‘They left us to die’: UK’s Afghan aid staff in hiding from Taliban

Evacuation of employees, not contractors, ‘splitting hairs’, says HRW, warning of days left to save lives

Afghan employees who worked as contractors on UK aid projects fear for their lives after not being granted resettlement in Britain.

The Guardian has been in contact with four families who said they had been targeted by the Taliban because they worked for the UK government, and have now been forced into hiding.

Ahmad Shakib, who was employed for six years by Adam Smith International (ASI), an advisory firm contracted on a number of UK-funded projects in Afghanistan, said Britain had not helped him evacuate. He, his wife and children, aged nine, seven and three, have fled for their lives.

“Every minute, every moment, is crucial for us. We change our home address on a random basis in order to conceal ourselves,” said Shakib, who spoke to the Guardian while in hiding at a remote location outside Kabul. “The day begins with fear and ends with despair.”

The family first fled their home in Kabul in July, when Shakib started to receive death threats.

They had a lucky escape two weeks ago when they moved to another location one night before the Taliban knocked at the door of a relative’s house where they were staying.

During his time at ASI, Shakib worked on an Afghan finance ministry budget project alongside international advisers.

He applied to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap) programme – a UK government scheme to help people who had worked with the British government to relocate – on 18 August, just after the Taliban captured Kabul.

Shakib received an email response four days later, asking for his family’s details. Excited, he prematurely told his children they may be leaving soon. But he has not heard from them since he replied.

He now believes his family is unlikely to qualify under the current criteria. Other people have had their applications rejected because they were not directly employed by the British government.

British citizens are evacuated from Kabul on a military plane.
A British evacuation flight from Kabul. Hundreds of Afghans who worked on UK projects feel they have been abandoned. Photograph: LPhot Ben Shread/Ministry of Defence/EPA

“Every morning my daughter now asks me about updates on our evacuation,” said Shakib. “My children keep asking about their future. My wife is completely broken. They left us to die.”

The couple is terrified the Taliban will soon catch up with them.

“I want to live a life away from fear. I want peace for my family in an atmosphere of democracy,” said Ahmad’s wife. “I just want us to be alive.”

In response to a question by the Guardian on whether it plans to expand the eligibility of Arap to include contractors, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said: “During Operation Pitting, we worked tirelessly to safely evacuate as many people out of Afghanistan as possible, airlifting more than 15,000 people from Kabul including thousands of Arap applicants and their dependents.

“We will continue to do all we can to support those who have supported us, and our commitment to those who are eligible for relocation is not time-limited and will endure. The Arap scheme remains open to applications and we will continue to support those who are eligible.”

ASI said it employed hundreds of Afghan nationals on UK-funded projects between 2002 and 2018. A spokesperson said: “It is our belief, based on legitimate threats to life received by our former employees, that the Taliban are not drawing a distinction between Afghan nationals who were engaged in international development work directly for the UK government – who qualify for Arap – and those who were employed by contractors such as ASI on projects designed and funded by the UK government.

“We continue to press the UK government to extend the Arap scheme to cover Afghan nationals who were previously indirectly employed by the UK government through contractors undertaking work on the UK government’s behalf who are most vulnerable and at risk.”

Zabeeh Deshiwal*, 29, worked on UK-sponsored counter-terrorism, security and justice projects for the contracting firms ASI and Coffey International, which later became Tetra Tech International Development. He has been on the run with his wife, three-year-old son and three-month-old daughter for four weeks.

“My friend, who has a shop next to my house [in Kabul], told me that the Taliban are looking for me and others who were working for foreigners,” he said.

Deshiwal applied for the Arap scheme in May but was rejected because he was not a direct employee of the British government, despite his role on high-risk projects. He appealed against the decision in late July and has yet to hear a response.

The family has been rationing their food by only eating two meals a day. Deshiwal has found it impossible to sleep, as the slightest noise triggers panic.

“Now our lives are at grave risk,” he said. “We can’t stay like this for long. It’s like a never-ending nightmare that gets crueler by the day.”

Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of Human Rights Watch, said the UK government should not be “splitting hairs” over whether someone was a contractor or directly employed.

“People are scrambling from hideout to hideout,” she said. “The UK has days, not months, to save lives. It must make every effort to fulfil its promise and urgently relocate those Afghans who stood by our side when we were most in need.”

* Name changed to protect identity

Contributor

Katie McQue in Dubai

The GuardianTramp

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