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Afghan NATO forces flee to Istanbul to seek refuge

By Dorian Jones - RFI
Asia AFP - AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN
OCT 10, 2021 LISTEN
AFP - AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN

Growing numbers of Afghans who fought alongside NATO forces are arriving in Istanbul looking for help from the countries they once worked with.

Youssef, an Afghan helicopter pilot, shows photos of the NATO forces he fought alongside against the Taliban. 

"Our advisors they were from British, they were from the U.S., they were from Germans," said Youssef, "We worked shoulder by shoulder in making some plans against the insurgents."

But with the Taliban seizing power Youseff says he is a marked man.

"Right now, we are in the situation we can't stay in Afghanistan because all our database info is in the hand of the Taliban."

Youssef says she was lucky to get a seat on the last scheduled Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul as the Taliban entered Kabul. Now he's seeking a visa to one of the NATO country's he fought with. 

Listening to Youssef is his friend, also a military pilot, who doesn't want to be identified. He came to Istanbul two months ago after receiving Taliban death threats.

"I had some threats from Taliban; there were multiple threats. First, they were sending letters calling us at midnight. Then, they would call from a number they would call my father, they would call me, saying we will put a bomb right behind your door or under your car, and you wont to see your family again."

The pilot is dismissive of Taliban promises not to seek retribution against those who fought against them. "I know the Taliban say they are not hurting anybody, but that is not true," he explains. "We are getting reports every day they are tracking people they are taking people from their homes, and the next day there is no news about them."

Like Youseef, he has made numerous applications to NATO countries for a much-prized visa.

"I tried Germany, then I tried Canada, I still have not got luck with any," the pilot says. "I have worked with Germans; I've worked with British we worked side by side, planning missions, doing missions. But when there is a bad time for you, if you don't get help from a friend or a colleague, it's very disappointing; and very frustrating," he added. 

The two pilots live in Istanbul's Zeytinburnu district, dubbed by locals "Afghanburnu," because of its large Afghan population. Many here fled the Afghan conflict years ago. 

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ruling out taking in any new wave of Afghans. He points out the country is already hosting nearly five million refugees, mainly from the Syrian civil war. 

Refugee rights groups claim the government's hardline extends even to refusing to allow NATO countries to use Turkey to process Afghans seeking visas. 

"The Turkish government is not registering them inside Turkey. So they can't apply for asylum inside Turkey," said Ali Hekmat of Turkey's Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association.

"They are living as illegal refugees as illegal people. They cant travel easily from one city to another city; they can't go to the hospital, so they don't have any chance to stay in Turkey," he added. "Just maybe they are working three months one month, or if they have money, they are starting another trip to Europe."

  The two pilots are on tourist visas which will soon expire. But Youssef's fellow pilot has received the good news that his wife and three children were evacuated from Kabul and that the United States is now looking into his case. But Youssef thinks about his wife and two kids still trapped in Kabul. 

"I am just thinking of my family if they are safe. I am safe right now. First of all, I think about their lives and nothing else," said Youssef.

Neither man knows when or if they'll leave Istanbul and be reunited with their families. But both say they're lucky to have escaped the Taliban.  

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