Scenes of frightened Afghans scrambling to leave the country by any means possible in August 2021 — including clinging to packed military cargo planes — following the withdrawal of United States forces and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan were broadcast on TV screens across the world to widespread horror and outrage.
The hasty withdrawal and subsequent collapse of the government left a power vacuum that was filled entirely by the Taliban, a violent fundamentalist group committed to reversing any democratic progress made in the country of over 38 million during the past two decades.
A year later, in the small Albanian coastal town of Shëngjin, nestled between the sparkling Adriatic sea on one side and a high mountain range on the other, several hundred Afghan refugees are stuck in limbo.
For them, the horrors of August 2021 are still fresh — a painful reminder of the moment when their role in securing a free and egalitarian future for Afghanistan evaporated into thin air.
“It was immensely disorganised,” says Aziz, recounting the withdrawal and the evacuations arranged by the US military. “Me and a lot of other people thought, hey, we have a lot of association with the US government, surely it’s just a waiting game until we are taken out of the country.”
They can not — and do not want to — go back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban has only strengthened their power.
But many also do not know when they will receive their US visas, a pledge made particularly to people who worked with the US presence in the country.
Aziz asked that he not be referred to by his full name since he still has relatives in Afghanistan who might want to leave someday or could face retribution from the Taliban forces. His mother is with him in Shëngjin, and both are in a state of constant anxiety over their undefined future.
“If I had known a year ago — we were told getting our visas would only last a couple of months — that it would last this long, I would have probably had a heart attack.”
A year of empty promises
Aziz clearly remembers the sense of pending catastrophe he and others felt in the lead-up to August 2021.
“I was working in Kabul for a consultancy. I realised regions [all over the country] were falling and there were different estimates as to how long it would take for Kabul to fall. But we knew it was going to happen,” he recalls.
Aziz is an extremely eloquent 26-year-old with perfect English and a profound understanding of the politics of his home country.
He is angry at those who casually conclude that the Afghan army did not fight, citing the “hundreds of thousands of casualties” over the years. He is also angry at the many analysts and op-eds who supported the withdrawal.
He studied information technology at the American University of Afghanistan and dabbled in other topics such as psychology and economics while also participating in competitive debate competitions.
He moved several times throughout his life -- from Pakistan, where his family were refugees, back to their hometown of Kandahar and finally to Kabul -- and speaks Urdu, Dari, Pashto, and learned French in high school.
While hardly privileged, he cites his father’s commitment to teaching him English as a child through word games and his mother’s work in education as having shaped his views of the world.
Aziz and his friends sensed that the situation in the country was headed toward a steady deterioration even before the official launch of the US withdrawal and immediately started looking for ways to leave.
“I decided to try to get visas for places like Turkey and other places, and they were very hard to come by at the time due to the immense demand. As things continued deteriorating we decided we would go to Pakistan, which wasn’t ideal. My mom’s visa came through but mine didn’t,” he said.
“When my hometown of Kandahar fell, where there was heavy fighting, I knew it would be a matter of time before the domino effect reached Kabul.”
When US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal plans, Aziz felt comfort in the fact that he was part of a large group of Afghans who had worked with the government or State Department and whose safety the western country pledged to guarantee.
“Since I had worked with the United States Institute of Peace in the past, I had a Priority 1 and Priority 2 classification, which was an alternative to the Special Immigrant Visa programme which requires people to work with the US government for one year in order to be qualified to be resettled in the US,” he explains.
“Besides my work with the institute I also had a scholarship at the university, so I used those referral numbers to try and secure a spot on the planes leaving Kabul.”
On the morning of the fall of Kabul, Aziz went to work as per usual when he saw Afghan tanks that had fled from Maidan Wardak, a neighbouring province, in bad condition. “Traffic was terrible. Rumours started spreading that they had entered the city and chaos spread.”
“I heard that they had entered through Paghman, which is close to where my home was and my mom was in the fifth district. I remember rushing to get there, and all I could see was people going in the opposite direction toward the airport.”
“I even saw former ministers and parliamentarians with bags running towards the airport.”
He went back over several days, trying to get through to the tarmac and secure a spot on the plane. He recalls it being packed, with people barely being able to breathe.
“When the US military got control of the airport they had no efficient way of weeding out who to let in. So the people who were brave enough to push through to enter the airport — even at the cost of their lives — were the ones who ended up being evacuated.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it. Shots were being fired by the Taliban, people were being hit, every day someone would die. So the first planes that left were not necessarily people who had an association with the US, they were just the ones who managed to get through. Whereas the people who had a background with the US being left out," he claims.
When it became clear that association with the university was not going to be his ticket out of the country, he started reaching out to various organisations and NGOs. He jokes, dryly, about filling out so many forms and even reaching out to groups he had never heard of.
But as the 31 August deadline for the US withdrawal neared, his panic increased. “Every plane that left that I wasn’t on meant I was one step closer to being stuck.”
While he and his mother initially sheltered with relatives, they ended up going back to their home for fear that their relatives or neighbours could inform on them to curry favour with the Taliban.
Some people in Kabul were jealous of the jobs those who associated with the US had, or had deep-running disagreements over the way the country should be run. He had never heard of Albania before August of last year.
“I never imagined the route I ended up taking would be the way I would get out of Afghanistan.”
Vital Voices Global Partnership, an NGO focused primarily on women’s rights and education, reached out to him and told him they would secure a spot for him and his mother on a plane out of the country in October. They told him he was going to Albania.
Tourists and refugees
Albania was one of the few countries in Europe to announce its intention to accept thousands of Afghan refugees, along with Kosovo and North Macedonia.
An increasingly popular tourist destination, it boasts a 450-kilometre coastline, historical attractions from the Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman periods, and lush mountain ranges.
Placing the refugees at the most high-capacity locations in the country — the sprawling resorts that are packed in the summer — was a no-brainer, especially since the costs were covered by NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy or organisations such as FIFA who had evacuated athletes.
The Rafaelo Resort in Shëngjin currently houses around 800 Afghan refugees in a section of the hotel set aside from them and includes a library area, an area for children and one for women and girls.
The resort, crucially, has round-the-clock security and includes amenities such as banks and a supermarket on its grounds.
Pashtana Rasool, like Aziz, was involved in spearheading democratic efforts in Afghanistan. Before she came to Shëngjin in October, she was the Executive Director of the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization or AFCECO.
“I came here to Albania ten months ago, in October,” she told Euronews. After a couple of weeks of staying in her hotel room, “I was very tired of being at home with nothing to do because my whole family is back in Afghanistan. But in November I fortunately found this job working in the space for women and girls.”
The space found right in front of a large pool is usually filled with the loud, happy cries of children and other holiday-goers in early August.
Inside, women from various parts of Afghanistan lounge on colourful bean bags — away from the heat outside — while chatting away, making crafts or knitting, as well as participating in discussions with coordinators from the International Rescue Committee and their local partners, ARSIS.
“Normally I’m here from 9 to 4 as a community mediator,” the 27-year-old explains. “After 4 or 5 I go home or go for walks outside with my friends, on the beach or we go shopping. In the winter we went hiking with friends, like boys and girls from the community. We enjoyed it a lot, we visited a lot of places in Albania.”
She likes being in Shëngjin — despite the fact that tens of thousands flock to the city over the summer and loud music is played for hours in the evenings. She learned how to swim here and enjoys swimming at least once a week.
She had also never heard of Albania before coming here, apart from being told there were a lot of Muslims here and that she would feel at home.
“It was totally different. People in Albania are very kind, and they don’t care about whatever you’re wearing. Whether or not we wear headscarves, it doesn’t matter to them,” she explains.
Shëngjin is a part of the Catholic-majority Lezhë county in the north of Albania and was a key port city in the past. The League of Lezhë, a medieval military alliance of Albanian nobles that fought against the Ottoman Empire, is considered a predecessor to the modern independent state.
“The big difference I saw here is that Muslims and Christians behave the same and have no problems with one another,” she remarks.
“Religion is the biggest problem we have in Afghanistan, and there was widespread discrimination toward minority groups who were not even allowed to attend school. But here everyone is the same, they celebrate both Muslim religious holidays and Christian religious holidays. I love it!”
Her tone changes when she is asked about her family back home.
“I have siblings. I have sisters and brothers, parents, but unfortunately my sisters are at home. They’re not allowed to go out or go to school.”
“The boys can go to school, but even they complain because the teachers often aren’t there or don’t hold their classes because they aren’t getting a salary. And even when they get out, every day there’s an explosion.”
Two of her sisters attended high school before the Taliban takeover, and a third sister — who is a journalist — is in Pakistan.
“Of course, I dream that one day they will be with me. I am here, physically, in such a beautiful country, beautiful hotel, beach, everything, but it doesn't make me feel calm or good because even when I'm walking, I'm constantly thinking about my family. About my siblings. Because their future has been destroyed.”
Forgotten and unwanted
When asked about where she sees her country going from here, Pashtana struggles to conjure up a positive prediction.
“We don’t know. I don’t know. Because for 40 years we have been at war and the political situation is so complicated,” she said.
Most of Afghanistan’s current problems date back to a proxy war fought from 1979 to 1989 between Soviet-backed groups affiliated with the communist party coup in the country and Western-backed Mujahideen.
The Afghan population was subjected to massive war crimes, rape, ethnic cleansing, and torture, as well as being abused by those representing two opposing factions — those claiming to support rigid democratic reforms and those wanting to maintain a more religious hold on the country.
The rifts established at the time, including those between rural and urban populations, still plague the country to this day — and launched the country into a four year civil war from 1992 to 1996.
The Taliban came to power in 1996, effectively controlling three-fourths of the country, until they were ousted by the US invasion in 2001.
“As long as the Taliban are in power, there is no change, there is no hope for the people in the country,” Pashtana remarks.
"The Taliban has always had control in Afghanistan, even when we had presidents. But they were in villages, where they controlled everything, but in the cities, we had a lot of opportunities like schools for girls and everything,” she continues.
Unlike the last time the Taliban were in power, no one is heavily invested in helping democratic forces in the country wrest power away from them. Asked about the war in Ukraine — cited widely as one of the reasons for the shift in Western attention — she highlights the fact that everyone cares about the ongoing invasion there.
“The situation in Ukraine is very sad, but they are lucky because European countries opened their doors to them. But with Afghans, even our neighbouring countries closed their doors to us and won’t allow Afghans to go there.”
During the civil war and in various periods of instability, Afghans have fled to neighbouring Pakistan, a Sunni-majority country.
“Last time they said ‘we welcome you’ but now they are tired and they do not care.”
Waiting for America
While some of the Afghan refugees in Albania have since emigrated to Canada, the overwhelming sentiment among the remaining group is that they want to go to the United States.
Leila and her brother Reza have both found employment in Shëngjin in order to support their families while they wait for their visas.
They have been told that there is an interest in moving them to St Louis, Missouri — a city which already boasts a large diaspora from another war, namely the war in Bosnia.
Bosnians were moved to the very segregated city in an attempt to revive it, which could be the reasoning behind their interest in Afghan refugees as well.
Leila is a tall, confident and attractive woman who wore an all-pink dress and headscarf set when Euronews spoke to her.
“I’m a waitress at the Rafaelo hotel and a worker at the restaurant,” she says, highlighting that her mom, four sisters and two brothers feel safe here. Their father is in Iran, where he fled from their hometown of Mazar-i-Sharif, which fell before Kabul.
“We hope, we wish to go to America,” the 20-year-old said, “For now, everything is unknown. We don’t know about our situation, our future, and we don’t know when we’ll go to America.”
“It’s a bad feeling for me because everyone is very worried, especially my mom. She is old, and she’s worried all the time and thinking about our future. Where we’ll go, where our home will be and what we’ll do.”
In Afghanistan, she studied at the agricultural faculty at Balkh University and was in the first semester when the war started. She plans on continuing her education as soon as she can.
In her spare time, she plays with the kids in the children’s sector. Leila says the kids are lucky because they worry less than everyone else. “They are free here.”
Reza, her brother, works at another hotel in Shëngjin. He picked up some Albanian and happily converses with the local staff at the Rafaelo Resort. Both of them go out in the evenings when they are not working.
But for Leila, everything in Albania is merely a temporary solution. While her short-term plans include moving to the US, she hopes that one day, she might even be able to move back to Afghanistan.
“I really miss my country. And I really worry about my friends that are not here. I hope one day peace will come to my country and we’ll return and not move anywhere ever again.”