‘Time is running out’: Desperation grows among Nepalis stuck in AfghanistanAmid reports that the Taliban are tracking down those who worked for Western countries, there are concerns about the safety and security of Nepalis in the war-torn country.
For the past one week Kabita Gurung has not slept well. She spends most of the time taking updates on Kabul, the Afghan capital, which fell to the Taliban on August 15. She is worried about her husband, Poorna, who is stuck there.
“I have not been able to sleep properly. Even if I fall asleep, I wake up in the middle of the night. Various things cross my mind and I cannot sleep thereafter. I am extremely worried about my husband,” Kabita, 51, told the Post over the phone on Tuesday from her home in Tanahun. “My husband says he and his friends are safe until now, but scenes of chaos and panic in Kabul make me extremely terrified for his safety.”
Poorna from Damauli Bazar of Vyas Municipality has been working in the Afghan capital for the last nine years.
“Every time I turn on the TV or look at Facebook posts, I see gun-toting Taliban fighters in the streets. The scenes from airports are not reassuring at all,” said Kabita.
The Islamist fighters, who had been making rapid advances over the last few weeks, on August 15 took control of the Afghan capital at a lightning speed, to the surprise of the United States and its allies, after Washington announced a complete pullout of its troops after 20 years of occupation.
With the Taliban warning of “consequences” if the US extended the August 31 evacuation deadline, Kabita’s worries have multiplied.
On Tuesday, leaders of the Group of Seven countries were set to discuss whether to seek an extension to the August 31 deadline for the evacuation of thousands of people trying to flee Afghanistan and whether to recognise or sanction a Taliban government.
Poorna, now 55, retired from the Indian Army about a decade and a half ago after 24 years of service. After working as a security guard in Iraq for two years, he applied to work at the United Nations mission in Afghanistan through IDG Security, a security firm, in 2013.
For nearly a decade, Poorna used to visit home every year.
The last time he was home was in 2019, as he could not visit his family last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As many as 507 Nepalis and 50 Indian nationals, who came to Afghanistan through IDG security, are stuck here,” Poorna told the Post on Monday night via Facebook messenger. “Till now we have not felt any security threat from the Taliban, but we want to get out of the country as soon as possible.”
There is no exact data on the number of Nepalis in Afghanistan.
The Nepal government, according to Nepali officials, has already established communications with most of the foreign missions and UN agencies and requested them to help repatriate Nepalis working with them.
As many as 579 Nepalis were said to be working at the US embassy in Kabul. Officials say as per the records available to them, 60 Nepalis are working in the German embassy, 87 in the United Kingdom embassy and 62 in the Japanese embassy.
Nepal has evacuated 770 Nepalis from Afghanistan ever since the militants’ takeover of the country.
The Department of Foreign Employment records show that in the last fiscal year, ending mid-July, 1,073 Nepalis had obtained permits to work in Afghanistan. The department’s records show that in the last seven years, more than 8,000 Nepalis have been issued labour permits to Afghanistan. But it is estimated that there could be more than 14,000 Nepalis who are stranded.
The Sher Bahadur Deuba government has said it “will do what it requires” to bring Nepalis home. But it is easier said than done, as there could be many Nepalis working in Afghanistan illegally.
Nepal does not have an embassy in Afghanistan and the Nepali embassy in New Delhi is accredited to deal with matters related to the country. An official at the embassy last week told the Post that evacuation has become complicated because of the lack of data on the number of Nepalis in Afghanistan, not to say of those who had reached the country through illegal channels.
With reports surfacing that the Taliban are trying to trace down those who worked for the Western countries, concerns are growing over the safety and security of Nepalis in Afghanistan.
Nepal had imposed a ban on Nepalis working in Afghanistan in 2016 after 13 Nepalis were killed in Kabul in a suicide bomb attack. But the ban was lifted after four months.
It is only the US military that is managing flights inside the airport to evacuate staff. Outside the airport, everything is under the control of the Taliban force.
Poorna said he and his friends whose duty was to provide security to high-ranking UN officials are now weaponless and in need of security.
“For nearly a decade, we provided security to UN officials. Now we need their support to be evacuated out of this country,” Poorna told the Post.
According to him, no one has stepped out of their office compound over the last 10 days. “But we have seen chaos and pandemonium outside on TV, especially at the airport,” said Poorna.
Poorna has two daughters aged 25 and 17. His elder daughter is abroad and the younger one is in Kathmandu for studies.
He said he is currently inside the UN office in Kabul along with 31 Nepalis.
“We have been told others will be brought here from other cities like Kandhar, Herat and Jalalabad. Our agent has said around 100 of us would be evacuated on Wednesday, but we are not sure,” he said. “There are just assurances. We are not sure.”
He said he is worried about several other Nepalis who are stuck in Afghanistan, as there is no clarity how the situation will unfold in the country after the Taliban takeover.
“I have heard that there are many Nepalis who have come here through illegal channels after paying hefty amounts of money,” said Poorna. “I have heard many either did not have jobs or they lost jobs. They too need to be evacuated out of the country at the earliest.”
Poorna is well aware of the Taliban warning against extension of the US evacuation plan beyond August 31, as it is nearing a new dangerous phase.
He says anything can happen to Nepalis and despite their big numbers, they can’t protest there or speak up. His concerns are not unfounded. Concerns have started to grow over human rights violations in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.
Michelle Bachelet, the top UN human rights official, said on Tuesday that she had received credible reports of serious violations committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including summary executions of civilians and restrictions on women and on protests against their rule, according to Reuters.
Poorna said though nothing untoward has happened—or at least he has not heard of it—to any fellow Nepali citizens, the situation in Afghanistan is volatile.
“You never know, the situation could suddenly turn worse after August 31, and the Taliban do not usually backtrack on their words,” said Poorna. “The Nepal government must make efforts to get in touch with all Nepalis and rescue them at the earliest. Time is running out.”