North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Beaten, begging and in hiding: Life for the Afghans the UK left behind

In August, thousands of people who worked for the UK in Afghanistan were left to the Taliban’s mercy. openDemocracy spoke to four still stuck in Kabul

Tom Mutch
20 December 2021, 7.21am
"I want the UK to keep its promises to us" - Baseer
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All rights reserved

On 31 August, the nearly 20-year NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ended in failure. Two weeks earlier, the Taliban had marched unopposed into Afghan capital Kabul, leaving the US and its allies, including the UK, scrambling to evacuate both their citizens and the Afghan nationals who had assisted them during the war.

Last week, a whistle-blower from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) who worked on the evacuation desk made a series of claims that painted the UK’s efforts on behalf of its Afghan allies as incompetent. Giving evidence to the Commons foreign affairs select committee, Raphael Marshall, a former desk officer at the FCDO, said that not only was the Afghanistan desk short-staffed and senior staff unwilling to work overtime but that orders from ministers were slow to arrive and showed little understanding of the dynamic situation on the ground. He claimed that Boris Johnson had even ordered dogs being rescued by a UK charity be given priority for evacuation, diverting resources that could have been used to protect vulnerable Afghan allies.

While the exact numbers of those left behind may never be known, Marshall claimed that between 75,000 to 150,000 people had applied to be evacuated from Afghanistan based on their or their families’ service to the UK. Only around 5% received the necessary assistance from the UK. Now, those left behind live in fear that their ties to the UK could leave them open to retribution by the Taliban, who now have full control of the country.

The following are the stories of four of those who worked for and with the British embassy in Afghanistan, who are now at the mercy of the Taliban. They are told in their own words but edited for clarity. Identifying details have been withheld in most cases to prevent identification.

Elhan

I wasn’t surprised but I was humiliated to find the British government provided help to stray dogs over us. I am very unhappy they left us in danger in Kabul. I worked in security for a variety of locations throughout Kabul. These included the US embassy, the Australian embassy and my last job was with the National Crime Agency’s division at the British embassy.

Elhan with his camera
"It was us who put our lives at risk to protect them, but now we want them to protect us" - Elhan | All rights reserved

When the Taliban first took control of Kabul, I lost my job and then I hid for a month. I saw them walking and driving their vehicles around my city and felt it wasn’t real, that I was in a bad dream instead. But eventually, I felt that I needed to start my life again, so I decided to become a photographer. I wanted to document what was happening in my country under the new government. I am lucky that I have found the Taliban love cameras and having their photos taken.

The UK even paid us the last three months of our salaries, four months late! All our emails to them have gone unanswered. We found this disrespectful because without us in Afghanistan it would have been impossible for them to take a single step in the streets of Kabul. It was us who put our lives at risk to protect them, but now we want them to protect us.

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An Afghan government official narrates the story of his escape from Kabul in the midst of the chaos surrounding the city’s fall to the Taliban

Some of the Taliban can be very nice, other people can be very crazy! The Taliban have treated me pleasantly for the most part, except for the times they beat me up on the street when I tried to photograph some protests! It is just life here now, but despite everything, I am still a happy person.

Baseer

We feel the British government lied to us. I worked for the British for 13 years, including at the UK embassy in Kabul. I was a security guard and a cook for the staff there. But it feels like my service did not matter at all to them. They have evacuated around 20 of my colleagues to the UK but there are many more that they didn’t contact or reply to, and many of us are owed back pay for the months before the British fled Afghanistan.

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My life now is bad and difficult. I am jobless and l am stuck at home, as is my wife. We are all scared of the Taliban now. Everyone in the area where I live knows that I worked for the British embassy, and we are terrified that if the Taliban find out that they will take revenge on me. I want the UK to keep its promises to us and take us to the UK like my colleagues. Now there is no difference between me and a beggar, to be honest. I have so little money that I need to go to grocery shops and ask the shopkeepers if they will take pity on me and give me food for my family and I promise to pay them back whenever I have money. But the job at the embassy was my only income, so I have no idea when that will be.

Munir

I fought alongside US and UK forces as a soldier in the Afghan National Army for ten years, from right after the fall of the Taliban in 2011. Then, for the ten years after that, I was a guard in the British embassy in Kabul, responsible for the security of high-profile individuals such as visiting government officials and diplomats. I’ve saved lives in the past. They trusted us with their lives, and in return, we put our lives at risk to keep them safe. We knew when we were working that the Taliban could kill us if they found us, but we worked for them anyway. We thought we would be kept safe, but instead, they just ran away and left us here.

I want the UK government to keep its promises and relocate me to save my family from the Taliban. They know who we all are now and they are looking for us

Munir

I have a family of nine to support. My mother and my sister’s family also depend on me to provide for them. But now I find it difficult to feed them because of the situation in Afghanistan. Life is getting much harder for all of us now. I want the UK government to keep its promises and relocate me to save my family from the Taliban. They know who we all are now and they are looking for us. The Taliban came to my street and asked my neighbours if they knew who I was and if it was true that a military officer was living here. We don’t know what they will do if they find us, but many of us live at home now and are scared to leave.

Toryalay

Britain can go to hell! I was a contractor responsible for supplying fuel to most of the British military and diplomatic centres in Kabul. I was doing this for 18 years! Like many other people I was not offered a chance to leave and they never paid my last, very large invoice.

Every month I would provide around 50,000 litres of fuel to be split between three organisations – the UK embassy in Kabul, the Camp Gibson military base, and the base of the British Department for International Development. But when the Afghan government fell, the Taliban captured my trucks and then they found me. One of the first things the Taliban did when they took over was check banks to see where people’s money was coming from. They kept me in prison for several days while they questioned me as to why the UK had been paying me money. They beat me three times in two days. I think I was targeted especially because one of my relatives was a member of Parliament in the last Afghan government. Then, they accused me of supporting ISIS, of being a terrorist.

One of the first things the Taliban did when they took over was check banks to see where people’s money was coming from

Toryalay

I pleaded with them that I was just a contractor and they took me to the bank and went through five years of my bank statements in detail. Eventually, they were satisfied that I was who I said I was, but they still keep a close eye on me and I am under suspicion. For example, they did not let me leave Kabul to go to another province for a funeral.

Because I made enough money in recent years as a businessman, I was able to negotiate to pay for my release and I am lucky that I have enough money to live on for the time being. I still own petrol stations in Kabul, so I am getting by. The Taliban need fuel for their vehicles, so they tolerate people who can help them out and keep them functioning. I have elderly parents to care for and my family to look after so I don’t even want to think about the UK any more.

openDemocracy contacted the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), which was responsible for employing, paying and managing many of the government’s overseas employees in Afghanistan.

An NCA spokesperson said: “For security reasons we cannot comment on individual cases, but we are in contact with government colleagues regarding those who may be eligible for relocation through their association with the NCA. We have already resettled a number of individuals and their families.”

Update: Several weeks after the publication of this article, Elhan was informed that his application for residency in the UK had been approved.

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