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Thousands Of Afghans With Travel Documents Stranded In Kabul As Taliban Fighters Turn Them Away

People wait outside the airport in Kabul on August 19.

Fearing for his life, Ahmad fled his home in Kabul shortly after Taliban militants seized control of the city. He now resides in a safe house in the Afghan capital, desperately waiting to be flown to safety abroad.

But his hope of finding such security in another country are diminishing fast.

Taliban fighters have erected checkpoints outside Kabul airport and prevented -- sometimes violently -- thousands of Afghans with travel documents from boarding flights out of the war-torn country.

"I'm trapped here," says Ahmad, who does not want to reveal his real name for fear of Taliban reprisals. "There's no way out right now."

With a U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in hand, Ahmad is on the evacuation list. He has also received an e-mail telling him to come to the airport. But he has not been informed which of several gates to enter, forcing him to try different entry points.

Even if at the correct gate, the Taliban has refused him passage into the airport five times on two separate days. During his last attempt on August 19, Taliban fighters armed with assault rifles shot in his direction, narrowly missing him.

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"I was lucky not to be killed," says Ahmad, writing frantic messages on WhatsApp. "Now, I don't know what's more dangerous: going to the airport or staying and living under Taliban rule."

Thousands of Afghans without travel documents have flooded the airport since the Taliban captured the city on August 15, hoping to catch any plane that will take them abroad.

Western governments have spoken of wanting to evacuate tens of thousands of at-risk Afghans from Kabul.

At least 12 people have reportedly been killed in and around the airport, including some Afghans who clung to a moving U.S. Air Force aircraft and dropped to their deaths from the air.

Others have been killed by gunfire from Taliban fighters or U.S. forces or died in stampedes.

The chaos has prevented thousands of Afghans with proper travel documents, like Ahmad, from boarding their flights.

Eyewitnesses say Taliban fighters, some carrying sticks and whips, are letting foreigners enter the airport but refusing many Afghans, even those with foreign passports.

With foreign governments unable to secure safe passage for passengers, some flights have left Kabul mostly empty. A plane from Germany, able to carry around 150 passengers, left with only seven people on board this week, sparking widespread criticism.

"Getting to the airport is mission impossible," says an Afghan rights activist who has been unable to board his flight to Istanbul, a popular destination for many Afghans. Turkey is one of the few countries that grants visas -- although at increasingly exorbitant fees -- to Afghans.

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"The Taliban is making it very difficult for Afghans to leave," he says, talking on condition of anonymity. "They think the people who are leaving are the slaves of foreigners and they deserve to be treated this way."

Sahar, an Afghan woman in her 20s, says the Taliban has set up several roadblocks leading to the airport. She says Taliban fighters are "everywhere and heavily armed."

"They are forcibly pushing people away," says Sahar, who did not want to use her name for safety reasons. "They are beating people with sticks and whips and constantly firing warning shots in the air."

She says the situation outside the airport is “extremely chaotic.”

'Extreme Danger'

With each passing day, the danger to Afghans like Ahmad increases.

"I'm in extreme danger," Ahmad says. "I've worked with the U.S. government and U.S. organizations. I've received threats from the Taliban. They say they're coming for me."

The Taliban has pledged a blanket amnesty, even to those they previously fought. But residents in the capital say the reality is different.

Taliban fighters have been going door-to-door in Kabul, rummaging through homes and sometimes beating, harassing, and kidnapping residents. Often they confiscate personal documents and mobile phones, locals say.

Residents say Taliban fighters are specifically targeting former government employees, ex-soldiers and police officers, and Afghans who worked with foreign governments and organizations.

Several Afghan residents said they have destroyed any documents tying them to the former government or work they had done for foreign entities.

The Taliban has largely shown restraint in Kabul, where there has not been widespread violence and killings.

But outside Kabul, away from the eyes of the world, the militants have summarily executed, imprisoned, and beaten former government officials, soldiers, and Afghans who worked for foreign forces.

The Taliban has reimposed many of its repressive laws and rules outside Kabul, despite pledges by a Taliban spokesman on August 17 that they will protect women’s rights and the free press that has flourished in Afghanistan in the past 20 years.

In many areas, the militants have banned women from leaving their homes without a male relative and barred women from working in many jobs outside their homes.

They have also severely curtailed girls’ education and even forced young girls and widowed women to marry Taliban fighters, local say.

“The Taliban haven’t changed,” says Tamim, a Kabul-based journalist who is in hiding with his young family of four. “Why do you think so many Afghans are desperately trying to leave?”

Tamim, who has been a vocal critic of the Taliban and Pakistan, the militant group's main foreign sponsor, says he has deleted his social-media accounts.

“I’m in hiding,” he says. “We are in a lot of danger. We have to be careful otherwise they will target our families.”

Even as the United States and other Western nations press on with evacuating their citizens and some of their Afghan staff from Kabul, millions of Afghans are left with few choices but to stay.

“There are no flights available and I don’t have a visa,” says Tamim. “I don’t know what will happen to me.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.