“Completely lost”: for some Afghans, returning home is as difficult as fleeing

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NEW DELHI – Afghans stranded in India staged protests, went from office to office and pleaded with relatives around the world to participate in plane tickets. There was only one flight available to take them home, to a country that had fallen into the hands of the Taliban since they left it.

None of them doubted what awaited them in Afghanistan: economic hardship, loss of fundamental freedoms and even the possibility of persecution. But the links with the home cannot always be explained with the cold logic of calculating risk. The house, no matter how much it burns or is broken, conjures up compulsions that can pull you away even as thousands desperately try to leave.

Among those listed on the manifesto for the flight from Delhi to Kabul earlier this month were cancer patients who ran out of money for treatment and wanted to be on their own soil if death did occur. They had seen how complicated it was to transport, across the borders of a bitterly divided region, the bodies of those who died in one country but wished to be buried in another.

Among the group were parents separated from young children for almost two months, adult children separated from dying parents. There were newborns, stateless at birth.

“My father is in a wheelchair in Kabul,” said Mohamed Yasin Noori, an employee of the former government, before taking the flight operated by the Iranian company Mahan Air which would pass through Tehran to arrive in Afghanistan. “My worry of being separated from him will end. But then I get into another worry: what happens next? “

Mr Noori had arrived in India with his sister, a breast cancer patient, just five days before Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15. Despite their haste to complete his tests and physiotherapy and return home to Mr. Noori’s father, they still couldn’t beat the pace of things going on at home.

“If he had been with us here I would not have returned,” Mr Noori said of his father.

Much of the work to bring stranded Afghans home is done by the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi. The flag of the former government flies over the ghostly compound, and portraits of former rulers hang on the walls.

Farid Mamundzay, the ambassador who lost his government just six months after taking office, said around 150,000 Afghans were in India, including Hindu and Sikh minorities who had relocated following terrorist threats, and about 15,000 university students. About 2,000 Afghans have expressed a desperate need to return home, while thousands more need new passports that they cannot provide.

“Being stateless makes you, diplomatically, a worthless mission,” Mamundzay said of his embassy.

The ambassador said his staff, who had moved on to manage a “humanitarian relief and consular mission”, went unpaid for months, surviving on the embassy’s remaining money distributed. between them. One of the main factors that motivated staff members to stay was the Ambassador’s promise to seek places where their families could relocate. But Mr Mamundzay was not sure he could keep the doors open for more than a few months.

“It would be a great injustice to these people if we closed the mission and abandoned them in foreign countries,” said Mr. Mamundzay.

The 106 Afghans who made the first flight home were not only the most urgent cases, but also the people who could afford an $ 850 ticket. There have been three thefts so far, bringing back 350 people.

The Embassy’s biggest challenge now is figuring out what to do with those who cannot afford plane tickets but continue to knock on the mission door.

Most stranded Afghans rent small rooms in a refugee area called Lajpat Nagar; many of them ran out of money weeks ago and are unable to pay the meager rent.

“The owner says he will take my passport away,” said Khan Mohammed, an Afghan policeman, who arrived in Delhi weeks before the Taliban took power. “I told him it wouldn’t earn you any money – you should instead kill me because I’m sick of it.”

After a stint as a contractor in the US military and a failed attempt to track migrants to Europe, Mr. Mohammed joined the police about five years ago for a monthly salary of around $ 200. In less than a year, he found himself in the middle of a Taliban ambush.

The war left her with a missing jawbone and over $ 30,000 in medical bills over four years to try to fix it.

“I am completely lost,” said Mohammed, who has twice said he attempted suicide.

Drawing on her savings as a cook for 20 years for the local United Nations office in northern Afghanistan, Tahera Noori had come to Delhi hoping to cure her own heart condition, the paralyzed legs of a grandchild. and the bleeding ear of a second grandchild.

Doctors in Delhi gave Ms Noori another diagnosis: she had ovarian cancer. Deprived and threatened with deportation, her daughter gave birth to her third child.

Ms Noori told embassy officials that she and hundreds of others like her had no way of affording the plane ticket. She begged them to bring her and her family back to Afghanistan by road, across the high-security India-Pakistan border.

“I will cross the Pakistani border even if they shoot me,” pleaded Ms. Noori.

Pakistan had initially shown its willingness to process transit visas for 25 Afghans every week, but that number has fallen to a few in recent weeks, the Afghan ambassador said. An official at the Pakistani mission in New Delhi said they had granted transit visas to around 50 Afghans since the fall of Kabul and continued to process other requests on a case-by-case basis.

For some, the denied transit in life came only after death.

When their mother died of respiratory illness in a Delhi hospital, Maryam and her brother spent two weeks commuting between the Pakistani mission to apply for visas, the Indian government to apply for permits and the Afghan embassy to help get those requests through.

At night, the siblings survived on instant noodles and slept in a cramped room. During the day, they went to the morgue to request extensions in order to keep their mother’s body there.

The family’s trip to India was to be a happy time for mother and daughter.

Maryam, once married as a child, drew on the income from her new work as a lawyer – and the savings from the sale of pine nuts – to pay for the treatment of her mother, whose suffering began long before her bouts of tuberculosis. and Covid-. 19. Like her daughter, she had also been a child wife who had lost her first husband in the war while she was pregnant.

Maryam once worked as a housekeeper in an office during the day, raised three children, and took evening literacy classes to finish high school. After graduating with a law degree six months ago, she got a job advocating for victims of abuse in one of the most conservative parts of southeastern Afghanistan.

When Kabul fell, Maryam considered sending her mother and brother home while she stayed behind to explore asylum options. She had been threatened because of her work even before the Taliban; a colleague was murdered outside the building where they all lived.

“If I go back there, I know that maybe I will come back to my own death,” said Maryam, who is identified by her first name only to protect her identity.

But when her mother passed away on September 26, Maryam had only one choice: to bring her remains home, no matter what.

Late in the evening last week, the siblings boarded their mother in a rented ambulance, washed her body at a funeral home, and drove overnight to reach the India-Pakistan border. From there, it took another two days of travel – transfer between three ambulances, more paperwork, and crossing another border – before she rested in southeastern Afghanistan.

If there was any comfort to Maryam, it was that their ordeal in India was over – that their mother would reach her eternal rest, and Maryam would be reunited with her own young children.

“My youngest daughter is sick after me,” Maryam said before they left. “Every day she counts the planes in the sky.”

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