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It’s been nearly three years since the Taliban retook Afghanistan, but for those in exile in neighbouring Pakistan, lack of options means many may be forced to flee soon

More on the Undercurrents series

This is the last part of a year-long project in which Doug Saunders explores the global migration crisis, and the political and economic forces driving it. Learn more in the Decibel episode below and our companion explainer on this series.

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist. Zia Ur Rehman is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Karachi.

1. The road out of Kabul


It was 11 p.m. when the men holding assault rifles began pounding on the front gate of Parastoo Mubariz’s walled house in Kabul. She turned off all the lights, crept to the back rooms, and told her five children, ages 1 to 14, to lie still and be very silent.

“I’d been warned by my neighbours the Taliban were coming for me, so we pretended we weren’t home. We just stayed on the floor for four hours until we were sure they’d left. But I knew they’d be back. So, I packed a bag and at 3:00 in the morning, the neighbours got me a taxi and I left my country forever, without my kids,” she told us from the single room where she now lives in hiding in Peshawar, a city in northern Pakistan. “It was so painful.”

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Parastoo Mubariz was a single mother in Kabul when the Taliban took over, and she knew it would not be safe to stay given her former roles in politics. So she went to Pakistan and found refuge in Peshawar. She conceals her face to avoid identification.

Parastoo, then 36, her face uncharacteristically covered to avoid detection, reached Pakistan’s Torkham border crossing, on the edge of the Khyber Pass, shortly after dawn on that day in early 2022.

It was the start of a two-year odyssey that has taken her along pathways followed by almost seven million Afghans. She became part of one of the world’s largest, and most unresolved, conflict migrations – one whose latest disruption appears poised to send tens or hundreds of thousands more people on dangerous journeys westward to Europe and North America.

In the summer of 2021, the United States pulled its military out of Afghanistan and the Taliban abruptly swept into Kabul, seizing control of the government, imposing their strict religious restrictions on daily life and sending an estimated 1.6 million people fleeing in fear.

It was the largest single exodus in 40 years of conflict and extremism in Afghanistan – 600,000 Afghans fled south into neighbouring Pakistan, according to United Nations data, and a million into Iran – and many of them have wound up effectively stateless, living for years on the road without a clear destination, not welcomed or accepted in any country.

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A Taliban fighter guards the queue of refugees at the Afghan side of the Torkham border crossing, which Parastoo had used to enter Pakistan.Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press

Parastoo knew she was a target. She had worked in the office of Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s Western-backed elected president, and in 2019 she attempted a run for elected office in her home province of Takhar – a role the Taliban forbade women.

Shortly before the militants seized power, Parastoo’s husband had died after a long illness, leaving her a single mother just as the Taliban was cracking down on women driving cars and venturing out alone. She was stopped and harassed at checkpoints, and some regime figures recognized her from her political life and threatened her. A month before her escape, she and a dozen other women were seized by the Taliban at a women’s-rights protest, locked in a basement overnight and beaten with rifle butts. She, like many other women in public life, had been warned that she could be executed for these transgressions.

So she, like many middle-class Afghan women, fled her country alone. She found a room in Islamabad, and spent those early days in tears of distress. It took three months to persuade her generous neighbours to spirit her five children out of Kabul. “Every minute of that was a terrible time—three years ago, this little one was only one year old,” she said, holding her toddler.

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At a UNHCR camp on the outskirts of Kabul, children receive vitamins after their deportation from Pakistan.WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

But an escape to Pakistan, she would soon discover, is not really an escape at all.

In 2023, Pakistan turned against the Afghans in its borders. The interim military government launched a program last year to expel all Afghans living in Pakistan without residency papers, and eventually all Afghans and their offspring regardless of documentation, ostensibly on the grounds that local Afghans are associated with a string of terrorist incidents (though refugees have not been connected with the incidents). In October and November of 2023, the government successfully forced more than 450,000 to return or be deported to Afghanistan, and has recently pledged to continue the program once the civilian government resulting from February’s national elections is fully in place.

During our month on the road in Pakistan, we discovered that Parastoo and hundreds of thousands of Afghans like her have become something of a migratory time bomb, faced with no other choice but to flee, using smugglers or other means, to Europe, North America and other safe destinations. In other words, the Afghan refugee crisis may barely have begun.

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Hakim Ullah and one-year-old daughter Sawab Bibi are among the many Afghans living in a mud-walled Pashtun encampment outside Islamabad. A new Pakistani government is settling in after contentious elections, and is likely to continue the deportation policies that last year cut the population of this settlement in half.

Since the Ahmadi family fled to Pakistan, husband Nasar, who once ran a travel agency, and wife Forouzan, a former TV executive, have shared a small apartment with eight other family members.
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Shakila Rasouli’s books for children, which portrayed girls as equal to boys, were taught in every Afghan school before the Taliban came. Now, they are among the trove of documents and old photos she took with her family to Rawalpindi.

Some of the Afghans who spoke with The Globe came from military backgrounds, such as Abdul Manan Azizi, who found work as a tailor and volunteer teacher in Karachi.
Narjis Nazari and husband Rohullah Rezaie worked for an animal-rescue charity that ran afoul of the Taliban. Now, in Islamabad, they run a small Afghan food-delivery business from home.

We are living in a record-breaking moment of conflict migration, and the millions of Afghans streaming through Pakistan have become the most contentious and unsolved part of this huge population.

There are now about 8.2 million Afghans who’ve been forced to flee their country due to its decades of war, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The majority of them are thought to be in Pakistan, which vies with Turkey as the world’s most refugee-filled country.

As conflict refugees, they are in the company of about six million Ukrainians who cannot return to their invaded country, most living in Central and Western Europe; 6.5 million Syrians who have been forced by dictator Bashir al-Assad’s crushing of their democratic uprising to flee to other countries (mainly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon); and 1.4 million Sudanese who have escaped violence mainly for other parts of Africa. Together, these four conflicts account for the majority of the world’s 35 million refugees.

Afghanistan is unique in that it has been producing international refugees in great numbers for decades: The first major wave occurred in the early 1980s, when the Soviet Union invaded and about three million Afghans fled to Pakistan, which at first welcomed them as heroic brothers and gave them housing and papers. In the 1990s, almost a million returned home, but the first Taliban takeover in 1996 sent more fleeing, followed by another return in the optimistic early years of the NATO-backed democracy, and then the larger flight after 2021.

We tend to think of conflict migration as a matter of families fleeing danger while the bombs are falling – which has certainly been the case, for example, in Ukraine after 2022 and Syria after 2011. But in many major conflicts, the largest movements take place only after the hostilities have ended and the victors sweep into power. That was true of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, and it has become the case in Afghanistan.

But much of the world appears to believe that the Afghanistan war and its associated human dislocations basically ended in 2021. Refugee resettlement and sponsorship by countries that had been involved in the war has declined; countries such as Canada and the United States now have years-long backlogs for the few tens of thousands of Afghan refugees they are accepting (Canada has accepted about 49,000 Afghan refugees since 2021, and the United States about 90,000.)

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In Colombia – which The Globe visited for an earlier instalment of this series – the situation is very different for the Venezuelans who, like the Afghans in Pakistan, have fled hardship into a neighbouring country.Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

Pakistan does indeed face a nearly unmanageable refugee crisis, on a scale many times larger than any Western country has ever managed. But it might be useful to compare Pakistan with Colombia, which has been deluged with desperate refugees from the country next door.

An earlier article in this series documented the almost seven million Venezuelans who have entered Colombia after an authoritarian regime collapsed the former’s economy in 2015. Fearing the vast migration crisis that would erupt across the Americas if Colombia rejected those newcomers, the United States, Canada and other wealthier countries have poured billions into Colombia, which in turn has granted permanent residency, free education and health care to about half of those Venezuelans.

There has been little or no similar support for Pakistan to turn millions of its Afghans into productive citizens. In part, that’s because Western governments don’t trust Pakistan to use such funds properly. But it’s also because Pakistan’s military, which has made migration and borders its exclusive purview, has made it clear that it sees the war as being over and the Taliban regime as a legitimate home for its ethnic Afghans. It has, in effect, tried to hand them back to the Taliban, and thus given millions an incentive to hit the road.

Maria Hamid, a mother of two, was with the Afghan military intelligence service when she decided to escape and avoid reprisal from the Taliban, whose threatening letter she has kept through her travels. Her hope was to take the so-called dunki route through Iran and Turkey into Europe.

2. The dunki path


As Parastoo prepared to flee Kabul alone, her neighbour Maria Hamid faced an even more desperate flight, one that was not meant to end in Pakistan.

Maria, 23 at the time, worked for Afghanistan’s military intelligence service, as did her husband. In 2019, the couple was warned that Taliban spies within their office had identified and targeted them for punishment. They knew a Taliban regime would be fatal.

She needed to find a way out. But she faced two problems. First, her husband was missing: While on assignment in the western city of Herat, days before Kabul fell, he called and told her that he couldn’t get home because all the roads were controlled by the Taliban. “And that,” she told us, stifling tears, “is the last call I received from my husband. I still don’t know if he’s alive or not.” Efforts by her family to determine his fate have come to naught.

Second, she was a mother of two boys – Osman, 6 then, and Orhan, a months-old nursing baby. She couldn’t leave without the baby. But taking the small boy would put them both in danger.

So she left Osman with her parents, concealed her face and body behind a burka for the first time in her life, and, baby in arms, headed west. “I went by bus to the border of Iran – the Taliban don’t check the bus. And I kept myself covered. It was terrifying, but I had a friend who had made it all the way to Turkey, and she knew someone I could pay to take me.”

Pakistan was far too dangerous, because the Taliban operated openly there, seemingly with the protection and support of figures in the military. Maria, like many Afghans with few other options, had decided to go dunki – a time-worn path, shockingly expensive and horrifically dangerous, that runs through Iran, across the fortified mountain border of Turkey, and then at even more expense and danger, across its northwestern border into Europe. It is one of the oldest human-migration pathways – essentially following the original Silk Road – and one that Iran, Turkey and the European Union have recently tried to shut down using increasingly severe methods.

The dunki route from Afghanistan to Europe












The dunki route from Afghanistan to Europe

The dunki route from Afghanistan to Europe


















The dunki route from Afghanistan to Europe












Some say dunki is a mispronunciation of the English word “donkey,” others that it comes from a Punjabi word for hopping from place to place. The term, and the infrastructure of smugglers and agents behind it, goes back decades.

Jabbar Khan, a dunki smuggler in Quetta, Pakistan, explained his role in ferrying Afghans (and even more Pakistanis) to the Iranian border. He waits at the Quetta bus station, a gateway for passengers from both countries, and stands with other dunki agents offering trips to the border, typically for less than $100.

Once at the border, he explained, the migrants are handed off to other smugglers who facilitate their passage into Iran and onward to the Turkish border.

The whole dunki trip, if successful, will cost upward of US$3,000, paid to a series of smugglers. Mr. Khan is a minor link, though his crossing is among the most dangerous.

“Our goal is to finish the journey in one day,” he said. “If there are delays, we tie everyone with ropes and keep them in an empty location or trench until we can proceed. If someone escapes … it could jeopardize our entire operation.”

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These refugees on the outskirts of Zaranj city, Afghanistan, attempted the dunki route into Iran in late December.Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press

Maria was able to skip this step and enter Iran legally, by getting a temporary visa at the border. Then she met an Iranian dunki agent, paid him US$800 for herself and US$500 for the baby, and boarded a bus with 18 other people.

Upon arriving in Tehran, mother and baby spent 25 days sleeping at a friend’s house. Then the next agents came and took the group on a daylong drive to a town near the Turkish border. The group was driven into the mountains, and given bottles of water and a cheap cellphone. Watching them from higher in the mountains, the smugglers gave them directions by phone: Left here, follow the river, up that hill, climb that cliff. Baby Orhan cried loudly in the cold, and Maria strained under his weight. A few Afghan teenage boys – adventurers who’d joined the group – took turns carrying him. They waited in a rudimentary concrete bunker, built by smugglers, until nightfall: Hiking through the darkness, their rendezvous was a house near Turkey’s border fence, whose Iranian residents had paid off the local border guards to let groups through.

Maria struggled to keep the baby quiet, and the teenage boys, giddy with excitement, chatted loudly – too loudly, it turned out. As they approached the house, they were suddenly blinded by police floodlights, then handcuffed and loaded into police vans. Maria and Orhan were held in a freezing police cell for a week, then deported back to western Afghanistan. “If you come to the border again,” the police told her, “we will know what to do with you.” Murders and rapes of migrants in Iran and Turkey are commonplace.

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Maria teaches Osman and Orhan some of her old military self-defence skills in Peshawar, where they were afraid to leave their apartment building.

Her dunki escape an expensive failure (as many, perhaps the majority, prove to be), Maria was now in considerable danger. She knew that Pakistan was, for now, her only option. She gathered her sons, her teenage sisters Sara and Sana and her mother, and the four women and two children made their way across the border into Pakistan.

We met them in the northern city of Peshawar, where they were living in a two-room flat. They were surviving on rent they collected from her Kabul house, delivered by co-operative neighbours, and fees Sara earns from her online English tutoring. They try not to venture outside – if local Pakistani men, never mind the local Taliban or the police, were to discover that there’s an all-female refugee household, the consequences could be grim.

“Several times the police have come and told us they’d deport us, so we’ve had to give them money to go away,” Maria said. “If we stay here in Peshawar, it’s dangerous because my husband’s brother can find us, the Taliban can find us, my son cannot go to school, my little sister cannot continue her education. We want to apply for a job but we can’t, we want a better future, but no, it’s not to be found here.” Their refugee applications have gone nowhere, so they still talk about making another dunki trip some day.

They are far from alone. Although the dunki route has become far more difficult and dangerous during the past decade – owing to Turkey’s construction of a high-security border fence, Europe’s increased security of its borders and a Turkey-EU cash agreement to prevent migrants from crossing into Greece – recent events have made it the only option for many Afghans living in Pakistan.

The decision by Pakistan’s military regime to deport all Afghans without legal residency appears to have driven many onto the Iran-Turkey route. Turkey reported in 2023 that it was home to about 300,000 undocumented Afghan migrants, many on their way to Europe, and European authorities reported that the overland migration route from Turkey through Greece and Bulgaria had surpassed the Mediterranean route from Africa in traffic, bringing tens of thousands of Afghans into Europe.

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The graves of unidentified migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, form a ‘cemetery of the unclaimed’ in Van, Turkey, in 2021, early in the exodus from the Taliban takeover. Van’s location near the Iran-Turkey border makes it a key stopping point in the route to Europe.Bradley Secker/The Globe and Mail

Many of the Afghan families we met in Pakistan said they were preparing for, or at least considering, a dunki trip. Perhaps none had such a longstanding and difficult relationship with the Iran-Turkey pathway as the Bilal family.

We met this family of four in their small single room in an Islamabad apartment building, with a bed in the centre, a tiny makeshift kitchen on the side and two old-fashioned sewing machines and a heap of clothing and fabric filling the back. Farzana Bilal was a teacher at a private girls’ high school for 20 years, but now she earned a minimal income, just enough to feed the family, using these machines for tailoring and mending, often working until 2 a.m. Her husband took whatever odd cash jobs he found. A sympathetic headteacher neighbour allowed the kids into his school without fees.

“This is the worst time in my life,” Farzana said. “I had my own personality in Afghanistan, people respected me. Now we are in a very bad situation.”

When the Bilals fled the Taliban in 2022 and crossed into Pakistan, they assumed they’d stay there long enough to save some money and then head westward together – after all, several members of their family had made more or less successful dunki trips to Europe over the past decade. Then they thought they had found a saviour: A business in Lahore, going by the name Usman International, could get the entire family French visas, allowing them to fly to Europe and live legally. The only problem was the price: US$30,000, a ruinous sum even for many Westerners. They called on every branch of their family for loans and wired the money.

And with that, Usman International’s office, website, phone numbers and e-mail addresses promptly vanished, never to be seen again. The Bilals had fallen victim to one of the many scammers who prey upon Afghan refugees – and which Pakistani authorities have no apparent interest in policing because their victims are not considered legitimate residents.

The Bilals still intended to escape via the dunki route, if none of their asylum attempts worked out. But they had no idea how many years it would take to get out of their financial hole and find a place they’re allowed to live.

At the Pashtun encampment outside Islamabad, children fly kites and play before going to work harvesting sellable items from garbage. These Afghan refugees, here since the 1980s, do not disagree with the Taliban, but do not want to return because the Afghan economy is so poor.
Fazel Ahmed, right, was disabled and blinded in a bomb blast in Afghanistan. Now, he begs on the streets and lives at the settlement with his father, Haider Khan.
Life in the Pashtun settlement in Islamabad resembles that of Kandahar a century ago. Food is cooked on open fires, there’s little technology and children do not attend school.

3. The hidden thousands


After Parastoo and her five children settled in a small apartment a friend rented them in Islamabad, they gradually realized that they were surrounded by fellow Afghans, many of them invisible to Pakistani residents.

Islamabad, a centrally-planned capital built in 1967, is a phenomenally expensive place to live by South Asian standards. But as the home to the embassies and refugee agencies required to get asylum, and free from the sort of violent slums the far larger Afghan population of Karachi is forced to live in, it has become the place of exile for much of the former Kabul middle class.

The city now has thriving Afghan markets and neighbourhoods. But because Pakistan’s military-backed government refused to issue permanent residency certificates or long-term visas to most Afghans who fled after 2021 (and wouldn’t renew them for many who’d arrived during the previous 40 years), many find it necessary to stay behind closed doors.

Parastoo couldn’t apply for jobs, so she relied on the rent she collected from her Kabul house (about $180 a month) and what little money her eldest sons, then aged 13 and 14, earned working in a shop. “I went from being a successful woman with a career and a political role, to doing nothing in Islamabad and struggling to raise children,” she said. She applied to the United Nations, and to governments including Canada’s, for asylum, but even very strong applications were taking years.

And she was better off than many.

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Shakila Rasouli comes from a family of educators and human-rights activists who now share a crowded apartment in Rawalpindi.

The Rasouli family were a highly successful intellectual and artistic family from Herat, in the far west of Afghanistan. Shakila was the author of more than 40 successful children’s books once used in every Afghan school, which, owing to their portrayal of girls as equals, are now forbidden. Her sister Soraya ran a prominent civil-rights defence organization called Falah. They used to share a sprawling residential compound full of art and music.

When we met them in February, the sisters, their mother and brother and his wife, and several of their children – together a family of 14 people – somehow lived in two modest-sized rooms in a back-alley building in Rawalpindi, the chaotic city adjoining Islamabad.

None of them had left those two rooms for more than four months, since Pakistan’s policy of deportation began in October. Because the Rasoulis lacked papers, and lived in a heavily policed neighbourhood, they had not even set foot in the alleyway since October – a trusted neighbour brought them groceries, they didn’t dare go to the mosque, and the kids could not go to school. In fact, the smaller children watched enviously, through the lone window, as the neighbourhood’s non-Afghan kids walked past on their way to school.

The family devised a bittersweet measure to compensate: Every weekday morning, the adults move over to one of the two rooms; the other is set up as a “classroom,” with grown-ups taking turns teaching. “It at least lets them feel they’re having some kind of school experience, though they know it isn’t real,” said Somayya, a teenage daughter. “After two years, this city feels like a jail, and now we’re in solitary confinement.”

The Rasouli children study in their apartment's ‘classroom,’ where adult relatives take turns teaching them. Their living space has little storage space for books; Shakila’s mother, Maryam, opens the fridge to reveal it is crammed with reading material.

That forced immobility has had a different effect on the family of Ali Zafar and his wife Latifa, who came from Kandahar, fleeing through the western Pakistani city of Quetta. They also rarely dared leave their ground-floor apartment on the other side of Islamabad.

But they’re also hiding for another reason, one that caused them to flee the Taliban very quickly in 2021: They are Christian (Ali’s family converted to the faith some time in the 20th century). “We’re living in hiding – even our own relatives don’t know we’re in Pakistan,” Ali said.

They’ve applied for asylum in a number of Christian-majority countries, including the U.S. and Canada, but have been disappointed by the lack of response. In the meantime, they’ve developed their own coping mechanism: On Sundays, they draw their curtains, and welcome a group of local people, usually around 30. In the back room, before a makeshift altar, Ali preaches and ministers to this small flock of Pakistani and Afghan believers.

Islamabad, for many of the 2021 refugees, was meant to be a temporary stay. Many expected to find some form of resettlement or asylum after a year or two – after all, they’d worked for foreign governments, militaries and agencies that had effectively promised to save them from the Taliban.

The Nazari family live in a high-rise apartment near the edge of the city. Somayya and her husband Rohullah were employed by an American charity, Kabul Small Animal Rescue, that turned Afghan street animals into pets. In 2021, the Taliban told it to leave, and the organization’s founder, Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, vowed to get all her staff and families, about 125 people, out of the country.

Very few have got out: Some, like the Nazaris, were exiled to Pakistan or other nearby countries; some tried to stay, and at least one was stabbed to death in Kabul. In 2022, Ms. Maxwell-Jones organized a well-publicized, risky rescue mission – to get the pets out. As part of that mission, more than 300 dogs and cats were flown to Vancouver to be rescued.

But former staff, such as the Nazari family, have been harder to rescue. The United States has been notoriously slow and picky in processing asylum applications, and Canada has still-unresolved backlogs that have put some legitimate and accepted Afghan refugees in danger of deportation. Ms. Maxwell-Jones had been paying the rent and some living costs for her staff stranded in Pakistan, but it is not enough. Unable to work legally, they run a small business from their apartment, packing school lunches for the building’s residents. “Our entire lives are on hold, and we can’t work or study,” said Somayya. “And the worst part is we have no idea how long we will have to be here.”

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Ghulam Hakim, the elder of the Afghan settlement outside Islamabad, says many people here fled Afghanistan for economic reasons, not because they are ideologically opposed to the Taliban.

A different form of Afghan exile is concealed just beyond the city limits of Islamabad, in a mud-walled enclave, hidden by a grassy hill on the edge of a garbage dump. Inside are a couple hundred people, many of them children, dressed in the colourful dress of Pashtun nomads, and living as they might have in Kandahar a century ago: a warren of mud-and-straw houses, food cooked on outdoor wood fires, and little electricity or technology.

Ghulam Hakim, at 55 the elder of this community, first came to this place as a teenager in the early 1980s, shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For decades, he and his family moved back and forth seasonally, farming in Afghanistan and doing rudimentary jobs and selling things in Pakistan during the winter. “There was no difference between the countries until after 2001, you could cross the border without questions,” he recalled. “And Pakistanis treated us like brothers, not like today.”

Ghulam now has seven children and eight grandchildren living in the encampment. According to Pakistan’s constitution, any offspring born on Pakistani soil should be legal citizens – but governments have never observed that law. Instead, police began harassing them in October, and about a third of the encampment’s residents have returned to Afghanistan to avoid deportation.

Neither he nor any of his neighbours have any problem with the Taliban; they share the conservative religious beliefs and Pashtun customs. Their reason for exile, Ghulam said, is purely economic: Even garbage picking is more lucrative than farming in Kandahar today. “We really can’t go back there, we couldn’t eat. It would take a year to make as much money in Kandahar as we do here in a month.”

Alvira Azad came to Pakistan to study at a medical school. She graduated, but is now forced to keep living in the student dormitory, after she was violently assaulted by Taliban-linked figures on the orders of her cousin, a Taliban officer who wanted her to return to Afghanistan and marry a relative, and now seeks reprisal.

4. The continuing war


In the months after she arrived in Islamabad and rescued her five children from Kabul, Parastoo’s life was difficult. By early 2023 it had became impossible. The 20-year Afghan war had officially ended, but last year the war came looking for her.

Shopkeepers told her a Pashtun-looking man was going around showing an image of her passport on his phone. Then she started getting calls and texts, from Afghan country codes, including photos of her at women’s-rights protests in Islamabad, accompanied by death threats: “They said, ‘you did these things in Afghanistan, now you have gone to Pakistan and you do the same thing, the penalty for this is to be stoned to death.’ ” People active in Kabul told her the threats were real, as Taliban figures had targeted her.

She shut down all her social-media accounts, and changed the name she uses in public. Then she packed her bags, and loaded her children in a taxi to the train station. They were going south.

She was far from alone. For a great many Afghans, Pakistan has proved not to be a safe haven from conflict and retribution.

Alvira Azad, 31, lives in a medical students’ dormitory in Rawalpindi. For more than a year she did not leave the compound, which is guarded around the clock by men carrying Kalashnikov rifles and checking ID. Even going out to buy food, she discovered last year, could be deadly.

In 2016, she won admission to a well-regarded medical school in Pakistan. Her father’s conservative Pashtun family did not approve of a woman leaving on her own or studying medicine, but in those years they had little control. On her return to Afghanistan, they tried to force her to marry a cousin. Her brother helped her escape back to Pakistan.

But the Taliban takeover in 2021 meant that her father’s family now had the ruling regime behind them. The cousin had become an officer in the Taliban, and made her insubordination an official issue. She started receiving threats. Then, in early 2023, she was shopping at the bazaar when three men grabbed her and pulled her into a dark corner. They punched her face, violently breaking her nose, while whispering angry claims about her disloyalty. She was saved from worse when passersby saw her and pulled them away, though police would not take action. She spent two days in the hospital and still bears the scars. “I’m very restricted here – I can only teach medical students online, and I cannot become a practitioner as long as I live within reach of the Taliban,” she said.

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Zohra Wahidi Akhatari lives in Rawalpindi with her husband, Wahid Ahmad Akhtari, and their children as she continues advocating for women, which got her arrested and tortured by the Taliban.

Many of those living in fear of Taliban reprisals became targets because they worked for Western governments and agencies that claimed to empower and protect women in Afghanistan. Now there is a palpable anger that they are not being extended the same sort of protection.

“A lot of organizations said ‘we are here to support women, we are here to help them.’ But all of them were just lying, because I see that nobody has responded,” said Zohra Wahidi Akhtari, who worked as a “women’s voice” for a number of organizations in the 2010s, and as a teacher of girls and a women’s-rights activist.

The Taliban takeover brutalized her. Her father and brother, in the military, were shot to death. She tried to escape with her family by going to Baghram Airport on Aug. 26, 2021; the suicide bombing that chaotic day killed her mother, along with at least 182 other people, and forced her to give up hope of an asylum flight. A month later she was arrested by the Taliban, held in a cell for weeks and tortured with electric shocks to the face, which remains partly paralyzed. She was able to escape with her five children in 2022, and found she still had to hide from Taliban agents in Pakistan. She was promised asylum by UN agencies and governments, but two years later has heard nothing.

“We are stranded here, our daughters have been unable to go to school for two years, and they don’t do anything for us. We took a risk by teaching girls, and provided a voice. Now that we have become victims of the Taliban, no one wants to hear our voice.”

For Afghan children in Karachi’s Al Asif Square slum district, charity-run Syed Jamal High School is one of the few places they can get a hot meal and some quiet time, much less an education. The student population fell in half after last year’s deportations.
When The Globe visited Al Asif Square, part of it looked deserted because many families had returned to Afghanistan, fearing the Pakistani authorities who might force them back.

5. The crackdown


After the war caught up to Parastoo and her five children in Islamabad, there was only one escape available, as they had no legal documents: A 26-hour train journey to the vast coastal city of Karachi, home to an estimated 300,000 Afghans, many of whom have lived there for decades.

After hauling their baggage off the train in the late evening, the family found themselves caught in the dusty chaos of this city of 20 million, without anywhere to go. Hotels and guest houses told her they wouldn’t take undocumented Afghans. As midnight approached, they squatted on their baggage, and Parastoo realized she would be forced to sleep on the street with her children for the first time in her life, joining countless much poorer Afghan families.

Then Muhammad Nabi passed in his car. Something about the sight of those children lying atop their bags reminded him of his own recent plight. He took them to his home, a two-room ground-floor flat he shares with his wife and three kids in a rough concrete-block slum district, and somehow fit the six of them in as guests.

Muhammad had been a soldier in the Afghan National Army. When the Taliban seized power, there was no question he had to leave. He and his fellow soldier and friend – like Muhammad an ethnic Uzbek – crossed into Iran, in hopes of later bringing their families on a dunki trip, supported by their relatives in Canada and Europe. But after a few days, they were caught by Iranian authorities and deported back to Afghanistan.

This time, they used their military skills to sneak across the border into Pakistan, bringing their families a few days later. They made it to Karachi in 2022. Their long-term plan, the two men said, is to arrange another dunki trip. “We know there’s no future here for us, we’re hunted by Pakistan’s army,” said Muhammad. “But we need to get our whole families out to Europe. That will be much more expensive, but we’re willing to save.”

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Muhammad Nabi is a former Afghan National Army soldier who helped Parastoo and her her children find lodgings in Peshawar.

After Parastoo and her kids had stayed for 12 days, Muhammad found her a one-bedroom flat, for about $25 a month, in the bustling Afghan apartment slum known as Al Asif Square, several kilometres from the city centre. And he got her oldest son Milad, then 16, a job at the food stand where he works.

As well as its hundreds of thousands of Afghans, about a quarter of Karachi’s Pakistani citizens are ethnically and linguistically Pashtun. And, while Parastoo was safe from the specific Taliban figures who’d stalked her in Islamabad, the religious fundamentalists remain a very active force in Karachi. Taliban-sympathetic figures controlled her local mosque, banning her kids from studying there because they didn’t wear traditional clothes.

Then the crackdown began. In Islamabad and Peshawar, the military regime’s mass deportation was random and corrupt, involving police visits and bribe payments; in Karachi, it was systematic, mechanical and vicious. For weeks, the army commandeered the speakers in the city’s minarets and speaker trucks roamed the streets, announcing “20 days until deportation,” then 19 days, and so on until the Nov. 1 deadline, repeating the message on billboards and digital signs.

On deadline day, a phalanx of armed men swept out across the city for days, rounding up any Afghan without a residency card, as well as many Afghans who did have legal papers, and even a significant number of Pakistanis who simply looked Afghan, shipping them to half a dozen teeming transit camps and then onward across the northern border.

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At the Karachi school where he volunteers, Abdul Manan Azizi works with many Afghan pupils who see there time there as 'the one place where they’re really happy.'

Syed Jamal High School is usually a haven of calm within the chaos of Al Asif Square, the district Parastoo moved into. Run by a German charity in a set of rooms in a quiet corner, it charges no fees and is one of the few places where Afghan kids can get a daily meal, or escape their crowded apartments. “Most of these kids were born here in Karachi,” said Abdul Manan Azizi, one of the volunteer teachers at the school. “They can’t afford books or even pencils, and most don’t even get enough to eat – many of them come to classes for two or three hours, then go to work in the market. They have very difficult lives and this is the one place where they’re really happy.”

In 2023, it became a place of fear and displacement. The authorities went systematically through Al Asif Square, rounding up anyone they could find, regardless of status. At the time of our visit, the school had half the student population it did in October. “There’s real sadness among these kids,” Mr. Azizi said, “because so many of their friends are gone, and the rest are frightened that they will have to leave.”

Mr. Azizi estimated that 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the families facing deportation had been in Karachi since the 1980s, and a similar proportion date from the 1990s.

Many undocumented families saw what was coming and left Pakistan on their own. Some went to Afghanistan, expecting to stay there until the situation changed south of the border. At a bus depot that serves the city’s Afghan districts, conductor Mohammad Younas said there were dozens of buses to Kabul and Kandahar every day in late 2023, sometimes 20 at once; now there was one a day.

Others took the dunki route, some directly from Karachi and others after they were sent to Afghanistan. Many remaining families said they plan to make that trip as soon as they can.

When the crackdown began last year, Parastoo realized that Karachi was no longer a place of refuge for her family. An escape through Iran and Turkey, even if she could afford it, was impossible for a woman with five small children. And a return to Afghanistan, voluntarily or otherwise, could be lethal for a single mother with her overtly political background.

Parastoo had run out of road. Like so many other Afghans, she found last year that there was no available route that led to a livable place for her family. So she did the only thing she could: Took her family on another stifling two-day train journey, this time to almost the location where her three-year journey began, near the Khyber Pass.

She now lives, more or less in hiding, in those two rooms in Peshawar, where the rent is affordable and the harassment, while frequent, can usually be addressed with bribes or concealment. And she waits, like hundreds of thousands of others, for a path she can take to safety.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the founder of Kabul Small Animal Rescue and not the charity itself was paying some rent and living costs for a former employee’s family stranded in Pakistan.

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Returning to Afghanistan is not an option for Parastoo, so she continues to look for a way forward.

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