Pain of Taliban's resurgence keenly felt among Afghans in UK

Wahid Hezb is one of hundreds of thousands of refugees to have built new lives abroad

Wahid Hezb, who now lives in London, says the Afghan government and the Taliban 'should step aside because neither has legitimacy'. Layla Maghribi/The National
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Wahid Hezb was a toddler when his parents left Taliban-controlled Afghanistan for the UK in 1996, five years before US-forces overthrew the extremists in 2001.

A response to the 9/11 attacks, the US-invasion was met with cautious optimism by locals longing for a return to Afghanistan’s more liberal pre-Taliban days.

Twenty years later, Mr Hezb, 31, sits on one of the empty tables at his family’s Afghan restaurant, Ariana II, in London’s Kilburn neighbourhood, reading up on the latest news from his country on his smartphone. It isn’t good and his heavy heart is palpable.

“You feel their pain. That's how I see it — you feel their pain and you look at photos and you look at some of these videos and you think to yourself, what can I do?” Mr Hezb tells The National.

Exploiting the continuing withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan, Taliban forces are advancing all over the country at breakneck speed.

In another corner of the UK, Afghan author Gulwali Passarlay is furious that western powers have left his people “to the wolves".

“They shouldn’t have been there in the first place but they definitely shouldn’t have left the way they did,” Mr Passarlay tells The National.

Paradoxically, he sees foreign intervention as the only viable way to avoid this now. But the cavalry is unlikely to arrive this time.

While the UK has sent 600 troops to help British citizens leave Afghanistan, there are currently no plans to halt troop withdrawal or to offer further military assistance.

“What they’re saying is that the rights of Afghans aren’t as important as those of the British. I’m angry and upset not just for my family but for all Afghans.”

More than 1,000 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in the past month alone, the UN has said. The international agency also reported that about 400,000 people have been displaced in the country this year, 59 per cent of them children.

Mr Passarlay was a child himself when he made the perilous crossing alone across continents to reach the UK, a journey he has written about in his book, The Lightless Sky. He left Afghanistan in 2006 as a 12-year-old after his family found themselves caught between opposing sides in the postwar country.

Weak security has plagued the country for many years, as Mr Hezb knows well. The last time he visited Kabul, where he still has family, was in 2008. He hasn’t been back since out of fear for his safety.

“I have lots of family there and lots of them died because of would-be thieves robbing them for their vehicle, for their phones, for small things,” says Mr Hezb, whose cousin, a taxi driver, was killed a few years ago by carjackers.

“People struggle and look for a quick way to make ends meet. And because of that, they lost the humanity that you should have and they don't really care about life any more. We're talking about my own people here, now. So, it is sad.”

Violence, corruption and political instability are the reasons a lot of Afghans, Mr Hezb included, feel the government of President Ashraf Ghani has, for the most part, been a failed endeavour.

Nevertheless, the prospect of returning full circle to the state his parents fled 25 years ago is equally tragic.

“The worst case scenario is that the Taliban completely take over and we go back to a dark and scary time,” says Mr Passarlay. “We have to find a diplomatic solution and not have the Taliban just impose themselves on us.”

Mr Hezb thinks neither the current government nor the Taliban have legitimacy to rule for all Afghans.

Decades of conflict have left few alternatives. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees have rebuilt their lives across the globe and few see a place for themselves in Afghanistan’s future.

“We can't go and help our country because they've not given us the platform to,” says Mr Hezb, who has a degree in medical science. “They can't provide safety and security, so how do they expect to move forward?

“I would love to be a part of helping because I want to rebuild the country, I want to build something safe, I want to be proud and say, ‘Hey, my country has tourism, it has agriculture, etc’ but we can’t take advantage of anything at the moment.”

If there is one thing Afghans abroad really want from their adopted home countries, it’s the offer of peace and safety for their compatriots.

A vocal activist for refugees, Mr Passarlay is campaigning to make the UK follow through on its “moral obligation” to resettle Afghans. It is an admirable ask, but for a country of 35 million people, it will need more than a programme to save all the lives at stake.

“I hope for a peace deal and a ceasefire but most importantly, that Afghanistan gets the humanitarian assistance it needs.”

Updated: August 14, 2021, 5:00 AM