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Thousands race to flee Afghanistan even as some refugees want to go back

Huge crowds remain outside Kabul airport, desperate to flee the Taliban who now control the country, ahead of the August 31 deadline to end US-led evacuations.

Families begin to board a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, August 23, 2021. (AFP)

Afghans have faced an increasingly desperate race to escape life under the Taliban after President Joe Biden reconfirmed US-led evacuations will end next week.

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More than 70,000 people have already been evacuated but huge crowds remained outside Kabul airport on Wednesday, hoping to flee the uncertain situation, impending economic crisis and possible repression in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Biden said on Tuesday the United States would stick to his August 31 deadline to completely withdraw its troops despite warnings from European allies that not all vulnerable Afghans would be able to leave by then.

Some Afghans fear a repeat of the brutal five-year Taliban regime that was toppled in 2001, and violent retribution for working with foreign militaries, Western missions and the previous US-backed government.

Washington and its allies have been flying out thousands of such Afghans every day on hulking military transports but it has become an increasingly difficult and desperate task.

Growing risk in chaos

The Afghan capital Kabul’s airport has been gripped by chaos as US-led troops try to maintain a secure perimeter for evacuation flights, surrounded by desperate Afghans.

Some have foreign passports, visas, or eligibility to travel, but most do not. At least eight people have died in the chaos.

“Does anyone … ANYONE … have a contact inside the airport,” pleaded one American on a WhatsApp group set up to share information on how people can access the airport.

“My guy worked for us 2010-15 and needs to get out with 5 of his family. This is real bad.”

The Taliban has also been accused of blocking or slowing access for many trying to reach the airport, although it denied the charge again late on Tuesday. But desperate messages on WhatsApp groups suggested the group was preventing fleeing citizens from reaching Kabul.

‘It will not be enough’

Despite the harrowing scenes at Kabul airport, the Taliban has ruled out any extension to next Tuesday’s deadline to pull out foreign troops, describing it as “a red line”.

“They have planes, they have the airport, they should get their citizens and contractors out of here,” the Taliban spokesperson said on Tuesday.

European nations have said they would not be able to airlift all “at-risk” Afghans before August 31.

“Even if (the evacuation) goes on… a few days longer, it will not be enough,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Bild TV.

A hard withdrawal deadline presents a further complication that may reduce the number of daily evacuations.

The United States deployed fresh troops for evacuations.

That 6,000-plus contingent, as well as hundreds of US officials, 600 Afghan troops and the equipment, will have to be flown out.

To do that by August 31, the Pentagon said operations would have to start winding down days in advance.

Taliban urge Afghans to stay

Following their lightning victory that stunned the world, the Taliban has so far been content to allow the US-led operation to continue, focusing instead on consolidating control and forming a government.

Taliban has vowed a different, more inclusive government this time around, with apparent amnesty for opponents and assurances of rights to women.

An aid worker in Khost, a deeply conservative region in the southeast that fell to the Taliban shortly before they seized Kabul, told AFP news agency the attitude of the former insurgents has so far been “much softer” than people expected.

“But the people are afraid of a bad economic situation,” he added.

Many Afghans, however, remain fearful and anxious of the future as others flee the country, TRT World’s Ali Mustafa reporting from Kabul said.

“Entire families are being uprooted,” he said, adding those who remain behind are uncertain about their and their children’s future.

Taliban urges skilled Afghans not to flee

In an attempt to assuage fears, the Taliban spokesperson on Tuesday urged skilled Afghans to not flee, saying the country needed “expert” Afghans such as doctors and engineers.

But Zabihullah Mujahid added that women who work for the Afghan government should stay home until the security situation improves.

The Taliban has said women will be able to get an education and work, but within what they consider Islamic bounds.

Some refugees from Pakistan want to go back

From trucks stuffed with carpets, bedding, clothes and even goats, around 200 Afghan refugees in Pakistan look beyond the horizon toward Spin Boldak in their country’s south, waiting to return home from Pakistan.

“We emigrated from Afghanistan during bombing and hardships when Muslims were in trouble, now, praise be to Allah, the situation is normal, so we are returning to Afghanistan,” Molavi Shaib told AFP news agency while waiting at the border.

Divided by a 10-foot-deep trench filled with barbed wire, the mountainous boundary separating Spin Boldak from Chaman in Pakistan’s southwest sees thousands crossing the trade route every day.

As scores try to escape Taliban rule, Pakistan has ramped up security at the border, making the process more stringent.

“People want to return but they are not allowed to cross, we request the Pakistani government to allow us to cross the border because there’s no war, and peace has been established,” Muhammad Nabi said.

“I am returning to Ghazni, now peace has been established and we are happy that we are returning back to our home. It’s much better to go back and settle there,” Waliur Rahman told AFP.

His words are a jarring contrast to the images from Kabul airport where people have clung to the exterior of planes and several people have fallen to their death off a departing jet.

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