitarian visa applicant said he had gone underground - literally - with his pregnant wife and one-year-old daughter in a system of tunnels. He said he did not believe the Taliban's promises and did not plan to risk leaving his hiding place.

There are also potentially hundreds of thousands of other Afghans - aid agency workers, officials from the defunct government, media employees, prominent women - who are fearful and laying low.

On Friday, an uneasy calm settled on Kabul, four days after the Taliban took over and the last US forces left. Afghans waited for the Taliban to announce their new government.

In Kabul, the few women venturing out have been able to wear headscarves, rather than the face-covering burqa the Taliban imposed during its previous rule, and several dozen protested outside the palace, demanding the inclusion of women in a new government.

The Taliban's leaders are still talking about showing inclusiveness. But they have made clear in filling lower-ranking positions so far that they are choosing from among their own.

Kabul residents interviewed by phone described a pervasive fear as Taliban rule steadily changed life around them.

And as the economy spiralled deeper into crisis - with sharply rising prices and dwindling hard currency - many say they are eager to leave, particularly those eligible for the US Special Immigration Visa, an emergency humanitarian visa that has been granted to interpreters and others who worked for the US Army.

Their numbers remain unclear. Nobody - neither the US government nor human rights groups - has an exact figure for these Afghans who have a direct connection with official America but who did not make it out.

The Association of Wartime Allies, an advocacy group, estimates that there are 118,000 Afghans, including their families, who are still in Afghanistan and eligible for the visa.

Taliban fighters guarding a money exchange in Kabul on Aug 26, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The group wrote in a report at the end of August that "it is reasonable that nearly 1 per cent of the Afghan population has in some way worked for, or are family members of those who worked for, the United States". Afghanistan's population is estimated at about 40 million.

"There are hundreds of thousands who remain trapped," Mr Adam Bates, a lawyer with the International Refugee Assistance Project, said on Tuesday during a video news conference in the US. "The majority of our clients were not able to leave Afghanistan on the evacuation flights."

How real their danger is remains unclear. There have been scattered reports of the Taliban carrying out executions as its soldiers swept the country, particularly in Spin Boldak on the Pakistan border - where 40 people associated with the government were killed, according to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

Since taking Kabul on Aug 15, the Taliban has conducted house-to-house searches and made arrests. Its methods rely heavily on intimidation. It has announced to family members of media workers, for instance, that it is looking for them, according to Human Rights Watch.

"The fact that they are looking for them is also a threat," said Ms Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch. "It's the way a police state functions."

She added: "They have unleashed a lot of people who are interested in revenge. People are eager to flee because it is not going to be survivable."

Taliban fighters at Kabul airport on Aug 31, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

For working Afghans attempting to adapt to Taliban rule, preliminary contacts have been dismaying. The new order means exclusion or segregation of women, a brutality of manner and, always, the presence of weapons.

Meanwhile, Afghans like Shah, the former interpreter, said that in some places, the situation was terrifying. "One Talib will kill 10 people, and there is no court," he said. "This is not a prepared government."

An aid worker still in Kabul was similarly fearful. He got the sense that those the Taliban was putting in charge were trying to stop random acts of brutality.

"But I also get the sense that they have little control," the aid worker said

Some aid agency employees who have continued to work were disturbed by their encounters with the new authorities and plan to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.

People at a market in Kabul on Aug 29, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Taliban has encouraged them to continue working, these officials said, but there is always an air of menace.

"They always come to our compound with their guns and armed guards," an aid worker in a northern province said by phone.

The militants were pressuring his agency to hire Taliban members and to concentrate its aid work on long-held Taliban areas, he said, and would not allow female staff to work.

"There are many women who don't have hope," said a female aid worker in Kabul who was attempting to leave.

"If you want to live, you have to work. We don't have bread at home to feed our children.

"How are we going to survive in this country?" she asked.

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