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A wagon carrying women and children through a war-torn area of Kabul in 1996

‘Returning home means death’ For Afghan nationals stranded in Russia, obtaining refugee status is easier said than done

Source: Meduza
A wagon carrying women and children through a war-torn area of Kabul in 1996
A wagon carrying women and children through a war-torn area of Kabul in 1996
John Moore / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Over the course of two weeks in August, 95 Afghan nationals reached out to the Moscow-based charity Civic Assistance Committee for help. They had all come to Russia before the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan; most came to study or to work. Now, they’re seeking asylum, but this is no easy feat. Indeed, as of January 1, 2020, only 455 people in Russia were in possession of refugee status. For years and sometimes decades, tens of thousands of people have tried to seek asylum in Russia — usually in vain. Just last month, authorities in the Leningrad region expelled an Afghan girl and her family from the country; they had fled to Russia after the Taliban tried to force the 12-year-old child to marry. To find out more about the challenges Afghan asylum seekers face in Russia, Meduza spoke to “refugees sur place,” an Afghan woman who fled to Moscow in 1997, and students who are now afraid to return to their homeland. Here are their stories.

‘It’s the same Taliban as 20 years ago’

In May 2021, a group of police officers came to Moscow for training. Back in Afghanistan, they were part of an anti-narcotics force. In conversation with Meduza, 25-year-old Sharifah (whose name has been changed for her own safety) said that she saw the news about Afghanistan falling to the Taliban online. She and her colleagues couldn’t believe their eyes. From articles written by local journalists, they found out that Taliban fighters were going door to door in search of those who worked for the Afghan government — soldiers, police officers, and all manner of operatives from the security forces were their main target.

Sharifah and her colleagues fear for their relatives back home — they too are in danger. Information about law enforcement officers is kept at military bases, so it’s very easy to identify their families. “If we or members of our families get caught, we will be killed,” Sharifah stressed. She still hasn’t been able to get in contact with her family, because they were left without an Internet connection. Sharifah doesn’t know if they’re dead or alive. 

It’s clear from Sharifah’s words that she and her colleagues feel safe in Russia and are counting on receiving asylum here soon. But this could take years, if it happens at all. According to charity workers from the Moscow-based Civic Assistance Committee, which helps refugees and migrants, the country’s migration authority (the General Administration for Migration Issues, or GAMI) and the courts make decisions regarding refugees in a completely unpredictable manner.

Afghan nationals who are currently in Russia without legal status are considered “refugees sur place.” “According to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they can expect asylum in the Russian Federation, as Russia ratified this document, and this means it has undertaken to protect those for whom returning home is dangerous,” explained the Civic Assistance Committee’s spokeswoman, Daria Manina. “However, what will happen in practice is unknown. Whether these people will be allowed to apply for asylum at all, whether they will be given the humanitarian status ‘temporary asylum’ for a period of a year, or indefinite refugee status — which is unlikely, since currently only 455 people have it — is completely unclear.”

According to Daria Manina, in cases like these, everything depends on “orders from above.” The Civic Assistance Committee has repeatedly seen the authorities begin actively providing temporary asylum to certain groups of refugees, while handing out refusals to others time after time. For example, in 2014, nearly all asylum applications from Ukrainians were granted. On the contrary, in recent years, Syrians have been denied protection and told to return home, where, Russian officials assure, “everything is all right now.”

Sharifah and her colleagues are bewildered by statements from Russian officials claiming that the Taliban has become “sane” and talks are “constructive.” “The Taliban now is the same Taliban we had 20 years ago, they haven’t changed,” she said. “In your [ Russian] media they talk as if they’re so loyal now, everything is allowed, there will be amnesties. This absolutely is not the case. In the city of Herat, which the Taliban captured earlier than Kabul, there are absolutely no conditions for women: no studies, no work. Everyone sits at home. When going out, they can be punished. Recently they shot a television host for trying to go to work. Another woman [was shot] because her niqab didn’t completely cover her face. The deputy governor of one province of Afghanistan, a woman, even fled to another city, shaking and afraid to leave the house.”

Sharifah is also shocked that videos of Taliban fighters riding bumper cars are enough to fool people into thinking they’re peaceful. “The Taliban come to these merry-go-rounds and play around, they’re making fun,” she explained. “They ride [the merry-go-rounds] and then blow them up when they leave. In the city of Mazar-i-Sharif they recently burned down an entire amusement park.” 

Sharifah told Meduza that when she was growing up and studying in school, she thought that the Taliban would never come back. She was glad that she could serve her country, so she decided to join the police force. For the last four years, she has been fighting against drug trafficking; she had “grandiose” plans for the future. “All my hopes were dashed overnight. It turns out that everything I did before this was for nothing,” Sharifah lamented. And yet, she still believes that “this won’t last long” and that Afghans will defeat the Taliban. 

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‘The police were waiting for us with handcuffs’ Russia is expelling Afghan nationals who arrived before the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan

 ‘If you’re a woman, you should be afraid of everything’

Hadisa is 44 years old. When she was 16, she lived with her parents in Kabul and dreamed of becoming a television presenter. In tenth grade, she even hosted a broadcast on national television and a children’s radio show. She wasn’t paid any money, but she was told she had talent. After finishing high school, Hadisa planned to continue her education and build a career as a TV host. 

But when Hadisa was in the eleventh grade the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Her parents managed to marry their 17-year-old daughter off to a man she liked. Hadisa became pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage six months later. At the time, she recalled, the Taliban were firing rockets at the city and there were “piles” of people killed all around. She soon became pregnant again, but when she was eight months along the Taliban took over Kabul: people began “running around,” gathering their things and leaving the city. Hadisa went into labor, but not a single hospital in the city was working that day. She gave birth to a baby boy at home, but he died the next day. 

Hadisa lived under the Taliban for a month and a half. She remembers that during this short time, she learned to be afraid of everything: “if you’re a woman, you should be afraid of everything.” Women were banned from studying and going out in public unaccompanied by men. They were even forbidden from wearing white shoes. Members of the Taliban beat women who went outside in white shoes, arguing that shoes of this color must not be worn because their flag is white.

As soon as the Taliban took power, Hadisa’s parents immediately found a black burqa for her to wear, because she could be killed for going out in public without one. Hadisa has kept this burqa to this day.

After the loss of their second baby, Hadisa and her husband got on a train and made their way to Moscow via Tajikistan. Her parents fled to Iran. It was 1997. According to Hadisa, it was easier to flee Afghanistan then than it is now.

Taliban soldiers on a tank. 1996.
Per-Anders Pettersson / Liaison / Getty Images
A family of refugees in a makeshift tent not far from the city of Herat. Circa 2000.
Majority World / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

In Moscow, Hadisa’s husband got a job at the Cherkizovsky Market. Three months after they arrived in Russia, Hadisa became pregnant once again. Over the following years, she gave birth to four children in Russia. She wanted to go back to school, but she had no one to help with the children, so she remained a stay-at-home mother.

Hadisa has never regretted leaving Afghanistan. “It’s my country, I love it, but there’s no peace there,” she told Meduza. Her family has lived in Russia for 24 years now, but the migration authorities only granted them temporary asylum in 2011. They finally received temporary residence permits in January 2021. 

Hadisa saw the news that the Taliban had seized power in Afghanistan on television. “My stomach dropped,” she said. Her parents returned to Kabul in 2004, when things settled down. They’re now 70 years old. When Hadisa managed to get in contact with them her mother said that they and all of their friends were sitting at home, afraid to go outside. Her father makes short forays outdoors, hoping he’ll be left alone.

“I don’t want the Taliban to rule my country,” Hadisa said. “People who don’t spare even women and children, people who believe that women’s purpose is only to give birth to children and that’s it. People who were shooting at women and children because they believed they had the right to do so.”

Hadisa is trying to come to terms with the fact that she won’t be seeing her homeland anymore and is unlikely to be able to visit her parents. She told Meduza that she and other Afghans living in Russia wanted to go out in protest against the Taliban and in support of Afghan women. In August 2021, they sought permission from the Moscow Mayor’s Office several times, but their rally wasn’t approved. “We have no rights, neither there [in Afghanistan], nor here,” Hadisa said. 

‘I don’t want to live in fear for years’

Khava (whose name has been changed) came to Moscow to study five years ago. A week before her planned departure from Russia, the 26-year-old found out that the Taliban had taken power in Afghanistan and realized she couldn’t return home.

In 1997, Taliban fighters killed Khava’s aunt — she was a lecturer at a university. They broke into the university and shot her. When Khava learned that the Taliban had returned to power in Afghanistan she called her mother. Khava said her mother sobbed and screamed, saying she would curse her if she came back to Afghanistan. “Mom understands that they could rape me there, they could kill [me],” Khava told Meduza. “Her father is a government official, so my parents don’t leave the house.”

Khava still believes that Afghans will defeat the Taliban, “because the people don’t accept them and will not accept them.” She’s expecting a new civil war. Khava’s Russian visa expires in September, but she says that she will stay in Russia “at any cost,” even if the migration authorities won’t meet her half way and she’ll “have to go to jail here.”

Like Khava, Alim came to Moscow to study mechanical engineering in 2016. He recently graduated from university and was going to return to Afghanistan in the fall — his visa expires in October. Alim found out that the Taliban had entered his native Kabul from the news. “In that moment I felt that everything our parents have been building over the last 20 years was destroyed in one fell swoop,” Alim told Meduza. “There’s nothing more, terrorists are running along our streets. There’s no end to this war. I don’t believe that the Taliban will leave any sooner than in 30 to 40 years. Other countries are supporting them, otherwise they wouldn’t have captured our cities so quickly.”

Alim has been unable to get in contact with his parents ever since the Taliban took Kabul; they’re Internet isn’t working. Alim has no desire to return to Afghanistan. He wants to obtain refugee status in Russia, but doesn’t know what to do if he’s refused. “I don’t want to live in fear for years, I don’t want to die — I’m only 26,” Alim told Meduza. “Returning home means death.” 

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Story by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart

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