Stranded Afghans risk crossing a jungle

Mozhgan, 20, who was denied further education after the Taliban returned to power in her native Afghanistan, at a hotel room in Mexico City on March 23, 2023. For thousands of Afghans who had support
Mozhgan, 20, who was denied further education after the Taliban returned to power in her native Afghanistan, at a hotel room in Mexico City on March 23, 2023. For thousands of Afghans who had supported Western efforts before the Taliban returned to power. (Photos: NYTimes)
Taiba was being hunted by the men she had put behind bars.

The death threats came as the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban marched across her country, she said. In the chaos, cell doors were flung open, freeing the rapists and abusers she had helped send to prison.اضافة اعلان

“We will find you,” the callers growled. “We will kill you.”

Taiba’s entire life had been shaped by the American vision of a democratic Afghanistan: She had studied law, worked with the Americans to fight violence against women and ultimately became a top government official for women’s rights, gathering testimony that put abusers away.

But after saving so many women’s lives, she was suddenly trying to save her own.

Ali, Taiba and their son travel by bus from Mexico City to Tijuana, where they planned to enter the United States, on March 31, 2023. For thousands of Afghans who had supported Western efforts before the Taliban returned to power, the American withdrawal from Kabul was just the beginning of a long, dangerous search for safety. 

She and her husband, Ali, pleaded for help from a half-dozen nations — many of which they had worked with — and found an American refugee program for which they might be eligible. Taiba said she sent off her information, but she never heard back.

“They left us behind,” she said of the Americans. “Sometimes I think maybe God left all Afghans behind.”

Taiba and her husband fled with their 2-year-old son, first to Pakistan, then to South America, joining the vast human tide of desperation pressing north toward the United States.

Jungles, fires ants, and snakes
Like thousands of Afghans who have taken this same, unfathomable route to escape the Taliban and their country’s economic collapse over the past 17 months, they trudged through the jungle, slept on the forest floor amid fire ants and snakes, hid their money in their food to fool thieves and crossed the sliver of land connecting North and South America — the treacherous Darién Gap.

Now, after more than 16,000 miles, Taiba and her family had finally reached it: the American border.

In the darkness, Taiba crawled into a drainage tunnel under a highway. When she emerged, she saw two enormous steel fences, the last barriers between her old life and what she hoped would be a new one. A smuggler flung a ladder over the first wall.

Taiba gripped the rungs and began to climb into the country that had helped define her. She knew the Americans were turning away asylum-seekers. A single thought consumed her.

Once she got in, would they let her stay?

A search for safetyFrantic parents breached airport gates with suitcases and children in hand. Panicked crowds climbed jet wings and clung to the sides of departing American planes. A few tried to hang on, lost their grip and fell from the skies.

It was August 2021, and the Taliban had swept into Kabul just as American troops pulled out, ending a 20-year occupation that left Afghanistan in the hands of the very militants Washington had ousted.

The images seemed a tragic coda to America’s longest war. But for countless Afghans, the frenetic days of the US withdrawal were only the beginning of a long, harrowing search for safety.

The new Taliban administration turned back decades of civil liberties, particularly for women.

Afghans who had supported the West were terrified of being persecuted, and a careening economy pushed millions near starvation. Many Afghans fled to Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, often finding only short-term visas or worse — beatings, detention, and deportation.

Thousands tried for Europe, climbing into cargo trucks or taking flimsy boats across the Mediterranean Sea.

At least 1,250 Afghan migrants have died trying to find refuge since the American withdrawal, the United Nations says.

Sights set for the US
Many others set their sights even farther: the United States.

Their journeys represent the collision of two of President Joe Biden’s biggest policy crises: the hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the record number of migrants crossing the US border.

The New York Times traveled with a group of 54 Afghans through one of the hardest parts of the journey, a notorious jungle crossing known as the Darién Gap, and interviewed nearly 100 people making the trek.

Many had entwined their lives with the Western mission in Afghanistan and hoped that, as American allies, they would be received with open arms.

Niazi, 41, traveled with his wife and three sons. He described working in the Afghan president’s protective service, and showed off pictures of himself guarding Laura Bush, the American first lady, and President Barack Obama.

Ali and Nazanin, a pair of doctors in their 20s who had recently married, were risking the journey, too.

Like Taiba and her family, they are Hazara, an ethnic minority massacred by the Taliban during their first regime in the 1990s, and believed they could never be safe under the new government.

Two grandfathers, one who said he had worked for the toppled Afghan government, traveled with their families, 17 people in all. Mohammad Sharif, who said he was a former Afghan police officer, and his wife, Rahima, came too, carrying their infant son.

Mozhgan, 20, had been in the 11th grade when the Taliban entered Kabul and she could no longer go to school. The US presence had opened the world for her. She spoke multiple languages, watched Marvel movies and listened to Korean pop group BTS.

She dreamed of being a fashion designer or a reporter. Her sister, Samira, 16, thought about being an astronaut. Under the Taliban, which have barred women from most public spaces, those lives were now impossible.

The Darién is the only way from South America to the United States by land. It is a roadless, mountainous tangle with notorious hardships: rivers that sweep away bodies, hills that cause heart attacks, mud that nearly swallows children, and bandits who rob, and kill.

Struggling to survive
A village formed in Terminal B of Sao Paulo-Guarulhos airport in Brazil: Afghans sleeping under wool blankets strung like tents across luggage carts.

It was December 2022, and most of them had arrived in Brazil days before, even weeks, carrying the last of their belongings.

They could stay in Brazil, even work. But few spoke Portuguese, and the nation’s minimum wage was only about $250 a month. Most had large families to support back home. Many had borrowed their relatives’ last savings to make it this far, and if they didn’t pay it back, their families would go hungry.

So, many of the Afghans soon took off, their minds fixed on the United States. They crossed Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, passed liked batons from smuggler to smuggler.

On a starless night in March, Taiba and her husband, Ali, waded toward a boat in Colombia with 50 other Afghans, headed for the Darién Gap.

For months, they had pleaded with governments for help, until Uruguay agreed to take them in. But in Montevideo, the capital, they quickly decided that they couldn’t earn enough to support their families back home.

Taiba argued for heading north. Now, she was having regrets.

A boat captain barked at them to turn off their phones, so they could travel undetected by the police. The motor roared, and the 54 Afghans sped up the coast, crying, vomiting and praying.

The next day, they entered the forest and trudged up mountains. They fell often, lanced their hands on spiked trees, dragged boots filled with mud and at times collapsed from exhaustion.

Mohammad Rahim, 60, one of the two grandfathers in the family of 17, fared the worst, stopping many times each hour to lie in the dirt. Murmuring prayers, the other Afghans wondered if he would make it.

A group of Afghan migrants board a boat during the night in Capurgana, the last town on Colombia’s Caribbean border before reaching Panama, on March 5, 2023. For thousands of Afghans who had supported Western efforts before the Taliban returned to power, the American withdrawal from Kabul was just the beginning of a long, dangerous search for safety. 

A steep dirt hill signaled the Afghans’ last push through the wilderness. Finally, they had reached a camp constructed by an Indigenous group, the Emberá.

In the morning, the Emberá led them to canoes, and for $25 a person, ferried them to a checkpoint in Panama, where officials counted them, took down their nationalities and sent them north.

Mohammad Azim, 70, the other grandfather, rushed to the river to wash himself. Then, beneath a fence topped by barbed wire, he knelt to pray.

‘Everything is dark’
The group of 54 splintered soon after.

Taiba and her family took a bus through Costa Rica, walked for hours until they found a car through Nicaragua and were forced to pay bribes to police in Honduras. In Guatemala, they hiked through more forest, then paid another smuggler to get them from a bus to a boat, across a river and into a truck, all the way to southern Mexico.

News about other Afghans who tried to cross into the United States trickled in.

Milad, 29, a lawyer, climbed over the wall with his wife and two children, ages 2 and 4. They were held in US detention in Calexico, California, he said, and told they would be taken to a hotel.

Instead, US border officials dropped them on the street in Mexicali, Mexico, he said.

Mozhgan’s family made it to Mexico City but was scared to continue without immigration paperwork issued by the Mexican government, which they thought would shield them from arrest. They waited in line for days before heading north.

Taiba and her family boarded a bus from Mexico City to the US border.

A weariness set in, her hope nearly buried by exhaustion. Criminals and police stopped the bus repeatedly to extort money. On the third night, they reached Tijuana. It was early April.

The next evening, a smuggler brought them to the drainage tunnel in the middle of the city. As they climbed the first border fence, they could see a highway on the other side.

They made it?
Taiba lowered herself with anticipation, her feet landing on dirt. They had made it — or so they thought.

They spent a cold night trapped between two border fences. In the morning, U.S. Border Patrol officers swept them up. After so many thousands of miles, their welcome was a detention center, they said.

They had hoped to claim asylum then and there. Instead, U.S. officials handed them documents clarifying that each was an “alien present in the United States,” subject to deportation.

They could fight removal at a court hearing, set for June 30, 2025, on the other side of the country, in Boston. To apply for asylum, they would have to navigate the process on their own, or find a lawyer. Until then, they couldn’t work.

A charity briefly put them in a hotel room, but the questions began to gnaw: How would they eat? Where could they live? Was this the American dream?

“Everything is dark,” said Taiba’s husband, Ali.

In early May, an aid group in New York offered a spot in a shelter and the family headed east, bound for more uncertainty. Without asylum, they faced a life in the shadows.

Her husband had always assumed the Darién would be the hardest part of the journey.

“But when I emerged from the jungle, we have seen — ‘No,’” he said. “The difficulties are forever.”

Read more Region and World
Jordan News