Two hundred Afghans, mostly women who worked on Canadian-funded aid projects in Afghanistan, are being tracked down by the Taliban and are in hiding after the militants obtained their names from a confiscated cellphone.
A pair of Afghan women, whose names were on the seized phone, say their lives are in imminent danger because the Taliban obtained their phone numbers, pictures of themselves and saw text messages where the women criticized the country’s hard-line Islamist rulers.
The women said the Taliban arrested a colleague, accusing him of being a Canadian spy, and took his phone. The militants found a WhatsApp group on the device consisting of 200 Afghans who were recounting incidents of Taliban torture and murder. They also spoke about the difficulty of getting Ottawa to grant them special visas. The Taliban consider all 200 Afghans to be Canadian spies.
Sadia, 33, who worked with a Canadian-funded aid program that aimed to empower women and girls, said that the Taliban issued a list of 15 people, including them, who talked the most in the WhatsApp group. “If they find the 15 and then the 200, they will kill them. I know that,” she said.
“We are at the top of the list of the Taliban because of [the] Canada affiliation. … Now they are trying to catch us. We are hiding. We are at risk.”
Salma, a colleague who worked on the same project, agreed that if they’re found, they will be killed. Salma said she checks her e-mail more than 100 times a day, waiting for news from the Canadian government.
The Globe and Mail is using pseudonyms instead of the women’s real names because they are fearful for their safety.
Sadia said the colleague was arrested in Paktia province about two weeks ago. They had all previously worked for Canadian-funded humanitarian groups and had understood that they would be resettled to Canada as part of Ottawa’s special immigration program.
Last July, the government announced a special resettlement program for Afghans who had helped with Canada’s military and diplomatic missions in the country. Many now face reprisals from the Taliban for aiding a foreign government.
Sadia and Salma said they applied for resettlement last August and have heard nothing. The government has faced increasing criticism for leaving people behind and not responding to e-mails from Afghans who are desperate and believe they qualify for the program.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said that of the roughly 18,000 spaces under the special program, the department has applications in various stages of processing for more than 15,000 Afghans and their family members. That includes those who have been processed but remain in the country.
“We have received referrals from the Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada for the remaining spaces in the Special Immigration Program. However, we have not yet issued all of the invitations to apply, so there are Afghans who will still be invited to submit an application in the coming weeks,” Aidan Strickland said.
Meanwhile, the women are facing imminent danger. Sadia said the Taliban tortured her captured colleague. He remains in prison.
“These people are very brutal and I want to know why Canada doesn’t want to work on our application?” she said.
“Even yesterday, I decided to kill myself and after that, I think a lot about my children. If I kill myself, then what will my children do?”
Sadia said the Taliban have tortured and killed many of their colleagues since taking over Afghanistan last August.
And she tried to leave. She fled with her four children to Pakistan last September, but was forced back to Afghanistan after a few months when she was unable to obtain Canadian documents to fly to Canada. “We are waiting, waiting, waiting and in very bad condition,” she said.
After the Taliban confiscated her colleague’s phone, Salma was so terrified that she deleted her WhatsApp account and spoke to The Globe one afternoon when Sadia went to her house so she could use her phone.
“I am very scared and not just for my own self. I’m very worried and concerned about my babies. I have just three baby girls,” said Salma, 29. Her daughters are 5 and 3 and she has a six-month old baby.
“We are just crying, nothing else,” she said.
Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, has been trying to get her staff who worked on Global Affairs Canada-funded projects to this country since last August.
Four staff and their families have made it to Canada, while 12 employees and their families are in Afghanistan and other staff members have made it to Pakistan. So far, 17 former employees, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, have heard nothing from the Canadian government.
She said that while it is positive that four staff members have made it safely to Canada, it is not clear why these individuals have been accepted while the others haven’t. Meanwhile, those in Afghanistan are really anxious, she said, with one family going out just once a week to obtain basics.
Ms. Oates’s organization, along with a number of other civil-society groups, are urging the government to extend its special immigration program and allow more eligible Afghans to come to Canada.
“I think the great fear is that when this door closes, nobody knows what to do.”
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