Norwegian Astrid Sleten leads relief work on the ground in Afghanistan, but must sit quietly in negotiations with the Taliban and let the men speak in peace.
The NRC’s director in Afghanistan, Astrid Sleten, was vacationing in neighboring Pakistan when the chaotic tragedy erupted at Kabul airport last week. It landed late in the evening of Wednesday 18th August.
As thousands of people flocked out and into the airport with a desperate desire to flee the Taliban, Slaten went upstream to return to his office in Kabul.
– It was important for me to go back to Kabul. The country director should be in place on the ground, she told Netavizen by phone from Kabul on Monday afternoon.
Tens of thousands of desperate Afghans made the pilgrimage to Kabul International Airport last week. We hope that they will be evacuated, along with international embassies, journalists, aid workers and defense personnel. Dozens died as a result of the crowding and skirmishes, and no later than Monday, an exchange of fire took place at the airport, resulting in deaths.
Outside, the Taliban stood and greeted me
The huge crowds at the airport made it completely impossible for Slaten to reach Kabul. Therefore, they were “stranded” at the airport for several days.
– It was completely impossible to go out because of the crowds. I was taken to the Norwegian field hospital (inside the airport editor’s note) and asked if they could help me out of the airport. I was looked after and given a room there. I got very little sleep on the days I stayed at the airport. It was still the clatter of the cannons. I received a good treatment and did not feel any inconvenience. On Saturday, I was finally escorted safely out of the airport. Slayten says, outside, Taliban stood and greeted me.
The United States and NATO forces have been waging a bloody war against the Taliban for twenty years. Last week, everything turned upside down. The Taliban and US forces are now cooperating on the airport evacuation. The US military is inside and the Taliban is outside the airport.
– It’s a tragedy what’s happening here. It won’t be over until the Americans pack their bags and leave Afghanistan, Slaten says.
Read also: Shooting at Kabul airport
US President Joe Biden had announced earlier that August 31 is the deadline for the evacuation of US forces in Afghanistan. Several NATO countries, including the United States, have stated that it may be appropriate to extend the deadline for evacuation. However, the Taliban indicated in an interview with Sky News that August 31 is a “red line” and that there may be consequences if the deadline for evacuation is not met.
– That’s the worst I’ve seen
Although Slayten made a full recovery from her stay at the airport, she witnessed tragedies that left traces for life.
– It was hard to get out of the airport. I am not afraid of gunshots and have been in the industry for over 20 years. I have been in Afghanistan for nine years. I visited places described as hell on earth, like Somalia, South Sudan and Sierra Leone during the civil war from 2001 to 2003. But this is the worst I’ve seen. It was heartbreaking, Slaten says.
– When I left the airport I was a few meters from the “front line” and saw the faces of children who had been crying for days because of all the chaos, she said.
– I’m not obsessed with a suicide mission. I feel safer in Kabul now than I did three months ago. But I’m glad I got out of the airport. I had a high heart rate at the airport, and the experience of being handed over to the Taliban who escorted me to the car was a surreal one. The first thing the Taliban said to me was, “Welcome back, Mrs. Slaten.” He asked me if he should carry my bag, but I refused, Slitten says.
And she continued to talk about the great contrasts between life at the airport and the quieter city of Kabul.
– There is no traffic jam in Kabul, many shops are open and it’s a bit like Friday (Muslim Holiday Editor’s note), as it is Sunday at home. It is an abnormal mood.
The Taliban spent about a week and a half retaking all of Afghanistan after most of the US and NATO forces left the country after 20 years of military presence. The notorious Taliban controlled what it described as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Public executions on soccer fields, amputations of hands and feet, and the separation of women were common under the Taliban.
Many Afghan men and women now fear a return to the terrorist regime that has refused girls to go to school and prevented women from working. The Taliban leadership declared that it must respect women’s freedoms and their right to work according to “Islamic law.”
The Taliban also promised that it would not retaliate against Afghans who cooperated with NATO and the United States during the 20-year military operation. In some cases the Taliban has promised amnesty, but Western tongues suggest that one should not care too much about what the Taliban say, but rather emphasize what they actually do.
The veil is narrower than usual
Taliban soldiers have already tore down posters of women adorning the exterior of beauty and hair salons in Kabul. It is said that many Afghans are ditching Western clothes, that men grow beards and hair, and that women find traditional costumes to cover themselves when out in public.
– There have always been people who wear a burqa here, but those who wear a headscarf and a head scarf are probably a little tighter and tighter around the head than others. Slaten says many women also go to work without covering their faces, but most of them are staying home now.
The Norwegian Refugee Council is one of several international aid organizations that maintain humanitarian efforts in the country despite Taliban control. Among other things, the organization will fight for girls’ right to education. It involves new rounds of negotiations with the Taliban.
The Norwegian Refugee Council communicates with all parties to the conflict. We have been in contact with the Taliban and have been operating in Taliban-controlled areas for many years. It’s nothing new for us to have negotiations with the Taliban, Slaten says.
So far, we have received one request from the Taliban
The NRC has 1,600 local staff in the country, many of whom are women. This week, local female employees of the organization began returning to work.
So far, we have only received one request from the Taliban. This means that women and men should not share an office together. We did not receive a Muharram request (accompanied by a male guardian, editor’s note) for our female office workers. But there are demands on Muharram for our female employees in the field. Our female employees offer Muharram if they wish. It’s considered almost a safe form of transport, Slaten says.
The NRC is getting relatively good treatment from the Taliban, says Sleten.
The fact that the Taliban are counting on us as NGOs because they don’t have the resources or ability to deal with the humanitarian crisis themselves. This would be a humanitarian disaster. The physical pressure that we saw at the airport would eventually spread to the country and to Pakistan and Iran. These are large crowds of desperate people who have no water, food and shelter. She notes that Afghanistan is a country that experiences freezing temperatures in winter.
– Best served by a male country manager
All aid organizations in Afghanistan have put a lot of relief work on hold, Slaten says, pending new directions from the Taliban. Therefore, she spends her days negotiating with the Taliban in Kabul.
– We have set a ‘Pause Button’ for all of our facilities. Although the Taliban senior leadership said all the right things, local Taliban leaders across the country should also be informed. She says the Taliban leadership must come up with concrete local guidelines for how humanitarian organizations can continue to operate.
Al-Sahel is physically involved in negotiations with the Taliban, but is forced to remain silent while the men speak.
– I’m a true feminist, and it goes a long way to say this. But I believe in the long term, the NRC would be better served by a male country director. This is actually the case. I am fortunate to have a local senior male employee. In negotiations with the Taliban, I have to push the bullet and pretend that he decides. I have to sit completely still and not be allowed to say anything. I prepare him well before each meeting and give him talking points. I also gave him yellow notes during the meeting, says the country director.
– That’s how everyday life is now. This is not a criticism of the Taliban, but just a description of my working day. It is perfectly fine to have such work in the short term, but it does not work in the long term. I have a contract that expires in June of next year, but I don’t intend to extend it. It’s also not uncommon to move after two years in one place, says Slaten, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for nine years.
– One of the reasons why the Taliban accepted me to attend meetings is that I wear local clothes and show respect for their culture. In addition, I am over 50 years old, and you are at least a grandmother in Afghanistan. Afghanistan respects the elderly. She says respect for the elderly is the responsibility of both women and men.
Don’t let Afghanistan become a forgotten crisis
In the next few days, all Norwegian Defense Forces will return home from Afghanistan after 20 years of effort. So Slayten calls for the media to continue to follow the war-torn country in the aftermath of the NATO operation.
– I wish the Norwegian media. Don’t forget Afghanistan when the Americans left the arena and the dust settled. She says: Don’t let Afghanistan become a forgotten crisis, but keep following the country.
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