Down a dusty Kabul side street, just a few hundred metres from a Taliban checkpoint, 19 Afghans who worked for the Canadian military hide in a single building with their families, waiting for a rescue they were promised months ago.
The guards, translators, chefs and their families – nearly 100 people in all, including 32 children – live together in a cramped safe house. Other than the occasional grocery trip, the group stays inside the building day and night, with their children unable to go to school. They share what scant information they have with other Afghans stuck in similar limbo through a WhatsApp group named “IRCC” – the acronym for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the department they blame for their prolonged purgatory.
“All the families that are living here worked for Canadians,” said Abdul, a 31-year-old father of two who was originally hired by the Canadian military to guard their base at Kandahar Airfield in 2010, and whose English improved to the point that he was later used as a translator by U.S. and other NATO forces operating in tumultuous southern Afghanistan. He says he was injured three times when NATO convoys he was travelling with struck improvised explosive devices.
Abdul said he has been living in the Kabul safe house since July 28, when he was advised to go there with his family by Aman Lara, a non-governmental organization established by Afghan Canadians (the name means “sheltered path”). Aman Lara is supported by the Veterans Transition Network, an NGO that includes many former soldiers who served during Canada’s 10-year military mission in Afghanistan.
Other families arrived at the safe house throughout August, as the Taliban closed in on, and then suddenly captured, Kabul. The property – one of several in the country secured by Aman Lara and its allied non-governmental organizations – is now full to capacity. (To protect them from the Taliban, The Globe is not using family names of the former translators nor identifying the location of the safe house. However, the translators were anxious that their story be told.)
The accommodations are spartan. Each family has its own room with two single beds, and children sleep on rugs on the floor. They are grateful to Aman Lara – which also arranges for food and money to be delivered – even as they are increasingly concerned that they will be found by the Taliban as the wait drags on.
“Right now, the only thing we are concerned about is security,” said Maqsood, 30, a former military interpreter who has been in the safe house with his wife and three small children since Aug. 12, three days before Kabul fell. “The situation right now is very unsecure. We are always locking all the doors and telling [the children], ‘Don’t open the door, never open the door to strangers.’ ”
Fears of what would occur if Islamist militants discovered the safe house are heightened by photos and videos showing what happened to other Afghans who were accused of working with foreign militaries. The Globe was shown gruesome photographs of three former U.S. military translators who were said to have been taken from their homes and killed late last week by unknown gunmen. “We don’t know if this was the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or by ISIS,” Abdul said. “Every second, every moment, we could be targeted like this.”
Maqsood, who worked with Canadian-led provincial reconstruction teams in Kandahar and neighbouring Panjwai province, said the long, anxious wait is taking its toll on the group. “Everybody in this [safe house] is not mentally fine. Everyone is in danger. Everybody is wondering if Canada will get us out, or will we be left behind. When we sit together, we just say, ‘What will happen to us? What will happen next?’ ”
That’s where the frustration with IRCC comes in. “Every day we just send e-mails. Everybody is just waiting for IRCC,” said Abdul, sitting on a rug in the common room of the safe house, which doubles as an makeshift mosque at prayer times. “They should please evacuate us as soon as possible.”
But with the Taliban in control of the country’s airports and borders, there are no easy ways to move large groups of people out of the country. The only flights in and out of Kabul airport over the past week have been charter planes flying to Pakistan and Qatar, but even those have been repeatedly delayed while the Taliban vet passenger lists.
Eleanor Taylor, a retired Canadian lieutenant-colonel who is Aman Lara’s volunteer chief of staff, said the organization and its allied NGOs have a master list of about 2,000 applicants. Along with their families, they come to just more than 10,000 people who need to be evacuated from Afghanistan and brought to Canada. Roughly half of the primary applicants have connections to the Canadian military, while the rest of the list is made up of women, LGBTQ+ individuals, human-rights workers and journalists who fit the profile of IRCC’s program to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada.
Evading the Taliban is the biggest challenge for Aman Lara and its allies, but getting the wheels of Canadian bureaucracy to turn faster – to issue emergency visas and to persuade Afghanistan’s neighbours to temporarily take in Canada-bound refugees – has also been difficult. “The process, from our perspective, remains too slow for the urgency of the situation,” said Lt-Col. Taylor, who served seven months in Afghanistan and is trying to help her own former translator evacuate their family. “We all need to remember that with every passing day, these people are exposed to greater risk.”
Alexander Cohen, press secretary to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said the department was “working tirelessly to stay in contact and support those who remain in Afghanistan and wishing to resettle to Canada.” He said that there were “roughly 1,245 people outside Afghanistan who are in transit to Canada, in addition to the approximately 2,500 Afghans we have already welcomed to Canada.”
For now, the group in the Kabul safe house passes the time wondering about what life will be like if and when they make it to Canada.
Their main desire is to secure an education for their kids – especially their daughters, who are currently banned by Taliban edict from studying beyond Grade 6. “We want to see our children in kindergarten, in schools,” Abdul continued, speaking of his five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. “Both the boys and the girls.”
The most painful part is knowing that they might be out of Afghanistan already if the U.S.-led military evacuation had continued just a few days longer. U.S. President Joe Biden caught many American allies off-guard by insisting that all U.S. troops leave Afghanistan by the preset deadline of Aug. 31, even though that meant leaving tens of thousands of Afghans who worked with NATO and Western governments to face their fates.
“Three or four more days [of evacuations], and right now we would be in Canada,” Abdul said. “Right now, we just say, ‘Please, if anyone can hear our voices, please don’t leave us behind.’ ”
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