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"That is the darkest second": Afghans are fleeing a crumbling nation

KABUL –The dusty city below and its snow-capped mountains zoomed past in a blur. Jawad Jalali's eyes, clutching his pale blue passport, filled with tears as the roaring engines lifted the plane higher into the sky. Leaving Afghanistan was not easy for the 30-year-old photojournalist.

"War is so ugly," he said. “It does everything for you. Your job, your safety, your hopes and your dreams. "

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the US is about to pack and leave – and it's not the only one. Over the past year, and particularly in the last few months, there has been unprecedented violence across the country, particularly in Kabul. Around 200 people have been murdered in Afghanistan since September 2020, said an Afghan security official. According to the Afghan Journalists' Security Committee, journalists were selected in 132 violent incidents in the past year, with seven Afghan journalists killed and another 18 injured. Nationwide, terrorist attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces are just as bad as they have been since the US invasion in 2001.

According to the United Nations, more than 3,000 civilians were killed in the past year alone. Civilian casualties have increased since the Taliban and the Afghan government began peace negotiations.

Kabul residents are now used to waking up to the sounds of another explosion, often with magnetically sticky bombs attached to cars and then detonated. They try to figure out the attack patterns, avoid peak hours, or just stay home.

Staying home even for Jalali was no longer an option. When a missile attack hit his neighborhood at the end of November 2020, the constant exchange of blows and uncertainty pushed him over the edge.

Jalali photographs the new railway project in Hairatan, Balkh Province, in 2016, which connects the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan with the border with Uzbekistan.Courtesy Jawad Jalali

“They ended up near my house. I packed my children and ran into the basement, ”he recalled. "From that moment on, I knew that there would be no particular front line anywhere – even the windows in my house – that could pose a direct threat to my family's life."

Kabul has become the most dangerous city in Afghanistan. He traded a good job, a large house with a garden and a Mercedes-Benz for tight spaces in Turkey. “We left everything behind and traveled to a foreign country without work, where we neither know the language nor the people. It shook my soul. "

Like Jalali, hundreds of Afghans have packed up in Kabul in the past few weeks and months. Many are journalists, government employees, human rights defenders, and aid workers – the educated middle class that the United States has invested in over the past two decades with scholarships and education to revitalize the country. They once lived comfortably in the Afghan capital until it got too dangerous. As the United States surrenders, it goes to save the lives of its soldiers.

"This is the darkest moment since 2001," said Shaharzad Akbar, chairman of the Independent Human Rights Commission in Afghanistan, referring to both an uncertain future and the surge in recent attacks.

Security forces stand in front of the Slice Bakery in Shahr-e Naw in Kabul on November 21, 2020, where one of 23 rockets struck, damaged a delivery truck and injured several people. This attack prompted Jawad Jalali to move his family to Turkey. Stefanie Glinski for foreign policy

The rise in violence is due to the fact that peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been suspended for more than a month. However, peace talks resumed Monday – with an impending deadline for the withdrawal of the last 2,500 US troops in the country in May under the terms of a pact drawn up by the Trump administration. The Biden administration, prompted by a high-level report commissioned by Congress, appears inclined to hold troops beyond this deadline. Either way, the country's prospects look bleak.

The Taliban currently control about half of Afghanistan. If the United States does not pull back in May, many expect violence to increase, including against foreign targets. The Taliban said in a statement to NATO that "The continuation of the occupation and war is neither in your interest nor in the interest of your and our people."

Jalali, background, photographs the evacuation of soldiers who were wounded on the battlefield in Kabul in an archive photo.Courtesy Jawad Jalali

Leaving the US has its own risks, however. Many in Afghanistan fear that if US troops withdraw before the final deal between the militants and the government, there could be a violent takeover or a descent into warlordism. The specter of the 1992-96 civil war is great and threatens to undo the progress made over the past two decades.

“Many Afghans have returned after 2001, have invested in careers and live here. Many were given the option to leave after the big US troop withdrawal in 2014 but decided to stay and fix things, ”Akbar said. "What is heartbreaking now is that these are the people who are leaving today. It sends a message of real despair. "

The exodus is widespread. The 37-year-old Massoud Ahmad Niaz and his wife Brashna decided to relocate the family to neighboring Pakistan. He wanted to settle elsewhere, but money was tight and the Pakistani visas weren't. He worked as a mechanic for the US armed forces for nearly two decades. But Massoud's special immigrant visa to the United States – a program to relocate families who have worked with US forces – was rejected by the Trump administration last year without explanation.

Massoud Ahmad Niaz is sitting in his home with his family on January 28th. Niaz, who worked as a mechanic for U.S. forces for many years, said he no longer felt safe and had applied for a visa to Pakistan. Stefanie Glinski for foreign policy

Brashna said it had been months since her children were allowed to play outside. "It's kind of a prison for them, but we want the best for them. The violence is just too high," she said. "I want them to have a normal childhood and grow up in peace."

"I served the Americans, but they let me down," said Massoud, who was sitting in his apartment in Kabul, still annoyed by his impeccable visa recommendation from a former US supervisor and looking at photos of him with US soldiers. “I hardly sleep at night. Escape to Pakistan has become our only option. Afghanistan is no longer safe. When the Taliban return, there will be no place for us. "

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