Escaping the Taliban The Last Way Out of Afghanistan
Every day, thousands of people are fleeing the Taliban through the last open route out of Afghanistan. It’s their last hope to escape poverty and desperation – but not everyone makes it.
By Christoph Reuter and Julian Busch (Photos) in Zaranj, Afghanistan
13.05.2022 DER SPIEGEL
Quietly, quickly and with no light: Such are the orders from the young man as they prepare to set off. A group of 40 men, women and children are gazing at him in this bare, pitch-black room – frightened, exhausted faces in the wan glow of two flashlights. Those who fall back will be left behind.
They have come to Nimruz from many different provinces in Afghanistan, to this arid and austere southwestern corner of the country. Only from here is flight across the border still possible for those who aren’t rich enough to buy a visa or who don’t have relatives in Europe or America. Neighboring countries have tightly secured their borders to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” but the frontier is difficult to control here. The last path out of desperation and poverty leads through the desert. If you survive.
Every day, according to the estimates of several different human smugglers, more than 3,000 people arrive in Nimruz in order to sneak across the border on their way to the West. Young men fleeing the country in the search for work is nothing new, but ever since the Taliban took over power last August, they have been joined by farmers, engineers, public servants and entire families with children seeking to make it to Iran or beyond. “We have peace now, yes, but no economy, no jobs, no salaries,” is the explanation given by almost everybody. They are joined by former soldiers, police officers and intelligence officials who were essentially given a bleak choice by the Taliban: leave – or die.
“I have to make it. I don’t have anybody here.”
Ali Akbar, 17
As the evening progresses, the people are brought in small groups to a farmhouse at the edge of a village to avoid attracting attention. For hours, they have been waiting for the signal to head out. At 2:30 a.m., they are told departure is imminent, only to be followed by the next message: no, not yet. Whispering can be heard, along with the whimpering of a small child.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2022 (May 13th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
“Now! Go!” hisses a smuggler once all his scouts have reported that there are no longer any patrols in the area leading up to the Iranian border. Quickly, they all silently head out into the night. There is no longer any time to bid farewell to those who had recounted their fates during the preceding hours of waiting: Nasrullah, the tailor from Herat, whose work since the Taliban takeover has merely consisted of patching holes, and who sold his last possessions to leave the country with his wife and three children. Ghulam Yahya, a 54-year-old who looks closer to 70 who used to sell fruit from a handcart in Kabul, but hardly anyone can afford his wares any longer. And Ali Akbar, 17, who has essentially spent the last five years trying to get to the West, once even making it with his parents to Moria, the notorious refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, where he learned Greek. At some point, he was rounded up in a raid and, after a week behind bars, voluntarily allowed himself to be deported to Afghanistan to escape prison. “Now, I want to get back to my family! They have made it to Athens. I have to make it. I don’t have anybody here.”
Waiting at the Zaranj bus terminal Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
The night is chilly, and the terrain is forgiving for those who don’t want to be seen. Bushes and hollows between the sand dunes offer cover. The smuggler leads the way, with an assistant bringing up the rear. Between them are the escapees, stumbling on occasion and swearing quietly at rocks or sticks, or sinking up to their ankles in sand.
The route runs just a few kilometers south of the provincial capital of Zaranj. Spotlights from the Iranian guard towers can be seen in the distance and the barking of dogs is a frequent companion. Every now and then, a gunshot pierces the night and a pack of golden jackals howls for several minutes at a time, a surreal cry that sounds like human laughter at a rollicking party in the distance.
A couple of elderly and women in the group are exhausted, but are urged by the whispers of others not to give up now. Someone leaves a bag of clothes lying in the sand. The DER SPIEGEL team has to stop half a kilometer from the border, not just because of the danger that the Iranian border guards could open fire, but also because the group will be handed off to another smuggler there who is unaware that foreign journalists are accompanying his clients.
Shortly before the border wall – a barrier that was originally five meters tall, but which has almost been completely swallowed up by the sand dunes in some spots – the “coordinator” takes over who has made arrangements with Iranian border police and ensured that they have been properly bribed. Often, he leads several groups across the border at the same place, sometimes hundreds of people. Nevertheless, most will be arrested just behind the border anyway, particularly when units from the Iranian military or intelligence show up. Or if the border guards didn’t get their money after all.
But nothing has slowed to stream of refugees for long. Even though there aren’t many jobs to be had in Iran either, with the economic crisis there hitting the poorest the hardest – particularly for illegal workers from Afghanistan who are viewed with increasing hostility by the desperate Iranians. Everyone here is aware of the hurdles, but they say they don’t care. They just want to get out of Afghanistan, no matter where they end up. And the route to Iran isn’t all that expensive, with each attempt costing just $50. The trip to Turkey costs $1,400. Hardly anybody speaks of Europe, with the dream seemingly unreachable.
Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
At the bus terminal in Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimruz in southwestern Afghanistan: The city’s economy is almost entirely rooted in smuggling. It used to be drugs, but now it is people. Every day, Afghanistan’s desperate come through the city in the hopes of making it across the border into Iran.
Seventeen-year-old Ali Akbar has spent the last five years trying to make it to the West. He even managed to make it with his family to the notorious Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. But he was ultimately deported and is now trying to get back. He still carries his documents from Greece, the only official papers he has.
Most of those fleeing Afghanistan are quickly intercepted by the Iranians and deported. Every afternoon, they return across the border bridge to Afghanistan in an hours-long procession.
The sandstorms in Nimruz in the spring are so biting that even many of the men cover their faces. Not because the Taliban require them to do so, but because the pelting grains of sand are painful.
There are several routes across the border. Those who choose the longer, yet safer route must spend almost two days in the bed of a pickup as it drives through the desert. It is still dangerous, though. The vehicles frequently roll over and there is no medical care available.
Sometimes, the migrants have arranged their passage far in advance and must search the “Qadir and Brothers” terminal for “their” pickup.
A last prayer prior to departure: Afghanistan has modernized on a small scale in recent years, with solar panels to be seen everywhere in the country. On the larger scale, though, the economy has bottomed out since the Taliban took over last summer. Most of the country’s budget was made up of foreign aid.
When the last foreign troops left Afghanistan last summer, so too did their projects, the jobs they provided for locals and the billions in aid that flowed into the country for the Afghan army. The country’s budget depended heavily on money from the West, and the Taliban cut it off without having a replacement or even a plan. Whereas the West has now turned its attention and its funding to Ukraine, and with the World Food Program is struggling just to feed the absolute poorest in Afghanistan, the Taliban appears more focused on appearances. As of last week, women in the country are required to wear burqas, the head-to-toe covering with just a patch of netting to peer through.
The daily exodus of thousands of people reflects the tragedy that has befallen this country. Nothing is being done to minimize the reasons people are fleeing. The Taliban may have prohibited the route across the border wall, but they have also expressly approved of a different path involving a several-day trek through the desert and across a section of Pakistan. They have even set up a fee system. After all, those fleeing Afghanistan are a valuable export, and the only one that pays for their own transport. Just that no other country in the world wants them.
Refugees at the bus terminal in Zaranj Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
The small city of Zaranj has become a weigh station for the damned. Dozens of hotels in the city, frequently named for provinces, house the newcomers from other areas of the country, where agents working for the hotel owners have already established contact with the smugglers. Money changers offer Iranian rials and Turkish lira and hold deposited smuggling fees until the client arrives in the target country. Itinerant vendors sell SIM cards, medicines and glacier glasses with elastic bands to protect against the dust and the sun. Unmarked taxis take refugees to the next collection points near the city while dilapidated pickups drive clients on the long route through the desert to the border with Pakistan, where they are then transferred to the next driver.
Zaranj, Afghanistan: a weigh station for the damned. Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
Every morning, thousands of people stream to the gigantic, dusty area known as the “terminal” – where more than 100 pickups and drivers are waiting for their preregistered passengers. The groups collect here until noon, with those who are making their third or fourth attempts providing tips to the novices: Make sure to wear glasses to protect from the sandstorms! Never trust the time estimates provided by the smugglers, who claim that it’s just a three-hour walk after the 40-hour drive. “It’s two or three days,” says 33-year-old Mohammed, who has been deported from Iran two times already. “I’ve seen dead bodies enroute on several occasions,” he says. “In the winter, people freeze to death and in the summer, they die of thirst or collapse in the heat. They used to be collected, but now they are just left there. Too many.”
A couple of cars away, Firdaus, 19, explains in perfect English that he has been accepted to an American university in Turkey, but has no legal path to get there. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara advised him to just make his way there however he can – at least that’s what he claims. The rest, he hopes, will take care of itself: “It’s crazy, but now I’m trying to get myself smuggled to Turkey so I can then start my studies and somehow legalize it.”
Another man pushes his way through the waiting crowd to tell his story. “My five brothers, my father and I were all in the army. The Taliban arrested us after their victory and only released us on the condition that we leave the country.” He wants to keep talking, but another man dressed in civilian clothing butts in: “What are you saying? You should serve the Emirate and be grateful!” He is apparently one of the discrete guardians of the new, control-obsessed regime who immediately intervene when there are any signs of disobedience. The former soldier says that the Taliban have taken an uncle of his hostage and will only release him once he sends a video from abroad to prove that he has left Afghanistan. The guardian grows threatening: “If you keep talking like that, you soon won’t be able to flee the country.”
Onlookers watch the scene in silence. The man who was threatened gently tugs at the other’s beard, a gesture of conciliatory subservience. “I’m going, there’s no trouble,” he says before disappearing into the crowd.
Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
Many of those who have set off on the dangerous and illegal path out of the country have a single desire: “To live somewhere legally!” Some even used to live and work in Iran legally, but were deported anyway. Others had invitations to Europe or were accepted to foreign universities, but have been unable to obtain a visa after embassies in Afghanistan were closed down.
Traveling through the desert in a pickup is not easy. Frequently, passengers must climb out of the bed to pull the vehicle out of the desert sands.
Once the pickup is freed, passengers jump back into the bed as fast as possible to get a spot in the middle, where there is at least some protection from the blowing sand.
Sandstorms are particularly dangerous since many of the drivers simply follow the tracks of those in front of them. If they are covered up, they are unable to find their way.
Shapoor says that going to school is a waste of time. “I have to help take care of my family.” He buys pills from a wholesaler and sells them to travelers leaving the country. When an onlooker says that we shouldn’t be asking questions to such a small boy, he barks: “Me? Small? Get lost you miscarriage!”
The migrants have numerous reasons to pray: not to be kidnapped by criminals enroute, not to die of thirst, not to get lost. There is, though, a key reason for why they are praying here at the edge of the desert: There is water available to cleanse themselves before prayer.
The father of Qais, who died in Iran, uncovers his son’s body at the border crossing. His son had gone to a hospital with a stomach ache and was declared dead several hours later. An autopsy was performed and he was stitched up again – “to take his kidneys,” says the hearse driver. “They always do that.” It sounds like a horrific rumor, but the story is confirmed by the local hospital, the Taliban administration and a UN staffer.
Most of the migrants are leaving because there is no work and no hope for them in Afghanistan. Many of them, though, are also former soldiers and police officers who are leaving in fear after having been threatened by the Taliban.
One of the drivers is distributing cards printed with his telephone number to the passengers in the bed of his pickup. He has only been working as a driver for a few months. “As a farmer, I had a tractor, which I sold. Diesel, fertilizer, seeds: Everything has grown more expensive, but who can pay the higher prices for my grain?” He isn’t proud of what he is now doing: “Write about the suffering that is awaiting these people!” he says.
The Taliban also aren’t interested in slowing down those wanting to flee the country, but they have imposed more rules. Women have to sit in the cabs of the pickups, at least two and a maximum of four, so that morals can be upheld even in the human smuggling trade. “A maximum of 20 people per vehicle, instead of 30 or more as used to be the case. And driving is prohibited in heavy rainfall.” New fees have also been added: The equivalent of 10 euros upon departure and five more at the last checkpoint in the desert.
A third of the refugees will make it through, at least to central Iran, estimate several drivers. The others will be arrested and sent back. Most of them will try over and over again, for as long as their money or credit lasts. The success rate is even lower for those who set out at night to cross the border wall on foot. The official border crossing, a bridge over the Helmand River, sees pedestrians crossing almost exclusively in one direction: Starting at noon, those deported from Iran start showing up, a several-hour procession of the frustrated and defeated.
The driver of a hearse near the Afghanistan-Iran border Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
Almost all those who told their story to DER SPIEGEL on the previous night are part of the cortege that afternoon. Nasrullah, the tailor from Herat with his family. Ghulam Yahya, the old fruit vendor. Ali Akbar, the assiduous 17-year-old who has already learned Greek. Only a muscular floor tiler from Ghazni and a couple of other young men managed to get away, he says. All of them, he says, managed to make it over the wall, and they also succeeded in locating the thin green and red lines of the laser pointers telling them where to go. But then, he continues, the soldiers appeared. At least they didn’t open fire this time, nor did they beat them or lock anyone away for several weeks.
Refugees in Zaranj preparing to start their journey Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
Many of them have secretly filmed videos stored on their phones showing how others have been treated in Iranian camps: Some are forced to stand up straight to be repeatedly slapped, while others are made to hop across the yard like a frog or are insulted as scum.
And that’s not even the worst that can happen. When a returnee and a Taliban border guard relate that some of the dead bodies sent back from Iran are missing their kidneys and sometimes other organs as well, it sounds a lot like the standard horror stories that make the rounds. But upon further questioning, they describe specific incidents. And when a dead man is then pushed across the bridge in a wheelbarrow, his shroud is opened up for us, revealing a provisionally stitched up incision from his belly button to his throat. The 27-year-old had apparently been working as a construction worker in Tehran and had to go to the hospital with a minor head wound. After several hours, he was declared dead and then handed over to his relatives a few days later.
The next day, another body shows up with a similar scar: “Qais had a stomach ache and went to a hospital in Kerman in the evening, and he even talked to his mother on the phone and told her he was feeling better,” explains a relative and the driver who came to the bridge at the border to pick him up. “They declared him dead in the morning. They’re doing it all the time. I’ve been driving a hearse for 10 years, the young ones are almost always sewn up,” he says he is told by the family members after the body is cleansed. “The Iranians claim it is cleaner like that.”
The next body that shows up a couple hours later is that of his young sister-in-law, says Zakir Rahmani, who had fled with her family from Sar-i-Pul in the north. “She had just arrived in Shiraz and went to the hospital in the morning because she thought her appendix was infected. Nobody was allowed in with her. She was declared dead at 5 p.m.” he said. He says he quickly went to the nearby courthouse to prevent an autopsy; he wanted to pick up he body immediately. “They just sent me away. We only got my sister-in-law four days later.” When asked, he says he can’t show her body to a stranger, even if she is dead.
It’s all rather spooky: the deputy director of the local hospital and the press spokesman of the provincial Taliban government also confirm the practice. An Afghan employee of the UN agency International Organization for Migration (IOM) who registers the bodies that are returned across the border says that he is officially not allowed to say anything: “But yeah, that’s how it goes. We only check the papers so we can release them, not their bodies. It’s a sad situation, he says, “but everyone knows that as an Afghan, you shouldn’t go to a hospital in Iran.”
The pickup ride through the desert can take up to 40 hours. Foto: Julian Busch / DER SPIEGEL
Nobody is interested in looking into the situation further, not the hospital, not the Taliban and not the families in mourning. “We are Afghans,” says Rahmani, the dead woman’s brother-in-law, as if that explains everything. “We are lost. There is no point to anything.”
The caravan of speeding pickups carrying those willing to brave the multiday journey through the desert and the mountains, heads off at around noon. The desert begins at the end of the road, just after the final Taliban checkpoint. The sandy wind is biting, and the passengers must repeatedly jump out to push the vehicle when it gets stuck in the sand. They immediately jump back in to try to get a spot in the middle of the truck bed. They still haven’t arrived anywhere, but for the time being, they have escaped the tight grip of the country’s bearded rulers. “Fuck the Emirate!” yells one of the passengers into the piercing wind, until the pickup, its human cargo rocking back-and-forth in its bed, is swallowed up by a sandstorm