The One-Year Taliban Takeover: The Forgotten List of Human Rights

When the Taliban invaded Kabul, Hekimi was already in Germany. A few months ago, he survived an attack targeting him. Today he works for the Kabul Air Bridge – a small organization that aims to do nothing less than dismantle the German immigration system.

To this day, Abdelkader Hakimi does not know who shot him. The two men came out of nowhere. They covered their heads with towels, raised their weapons, and shot Hakimi and his two friends. He thought they were shooting someone behind them. “I just ran,” he told ntv.de. When they followed him, it quickly became clear that the shots were indeed targeting him. But instead, a friend died.

Hakimi had just completed his master’s degree at the Technical University of Berlin and had just returned to Afghanistan. “I never wanted to leave Kabul,” Hakimi says. But less than two weeks after the attack, he was on the plane back to West Germany. Not even the Afghan government, where he worked as a blockchain developer, could guarantee him protection. “If you want to kill a politician, you will do it,” the head of security in the Afghan parliament told him. His dummy certificate, a temporary residence permit, was still valid, so he was back to safety. But the local immigration authorities rejected his application for a work visa. “They called me a criminal.”

The 29-year-old has only a few weeks left before he is in the country illegally. Returning to Afghanistan was not an option. This would be a suicide attempt. Because the Taliban was on the rise. In March 2021, six months before Kabul fell to Islamists, Hakimi’s name was already on the target list.

Question the entire immigration system

The first call came three days before the attack. They shouted at him and threatened him. Two hours later they called again. They shouted at him again. When they rang again on the day of the attack, he didn’t answer the phone. But they knew where he lived and where he worked.

Today, Hakimi sits in a simple office in the Friedrichshain district of Berlin. He got his work permit six months ago and now helps with the airlift in Kabul who, like him, face the risk of being taken out of the country in Afghanistan. The official withdrawal of the Bundeswehr from the country took place a year ago, but the list of local workers is long. Hakimi takes care of them. When he’s focused, he works on his laptop, looking out of the big window in front of him on the side street only occasionally.

The Kabul Air Bridge emerged in the wake of the chaotic withdrawal of the West from Afghanistan after the Taliban took power in August 2021. It began as a group of journalists and activists hoping to evacuate their former colleagues, friends and acquaintances. The organization is now not only focused on individual evacuations. It wouldn’t be possible with a database of around 50,000 names either. Today, it is nothing less than questioning the entire German immigration system.

The Berlin office looks as if the airlift has just moved into this building. She’s been here since fall 2021. The white shelves in the back of the room are empty, as are most desks. Everything seems to be improvised. Crumbs are scattered on a center table, half-empty Mate bottles are scattered throughout the office, and a corner trash can is filled to the brim with empty food wrappers.

The State Department building is located less than five kilometers from here. There are 2,972 employees at the headquarters in Berlin. In 2021, they worked on German foreign policy in the amount of 6.301 billion euros. The care and evacuation of Afghans registered in the air transport database is in fact the responsibility of the German Foreign Office. Instead, Hakimi and nine other employees sat down in Berlin Friedrichshain in an effort to evacuate as many people as possible.

Taliban terrorize people

If Hakimi had not managed to get out of Afghanistan, he would probably have counted on the help of the Kabul Airlift itself today. Through a scholarship program, he completed a master’s degree in computer science from the Technical University of Berlin. After graduation, he must return to Afghanistan – one of the conditions of his residency He was not looking for work in the Federal Republic. So he returned to Afghanistan. There is work in a company that was supposed to support all ministries in Kabul with digital transformation. The goal was to strengthen democracy in the country. While he was not directly employed by the German authorities in the country, he did what they fought for.

When the Taliban began plotting to seize power, people like Hakimi were intimidated. Like him, many other colleagues received threatening phone calls from an unknown person. They knew who was trying to intimidate them because they worked to prevent undemocratic power like that of the Taliban. Finally when the Islamists moved to Kabul on August 15, 2021, Hakimi’s former colleagues were in mortal danger.

After the Taliban seized power, the federal government created the so-called Human Rights List. On it are the names of the people who served as the local forces of the Bundeswehr and the German government at the site in Afghanistan. They could have been evacuated by the federal government by August 31. But many either did not make it to the airport in time or were not properly informed.

In total, the federal government has relocated about 21,000 people, according to a request from the Left Party. Another 12,000 Afghans have already been accepted but are still waiting to be evacuated. According to the Kabul Airlift Database, that’s just a tiny fraction of the people still at risk in Afghanistan.

‘The political will is there’

With the change of government in Berlin, the new Federal Chancellor, the new Minister of the Interior and the new Minister of Foreign Affairs are now responsible for German immigration policy. The admissions program is included in the Coalition Agreement – and has been working with 30 NGOs and CSOs since February. Hakimi’s colleague, Tariq Al-Aws, is currently negotiating a federal admission program for the Kabul Air Bridge with the responsible ministries. “The political will is there,” says Alaos. But it failed due to bureaucratic implementation.”

In the absence of a federal admission program, the Kabul Air Bridge is focused almost exclusively on evacuating human rights activists. Individual applications can now be submitted. But each app is over 200 pages long, according to Alaows. The requirements for these applications are so high that the concerned person cannot handle them alone. Therefore, civil society organizations feel compelled to take on this task. At the Kabul Air Bridge alone, which is funded exclusively by donations, six out of ten employees are currently working on these single orders only. “The nationwide admissions program should offer a low-threshold procedure so that those affected can apply for admission themselves,” says Alaus.

When Hakimi talks about this list, he gets worried. Since work began on the Kabul Air Bridge, sleep has come only intermittently. Not only because it has been brought back over and over to the attack site, but also because it receives a flood of emails from people looking for protection every day. “They are begging for help,” he says.

The immigration system is not intended for them

It’s emails from people like Hakimi that have pushed forward the democratization of Afghanistan. People who did what they fought for the military operation, in which Germany took part, in Afghanistan for 20 years. People like Hakimi fall through the loopholes because immigration law is not for them.

When Hakimi was on the plane to Germany a year ago after his friend was killed in the attack, he had no idea what problems lay ahead. He will wait nearly a year to get a work permit. That about 40 emails he wrote to the immigration office would not be answered. He was not going to get a residence permit despite having a German university degree and several job offers – until he met Tariq Al-Aws.

Alaos is sitting in the back corner of the desk. He looks at his Apple Watch, the next call is already coming. As with every phone call, he answers with “Hi, honey.” Alaows has only been with the airlift for a short time, but on the phone it looks like he’s been running the place forever. He easily deviates from immigration laws – he talks about passages of immigration law as if they were tram stops he passes every day. “This is a case of 17.2, not 17.3,” he told his interlocutor by phone. In Tariq, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is called “AA” and the Federal Ministry of the Interior is called “BMI”.

He can’t talk in detail about what a phone is. However, the way the airlift operates has changed a lot since its inception. The database that Hakimi maintains has changed everything. In the first 24 hours after it went online, 6,000 applications were submitted – the system now has 50,000 names. People who are still in Afghanistan and don’t know how to get out can put themselves in the database. If the organization treats each case individually, “we won’t be finished in ten years,” says Alaos. But without a recording software, there is currently no other way.

Hardly anyone knows the German immigration system better than Alos. Not just because he studied law for years. His knowledge of the Dublin III rules or the practical application of immigration and asylum law comes from personal experience. Originally from Syria, Alaos came to Germany in 2015. He taught himself his rights and the rights of millions of other people on his cell phone in a refugee camp in Bochum.

Knowing him, Hakimi helped obtain a work permit, which he uses to promote class-action lawsuits for the Kabul Air Bridge. Alaos is usually one of the first to enter the office, which gradually fills up. Employees open their laptops and disappear into the world of the Kabul Air Bridge. Only now and then the focused silence in the room is broken by the phone’s ringing. Otherwise, only the basics are exchanged.

There isn’t much time for a chess board on Alaows’ desk either. When he plays, he plays alone, he takes both positions. Just like in everyday life with the Kabul Air Bridge: he knows what it means to seek protection in Germany. But after more than seven years in the Federal Republic, he also knows what it means to get here. “I always try to put myself in both places,” he says. Then he looks at his Apple Watch again. The next call comes in, and Alaows replies, “Hello dear.”

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