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  • Writer's pictureMilad

Afghanistan: Through the lens of a former child refugee

My name is Milad and I was born in Kabul in 1996. The same year that the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in a bitterly fought civil war between different Afghan factions in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. Their bloody rise to power then was in stark contrast to their silent, orchestrated takeover on August 15th this year.

Me as a 3-year old (1999, Kabul)

Like many Afghans who have been fortunate enough to flee their regime, I feel a sense of survivor’s guilt having been afforded the luxury of an education in the Netherlands where I grew up and in the UK, where I currently live. Today, I live in the West Midlands and practise medicine as a hospital doctor but I wonder every day how my life would have been had I not been lucky enough to flee the conflict; that is, if I even was to survive. So many other young children, like me, had died as ‘collateral damage’ in a war they played no part in, their childhood and lives taken away from them by violence.

Human rights under the Taliban government (1996–2001)

Under the Taliban government of 1996–2001, girls were not allowed to be educated past the age of eight, the burqa was mandatory for women and they were not allowed to leave their homes without a male chaperone. This was especially draconian since many Afghan women were left widowed as a result of the previous decades of war.

Women’s health was another upsetting matter; male doctors were not allowed to treat female patients (see also this blog here on this topic) and since girls were not allowed to be educated, this led to obvious problems. In other words, to be female in the Taliban’s idea of Afghanistan meant to live a purposeless existence merely treated as a liability and inconvenience rather than as a human being.

Perceived infractions of the Taliban’s oppressive laws were ‘rectified’ by punishments ranging from brutal beatings on the streets to public executions that were decided upon in Taliban courts that were not judicially stringent by any definition of the term.

These events are permanently imprinted in the memories of any and every Afghan old enough to have witnessed them. Growing up, I would hear my relatives tell stories of these times. Public floggings, executions and other exhibits of the Taliban’s brutality appeared to have been commonplace and it is little surprise that the levels of crime went down in Afghanistan (a favourite argument of pro-Taliban individuals).

It goes without saying that a reduction in crime at the expense of all personal freedoms and at the cost of living in constant fear is not a worthwhile exchange.

Given its central location within Asia, Afghanistan has more than a dozen different ethnic groups, each with slight variations in language, culture or religion. Some of these differences were not deemed compatible with the Taliban’s twisted interpretation of Islam and the Hazara community of Afghanistan, who are largely Shia and thereby considered non-Muslims by the Taliban, suffered this persecution the worst.

Hazara civilians were targeted and killed in systematic massacres by the Taliban. In our neighbourhood in Kabul, many of our Hazara neighbours were also killed. The atrocities of those times could fill endless pages and have undoubtedly left a heavy mental health burden on those who survived them.

A round I found on the floor while exploring a hill in Kabul in 2010. I later found out that I had been walking near a minefield.

Leaving Afghanistan for a New Life

My father worked in the airlines and some of his friends had boarded planes with their families and sought refuge in other nations but as a patriot, and optimist, he believed things would get better eventually. However, following the deaths of several of my father’s colleagues in the airlines to military combat, he decided that it was too risky to stay.

He deemed it only a matter of time before a similar tragedy would befall us. Therefore, despite holding out for years, my parents eventually decided to initiate the move out of Afghanistan. What followed was a yearlong perilous journey through different countries, culminating with our arrival and subsequent asylum claim in the Netherlands where I was to grow up.

There was no mistaking the fact that we were foreigners in the Netherlands. Not a day went by that we weren’t reminded of this fact by the local population who treated us with suspicion and disdain. As refugees, we were some of the most vulnerable elements within society and this made it easy for us to be treated differently by others.

I distinctly remember the day the 9/11 attacks happened.

I was four years old and watching TV when there was a sudden news report showing the planes hitting the Twin Towers. At the time, I did not realise how much this was to affect me and my family back in Afghanistan.

Shortly after September 11th 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, attributing a large part of the blame for the attacks to the Taliban for hosting terrorist organisations on Afghan soil. The invasion that followed led to heavy casualties among both the militants and civilians alike. Sadly, this was nothing out of the ordinary to the Afghan population who had become used to the violence. What followed as the dust settled, however, was a protracted 20-year pushback against the Taliban which, despite its casualties, was a period of relative peace for once in Afghanistan.

In the government-controlled areas, girls were allowed to go to school, women were allowed to leave their homes and the Taliban’s oppressive rules were shunned in favour of less restrictive rules. For once, there was a glimmer of hope for the future of the Afghan people as they were inspired to learn crafts and pursue their dreams.

The Future of Afghanistan

Several of my cousins, both male and female, were born during this period of relative freedom and have gone on to pursue careers in medicine, finance, law and other fields. They have also enjoyed the social media revolution and actively use Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. It is perhaps this fact that makes the current Taliban takeover and the likely inevitable shift back to the laws of the 1990s especially frustrating.

Soon, they may be able to see the freedoms the rest of the world enjoy while being bound by arbitrary laws created by men who have no experience (and no business) in running a country. As if trapped from the world in a glass cage.

Unlike the elders in their family, they have no recollection of the Taliban era and are therefore especially afraid of what the future holds for them. My female relatives wonder whether their entire education is to become worthless and whether they will be forced to become second class citizens, just like the women who lived in the Taliban era.

Hearing the news of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan for a second time during my lifetime was a shock to me.

I had seen the effect that their treatment had had on my relatives back in Afghanistan from conversations with them when visiting my home country. They would recount stories of those times with sadness, their trauma evident through their words.

During the 1996–2001 Taliban regime of Afghanistan, they had made promises of granting women their freedoms but these were not fulfilled in reality. The Taliban are making similar promises today that they will not oppress women but to many Afghans, we remember the atrocities committed by them all too vividly and take their words in with great suspicion.

How can we trust an organisation whose members have to assert themselves by carrying assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers at all times?

Plenty of people (mostly non-Afghans) have ignorantly congratulated me on the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as they see it as an example of Afghan self-governance. If the Taliban are welcome in Afghanistan, why do they require intimidation through carrying weapons as a tactic to get the population to comply?

Make no mistake about it, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is yet another betrayal of the Afghan people and yet another tragedy that we will add to our endless list of tragedies.

Quotes from Young Diaspora Afghans

After decades of fighting, the Afghan people are exhausted. The onus is on the Taliban to prove that things will be different this time — that women will be allowed to work and study, that young boys will not be radicalised and used as weapons of war and that minorities, such as the Hazara community will have their rights upheld — Politics graduate, wished to remain anonymous People have not forgotten the crimes of the Taliban, but still, an air of optimism does indeed travel around Afghanistan — Afghan student, King’s College London, wished to remain anonymous The War on Terror was an imperialist project disguised as a human rights endeavour… Leaving our women, men and children abandoned and abused — Mariam, Politics graduate

Editors Note: We, at Inspire the Mind, are proud to continue to provide a platform and an opportunity for those affected by the events in Afghanistan to share their stories. You can read more at the following:


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