After fleeing war in Afghanistan two Afghan women are caught in the same tug of war they escaped from in their homeland.
The deafening explosions, rocket and missile fire, convoys of Russian tanks, people running for shelter to makeshift bunkers amid air raid sirens, the chaos of war flings Afghan girls - Ayesha and Masouma Tajik – back into the past they fought hard to escape from.
In search for peace, the young women crossed thousands of miles to reach Ukraine. Now they are reliving the bitter, traumatic past of Afghanistan. They are among thousands of Afghans who fled war and took refuge in Ukraine. As the war unfolds, for many Afghans like Ayesha and Masouma, it emerges as a battleground for supremacy between Russia and the West led by America, much like Afghanistan.
Ayesha lived in the port city of Odessa along with her family. When rockets hit her neighbourhood, she and her husband Khushal Maftionyar hurriedly packed a bag with years of savings and left for the Polish border.
Far away in the capital Kiev lived Masouma, a computer engineer. She was advised by Ukrainian friends to leave before Russians encircled the city. So within six months of arriving, Masouma is running for her life again.
“I woke up to the sounds of explosions. I thought I woke up in Kabul. Soon it was similar images of misery and sadness,” Masouma Tajik tells me by phone from Ukraine while recalling her horrifying memories.
“Not long ago, I fled to Kabul airport when Taliban took control. I had no other choice but to leave. Educated Afghan girls like me are dream weavers and the Taliban want our dreams buried in the past.”
Masouma’s name was on the list when the US evacuated Kabul. “I cannot forget the human bodies flying in the air due to bombings, the following stampede, and whipping of the Taliban in an attempt to disperse people from the airport. I left Kabul crying, I sobbed till I reached Kiev…now those images have come alive again.”
So when the Russians invaded Ukraine, Masouma had to save her life and future again. She hopes to soon fly to the US where she has secured a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree. She is the sole bread earner in her family. She said bye to her friends in Kiev and walked through the war. She spent a night in the basement of a church in Lviv before crossing into Poland.
“I saw terrified Ukrainian families holding onto each other. Worried faces, tearful eyes… When I visited Lviv few months ago, it was like a big party. My Ukrainian friends took me to the ballet, opera performances. Everyone was smiling, dancing in the main square,” says the 23-year-old.
“But now the only music is of deadly weapons, the dancing youths are forced to hold weapons as volunteers, and sadly the war is turning cities into ghost towns as it did in our Afghanistan.” She is originally from Herat in western Afghanistan and had spent years in Kabul studying at the American University in Kabul.
From Lviv to the Polish border, Masouma and Ayesha witnessed miles-long queues of cars, busses carrying men, women, elderly and children bracing icy wind amid emotional scenes. Many were seen dragging their belongings on the road but left behind their men to fight the invading Russian forces. Over a million people have fled the country into neighbouring countries like Hungary, Moldova, and Poland and it's feared the number of refugees will swell to five million if the war stretches longer.
Ukraine carries immense geo strategic significance because it sits between Putin’s Russia and the West, thus becoming a victim of this deadly tug of war. It’s not Ukraine vs Russia. Its Putin’s Russia vs America and Europe.
At the centre of the conflict is Ukraine’s aspiration of becoming a member of the NATO alliance and of the European Union. Putin believes Ukraine has no historic claim to its independence and that America and Europe wants Ukraine firmly within the western orbit. He has gambled to revive the past glory of the Soviet Union but the West has responded with strict sanctions which have isolated the country.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being claimed as Europe’s worst conflict since World War II and the Balkan war - and it's feared that for Putin, Ukraine will be like Afghanistan for Brezhnev.
But for Ayesha and her family, fleeing the country doesn’t end their worries. She failed to convince her elder sister Shabana to leave Odessa with her two children. "My sister said ‘I have been a refugee since my childhood, now I don’t want to see my children carry a refugee tag. We Afghans are chasing peace and the war is chasing us. Let me face my fate'."
Ayesha’s voice begins to choke as she narrates how her life has been interwoven with war. “Three generations of my family have suffered it. My parents witnessed Soviet tanks rolling into Kabul, they fled to Peshawar. I saw Americans bombing my motherland, I had to leave. Now our kids,” says Ayesha.
“We Afghans have been made into kochies (nomads).”
Ayesha recalls her father reciting a couplet in Pashto, that translates to:
Our mountains have been burnt, so the birds are building their nests on our palms.
“We are like those birds,” says Ayesha.
Ayesha’s husband has a Ukrainian passport and moved to the country around over a decade ago. They have decided to wait in Poland until the war is over. But she knows it's not as simple as just waiting it out. She has seen the impact of a clash of superpowers before, and its lingering aftermath.
The US, the UK, Germany, EU all are pumping military aid, lethal weapons like rockets, surface to air missiles, anti tanks for Ukraine to defend itself. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is calling on citizens to take up arms. Young Ukrainians are offering their services as reservists.
As war hysteria grips western media, it shows boys making Molotov cocktails in beer bottles, elderly women preparing camouflage nets for reservists while singing the national anthem, all vowing to defend their motherland. MPs like Lesia Vasylenko take to social media, posting pictures carrying AK-47 which she says she learned to operate from her father in law.
Afghans know all this could ultimately militarise Ukrainian society, as it did in Afghanistan. During the Cold War era, the Americans provided Mujahideen gunny bags full of dollars and lethal weapons to fight the Soviets but once the war was over, the same weapons ruled Afghanistan.
After 9/11, America injected weapons worth billions of dollars into Afghan forces but again, those weapons ultimately ended up in the hands of the Taliban.
“We wish the Ukrainians don’t become toys like us in the clash of superpowers,” says Ayesha. “I want Russian aggression to be countered but don’t want to see Ukraine becoming Afghanistan.”
Masouma, meanwhile, wants to return to a peaceful Kiev to dance with her friends at Maidan Square.