Notes from Another Exodus: The Four-Month Struggle to Evacuate Afghan Poets and Scholars

By Fatemeh Shams

On 15 August 2021, Kabul fell to the Taliban, after twenty years of US-led military occupation. As the situation escalated over the following days and weeks, harrowing footage of airport stampedes, Taliban violence, protestors, chaos, and panic dominated the news. Four months later, the news cycle may have quietened, but the crisis in Afghanistan intensifies every day.[1] For many, it is just the beginning of what will be a dangerous and drawn-out struggle to leave for an unknown destination.

Kabul is 4,000 miles away from my Berlin home, but since Afghanistan fell, it has felt suffocatingly close. For four months I have been – and still am – immersed in the chaotic evacuation process, with constant messages, emails, and calls from my Afghan friends and peers, in hiding or on the run. When lists came out prioritizing who was entitled to help to leave, academics, students, poets, and writers were not on them. Most of them who did not collaborate with the foreign forces had been left behind. I was inundated with CVs and portfolios and desperate pleas to find academic hosts and sponsors in Europe and the United States who could get them out. More often than not, routes to freedom were blocked by bureaucracy and practicalities as well as misinformation, empty promises, and an uncoordinated response.

Photo: Georges Khalil.

What could I do to help as an individual, with no governmental ties or contacts, no organizational support, no political or administrative clout? Those looking to me for help knew I was a poet and scholar. But none of them knew I was also a stateless refugee who has held no passport for the past nine years and has been traveling on a Geneva Convention refugee travel document. I was exiled from Iran in 2009 following the rise of the Green Movement, first living in the United Kingdom and then the United States, and have not returned to Iran since. In 2017, I had the opportunity to become a British citizen, but Trump’s Muslim travel ban took that away. I know the fragility of the exilic life all too well. The humiliation at every border crossing, the hostile glances, the endless interrogations. But throughout these years I have also learnt that sometimes it’s an act of kindness, a serendipitous fluke, someone not giving up that can make the difference. Since Kabul fell, I have been doing all I can to not give up.

Iran and Afghanistan share a history going back thousands of years, rooted in ancient linguistic and cultural bonds. The past century has brought political ruptures in the relationship, but the collaborative network of Persian writers and scholars remains. The literary tradition our two countries share is so deep that poets are often referred to as “Persian” before being recognized as “Iranian” or “Afghan.” The two nations have offered each other refuge in turbulent times. My childhood was spent just across the border from Afghanistan in the city of Mashhad, which was populated by Afghan refugees, some of the million that Iran hosted during and after the Soviet war and also following the rise of the Taliban into power in the ’90s.

I spent time in Kabul in 2015, invited by Afghanistan’s PEN (Qalam) Association. I had put off the trip for a year – many had warned me it wasn’t safe. While Kabul for others was shorthand for fear, for me it was the cradle of Persian literature, home to the generations of poets I felt so close to on the page. I wanted to take a pilgrimage of sorts, to the birthplace of the first Persian-speaking woman poet, Rabi’a Balkhi (tenth century), and the home of Mowlana Jalal-al-din Balkhi (b. 1203), better known in the West as the popular “Sufi” poet Rumi, whose roots, to the surprise of many modern readers, are in the city of Balkh in today’s Afghanistan, from where he was exiled during the Mongol invasion. I also wanted to visit the city of Ghazni, the birthplace of the renowned mystic poet Sanai Ghaznavi. My visit to Afghanistan was a way of paying homage to the giants of Persian poetry, whose verse has shaped me from a very young age, and bonding with today’s generation of poets, some of whom I had already met in London.

During my stay there, I sat amongst peers and poets in public and private poetry readings (moshā’ereh), where we shared our work and enjoyed literary conversations lasting long into the night. Such salons have long been acts of resistance across the Persianate world, a space in which writers can pull apart the present, imagine a future, and resurrect the past. The beating heart of the Persian poetic tradition, they are fertile spaces for sharing work and critiquing others and discovering poets you may not know. It was there that my friend Reza, a poet known worldwide as the loud and eloquent voice of Afghanistan, introduced me to the work of leading Afghan poet and scholar Khaleda Froagh.

Khaleda and I have never met. But after coming to know her through her poems, I learned that she first fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took over in 1996 and forced her out of her job. Khaleda lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, her first exile, where she edited the literary magazine Sadaf (Pearl) and published four poetry collections. By the time she returned to Kabul, she was recognized as one of the leading voices of modern poetry in Afghanistan.[2] Her life has been shaped by her country’s half-century of turbulent times: an infant when a coup abolished the monarchy; a child during the revolution; an adolescent in the Soviet-Afghan War; a young woman when the Taliban took control; and in her thirties as the Americans and the extremists fought over her homeland. And now she is an academic, a poet, a mother, a daughter, a sister, and one of the thousands of Afghans desperate to get out.

When Kabul fell, I reached out to her, assuming that she would be the only passenger I needed to help. She replied the next day. Her husband was stuck in Uzbekistan. Could she and her sixteen-year-old daughter get to him there? Could he come back to them in Kabul? There was hope, she said, from the International Cities of Refugee Network (ICORN) in Norway. They were processing her case as a poet at risk. But without visas for Norway or Uzbekistan, no one could do anything for them. When Kabul fell, their options collapsed with it. Suddenly five of them had to leave.

On 19 August she responded to my message:

The situation is escalating every moment. I am extremely concerned about my daughter, mother, brother and sister who have always lived with me. Is there any way to help with their evacuation? How can I leave my family behind . . . my mother is eighty years old with heart disease . . . my brother is in danger . . . please do something if you can . . .

Her brother had been abandoned by the Americans he had worked with for nine years. The British officer he turned to for help blocked his number and ignored his emails. Three of his colleagues had already been arrested, interrogated, and beaten. Khaleda feared he would be next.

Everywhere is dark. Absurd winds have blown and broken all the lights. We are facing terror and death. Every moment, something might happen to me and my family. My whole life has been spent on writing and resistance. I have been the loud voice of Afghan women and have stood up and protested against inequalities. The women of this land no longer have a place, or a chance, to live. We are all surrounded by fear.

These were the words she wrote when I asked her to write a short piece that I could send to colleagues and contacts to try and secure her paperwork to legitimately leave. I reached out to different evacuation teams. One of them promised to secure their departure. I had to be the mediator during the whole evacuation process, to provide step-by-step instructions until they make it for the evacuation flight:

– You must go to the airport at 4 p.m. today.
– Will all of us go?
– Yes. All of you.
– How much can we carry?
– Travel as light as possible. Just a handbag.

I passed on the instructions exactly as they were relayed to me by one evacuation team:

Go to the BRITISH side of the ENTRY GATE, not the American side. There is a path. Walk through it to a canal. Cross the bridge and look for the British military. Behind the British military are the evacuation forces. You must wave a piece of red cloth (foulard, napkin, anything red) and shout out the name of the NGO.

In the afternoon of 23 August, Khaleda risked the journey with her teenage daughter, her eighty-year-old mother who has a heart condition, her brother, and younger sister. They followed the instructions: carried a red shawl which increased the risk for Khaleda’s brother to be identified by the Taliban forces at the airport, crossed the dangerous bridge where thousands were trying to cross, made it to the gate where evacuation forces said to be located, and shouted the name of the NGO many times. But there was no one there to meet them. Once they got closer to the gate and entered the blind zone with no reception, we lost contact. Khaleda’s brother had to leave them to get out of the blind zone and call me while Bibi Salimeh, Khaleda’s mother, in her wheelchair, was having a hard time to breathe.

What should we do next? There is no one here to pick us up. I shouted many times. No one seems to care about the red piece of cloth or the name of the NGO. It is difficult to even stand still. It is impossible to breathe. I am scared of being identified after five nights of hiding. Shall we wait or return home?

They waited for fourteen hours, as the crisis around them grew worse—children wailing, men and women crushed by the crowd— trying to avoid being identified by Taliban troops. I messaged the evacuation team. No reply.

Please tell the evacuation forces it is not safe for us to wait here anymore. We were pushed out by the crowd. My mother is not doing well.

Khaleda and her family made the dangerous journey home.

They should not have left. This was their only chance to leave. Now people are getting through the gate. Tell them to return to the airport NOW.

The person who was giving the evacuation instruction was sitting somewhere in Europe. I wondered whether they could ever imagine the horrific situation at the airport where crying children, men, and women were dying under the stampede. They kept sending more instructions for different meeting points. Having no other option, I desperately tried to convince Khaleda and her family to return to the airport. They tried three more times and waited for many hours. Each time, the people who promised to help weren’t there.

I felt it was my fault. I felt ashamed. They all saw me as their only reliable contact, but in truth I had no power, and was as bewildered and terrified as they were, receiving conflicting instructions and desperately acting in the dark. In the meantime, my attempts to get Khaleda academic sponsorship were failing. Despite the crisis at hand, institutions wouldn’t budge on their strict requirements for a high command of English. There were no programmes available to address that need; no willingness to throw a lifeline to brilliant minds first and work on their language skills later. English was another arbitrary border that Khaleda and other Afghan academics and poets must cross.

* * * *

The following two months turned out to be a frantic rollercoaster of preparing various spreadsheets, identifying those most at risk, contacting people who might help, and trying to find academic hosts and sponsors for the displaced Afghan scholars and students. In many cases, the path to their escape was blocked not only by practical restrictions but also by misinformation, false claims, empty promises, and carelessness. While trying to secure the departure of Khaleda and her family, I started to receive many more desperate phone calls from other friends in Afghanistan.

Masoumeh, twenty-seven, was an academic, working in public health at a private university in Kabul. Like Khaleda, she had fled Afghanistan with her family when the Taliban took over in 1996. Her first exile was in Iran, where she was educated at one of the best universities and received her doctoral degree before returning to Afghanistan. Young and defiant, she spoke up against gender-based discrimination at work. On the morning of 15 August, she went to university alone. In the afternoon, her brother called her to say Kabul had fallen and she must not leave the campus alone.

Like Khaleda’s brother, Masoumeh’s brother had worked with Afghan officials in a sensitive job. On 22 August, I reached out to him. He was desperately trying to find a way for his sister. 

I need to find a way. She is a single, Hazara woman. I can’t leave her behind. My father passed away two years ago. My mother is in Iran. If I leave the country, she has no one here to help her. Please do something . . .

What could I do? More instructions, more confusion . . . like with Khaleda, twice the evacuation forces didn’t show up to pick her up. This time, I teamed up with another female academic who had a direct link with forces on the ground and sent me instructions for Masoumeh. On the third attempt, she went to the correct place at the expected time.

I am next to the tower. Where the guard is. Please tell the soldier that I’m wearing a hat with a mask. I am wearing a long, black shirt on top of my red blouse . . .

This was followed by a chain of desperate messages. I was frantically typing back and forth between Masoumeh in Persian and the contact in English, who was firing out changing instructions at a rapid pace.

Please ask her to take a selfie and send it to me. I have to share it with the soldier at the gate to be able to identify her.

Two minutes later, Masoumeh’s terrified eyes showed up on my phone, her face hidden behind a medical mask. 

– I need your exact location, Masoumeh.
– Next to the Canadian post guard. There are flags of Canada and Afghanistan next to me.

From my contact:

Ask Masoumeh to take a picture pointing towards the gate. He will find her or get someone to find her.

In the second selfie, Masoumeh was in a different location, in front of the Swedish flag and three soldiers.

What happened? Will someone come to take me?

She was terrified. The contact on the ground was not responding. There was no instruction for a while. I kept sending messages.

Tell Masoumeh to write ROCKY on a piece of paper and wave it at the gates. If he can see her, he will ask his colleagues to let her in. 

Masoumeh sent a third picture, the word ROCKY hastily scrawled.

– I am standing on the wall and holding this paper in my hand.
– Stand right there. Do not move. Keep the sign as high as you can.

Twenty minutes passed. No news from Masoumeh or my contact. It was past 8 p.m. in Kabul, almost time for the soldiers to leave for the night. If she couldn’t get through the gate now, it was over.

8:30 p.m. – I am still here. I have had a heart attack before. Five minutes ago, I started having the same symptoms. I am terrified.

With my shaky hands it was almost impossible to type a message. I sent her a voice message while desperately trying to stop my voice from shaking.

Please sit down where you are. Drink some water. Calm down. They will come. Don’t be afraid.

How could she not be afraid? What if no one showed up again? What if something happened to her out there? Her brother already made it through the gate. She literally had no one to get her out.

I left my car in the middle of the street, I left my whole life, my flat that I bought a few months ago after years of working hard. I left my only safe space . . .

Finally, a new message came:

Send her this green screenshot and ask her to put it on her phone at 8:40. She has to go to the location where she took the selfie you sent me if she isn’t already there. 

Masoumeh was getting worse:

I am seated in a shock position. I didn’t find my medication. The reception is very poor . . . I can’t hear your voice messages. Please type . . .

She couldn’t move to a new location. My fingers were numb. I had no words to type, no instructions to give. She saw me as a reliable contact, but in truth I was just a mediator, as confused and frightened as she was, receiving conflicting instructions and acting in the dark, hoping that something would somehow work out. Minutes kept passing, an agonising wait.

I passed through the gate. He found me. Thank you so much . . . I am with the soldier now.

When the soldier took her to the medical team, she was in the middle of a cardiac arrest.

* * * *

Meanwhile, my friend Reza was still in Kabul. When the city fell, he searched for somewhere safe from where he could organize the evacuation of fellow writers and colleagues. I begged him to get out, to put himself first. I won’t leave while our friends are running door to door here, he wrote. They must leave first . . .

The day after the bomb went off at Kabul Airport on the afternoon of 26 August, he called me.

Can you do anything for Hamideh? She was in the explosion. She is a 20-year-old athlete from the north. She escaped to Kabul after the fall of her town to the Taliban, terrified that she will be forced to marry a Talib relative who has had his eyes on her for years . . .

Hamideh had told Reza, If I stay here, I’ll kill myself. Death is better than the life that awaits me . . .

This time I teamed up with a female journalist I trusted who’d had success with getting endangered Afghans out. I told her the story, and she asked for Hamideh’s documents. But like hundreds of other Afghans, Hamideh did not have a passport, just a torn piece of paper, an old Takirah, written in Pashtun. I doubt that she can be evacuated with this document, she replied.

By then, Kabul Airport had shut down. Hamideh had two failed attempts to get out. She sent me a picture of her wounded toes.

I can’t run anymore. I am in pain. I survived the explosion. I ran over 400 dead bodies at the airport. The smell of blood still makes me sick. I am scared. Thank you for all your efforts. But I can’t get out of this house. I am too scared . . . and too exhausted.

Right when I almost gave up hope, the journalist sent me a message saying she may be able to help Hamideh if she could get to Mazar Sharif. It was 2 a.m. in Kabul when I called Hamideh.

– Can you get to Mazar Sharif?
– Now? On my own? It’s eight hours’ drive.
– As soon as possible. Can your brother go with you?
– Can he get out with me too?
– I don’t think so. I will ask.

But I knew if I asked for an extra person, she would lose her chance to get out.

I passed on her name to at least three evacuation teams. While waiting for the journalist to get back to me, another evacuation team reached out with a Google location.

There is a convoy military car parked there with four soldiers. Hamideh should show her paper and introduce herself. Tell her to leave NOW.

But the location was close to a Taliban checkpoint. Hamideh – and I – were afraid. She was vulnerable, going with the convoy alone. She was preparing to go when a new instruction came:

– Tell Hamideh not to leave unless they call her number. 
– Who are THEY?

No reply. I told her to stay home.

At the same time, I had also sent Khaleda instructions to get to Mazar Sharif. I asked if they could take Hamideh with them, but they had already left. After two nights of no sleep, I could barely navigate my own thoughts. I was somehow living under Hamideh’s skin. I was too scared to tell her to leave when I did not know her final destination.

I convinced my brother to take me to Mazar. He hired a car. We are leaving at 8 a.m.

Hamideh wrote after eighteen hours and promised to message me en route. I could finally fall asleep. Nine hours passed and I hadn’t heard from her. Khaleda and her family had made it to the meeting point at Mazar Sharif but no word from Hamideh. I was glued to my phone until she finally replied.

We were robbed by the cab driver. He took everything. Our money. My brother’s phone. I hid mine in my pocket. We are in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know where we are . . .

How could I tell her to calm down and not be afraid? What could I even say? The journalist, too, was confused and worried.

Can she share her location with you? Where is she exactly?

I asked Hamideh for her location. No reply for hours. With no location, there was nothing we could do. A few hours later a message came from her.

– My mother came and took us. We are two hours away from Mazar. Have we lost the flight?
– No, there’s still time. Go to the hotel. Give them the passcode I gave you and get in.

Hamideh and her family never made it to the meeting point. I messaged her repeatedly. No response, no calls. I lost contact with her for almost two months.

* * * *

October, the tenth week of evacuation efforts. I paced the floors of my Berlin apartment, my belongings still half unpacked from my recent move, calling Afghanistan, America, England, France, Switzerland, Ireland – anywhere and anyone I could. The endless stream of paperwork continued, the ongoing appeals for academic hosts and sponsors, translating applications from Persian into English, the same bureaucratic red tape. Those who promised to help stepped back. Borders were closed. The initial shock of coverage was dropped from the news. I thought in the middle of an “impossible exodus” how quickly the unimaginable becomes normal.[3]

Another Afghan woman, Mehri, a law scholar, was stuck in Iran, where her ninety-day visa was about to run out. The Iranian authorities refused to extend it to let her stay there. They said it was her duty as a Shia Hazara Afghan to return to Afghanistan and join the anti-Taliban resistance. With the help of colleagues, I secured a fellowship for her in one of the American universities. But none of the neighbouring countries were letting her enter to go to an embassy and get her visa. Later on, it became clear that US embassies in the region do not even process J1 visas for Afghan scholars. And now Iran wanted her out. To think that our lands were once united and now tragically divided over absurd sectarian fights, whose victims were women like Mehri, Khaleda, Masoumeh, Hamideh, and others was paralyzing my mind.

There is a place, of course, where the Persian bond and resistance against political divisions continue – on the page. When I returned from Afghanistan in 2015, I was full of Khaleda’s words and wanted to try and get her poetry better known in the world. Two years later, the renowned poet-scholar and translator Dick Davis mentioned an anthology he was working on of female Persian poets. I immediately thought of Khaleda. Reza connected us and our correspondence began. Penguin published the anthology in early 2021, featuring over eighty female poets from the past thousand years, including, for the first time in English, two poems by Khaleda Froagh.[4]

Since it was published, I have wanted Khaleda to hold that book in her hands. The publisher mailed a copy to Kabul, but it endured an exile of its own – two months in either one place or another, shuttling between customs and post offices, planes and roads, only to end up back in Washington, DC, where it began. We tried to work out if it could get to her via a friend in Norway, who would soon be visiting Afghanistan. But the pandemic came, and then Kabul fell. The book has travelled from the United States to Berlin with me. It sits here on my desk, awaiting her hands.

* * * *

November. Khaleda, Masoumeh, and Hamideh all made it out. Mehri’s German visa finally arrived. She will leave Iran for Berlin at the end of the month.

When Khaleda and her family got to the meeting point at Mazar Sharif, they were bundled into a hotel hall with three hundred other families and kept there for several days. When they were finally put on a plane, they had no idea where it was going to land. It didn’t matter. They were out. Her brother sent a selfie from the plane. The five of them were smiling at the camera, exhausted but relieved.

Hamideh should have been on that flight. Her name was on the list with Khaleda’s. For two months, I didn’t know what had happened to her or where she was. Then on 19 October, a picture arrived on my phone of a young woman with long, black hair, her scarf dancing in the wind behind her. She had made it to Islamabad with the help of the journalist and her evacuation team.

I hadn’t heard from Masoumeh since she made it through the gate. On 26 August, she sent a picture: a tent with identical Red Cross beds cramped alongside each other in a refugee camp in a small Italian town.

It is very cold here. The food is uncooked. They took our phones away. I smuggled a SIM card inside. We are already treated like criminals . . .

Still, her brother was grateful: At least she got out, he wrote, from a refugee camp in a remote Swedish town.

I don’t know the name of this town. I don’t know how long I will be in this camp.

Khaleda and her family arrived in a very different place from Masoumeh’s camp – a luxury beach resort in Albania, with large rooms, sea views, and a sparkling pool. In sharp contrast with its far wealthier and more able neighbours, Albania has welcomed more than four thousand Afghan refugees, putting them up in beachfront hotels, the same emergency measures it took with its own people when an earthquake hit in 2019. For Khaleda, such luxury is uncomfortable, the difference between Kabul and this idyll too great to process.

I loved the sea since I was a child . . . but this sea is different. I never saw a sea like this.
I send you love that is like this sea, bā mehr- e daryāvār . . .

Khaleda doesn’t know how long they will be there for, or where they may be sent to next. She and her daughter hope to end up in Norway. Her mother, brother, and sister either to Canada or the United States. Hamideh crossed the border and is waiting in Pakistan. Masoumeh is in Italy. They face uncertain fates. Mehri is preparing to leave for Berlin where we hope to meet for the first time. All of them are in exile now and will move to other exiles sooner or later. This perpetual state of loss and waiting is all too familiar. They will always be part here, part elsewhere.

* * * *

Still November. Still in Berlin. I go for a short walk around my neighbourhood and think about the book I came here to write, ironically about Persian exile literature. I found out that the Berlin Wall was put up right outside my building, that I am living along the old East-West borderline. Outside my window a pond with swans and rosebushes and a Zen Buddha fountain have replaced the wall and its death zone.

Around the neighbourhood there are memorial stands with old photos of the Berlin Wall, the cement watchtowers looming over the city. I follow the old border, childishly hopscotching left and right, between what was once the East and the West. I stop in front of the Stolpersteine, which bear the names of the victims of the Holocaust, and think again and again how quickly the unimaginable becomes normal.

I watch the swans, gliding graciously down the canal. They are the defiant spirit of Berlin, which today is known as the city of exiles. A city destroyed, divided, and wounded, during a century of chaos and war, rose out of its own ashes and has offered a home to thousands of war refugees over the years. I think of Kabul and whether one day I will walk there, when the present has slipped into the past, tracing the ghost lines of old borders and divisions. The chance of attending another poetry gathering. A dream of a glorious return.

Albania is not that far from Berlin. I dream of meeting Khaleda and pressing the book into her hands. To tell her that poetry is the one home we never have to flee – “for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.”[5]

This piece was originally published in the spring 2022 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review (vol. 61, no. 2).


Notes

[1] I wrote this piece in November 2021 based on the real accounts of my personal involvement in the evacuation process.

[2] Khaleda Froagh has so far published seventeen books which include twelve poetry collections, two novels, and two scholarly books about the literature of Afghanistan.

[3] I have borrowed “impossible exodus” from Orit Bashkin’s remarkable account of the immigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel, Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

[4] The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women, trans. Dick Davis (New York: Penguin, 2021). This book was originally published by Mage Publishers in 2019.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Minima moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N Jephcott (New York: Verso, 1987), 87.


Fatemeh Shams is Assistant Professor of Modern Persian Literature at University of Pennsylvania. Her areas of expertise include literary production under authoritarian states, the social history of modern Persian literature, and ideology and literary production. She is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning poet with three poetry collections. Her third collection, When They Broke Down the Door, won the Latifeh Yarshater annual book award in 2016. Her first monograph, A Revolution in Rhyme: Poetic Co-Option Under the Islamic Republic, was published by Oxford University Press. In the academic years 2021–2023, she is a EUME-CNMS Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Previously, she was also a EUME Fellow for the academic years 2019/20 and 2020/21.


Citation: Fatemeh Shams,Notes from Another Exodus: The Four-Month Struggle to Evacuate Afghan Poets and Scholars, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.05.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/37610


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