International concern about the fate of Afghanistan’s women and children under the Taliban’s rule has been underscored by many prominent voices in the past few weeks. Here, The Mandarin speaks with a Sydney human rights defender with her finger on the pulse of the situation and a story of her own that the world needs to hear.
Najeeba Wazefadost has a message for the global community:
“Refugees and displaced people must not be an afterthought. Their needs should be a priority.
“We know that Afghans are in great danger and their protection should really be both a moral imperative for those that are in the positions to help, whether it’s Australia or others, and also a matter of enlightened self-interest from governments that are wishing to see stability again in the Asia Pacific region.”
The Afghan-Australian woman, who now lives in NSW, has dedicated her life to the plight of refugees and displaced people because she understands very intimately just how vulnerable they are.
Wazefadost’s Hazara family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan in the year 2000, before Al Qaeda’s September 11 twin tower attacks and prior to the deployment of US troops in her motherland as part of an operation it dubbed ‘enduring freedom’.
Now she is painfully bearing witness to what she describes as a repeat of history in Afghanistan.
“The only thing that I’ve heard is every woman is telling us they’ve lost hope of peace and stability and, again, finding themselves as prisoners of their own gender,” Wazefadost says.
“That’s exactly what I’ve been hearing from almost every woman that I spoke to in the last few days. They are no longer all telling us about progress of their rights — it’s all about survival.”
In the weeks leading up to August, Wazefadost has watched on from her home in Sydney as millions of innocent civilians relinquish the possibility of a better future. It is a hope that she says had become a shining light for so many Afghans as their country inched towards a more progressive and freer place to be. Especially for the women and girls, who had a taste for a life of opportunity and self-determination that Wazefadost never knew as a child.
That was until the Americans left, followed by allied forces and Afghanistan’s own top politicians. Tuesday 31 August, 2021, was the deadline that US President Joe Biden agreed with the new Taliban rulers that all his troops will have exited Afghanistan.
“As I reflect today, I feel like history is repeating itself. I feel like I’ve experienced these same days [as the Afghan people],” Wazefadost says.
“I have felt like I have to hope for a better change coming towards the future but I am starting to lose that hope. I just think peace and stability will never come to my country.”
Even the last-ditch international effort, supported by Australia, to get thousands of civilians out of the country in emergency evacuations out of the Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul was violently interrupted. Last Thursday, five days before the US had agreed to leave, suicide bombers from the Islamic State Khorasan group detonated two deadly blasts near the airport. Many were injured and at least 100 more dead, with 13 US service members among the fatalities.
On Monday, the US military in Kabul was shooting down rockets aimed at Hamid Karzai airfield and the day before it had targeted a drone strike at a terrorist vehicle laden with explosives in the capital. At least nine civilians, including some children, are reported to have died in the US strike.
Efforts to get out however many international citizens, foreign-visa holders and Afghans who assisted allied forces during the Forever War, as well as some humanitarian evacuees have numbered over 100,000 civilians since mid-August. But the heroics of America’s emergency flights out of Kabul this month have been tainted with more bloodshed.
Deeply saddened by the deaths of US military personnel and Afghans in the horrific terrorist attacks in Kabul. We mourn your tragic loss.
Australia condemns these heinous and barbaric attacks.
All our brave ADF and Australian personnel are safe.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) August 26, 2021
Several foreign forces, including Australia, the UK and France, terminated their evacuation missions shortly before or after the suicide bombings.
Wazefadost says the situation in Kabul is still probably better compared to other provinces in Afghanistan, where no deal has been struck with the Taliban to assure the safety of common people. She recounts some of the stories she has been told in the past three weeks: Taliban forces killing a woman for running a radio station, and others beating girls who want to go to school — to death.
“Kabul is probably better compared to other provinces, where there is a high presence and visibility of the Taliban forces and very little visibility of the real situation that villagers, women and children are facing right now,” Wazefadost says.
“We see right now, hospitals, schools, and thousands of homes being attacked, thousands of women and children are being literally persecuted, publicly beheaded and stoned.”
The testimony accords with other disturbing reports from around the country that so far the Taliban has refused to permit women attending their government jobs, claims that television stations are being pressured by authorities to remove female anchors, and elsewhere in Afghanistan’s provinces stories of women being married off to fighters against their will.
Najeeba Wazefadost’s many lives
As a child Wazefadost spent several months with her parents and five siblings living in Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia.
Aged 12, she already had a keen awareness of the dangers her family fled from in Afghanistan and the uncertain but hopeful future somewhere else – anywhere else — that would give her a taste of freedom as a girl. A place where a girl could go to school and leave the home without needing to be accompanied by a male family-member.
Instead, she says she found herself enclosed and treated like a prisoner.
“The question that I was asking my parents all the time was ‘What did we do wrong for them to put us in jail? Why is it that we are getting photographed like criminals? And why is it that we need to be waking up and going back to bed at a certain time and getting our food at a certain time exactly like criminals?’,” Wazefadost says.
“I thought that seeking asylum was a basic fundamental human right but that wasn’t what I got to experience when I arrived in Australia.”
In October 2001, Afghanistan was a war-torn nation controlled by the Taliban. The fear and horror of that time was the reality Wazefadost’s family had escaped, and now she says it seems as though that the country will return to that desperate place under a supposedly reformed Taliban regime and in the absence of any international presence.
Wazefadost’s father drove a taxi to support his growing family in Afghanistan’s rural mountain region of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, the UN estimates approximately 47,000 displaced people have escaped the valley as news of the advancing Taliban — which has now claimed control over the country — taking control of nearby districts. They left on foot, in unforgiving cold weather, and many without food or anywhere to go.
Her youngest brother was born in Indonesia, just days before the Afghan family of seven were smuggled onto a small boat and after 10 frightening nights and days arrived near Darwin, Australia. Boat people. The wrong kind of refugee according to Australia’s hard-line policy on asylum seekers arriving by boat. A policy that has lasted, and may yet outlive, the time that the Australian Defence Force served in Afghanistan. A stretch of more than 20 years that has colloquially become known as the ‘Forever War’.
Wazefadost had never seen the sea before and the Pacific Ocean was something to behold. She also had no idea where Australia was — she had never seen a world map — and had innocently assumed that it must have been the name of another block in Pakistan, where her family first arrived from Afghanistan.
“Back then we were thinking we would get on a Titanic ship — that was the kind of image we had,” she says.
“But obviously, when we got to the sea, we realised that we were getting onto a leaky fishing boat, joining [many others].”
“We could see this light of hope, that the suffering was about to end, you know. And with that hope, we basically survived.”
On the perilous boat journey to Australia, Wazefadost’s family almost drowned and lost most of their possessions. Only a few precious items were still with them by the time the group of seven were processed in Curtin. One of them was a treasured family heirloom — her mother’s teapot — that had miraculously survived their seven-month journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and onwards to Indonesia and then Australia, that was seized by the guards at the detention centre. Wazefadost’s mother never saw the teapot again.
“Not only did we find ourselves in another prison with other security guards [like the Taliban] around us, being called by numbers, but we also saw how my mother was basically begging in front of the guards for something that was so valuable to her but so valueless for them,” Wazefadost says.
“There was no understanding.”
Some time after the family had escaped Afghanistan and made it to Australia, Taliban forces destroyed two imposing 6th Century statues of Buddha that were carved into a cliffside near Wazefadost’s former home. The teapot, like the culturally significant Bamiyan Buddhas, were just another symbol of the experience of destruction and loss for displaced people of the Afghan diaspora.
Wazefadost says after a few months, when the family was released from detention, they did not even know they would be allowed to live in the community. Perhaps, they thought, they were being sent on to another detention centre. Instead they arrived in Tasmania with temporary protection visas, no access to Medicare, prohibited from working to earn a living and with limited English.
“We had to leave Tasmania because we couldn’t speak English, we didn’t have much support there, there was no community linkage, nothing like that.
“So we moved to Sydney and it took us almost four years and a half to basically get permanent residency after [that].”
A refugee child’s story is Australia’s legacy
Wazefadost is a daughter, sister, mother, university graduate, refugee advocate and proud Australian. But only a few years ago she was perceived by government systems that were established to help people like her as something less favourable — an illegal immigrant whose father paid people smugglers with promises of his herds of sheep and modest rural home in Afghanistan to find his family safety.
When asked about her sense of self, and what defines her identity, she is adamant — there was no identity as a kid living in Afghanistan’s mountains. She misses her homeland, yes. The familiarity of speaking her mother tongue, the smell of the air, visiting the local bakery, meeting friends who are playing on the corner of a nearby street. The sense of connection to Afghanistan runs deep. But living there, Wazefadost says she was not her own person.
“I always think of my childhood as a dark phase of my life, to be honest. As a young girl, I hardly have had the opportunity to any kind of education, to any kind of freedom of speech to any kind of movement,” Wazefadost says.
“I was literally imprisoned in my own home, and was only able to get out if my father was at home. If I was allowed to get out, I was not able to receive any education. Women were not allowed to have access to anything — employment or access to vote.”
“I thought that to have an identity meant having a country to live in, a government that protects me. And if I do have an identity, then that means I would have the same rights as everyone else but I never felt that I had an identity up until I became a citizen of Australia,” she says.
In Australia all Wazefadost has done is give back to the community. Her advocacy efforts have been unstoppable since high school, when in year nine — and still with shaky English — she and her sister were assisted by her principal to run a campaign underscoring the unfairness of being denied schooling because of her temporary protection visa.
By 17 she was granted permanent residency and was looking forward to going to university. This is now something out of grasp for many Afghan women who do not believe a Taliban regime will permit them to pursue much education, least of all higher education.
Today Wazefadost has founded the Asia Pacific Network of Refugees (APNOR), which has also worked extensively with displaced Afghans and refugees all over the world to try and understand the issues affecting some of the most vulnerable. It is through this work that Wazefadost’s contacts with advocates and human rights defenders were forged, adding to her familial ties with Afghanistan.
A desperate call she received days before speaking with The Mandarin was from an Afghan woman who ran cosmetic and beauty classes from her hair salon. The woman told Wazefadost that the Taliban had smashed her shop front, locked up her home and plastered photos with a cross over her face all over the neighbourhood.
APNOR has now established a crisis helpline but continues to be flooded with calls for help via email, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp from people in Afghanistan, and worried friends and family who live overseas.
“A lot of people are displaced, and they hardly have any clothing. Some are asking for emergency financial help, some for food, medicine and access to hospitals.
“But more importantly, a lot more are asking how they can actually seek protection from countries that are willing to support [them],” Wazefadost says.
On Monday, Alex Hawke, Australia’s minister for immigration, citizenship, migrant services and multicultural affairs, announced that a new advisory panel would be established on Australia’s resettlement of Afghan nationals. He said the panel would work to ensure that Australia’s settlement program would deliver refugees the support they need to settle in Australia ‘as fast as possible’.
“Many arrivals from Afghanistan, including women and children have endured experiences of torture and trauma and we will be ensuring our support programs have the capacity to respond and aid their recovery from these experiences,” a statement from the minister read.
But Australia’s initial refugee intake announcement of 3,000 places for Afghan civilians (which is part of its pre-existing refugee commitment for this financial year) does not go nearly far enough, Wazefadost says.
“It’s a very poor response, actually it’s a shame, for a country like Australia to announce something that they have already committed to. It’s not even a new commitment by them,” Wazefadost says.
With all eyes on the intense scramble of the evacuation efforts from Kabul this past month, Wazefadost laments the millions of others – civilians and nobodys like the child in the mountains that she was once – who have been left behind. What will happen to all of those people? How will the international community rise to meet the humanitarian crisis needs of Afghanistan after August 31?
“We have poor people dying every day in villages and provinces where we hardly hear any stories [in the media] about them,” Wazefadost says.
“It’s not just about evacuating civilians from Kabul — the situation is worrying, and something that we need to be concerned about but the international community needs to think about the millions of Afghans that are crying for help.”
“Not everybody can get to the airport or has a passport.
“We need to ensure that our immediate humanitarian concerns are looked after,” she says.