“They’re not even human”
Afghan refugees in Azerbaijan tell why they had to leave their homeland
On 16 August, the militarized Taliban movement, which has been banned in many countries around the world, took power in Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans were forced to seek asylum in other countries. This is not the first time this has happened. The Taliban took control of the government in Afghanistan once before in the 1990’s. At that time, one of the countries where Afghans came looking for refuge was Azerbaijan. In this report, Meydan TV tells the stories of Afghan refugees in Azerbaijan, their life here, and what they think about what is going on now in their native country.
40-year-old Muhammad Nurmuhammad has been living in Baku for over 20 years. He was forced to leave Afghanistan in the 90’s after the Taliban came to power for the first time. Here he married an Azerbaijani woman and now they have two sons. Many of his relatives, however, remain in Afghanistan, and he is very worried about what may happen to them.
Right now, my mother, sister, and brothers are there,” says Muhammad. “I live in fear that something could happen to them any minute. They could be killed any day. People there live in constant fear.”
If I had stayed there, they would have killed me, too
Muhammad recounts that when the Taliban first took power, they were killing all the locals who worked in foreign, especially American, organizations, or who worked with NATO. They were killing translators and even drivers and cooks. “I worked at a foreign organization in Kandahar,” he explained. “If I had stayed there, they would have killed me, too. That’s why I had to leave Afghanistan.”
According to Muhammad, at that time and throughout the years that the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, hundreds of thousands of people fled to avoid death at their hands. “If the Taliban was a good government no one would leave the country. Even if it’s poor, your homeland is still your homeland. But they’ve created this situation that… You’ve probably seen it yourself online. They’re not even human”, said Muhammad.
"We were hiding all the time”
29-year-old Nilab Norii’s family fled Afghanistan in 1998. She says that at that time, her father worked in an American organization. According to Nilab, when the first war with the Taliban began she was six, and the Taliban was searching everywhere for her father.
“We were hiding all the time,” Nilab recalls, clearly upset. “I remember that we only traveled by car and we spent several nights in the mountains. Eventually we made it to the airport and we were put on a helicopter which took us to Herat. When the helicopter took off a bomb exploded. The pilot said that if we took off we would die, but if we stayed the Taliban would get us. My father told him to take off no matter what. Thank god we made it to Herat.”
At present, Afghans make up the majority of foreign refugees living in Azerbaijan. According to official statistics, there are 1,226 Afghan refugees. Some of them came to Azerbaijan because it was relatively easy to get a visa, others because it is a country without any radicalism, secular but Muslim, and still others chose Azerbaijan because it is a Turkic-speaking country. Among the Afghans in Azerbaijan there are Persian-speaking people like Pashtuns and Hazaras, as well as Turkic-speaking people such as Afshars.
According to Nilab, for years the Taliban persecuted and murdered many ethnic groups, including Turkic-speaking peoples, who were forced to flee. Azerbaijan attracts them because it is close ethnically and linguistically. Most of them have learned to speak Azerbaijani, such as Nilab and Muhammad. Nilab teaches English courses in Baku and says that she is happy with her work and likes her co-workers, saying, “Azerbaijanis are generally very open and welcoming. I’ve never experienced problems in my interactions here. I have a lot of close friends here”.
“It’s hard for working women there”
Amina (name changed - ed.) is a Hazara. She came to Azerbaijan with her husband. She says that in Afghanistan she faced gender discrimination almost everywhere.
“In Afghanistan working women aren’t treated very well,” she says. “I worked in an office and faced serious problems because of my gender and because of my ethnic background. In Afghanistan working women generally face a lot of problems.”
One reason that Hazaras face persecution is that they are Shia. 47-year-old Nahida fled Afghanistan to save the lives of her four children, heading first to Pakistan, then Dubai, and finally to Azerbaijan, which she chose specifically because the majority of the population is Shia. Nahida says that before the Taliban they lived well in Afghanistan, and no one harassed them because of their religion.
“I had a successful family business,” says Nahida. “But after the Taliban came to power we were under threat. Every day there were murders. We had to leave. With great difficulty we got to Pakistan, where we spent two years. But there we still faced problems because we’re Shia. We moved from there to Dubai where we were fine. But once again there were religious issues, and they started firing Shia from their jobs. We had no money, and we were forced to come to Azerbaijan.”
“For 22 years I have been living in the hope of returning to my homeland”
Nilab says that, although she has lived in Azerbaijan for many years, she always hoped to be able to return to her native country. But that hope faded after the Taliban came to power once again.
“For 22 years I’ve been waiting to return to my homeland someday, to live and work in my country,” sighs Nilab. “But judging by the current situation, that will never happen.”
At the moment, like Muhammad, Nilab is mostly worried about her relatives that are currently in Afghanistan. After the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, some Afghan refugees returned home, including Nilab’s father.
“Right now my father is there in Kabul,” says a worried Nilab. “We’re very scared, because we don’t know if my father is on the “blacklist” again like twenty years ago or not. Because the Taliban are checking every home looking for people who worked in the government and whether there are any American contacts in people’s phones. If they find them, they kill them. We’re waiting for news every second. All my relatives, my uncles and aunts all worked for the government, with the EU, or with the Americans. Now they’re all trying to flee the country. Half of them have already gotten out and the other half are looking for ways to do it.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2020, today there are over 2.6 million Afghan refugees throughout the world. Afghanistan is in third place behind Syria (6.7 million refugees) and Venezuela (4 million).
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