‘In Afghanistan everything is fire, explosions and violence’
We spoke to Afghan refugee Rahimullah who hopes to make a new life in the UK after witnessing his country once again come under control of the Taliban
By Sarah Ward
Rahimullah Saighani has only ever known war and instability. Born in Afghanistan in 1991, he was just five when the Taliban seized Kabul and imposed a hardline version of Islam. Aged 10 he saw UK and US troops arrive in his home city in the wake of the 9/11 attack and quickly clear out the Taliban who had backed Al-Qaeda in its American terrorist attack.
Through the next 15 years while fighting continued across his country he stuck his head into his study books, attended Kabul university and got a government job working in public health communications and helping the country in its Covid efforts.
His hope was to work his way up the political ladder, maybe even become a minister, but all that came crashing down in August last year when the Taliban once again took over Kabul and government workers’ lives such as his were now at risk.
He was one of the approximately 13,000 fortunate ones who were evacuated by the British military and brought to the UK. (The US says it evacuated 113,000 people).
Rahimullah was among the 200 plus Afghan refugees who were given accommodation in Northamptonshire and since then has been living with many other Afghan nationals in a hotel secured by the home office. (The two unitary councils will each put up 10 homes from private rented stock for Afghan refugee families).
Talking to NN Journal dressed in a smart fitted suit blazer - the same clothes he had fled the country in - he talks about what he’s lived through and his plans for the future.
On August 16 last year while the world looked on in shock and disbelief as their TV screens showed people falling to their deaths while trying to escape their country on the wings of a departing military plane, Rahimullah witnessed the tragedy from the airport. Gathered with tens of thousands of frightened Afghans he was desperate to leave the country after the Taliban had taken the city the day before.
On that day he had left his desk and had gone into hiding - unable to even go back home to collect any belongings, as neighbours knew of his occupation.
After going to the airport and witnessing the horrific deaths of those trying to escape, he called his brother who was also in the crowd and after making contact his brother found him. He had been injured by the Taliban and suffered a deep knife wound to his leg. They took a taxi to the hospital where his brother was operated on by medics, one of many patients coming through the doors after suffering Taliban violence.
They decided to separate and Rahimullah then went into hiding for a further two days before he received an email from the US special immigration saying he would be eligible to leave his country.
He headed to the US camp, which he says was crushed with families desperate to secure departure, but while waiting in line he was spotted by a Taliban soldier, questioned and assaulted before managing to escape through the dense crowds.
Hours later he arrived at the UK camp.
“I walk and find the Baron camp that belongs to the UK,” he says. (The British army had been processing claims at the city’s Baron Hotel).
“I show my email and I get into the airport, into a protected area. After a security check I sit on the ground and pass one night there. I saw in the morning five people had died outside the airport and the UK army is transferring the dead people. They had died from being crushed outside the airport."
“Finally on 19 August at 8’oclock the security team of the UK army came to the Baron camp and me and some other family were transferred near to airport. I waited for three hours and finally at 1’oclock we left Kabul.”
The plane first landed in Dubai before reaching British soil on August 20.
“When I left Afghanistan I was feeling so relaxed, but I was thinking about my family. My family left. How should I help them?”
‘Hero to zero’
In Afghanistan Rahimullah was someone with gravitas. University educated, he had worked as a communications advisor in the Afghan government, rubbing shoulders with senior people including the country’s former president Hamid Karzai.
“I had plans,” he says.
“I hoped to make a big future, maybe one day I should be an advisor, another day MP, and go on to presidentials. I planned to apply for a doctorate.
“I had a good job and was able to help other people but now I am here. I was hero and now I am zero. I am starting at zero points but I am sure to make a great future in England. Because everything is available for me. Education, a good life, good jobs and everything is open for me.
“There is no violence, no fighting, no crashing; everyone is busy, having picnics. There is responsibility and respect. It is fine. In Afghanistan now, with the Taliban, everything is damaged. No respect, everything is fire, explosions and violence.”
Asked how Northampton differs to Kabul he says there is no comparison:
“We have a bad history, always fighting, always enemies.”
He doesn't blame the British or American forces for pulling out their troops from the country, but thinks the Taliban will not make a success of running the country as they are repressing the people and not respecting public opinion.
Unable to work until he gets his official paperwork, Rahimullah has been spending his time getting to know the area and taking part in the sports that have been on offer. Snooker is a particular favourite.
He hopes to stay in Northampton and is grateful to the council and residents for the support they have given.
“Six months I have been here,” he says. “And everything has been good.”
The village where his accommodation is located has rallied around, with one villager who has a large home holding a regular open house to Rahimullah and his friends to socialise.
In terms of plans he would like to teach, gain more qualifications and film a documentary about how life is for the recent Afghan refugees.
Family reunion hopes
Rahimullah left behind his parents and brothers and sisters in Afghanistan (two brothers were evacuated to the US), a family he had been largely supporting due to having a well paid job. They are now moving from place to place and he fears they are in danger.
“One of my great ambitions, my serious request to the government is please transfer my family here. One day the (UK) government should be proud of me.”
The local authority
While the home office has put up the funding to accommodate the refugees, it is departments from across West Northamptonshire Council and the voluntary sector who have been ensuring everyone is well cared for and settled.
WNC Cabinet member for community safety and engagement Cllr David Smith, said: “Some of our original arrivals have now moved on into more settled accommodation and we’ve welcomed more guests in the past week.
“We’ve had an amazing response from people in Northamptonshire who have been extremely generous in terms of donations and in spirit – they’ve really helped us make our visitors feel welcome.
“Throughout this time, we and partner agencies have provided a huge level of assistance to make sure Children have appropriate schooling, and families have access to sport and recreational opportunities, and healthcare during their time with us.
“The level of support from everyone has been overwhelming, so much so that we’ve recently closed our appeal for donations as we have more than enough of everything to cover everyone’s needs.”
*Images used throughout this article belong to Rahimullah Saighani.
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