Melbourne’s Afghan community watch country teetering on edge

By Indira Laisram
Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash

Altaf Hussein says he had to do the unthinkable. He cut off wi-fi connections from his house so that his mother would stop looking at the heartbreaking news coming out of his home country Afghanistan.

“I just had to lie and tell her the contract with the telecom company was over and that I had to renew it… It was the only way to take off some of her stress,” says Hussein, an aviation engineering student and president of the Afghan Association of Victoria.

“My mom is going through too much thinking about her mother and all the other relatives back in Afghanistan. For her, the recent news brings back the old brutal memories of the past,” he says.

Hussein, who originally came as a refugee and got his Australian citizenship few months ago, is fortunate that he has his sister and mother live with him here as permanent residents. But for the rest of his other extended family members such as his grandmother, they are trapped in the district of Jaghori near Ghazni, which the Taliban took control of just a few days ago.

With all phone connections off and no communication system in Ghazni, Hussein says his mother is unable to sleep and she is in a constant state of panic worrying about the state of her family. Her panic has reached a height where she now says, “I am feeling the Taliban is here in the street”.

Asad Qadi is in utter distress as his fiancée is stuck in Kabul as also his uncle and his family. Qadi, who has been speaking to his fiancée every day, says she has been unable to step out of the house as women now have to wear the burqa, something women in Kabul had long discarded as they had entered an era of freedom. Or so they thought.

“She has been in Kabul and, like her, women didn’t bother buying burqas for a long time. She also didn’t have the time to go and buy as the invasion was so sudden. Now they are stuck in their homes and can’t go anywhere,” says Qadi, adding, “I had put in her application for an Australian visa two-three years ago but nothing has happened.”

Like Qadi, Shaima Hussein’s fiancé is in Kabul and she fears for his life even more as he works as a translator or interpreter for foreigners in Afghanistan. A few days ago, a bomb exploded in front of his office adding to the sense of unease.

“I am very depressed and cannot concentrate on anything. When I called him last night, he said the city is very quiet as nobody is there on the road,” says Shaima, 26, a permanent resident.

Shaima says the women cannot venture out on their own. So her fiancé has to drop his younger sister to school and pick her up too as she is giving her exams. Incidentally, the Taliban have announced girls can write their exams now but they will later decide as to “who can go to school, up to what age, but no co-education.” The Taliban are walking around and checking everywhere, she has been told.

More than anything, Shaima is fearing for the life of her fiancé as he has been working as a translator for foreign troops. “The Taliban view such professionals as traitors. Also, he cannot leave his young sister or mother behind if he was to even leave the country.”

Shaima, Hussein and Qadi share the same sense of despair and fear as the many Afghan families in Victoria, who feel they cannot do much at the moment, except praying and hoping for a miraculous change to the current situation. The Hume city council has 116 registered Afghan families totalling to about 612 members and the City of Whittlesea has nearly 800 members, according to Hussein.

It is the general opinion that the Afghan people are paying the price for America’s failed ambitions in their country as they now face the gloomy threat of a second Taliban regime.

As a student of aviation, Hussein also expresses his disbelief seeing the recent US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III (which is for 134 soldiers only) evacuating 640 refugees from Kabul late last Sunday. “The C-17 was not intending to take on such a large load, The C-17, in service since 1995, is also flown by the Royal Australian Air Force. Where is aviation safety? Where is human rights? What if something happened during the flight?” he asks.

And to top it all, “The Afghan government was so weak and corrupt, they picked themselves up and just ran away leaving the people to defend for themselves. Very shameful,” adds Hussein.

There is no sight of any police or government official in Kabul, says Shaima.

Qadi, an Australian citizen now, who has been here for 17 years, says he could sense the build up to the current crisis during his last visit to Afghanistan in 2019. “Every two-three week, there was a suicide bombing. It was a horrible year.”

However, he is hoping the spate of killings will abate. “We live in the 21st century for God’s sake, they have to come out of the cage, that mentality does not work anymore, they have to change.”

It’s amiserable situation right now, avers Hussein. “My uncle tells me that the Taliban are patrolling the streets, the people suppressed in fear and the city so quiet that they can even hear a bird fly above the sky.”

Things happened so fast that the entire community is in a state of shock and disbelief, says Hussein. His appeal to the Australian government is to help at least those who worked for the Australian forces and rescue them.

Shaima pleads to the world to “please raise their voice for Afghanistan, for the women and men as well, as the Taliban are going to kill those who worked for foreigners. Their lives are in danger as their homeland becomes their prison”.

Qadi says, “I talk to my fiancée every night, she is in a state of fear as there are alleged reports that the Taliban are knocking every door and picking up girls 12 years and above.” He is not sure when his fiancee’s visa will see the light of day. “If there was a prize for the slowest immigration process, Australia would get that every year.”

For the moment, Melbourne’s Afghan community are only praying and wishing this was just a nightmare before waking up to a safe new reality.

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