Pealtnägija: First interview with Afghan who fled from Kabul to Estonia
ETV's investigative TV show "Pealtnägija" interviewed Ali Afzali, an Aghan who worked with an Estonian NGO in Afghanistan, and fled with his family last month after the Taliban seized control of the country.
Five years ago, Ali Afzali had never heard of Estonia and was not sure where the country was. But now he is one of three families claiming asylum in Estonia after the Taliban retook Afghanistan following the withdrawal of western forces from the country in August.
The 43-year-old, his wife and six-year-old son were among the first of thirty Afghan refugees who had worked with Estonia to arrive in the country.
Afzali worked alongside Estonian development NGO Mondo which provided girls' education, sexual health education and trained midwives in Afghanistan. He had worked for a partner organization of the NGO since 2016 and even met President Kersti Kaljulaid on her recent visit.
He told ETV's investigative show "Pealtnägija" about his work with Estonia in Afghanistan, how his family escaped Kabul and what he thinks of Estonia.
The majority of Afzali's life in Afghanistan was overshadowed by war. His childhood in the 1970s was spent in the wake of the Soviet invasion which was later followed by the U.S. and its allies who spent 20 years in the country trying to eradicate Islamic terrorists.
He is disabled after breaking his left hand when he was "five or six" and unable to access professional medical care. "There was not any hospital, they did not know how to treat it. My hand became disabled," Afzali said.
From 1996 until 2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. They banned entertainment, women's education and held public executions in sports stadiums. They also persecuted ethnic minorities, such as the Hazara, of which Afzali is a member.
As a 16-year-old he fled to neighboring Iran, working first as a chef before studying English and IT. He returned to Afghanistan when the Taliban fell from power.
"Then we heard that the Taliban would leave the country by force and a new government will come with the help of the international community. And we were happy. After 9/11, a new window opened up for minorities. It was a hopeful time and we were optimistic. There was no government, no police and no army that would not allow us to go to school, to the street, to the yard. We were free. We were happy," he told "Pealtnägija".
In 2016, Afzali became the leader of Mondo's partner organization in Afghanistan and was the coordinator of activities in northern Afghanistan for five years.
He said he had not heard of Mondo before that or "even the name of Estonia". "I guessed it might have been Europe or somewhere like that," he said.
But the situation was never certain, said Mondo board member Riina Kuusik-Rajasaar, and it became more dangerous after former U.S. President Donald Trump announced the decision to withdraw troops. This put anyone who had worked with western forces in danger.
Afzali knows people who have been killed by the Taliban.
"The Taliban took two or three of the people that I work with. And, unfortunately, they have been killed by the Taliban. The victims of terrorists are civilians. Me, my wife, my neighbor," he said.
As the situation grew worse this summer, six people who worked with Mondo and their families called on Estonia to help them leave the country. They needed to leave via Kabul International Airport but needed confirmation of an accepted asylum application before they could leave the country.
As scenes of chaos at Kabul airport dominated the world's media, Mondo and the Estonian Refugee Council sent a request to the minister of foreign affairs. Three days later, on August 19, the government announced the decision to accept 30 Afghans who had worked with Estonia, NATO or the EU.
"When the political decision came, the real search began for ways to actually carry out an evacuation when there was complete chaos around Kabul airport," said Kuusik-Rajasaar. This was something Estonia had no previous experience of.
Meanwhile, Afzali and his family were preparing to leave their homeland.
"One day, I hid my face with a handkerchief, I went to the office, I took some of my documents... education documents and a passport," he said. "Every person got two pairs of clothes and one small bag, and we started going to the airport."
Escape from Kabul
The roads and streets around Kabul International Airport were packed with thousands of people trying to leave Afghanistan and were controlled by the Taliban. Despite promises not to obstruct people trying to get into the airport, this turned out to not be true.
People were being beaten or, worse, sent back. Afzali was not spared but he kept in constant communication with Kuusik-Rajasaar and Tiina Nirk, director general of the Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs via messaging service What's App.
"The Taliban behaved violently towards people. They were telling people "don't come, don't move, go away". The Taliban were beating people with sticks. More than seven, eight times the Taliban beat me on my shoulder. With the stick on my leg. Sometimes the Taliban was beating us to keep moving forward. From Mondo, Riina was sending messages on What's App "please keep cool"."
The Estonians needed to know the exact location of the workers and this had to be made clear to Estonia's ally - France - who helped to evacuate people out of the country.
To enter the airport Afzali and his family needed to pass three checkpoints controlled by the Taliban.
"The last checkpoint was the most difficult, there were many more people and the Taliban were violent against the people. I had a bag on my shoulder, my six-year-old son was on my other shoulder and we were trying to move. The Taliban beat me many times on my legs with a stick, on my back, and when we saw the Taliban looking away, we started to move. At that moment, my wife was crying, my child was crying too, but I encouraged them to please stay calm - we have to go, there is not a place for us to go back too," Afzali said.
It took three days and two nights to pass through the checkpoints.
"When we entered the inside of the airport and saw lots of foreign people we thought that we are free from the Taliban. We breathed deeply and we thanked god - wow," Afzali said.
A new life in Estonia
Finally, in the early hours of August 24, the family and their only suitcase boarded an evacuation flight, first to Abu Dhabi, then Paris and finally arrived in Tallinn.
Two other families and a single man also relocated to Estonia before the allies departed at the end of August.
The evacuees are now living in Vao refugee camp and waiting for the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) to process their asylum applications.
"I definitely want a secure future for them, no matter how life goes. If they have a safe chance to live, I definitely see great potential in these people to continue working in the areas where they have worked so far," Tiina Nirk, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said.
However, two Mondo collaborators were unable to get through the scrum at the airport to board their flights. "They're safe at the moment, but they're still afraid for their lives," Nirk said.
"Pealtnägija" presenter Piia Osula met with Ali Afzali in Tallinn to find out about his life in Estonia.
She said he was fascinated by Bolt's scooters, Pikk Hermann tower at Toompea and the greenery of Snelli Park. The environment in which he grew up is as different as night and day and, for most of his life, he was not allowed to publically express his thoughts.
Afzali wants to learn Estonian as quickly as possible and find a job - any job.
However, before he can do that, he faces a wait of several months for his asylum claim to be processed. The PPA have previously said they will not speed up the procedure for the new Afghan arrivals.
Meanwhile, the Estonian Refugee Council has already started to try and find jobs and an apartment to rent on social media.
Speaking about his new life in Estonia, he said: "My son is happy, much happier, happier than in Afghanistan. My wife is not very happy. Sometimes she is sad. This is the first time she has left Afghanistan and she misses her family, relatives."
Discussing the future, he said: "If the Taliban stay in my country, I will not go there. I will stay here in Estonia. Study the language, get citizenship. If the situation is good, probably I will go back. But I prefer for my son to stay here. It is better for him to stay here. To be helpful for Estonian society, to be a real Estonian."
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Editor: Helen Wright