'A matter of life and death': How WhatsApp outage cut lifeline for escaping Afghans

Those waiting for evacuation flights forced to rely on faulty phone connections

WhatsApp disruption could have made escaping from Afghanistan harder. AFP
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For nearly three days, Mohammad Hamid has been stuck in a safe house in Afghanistan with his family. They are waiting in an undisclosed location for further evacuation instructions along with nine other families, all at high risk of persecution by the Taliban.

On Monday, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram were hit by an outage that lasted for more than six hours. The internet was flooded with memes and jokes about one of the world’s largest firms having issues. But for Afghans such as Mr Hamid, a lifeline had been cut.

“I am currently stuck in a room with no means of communication other than the normal phone call that doesn’t always work,"Mr Hamid told The National through an unstable phone line during the outage. His name has been changed to protect his identity."

"We were scheduled to be on an evacuation flight in the morning, but with Facebook and WhatsApp disconnected, we had no way of reaching those outside the country helping us leave,” he added.

As a senior Afghan government official, Mr Hamid’s life was in danger the moment the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August.

“I had been receiving threats for months, but they increased exponentially when the Taliban started gaining territory. And then, when they entered Kabul, I knew they would come for me. So I went into hiding,” Mr Hamid said.

Despite several attempts to escape the country during evacuations that took place in the weeks following the fall of Kabul, Mr Hamid was unable to leave. He said he was waiting outside Kabul airport with the documents required for days, without food or water.

Eventually, with the help of friends and organisations in the US, he and his family were placed on one of the few flights that are still helping Afghans leave. But the disruption to Facebook and WhatsApp services severed communication between vulnerable Afghans and those co-ordinating their escape.

“We were co-ordinating logistics and security details with an organisation based in the US through WhatsApp. We were told they would share a location pin with us on a safe place to meet for being picked up for the flights. I have been refreshing the application all evening, it is still not working,” Mr Hamid said, the worry evident in his voice.

“They were to instruct us on how to approach the airport, which route to take, and how to avoid the Taliban checkpoint, but we have heard nothing.”

Lack of access to phone credit has also made it harder for those in hiding to communicate.

“I tried calling one of the numbers from my regular phone to let the team know that we are worried, they told us to stay calm and they will get back to us. But now we don’t have any credit left to make any more calls,” Mr Hamid said.

Afghan women watch their mobile phones as they sit outside a tourist resort in the coastal city of Shengjin in Albania. AFP

“The sad part is that some families who shared their WhatsApp numbers don’t have the same number on their phone any more, and are worried that they might not be evacuated because of this,” he added.

“One lady begged me to please call WhatsApp and talk to them in English so they can fix her phone. I tried to explain that it is a global issue, but she didn’t understand. That was how terrified some of us were."

In the absence of an affordable telecommunication infrastructure, online messaging services such as Facebook and WhatsApp have grown increasingly popular in Afghanistan. Facebook alone had more than 4,447,200 Afghan users as of January. Although there is no data on the number of WhatsApp users, the application is a widely preferred means of communication for Afghans.

The outage, which lasted about nine hours, the longest ever for the internet giant, also had an impact on those Afghans who had managed to flee the country.

After repeated threats to his life, and barely surviving an explosion at Kabul Airport during the early evacuation, Afghan journalist Mohammad Eisa escaped to Pakistan last week.

“I am in touch with an agency in Europe and the last thing I was told was to wait and they might be able to put me on a flight soon. But in the last seven hours, I have not been able to get any updates and I have no other contact with them,” the 29-year-old said.

Mr Eisa has also not been able to contact his family, which has added to his panic. “I bought my wife a smartphone just before I left, and activated WhatsApp on it so we could be in touch. That is my only contact with my family while I am on the run, but it was cut off for nearly eight hours," he said.

“I know they are other platforms but not everyone knows about it.”

As a man on the run, Mr Eisa left the country without a passport, so he cannot acquire a local sim card in Pakistan. “I am scared of even going out to make a call because I am scared Pakistani police might arrest me and deport me. WhatsApp was my only lifeline,” he added.

Facebook, the parent company of the three digital services, used Twitter to apologise.

“Sincere apologies to everyone impacted by outages of Facebook-powered services right now. We are experiencing networking issues and teams are working as fast as possible to debug and restore,” Mike Schroepfer, the its chief technology officer, tweeted on Monday evening.

However, for those Afghans on the run, the apology offers little comfort.

“I almost died, and I lost a colleague in the airport explosion. I am frustrated. I don’t care how much money WhatsApp is losing but I hope they know people could die because of the disruption in their service. It is a matter of life and death,” Mr Eisa said.

Mr Hamid added: “Its past midnight here and hardly anyone has slept. We are worried that we might not get evacuated because of this technological failure. People here are crying because if we don’t get evacuated, we might be killed by the Taliban. He could not be reached after the WhatsApp disruption had ended."

Updated: October 05, 2021, 2:11 PM