August 11, 2021
VAN, TURKEY – Afghan clothes and Iranian SIM cards litter fields under the mountains that stand between Turkey and the Iranian border.
A wisp of smoke rises out of what was a small fire, abandoned many hours before.
As the Taliban swept through villages and cities in Afghanistan over the past few months, families have fled in droves, many traveling across Iran and into Turkey.
In the past, this route was flooded with refugees trying to get to Europe to seek safety and freedom. Now it’s packed with people making a last-ditch effort to stay alive in Turkey, where they find no humanitarian aid and run the risk of being arrested and deported.
We meet 16-year-old Abdul Tawab outside the park where he sleeps in central Van, a city famous among tourists for its massive lake and among refugees for its proximity to the Iranian border.
Tawab arrived in Turkey two weeks ago, hoping to go to Istanbul to find a job. But like so many other men and boys in the park, he is now out of money and stuck here in Van.
Tawab says he is afraid he will be arrested if he draws attention to himself outside, so we walk a zigzag path through the markets until he feels safe at a table upstairs in a café.
In Afghanistan, Tawab supported five siblings and his parents on his carpenter’s salary, which was about $1 a day. He left home after the Taliban had stormed into his village and riddled his uncle with bullets, killing the well-loved father of nine.
“He didn’t care if people were rich or poor,” Tawab says. “He liked everyone, and everyone liked him.”
Taliban fighters on motorcycles later wrapped his uncle’s body in barbed wire and deposited it in a field, Tawab says. Refugees say the militants will execute anyone who is associated with the Afghanistan government or foreign organizations, or anyone identified as Hazara, a Shiite ethnic group and the country’s largest religious minority.
Saranwal Nadir, Tawab’s uncle, was a lawyer in a government court.
“We found him in the field,” Tawab says. “His body was lying in puddles of water and blood.”
Turkey already hosts 3.7 million refugees, more than any other country in the world. But frustration among the population is growing, and many believe this crisis is only beginning.
Twitter in Turkey is alight with rumors about incoming people from Afghanistan. Some say the refugees are increasing crime rates or depressing wages. Another commonly heard complaint is that they are mostly young men, as evidenced by videos online.
Young men from Afghanistan say the women and children are mostly in safe houses, hidden from cameras by the same smugglers who kicked the men out onto the streets, sometimes to be rounded up and deported.
When the United States fully pulls out of Afghanistan, the borders may be even more packed with people trying to get into Turkey, a relatively safe country that has a history of taking in refugees, says Mahmut Kaçan, a lawyer and the coordinator for the Asylum and Migration Commission of the Van Bar Association.
But once in Turkey, there is no clear path to establishing legal status and no organizations at all to support families in need of food or shelter. The United Nations’ refugee agency no longer processes asylum claims in Turkey, and claims through government offices can take years.
“They are living in limbo in Turkey,” Kaçan says.
Up at least four flights of sloping concrete stairs, in a two-bedroom apartment in Van, two families from Afghanistan, 12 people in all, say they are afraid to go outside. Inside, the apartment is barren, with almost no furniture and only a few plastic bags of clothes and bedding.
The adults go out only when they think they may find work. But after a month in Turkey, none of them have had any luck.
The rent here is less than $70 a month, and the families say they already sold all their belongings to pay smugglers $1,000 per person, roughly the minimum cost to get from Kabul to Van. They borrowed rent money last month and do not know how they will manage in the future.
But as soon as the U.S. announced it would be pulling out, says Saeed Sanaye Sadet, one of the apartment residents, he knew he would never be safe at home again, because he used to work for an American company.
We point out that the Taliban have taken over vast swaths of Afghanistan in recent months, but not all of it, and the capital, Kabul, is still held by the government. But Sadet says the fall of the country feels inevitable.
“It’s already happening,” he scoffs, when we ask why he is so sure.
Women and girls
On the edge of a graveyard in Van, rows of shallow graves cover the bodies of people who died attempting to flee to Turkey.
Many were among the 61 refugees killed in a shipwreck on Lake Van last year. Other graves are identified only by the border-area location where the body was found.
As we drive away from the graveyard, Mohammad Mahdi Sultani, a journalist from Afghanistan who is working with us as a guide and translator, says people have been risking their lives for a long time to escape Afghanistan, which has been at war since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
But the reason people are fleeing is shifting as the Taliban gain ground, he says. His uncle fled his village for Iran because he has two daughters, 19 and 21. When the Taliban came in, they demanded that families place flags outside their houses to indicate whether there were any unwed women or girls inside.
“They say (the Taliban) will marry them,” Sultani says, meaning, by force.
In the crowded apartment up the stairs, Leena Sadet, Saeed Sadet’s wife, says she remembers her mom’s blue burqa from her childhood, when Taliban law forced all women to leave their jobs and go outside only fully covered.
“The same thing will happen if they are in power,” Leena Sadet says. “The women won’t work, and the girls will not go to school.”
Mohammad Mahdi Sultani contributed to this report.