When the Taliban came to power last week, Afghans who worked for the United Nations watched many of their foreign counterparts board planes to leave the country.
But their own increasingly desperate requests for help getting out – or at least a safe place to stay if the Taliban target them for their work for an international organization – are being ignored, according to interviews and emails from BuzzFeed News.
Angry current and former staff members said the UN, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 2002, appears to have no plan for its staff of thousands of Afghan nationals to leave the country and has given them few options but to hide at home while militants may be on the lookout for them.
In phone calls and text messages, four Afghan nationals who work for the United Nations told BuzzFeed News that the United Nations has not offered them safe accommodation in Kabul and that some are seeking refuge with relatives. They pointed out that Afghan nationals who work for the UN are taking far greater risks than their international counterparts for less wages in the country and that their work could harm them. Reuters reported Tuesday that Taliban fighters had ransacked several UN buildings since their formidable takeover last week.
“They are very, very visible in the communities,” said a former international UN official, who asked for anonymity. “The Taliban know exactly who these people are.”
The UN did not respond to repeated requests for comments.
Stéphane Dujarric, the secretary general’s spokesman, said in a press conference on August 18 that the United Nations cannot simply evacuate Afghan nationals from the country because it “is not a nation that issues visas”.
He added that the United Nations is “doing its utmost” for national workers and their families. “There are all sorts of administrative hurdles to negotiate and discuss,” said Dujarric. “But the national staff is at the forefront of what we try to do every day.”
The organization has approximately 300 international staff and 3,000 Afghan national staff in Afghanistan who work for the UN mission in the country as well as for organizations such as the UN Development Program and UN Women. The organization announced on August 18 that around 100 of these international workers would be temporarily leaving for Kazakhstan.
UN-focused news site PassBlue reported Friday that Afghan nationals who work for the organization felt “lonely and petrified.” New details in this story about Afghan workers asking in vain for help to hide from the Taliban – even after hearing militants in his neighborhood asking where he was – raises further questions about whether the UN was planning adequately, local ones Employees as The Taliban intensified their military offensive against the Afghan government from May onwards.
“You had months to prepare for it,” said the former international employee.
An Afghan employee who works in the operations department of a UN agency said he and his colleagues repeatedly raised the issue of evacuations in the chat box of a Zoom meeting with colleagues and superiors last week, but received no response. (BuzzFeed News withholds information about all four Afghan employees interviewed for this article in order not to endanger them.)
“They usually read the chat box,” he said. “You saw the chat this time, but tried to change the subject and get it all done.”
The worker said he asked his superiors if the UN would help him and other Afghan workers with valid international visas. But he was told that the organization could only try to get him out and force him to leave his wife and young child behind.
“How does that make sense?” he said. “How can I leave my family behind when I leave the country? This is not acceptable either to me or to the national staff – it violates humanitarian values, it violates human values. “
Other Afghan workers described similar meetings.
“You’re just playing a game with us. Every week there is a meeting where they say that they are ‘doing our best’, ”said another Afghan employee of the UN development project, who is committed to gender equality. “What kind of an attempt is that? If small embassies can evacuate employees, why not the UN? “
It is unclear how many international UN workers were withdrawn from Afghanistan, but the four staff members told BuzzFeed News that high-level international workers were evacuated and that it appears that they were mostly Afghans.
Liam McDowall, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), told PassBlue that the United Nations is pushing other countries to support visa and temporary residency applications by Afghan workers and their families.
Unama did not respond to calls or emails for this article.
Staff interviewed by BuzzFeed News also said that UN officials told them they were fighting for visas so they could move to other countries, but some said they thought it was too little and too late.
“This is not the time for visas,” said an Afghan official who works with UNDP. “We have UN identity cards, you can discuss an immediate evacuation with other countries.”
A UN official, concerned about the abuse of women by the Taliban, urged the United Nations to evacuate its Afghan workers, told BuzzFeed News that she asked for help for Afghan workers in city hall meetings and through local and global staff associations.
“Nobody heard us,” she said. “Nobody listens.”
“They told us we had to ‘stay and deliver,'” she added, quoting a UN slogan about her presence in Afghanistan.
The UN has reportedly moved some of its Afghan workers to Kabul to reduce their risk, but has not placed these people in safe locations.
“They did not put them in a paved area, they are left to their own devices,” said the former international worker, who spoke directly to Afghan workers.
The World Bank has evacuated all of its Afghanistan-based employees, Reuters reported on Aug. 20.
A group of United Nations trade unions and staff organizations has launched a petition calling on the UN Secretary-General to take “all necessary measures”, including evacuations, to protect staff. It had nearly 5,300 signatures on Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re supposed to protect everyone’s human rights, and now we’re leaving our own to fend for themselves,” said Arora Akanksha, a UN auditor seeking the post of next secretary general. “Shame on the UN and its leadership.”
“With this whole ‘Stay and Deliver’ message that the UN is promoting, we should be asking ourselves who is staying?” She added.
A Unama official who said he was hiding in a remote location told BuzzFeed News that Taliban fighters asked his neighbors where he was. He had worked on sensitive political projects and believes he could be targeted.
“Everyone here knows that I work with Unama,” he said. “I am top class.”
He told BuzzFeed News that he had asked his department to move him to a safer place where militants would have a harder time identifying him through talking to locals days before Kabul fell to the Taliban. A few days later, after the militant group had already seized power, a response came in advising him to hide at home, according to emails he shared with BuzzFeed News.
“I’m like a prisoner,” he said. “I can’t go outside, I can’t see anyone. How long can I stay here like this? “