Subscriber OnlyAsia-Pacific

‘You see fear in everyone’s eyes’: An Afghan rights defender on life under the Taliban

Western governments must ensure aid ‘reaches intended beneficiaries’, unlike previously

It is 7.30pm in Kabul. The man I interview via a Zoom internet link has spent the day destroying archives in the office of the European NGO that employs him. “Call me Kourosh,” he says. “It’s a version of the name of the Persian King Cyrus. He wrote the first declaration of human rights, 2,700 years ago.”

Kourosh is a threatened human rights defender, living in semi-clandestinity in Kabul. He and his family joined the ranks of Afghanistan’s 3.5 million internally displaced persons last month, when they fled their home city of Herat, because he was well known there. They have inhabited four safe houses in the past 20 days.

I ask Kourosh what archives he is shredding. “Everything,” he says. Tears well up in his eyes. “All our work for the last 15 years.” The 39-year-old has a pleasant face and an engaging smile, but he looks tired. He has grown a neatly trimmed beard “for the first time in my life”, in the hope of going unnoticed. “The world has turned upside down,” he says. “You see fear in everyone’s eyes.”

Kourosh worries that he might be recognised in the street, that a Taliban gunman might demand to see his papers and ask why he left Herat, that his name might figure on an assassination list.


Even as he shredded the NGO’s archives, Kourosh realised it was futile. “We filed duplicates of all our documents with government ministries,” he explains. “I wrote hundreds of articles, appeared in hundreds of YouTube videos. Once they decide to come and look for people, it will be very easy . . . I am afraid not only for myself and for my nuclear family. I am afraid that my extended family will pay for the work I did in the past.”

On August 25th, Kourosh, his wife and their two children took a taxi to Kabul airport. “My name was on a French list of artists, writers and intellectuals, but it didn’t do any good,” he says. “I held my six-year-old daughter with one arm, and had a heavy bag over the other shoulder. My wife tied our 11-year-old son to her wrist so we wouldn’t lose him. There were thousands of people, and everyone was pushing. We were afraid we would be trampled.

“We were carried along this way for a kilometre. If you really wanted to reach the airport, you had to go through a sewage ditch and barbed wire. Everyone was thirsty. After eight hours, we lost hope. Leaving was even more difficult. It took us an hour and a half to get out of that hell.”

Suicide bomb attack

Kourosh and his family almost returned to the airport the following day. Had they done so, they might have been among the 170 people (including 13 US soldiers) killed in a suicide bomb attack at the very place where they had waited.

Kourosh is particularly worried about the fate of his wife and daughter. “My wife was not able to go to school for six years when the Taliban were in power [from 1996 until 2001] because girls’ schools were closed,” he says. “She was training at university to become a teacher. Now her studies have been interrupted. My daughter had started school this year. The tragedy continues. My daughter’s generation may never learn to read and write.”

One of my friends was beaten nearly to death, just queueing in front of a bank

Taliban spokesmen have said they will allow girls to be educated only separately from boys. But they will not allow them to be taught by men, and if women teachers are unavailable, girls will not learn.

The Taliban have also said they will enforce the requirement that females be accompanied by a male relative only for journeys of three days or more. In practice, women have been barred from Taliban offices and those who attempt to go out alone are asked: “Where is your mahram?” (A mahram is a father, husband, son or brother who chaperones a woman.)

The last time the Taliban were in power, they were armed with broken Kalashnikovs, Kourosh says. “Now they are armed to the teeth with American weapons. One of my friends was beaten nearly to death, just queueing in front of a bank. He hadn’t done anything. He was dressed in traditional Afghan clothing. It was very crowded, and he approached a Taliban saying ‘My wife is sick. Please allow me to get money. I need to buy medicine.’”


Some western officials advocate dialogue with the Taliban and say they should not be judged by their actions the last time they were in power. "It's enough to judge them by the way they behaved recently, when they were fighting to take over the country," says Guissou Jahangiri, the Iranian-born, French founder of the Open Asia/Armanshahr foundation, which is funded by the EU, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and UK.

Jahangiri interprets my Zoom interview with Kourosh. She has made exfiltrating him, other human rights defenders and their families who are at risk in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan her top priority.

“We are shocked,” Jahangiri says. “We reached out to all the crisis centres that were set up, one for every country. There is very little co-ordination, havoc, no co-operation between Americans and Europeans. We’re a team of at least 10 people from the International Federation for Human Rights [of which she is a vice-president] and my board members. We have been working round the clock for a month, and we have got no one out. Some officials ask us, ‘Who is your absolute priority?’ and we are put in a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ type situation, which is terrible.”

Many of those who would flee Afghanistan face an impossible dilemma. The Taliban will not let them out; other countries will not let them in. The Taliban “are lying” about their willingness to let Afghans with visas depart, the French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on September 11th.

Neighbours of the landlocked country have closed their borders. A few western countries have agreed to accept at most a few tens of thousands of the half million Afghans whom the UN predicts will flee this year.

Suffering from hunger

Virtually all aid to Afghanistan has been suspended since the Taliban takeover on August 15th. The World Food Programme says that 14 million Afghans – more than a third of the population – are suffering from hunger. Ninety-seven per cent of the population will be under the poverty threshold by the middle of next year, the UN says.

A UN meeting in Geneva on September 13th received pledges of $1 billion (€840 million) in aid for Afghanistan, but that aid is contingent on the Taliban respecting human rights.

Kourosh does not want western governments to recognise the Taliban or funnel aid through them. “Donors must make sure that aid actually reaches the intended beneficiaries,” he says. “In the past, this was not the case. The Taliban have been one of the leading terrorist groups in the world for decades. How can they be reliable partners? How can you expect people who stage suicide attacks in crowds and on school buses to be touched by their compatriots’ hunger?

“Human suffering has never concerned them. I don’t believe money and resources will reach people, but they will make the Taliban stronger.”