Kiran Nazish is a former war correspondent who has covered the Middle East and South Asia. She is currently a professor at Brandon University and the founding director of The Coalition for Women in Journalism.
It was on Wednesday – less than a week before the U.S.’s self-imposed deadline to evacuate people out of Afghanistan – that we heard from Canadian sources that they were not going to take additional evacuees. The official announcement that followed the next day – that the last Canadian Armed Forces flight departed Kabul early Thursday morning, according to Acting Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre – only affirmed the tragedy of the situation: a failed operation beset by chaos, security threats, stingy resources on the ground, and a total failure of governments to manage evacuation efforts.
The Canadian government said that “miraculous” efforts have been under way. That contrasts harshly with the reality.
This past week, The Coalition for Women in Journalism has been among the small number of organizations invested in evacuating and relocating high-risk targets, including foreign and local journalists, Afghan academics, human-rights defenders, activists, artists and others whose lives are being threatened by the return of the Taliban’s brutal rule.
Women, in particular, are at a high risk; we have been told by women journalists and activists we are in touch with that the Taliban is going door-to-door, looking for women on their hit lists, many of whom have worked with Canadian non-profits, media, military organizations and government. They have already been approached with threatening messages and warnings. One of them is a stringer for The Globe and Mail, who fears for her life. (At the time of this writing, we are deeply concerned as we have been unable to reach her.)
Canada had a responsibility to expedite these potential targets’ visas and evacuation before its complete withdrawal, but it did not; instead, we have learned firsthand that Canada is one of the least prepared and most unwilling countries to help in this crisis, even to those already working their way through our refugee program. Now that Canada has officially halted its evacuation operation, the question is: Where will the Afghans left behind go?
With each day, the Taliban’s offences and threats have gotten wilder. Just this past week, we have heard from women being approached by the group’s fighters; one of the key safe houses in which some journalists and women have been able to hide has been raided. We have heard from journalists, both male and female, that they have been assaulted by Taliban fighters.
It seems the government is assuming that those being hunted by the Taliban should be able to find a way to navigate the complicated and utterly confusing refugee application process.
Canada has not even done the bare minimum to help Afghans who worked and aided Canadian missions in the country. This is in contrast with Canadian values – not to mention the government’s narrative that it welcomes refugees.
On Thursday, a suicide bombing and a shooting – believed to have been perpetrated by members of the Islamic State – killed at least 100 people at Kabul’s airport, adding bloodshed to the already desperate situation there. Some of the people we are trying to get out were caught up en route.
The astonishing failures of governments have forced non-profit organizations like ours to navigate through these often insurmountable challenges, from assisting governments with vetted information about who is at highest risk to getting people through Taliban checkpoints and crowded gates. We’ve done our best to help one woman who fractured a leg a few days ago amid the chaos at the airport; another woman who told us that she had been raped by Taliban fighters twice; a prominent television journalist who was allegedly told she will be shot soon. These are the kinds of people our governments have left behind.
In 2001, when the world witnessed the launch of a war against terror, then-first lady Laura Bush justified the invasion of Afghanistan with the promise of a better life for women oppressed under the Taliban regime. “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” she said in a radio address on Nov. 17, 2001.
Twenty years later, with President Joe Biden withdrawing the U.S. military from the country, those same women were left out of the priorities of Washington and its allies, including Canada.
Who else has been left in the bosom of Taliban land? The very people whom the U.S. and its allies, including Canada, had boasted that they would help – people who had themselves helped the West. Leaving them behind is nothing less than an avoidable brutality.
Editor’s note: (Aug. 27, 2021): A version of this story published on Aug. 26 said that two suicide bombings took place near Kabul's airport, based on information from the Pentagon. On Aug. 27, the Pentagon has updated that number, saying that only one suicide bombing occurred.
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