A Taliban fighter walks on the side of a road as a Humvee carrying other fighters drives by in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 21, 2021.

Afghanistan

'We are still here': Afghan UN employees worry about their safety

Thousands of Afghans work for the UN in Afghanistan. Most remain there despite fears of being targeted by the Taliban for their work.

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A Taliban fighter walks on the side of a road as a Humvee carrying other fighters drives by in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 21, 2021.

Credit:

Felipe Dana/AP

This week, as world leaders gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, concerns are growing about the safety of UN employees thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.

An estimated 3,000 Afghans work for the UN in the country. Most remain there, and many fear being targeted by the Taliban for their work.

“We are hoping, we are wishing to be evacuated, too.”

Mohammed, Afghan UN employee

“We are hoping, we are wishing to be evacuated, too,” said Mohammed, an Afghan UN employee who, along with some of his Afghan colleagues asked to not be fully identified because they fear risking their jobs or chances at evacuation.

“Maybe the United Nations cannot help us,” he added. 

In August, as the Taliban took hold of Afghanistan, many UN international staff evacuated, adding to those who had already left the country to work remotely during the pandemic. All told, there are reportedly about 700 international UN staff with the Afghan mission.

Some international staff, although it is unclear how many, are returning to Afghanistan although many international employees continue to work remotely from their home countries or from Almaty, Kazakhstan, according to a UN spokesman.

Related: Afghan women sidelined under new Taliban rule: ‘This country places no value on me as a woman’

This week, several members of US Congress, led by Texas Democrat Rep. Joaquin Castro, sent a letter to President Joe Biden stating: “While we support the United Nations maintaining a presence in Afghanistan to the extent possible, as well as delivering humanitarian assistance, this should not come at the expense of Afghan nationals who signed up to work under vastly different circumstances and now face grave threats to their security because of their previous work and other factors.”

“We've got to advocate for them,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, told The World. “We have a moral obligation, both the United Nations and the United States and its allies, to protect those brave Afghanis [sic] who over the last 20 years work by our side.”

The reality that UN officials have not planned evacuations for its local staff has left people like Mohammed at an extremely difficult crossroads.

This summer, he relocated with his family to Kabul from a province as the Taliban made rapid gains in the country. Mohammed said that he cannot imagine moving back with his family to his previous field office.

Some UN offices have been the target of attacks.

On July 30, the UN reported that the Taliban attacked its compound in the western city of Herat. A security guard was killed.

Mohammad is most worried about his family now.

“When I think about my future with my family, especially for my wife, my daughter, life is so restricted for them; even for me, it is restricted.” 

Mohammed, Afghan UN employee

“When I think about my future with my family, especially for my wife, my daughter, life is so restricted for them; even for me, it is restricted,” he said.

According to some UN officials who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive information, plans are moving forward to resume field operations.

Related: Minerals, drugs and China: How the Taliban might finance their new Afghan government

Mohammed is expecting an order from UN managers to return to fieldwork any day now. He said that he has considered resigning from his job because he does not want to leave his wife and young children alone in Kabul.

But he is also the family’s sole breadwinner, he said, and finding another job in a country where the economy is spiraling is not a viable option for him.

Dangers to women

Many of Mohammed’s Afghan colleagues face the same dilemma, particularly his female co-workers. The Taliban are enforcing rules that sideline women in Afghanistan.

Some female UN workers told The World that they fear retaliation for their UN work involving social justice issues such as women’s rights, which may clash from the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islamic religious law.

The women said that they barely leave their homes and conceal any items that could reveal they are affiliated with the UN. They know of friends who have been detained and tortured by the Taliban in recent months.

“They just severely beat journalists who were covering a protest.” 

Female UN worker

“They just severely beat journalists who were covering a protest,” one woman UN worker said, referring to a Sept. 7 protest by women, when Taliban security forces detained and beat two Afghan journalists with cables.

“If the Taliban come and search my home and find my laptop, it will be difficult for me,” one female UN employee said.

She said that she has asked to work remotely from a nearby country, but has not received permission to do that yet. She has considered finding another way to leave the country but “leaving by land is too risky for me. The borders are closed,” she said.

Related: The Taliban want international recognition. Countries are debating.

One female UN employee said she feels abandoned, especially after she received an email in late August informing the UN’s Afghan mission staff that the head of the UN mission, Deborah Lyons, would be on vacation from Aug. 30 to Sept. 9 — leaving just as the US exited Afghanistan after a 20-year war and days after suicide bombers attacked the Kabul airport. 

‘Absent at such a critical time’

Former UN officials were also troubled by that absence of leadership.

Peter Galbraith once served as a high-ranking UN official in Afghanistan.

“You can be evacuated but your job all the time has to be looking after your people, never mind looking after the situation,” Galbraith said. “I just can’t imagine being absent at such a critical time.”

While the UN’s international staff was being evacuated in August, its local staff received a series of safety advisories seen by The World. They were told that if armed Taliban fighters search your home, “avoid making any sudden movements” and that “if you feel the situation is becoming aggravated, ask them politely, if it is possible to call the UN, explaining that the UN is in liaison with Taliban commanders, and it can assist in clarifying the situation.”

Also, it said that employees should “get rid of any sensitive documents by putting them into a bucket with soap, water and whatever strong cleaning solution you have.”

After soaking, the advisory said to put documents in the sewers, a well or down an elevator shaft.

Related: For journalists working under Taliban rule, there are 'no guarantees,' Afghan media network head says

On Aug. 23, UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke by video to Afghan staff.

“The safety of all United Nations personnel in Afghanistan is our top priority,” he said. “We are doing everything in our power, namely through the permanent engagement with all relevant actors and will continue to do so to ensure your safety and well-being.”

Liam McDowell, a UN spokesperson, said that since the Taliban seized power of Kabul on Aug. 15, two UN staff have reported being injured by members reportedly with the group. Nobody has been killed. 

“The safety of female staff members is of especial importance, and the UN has been very clear with all interlocutors that their rights must be protected. No female staff member have been harmed.”

Liam McDowell, UN spokesperson

Regarding female staff, McDowell wrote: “The safety of female staff members is of especial importance, and the UN has been very clear with all interlocutors that their rights must be protected. No female staff member have been harmed.”

Several current UN officials privately criticize that the measure of safety for the UN’s Afghan staff “shouldn’t be that the Taliban haven’t decided to kill any of them yet.” 

Publicly, UN staff unions and associations have circulated a petition asking for the UN secretary-general to ensure local staff safety. The petition has 6,832 signatures so far.

Galbraith, the former UN official, agrees that more should be done to protect local UN staff.

“That is the dilemma that the UN faces,” Galbraith said. “If it's to continue to be present, it's going to need its Afghan employees.”

Galbraith acknowledged the need to continue the UN’s life-saving humanitarian work, such as delivering food and medicine. That work is not without risk, Galbraith said, but the Taliban may want that work to continue.

“There are some activities that the UN has done for decades, like the work of UNICEF, UNHCR and the World Food Program,” he said. “You can negotiate agreements with the Taliban for them to continue their work. In fact, the Taliban are desperate for them to continue their work.”

Galbraith said that he is especially concerned about UN Afghan staff who work on longer-term efforts to promote women's rights, press freedom and electoral rights — goals that can directly clash with the Taliban.

The local UN workers’ concerns came up in a vivid way during a virtual UN staff meeting in August.

In a recording of that call, which was shared with The World, local staff asked top UN managers why they were not being evacuated despite warning UN leaders repeatedly for months about getting out of the country.

At one point during the call, a woman was asking a question and gunfire could be heard from outside her window.

“What can I say? I fully understand the difficult situation you find yourself in, and that it must be terrifying to have these people coming to your homes, coming to your neighborhoods and it’s certainly something that concerns us a lot.”

Mette Knudsen, deputy special representative for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan

Mette Knudsen, a deputy special representative for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, responded during the meeting: “What can I say? I fully understand the difficult situation you find yourself in, and that it must be terrifying to have these people coming to your homes, coming to your neighborhoods and it’s certainly something that concerns us a lot.”

Knudsen explained that the UN needs help from other countries to issue visas in order to evacuate people.

The United Nations did not grant an interview, but spokesman McDowell said that the UN has requested assistance from more than 30 countries now.

Mohammad, in Kabul, said that he is encouraged that more people are paying attention to his safety, but it remains unclear whether the UN is actively working with countries like the US to evacuate local employees who feel vulnerable.

“We are still here,” he said. “Still, we are waiting. I don't know what happened.”

Mohammad said that he once felt part of a greater global mission to support Afghanistan and safeguard human rights. But now, he said, he is rethinking that because not enough is being done to safeguard his own life.

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