The Neglected Refugees Of Afghanistan

Ali Mohammad, a ten-years-old refugee from Kandahar province stands in front of his makeshift house at the Charahi Qambar refugee camp in Kabul, Afghanistan on February 27, 2011. Ali Mohammad fled the fighting and arrived to Kabul with forty family members more than four years ago.

While Kabul mosques are usually crowded on Friday, a much larger number of young men gathered at the mosques at the end of last month. They were there to attend a fateha — a recitation of the Koran to honor the dead — for their fellow students killed in the attack on the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) on August 24.

Their funerals were attended by equally large crowds of Afghans from across the city, who may not have all known the victims personally, but felt a strong sense of solidarity and anguish at what is seen as an attack on the educated youth of the country — their future. For many present, this wasn’t even the first funeral they’d attended in this past year. With an increase in attacks on civilian spaces by several insurgent groups, Afghanistan’s youth are becoming all too familiar with bidding farewell to their loved ones. Only a few weeks ago, another attack — amidst a peaceful civil protest — took the lives of over 80 young men, several of them university students. “We need a break from all this terror. Last six hours of #AUAF and the last 37 years!” Omaid Sharifi, a prominent Afghan civil rights activist, wrote on Facebook during the attack. “We are dying. #AfghanLivesMatter,” he added.

More recently, three explosions rocked Kabul city on Monday, followed by an attack on a building in downtown Kabul that housed several government offices and an international NGO. The attacks have left nearly 43 dead and over 100 injured, mostly civilians.

The increasing frequency of violence highlights the daily plight of Afghans even in the so called “safe zones” in Afghanistan. And while several have attempted to leave for a better life elsewhere, those who choose to stay — or have no option to leave — often find themselves in extremely challenging situations that may question their resolve.

The AUAF attack on August 24 went on for over 10 hours; a car bomb was exploded outside one of the campus gates, allowing four to five gunmen to enter the campus and begin their rampage of horror. The attack, for which no group has officially claimed responsibility, but which was believed to be carried out by the Taliban, saw the deaths of at least 13 Afghans. Seven of those murdered were students at the university — young girls and boys — some of Afghanistan’s brightest minds.

Since the horrifying incident, the city has been in a mixed state of outrage and mourning.

Among the dead from the AUAF attack was a young student Sami Sarwari, a graduate from Afghanistan Institute of Music. It was his first day at the university, and only a day before he had posted about his admission to the university on Facebook, “I’m in. Looking forward to a beautiful and bright future.”

Recalling The Night Of Horrors

Those who survived the attack remain deeply traumatized, and anguished. Asheq Hussain finds it difficult to sleep at night; he is woken several times a night with ghost sounds of gunshots and visions of dead bodies.

Asheq, who works at a large ISP firm, is enrolled at AUAF for a degree in Business Management. “We had locked ourself in the classroom, stacked the tables and chairs against the door, and turned the lights off,” he recalls. They hid in perfect silence, as they saw the shadow of one of four gunmen pass by their door. Then, just as the gunmen were about to leave, the cell phone of one of the students rang out loud, piercing through the silence and drawing attention to their locked room.

“The terrorist started to bang at the door and we all panicked,” Asheq says, still in shock from the events of the week. Asheq and a few others jumped out the widow of the second story to save themselves. Several of them were injured, including Asheq, who broke his foot in the process.

Similar stories have been recounted over and again across Kabul since the attack. “We had just finished with our classes when we heard gunshots followed by a powerful explosion,” recalls Ahmad Mukhtar, an AUAF student who is also a journalist with CBS News. Mukhtar, along with other students, climbed the nearest security tower in an attempt to jump over, even as bullets rained on them. “When we were running for our lives we could hear bullets passing overhead. We were dodging bullets as we jumped,” he says, adding that he has still not fully recovered from the shock and trauma.

Afghan Lives Matter?

The attack highlights the severity of threats against Afghans, shedding new light not only on regional conflict, but on the global refugee crisis. Over the last six years, a lot has been written and documented about the Syrian refugees escaping the conflict and war in their country; far less attention is given to the Afghan refugees who continue to leave their country in large numbers every year. Indeed, Afghans are the second largest group of refugees, according to UN figures from 2015.

Countries have been discouraging Afghan refugees, and even sending asylum seekers back, referring to them as “economic immigrants.” Several of them have been turned back by European nations who have ruled Afghanistan as “safe” for the refugees to return to. Meanwhile, compared to coverage of Syrian refugees, the plight of refugees from Afghanistan in Europe has been less well documented by the global media.

Earlier this year, then-UK Home Secretary Theresa May — now the current prime minister — rallied to restart mass deportation of Afghan asylum seekers, despite the fact that 2015 was considered the bloodiest year of conflict since the U.S. occupation in 2001.

With the resurgence of Taliban, and other insurgent groups including a faction that pledges allegiance to the Islamic State, there has been a substantial spike in attacks on civilians. About 11,000 civilian casualties were documented by United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Of these, 1,246 (11%) were women and 2,829 (26%) were children. And at least 30% of these were suicide attacks and targeted killings.

The AUAF attack contradicts a ruling by UK’s Upper Tribunal that stated that Kabul was “safe enough” for Afghans to return to. Interestingly, the UK government website states that the “Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all or all but essential travel to different parts of the country (Afghanistan),” including Kabul.

Germany, on the other hand, has incentivized voluntary return of refugees. Their REAG/GARP return program pays for return travel, along with 700 euros per adult and 350 euros per child returned to Kabul.

Moving Forward

The victims, and survivors, of the AUAF attack are among the many young Afghans empowering themselves with skills to rebuild a nation still reeling from over three decades of violence, while having to deal with renewed waves of conflict.

It is feared by many that AUAF students, especially women, may not return to class following the incident. An attack on an educational institute is bound to have a negative impact among students, reasons Mukhtar. “I’m sure there are some students who have already decided to leave the university,” he says. “But there are many others who will continue. The problem is that the youth of Afghanistan have no other option. Education is the only way for them to succeed and they can’t give up on that.”

However, Asheq and his classmates, including the women students, are eager to return to their classes. He has already reached out to the President of the university asking to resume classes as soon as possible. “I will be the first one to go back to my lecture once they begin,” he says. “After all, this (education) is the only weapon we have to fight them.”

To work on any form of redevelopment, the youth of the nation need a safe space to grow and acquire skills to enable them. It is time for the U.S., European nations, and other countries, especially those who have been invested in Afghanistan over the last decade and a half, to reconsider their stand toward asylum seekers from this country.

It is time to consider the challenges that are now becoming a norm for the next generation of Afghans.

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Lead image of Ali Mohammad, a refugee from the Kandahar province: flickr/Basetrack 18