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Boris Johnson’s promise to move heaven and earth for Afghans was broken. The betrayal continues

We watched, in horror, from the safety of our homes, the fall of Kabul on television and social media. People desperate to leave Afghanistan in search of safety. We watched people queue – for food, for Covid tests, for cash, for the airport. Large crowds of desperate people who were left behind.

Though promises of “moving heaven and earth” were made by Boris Johnson, these were broken. There were delays, deliberations, shrugs, unanswered emails, long lists of applications to schemes designed to protect those who stood by Nato forces, and civil society actors who worked tirelessly to build the nation in line with notions of democracy and foreign policy, as imagined by aid donors.

Afghan teachers, journalists, aid workers, film makers, researchers, peace builders, all at risk due to their association with the Western world of donors, attempting to seek safety. We saw the return of the Taliban as a de facto government. We came a full circle of lies, promises, and broken promises with the price of each lie costing Afghans.

The use of the word “anniversary” to describe the 15 August makes me cringe. Typically, we associate anniversaries with nostalgic or celebratory moments. This date marks a catastrophe for my Afghan colleagues and friends. They witnessed the abrupt reversal of two decades of progress, clearly indicating the fragility and futility of those efforts.

It marks a day when every Afghan became consumed with worry for the health, wellbeing, and safety of their loved ones. This date will live in infamy, not only because Kabul fell to the Taliban, but also because every nation deliberated whether they could, would, or should help the Afghans in their time of need.

It signifies the painful realisation of betrayal, the agony of being abandoned, and the collective turning away of the international community who made promises and launched resettlement programmes, each complex, slow and almost impossible to process without severe delays.

Even neighbouring countries were hesitant to welcome the flood of Afghans forced to leave their homeland. Nearly every Afghan, within the country and the diaspora, reached out to anyone they knew, and didn’t know, pleading for assistance. Apologies and excuses were initially offered, but these quickly turned into silence. This date commemorates the collective silence that followed, the only noise that of hollow promises being broken.

Soon after this painful date, Afghanistan witnessed an almost complete reversal of human rights, and women’s rights. I use the word almost, as women are allowed to exist within the confines of their homes. An intricate interplay between patriarchal norms and the resurgence of oppressive forces, reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, has relegated generations of women and girls to the periphery.

Education, healthcare, and public participation became a distant dream. A generation of men were suddenly exposed to high levels of violence and harassment and unemployment. Vulnerable groups, including the LGBTQ community, grappled with an existential crisis, often compelled to retreat into invisibility to evade the scourge of gender-based violence.

Safe havens metamorphosed into harbingers of uncertainty. In Pakistan and Iran, I heard from those who had managed to cross dangerous international borders, with or without visas, I heard of the assaults and inequalities they faced every day. Rented accommodation in Pakistan for those waiting for visas to leave for resettlement became astoundingly expensive. Money lenders and touts came out to play and any dignity the Afghans carried with them dissolved into nothing.

A harsh winter, and hunger, for the displaced is challenging, but when layered with everyday abuse and precarity, the challenge becomes intractable. A two-year anniversary starkly points at the fact that is not going to be short term. Reports of Afghans eligible to resettle in the UK languishing in Pakistan abound.

What of those who managed to leave for Germany, USA, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the UK? This anniversary is an excruciating reminder of the painful decision to leave home, loved ones, belongings, and memories. They travelled great distances to rebuild their lives, but all displaced Afghans carry the scars and trauma that this anniversary evokes.

They’ve experienced leaving home, Covid quarantines, unsanitary living conditions, cramped spaces, anxiety about those left behind, and daily uncertainty of their immediate future. In the UK, women and their families reside in what are referred to as hotels but are more accurately described as “holding accommodation” by witnesses at the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Afghan Women and Girls.

At this APPG, we heard testimonies from Afghan women who gave birth in the UK with minimal healthcare support and struggled to breastfeed due to insufficient nutrition. Women who stayed in the hotel room when fire alarms went off, as they were provided little guidance in understanding these alarms. We heard about human rights abuses in Afghanistan, about the lack of access to schooling in the UK for Afghan children, including those taking exams like GCSEs. We heard from those whose education is disrupted as they are constantly moved between cities by the Home Office.

There are numerous reports about Afghan children disappearing from a hotel in large numbers, protests outside hotels where Afghans have been staying temporarily, attacks on Afghans in hotels, and boats in the channel where Afghans have died. Now, Afghans have been served end of accommodation support notices, which will make a large number homeless at the end of this month. The promise of safety at the cost of health and dignity is what the UK delivered on.

And this safety is precarious amid the anti-refugee narrative and immigration bill, even for those who were evacuated by the British military in the chest-thumping Operation Pitting and are legally present in the UK. Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, continues the use of harmful and derogatory language to those seeking safety. And it began with another home secretary two years ago. This anniversary is a reminder of the journey from then, until now. One that layers pain and indignity infinitely.

Meanwhile, the number of events reflecting on “lessons learned” in Afghanistan become too numerous to count. This is a key indicator of stages of withdrawal from a problem – withdraw from nation, reflect on lessons learned, have highly visible, well attended events, launch a glossy report “two years on”. This is usually followed by a collective shrugging of shoulders and moving on swiftly.

As long as lessons are learned and reported, apparently it should be fine to move on. On this infamous date, the failing and forgetting of Afghanistan is almost complete.

The neglect of a duty of care towards those who stood shoulder to shoulder with Nato forces was evident in November 2021 as the defence committee gathered evidence on the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Afghans should never have been caught up in the politics of the Illegal Immigration Bill. They worked alongside their British colleagues and were promised safety in the UK, these promises must be upheld. A second-year anniversary allows us to take stock of the likelihood of this happening.

The anniversary transcends symbolism; it is an embodiment of our collective trajectory and moral compass.

Let this second year be a point of stocktaking of where we are, alongside a commitment to live up to our promises. Let this also be a moment to acknowledge the work of the many individuals and groups who have done all they can to stand alongside the Afghans. Their work, in the absence of their Government’s intent to help, is a shining beacon of humanity, humility and compassion.

Dr Neelam Raina is an associate professor of International Development and Design at Middlesex University. She is a post-conflict reconstruction expert and volunteers her time as the director of the secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Afghan Women and Girls. All views are her own.

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