Almost a year after their country was left by foreign forces to the Taliban, Afghan soldiers who fought alongside Australian troops say they live in constant terror, and have been abandoned by the countries they served.
“We fought on the same battlefield together, against the same enemy. You called us brothers,” one former soldier told the Guardian from hiding. “But now you leave us in this hell. Our lives are hell and we are left alone. We trusted each other; we never thought this would happen.”
The Guardian has spoken to a number of former soldiers who are being hunted by the Taliban, and to Australian volunteers who are trying to get them to safety.
One former commando, Abbas – a pseudonym to protect him and his family – spent 11 years fighting alongside international forces, including Australian troops in Uruzgan province.
He said the joint forces depended upon one another for their lives.
“We ate together with them, slept under the same roof and trained together ... If one of us would be killed, we would sympathise with each other like brothers, and Nato forces would always call us brothers.
“And these forces now leave us like this, alone ... They leave us with our hands tied, in front of the same enemies that we fought against for years.”
Abbas stresses he does not blame the soldiers with whom he fought, but the governments that ordered their troops out so rapidly, without proper consideration for those who fought alongside them.
“I think those countries that said they were strengthening democracy in Afghanistan and talking about peace were lying. They told us ‘we will never leave you alone’. They were here for 20 years, and now they have forgotten us. Every day we despair. We have no food to eat, and we know they, the Taliban, are coming for us.”
Abbas says that even as Taliban forces regained traditional strongholds in the south of the country, he did not believe foreign forces would abandon the entire nation. But on 15 August 2021, when the Taliban arrived on the outskirts of the capital Kabul, “we saw hell with our own eyes”.
Since the fall of Kabul, Abbas has had to flee over the border to Iran, where he ekes out a living working 12-hour shifts in a factory. He says he is exploited – underpaid, abused and beaten – because he is in the country without documents, and has no rights, no option to go home, and no one to whom he can complain.
For months Abbas’s wife and three-year-old child remained trapped inside Afghanistan. He says his family went hungry regularly, and the Taliban swept his village, looking for anyone with links to the former government or military.
“The Taliban did not adhere to the amnesty they had announced, they are looking for ex-military forces to torture them every day, and they enjoy torturing them very much, and then they kill them.”
In recent days, Abbas’s family has made it across the border. But their future is precarious, and they may still be forced back. Abbas says Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities – for generations targets for Taliban persecution – are more vulnerable than ever.
“The circle is getting tighter day by day for the people of Hazara. They are forcibly evicted from their homes, their cars confiscated, and they are driven away from their homes. In the province of Bamyan, where most of the Hazara people live, young Hazara girls are being tortured and raped every day.”
‘People’s lives at stake’
From the Surf Coast of Victoria, Ali Corke, a member of Rural Australians for Refugees, has supported Abbas and a handful of other Afghans trying to get out, acting as proposer for their applications for humanitarian visas.
Corke keeps a record of everything she receives from the group: the updates, the plaintive pleas for help, even the brutal phone-shot videos of Taliban atrocities, torture and executions.
“When we started talking, these people were very scared. They knew things had gone very badly wrong, but it was still a big leap of faith for them,” she says. “I was struck by the level of trust they put in me, this person on the other side of the world. All of their most personal information, and it was not just their lives in my hands, but the lives of their children, their mother and father.”
The application Corke filed on Abbas’s behalf last September has received no response from the Australian government. She says there is a disconnect between “the affection, the concern, the love from people in Australia” and the bureaucratic indifference with which it has been met.
“People are despairing in Afghanistan, I’m terrified for them. If I don’t hear from them for a few days because they can’t send a message safely I’m sick with worry.”
Corke is part of a broader groundswell of Australians seeking to help those left behind.
Marie Sellstrom, the former president of Rural Australians for Refugees, convenes a group of 40 volunteers who are working to help Afghans find safety.
Amid the chaos of the fall of Kabul last year, through contacts on the ground, they helped get several families at extreme risk onto planes. In the months since, they have assisted a handful more to cross into neighbouring countries, where they continue to support them.
“We believe we have a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan: we were there for 20 years, and we built up in them an expectation they could live relatively normal lives: girls could go to school, women could work in development, or work in areas like domestic violence. We believe we have a moral responsibility because Australia was over there, and we made that commitment. And, at home, we developed close relationships with those Afghan people who had come to Australia.”
The ultimate goal, Sellstrom says, is to help provide them with a secure and peaceful future.
Members of the group have personally supported applications from more than 100 Afghans and their families for humanitarian visas. They have offered plane tickets and financial support, and to house and feed and employ Afghans who are able to get visas to resettle in Australia.
But Sellstrom says she has been frustrated by the lack of progress: some applications lodged last year have been acknowledged as received by the Department of Home Affairs; some, unusually, have been acknowledged twice without any further progress; others have had no response.
“We are all frustrated by the lack of progress, the lack of transparency, lack of effective and efficient organisation of the immigration department.
“You hear nothing … it just goes into a black hole. There are people’s lives at stake, people are dying, but we have an inefficient department that cannot respond.”
Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, more than 5,000 Afghan nationals have arrived in Australia on temporary humanitarian visas, and 4,800 permanent humanitarian visas were granted to Afghan nationals last financial year.
But to the end of June, nearly 40,000 further applications, on behalf of 177,700 people, remained undecided. Only 46% have so far been registered in the department’s system.
“Since August 2021 an unprecedented number of humanitarian visa applications have been received from Afghan nationals,” a spokesperson for the home affairs department says.
They say the department has put on extra staff exclusively to process applications from Afghan nationals.
Over the three years to 2023-24, 10,000 places within Australia’s humanitarian program have been earmarked for Afghan nationals. The total humanitarian program is currently set at 13,750 places each financial year.
In addition to the regular humanitarian program, 16,500 extra places will be granted to Afghan nationals over the next four years.
The spokesperson says: “The government remains committed to the humanitarian program as an expression of Australia’s role as an engaged international partner in sharing refugee protection responsibilities and assisting those in greatest humanitarian need.
‘Everything here is hopeless’
Karim, also a pseudonym, is another former Afghan National Army soldier who served alongside US and Australian forces over more than a decade. He is in hiding in an Afghan city with his young child and pregnant wife.
He doesn’t know if it will be safe for them to go to hospital when it is time for his second child to be born.
“We try to appear fine, but in reality we are broken. The news you hear about Afghanistan is true but in reality it is even harder. Everything here, day by day, is hopeless.
“To continue our life we need to leave Afghanistan. Please help us.”
Karim remembers his time in the military fondly. He believed in the mission: he was building a better country for his family.
“Our job was to destroy, arrest or kill the terrorists groups. I participated in many of these missions in the insecure provinces of Afghanistan. It was our hope [that] one day we have a country free of terrorists.”
Now he has hidden the certificates of appreciation from coalition militaries that thank him for his “efforts towards establishing peace and security in Afghanistan”. Some of the testaments are even more blunt, stating his role in missions to “disrupt, destroy and kill Taliban insurgents”.
Once treasured mementos, they are now a potentially deadly possession. “If the Taliban find me with these, they will not waste a second: they will just kill me.”
In the uncertain, hungry months since the fall of Kabul, the Taliban has been to Karim’s family home looking for him. They dragged his brother outside, beat and tortured him, demanding information on Karim’s whereabouts. Karim says each day is one closer to being discovered.
“If I stay here, surely one day they will find me.”