Mellissa Fung is a Canadian journalist who has reported from Afghanistan.
Like everyone else, I have been heartbroken and dumbstruck by the horrific news coming out of Ukraine. Lives have been upended overnight. Men have taken their families to the border, saying goodbye, and then turned around to fight for their country, unsure whether they will survive to see their loved ones again. Civilians – children – have been killed with increasing abandon by a madman bent on erasing their country, their very being. Parts of beautiful cities have been turned into rubble. A population is on edge, awaiting inevitable violence.
The last time I felt this kind of sadness and fear was last August, when the Taliban rolled into Kabul and took Afghanistan back under their control. Girls were no longer able to go to school. Women were forced to hide at home. Desperate families had to make their way to Afghanistan’s chaotic airport or the border with Pakistan, to try to flee the inevitable oppression they knew they faced if they stayed. There was no fight and no bombs, as the government quickly capitulated – but there was still so much fear.
That fear is just as profound today as it was more than six months ago, as the Taliban continue to tighten their rule with vicious tactics throughout the country.
Last week, the Taliban stepped up house searches in what spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called a “clearance operation” to round up criminals and confiscate illegal weapons, prompting many to burn books and documents that might hint at any connection with the West. He then announced that citizens who “have no excuse” to leave the country would be prevented from doing so, which would have effectively denied more Afghans from fleeing a country that is failing economically and in the middle of a famine. (He walked back these comments days later, saying that Afghans with the right documents can still travel out of Afghanistan.)
And last Friday morning – at about the same time the first Russian bombs were hitting Ukraine – the Taliban were executing a door-to-door search in Kabul, as part of a “sweep,” targeting former Afghan government and military officials. One of them sent me a desperate appeal, along with a video he filmed with his phone of Taliban roaming up and down his street: “That’s them in our neighbourhood. They are looking for us, ma’am. Please can you help us.”
The young person who sent me the video told me he was starting to lose hope. “It has been now six months since Afghanistan government collapsed, every minutes of our life is breathing with tension; we are frightened to death. We are stranded here not aware of what will happen to us. We might die here.”
As of this writing, more than a million Ukrainians have managed to flee to neighbouring countries since Russia invaded their country last week. Afghans, meanwhile, have few options. Most of the large-scale evacuation flights hastily arranged by different groups over the past six months have slowed or stopped. Bombs may not be tearing up their cities, but they feel certain that death might come in other ways, should they be disappeared by the Taliban.
Canada announced it would prioritize applications for Ukrainians as well as establish new immigration measures for those seeking to reunite with family or start a new life. According to Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, the department has approved nearly 2,000 applications from Ukrainian nationals since Jan. 19 of this year. Thousands more will likely apply in the coming weeks and months, and this is great news; every one of them should be welcomed with the kindness and empathy that has made this country one of the most desired destinations in the world for those fleeing violence.
But we also need to remember that there are thousands of other at-risk people still in limbo, waiting desperately for a response to their applications for resettlement. Of the 40,000 refugees Canada committed to receiving from Afghanistan last year, fewer than 8,000 have actually been resettled at this point. Some of those still waiting wrote to me this week, wondering if Ukrainian refugees would be prioritized over them. They were right to worry, it appears: on Thursday, Canada’s Immigration Minister announced special new streams specifically for Ukrainians, with no limit on the numbers that can apply.
Reading between the lines of their messages, I know they are worried about some of the prejudices that are already creeping into how we talk about Ukraine and Afghanistan. They know that while Ukraine is being referred to as a western country, and Kyiv a European capital, Afghanistan is seen as a developing country, and Kabul a foreign capital. A CBS News correspondent in Ukraine actually said this explicitly on air last week: “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European … city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
I tell the Afghans that Canada is a big country, and that Canadians welcome all refugees without prejudice or preference – but it’s all I can tell them. No one ever wants to be a refugee, and the scenes we are witnessing at Ukraine’s borders and train stations leave no doubt about how wrenching it is to be forced to leave one’s home, life and country, without knowing whether it will ever be possible to return. The least we can do is to make sure they have a safe landing should they decide to start over again in our country, to give them everything they need to rebuild the lives that have been ripped from them. But we also need to treat all refugees equally and compassionately – whether they are running from Russian bombs in Ukraine, or Taliban brutality in Afghanistan.
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