Show caption A woman and her children at a clinic for displaced people near Herat, Afghanistan. Photograph: Mstyslav Chernov/AP Opinion The response to Ukraine is laudable. But as a British Afghan, I’m a little jealous Nelufar Hedayat Seven months since Kabul’s fall, my family are still pleading for help. Has the world forgotten this ongoing humanitarian crisis? @Nelufar_H Sat 19 Mar 2022 10.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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The world’s attention is focused on the conflict in Ukraine. But, as someone born in Afghanistan, the catastrophic events since the fall of Kabul are still uppermost in my mind.
In those tumultuous days last August, the bustle of the capital city evaporated. The new Taliban government banned women from public spaces for decency reasons. Speaking out or protesting was met with harsh beatings and threats of maiming and murder. Gone, too, was outdoor music, or women walking around their city without a male escort.
Within the first few months after western forces fled the country they had sunk trillions of dollars into – and lost – the first issue for Afghans was accessing money.
When I spoke to my aunt in Kabul last month, she was forced to ask me for cash, for only for the second time in our lives. It’s hard to explain the cultural significance of this. My proud aunt, a headteacher, is now begging her staff to keep coming in to work every day for no pay. She’s used up all her savings and can’t afford food any more. “When the Americans left, the money left with them. Public sector workers like us haven’t been paid in five months. There’s whispers that women who work won’t be paid at all,” she tells me. The economic collapse of the entire country looms.
Surprisingly, the Taliban government chose to keep the US-educated deputy finance minister Nazir Kabiri – who, despite having the opportunity to flee the country along with president Ashraf Ghani, didn’t do so. Of all the ideological clashes during the transition of power, to me this is the most peculiar one. On the day the Taliban fighters ousted the government, Kabiri tried to explain to the uneducated, mostly illiterate young militia men that the country was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Kabiri takes a view that I wish more who are trying to help would. “The ministry of finance is a public institution … the banks, the private sector, the businesses, they all belong to the people of Afghanistan.” It seems that, on some level, the Taliban are gearing up to govern over the long term. My aunty and millions of Afghans are depending on it.
Now, seven months on, the western withdrawal has had consequences more dire than could have been imagined. I see it every day on my social media feeds. Fathers and mothers trying to sell their small children for cash. Formerly high-profile women begging or selling their belongings on street corners. The UN warned of starvation, drought and mass unemployment, and it was right. Afghanistan is in the grip of not only a humanitarian crisis but a political one, where reports of torture, murder and Taliban retribution demonstrate a society in free fall.
Yet the world has largely turned away. And, as Putin’s Russia has waged a vicious war on the Ukrainian people, I have found myself comparing and contrasting the western response to these two conflicts.
Yes, Ukrainians seem to be being treated with more sympathy than Afghans – and some people believe this has been underpinned by racism or Islamophobia – but I think it is fine for Europeans to feel a heightened sense of sympathy for Ukrainian people. This week, as I watched footage of the destruction raining down on Mariupol, I was struck by how similar the block of flats in the background looked to the ones I grew up in London. They live like us, the British side of me gasped as the sadness set in.
On the other hand, the British public has a myopic view of Afghanistan that barely goes beyond the image of burqa-clad women and scruffy children. Many in the global north know or care little about people who live so differently to us.
This doesn’t excuse the blatant xenophobia that was on display in the initial stages of the Ukraine conflict, with exclamations of how tough the war is because its victims had “blue eyes and blond hair” and “are not obviously refugees getting away from the Middle East”.
But life goes on and, judging from Ukraine charity appeals on my Apple Music app and at railway stations, society has answered the call of Ukrainian people laudably. During last summer’s war in Afghanistan there was a similar sense of collective outrage, of seeing human suffering and speaking up; and, this time, for the people of Ukraine, we have transformed that righteous anger into useful action.
I guess, as a British Afghan, I’m a little jealous. I want us to care about Afghans in the same way we do the devastating war in Ukraine; but I’m now facing the reality that we don’t. That we can’t. It’s not only that British people see much of themselves in the blue of the Ukrainians’ eyes and the blond of their hair. It’s that, to our western sensibilities, Vladimir Putin represents a classic evil villain who triggers a desire in us to be the hero who brings him down.
Yet to overly focus on him could have severe consequences for millions of people. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, captured it perfectly when he warned that the tragic situation my family are facing risks being overlooked: “Humanitarian assistance has to flow no matter how many other crises compete with Afghanistan around the world,” he said. For those of us watching from the Afghan diaspora in the west, it does feel like a competition – and one which, again, we are losing.
Nelufar Hedayat is an Afghan-British journalist, and presenter and co-director of the documentary In Real Life: the God Thieves