A voice to be heard: The story of Jalal Nazari
by Natalie Gryvnyak
From Kabul to Kyiv: After his evacuation from Kabul, the Afghan journalist Jalal Nazari is waiting in Ukraine’s capital for relocation to Canada. He recalls the days of his escape.
Almost 2,5 months have passed since the evacuation and forced exit of many Afghans from Afghanistan due to the takeover of the Taliban and the intensification of prosecutions towards its opposition. Media buzz has faded, but thousands still struggle daily to either find a safer place to live elsewhere in the world or ways of getting out of the country with almost all bordersc losed.
Waiting for relocation
Jalal Nazari, 27 years old, got lucky. The American newspaper, he was freelancing for, connected him to a scholarship at the University of Toronto and helped him to escape from Afghanistan during the chaotic evacuations in Kabul September. Now along with his colleague’s family, he is trying to move to Toronto, where both were gained a chance to study journalism. They are still in a transition country, Ukraine, “hanging in the air” without certainty or solid promises. The process of being relocated to Canada might take months, due to inner policies to take care of international Afghan refugees.
Jalal and his colleague enjoy Ukrainian hospitality and all of the help the country has given to refugees. “I don’t have a bad experience in Ukraine. People are kind and welcoming and supportive. Because I am brown and don’t speak the language, it’s always recognizable that I am a foreigner. Some people ask me if I am coming from China or Japan, but they never ask it in an inappropriate way.”
Almost everyday Jalal talks to his family and friends and gets a lot of emotional support from them. Even though he tries to stay busy in the unstable situation, not knowing for how long he will stay in Ukraine, he is going through mental and emotional breakdown.
It really feels good that I can go out without any fear of being killed or robbed. I go to nature, sit among the trees and connect to them, do some Persian calligraphy that calms me down. All these help me stay strong and move forward. I had come across mental and emotional problems after living in a conflict zone for almost all my life, thus I know how to deal with it. I do spiritual practices like meditation to cope with the challenges I am going through.
But recent memories are still haunting Jalal. To him Afghanistan is a difficult but beloved country, torn by war with no unified nation. “There has always been conflict between different tribes and minorities living in the country. The domestic side of war in Afghanistan is a tribal, ethnic war. Pashtuns always want to have the power and force other minorities to obey them. That’s why when the Taliban took power, other tribes resisted and came on the street”. Spread violence, being almost killed, living in a country where a human’s life has not much value, the lack of job opportunities and stability, turbulent ethical disputes, violation of human rights and disbelief in the country’s future: all those factors are ingrained in Jalal’s memory.
I always used to feel like I would leave this country one day, because I couldn’t see any future there. The government was terribly corrupt. There was no hope for a good future. It was one of the reasons, why I decided to work with foreigners: So that I could pave my path to other countries despite all the risks it created for me. My family and friends were always telling me to leave the country, because they also knew that the situation wouldn’t change for the better soon. I needed to support my family and five other siblings who were all university students. On a social level, yes, it was prestigious, but I never cared about it. I just wanted to have a stable financial situation.
The war and the violence
Among the most traumatic memories in Jalal’s life is the violence and the war that he has experienced several times. In the last five to six years that the Taliban started to persecute government employees, those working with foreigners and Hazara community members, Jalal, himself a Hazara, was not able to easily travel across the country, including his home city, Ghazni province, where his parents live.
Life in Kabul, where I spent the last five years, brought its own problems. For example: There were always explosions in different parts of the city, particularly in the west part of the city, where mostly Hazara minorities live. I lost several friends in these suicide attacks and explosions. One of the explosions took place in a girl’s school which left more than 80 students dead and more than 100 injured. One of the hardest parts of living in Kabul was probably the trust issues people had, for instance I barely could attend gatherings and events for security reasons. It was even hard to comfortably walk on the street because anything could happen. There was basically no safe area in the city.
When the Taliban entered Kabul in less than 10 days, Jalal was on the street during the day to talk to people about their feelings on the matter: “The streets were blocked and thousands of people had come on the street. They didn’t know what to do and where to go. It was never expected for the Taliban to take Kabul without any resistance, too. The city was full of fear and uncertainty.”
According to Jalal, he spent the worst days of his life after the Taliban took over Kabul. “I was at the airport before they entered the city. Due to chaos and crowd, our flight got canceled and the Taliban forced us to leave the airport and go back home. I had never imagined living in a city which is controlled by the Taliban. I couldn’t go home for two nights after we left the airport and asked my friends and colleagues to let me stay with them. On the way coming out of the airport, the streets were full of Taliban soldiers and their checkpoints. They questioned and insulted me several times, but I was lucky that they didn’t get the chance to check my luggage where I had put all my documents and laptop. The next day when we approached the airport again, I left all my documents, laptop and ID cards in a colleague’s house for security reasons.”
“Taliban are religious extremists and they always focus on the religious aspects of their resistance against the west. This is the only way they can legitimize their fighting. At the same time, they are brutal and easily kill people who are not obeying their rules,” says Jalal confidently. “They have a dark history from the 1990s. People remember them as a religious extremist group. Everyone was tired of war as I recall; the taxi drivers, the shopkeepers, the teachers, students and laborers. The only ones who were happy about the war were probably the high-ranking politicians, who used to get the benefits.”
Jalal’s family is still in Afghanistan. They moved to Ghazni province two days after the fall of Kabul when two unknown armed men had gone to their house and asked about Jalal, showing his photo and anti-Taliban texts he had shared on social media: “My father still asks me not to write against them because they can put my family’s life in danger. In the last ten years, thousands and thousands of people migrated to neighboring countries and the West because there was no hope for a good life.”
“Almost all people suffer from different mental problems. They easily become violent on the streets, fighting over minor issues, sometimes they get violent at home with their families,” says Jalas. This happens due to the constant fear of those with weapons, untrust in the future and in protection laws. “In April 2020, I visited my parents in Ghazni province. On the way back to Kabul, the Taliban stopped our car and asked me to get out. They checked my cell phone and questioned me for half an hour. One of them told me that they can kill me anywhere in the country if they find something suspicious in my phone. They let me go but didn’t return my phone. I was happy that they didn’t kill me.”
On August 14, 2021 Jalal was working in the office of a newspaper, following the news closely. “The whole environment was completely quiet as if it was silence before a big storm. I could only gaze at those security walls around me and think about how we lived in the past twenty years – particularly how we lost our loved ones in the explosions taken place by the Taliban and now they are taking over the provinces very quickly.”
After hearing the Politicians were fleeing the city and that fighting was getting intense, he continued to do his reporting job, updating on the moods of the people and on the developments.
The night was spent with too much stress and frustration but still, there was some hope about Kabul to resist for a few weeks and I could never imagine Kabul would also fall within the next two days. The next morning, I was called to go to Kabul-Serina Hotel to work from there. Everything seemed normal on the street but when I got to the hotel, I saw so many foreigners and Afghans flurried and worried at the hotel. I waited for a few hours at the hotel and decided to go back home to see what happens. When I got out of the hotel, I saw chaos on the street. I felt like all the Kabulians were on the streets. Most roads were blocked by cars and there was no taxi I could take to go home.
Jalal walked for almost an hour towards home while trying to find a way among hundreds of people being in a hurry on the pathways. It was the first sign of the Taliban’s presence in Kabul. Their officials were already in the capital but their soldiers at the gates of Kabul were waiting to enter the city without any conflict based on the statement they had shared the same day around noon.
His employer sent a text to get as soon as possible to the airport, and since he had submitted already passport just in case something happened, he went home to take some of his things. “I quickly packed and not all of my siblings were at home to say goodbye to them. With eyes full of tears, I left the house for the airport. Getting away from home, I was constantly turning my head back to see my younger sister standing on the balcony and gazing at me leaving them”.
With many roads being blocked, he left the taxi and started climbing the hill to get to the main road after half an hour’s run. “Then, I stopped there to take some rest and asked a taxi driver if he could take me to the airport. He picked me up and took me to the airport from the backstreets. There were still security guards at the main gate and inside the airport. They scanned our suitcases and things didn’t seem too different; however, there were hundreds of people heading to the airport.”
At the airport, he joined other members that were told to wait until the flights get confirmed. It was in the afternoon that a rumor of “airport is under attack” prevailed among the people. Some people left the airport after hearing the rumor. Planes were still landing and passengers were getting out of the terminal. “I later realized that the security guards and other employees of the airport had also left after hearing the rumor. We waited outside the international terminal until 11 pm and then went to the waiting hall upstairs. On the way up, everything was messed up. The floors were covered with garbage. Few people were sitting in the corners charging their phones. “
Jalal recalls that there was no one to organize people. “We found a place in the waiting hall and sat on the seats to take some rest. In the beginning, I had no idea, why people, in large groups, were going to the terminal. Later, it was realized that thousands of people had heard the rumor “there are planes at the airport taking people to Canada” and had rushed to the airport. Apparently, the guards had left the airport gates around evening and the gates were left completely open so anyone could enter the airport.
It was midnight in Kabul when I saw a teenage boy holding his bicycle and jumping over the seats in the waiting hall to get to the terminal. Families, individuals, old and young men and women were rushing to the airport until early in the morning. Then the US marines took control of the main gate and stopped people from getting into the airport. During the night, the waiting hall got completely full and there were already, I can say, tens of thousands of people in the terminal where the US marines weren’t able to manage them. People robbed the shops before sunrise, which were left open. Few others started fighting over the shops. I was sitting on a seat in the front line to charge my phone. An angry young man entered and started hitting the locked door by foot. He was about to break the door, so we interfered with and showed him the exit door.
After yet another of the flights being canceled, there was total chaos in the airport.
The Taliban had already entered the airport and were trying to disperse people along with the US marines. We headed towards the military terminal, but the US marines stopped us. Thousands and thousands of random people were there. So, it was impossible to go to the military side of the airport. The weather got dark and darker. The Taliban and US marines decided to force every individual to leave the airport. We all got lost in the crowd. While getting out of the airport, I suddenly saw one of our colleagues with his family and asked them to let me spend the night with them. The city was full of fear and I had no idea what to do. I was stopped and questioned by the Taliban soldiers six times. They were asking me if I was working with foreigners. There were thousands of people at the gates and it was not possible to even get close to the gates. On Wednesday morning, August 18th, after a lot of coordination with the US marines, we spent three nights at the military side of the airport under the wings of the Ukrainian Military Plane that was supposed to evacuate us to Ukraine. It took three days and nights for some Ukrainian civilians to get into the airport and be evacuated with us. Our plane left Kabul on Saturday, August 21st, 2021, and landed in Kyiv, Ukraine on Sunday, August 22nd, in the morning after two stops in Islamabad and Oman.
Now Jalal is trying to stay sane and hope for the best for himself and his family, which is still in Afghanistan. Even though obstacles such as visa delays occur on every step, he doesn’t loose his faith in future.
According to the UN, almost 80 million people are recognized as forcibly displaced. People are fleeing poverty, war and repression. It is a question of how the international community will help those, who are still in need of help after official declarations, and promises. Especially now, that winter is approaching in Afghanistan and more than 22 million people face acute food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme.