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London: A group of Indian citizens stranded in Afghanistan are battling to make their voices heard, as New Delhi remains in the dark about how they will be evacuated.
When I ring Sunil.* I can hear gunshots and people screaming in the background. “I am outside the Pakistani embassy trying to get a visa but I am not sure if I should. I am scared. Afghan women are protesting and the Taliban are firing gun shots in the air,” he shouts.
The group of Indians I spoke to worked with the previous Afghan government, international women’s rights organisations, and non-government organisations. However, they would like to remain anonymous and would not like to disclose any personal information that can help identify them – for fear that the Indian government will not take kindly to their charge of abandonment.
Sunil, who has worked in Afghanistan for a decade and whose entire family is based in India, says that he is running out of money due to the scarcity of jobs. He hasn’t been paid for over two months and doesn’t know when he will be.
“The banks in Afghanistan have a withdrawal limit of $200 a week. We are mostly confined to our houses since the Taliban took over on August 15. Food prices have gone up and I have also started to grow my beard so that I don’t stand out in crowd when I go out for food shopping,” says Sunil.
He says that some of his other Indian friends in Afghanistan, which includes some women too, are “considering land routes to neighbouring countries, including Pakistan”, planning dangerous journeys that could cost them their lives in the absence of clear security plans from the Indian government.
As Afghanistan faces a cascade of crises, Indians are one of the Taliban’s prime targets. As such, they fear for their lives, unable to leave their homes without worrying the Taliban will identify them. Several hundred flights left when the evacuation plans began mid-August. Several nations rushed to get their citizens out of the country. A report claimed that the Indian government’s evacuation operation expatriated over 260 Indians from Afghanistan. However, the government has failed to reach everyone.
“A group of at least 100 Indians are still trapped in the country after the Indian government failed to evacuate them following the Taliban takeover,” says Manav Sachdeva, a former senior official with the UN in Afghanistan. Currently posted in the Ukraine, he worked for UNWomen in Kabul till 2019 and has maintained close contacts there.
Anita*, an Indian expat working in Afghanistan, adds that the airport was chaotic and dangerous. “We decided to wait until the security situation became clearer in and around the airport. We were told we would be able to get out later. It has now been nearly six weeks and the Ministry of External Affairs hasn’t been that responsive.”
While most foreigners abandoned Afghanistan, the group of Indians who decided to stay, either inadvertently or by their own volition, includes some who did so because they “felt they owed the country and wanted to give something back following decades of association”.
Sachdeva told The Wire, “Many Indians feel the urge to serve and have decided to stay back. Some felt that it wasn’t safe to evacuate during the rush from August 15 onwards. Most importantly, many Indians feel betrayed by their government – for the lack of clarity and safe measures.”
While evacuation operations by some Western countries have resumed, India is yet to organise a flight for citizens who have been left behind. The Indians trapped in Afghanistan complain that the Ministry of External Affairs has failed to communicate clear plans to get them out to safety.
“We haven’t had any communication with them [the Indian government] for weeks. I don’t think they know what they are doing themselves. We have been living in isolation for the past one month and not getting out and about much. There are of course other Indians around where we live, but we don’t hang out much. My male friends drop the food outside my front door. There’s an air of anxiety, depression and uncertainty,” says Anita.
As the Taliban tightens its control, a terrified Anita says, “If there is no other way out, we will go to Peshawar and find our way to a third country, and get a flight from there to India. We don’t know. We are of course feeling anxious and scared and feel let down by our own government for abandoning us but we have children and families back home waiting for us who are equally terrified. My request to the Indian government is to arrange evacuation flights for us as soon as possible!”
*Names changed to protect anonymity.