- Lilly Neugebauer
At the Intersection of Amsterdam and Afghanistan
When Viktor Navorski's plane lands at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, he doesn't know yet that he will not be entering the United States of America as he had envisioned like all the other passengers accompanying him. While he cluelessly floated above the clouds, away from his imaginary homeland called Krakozhia, he unknowingly escapes a newly erupted civil war, as the old government is overthrown in a coup and Viktor's national state ceases to exist. As the plane's wheels touch American ground, his passport is no longer valid, preventing him from being allowed to leave the terminal. As a consequence, he is stuck there for several months, with the US obstructing his way both into New York and back to former Krakozhia. His country is no longer being recognised by the international community and Viktor essentially becomes nationless.
This is the plot of the movie 'The Terminal', a Spielberg production released in 2004, which displays a frightening similarity with the government takeover staged by the Taliban, the terrorist group now in control of most parts of Afghanistan since August 2021 and the preceding withdrawal of American troops from the country. "That's exactly what happened in Afghanistan. Nobody recognizes it. Technically, Afghanistan doesn't even exist because they changed our name, changed our flag. So in a way, we are nationless." So tells me Amena, born and raised in Afghanistan, who recently finished her political studies here in Amsterdam. What she describes are the visible effects of a changing world order.
Ending a destructive and agitated 'forever-war' that spanned over the past two decades in August 2021, the US under the Biden Administration has decided to withdraw all remaining forces that were stationed in Afghanistan. Giving up on the mission of 'nation-building' and imposing democracy, America is refocusing on its 'vital national interests', of which fighting the Taliban and establishing peace on Afghan grounds is no longer part. Subsequently, it didn't take long until the capital Kabul was captured by Taliban fighters who declared the nation to, from now on, being ruled under an 'open, inclusive Islamic government'.
Amena however explains that the Taliban are not acting in unison with the teachings of Islam and that their conduct is, in reality, not premised on the grounds of religion. One of the first things Islam has taught her is that you cannot kill. "And yet the Taliban are going around killing men, women and children, no matter what religion or age. They are just killing for power, it is clearly not about religion. But it (religion) is a very good instrument to gather people around to fight for something when they have nothing. And a lot of people in Afghanistan have lost their family, their home- they have absolutely nothing left. So when
somebody offers you food, shelter and something to believe in, and asks you: will you fight
for it? They agree".
Furthermore, the Taliban have imposed a multitude of regulations on Afghan people. Women are no longer allowed to leave their house without a male companion and are systematically being excluded from work and education. The media is being controlled and heavily biased in favour of the Taliban rule and dress codes were introduced for both genders, to name just a few examples. Violence being impinged upon Afghan citizens has become part of the daily routine. With regards to her family members who have witnessed the Taliban takeover on site and are still in Afghanistan, Amena explains: "It's very complicated because naturally, nobody wants to stay in such conditions there. It is not safe in any way, you cannot live a normal peaceful life. Naturally, most of them want to leave, but at the same time, they love their country so much that they don't want to leave it behind to these terrorists".
Having left the country years ago herself, she experienced a full culture shock after arriving in Amsterdam. Amena told me that she had zero expectations regarding this city. "When you are born under very uncertain conditions, you just don't think too far ahead or have expectations. I think my mind is just stuck with that". Her experience with discrimination and stigma in Amsterdam has been rather positive. "When I first came here and saw all of these different cultures living together, I was generally shocked. Nobody looked down on me or said anything harsh, although of course some people have a bit of a reaction when I tell them where I'm from. There have been people who have said bad things, but I've had it worse, so generally I'm quite happy". As a former politics student, Amena is politically active in her free time, volunteering at Amnesty and the organization 'rights to education', who help refugees coming to the Netherlands to get accustomed to the culture. Speaking a good handful of languages, she does some translation work in Farsi and English. Volunteering has however taken a step back in her life following the recent developments in Afghanistan. "I think the current situation has left a lot of us very hopeless. I don't even look at the news anymore, because it has just become too much. Before, I was watching them all the time, but now I just feel like no matter what happens, nobody will care".
One incident that was reported in the news especially caught her attention. On August 15, the NATO countries airlifted those willing to leave the country out of Kabul airport. Whilst the details about the event remain uncertain, videos spread all over the internet, showing hundreds of Afghans running next to a plane that was about to take off, trying to get a hold of it and get on board. As a result, several people died falling off the plane. The U.S. stated that the crew wanted to depart the airfield as quickly as possible because of the deteriorating security situation, while many remain to wonder why the plane has taken off despite the tumultuous situation on the landing strip. Amena is one of them, saying that "they chose to fly that plane when there were people around. They could have stopped, they could have delayed the flight, or gotten people to remove them from the plane. They could have done anything but fly with those people hanging onto the plane. It is a crime against humanity, and I am really devastated that nothing happened about this".
She recognizes the fact that these citizens chose not to let go of the aircraft, but "this just shows the desperation of the situation they have been left in. The Americans have enough planes and pilots, but they don't do anything. They just wanted their own people out, despite what happens to the rest". Among the Afghan citizens who were evacuated from the country was an Afghan women's football team, who were helped to flee to London by Kim Kardashian, a UK football club and a US rabbi. While Amena explained how thankful she is for such support, she likewise highlighted the role of people who are not part of a national team, who are not talented in this way and who don't have the same opportunities like that. "What about the rest? You're getting people out, and leaving this beautiful, great country to the terrorists, what for? That is not a long-term solution, there needs to be an end put to this. We need to stop it so people can live".
Amena doesn't know what the future will look like for Afghanistan. The Taliban control almost every part of the country now, including the media and the weapons left behind by American troops. International reactions to the regime takeover were rather accepting. China, Russia and Pakistan and Iran have announced to possibly recognize the new terrorist government in a concerted move if the nations arrive on a consensus on this topic.
Going further, she raised awareness about the gendered image of Afghan men that has been normalized in the international sphere. "They completely turn them into these monsters, which they are not. What's going to happen if, from the age of four or five, these kids are given a gun and told to start shooting and killing? They're not born like that, but raised. I used to blame them too, but they are forced to kill from a young age. They've been indoctrinated". When one has grown up with violence and war around and never seen a peaceful time, it eventually becomes normality. This is why she disagrees with the identification of Afghan men as 'monsters' that 'will go around abusing their women and children'. And Amena that she herself was being indoctrinated. "Some things that my brother and I were being taught were shocking. And it takes a long time to get past that, especially when you're taught these things from a very young age. You naturally believe that it's the only thing you see. If you look around and see every other man shooting and killing, you think it's normal, no matter what you might believe in your heart". She gave the example of not being allowed to shake hands with foreigners. She was introduced to another culture for the first time as her family moved to Georgia, where she went to high-school, and it took her a long time to accept that a lot of the things she learned in Afghanistan were not universally true.
Amena pointed out that the doctrines spread by the Taliban are not consistent with the teachings of Islam. She underlines that the biggest sin Muslims believe in is murder, as the Kuran does not grant people the right to choose who lives or dies. When asked whether she considers herself to be religious, she told me how "religion is very complicated. Of course I was born in a Muslim community, my family is Muslim". At the same time, she feels like Islam is a rather 'ideal' religion, where people need to be very good. They are "told not to lie, not to gossip, these basic things that we do naturally sometimes". Nonetheless, she has "learnt so much from Islam. It's a beautiful religion, and I am who I am today because of Islam".
Regarding how her future will be related to Afghanistan and what role the country will play going forward, she reveals that "it will always be a part of me for sure. I hope everybody gets to see it one day, because it's a beautiful country, even though it is destroyed right now."