We are desperate – Terrified Afghans who helped NZ in hiding awaiting evacuation

“Immediate evacuation please.”

That’s the stark message from a group of 37 Afghan nationals who are in hiding, some in the mountains around Bamyan, others among millions of anonymous faces in Kabul.

None of them have stayed in Bamyan, where the NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team was based from 2003 until 2013 because they are recognisable as those who helped the team as interpreters, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, cleaners, and female kitchen workers.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that those in the group will have their visa applications expedited, while a C-130 Hercules will be deployed to help evacuate them, as well as 53 New Zealand citizens in Afghanistan.

This was welcomed by fatherof four Basir Ahmad, who is representing the group of 37, but he doesn’t know how long they can survive and pleaded with the Government for an immediate evacuation.

He made the dangerous 181km journey from Bamyan to Kabul, arriving just before the Taliban took control of the capital city overnight on Monday (NZT).

The room he is staying in has no signal, and he had to cut short a phone call with the Herald while walking the streets to duck into a corner because he saw a Taliban patrol.

He then rented a room that had a phone signal for an hour in order to make calls while giving his nerves a rest.

“We are very much desperate.”

About 20 of the 37 people who worked with New Zealand team were hiding in the mountains outside Bamyan, he said.

One person comes down every few hours to call him and ask about any developments, and “then disappears” to relay any messages to the others.

“They’re asking me, ‘Should we find a way to come to Kabul? What should we do?’

“I don’t know if they can survive there or not. They have no food. They have nothing. They’re in a very difficult situation.”

Ahmad didn’t know how long he could lay low in Kabul.

“There is no safe place. The shops are all closed. Everyone is very scared. But I cannot go back to Bamyan.

“In Kabul there are millions of people. No one knows where I worked.

“Maybe one day that will change and they will find me.”

Nowroz Ali, who volunteered to help at the front gate of Kiwi Base in Bamyan in 2010, told the Herald the Taliban controlled all of west Kabul, where he was hiding.

“I’m not safe. The jets are flying in the air and I can continually hear gunfire.

“Those who worked with foreigners are to be killed, according to Taliban ideology. It doesn’t matter whether you worked for a day or for 10 years.”

Ahmad is one of several in the group who has tried to come to New Zealand but had their visa applications rejected.

Ardern said the criteria to resettle interpreters who worked with the PRT had been in place since 2012, but none of the 37 in the group qualified.

The Cabinet agreed today to widen the criteria so everyone in the group would qualify.

Asked why the criteria hadn’t been changed earlier, following reports about local workers fleeing Bamyan in early July, Ardern said some applications had been considered by Associate Immigration Minister Phil Twyford.

“He was coming to the view that [the criteria] would need to be changed. The decisions by Cabinet have now overridden that completely.”

Ardern added that the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated far quicker than expected.

Other Afghan nationals would also qualify including those who had helped New Zealand police or Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff in Afghanistan, or those who had provided “material assistance” to the Operation Burnham Inquiry.

There would have to be a reasonable belief that their association with New Zealand had put them in danger, and that no other government was considered more responsible for their safety.

About 40 Defence Force personnel would be on the C-130 Hercules, and they would work with Australian forces to “assist” with evacuations.

But Ardern couldn’t say how long it would take, citing the need to protect such information for security reasons.

Ahmad said it was good to know that the 37 people would now qualify for entry to New Zealand, but there were still many hurdles before that could happen.

The mountains where some of them were hiding were virtually impassable, he said, and it would not be easy for New Zealand forces to evacuate them from there.

“Maybe they can take a risk and come here [to Kabul]. I don’t know if it’s safe or not. It will be very difficult.”

Ardern recognised that the application process would have to be flexible and streamlined.

“We are not asking people to attend an office in order to undertake bureaucratic processing.

“It is not an easy endeavour, but we believe we have a responsibility to that small number of people who supported us to now support them.”

Ardern added that “hundreds” of reunification visa applications from people in Afghanistan would have to be pushed down the priority queue in favour of those in the greatest danger.

She made a plea to the Taliban to let people leave Afghanistan, saying “the world will be watching”.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare said the earliest the deployment could leave was Wednesday.

He said the contribution New Zealand made to Afghanistan over 20 years was a positive one, involving about 3500 personnelincluding 10 who lost their lives.

“We mourn their loss.”

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