The two weeks before the end of the evacuation flights from Kabul were some of the most confronting of Mariam Veiszadeh’s career.

As a former Afghan refugee, prominent lawyer and co-chair of Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, Mariam was uniquely placed to advocate for the thousands of Afghan men, women and children desperate to escape before the August 31 cut-off.

“I was receiving calls from people in Kabul, messages over Twitter from people I didn’t know – they were sending me documentation that proved they were eligible for evacuation to Australia,” she says, her voice heavy with tiredness.

“I spent day and night looking at people’s IDs, photos, collating lists to try to help evacuate them and all the time I was thinking, ‘Why do I have the privilege of making this call?’ I felt I had the weight of the world on my shoulders.”

Children pose for photographs in front of their tents at a camp for internally displaced families. ©JAVED TANVEER/AFP

Adding to Mariam’s sense of responsibility was the fact that her sister-in-law’s family were among those waiting in Kabul for the opportunity to board a flight out. “They had made the 13-hour trip from Herat to Kabul with their young children, and were waiting in a motel,” she says. “Then the suicide bombing happened and they were told to stay away from the airport.”

Today, the airport remains closed and the throngs of desperate Afghans around its perimeter have been replaced by Taliban fighters surveilling the wreckage of what remains. This is a period of intense uncertainty for Afghanistan, as its 39 million citizens wait to see if the Taliban will embark on reprisals against those who worked with foreign organisations, and whether the dark days of repression and violence will return.

“One in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from, and more than half of all children under five are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year”

Against this backdrop, a humanitarian disaster is deepening.

Since the start of the year, more than 600,000 people have been displaced inside the country, due to the confluence of what has been described as the three ‘C’s: conflict, climate and COVID-19.

“One in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from, and more than half of all children under five are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “People are losing access to basic goods and services every day.”

One of the few agencies left in the country, UNHCR continues to stay and deliver crucial aid and support, even as so many of its local staff remain concerned for their safety. Some of the female staff have been asked not to work, although in other areas this has not been an issue.

“UNHCR has been working in Afghanistan for 40 years providing protection and assistance for more than five million Afghans during that time,” says Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer, adding that pressure on field workers is intense. “The situation is very volatile but UNHCR has access to all 34 provinces in Afghanistan, and is continuing to provide emergency shelter and relief items, as well as referrals to medical care and cash assistance. Where possible, UNHCR is also still operating women’s health and education programs.”

UNHCR core relief items, having made an overland journey in Pakistan, wait to enter Afghanistan via Pakistan’s Torkham border point. The materials are being urgently transported to meet the needs of internally displaced Afghans. © UNHCR/Shaheryar Anjum

Women and girls are particularly vulnerable, for a number of reasons. “Women and children make up 80 per cent of all Afghans displaced since May this year,” says Naomi. “Another sad and staggering statistic is that more women and children have been killed and wounded in the first half of this year than since records were first kept in 2009.”

Many professional women such as doctors, judges, and politicians have gone into hiding; few women at all are going to work. After experiencing a window of freedom over the past few years, educated women are once again having to come to terms with the loss of their livelihood, hopes and dreams, at least for now.

“We should have done more to help people while we could,” says Mariam, adding that she believes Australia has a moral imperative to support the Afghan people. “We need to increase our humanitarian intake.” Her sister-in-law’s family remain in a motel in Kabul, unsure of how to return to Herat without arousing suspicion, but struggling to see how they can afford to stay in the capital much longer.

Her words echo those of António Guterres, who restated at the start of this month that UNHCR would do everything in its power to protect the Afghan people.

“Now, more than ever, Afghan children, women and men need the support and solidarity of the international community,” he says. “The humanitarian system’s commitment to stay and deliver will not waver.”

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Afghanistan | Children on their way out of the Nawabad Farabi-ha IDP camp as wind and dust blow though the camp | UNHCR | Humanitarian Aid

Children on their way out of the Nawabad Farabi-ha IDP camp as the wind and the dust blows though the camp. © UNHCR/Edris Lutfi

Afghanistan | UNHCR | Children sit by a shelter in a camp for internally displaced persons in the Afghan capital, Kabul | Humanitarian Aid

Children sit by a shelter in a camp for internally displaced persons in the Afghan capital, Kabul. © UNHCR/Claire Thomas

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