By Laila Yousufi
It was dark, around 5:30 am in the Afghan capital, Kabul when I arrived near the passport office, where passport applicants had already crowded four streets leading to the office.
I reached the first checkpoint, made by barbed wire and police cars, where two Taliban soldiers, carrying their Kalashnikovs on their shoulders and lashes in their hands, were guarding.
On my side of the line, sick men and women, some on wheelchairs, holding tight to their documents were all waiting to enter the passport office. Each was trying to show their paper to the armed Taliban with the hope of getting into the building. Without paying attention to the applicants and the documents they present, the Taliban curse the applicants and shout: “go back.”
“I have been waiting since 3 am. I can’t stand in the line any longer. For God’s sake, look at my documents, the doctors have said I can’t be treated here. I have to go to Pakistan or India for treatment,” an old woman in her 60s with a shaky voice pleaded with one of the gunmen.
“I don’t care when you come or how long you have waited,” the gunman responds angrily.
The woman insists and tries to show her documents to the gunman. He grabbed the documents and threw them away, among a crowd of applicants. Then with his right hand, he raises a black cable, threatening to beat the old woman if she dares to talk again.
Another soldier joined the two guards, but he immediately started whipping all the applicants who gathered near the checkpoint. Women were screaming as they were trying to distance themselves from the Taliban soldier who was lashing everyone his cable reached.
Around 8:30 am–after 3 hours– I crossed the first checkpoint and joined a large group of women who were standing in a line, holding medical papers, copies of educational opportunities, and online passport application forms. At 9 am, a man came who said he will accept documents of those who are “eligible to get passports.” Then, he started collecting documents of the applicants who applied before the Taliban came to power on August 15.
As he walked to collect the documents of the “eligible” applicants, women followed him around, begging him to just take a look at their documents. Suddenly, two Taliban soldiers attacked the crowd of women, beating them with electric batons and throwing their documents into the sewage.
Among the hundreds of people wandering up and down with their dirt-stained papers, Sabr Gul, 32, seems pale and exhausted. As an asthmatic patient, she has traveled from her home in the central province of Daikundi to Kabul, over 8 hours drive, to get a passport and go to a neighboring country for treatment.
“It has been four days that I came here, but they won’t accept my application and I can’t breathe. I need to go to Pakistan for treatment,” she says.
Sabr Gul, too, was beaten by the Taliban at the passport office. “It does not matter to [the Taliban] whether you are old, young, or a child. They will whip you,” she said, touching her sore shoulder.
Around 10 am, I made it inside the yard, standing beside a green container, looking at the men and women who were pushing each other, trying to hand their papers to the official who has the authority to approve their application. From where I stood, I saw inside a room, where documents had fallen all over the desk and the employee looked puzzled.
As I was standing in the crowd, I overheard conversations about discrimination. Some said applications of those who sp Pashto with the Taliban were accepted and processed faster.
Nadia, who lives in Kabul, came to get a passport with a student visa in her hand. “It has been a week that I am coming here with a student visa, but they won’t approve my application. They only allow those who are from their ethnic group and speak their language,” she said.
Some, like Mohammad Yasin, came to stand in line for a passport as early as midnight, but he was still waiting to hand in his documents. “I have waited since last night, but in the morning, the Taliban and the brokers brought their people and we were pushed behind,” he said.
Chaos, violence and discrimination were what I witnessed in the Taliban passport office.