Many Afghans pack their bags, hoping for the chance to leave

Popal, a British citizen born in Afghanistan, poses for a portrait in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (AP)
Updated 14 October 2021

Many Afghans pack their bags, hoping for the chance to leave

  • Some are not as concerned with the Taliban themselves but fear that under them, an already collapsing economy will utterly crash
  • The British Foreign Office said in a statement that it is working to ensure British nationals in Afghanistan are able to leave

KABUL: As their flight to Islamabad was finally about to take off, Somaya took her husband Ali’s hand, lay her head back and closed her eyes. Tension had been building in her for weeks. Now it was happening: They were leaving Afghanistan, their homeland.
The couple had been trying to go ever since the Taliban took over in mid-August, for multiple reasons. Ali is journalist and Somaya a civil engineer who has worked on United Nations development programs. They worry how the Taliban will treat anyone with those jobs. Both are members of the mainly Shiite Hazara minority, which fears the Sunni militants.
Most important of all: Somaya is five months pregnant with their daughter, whom they’ve already named Negar.
“I will not allow my daughter to step in Afghanistan if the Taliban are in charge,” Somaya told The Associated Press on the flight with them. Like others leaving or trying to leave, the couple asked that their full names not be used for their protection. They don't know if they'll ever return.
Ask almost anyone in the Afghan capital what they want now that the Taliban are in power, and the answer is the same: They want to leave. It’s the same at every level of society, in the local market, in a barbershop, at Kabul University, at a camp of displaced people. At a restaurant once popular with businessmen and upper-class teens, the waiter lists the countries to which he has applied for visas.
Some say their lives are in danger because of links with the ousted government or with Western organizations. Others say their way of life cannot endure under the hard-line Taliban, notorious for their restrictions on women, on civil liberties and their harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Some are not as concerned with the Taliban themselves but fear that under them, an already collapsing economy will utterly crash.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated by the United States and its allies in the frantic days between the Aug. 15 Taliban takeover and the official end of the evacuation on Aug. 30. After that wave, the numbers slowed, leaving many who want to leave but are struggling to find a way out. Some don’t have the money for travel, others don’t have passports, and the Afghan passport offices reopened only recently.
The exodus is emptying Afghanistan of many of its young people who had hoped to help build their homeland.
“I was raised with one dream, that I study hard and be someone, and I’d come back to this country and help,” said Popal, a 27-year-old engineer.
“With this sudden collapse, every dream is shattered. … We lose everything living here.”
When Popal was 5 years old, his father sent him to Britain with relatives to get an education. Growing up, Popal worked low-skill jobs, sending money back to his family, while studying engineering. He eventually gained British citizenship and worked in the nuclear sector.
A few weeks before the Taliban takeover, Popal returned to Afghanistan in hopes of getting his family out. His father once worked at a military base in Logar Province, where his mother was a teacher. His sisters have been studying medicine in Kabul.
The recent weeks have been tumultuous. His family’s home in Logar was destroyed by the Taliban, and they moved to Kabul. They believe it was because they refused to give information to relatives who are linked to the Taliban. One of his sisters went missing as she commuted between Kabul and Logar, and has not been heard from in weeks. The family fears it could be connected to warnings they received from relatives to stop the daughters from studies, Popal told the AP.
Popal has been in contact for weeks with British officials trying to arrange evacuations. But he said they told him he could not bring his parents and siblings. In early October, Popal managed to get out to Iran. Complaining that he's had no help from the British Foreign Office, he is making his way back to Britain, where he will try to find a way to bring out his family.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement that it is working to ensure British nationals in Afghanistan are able to leave.
A former adviser to a senior Cabinet minister in Afghanistan’s ousted government said he was searching for a way out. The decision came after years of sticking it out through mounting violence. He survived a 2016 suicide bombing that hit a protest march in Kabul and killed more than 90 people. Friends of his were killed in an attack later that year on the American University of Afghanistan, killing at least 13.
In the past, he had opportunities and offers to go to the United States or Europe. “I didn’t take them because I wanted to stay and I wanted to work and I wanted to make a difference,” he said, speaking on condition he not be named for his protection.
Now he is in hiding, waiting for his opportunity to escape.
The American University of Afghanistan, a private university in Kabul, is arranging flights out for many of its students.
One student, a 27-year-old, recounted one attempt by the school to get evacuees to Kabul airport on Aug. 29, the second-to-last day when U.S. troops were there. In the chaos, buses carrying the students drove for hours around the capital, trying to find a route to the airport, he said. They couldn’t make it.
The student has been waiting for the past month for a spot on another flight arranged by the university for himself, his wife and two young children. He hopes that once out, he can apply for visas to the United States. His family has packed up everything in their house, covering their furniture with sheets to protect it from the dust. His parents are trying to get to the United Arab Emirates.
In Pakistan, at the Islamabad airport, a group of American University students, freshly arrived from Kabul, waited to cross through immigration. They will go on to sister schools in Central Asia.
But their families could not come with them, so they face the uncertain future alone for the moment.
Without her family for the first time ever, Meena, a 21-year-old political science student, cringed with humiliation as an airport official shouted rudely at the students.
“I don’t know my future. I had a lot of dreams, but now I don’t know,” she said, starting to cry.
She showed the school pen she brought with her because it has the flag of her country on it, the one now replaced in Afghanistan by the Taliban flag.
“We just burned our dreams ... we are just broken people.”


Flood deaths in India and Nepal cross 150

Updated 6 sec ago

Flood deaths in India and Nepal cross 150

  • In Nainital, a popular tourist destination in the Himalayan state, the town’s main lake broke its banks
  • India’s federal interior minister Amit Shah is set to survey affected areas on Thursday
NEW DELHI: More than 150 people have died in flooding across India and Nepal, officials said on Thursday, as unseasonably heavy rains across the region led to flash floods in several areas, stranding residents and destroying homes and infrastructure.
The north Indian state of Uttarakhand has been especially badly-hit, with 48 confirmed deaths, SA Murugesan, secretary of the state’s disaster management department told Reuters.
In Nainital, a popular tourist destination in the Himalayan state, the town’s main lake broke its banks, submerging the main thoroughfare and damaging bridges and rail tracks. And rescuers from India’s paramilitary National Disaster Response Force were evacuating residents from communities hit by landslides.
India’s federal interior minister Amit Shah is set to survey affected areas on Thursday.
Some 42 people have died in the last week in the southern Indian state of Kerala, according to a statement from the chief minister’s office.
In neighboring Nepal, at least 77 people have died.
India’s annual monsoon rains usually run from June to September.

Ukraine’s new daily coronavirus cases, deaths hit record

Updated 26 min 54 sec ago

Ukraine’s new daily coronavirus cases, deaths hit record

  • There were also 546 new deaths, surpassing the Oct. 19 record of 538
  • Ministry data showed 22,415 new cases over the past 24 hours

KYIV: Ukraine registered a record daily high of new coronavirus infections and related deaths, the health ministry said on Thursday.
Ministry data showed 22,415 new cases over the past 24 hours, exceeding the previous high of 20,341 on April 3.
There were also 546 new deaths, surpassing the Oct. 19 record of 538.


India administers its billionth COVID-19 jab

Updated 21 October 2021

India administers its billionth COVID-19 jab

  • Around three-quarters of adults in the country of 1.3 billion people has had one shot

NEW DELHI: India administered its billionth Covid-19 vaccine dose on Thursday, according to the health ministry, half a year after a devastating surge in cases brought the health system close to collapse.
According to the government, around three-quarters of adults in the country of 1.3 billion people has had one shot and around 30 percent are fully vaccinated.


Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

Updated 21 October 2021

Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

  • Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family, while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line, says Australian FM Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal

PHNOM PENH: Three decades after a landmark agreement ended years of bloody violence in Cambodia, its strongman ruler has crushed all opposition and is eyeing dynastic succession, shattering hopes for a democratic future.
The Paris Peace Agreements, signed on October 23, 1991, brought an end to nearly two decades of savage slaughter that began with the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975.
The genocidal regime wiped out up to two million Cambodians through murder, starvation and overwork, before a Vietnamese invasion toppled the communist Khmer Rouge but triggered a civil war.
The Paris accords paved the way for Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993 and effectively brought the Cold War in Asia to an end.
Aid from the West flowed and Cambodia became the poster child for post-conflict transition to democracy.
But the gains were short-lived and Premier Hun Sen, now in his fourth decade in power, has led a sustained crackdown on dissent.
“We did a great job on bringing peace, but blew it on democracy and human rights,” said former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal.

Evans said it was a mistake to agree to Hun Sen’s demands for a power-sharing arrangement after the 1993 election.
“Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family... while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line,” he said.
Rights groups say the veteran strongman maintains his iron grip on the country through a mix of violence, politically motivated prosecutions and corruption.
Exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy said the international community lacked the will in 1993 to stand up to Hun Sen, who had been installed as ruler by the Vietnamese in 1985.
“The West had a tendency to wait and see and look for imagined gradual improvements in governance. That clearly did not work,” he told AFP.
“Cambodian politicians also have to accept some blame. Too many found it easier to accept a quiet but lucrative life in government than to say what they really thought.”
Human Rights Watch said that under Hun Sen, “even the patina of democracy and basic rights” has collapsed in recent years.
In 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
And since the 2018 election — in which Hun Sen’s party won every seat in parliament — the authorities have arrested scores of former opposition members and rights campaigners.
Around 150 opposition figures and activists are facing a mass trial for treason and incitement charges, while the main opposition leader Kem Sokha is facing a separate treason trial.
Covid-19 has seen more curbs, with over 700 people arrested according to the UN rights body, which has warned that most may not have had a fair trial.
The spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party insisted it was the “will of the people” to have one party in parliament.
“We have peace, we have political stability, it reflects that we correctly implement the principles of democracy, and there is no abuse of human rights either,” Sok Eysan told AFP.

There has been some international censure — the European Union withdrew preferential trade rates last year over rights abuses — but the pressure shows little sign of translating into change.
“The reality is Cambodia has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of China, like Laos next door, and that means Hun Sen has been able to comfortably thumb his nose at any potential economic or political pressure from elsewhere,” Evans said.
Speculation has simmered that the 69-year-old Hun Sen is grooming his eldest son Hun Manet — a four-star general educated in Britain and the United States — to take over the leadership one day.
But in March, the veteran ruler said he would no longer set a date for his retirement, and activists have little hope that a change in leadership will bring a new direction.
“In Cambodia, we don’t have real democracy,” Batt Raksmey told AFP.
Her campaigner husband was jailed in May for allegedly inciting unrest after he raised environmental concerns about a lake on the edge of Phnom Penh.
“People have no freedom to speak their opinion,” she said. “When they speak out and criticize the government, they are arrested.”


China says moon rocks offer new clues to volcanic activity

Updated 21 October 2021

China says moon rocks offer new clues to volcanic activity

  • China in December brought back the first rocks from the moon since missions by the US and former Soviet Union in the 1970s

BEIJING: Moon rocks brought back to Earth by a Chinese robotic spacecraft last year have provided new insights into ancient lunar volcanic activity, a researcher said Tuesday.
Li Xianhua said an analysis of the samples revealed new information about the moon’s chemical composition and the way heat affected its development.
Li said the samples indicate volcanic activity was still occurring on the moon as recently as 2 billion years ago, compared to previous estimates that such activity halted between 2.8 billion and 3 billion years ago.
“Volcanic activities are a very important thing on the moon. They show the vitality inside the moon, and represent the recycling of energy and matter inside the moon,” Li told reporters.
China in December brought back the first rocks from the moon since missions by the US and former Soviet Union in the 1970s.
On Saturday, China launched a new three-person crew to its space station, a new milestone in a space program that has advanced rapidly in recent years.
China became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a person in space on its own in 2003 and now ranks among the leading space powers.
Alongside its crewed program, it has expanded its work on robotic exploration, retrieving the lunar samples and landing a rover on the little-explored far side of the moon. It has also placed the Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, whose accompanying Zhurong rover has been exploring for evidence of life on the red planet.
China also plans to collect soil from an asteroid and bring back additional lunar samples. The country also hopes to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.
The military-run Chinese space program has also drawn controversy. China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday brushed-off a report that China had tested a hypersonic missile two months ago. A ministry spokesperson said it had merely tested whether a new spacecraft could be reused.