Interview: ‘My Home Was Left Behind. Everything Was Left Behind,’ Says Uyghur Who Fled Afghanistan

A Uyghur woman describes how she and her family got out of Kabul airport a day before a suicide bomb attack.
2021.08.31
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Interview: ‘My Home Was Left Behind. Everything Was Left Behind,’ Says Uyghur Who Fled Afghanistan These images were taken by the Uyghur woman as she and her family fled Afghanistan aboard a flight bound for Italy.
Photo: RFA

After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on August 15, some Uyghurs were among the sea of people at Kabul’s airport desperate to flee the country. A Uyghur woman from Kabul, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA that many of the estimated 2,000 Uyghurs in Afghanistan were fearful that they would face repression under Taliban rule or be deported to China because of their legal status as “Chinese migrants.”

The woman and her family boarded a flight for Italy on August 25, one day before a suicide bomber attack on the airport that killed at least 182 people, including 169 Afghan civilians and 13 members of the U.S. military.

The woman and her family have arrived safely in Italy, where they have relatives and are currently in the process of establishing legal status. RFA Uyghur Service’s Gulchera Hoja interviewed the woman by telephone hours after she landed in Italy, following an earlier interview before she fled. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: Where are you currently?

Uyghur woman: I’m in Italy. I’ve been here for two hours. They’re testing me for coronavirus. I have to quarantine for 15 days.

RFA: From what I remember, you were unable to leave on the first day you tried, correct? How were you able to make it out?

Uyghur woman: Yes. On the first day we were unable to pass through the first gate the Taliban put up into the airport, and so we spent the night waiting out on the street. Later we fled. My home was left behind. Everything was left behind. To be alive is everything. Nothing else matters when you’re talking about saving your own life.

RFA: Are you feeling freedom now that you’ve made it to Italy? Are you feeling as though you’ve been saved from the threat of danger?

Uyghur woman: When I looked over at my husband just a moment ago, he was dancing. He’s different from before. How could we not feel like we’ve been saved? But because I’m Uyghur, even though I myself have been saved, I feel like I would be able to sleep more peacefully at night if even one more Uyghur were able to get out of there.

RFA: You got to the airport on Sunday

Uyghur woman: Yes, we made it to Baran Gate in the evening on Sunday.

RFA: You barely made it out. If you’d shown up one day later, you would have been exactly where the explosion took place.

Uyghur woman: Yes, the explosion was at that same gate. That explosion happened at the same gate. Our family was nearly destroyed. There are two gates there. We were able to move a distance of 200 or 300 meters in 26 or 27 hours before we were passed into the hands of the Americans. Oh, the ugliness of the Taliban members there, the ugly way they looked. They hit people hard with the backs of their weapons, the tips, they struck them in the shoulders, on the hands, on the back. The people they struck got sick, their faces went pale.

RFA: Did they strike you too?

Uyghur woman: My family members were afraid they would hit us and wanted to sit down, but I told them to get up so we could keep moving forward. I decided to go out in front just in case they tried to hit us, and so I just kept pulling my family forward. That’s how we made it through.

RFA: So you were only able to approach the airport as part of a sea of people?

Uyghur woman: Yes, you had to use what little time and bravery you had to walk just two or three steps forward at a time. You had to endure the fighting, too. I kept saying, “Let’s go forward even if they hit us, we won’t die from being hit.” They’re so horrible. They had these rubber pipes, like pipes for water, and they were beating people so hard with them. I saw it with my own eyes, the way they were hitting people who were on the road to get into the airport. They’re such terrifying, dangerous people. They’re so terrifying when you look them in the face. The religious leaders and scholars in our homeland had such light radiating from their faces. They were so polite, so beautiful. We had such respect for them. But these people are terrifying.

RFA: These are the things that happened before you made it into U.S. custody?

Uyghur woman: Yes, yes. There were Americans there after we made it through two gates. The Taliban had no more power over us once we made it through. We made it to the square around 8:00 at night and were able to get through the first gate around 10:00 the next day. I went through first. The men weren’t able to get in. I begged the Taliban members there to let my husband pass through the gate, but they paid me no attention. I noticed that the Taliban weren’t stopping children selling water from passing through. There was a child carrying water in a cart, and I ran after him screaming, “Water boy! Water boy!” He stopped. I told him my children were back behind me and that I would give him U.S. $100 for each child he could get through the gate, and then seven or eight kids appeared saying they would take my kids through. I gave them money and told them to call for my kids to come after them. My husband went through with one of the kids, too. There was a big commotion at one point, and the Taliban were beating some people. The sun was so hot. We sat in the heat for an entire day. When we’d gotten a bit closer, they started hitting people again, driving them out, making them get up. I’ll never forget it, not even after I die. 

We had taken a blanket with us, we spread it out and lay on it. Even if you want to sit up all night and not sleep, it’s impossible to stand it when you’re exhausted. There’s no strength left in your hands and feet. And then Italian soldiers came to take us away. They put us in a car and took us to another camp. It was accommodations for people they were going to take abroad.

RFA: You said that your husband has relatives in Italy with whom you’d been in touch. Did the people who saved you and sent you to Italy bring you in because of the familial connection?

Uyghur woman: They invited us to Italy because we had no choice but to flee. Whatever country someone applies to, people from that country will come and find you amid the mess. They took us into a place because we were so-and-so’s family members. I had the thought that there would be no people left in Afghanistan in the immediate future because there were so many people fleeing. All of them were people who had been invited by relatives abroad. It appears as though they handle the matters there as soon as people send letters to offices of the foreign ministry. Turkey and the United States have set up their own tents there. They have large air conditioners in them.

RFA: Was this a separate Italian camp?

Uyghur woman: Yes, each country put their own country’s flag and the old Afghanistan flag, the one without a seal, on their tents. We spent one night there and then on Wednesday, the 24th, we got on an airplane. They took us away at no cost to us.

RFA: And so finally, today, the story of how you fled the Taliban is complete.

Uyghur woman: It’s over. It’s all done. They took our passports. They’re going to give us a place to live, and after a period they will give us residency.

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