Month after Taliban takeover, Ukrainians stranded in Afghanistan

Dozens of Ukrainian citizens originally from Afghanistan remain in the war-torn country, despite repeated pleas for evacuation.

Ukrainians gathered near Hamid Karzai International airport in early September asking the Ukrainian president to evacuate them [Al Jazeera]

Names marked with an asterisk* have been changed to protect identities.

Abdul*, a Ukrainian citizen, is stuck in Khost, a large city in southeastern Afghanistan.

As night falls, dogs bark in the background. But he is in no hurry to go to bed. He guards his house and family, embracing a gun, until morning.

“Strangers wanted to get into my house. It is difficult to say who exactly it was. Even now, they shoot – I have no idea who is shooting whom,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

Last month, Afghan evacuee flights were halted as the country was thrown into chaos during the final stages of the Taliban’s takeover after US troops left.

Flights have since resumed and, as a Ukrainian passport holder, 33-year-old Abdul can leave the country.

He, however, is stranded.

In total, at least 70 Ukrainian citizens are in Afghanistan waiting to leave. Including their family members, this number rises to approximately 200.

All have appealed directly to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy several times for help.

Many have run out of money and their Ukrainian bank cards do not issue cash through Afghan ATMs.

Most of the families hail from different provinces across the country but are temporarily renting homes in Kabul as they have been advised to wait for a flight out of the capital’s main airport.

Abdul is one of about 10,000 Ukrainians with ancestry in Afghanistan. There have been two waves of Afghanistan-Ukraine migration – when the Soviet-backed leadership fell, and when the Taliban took power in the late 1990s.

Abdul left Afghanistan 17 years ago because of violence in his home town, joining his father in Ukraine. His father later returned to Afghanistan, but disappeared. The family assume he was killed because he had worked for the Soviet-backed communist leadership of Mohammad Najibullah.

He now lives in Odesa. A husband and father of three, he has a small business and sells goods at a local wholesale market.

But his wife and three children are Afghan citizens and do not have valid visas, so he travels back and forth to visit them. He put them on Ukraine’s evacuation list in mid-August.

Lives at risk

The Taliban came to power promising it would not seek retribution against Afghans who worked with foreign forces or Afghan officials with the former government, vowing to strive for peace.

But many still fear the group will return to the brutality of its earlier rule, from 1996 to 2001.

Reports of recent attacks against journalists and of a door-to-door hunt for people who worked for NATO forces or the previous Afghan government have done little to ease those fears.

Even holding a foreign passport can be risky in the new Afghanistan.

One of the stranded Ukrainians told Al Jazeera that he was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint on his way from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul.

After soldiers saw his Ukrainian passport, he says he was threatened: “If you changed citizenship, you changed religion. We can shoot you down right here.”

Muhammad’s daughter suffered burns as US forces sprayed tear gas on crowds gathered near Hamid Karzai International airport in Kabul [Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, some Ukrainian citizens and their family members need urgent medical treatment.

Muhammad* was in Ukraine when the Taliban’s advance gathered pace. Like thousands others, his Afghan wife rushed to Kabul with their children in an attempt to flee the country.

When American forces sprayed tear gas on them – along with droves of other Afghans gathered near the North Gate of Kabul airport in late August, desperately trying to escape – their five-month-old daughter suffered burns around her eyes.

In another case, Abdul’s son was wounded when the family travelled to Kabul from Khost – a military vehicle exploded near their car on the way.

Abdul’s son suffered a head injury as a military vehicle exploded on the family’s journey to Kabul from Khost [Al Jazeera]

At the height of the evacuation efforts, Ukraine helped get 600 people out of the country, but most were not Ukrainian citizens.

The president’s office boasted in a statement that Ukraine does not only protect its citizens, “but citizens of other states”, and the office has previously claimed that Kyiv has evacuated all Ukrainians who wanted to leave Afghanistan.

But dozens interviewed by Al Jazeera disagreed, saying that since August 12, their requests for evacuation, sent to the Ukrainian embassy in Tajikistan as Ukraine does not have an embassy in Afghanistan, have gone unanswered.

Sometimes, they get through to a foreign ministry hotline, but their calls do not lead anywhere.

“We were told that there would be a plane in the evening [of August 25],” said Ali*, a 28-year-old resident of Odesa.

“We booked a bus, waited all night, hoping to be evacuated. There were about 30,000 people near the airport. In the morning, there were rumours that there would be an explosion. Our Afghan friends in Odesa told us: ‘Leave the airport and run home.’”

Ali, like some others, followed the advice and left. The Ukrainians who stayed at the airport managed to fly out.

At 10am on August 26, at least 169 Afghans and 13 US troops were killed in a suicide bomb attack.

Ali arrived in Afghanistan in early August to visit family, a year after marrying Sara*, an Afghan woman.

From Kunduz, a city on the Tajik border, Ali travelled to Kabul. He said there were Taliban checkpoints at every 150km or so.

“They are searching for people who are citizens of other countries. They think we are spies,” he told Al Jazeera.

He has tried to get a travel visa for Sara to visit Ukraine. Last year, he paid a vast sum for the application but was denied. The fee was not returned.

Other Ukrainians in Afghanistan had similar experiences, saying they could not evacuate their families earlier because Ukrainian embassies in Islamabad and Dushanbe had refused them visas.

A Ukrainian citizen in Afghanistan sent Al Jazeera this image of a Jonika Airlines plane on September 20 that did not take off and is reportedly still in Kabul [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera understands that there have been two failed attempts this month by Ukraine to evacuate more people.

On September 16, a Ukrainian military plane landed in Kabul, but dozens of those who wanted to leave had forged their documents. Taliban officials caught them and the plane left, empty.

Nevertheless, Habibullah Sorkhrody, ex-adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, helped organise the successful Ukrainian evacuations and believes that, in future, the Taliban will be ready to let citizens on board a Ukrainian plane.

On September 20, a Jonika Airlines plane arrived at Kabul’s airport, but the plane is yet to take off.

None of the Ukrainians Al Jazeera interviewed was invited on these two flights, despite them having sent the details of stranded citizens – along with their family members – to the Ukrainian foreign ministry and the Ukrainian embassy in Tajikistan.

According to them, some of those who were invited had never travelled to Ukraine and spoke neither Russian nor Ukrainian.

Sources in Ukraine’s security service told Al Jazeera that evacuation efforts were being led by the defence ministry and president’s office but offered no further details.

Al Jazeera contacted several other Ukrainian officials for comment, but at the time of publishing, none had responded.

Source: Al Jazeera