Kashmiri Professor’s Ground Reporting Amid Grounded Homecoming in Kabul

After his campus SOS alerted Raj Bhavan and Ministry of External Affairs, Prof. Aasif Shah and other stranded Kashmiris are desperately waiting for evacuation at the Kabul Airport amid the looming uncertainty.

By Zaid Bin Shabir

DAYS after an armed group of Taliban arrived in his campus to assure his safety, a young Kashmir professor sent home another SOS — this time from the chaotic Kabul Airport. He appealed for repatriation amid rattling gun shots. But instead home, he was taken for some panic ride.

“We thought it might be anything untoward,” Prof. Aasif Shah, who teaches Economics at Kabul’s Bakhtar University, told Kashmir Observer over phone from Afghanistan.

“Some of us even started crying. But we were relieved when Taliban noted down our details and escorted us back to airport.” And since then, the young professor has been waiting for his homecoming flight.

Despite his grounded situation becoming a cause of concern for his family back home and regular media briefings, the Kulgam native remains the only voice sending SOS and updates from the war-torn country.

It was because of his dispatches that Raj Bhavan acted swiftly and alerted Ministry of External Affairs for an immediate intervention.

On August 15, when Taliban overtook Kabul in a bloodless coup, Dr. Aasif had to defer his class—fearing the full-scale offensive. But the changed guards after the end of the twenty-year-old “war of terror” soon allayed his fears.

“I was planning to come home on August 16, but the panic scenes at the Kabul Airport sent me back and since then, I’m awaiting evacuation,” Aasif said.

“We felt safer in the campus than in the airport where guns often roar and create panic.”

Before reaching on the brink of leaving the country, the professor was reading alarming news about the impeding fall of Kabul. The rapid advancement of war had already created thousands of refugees, but Dr. Aasif felt that US was acting with pressing urgency.

“Except the early hours of the Taliban’s victory in Kabul, the fear and dismay have gradually turned into peace and calm in the city,” Aasif says.

“A group of armed Taliban visited our campus on August 16 and assured us that this time the territorial takeover is bloodless, and assured everyone including non-Afghans full safety.”

Despite this assurance, the historic city witnessed the gridlock of air traffic on the very first day of the throne takeover, with all government offices including runaway Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s palace and his regime’s parliament shutting their operations.

“More than 400 flights landed in Kabul on the first day,” Aasif says. “But within just 24 hours, Kabul swung back to normalcy.”

Rise of Taliban leadership in Kabul.

On August 16, Aasif received a phone call with instructions to book a ticket to New Delhi and meet his fellow professor from Kulgam, Prof. Adil, with all of his belongings outside the varsity — the first meeting point in a series of stops on his bid back to Kashmir.

“Since people were being evacuated without passports, visas and boarding passes, a lot of influx including the local Afghanis who somehow turned this into an opportunity to leave Afghanistan for a better life in any other foreign country, was coming to the airport and creating a crisis situation for the international travellers,” the professor says.

“That day, more than 400 flights landed in the Hamid Karzai International Airport.”

However, on the second day, Aasif, along Prof. Adil and his wife Asfiya, hurried a goodbye to a local Afghani campus friend. But later, at the airport, someone informed Aasif that they would be leaving that evening, August 17, hours before the Kabul Airport became non-functional and restricted the air travel.

The Kashmiri trio landed back in their Bakhtar University on the same day. It was not the gradual adjustment to life on the outside that Aasif had been planning before the Taliban entered Kabul.

“As much as I was preparing myself mentally to come home, I never thought that the homecoming would become so difficult,” the professor says.

“Lately, some 150 flights took off from Kabul, giving us hope that our flight from India will come and evacuate us from the country.”

Passengers awaiting evacuation at Kabul Airport.

Notably, the drawdown followed by the departure of American troops has exacerbated long-running dynamics in Afghanistan. Afghans who aided the American effort are frantically looking for ways out of the country. The U.S. system for vetting Afghan visa applicants remains exhausting and time-consuming. And the rumours and misinformation that have long plagued the country have intensified, fuelling public confusion, panic and what many call, the airport tragedy.

“Biden’s surprise announcement in April that he would withdraw nearly all American troops in five months did not allow enough time for U.S. officials to safely evacuate Afghan allies, who since Taliban’s emergence in Kabul, have been finding ways to exit Afghanistan,” Aasif says.

The American administration may have done more than simply acquiesce in the rescue effort.

At the height of the standoff, the Delta Force—the American commando unit that was fighting Taliban units on the ground—was called to set up a special air corridor to help insure the safety of the rescue flights from Kabul to the other parts of the world.

Prof. Aasif Shah

“These guys did Desert Storm,” Aasif says. “They see things in black-and-white. They were supposed to help everyone but rather they turned things difficult for others by taking control of the airport in order to provide a safe passage for their own Americans. These people first tried to tear down the Afghani culture of Beard and Turban and are now driving the airport into a state of chaos.”

Amid all this, the professor says, the International media have been trying to represent a different picture of the region.

“There’s a totally opposite image to what the media has been trying to play in this ongoing chaos. The situation is peaceful and calm but I really want to travel back to Kashmir, as the future here remains uncertain,” Aasif says while remembering his wife and daughter Ayesha.

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Zaid Bin Shabir

Zaid Bin Shabir is a special correspondent at Kashmir Observer. He tweets @Zaidbinshabir

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