Khushal walked into a post office in Kandahar to pick up two passports. Waiting inside were Taliban members.
What happened over the next four days was a living nightmare. The insurgents blindfolded him and tied his hands, then took him to a jail and threw him in a steel container.
“They beat me with a pipe and with sticks on my back. I cried for some time, but I told them I’m innocent. They said, ‘You’re an interpreter, you kill a lot of people.’ I told them I just translated for the local people, for the Canadian people, the Canadian army,” Khushal said in a phone interview. His captors, he recalled, told him translators are “very dangerous for the Taliban.”
Khushal is one of many Afghans who worked as interpreters for the Canadian military during its mission in Afghanistan and who now, as a result, face retaliation from the Taliban. His captors let him go after his family promised not to leave the country – but, fearing for their safety, they broke that pledge. He and some of his relatives are now in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. They are waiting to travel to Canada, where they have been promised resettlement.
Other Afghans who assisted with Canada’s work in Afghanistan have not been able to flee. They are still hiding inside the country as they wait for long-promised travel documents from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), or for Afghan passports.
The Taliban took over Afghanistan last August as Western forces withdrew from the country, and many Afghans applied for resettlement shortly afterward. They got automatic responses from IRCC, saying the department had received the applications and that the Afghans should wait to hear more.
A large portion of them have heard nothing since. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has attributed this to the closing of the Canadian embassy in Kabul and the fact that the Taliban are now in charge. Last month, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said thousands of Afghans have been approved for resettlement in Canada, but that the Taliban are preventing them from leaving. The Canadian government has promised refuge to 40,000 Afghans – a target Ottawa said in 2021 would take two years to reach. So far, just more than 11,000 have arrived.
The Globe and Mail has spoken recently to more than a dozen Afghans who have been unable to come to Canada or have had difficulty bringing family members here, in many cases because of problems with navigating the Canadian immigration system or with obtaining necessary documents in Afghanistan. Some of them worked for Canada, and others worked as journalists in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover. The Globe is not referring to them or other Afghans interviewed for this story by their full names, to protect their families from Taliban reprisals.
Many said the Taliban are going door to door, hunting for people who worked for Canada’s military and diplomatic missions or those of other foreign countries. Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, thousands have sought to escape, fearful of the group’s hard-line rule.
Mohammad, a former security guard at Canada’s embassy in Kabul, said a fellow guard who also worked at the embassy was recently arrested and beaten badly – though the Taliban were unable to find any evidence against the guard, because he’d broken his phone before they could look through it. Mohammad provided The Globe with a photo of the man’s bruised back.
He also provided a photo of another former Canadian embassy security guard whose face and arms were badly bruised – injuries Mohammad said the man had suffered in a separate run-in with the Taliban.
“The situation inside Afghanistan is going from bad to worse,” Mohammad said.
He recently sent a video to Mr. Fraser, the Immigration Minister, that shows about 50 former Canadian embassy guards at a safe house. Many of them, including Mohammad, are seeking resettlement in Canada. They are holding up signs that say things such as: “We are not safe,” and “Please don’t forget us.” Others hold up certificates of appreciation that were given to them for their work safeguarding Canadian diplomats. Mohammad has heard nothing from the minister or IRCC.
An independent journalist in Kandahar with connections to Canada was arrested by the Taliban in late March and jailed for 10 days. In April, he was arrested again in Kabul. He recently re-emerged from prison after nine days. “My life is in danger,” he said. “I have been sending travel and case-related material to Canada, but no response.”
Rachel Pulfer, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, said her organization is pressing the journalist’s case with IRCC, and also with Protect Defenders, one of the Canadian government’s referral partners. She noted that there has been little action from either agency so far.
Maluf, another Afghan journalist who has applied for resettlement in Canada, was arrested by the Taliban in December while he was visiting his parents. He shared photos of his bruised and cut up body. The insurgents, he said, had tortured him with military belts and tasers. He has since escaped to Pakistan.
“It was a really bad time,” he said.
Afghanistan’s National Journalist Union provided The Globe with a list of 33 journalists who have been detained by the Taliban since January. Between August and December, 69 journalists were detained, the organization said.
Jeremy Dear, deputy secretary general of the International Federation of Journalists, said the Taliban use threats of violence to silence journalists.
“Possibly part of the reason there haven’t been as many killings is because so many people are in hiding, or a lot of them got out to Pakistan and can’t get anywhere else and are in danger of being returned,” he said.
While The Globe has documented instances of Taliban beatings, it is far more difficult to determine how many people have been killed or disappeared since the Taliban takeover.
The New York Times reported in April that nearly 500 former government officials and members of the Afghan security forces were killed or forced to disappear during the first six months of Taliban rule.
A former deputy commando for Afghanistan’s military told The Globe he is certain that about 600 Afghans who served in the country’s armed forces have disappeared, and that there have been reports that the true number is closer to 1,000. He said they are mostly commandos, but also members of Afghanistan’s army and intelligence service.
“Every day I get information from people that they are searching to find especially commandos, to capture them and take them to a secret place and kill them,” the commando said. “Every day is scary.”
A political activist in Afghanistan said it is difficult to give specific numbers, but that based on his sources more than 1,000 members of the previous Afghan government and others who spoke out against the Taliban have disappeared. He said the Taliban are targeting their critics and members of the military.
‘It is very difficult to confirm anything. People are scared and they don’t talk, basically,” said Fereshta Abbasi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If a person is detained or gone disappeared, the family won’t talk, wouldn’t dare to talk. It is very difficult to talk to these families and document these cases. It is a huge problem.”
Farouq Samim, an Ottawa doctor who now works with Afghan refugees as part of Operation Abraham, an evacuation effort associated with Montreal’s Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said he knows of a former major in the Afghan national security forces who has gone missing. The Taliban had told the man he could come back to work. He took them up on their offer on Dec. 8.
“No one knows if he is dead or alive, detained somewhere or buried somewhere,” Dr. Samim said. “We have people like that who are running from house to house to keep safe and away from the eyes of the Taliban.”
The man is among more than a dozen former Afghan military officers Dr. Samim said he knows have either disappeared or gone on the run since the Taliban took power.
Last month, Dr. Samim said, the Taliban arrested 20 women who had been part of the Afghan army. He had no information on what had become of them.
Ahmad, a former interpreter for the Canadian military, moved to Canada before the Taliban resurgence. After informers told the Taliban he was a spy, his father was thrown in prison in the village of Sheaz-Khan, in Afghanistan’s Wardak province, where he died in July, 2021.
After his father’s death and shortly before Kabul fell to the Taliban, Ahmad returned to Afghanistan to see his mother and brothers. He managed to get out of the country on a Royal Canadian Air Force flight in early September, but Canadian officials would not let his mother accompany him home to Canada.
“I know a lot of people who were bringing the whole family, but they wouldn’t let me bring my mom with me – and it was disgusting, because I spent my life working honestly with the Canadian Forces,” he said.
Veterans groups have been bearing the brunt of the push to rescue Canada’s former allies from the Taliban.
Last month, the Veterans Transition Network, which says it has raised $3.6-million and helped rescue 2,061 Afghans since August, gave up its efforts, citing staff burnout and a federal immigration system overrun with red tape. But other groups are continuing that work, including Journalists for Human Rights and Aman Lara, an organization made up of veterans, former interpreters and volunteers.
One hurdle is Ottawa’s requirement that Afghans be subjected to biometric verification before they are resettled – a process that can’t be done from within Afghanistan. The VTN has urged Ottawa to do the verification after Afghans arrive in Canada, or, failing that, issue single-use travel documents.
Brian Macdonald, executive director of Aman Lara, said his group has moved nearly 3,000 people safely out of Afghanistan. Right now, he said, he knows of about 200 Afghans who are ready to move, but his organization lacks the money to help them do so. He noted that Ottawa has provided funding to help more than 700 people evacuate in the past few months.
“We have had really good success with our pathway, the pathway that we’ve established in partnership with the government of Canada. We are moving hundreds of people a month,” he said. But he added that the organization needs donations to keep going.
The most significant challenges for Afghans, he said, are getting passports in Afghanistan and obtaining visas to third countries where they can wait until they are admitted into Canada.
Even those who manage to escape Afghanistan often find that their travails are not entirely over. Although Khushal, the interpreter who was beaten with a pipe, has made it safely to Pakistan, he is among many Afghans who fret about their family members at home.
He worries about relatives who don’t have passports. The Taliban, he said, have already showed up at their homes, asking where he is.
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