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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Mazar falls, hundreds throng Kabul passport office, waiting for passage out of Afghanistan

The rapid advance of the Taliban in provinces across the country, the fall of key cities and towns, has had people streaming to the passport office, hoping to exit the country before it is wheeled back to a time they thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | Kabul |
Updated: August 15, 2021 7:20:18 am
At the Kabul passport office. (Express Photo by Shubhajit Roy)

Karte Seh in west Kabul is home to the middle class, a dusty neighbourhood which has been mostly quiet since the mid-1990s when Mujahideen outfits, vying for control of the city, fought pitched battles in its lanes and streets.

But on Saturday, hours before the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif fell to the Taliban, Karte Seh was a beehive of activity, its peace shattered by Toyotas, some gleaming, most rickety, packing its roads. People came in droves, all headed to one building in the neighbourhood: Kabul’s main passport office.

The rapid advance of the Taliban in provinces across the country, the fall of key cities and towns, has had people streaming to the passport office, hoping to exit the country before it is wheeled back to a time they thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

If chaos in Afghanistan — some accounts Saturday spoke of fighting between the Taliban and government forces just 11 km south of the capital — had a Ground Zero, it is here. Fear, desperation and panic show on the faces of people in serpentine queues, the passport office their last hope for a passage out of Afghanistan.

Clutching identity papers, residence documents, people lined up, long before President Ashraf Ghani came on TV. In a brief televised address, Ghani said he is turning to the international community for help. He said he is in talks with world leaders to discuss the situation in the country, and that he will not give up “achievements” of the last 20 years.

Ahead of his address, there was speculation that Ghani would announce his resignation as President and make way for Abdullah Abdullah. But he gave no indication of that in his speech – there has been a question mark on the continuance of his West-backed government ever since the US said its last troops would leave Afghanistan by August 31.

But at Karte Seh, no one is waiting to find out. Policemen are having a hard time controlling the crowd. There’s no social distance, very few are wearing masks. Covid-19 is still around – more than 1.5 lakh cases and 7,000-plus deaths and as of August 13, according to the Johns Hopkins University database, only 207 new cases in Afghanistan with a falling Covid curve amid vaccination with Chinese and Indian vaccines.

Many in the queue are in their 20s and 30s, with foreign destinations in mind.

A 31-year-old said he had been doing the rounds of the passport office for a week now. He has worked for a German agency engaged in Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002. He is now desperate to get a passport for his wife and two-year-old daughter.

“I have been waiting for the passports so that we can go outside the country,” he says, holding a sheaf of papers.

Plumes of smoke rise after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in Kandahar. (Photo: AP)

Babar, a cloth merchant from Jowzjan, says his city fell to the Taliban a week ago. He has come all the way with applications to see if five of his family members can get their biometric done in Kabul.

“I have two daughters, aged 9 and 2, and three sons aged 13,11 and 7… I need passports for them, so we can all leave this country,” he says.

He is not sure where they will go. “Jahan ka visa mil jaaye (whichever country gives us a visa),” he says. And then adds: “Most probably Uzbekistan because we have relatives there.”

Mohammad Akram, 28, has been waiting since 6 am. From Takhar province, he wants a passport to apply for a visa to Tajikistan.

Twenty-three-year-old Kudratullah and his sister-in-law have come to collect passports for seven family members. “I have studied management, but there is no future here now… all is lost in Afghanistan. We want to leave,” he says.

The crowds outside the passport office is good business for neighbourhood shops selling bottled Alokozay water and colas. They have not done such brisk selling in years.

“Everyday people queue up from 5-6 am, sometimes midnight, just to get their passports made. Earlier, one could just walk in, but now they wait for hours till about 3.30 pm, and everyday so many return without success,” says a shopkeeper.

At the office of Yangi Qarizada Brothers Travel and Tours, the executive offers green tea to those who come inquiring, but tells them that no country, other than Pakistan, is granting visas.

“We usually get visas done for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran among others in the neighbourhood and also the flight tickets. Because of the war, all visa operations have been shut,” he says,

An official at the passport office said 10,000-12,000 people have been coming daily for passports, as against barely 2,000 to 3,000 earlier.

Painted on the wall of the passport office is a silhouette of a family walking. There is a message in Dari which, translated in English, says: “Don’t put yourself and your family in danger, emigration is not the solution to your problems.”

Those standing in the queue there will not agree.

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