Afghan students dare to escape to Kyrgyzstan
Looking at the Taliban soldier, Farzana had little hope that this escape attempt would be more successful than its previous ones.
A graduate in political science from the American University of Afghanistan, Farzana had already tried to flee the country twice since the fall of Kabul. Now she was one of 18 students crushed in several cars at the Torkham border crossing with Pakistan: girls in the back wearing hijabs, boys in the front tasked with portraying girls as their sisters.
They had driven six hours, only to find their way blocked.
“I will never forget that day,” Farzana told Eurasianet. (The names of the Afghan students in this story have been changed to protect their families.)
The soldier ignored their Pakistani transit visas and fired in the air, forcing them back into the cars. After several hours, the doors suddenly opened. The students, now on foot, rushed with a crowd of people. After several more hours, they passed Pakistani checkpoints and boarded a bus for Islamabad.
Farzana is one of more than 180 Afghan students who fled to Bishkek in the past two months to attend the American University of Central Asia (AUCA).
“The university told us, ‘We can’t help you at the border. You have to go through it yourself, ”she recalls. “But we were in constant contact with the staff. I know they weren’t sleeping at night. I really appreciate what they have done for us.
Attempts to evacuate students before the U.S. military completed its Aug. 30 withdrawal failed, said Jonathan Becker, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College and interim president of AUCA.
AUCA therefore improvised, coordinating an international effort and hiring a Finnish security company with local drivers in Toyota Corollas. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has issued student visas – partially fulfilling a commitment done in August – Pakistan granted transit visas and Afghan students braved the overland journey from Kabul to Islamabad.
“We insisted that these were students leaving Afghanistan as part of their normal student activity. They were not refugees. Politically, in many places it is easier to help students than refugees, ”Becker told Eurasianet.
“We were also able to secure scholarships for Afghan students, which was a big factor for the Kyrgyz and Pakistani governments and helped us get visas,” Becker added. Fortunately, there are regular flights from Islamabad to Bishkek due to the large number of Pakistani students seeking medical degrees in Kyrgyzstan.
For Shirin, 21, the armed robbery through eastern Afghanistan was her first overseas trip on her own. She left in one of the student cars for Torkham, hoping the border would be open. It was not. A student tried to explain to a Taliban guard that he was allowed to pass, but the guard whipped the boy’s arm three or four times in response, Shirin said. “The man was very angry and shouted at the boys, ‘Why don’t you go to the noon prayer and are you [instead] wait here to cross the border and go abroad? she remembered.
The group returned to Kabul. The second time they were successful.
“At every Taliban checkpoint, my heart was racing. We were so scared that they would find out who we were and where we were going, “she said.” It was all like magic. I was really anxious [the escape] wouldn’t happen.
Zahra, 21, a sophomore international politics student at AUCA, had returned to Kabul in May to see her family, with a return ticket to Bishkek for August 16. In September, she finally managed to leave the mainland.
“We are still in shock for our country, our families,” she said. “We’re homeless now: we can’t go back, and I’m sure Kyrgyzstan won’t help us after we graduate. I started my classes in week five [of the semester], so I have a hard time catching up.
AUCA is still trying to get a handful of students out of Afghanistan. And other challenges arose. The school has 300 Afghan students, about 60% of whom are women. Many students have experienced trauma and have been separated from their families. Their future after graduation is also something Becker and his colleagues worry about.
“We want to create conditions for them where they can be successful and help them plan for their future after graduation,” he said. “I like to say that we have finished the sprint, and now we are in a marathon.”
Farzana has been in Bishkek for almost a month. She will be graduating at the end of the semester and is concerned about the future as she prepares to apply for a masters program. But she also tries to live in the moment, enjoying what many students around the world take for granted: the pleasure of a simple stroll.
“In Kabul, I just wanted to go for a walk, but I couldn’t. So that’s what I do here every day, ”she said.