Time is running out for Marina and her family. Her Uzbek visa is only temporary, and if no one intervenes, she will be deported back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made clear they expect her return.
Marina is one of about 2,000 Afghan refugees currently in Uzbekistan, according to UNHCR Central Asia. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover in August, many escaped, fearing they would be killed or suffer human rights abuses. Since January, the refugee agency estimates that 600,000 Afghans have fled the country, 80 percent of them women and children.
Women in particular face shrinking horizons under fundamentalist Taliban rule. For many Afghan refugees, the tiny printed expiration date on their temporary visa reads like a death sentence.
Before the takeover, Marina worked as a journalist and Russian-language translator. She also worked at a center for the advancement of women, where she ran seminars and also helped women find work. She was well-known among her colleagues and students – and by the Taliban, whom she criticized openly.
Certain danger awaits Marina and her family back in Afghanistan; their decision to flee was prompted by death threats. In July, as the Taliban advanced, Marina arrived at her office to find a letter on the carpet outside her door. “The Taliban sent me a letter stating that if I go back to my occupation, I will be punished,” she says in her fluent English. “They also called to threaten me. They know I have two sons and where I live.”
As the Taliban encroached on Marina’s hometown of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, her husband received a call. The Taliban demanded money and food. Marina says she and her husband originally thought it was a joke. “They described my son after we said we didn’t have any money,” she says. “They knew his name and the color of his eyes.”
On the morning of August 14, her husband set out for the Uzbek Embassy in Mazar-i-Sharif, in hopes of securing visas for the family. By an incredible stroke of luck, he managed to bypass a process that normally takes months and procure temporary visas. On his way back home, he heard shooting in the streets as the Taliban took over the city.
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Marina, her husband, two small children, sister and brother-in-law headed for the border crossing with Uzbekistan. They grabbed only basic necessities. “Water, clothes for the babies, I changed into a hijab and we took a taxi to the border,” she says.
Dreaming of Ireland and Norway
When they arrived, the border had already closed. “I showed them my small son” – who was about a year and a half at the time – “and asked them to help us,” Marina says. They opened the border and allowed the family to pass through. They were among the last to exit Afghanistan through the crossing.
When they arrived in Uzbekistan, the family spent two nights in a hotel in the city of Termez, about an hour from the Afghan border. They took a small apartment, where they spent the next month. They then moved to the capital, Tashkent, in hopes of being closer to embassies and agencies that could help them resettle in a third country.
Their three-month visa was set to expire on November 14 – the family then received a one-month extension. “Every day my husband and I look at the calendar on our phone and see how many days we have left,” Marina says. After the family's visas expired in December, they spent two tense weeks working to obtain a new one. Finally, just before the new year, their visas were extended until March.
Marina recounts how Afghan refugees are exploited in Uzbekistan. Landlords demand exorbitant rents, as the law prohibits renting to Afghan refugees. To circumvent the regulations, Afghans are asked to pay double. Merchants similarly exploit the situation, seeking high prices for food, water and necessities.
The temporary visas do not allow them to work, and money is scarce, making it a struggle to feed the children. Marina and her family are also afraid to walk in the streets. Some Uzbek authorities retain ties with the Taliban, so regardless of the family's visa status, they run the risk of being captured and handed over to the militant group. “We hardly leave the apartment, which is very hard for my two sons,” Marina says.
For a short time, as the world watched the Taliban takeover and the images of Afghans clinging to American airliners at the Kabul airport, interest in the refugees’ plight was high.
In August, after Marina was interviewed on Israel’s Channel 12 News, an official in Labor MK Naama Lazimi’s office contacted Marina. Officials directed her to the Canadian Embassy in Tashkent, but the embassy said it only dealt with Canadian citizens. The official said Lazimi was in touch with the Canadian ambassador to Uzbekistan, but communications soon petered out. “I just realized they were indifferent to me and I didn’t want to continue writing to them anymore,” Marina says.
Marina’s Uzbek visa was extended with the help of UNHCR Central Asia. The organization is working to help the family find resettlement, and to get by in Uzbekistan in the meantime. “The migration service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave our documents to Ireland and Norway,” Marina says. “There is a likelihood that we will be given a visa; I pray very much that everything goes well.”
'I will never give up'
Back home, family members describe a dire reality – scarce food, jobs, goods and a dizzying lack of stability. Many of the neighboring countries have closed their borders, halting trade in food and supplies. Marina’s brother-in-law told her that her family’s car was seized by the Taliban.
“I had a very good life in Afghanistan and I lost everything,” she says, adding that she heard that four female journalists were killed in her hometown in November. Journalists who remain are afraid that the Taliban will find them.
“I was in contact with one of my colleagues a month ago; she’s also a woman. Her family asked her to change her number because she is still in Afghanistan. She changed her contacts because she is afraid. She deleted her Facebook, her Instagram, everything she had. If I was still in Afghanistan I would do the same,” Marina says.
“Women cannot work there now. Whenever I talk with my family they say that it’s not like it was in the past. It’s hard for everyone. All of the people are crying. People don’t have food, don’t have money, don’t have work.”
Even facing such dire circumstances, Marina remains firm in her opposition to the Taliban. “If I will be in Afghanistan again, I will not be silent,” she says. “I will work like I did in the past and I will be the voice for thousands of women, I promise. I will never give up.”
The situation remains precarious for Afghans in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. On August 20, according to Human Rights Watch, 153 Afghan refugees were forcibly deported from Uzbekistan after the government engaged in talks with the Taliban. The agreement between the two countries remains confidential, and there is a lack of transparency about its exact provisions and the status of the people sent back.
Police in Uzbekistan have received a free hand regarding Afghans refugees, particularly in Termez, which lies on the Afghan border and has been a major entry point for refugees fleeing through the Hairatan border crossing.
John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, told Reuters he believes the Uzbek government is under pressure from the Taliban to return refugees. “They want to have good relations with the Taliban,” Herbst says. “They don’t want to provoke them, but they also don’t want to provoke us.”
As Marina puts it, “I want to share the pain of these people. The pain of the refugees in Uzbekistan. The pain of a mother who doesn’t have money to buy food for her children. I want to share my pain, the pain of being afraid of going back to a place where everything is in danger and people don’t have their freedom.”