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Before Japan’s borders closed over fears of the omicron variant last week, it was reported the country had let in nearly 400 Afghan evacuees to date. Seeing them escape the situation might be bittersweet for Afghans already residing here, however. While this group is safe, there are still many who aren’t.

Those are the thoughts of “Alex,” an Afghan living in Japan whose family remains in a dire situation at home due to the fall of the government to the Taliban.

I can’t tell you Alex’s real name. If I do, they believe the Taliban will target their family.

I cannot say if Alex is a man or a woman. Nor where in Japan they live, nor where they work. I can tell you that Alex wants to speak out in the hopes that someone will listen, but is also afraid.

On May 1, just six months ago, Alex was feeling more at ease. Absorbed in research and having picked up some extra work, life was good. They came to Japan to gain essential skills in their field, hoping to one day return to Afghanistan and work more effectively at their old job there. Work was smooth, and Alex was falling in love with the freedoms found in an open society like Japan.

On the same day, the Taliban launched a widespread offensive across Afghanistan, following the start of withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.

For a long time, even Alex couldn’t see what was coming.

“I was totally not expecting the Taliban to take over the country,” they say. “I wasn’t expecting it because we as a country improved a lot compared to 20 years ago. I really didn’t imagine that they would take control.”

Three months later, in early August, Alex went to their apartment to rest and talk with family and friends, keeping in touch with the situation in Afghanistan. They sent texts and made calls, read the news and checked social media. And waited.

“Please take it easy,” Alex texted friends back home. “Why are you so negative? You should believe our soldiers and government. Please don’t demotivate our soldiers.”

Later that evening, Alex checked the news about the Taliban’s progress. Just over half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were under control of the Taliban, as the Afghan National Army suffered repeated defeats across the country. The government assured citizens that they were prepared to defend themselves against any onslaught. Alex went to sleep confident, unafraid, vowing to remind their friends of how worried and uncertain they were on the day when their soldiers and people rose up to defeat the Taliban.

By morning, Alex’s home province had fallen.

Tracking your family’s fate

A few days later on Aug. 15, Alex was enjoying an evening with friends at home. That was the day that Kabul fell.

As Alex relaxed and ate in peace, Taliban fighters entered the city. They seized the Pul-e-Charkhi prison and released inmates, including captured Islamic State and al-Qaida militants. Afghan military planes and helicopters fled to Uzbekistan. President Ashraf Ghani relinquished power and, shortly thereafter, fled. By 8:55 p.m. local time, the Taliban had taken over Kabul’s presidential palace.

“I was just shocked,” Alex says. “I felt like someone pushed me from a high height to the ground.”

The events of August changed Alex’s life in more ways than one. New, inescapable emotions emerged: fear, guilt, anger. In the following weeks, crumbling mental health led them to seek help from a psychologist.

“I can’t believe how different I am,” Alex says.

It’s no surprise that the turn of events has crippled Alex’s mental health. Horror after horror has struck Afghanistan. It began with emergency airlifts making desperate attempts to rescue refugees from the Kabul airport. Around 15,000 Afghans attempted to escape, overcrowding the airport, leading the foreign soldiers to resort to tear gas and beating. A few days later, two suicide bombers and gunmen attacked crowds at the airport, killing 60.

Just over a month later, a deadly mosque bombing on Oct. 8, carried out by an Islamic State suicide bomber in Kunduz, killed dozens of worshipers. Now, brutal poverty grips much of the country, with huge swaths of the population unemployed or unable to work due to the violence, disruptions or working for the old Afghan government. The health care system is on the brink of collapse, as thousands of facilities have run out of essential medicines and doctors haven’t been paid in months. Afghanistan lost its last remaining Jew. Musicians and artists struggle to escape. Some of the Afghans who managed to flee to Pakistan face newfound discrimination and are targeted by the police.

Not to mention the struggles specific to Alex’s family. Publishing identifying information could be perilous, as their relatives have already been targeted by the Taliban. The Taliban arrested a family member, brutally beat them, and robbed them. Now, everyone in Alex’s family is out of a job.

“They’re at home, they can’t work, they can’t go to university,” Alex says. “Everyone is just waiting for what will happen, just at home. They don’t know anything.”

Some of the 88 Afghans that arrived in Japan in October make their way through Narita Airport. | KYODO
Some of the 88 Afghans that arrived in Japan in October make their way through Narita Airport. | KYODO

New rules for survival

Starting Aug. 15, Alex’s family didn’t have access to the internet because of the coup. The only way to contact their family was by calling via SIM card, but the costs of the SIM bills were so great that eventually Alex became unable to keep in touch any longer. Fortunately, starting in September, internet connection improved enough to allow Alex to send messages via WhatsApp.

“They wanted and tried to leave Afghanistan, but some of my family don’t have passports,” Alex explains. Passports were never easily obtainable for Afghans, but now that’s out of the question. The family, holed up together, considered “underground” ways to leave the country, but they were worried the younger members wouldn’t be able to make the journey. An acquaintance of Alex’s escaped to Iran via one of these routes, but lost her child on the way.

“It’s very difficult to be here (in Japan) when we’re in the situation that my family is experiencing,” Alex says, adding that they don’t know whether or not, if they hadn’t been in Japan, they would have been killed by Taliban soldiers. Now, they are sitting comfortably in a Japanese apartment, left to wonder what is going on at home.

The situation could hardly be more dire. A complete economic collapse is plunging the nation into a humanitarian crisis. Alex, safely removed from the situation, is employed. They have access to all the necessary amenities: groceries, shelter, health care. Then, there are all of Japan’s other amenities that Afghans can’t even imagine having now: 24-hour convenience stores, regular trains and an environment where Alex doesn’t have to worry about speaking to a stranger — or even just someone who isn’t family.

“When I came to Japan, I felt a lot of changes in my life,” Alex says. “I felt like I was living as a human. Afghanistan is so strict, we have so many limitations that we don’t have in Japan. I felt so comforted, which is why I was so active and working so hard. I don’t worry about going out and talking with the opposite gender. My mind is fully relaxed. So everything was good and strong with me.”

The topic of gender in particular strikes a chord with Alex. Last week, the Taliban declared women were not “property” and could not be forced into marriage, but nothing has been said about women’s right to work and an education. Girls are not allowed to go to school and Alex says they can only receive education at underground schools. Women are not allowed to go into the office. “I wish to never become a parent of a girl in Afghanistan.”

We can’t just watch

The war in Afghanistan came and went. The Taliban’s takeover came and went. The viral airport photos came and went. The world’s attention, likewise, came and went. But the poverty and suffering continue.

“I want people to understand the poverty of Afghans,” Alex says. “People need to recognize that.”

The longer Alex talks about the situation, it becomes apparent how complex their emotions are. The way the attention of the world shifted to Afghanistan just at the moment of the Taliban’s takeover, and then quickly moved on, was especially infuriating.

“By the time the world started talking about Afghanistan, it was too late for us,” Alex says. “When I’m seeing the support of the world for Afghanistan, it does not make me happy. It hurts me.

“Everyone was busy before. When they saw we lost everything, when they saw we lost the young generation, when some people could evacuate and others were killed by the Taliban …” Alex trails off, frustrated.

When countries sent planes to evacuate their own citizens and the Afghans who were working with them, Alex couldn’t stop thinking of all the other innocent people that were left with no choice but to remain.

“Was it their mistake that they couldn’t earn the opportunities to work with foreigners?” Alex wonders. “(People) are ready to sell their kidneys to earn money and provide food for their families, and the world is watching. Parents at the height of their misery are ready to sell their children to protect them from starvation, but the world is just watching.”

While it may seem that there is little that those in Japan and other countries can do to help the people of Afghanistan, Alex says the best way is likely financial. While many humanitarian agencies were forced to flee amid the coup, some remained: Act for Peace, Afghanaid, the UNHCR and World Vision to name a few.

The best the world can do now is protect the people who are dying from poverty and starvation. And with the oncoming winter, the cold weather provides an additional threat for the jobless and homeless.

Aid workers also say that people in other countries can help by contacting their elected officials and telling them what kind of response they would like to see from their government.

With a harsh winter coming, Alex can only hope that by speaking out something might possibly change — it’s really the only hope they have at the moment.

“I want people to imagine how it feels to suddenly experience this kind of situation. How this situation can destroy a person’s life,” Alex says. “And what it felt like when I heard the silence of the world.”

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