As an Afghan Australian, I watch in despair as the west cuts and runs

As an Afghan Australian, my heart is in my mouth as I watch on in complete despair.

The final nail in the coffin was seeing images emerge of Taliban members perched in Kabul’s presidential palace.

Headline after headline reads that Afghanistan is on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. The truth is, it’s barely ever stepped out of one.

For most of my lifetime the country of my birth, Afghanistan, has been in a perpetual state of war.

As a female Afghan Shia minority, had my parents not fled Kabul when they did and if Australia hadn’t generously accepted us under its Refugee Humanitarian program, who knows what fate would have been today.

I find myself reflecting on the privilege lottery that has been so good to my family but so cruel to many others. I often reflect on how each of us had no choice over the place or circumstances of our birth and yet because of it, some of us may never have to face the harsh realities my fellow Afghans are facing today.

For my mother who has extended family in Afghanistan, this whole ordeal is very triggering, amplifying existing anxieties associated with life in lockdown in Sydney.

While many of us are shocked at the speed at which the Taliban were able to take hold of the country – a little less than a week – few are surprised that Afghanistan is now yet again in this situation after decades of foreign intervention by countries who have a track record of meddling in the Middle East.

Several commentators have highlighted the bleedingly obvious; this current crisis in Afghanistan was almost two decades in the making.Advertisement

On the whole the US led invasion and subsequent decades-old war (and an alleged rebuilding of a nation – a job the US started but never completed) have been a costly failure on the part of foreign interveners from all political stripes.

The anger and hurt many of us feel is palpable as the reality is that the Taliban would have not risen to have such power and influence, had they not had initial backing from western forces. Combined with a complex multitude of ethnic factions, a power vacuum, an already largely corrupt government weakened further by every attempted invasion/takeover and the international onslaught that follows – Afghanistan has become a country ripe for exploitation from all angles.

To witness what feels very much like a western abandonment of Afghanistan on mass scale is infuriating.

No matter the alleged well intentions of many, we cannot plant the seeds of war, water them, witness the deterioration, strip the country of its dignity, and then withdraw without a well-thought-out exit strategy.

The countless atrocities in Afghanistan did not occur in a vacuum. Several countries (you know who you are) played a vital role in militarising Afghanistan over the 1980s and fuelling the political instability that has plagued the country.

The costs in terms of lives lost is catastrophic – a painful harsh reality many of our Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian and many other sisters and brothers are very familiar with, especially when you consider the disturbing fact that US has been at war 225 out of 243 years since 1776, that’s 92 % of the time since its birth.

The UN and aid agencies are preparing for a Syria-scale refugee crisis. Minority groups, especially the Shia Hazara are bracing themselves as they are prime targets. Women’s organisations are appalled at the subjugation of Afghan women and girls (and yet so often this issue is viewed through a white saviour lens).

Let’s not forget that like the rest of us, Afghans are also battling Covid19 at the same time, but without access to luxuries we in the west are so blessed to have at our disposable.

The mental health toll of this catastrophe is immeasurable, both for Afghans fleeing and those of us already abroad. For a community who already battles with the taboo surrounding mental health, many will not know how to cope.

I don’t know what the future holds for my country and the truth is, I don’t have all the answers.

The Taliban claim to have changed and modernised but their ideological extremism and patriarchal foundations would suggest otherwise. Patriarchy in all its forms seems to continue to be an insurmountable obstacle that holds women hostage and everywhere that it rears its ugly head, misogyny pursues.

People run after and cling to a moving US military plane leaving Kabul airport.

The Afghan people are not homogenous and have differing perspectives on the unfolding crisis. I am not a military or geopolitical expert.

It’s promising to hear (albeit unconfirmed) reports that there appears to be an Australian rescue mission afoot, to evacuate Australian citizens and Afghans who worked with Australian troops, such as interpreters and security guards, as well as their family members. It is also encouraging that the government plans on expanding the number of Afghans who are eligible to receive visas to include individuals who had less formal links to the Australian government during the decades-long conflict. But we must do more.

Australia was one of the first in 2001 to join the US-led intervention and we have a moral and ethical obligation to help. Australia must show leadership where the US has failed. Moves from the world community to cut and run from Afghanistan are a grave mistake. They betray the many people who have sacrificed so much over the last 20 years to help forge a better future for Afghanistan.

It must noted however that cries for humanitarian aide and assistance should not be interpreted as an invitation for a standalone western-led military response.

Instead, the focus must be on an international coalition, which centres the voices of Afghans themselves, providing humanitarian aid and applying well-thought-out strategic political pressure.

When the dust settles on this, Afghanistan will no longer be in the headlines.

The millions of Afghans who will lose their lives will continue to be nameless and we will all get on with our lives. But the lessons will still not have been learned. And history is doomed to repeat itself.

“In front of our eyes, they beat my sister”

Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence against women.

So many have asked me about the plight of women in Afghanistan. I am not going to cite statistics. I am not going to cite numbers. I will however re-tell the story of my sister-in-law who just relayed this to me. In her own words…

It was about 3am on a cold Afghanistan morning. My family and I lived in a small village in the province of Herat. I was about five years old. We heard loud banging and then I heard screams.

My sisters and I ran into the living room. We feared the worst, especially as my father was away on a work trip, and we felt even more vulnerable. We had heard about how local militia groups would barge into homes trying to kidnap young men or worse, kill them if they were not able to meet their demands.

My mother told my brothers to flee. And flee they did, by the time the militia group had barged into our home, broken the door and all that was in their path, my brothers had left via the backyard.

Several men stormed into our home – there were so many, I couldn’t count them – there were at least 20 of them. They were holding machine guns and had masks over their mouths – all we could see were their eyes. I had never seen my mother look so terrified as she did that night.

What unfolded in the next 30 minutes or so will forever be etched in my memory.

My mother, assuming, they were there for my brothers told them she had no sons. She pleaded with them not to hurt her and young daughters.

“We are not here to take your men,” they declared.

Turning their attention to my 20-year-old sister, they yelled that they had warned her many times – “How dare she continue to teach at the local school!” While there women who were teachers in other provinces, the small village we lived in Herat, my sister was one of a few female teachers. Little had we realised that their taunts and threats passed on to us via random people were in fact real. Could this really be happening?

There in front of our eyes, they beat my sister so hard. Trying to drag her out the door, my mother pleaded with them to not take her. She offered herself up and told them to take her instead.

“No” they screamed, they needed to ‘teach women a lesson that this behaviour was unacceptable!’. The screams, the yelling, the chaos. It was indescribable. My sisters and I, aged between 5 to 14 years old, watched on in complete shock and horror. It’s like time had stood still. I was screaming but it felt like no noise was coming out.

That was the last time we saw my sister. To this day, we do not know whether she is dead or alive. No police or other government authorities were able to do anything in the days, months and years that followed.

About two years later my father passed away, leaving my mother to look after all of us on her own.

My 40-year-old sister who witnessed it all that night, is still living in Herat with her young family. Offering her reassurance over the phone is all I can do for her. I fear for her safety. I fear that she too could be forever taken from us. She knows all too well just what the Taliban is capable of.

Such is the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan. In the past three months alone, 900,000 people have been displaced. Many of these are women and children. What are our leaders doing to make sure this doesn’t become the fate of more women in Afghanistan?

Editor’s note: Do not look away. To read more about the way women and children are treated by Taliban please read this piece and this piece, published by academics writing for The Conversation website over the last 48 hours.

And if you can, give generously to Mariam’s campaign on behalf of the UN Refugee Agency – Australia for UNHCR.

Feature image: The Taliban does not want women and girls to be educated. Photo depicts The Female Experimental High School in Herat. Picture: World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Protesters’ cries for freedom ring hollow for dying woman

Adriana Midori Takara was just 38 when she died from COVID-19 this week. She was only a year older than I am and had no underlying health conditions. Her first COVID test was negative and then a few days later, when she was tested again, it was positive. Ten days later, she was dead.

Last Saturday, protesters were walking past Royal Prince Alfred Hospital – where Adriana was dying – chanting “freedom”. Little did they know that as they were punching police horses and shouting from the rooftops, NSW would lose yet another young person to the deadly Delta variant only hours later.

Adriana Midori Takara, 38, died after contracting the coronavirus.
Adriana Midori Takara, 38, died after contracting the coronavirus.CREDIT:FACEBOOK

On the other side of Sydney, in the early hours of Saturday evening, I was also at a hospital. It was just after 2am. Dressed in my PJs and anxious as hell, there I was walking into the emergency department of my local hospital with my three-year-old son in my arms. His temperature was 40 degrees and he had what looked like hives all over his body.

Fast-forward 12 hours in hospital, multiple tests, IV drip and a sleepless night, they cleared him of COVID but were still not 100 per cent certain about his condition. Doctors suspected a nasty viral infection may have been the cause.

My seven-year-old daughter and I are self-isolating at home having done yet another drive-through COVID test.

Adriana was the eighth person in NSW to die after contracting COVID-19 during the latest outbreak. Her family was forced to say their goodbyes via Zoom. Her loved ones couldn’t visit her as she was dying but thousands of protesters were walking outside her room only hours earlier. I just can’t fathom the absurdity of it all.

Do people not realise that the Delta variant of COVID-19 is not only far more transmissible than its predecessors but it appears to be more lethal to people of all ages?

I am sick of hearing arguments defending the rights of the protesters to protest at a time like this. Freedom is a double-edged sword. It’s not absolute.

Your right to swing your arm in the air stops where that arm has the potential to strike my face. You have a right to walk wherever you like but that right does not extend to walking over me. Your right to willingly put yourself at risk of COVID-19 doesn’t trump my right to remain protected from it.

The best way we can achieve freedom at this time is to stay home, seek medical advice and get vaccinated. Rest in peace, Adriana Midori Takara.

Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer and diversity practitioner.