Despite 'better' life, Afghan refugees fear for Afghanistan's future

By Salaam Times and AFP

A mother of three children, Afghan refugee Hanifa found herself separated from her middle child during her evacuation from Kabul in mid-August. For the past six months in France, despite a welcome she describes as excellent, the Afghan woman has lived a life of pain and sorrow, as she thinks of her son Mustafa. [Sebastien Sauges/AFPTV/AFP]

STRASBOURG, France -- Hanifa has no complaints about the welcome she has received in France since her arrival six months ago as a refugee following the collapse of the Afghan government.

Her youngest son Osman, three, and his sister Bahar, eight, are with her in eastern France but not their six-year-old brother Mustafa. The mere mention of his name has her break down in tears.

"My heart still weeps," she said.

Hanifa is one of a few hundred Afghans evacuated by France from Kabul on August 17, just two days after the government fell.

Protesters August 22 in Paris wave Afghan flags and hold banners during a rally in support of Afghanistan following the fall of the Afghan government. [Stephane de Sakutin/AFP]

Protesters August 22 in Paris wave Afghan flags and hold banners during a rally in support of Afghanistan following the fall of the Afghan government. [Stephane de Sakutin/AFP]

Afghan refugees arrive at a hotel in Strasbourg, France, on August 26. [Patrick Hertzog/AFP]

Afghan refugees arrive at a hotel in Strasbourg, France, on August 26. [Patrick Hertzog/AFP]

In the chaos that ensued, Hanifa managed to get on a bus heading from the French embassy to the airport with Osman and Bahar.

But Mustafa, who was travelling separately with his aunt, did not make the flight. He got out of Afghanistan only a few days later by road with his father, a former high-ranking official in the deposed government. They are both now in Uzbekistan.

France evacuated more than 2,600 Afghans from the country in the second half of August.

The US military completed its withdrawal and historic airlift of roughly 124,000 people from Kabul airport on August 30. Of those, more than 57,000 transited through Qatar.

The United States took in 70,000 Afghans, Britain more than 15,000 and Italy nearly 5,000. Germany identified some 10,000 Afghans at risk but has brought out only about 4,000 so far.

France has evacuated nearly 400 more Afghans since September and says it has received many new applications. The Foreign Ministry said this week the country was fully mobilised for new airlifts "when it is possible".

Those already in France have only praise for their new homeland.

"I really thank France very much. It gave me an apartment, social security. When I was sick, I didn't have to pay for the medicine," Hanifa said, casting around her sparsely furnished flat.

She proudly brandishes a 10-year residence permit and a debit card topped up by the French state.

"But my problem is Mustafa," she weeps. An official procedure has begun to bring the family together, but there is no guarantee of success.

Massive aid effort

Six months after their departure, many fear for the security of loved ones still living in Afghanistan while the country falls further into financial crisis and endures a devastating famine.

Half the country is threatened with food shortages, the United Nations (UN) has warned.

Fourteen million people are facing acute food insecurity, and an estimated 3.2 million children under five years of age suffer from acute malnutrition, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

In its biggest-ever single-country appeal, the UN on January 11 said $4.4 billion was needed within Afghanistan, while a further $623 million was required to support the millions of Afghans sheltering beyond its borders.

The same day, the United States promised more than $308 million in an initial aid package for Afghanistan this year.

The US government remains the single largest donor of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, with almost $782 million donated to Afghanistan and for Afghan refugees in the region since October, according to National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne.

Last September, the United States pledged $64 million in humanitarian assistance and France said it would contribute €100 million ($118 million) for emergency humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

Fears persist

Hanifa, filmed by AFP, refused to allow her face to appear on the screen for fear of reprisal against her family back home.

She even wanted her place of residence in eastern France kept secret, fearing retribution from Afghanistan's new rulers.

"Usman", 28, insisted that his real name be withheld.

The former Afghan civil servant -- who now lives in a rundown building in the suburbs of Strasbourg with his wife and three children, one of whom is barely a month old -- finds that his mood swings wildly.

He hails the French system and its "extraordinary services". His eldest daughter is already at school, where the teacher "organises special classes" so that she and other newcomers can learn French faster.

His wife gave birth in the hospital -- "like any other French woman" -- even though her asylum application had not yet been processed and she did not have social security.

A neighbour in his 70s helped with the paperwork.

'Cannot forget Afghanistan'

Refugees from Afghanistan have benefitted from fast-tracked asylum application procedures, a French social security employee, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

"We used to travel inside Afghanistan in bulletproof cars, with bodyguards and guns, because we were not safe," said Usman. "Here, we live in an ordinary apartment, in an ordinary building, with social benefits. It is far better."

But while daily life is tranquil and safe, the anxiety over events back home lingers.

Usman's father was detained for three days last autumn before being freed under pressure from tribal elders. Usman sleeps badly and takes anti-depressants.

"Leaving our people behind -- and we love our country -- we couldn't do anything but cry, although we were in a safe place," he said. "We belong to Afghanistan."

Usman, who studied for six years in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan and worked as a ministerial adviser, hopes to become a social worker in a French reception centre for asylum seekers to give back "what was given to me".

'Body without a soul'

Mostafa, 31, who gained his higher education in India, says he will take on any kind of work once he gets his residency permit. "I just want to make myself busy."

He came to France with his mother, Yasamin Yarmal, an Afghan actress.

In the chaos of the evacuation from Kabul, he left behind his wife, their son and their daughter.

"There was a lot of firing [at the airport]," he said. "It was so packed that my children fainted. My father took them to hospital with my wife. Then we got in. When they came back, we were already inside, but they couldn't join us."

A former member of the military, Mostafa thinks he made the right choice. Staying behind would have forced him underground in fear of revenge.

But living like this, far from his country and most of his family, still makes his heart heavy.

He lives in the Paris suburbs and travels to the centre of the capital three times a week for French classes.

"I see people, places, but I just feel the same. Everything is meaningless, useless," he said.

Although she keeps her radiant smile intact, his mother sometimes wonders what she is doing in France when her husband of 40 years lives hidden in Afghanistan with their son's wife and children.

"I feel that I am not alive anymore, that the roots that I had are all dry. A body without a soul," said Yarmal.

More than 100 former government employees, Afghan security personnel and Afghans who worked with foreign troops have been killed following the fall of the previous Afghan government, according to a UN report seen by AFP.

But this is not even close to the real figure, according to several Afghans based abroad who are seeking to document the violence online.

At the end of November, Human Rights Watch said that in just four provinces of Afghanistan alone, more than 100 murders or enforced disappearances occurred.

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