Inside the Kabul safe houses where Afghans wait to be evacuated to Canada

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Global News exclusive: Inside Afghanistan’s safe houses where people hide from Taliban – Oct 27, 2021

From the street, it looks like just another Kabul compound, but that’s the point. The families inside don’t want to be found. They’re hiding from the Taliban who patrol the city in their pickups.

Occupied by former employees of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, the compound is self-contained so they don’t have to go out, where they risk getting stopped and questioned.

Behind a heavy gate, there is a courtyard so packed with kids it’s like a playground at recess, as well as a large dining hall and rooms where almost 250 Afghans stay while they wait to escape to Canada.

“Some of them were carpenters, some of them were mechanics, some of them were interpreters,” said Mohammad Umer, a former Canadian Forces interpreter living at the safe house.

“Do not leave us alone.”

Read more: At an Islamabad hotel, Afghans who worked for Canada’s military await a new life

Hundreds of Afghans left behind by Canada’s stalled evacuation effort are scattered throughout Kabul in safe houses like this. The locations of the apartments, homes and hotels are a closely guarded secret.

But Global News was able to visit three of the facilities last week, rare access to Afghans stranded between the homes they abandoned in Kandahar as the Taliban seized the country and the promise of a new life in Canada.

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As former employees of Canada’s military when it was deployed to Kandahar, they were told the Canadian government would resettle them because of the risks they faced under the Taliban.

But that promise remains unfulfilled, and since August they have been living in Kabul safe houses with their families, fearing the Taliban knows who they are and will come for them.

Boy at a Kabul safe house for Afghans awaiting evacuation to Canada. Stewart Bell/Global News

A former security guard at the Canadian base in Kandahar who is now hiding in Kabul said the Taliban had kidnapped her son, sent her his photo, and told her to turn herself in.

Another said the Taliban abducted his brother and beat him while asking him to reveal his location. Several spoke of the Taliban visiting their homes in Kandahar, looking for them.

“We are their enemies,” said a resident of the safe house, a former Canadian Forces interpreter who goes by Eric and did not want his full name published.

“They will take their revenge.”

He said former Canadian military employees thought Kabul would be secure when they fled there. They didn’t believe the Taliban would take it. They didn’t expect the government to collapse, but it did.

Gun-mounted pickups rolled into the city flying white flags, claiming power for the first time since the Taliban was ousted in 2001 for providing safe haven to the Al Qaeda terrorist network behind the 9/11 attacks.

Taliban members pose with their flag at Massoud Circle, where portraits of the anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud have been torn down. Stewart Bell/Global News

Their arrival was chilling for Eric.

When he worked at Forward Operation Base Graceland, he said he got threats from the Taliban in the form of phone calls and letters. His uncle, who worked for the U.S. forces, was shot dead while on his way home, he said.

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New immigration minister pledges to help Afghan refugees – Oct 27, 2021

With the Taliban on the doorstep of Kandahar, Eric packed up his family and fled to Kabul in June. He applied for resettlement a week after the program was announced in July, he said.

Though he received his visa in August, Kabul airport was chaos. Crowds thronged the airport and he couldn’t find any Canadians to help him get on an evacuation flight.

Since then, he’s been living in a top-floor room at the safe house. There are no more planes, and the land borders require visas that are hard to get, especially for those lacking passports. He mostly stays indoors.

“The environment is not safe,” he said. “It’s risky to be here.”

Children at a safe house for Afghans awaiting evacuation to Canada. Stewart Bell/Global News

Canadian military veterans have been able to extract almost 300 Afghans to Pakistan in convoys, but they said another 10,000 resettlement applications remained in the country.

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Canada’s door is open but out of reach.

Emails sent to the Canadian government about his case generate auto-replies, he said. Afghans helped the Canadian Forces when they were in his country, Eric said.

“Well, it’s time for them to help us.”

The safe houses were meant to be temporary shelters, short-term accommodation for at-risk Afghans while they transited between Kandahar and Canada, but evacuations have all but ended.

And with the resettlement process lagging, the Canadian non-profit that operates the facilities, Aman Lara, said it was running out of money and would have to begin shutting them on Nov. 5.

Former Canadian Forces employee Driver Gafar shows an email authorizing him to travel to Canada, but he said he remained stranded at a Kabul safe house. Stewart Bell/Global News

Sitting in the safe house dining hall with more than 40 Afghan men, who all claim to have links to Canada’s military, Umer said the families had depleted their savings and had nowhere else to go.

Even if they had money, bank withdrawals are limited to $200 a week, due to the country’s economic crisis. “This is really a restless time for all of them,” Umer said.

Only 40 per cent of the families at the safe house are approved for resettlement to Canada, but there is no way out of Afghanistan anyway, he said.

There are few evacuation flights and Pakistan is difficult to enter.

Kabul, October 2021. Stewart Bell/Global News

Those living at the safe house said they were frustrated at the slow pace of their immigration cases, and the Canadian government’s failure to help them leave the country.

“Speed up the evacuation process,” Umer said.

Taliban members and officials assured Global News in interviews they would not retaliate against Afghans who worked for the Canadian and other international forces during the 20-year conflict.

But few in Kabul give much weight to what the Taliban has been saying as it attempts to persuade the world to recognize it as Afghanistan’s new government and re-open the flow of international aid.

Having witnessed the Taliban’s conduct over the past 25 years, and the way it threatened and targeted Afghans who supported the coalition forces, there are widespread fears of a looming crackdown.

Children at a Kabul safe house for Afghans waiting to be evacuated to Canada. Stewart Bell/Global News

According to some Afghans, it is already underway.

A mother of two, Dorkhani, showed Global News a certificate of appreciation she received in 2006 for her contribution to the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar.

As a member of a local security team, she conducted body searches of women for the Canadian Forces. She also had a certificate from the U.S. Army.

Six months ago, she said her son, 22, a former driver for the Canadian Forces, was killed when the Taliban bombed his vehicle. She left Kandahar for Kabul three days later.

But last week she said her 19-year-old son was abducted by the Taliban in Kandahar. The Taliban got her phone number from her son and sent her messages on WhatsApp, telling her to turn herself in.

When she refused, they threatened her, calling her a slave of the infidels. Her son was released after three days. She said the Taliban hated her because she worked for the international forces.

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She said she had applied for resettlement to Canada but did not know where her case stood.

A room at a Kabul safe house for Afghans trying to get to Canada. Stewart Bell/Global News

At another safe house in a different part of Kabul, the bolted front gate opens to a children’s slide. Out back, three kids play on a swing set.

The house has burgundy carpets and a basement stocked with food, drinks and medicine. A spiral staircase connects levels occupied by eight families. All are waiting to find their way to Canada.

“The Taliban are telling us, ‘You helped the Canadian Forces, you are infidels,’” said Alokozay, a safe house resident who did not want his full name published.

“Just get us out of this Afghanistan.”

Read more: Fearful of Taliban, targeted by ISIS, persecuted Hazaras flee Afghanistan

On another level, a man who said the Canadian troops nicknamed him Driver Gafar sat on a cushion surrounded by his kids, recalling how he had escorted Canadian military convoys around Kandahar, using his knowledge of local roads to keep the troops safe.

As Kandahar was falling to the Taliban in July, Gafar applied for resettlement to Canada. He left his barbershop and grocery store to bring his wife and seven children to Kabul, only to find it was a dead end.

“If they catch me they will do bad things to me,” he said of the Taliban, adding they had already abducted his son.

Former Canadian Forces employee Driver Gafar and his son, 13, abducted by the Taliban when he strayed from their Kabul safe house. Stewart Bell/Global News

In mid-September, the 13-year-old left the safe house without permission to get ice cream and was caught by the Taliban.

They took him to the Panjshir Valley, where the Taliban was fighting the remnants of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance rebels.

“There were rockets, there were gunshots everywhere, so I was very afraid,” the boy said in an interview.

Put to work in the kitchen, he hauled water, washed dishes and helped with the cooking, he said. He was then moved south to Helmand Province, where his father finally found him. He had been missing for 18 days.

Gafar said he wanted to get his children to Canada so they could live without fear and return to school. “This is the most important for us,” he said. “All we need from Canadians is to push our cases.”

Global News met dozens of Afghans with similar accounts of leaving their homes and jobs in Kandahar, and moving to Kabul with the understanding that Canada would evacuate them.

Many had photos showing them working with the Canadian Forces, as well as certificates of appreciation from the Canadian military — although others said they had burned their records so the Taliban wouldn’t find them.

Haji Toor Jan has photos showing him working with the Canadian Forces, but said he is stranded in Kabul. Stewart Bell/Global News

Some showed emails indicating they had been accepted by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Others said their immigration cases were being processed and questioned the pace of Canada’s resettlement program.

“The process is really bad,” said Abdul Baqi, who said he was known as Haji Toor Jan when he was head of security at the Canadian Armed Forces camp in Kandahar.

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Since fleeing to Kabul, he said he had been moving weekly to avoid the Taliban. He disguises himself by wearing glasses and switches his clothing, he said.

He said while a handful of former colleagues had made it to Pakistan and on to Toronto, he was frustrated to be among the many left behind to fend for themselves.

“The people that need to be evacuated soon are still here,” he said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca