Cordaid’s exiled Programmes Director for Afghanistan reports on the impact of the sudden shift of power in his country. On Cordaid’s operations, on staff, and on himself. “Now is the time to press for the principles we stand for. For tolerance, for equality.”
The Taliban takeover of power in Afghanistan has thrown the country in a deep state of turmoil. There are many uncertainties, also pertaining to the work of international NGOs. Cordaid too is seeking ways to ascertain its presence in the county, while sticking to its mandate.
The political crisis has exacerbated the humanitarian situation. Poverty is rising and hundreds of thousands have fled, internally or abroad. Many of those who left the country are skilled professionals. Their departure means an extra blow to the country and its people.
Although a new government and administration are still in the making, and it remains to be seen how strict Islamic laws will officially be interpreted and implemented, there are many indications that progress made in women’s empowerment and respect for basic human and women’s rights is being undone. Harrowing indications.
In the coming weeks, we will publish interviews and stories of Afghan staff, both in and outside of the country, as well as Dutch staff members working on Afghanistan. However much we like to share about what is going on, in some cases these stories and interviews will be anonymised for reasons of security and sensitivity. For the same reasons we will not touch upon some topics the way we would like.
Our first talk is with Hameed Attaiy, Director of Programmes, currently residing outside Afghanistan.
How are you doing?
I managed to leave Afghanistan. We are safe. But we haven’t come out of the shock of what happened on August 15, when Kabul fell. What has really happened, what have we lost with the collapse of the government? What is going to happen? There are many questions and few answers. No, we haven’t recovered.
Meanwhile, we continue. I am not physically in Kabul, but I do support our team in Afghanistan in every way I can.
How is the team in Afghanistan doing?
They are all still very much in shock. At the same time, they are picking up pieces and trying to recover. We have daily meetings. Slowly, operations seem to normalise. Everybody is incredibly committed. They want to deliver. But their lives aren’t going back to normal. People are afraid. Very afraid. Being associated with the international community, with international NGOs, brings extra fear.
So far, we haven’t received any reports of INGO staff being deliberately targeted by the Taliban. But everybody is extremely on their guard.
Some staff has been evacuated, most are still in the country.
I can’t say too much about the evacuation process. Everybody, including myself, living and working in Kabul, was caught by surprise by how fast the capital fell. Unfortunately, only a small portion of our staff has been able to leave the country.
What has been the impact of the crisis on our development, our peacebuilding, and our humanitarian operations?
Long before the takeover of power, a lot of our humanitarian and health care activities had been taking place in Taliban-controlled areas. These programmes continue to be implemented. Our private sector development activities are on hold, mainly because the banking systems are down and markets are disrupted. We have halted our work on inclusive peace, security and justice. We need to be sure what guidelines, what standard operating procedures the Taliban will come up with for INGOs. Once we know, we will work out our stance and our strategies.
Cordaid always promoted equal rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan? Will we continue to do so?
Cordaid believes everyone’s basic human rights and freedoms must be respected. The right to education, health care, to work. We believe in equal rights and in women’s rights. This will not change. What will change is how we will be able to work on this with the new administration. We will do our utmost to continue standing with those who need it most, including, or especially Afghan women.
Supposedly, women aren’t allowed by the Taliban to go to work. What about our female staff?
What is allowed and what is not, isn’t officially clear yet. During corona, prior to the Taliban takeover, most staff worked from the office. Currently, given the turmoil and the uncertainties, most colleagues work from home, male and female. Only our health teams work in the office.
‘What has really happened, what have we lost with the collapse of the government? What is going to happen? There are many questions and few answers.’
Even now, I would say specially now, we need to seek and create opportunities to continue our work. And to lobby for equal rights in whatever way we can. In fact, in Herat, we have successfully negotiated field access for our female staff with Taliban authorities.
We will continue campaigning. Our objectives haven’t changed. But our strategies will change, if only for the safety of our staff.
You say ‘especially now’. Why?
We don’t know when the new government will be installed, when the new administration will be effective. But my guess is within a couple of months. This is the time to press for the principles we stand for, for tolerance, for equality. To share concerns and promote our principles among less extremist but influential factions and persons among the Taliban. Some of them do wish to be part of the international community.
The Taliban policies are in the making. We haven’t seen their true colours. They will appear. We have to do everything, in close alliance with other INGOs, with foreign governments, with the international community, to make sure these colours aren’t as dark as they were in the nineties. Back in those dark days, women weren’t allowed to go out. So far, we see that women do go out in the streets to demonstrate. And that these demonstrations are not crushed. For how long, we don’t know. But now is the time to act.
You are Cordaid’s Programmes Director in Afghanistan, now forced to work from outside Afghanistan. How is that?
In a wry way, by the time Kabul fell corona had already taught us how to work remotely. And technically, it works okay. It’s not the same as being there at all, but it is manageable.
‘Whatever the future holds in store, Afghan people are the pillar of the country’s future and its progress.’
Strangely enough, it also has advantages. I have access to internet and electricity 24/7, and am in permanent contact with international networks, with government officials from around the globe. Also, not having the same stress levels as colleagues in Afghanistan, however painful it was not to be there, also allowed me to be in a better position to support them.
How do you look at the near future?
I am still too shocked by the recent past to really answer that question. Afghanistan has made huge progress in the past 20 years. That seems to have been undone in less than 20 days. In health care, education, in women’s rights, and women’s leadership, in the private sector, in infrastructure. That is a crushing thought.
I can only hope our politicians and decision-makers, whatever their ideology, will see how devastating this is for the whole of Afghanistan. That there will be a willingness to cater for the needs and provide safety and security for all vulnerable groups and persons. Only then will we be able to go forward again.
We need, at all times, especially now, to address the needs of the Afghan people. The capacity, the human and financial resources to keep on doing that, despite the displacements and people leaving the country, is a big challenge. But it is a priority. Whatever the future holds in store, Afghan people are the pillar of the country’s future and its progress.
You are one of them. How do you look at your own future?
I hope to go back. To serve my people and contribute to my nation. Being away feels like a deep loss. What or who am I without my country? Nothing. No one.
But I am not without hope. We, as Afghans, have faced a lot over the past decades and we are still there, as a people. We will keep standing strong, for our rights, for our nation. More than ever we need support from the international community. We need them to stand with us. To prevent Afghanistan to go back to the dark days and years we have known.
In our next Afghanistan article colleagues still residing in the country will share their experiences and concerns.
All pictures © Cordaid