‘Living in terror’: Afghans left behind by New Zealand struggling to survive

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<span>Photograph: Wana News Agency/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Wana News Agency/Reuters

Desperate and running low on food, Afghans who worked for New Zealand wonder if help is coming.

“The situation here is chaos,” says Sayed*, an Afghan interpreter who worked for the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). “People are scared, and all the banks are closed, people in desperate situations, running out of money. Food and other things are getting expensive. How do you describe it – it’s so dark. People are in so dire a situation.”

Weeks on from when New Zealand mercy flights left hundreds behind in Afghanistan, Afghans who worked for the NZDF say they are desperate, running out of money and food, and have heard nothing substantive about a possible extraction from the New Zealand government.

On Thursday, more than 30 organisations sent an open letter to the foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, calling on the government to up its humanitarian support and evacuate those it left behind.

New Zealand left behind about 400 people in Afghanistan, including 43 families, totalling about 200 people, who worked for the NZDF and on government projects, including as interpreters, labourers or employees. They fear Taliban reprisals, and all of them received emergency evacuation visas due to their association with New Zealand.

Related: ‘They left us to die’: UK’s Afghan aid staff in hiding from Taliban

But when New Zealand’s evacuation flights left, none from the group were on board. “They never contacted us,” Sayed says. “None of us were evacuated. Even though the prime minister said, ‘we are prioritising … families who had direct contact with the New Zealand provincial reconstruction team.

“We are really in a dark situation. In Kabul right now, we are just hiding. Here our identity is unknown, because this is a big city [and] people do not know us a lot. You know, if it takes longer, probably they will find us here in Kabul. It’s real, it’s happening now. They’re searching door to door.”

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is worsening: inflation has pushed up food prices, and many banks have either closed or imposed strict limits on how much cash can be withdrawn. Many of those stranded are running out of cash to top up the phones they use to communicate with New Zealand.

“Even if we did not have financial problems, we wouldn’t be able to go back [to our home province] because now the Taliban are searching our house door to door and they’re asking for information,” Sayed says. “If the evacuation from here does not happen quickly, they will find us here.

“I want to plead with the NZ government. Please help us. Please find a way to evacuate us quicker.”

‘They were waiting for this lifeline’

Several members of the group say that after the last plane left, they found out from journalists and New Zealand-based advocates – rather than the government – that no one was coming for them. Sayed received one email a week later, informing him that the evacuation operation had, regrettably, ended.

In an interview with Stuff, Mahuta said the next phase of the government’s response would be contingent on international partners, and it would be under discussion at cabinet. “It’s hard to put a timing on this, but we will do the best that we can,” she said.

Ellen Nelson, a former engineering officer for the NZDF who has been advocating for a number of former employees and labourers with whom she worked while touring in Afghanistan, said: “They were waiting for this lifeline from New Zealand and it didn’t happen.”

“They don’t have money. These people have been staying in hotels in Kabul – many of them several families to a room – or squatting at the back of restaurants. These are people with a lot of young children and they’re struggling, really, really struggling to even get food for the family.

“They are absolutely desperate to hear something. They’re completely at our mercy, and they’re there because they worked for us.”

Related: ‘He saw the panic’: the Afghan men who fell from the US jet

Ahmad*, another interpreter who worked for the NZDF, says he fears being stopped at a checkpoint.

“The fear is outrageous. I’m always living in terror,” he says. “The other part of the story is having to support your life – necessities like water, health, food.” Like many others, he had been unable to withdraw cash, and now his family is running low on food. “For a month I have been living in Kabul … I have seen many people on the streets, people who have been selling their household stuff in order to get food, water, or something. It’s been very tough.”

Alpha Kennedy has been working in Afghanistan since around 2009 – initially with the NZDF, and subsequently in the international development sector, on projects including New Zealand’s flagship Bamiyan renewable energy project. He says many contacts in Bamiyan fled their homes after the Taliban took power. Most are from the Hazara community, which has experienced historical violence at the hands of the Taliban, and fear reprisals.

“They’ve had to leave their homes and essentially take refuge in mountain passes and mountain valleys,” Kennedy says. “So they’ve gone up here with just a few tents, a few belongings. They’re staying up there, where they believe it’s safe, until the situation changes back in the villages.”

Kennedy was coordinating a New Zealand ReliefAid mission to get food to those people, and says the humanitarian situation was bleak. “They’re very short on food at the moment,” he says. “Everything’s gone, and people have been spending their cash to survive over this period. Inflation has gone up … The cost of rice has gone through the roof so people can’t afford the basics any more.”

Speaking to Stuff last week, Mahuta said it was important to focus on evacuees who had arrived in New Zealand after the airlift mission. “We’ve got to ensure that there’s a successful resettlement,” she said.

But Nelson rejects the idea that those who made it out should be the priority.

“I understand that the resettlement of those people is important, but I totally disagree that it should be the priority,” she says. “This needs to be treated like a triage system, and the priority needs to go to the people that are in the greatest need. Those people are still in Afghanistan.”

* Those who remain in Afghanistan have had their names changed for safety reasons.

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