Ten days ago a baby was born a few kilometres outside of Kabul, just as the Taliban’s ascendency in Afghanistan became more real. By Monday this week, the capital had fallen to the insurgent fighters with no resistance, the banks had closed and hundreds and thousands of Afghan civilians had swarmed into the city in a desperate effort to make it to the international airport.
The newborn needed milk and the Australian aid organisation Mahboba’s Promise, established by an Afghan-Australian woman 25 years ago, was still running an orphanage and office where an appeal was made for help to feed the mother and child. Using emergency cash that the charity had been able to empty from its accounts before all the banks were shuttered, basic supplies were purchased for the pair and delivered to them in the cloak of night.
Nawid Cina, Mahboba’s son who is based in Sydney, told The Mandarin that rumours have begun circulating that Kabul’s banks will open again soon. When they do, he hopes to directly wire money that he has been collecting for the orphanage to support approximately 900 families the charity has been helping before the Taliban took over.
“They have nothing since the fall of Kabul,” Cina says.
“They have been completely forgotten.”
In his own words, Cina says an ‘incredibly brave’ network of 60 aid staff and countless other friends, families and contacts work day and night against the chaos unfolding in Kabul and further afield to continue reaching its orphanages and single-parent families of mostly widows and children.
There are 20 staff operating on the ground in Kabul, and another 40 working across the country, he says.
“That’s not even counting teachers or the orphans who have grown up now. There are some orphans that are aged 25, 26 who have been with us from the beginning and work with us as well. So there are a lot [of people involved],” he says.
Much international attention has focused on Kabul in the past few days, with NATO allied forces from the US, the UK, Germany and Australia coordinating emergency evacuation flights for those lucky few who have been able to reach the airport perimeter.
— Yalda Hakim (@BBCYaldaHakim) August 19, 2021
Departures of international military aircraft were temporarily suspended on Tuesday when the tarmac was overwhelmed with civilians, clambering onto the sides of planes in a hopeless attempt to get out.
Roads leading into the Hamid Karzai International airport have been choked with traffic jams and desperate crowds of internally displaced Afghan civilians. Many, who have either worked with NATO allied forces as interpreters, or fear persecution for their human rights advocacy have packed up their families in a last ditch attempt to get out of the country. Other ordinary people are simply seeking any life that is not one under the rule of the Taliban extremists.
Thousands more still are stuck at Taliban-held checkpoints along the road and there have been reports of violence and shootings nearby the airport and in other parts of the country as unrest grows. Word is the Taliban are patrolling crowds at the checkpoints, hunting for nationals who they believe have worked with US and NATO forces. According to the New York Times, a confidential document from the United Nations claims the Taliban is threatening to kill or arrest the family members of suspected nationals.
“In Kabul, the more people who have been evacuated, the more others become desperate to leave. They see the plans are full and they’re going, and so now we’re reaching in Kabul, a point of hysteria,” Cina says.
“The sentiment on the ground is one of betrayal – Afghans feel betrayed by their government, and then the second feeling is a sense of abandonment by Western allies.”
General security and safety is uncertain for the 38 million Afghans whose country’s fate now lies in the hands of an un-yet formed Taliban government. Its deposed President Ashraf Ghani has sought refuge in the UAE but claims he is in talks to return to Afghanistan.
“In other parts of the country, as far as we can tell, in the places that we’re operating it has been incredibly violent, but is calming down,” Cina says.
The following day, on Afghanistan’s annual Independence Day, deadly clashes between Taliban foot soldiers and protestors rallying in the eastern city of Asadabad took place and the Taliban imposed a curfew on the city of Khost.
Many fear the bloodshed is a sign that the brutality that defined past Taliban rule is here to stay.
Panjshir Valley orphans attempt escape
Up north in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, local leaders, including politician Ahmad Massoud, are trying to rally forces to resist the Taliban. It is the last place in the country not to have been taken over by the Islamic extremists and the approximately 2000-strong Panjshir fighters say they simply want to broker a peace deal with the Taliban rather than fight them.
“Panjshir Valley is at an imminent risk of becoming a battleground,” Cina says.
“There is a live resistance and publicised resistance in the valley and our orphans are stuck there.”
Because Mahboba’s Promise is an Australian NGO and funded mostly by the generosity of Australian donors, Cina says his primary concern is that the orphans will be a target should they cross paths with the Taliban. The group is attempting to extract 55 orphans from Panjshir Valley to Kabul so that all of the charity’s staff and 130 wards can be evacuated from the country.
“We are well known to the communities on the ground for our association with Australia, the Australian troops and the embassy.
“We have always tried to connect and build bridges between the communities but that seems to now have backfired,” Cina says.
“Yes, our staff face danger because of their association with a charity that has focused on women’s rights, education, economic empowerment, and all the work of advocacy we’ve done to that end but the children are just as endangered.”
The group’s first attempt to get out of the valley on Sunday was hampered by the escalating unrest in Kabul and now, with resistance forces organising, Cina believes a blockade could be established along the road out.
“There is also a chance for us to find a passage out, we have to escape the Taliban,” Cina says.
“What else can we do?”
“I don’t know if we can camouflage the children, we still don’t know, but it is our priority to get them from Panjshir to Kabul, and from Kabul we need to get them evacuated,” he says.
Rush to get through Australian immigration red tape
From his home in locked-down Sydney, Cina (the general manager of the charity) is communicating with aid workers mostly via WhatsApp and sometimes by telephone or Facebook. He says ordinary communication channels in Afghanistan remain open.
A handful of staff are helping to coordinate information as it arrives and decide where to send resources to help.
They are also coordinating an emergency appeal to help 900 displaced families who have set up camp just 15km outside Kabul with food, shelter, cooking and hygiene essentials. UN estimates suggest 14 million people are malnourished, among them two million children, and many more are going hungry.
“We haven’t slept, but you know, the [community] support keeps us going,” Cina says.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the support of the Australian public who have shown us that they want a response that is one of deep compassion and generosity towards Afghans at the moment.”
For now, many of the programs Mahboba’s Promise runs in Afghanistan have been put on hold and the only active staff are those administering the orphanages and the appeal in Kabul.
Cina adds that while the aid staff and children are scared, they are also courageous.
“Everyone is deeply, deeply scared, I get messages from the staff everyday asking ‘please get us out’. The Kabul staff particularly, they’ve continued their work in spite of the fear and continue to administer aid to those who need it most,” he says.
Not only does the women’s rights focus of the charity make it a target under the new Taliban regime, Cina says the fact that most of its donations come from the West is affiliation enough to attract unwanted attention.
“They make no distinction between the government and a NGO-funded program. It doesn’t matter if DFAT doesn’t fund us. The fact that money is coming from the West — the Taliban has always had a disdain for that,” he adds.
Uncertainty for thousands of displaced Afghans
Following pressure from US President Joe Biden this week the International Monetary Fund said it would block Afghanistan from accessing $460 million in emergency reserves, and another four-year funding commitment from 60 international countries for $12 billion hangs in the balance.
Cina says the charity’s work will continue in Afghanistan no matter what, but as soon as it gets its last orphans out it will pivot its services to programs delivery rather than housing vulnerable children. Instead, it will focus on economic sustainability projects within the community and grass roots initiatives that teach skills such as permaculture.
“We will have to pivot the nature of our work,” Cina says.
“We want these orphans evacuated and we don’t tend to be holding orphan housing orphans again.
“Regardless of the best or worst case scenario, we will still work with our fundamental pillars of health, education, and women’s empowerment, but we’ll work with the context of the day.”
In terms of the future of the Mahboba’s Promise staff and children still in Afghanistan, he says they are entirely at the mercy of the Australian government. Prime minister Scott Morrison committed to taking in at least 3,000 Afghan civilians this week with an immediate priority to extract Afghan nationals who are current Australian visa holders.
“The Australian government has taken really concrete steps [to help Afghans], and we’re thankful for it. We’re thankful for the general discourse and support,” Cina says.
“But now is a moment for deep compassion, generosity. The Australian government is the only hope for these orphans and our staff. We need to get them out.
“We ask the Australian public to add their voice to ours and for the government to respond as they are doing and to take an extra step.”