“Where are we going to go if we have nothing?” asks Gul Khan from beneath the cloth fastened to four sticks that is home to her, her husband and their five children. The Khans have been living in a Kabul park for two months along with 200 other families from several northern provinces in Afghanistan, where the Taliban met with resistance in their advance this summer. They fled the fighting, but with the battles now over, many are afraid to return home because most supported the government forces. They feel trapped.
People from Kunduz, Tahar, Badakhshan and Kapisa crowd together in Shahr-e-Now park in central Kabul in deplorable conditions. Only a few families have flimsy tents. Most sleep under makeshift canopies. There are only two portable toilets in one corner of the park, and the stench from them carries on the wind. Children play on the swings regardless.
”When the Taliban came to Khan Abad, everything changed,” Gul Khan explains. At the first sign of fighting, they decided to leave. But many inhabitants of the town in Kunduz province joined the government soldiers and managed to repel the first Taliban attack. Two weeks later her family returned to their homes in the hopes of returning to normal. “It got worse, the fighting intensified and we squeezed as best we could into a relative’s car to come here,” she recalls.
With 340 kilometers and eight hours of driving behind them, they felt safe in Kabul. For the first few weeks, the government provided them with food and some money to survive. But when the Taliban entered the capital they lost that support. “Now no one is helping us,” several interviewees repeated. The question of whether the Taliban have tried to help them generates disbelief. “They aren’t helping us and there is no chance that they will,” says a man who gave his initials as Q.K., one of few men to openly admit he was anti-Taliban.
Why don’t they return if the Taliban already control the whole country? “Some families have tried but they came back again because the situation was not good,” says Gul Khan. Although there is no more fighting, there is no work either. The Khans, like most of their neighbors in the camp, are poor people without a house of their own. If the head of the household doesn’t work, they can’t pay rent.
Other problems slowly come to light. Parwana, 42, was widowed when a shell hit the barbershop where her husband worked. After a few weeks in the park with her four children, she decided to return home, thinking she would find refuge with an uncle. But he, too, was killed. “I have no one, no family, no income of any kind, I am not safe,” she said, highlighting the serious problems faced by women under a regime that does not envisage them as the head of a family.
Even if the Taliban say that women can work in health and education, uneducated women like Parwana find it very difficult to find a way out. In the park, surrounded by her neighbors, she feels safer. For the time being, she cleans some vegetables that she will later cook, before her children try to sell them at the market in order to survive.
The families are grouped together by the province they hail from. In another corner of the park are escapees from Kapisa. “The war came to our village,” says A., 30. Around her, neatly arranged, hang a half-dozen bags containing her belongings. “Our house was damaged and we have nowhere to go back to,” she says. More importantly though, she doesn’t trust what would be waiting for her. “The villages are dangerous. In the capital there is more security and we are waiting for international aid,” she explains, rummaging in one of the bags. Hidden among a little girl’s clothes, she keeps two ID cards proving that her husband, an unskilled laborer, worked for the US forces and the Afghan army.
Without any English or any contacts for translators or members of the special forces, these ordinary people who supported the government that emerged after the Western invasion have been left unprotected. Their gamble was not just a political choice, but one influenced by linguistic and cultural differences with the ethnic group that produces many Taliban fighters. They fear a repeat of the marginalization they suffered under the previous Taliban regime, and the promise of an amnesty rings hollow in their ears. Their only hope is that a foreigner will remember them, so they insist on giving their phone numbers to this journalist as if it were a lifeline.