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As U.S. Troops Withdraw From Afghanistan, Afghans Are Also Looking For Exits

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Pentagon says it has turned Bagram Airfield over to the Afghan government. Bagram was the epicenter of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, and relinquishing it is the clearest sign yet that America is, in fact, leaving Afghanistan. And as NPR's Diaa Hadid reports, Afghans are, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Afghans have long sung of the bitterness of fleeing their country, mired in war for the past four decades, like this classic from Qasim Bakhsh (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

QASIM BAKHSH: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: He pleads, "come to Kabul. See the flowers. Don't stay away from your homeland. Come with me."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAKHSH: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: But Afghans are fleeing Kabul - or at least they're trying to. Some end up in the basement office of property dealer Zabihullah Jahani (ph) just off a busy street. He says there's been a rush of customers desperate to rent out their homes or sell them. He spoke to NPR producer Khwaga Ghani in Kabul.

ZABIHULLAH JAHANI: (Through interpreter) They need the cash to get visas to Turkey, to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

HADID: He says the rush began last year, but people have become more desperate in recent weeks as the Taliban have surged through the country, doubling the number of districts they hold.

JAHANI: (Through interpreter) People keep repeating, the Taliban are coming, the Taliban are coming.

HADID: People like Hadis Rami (ph). She's a single mother.

HADIS RAMI: (Through interpreter) I'm an independent woman. If the Taliban takes over, will they let me work? How will I provide for my daughter?

HADID: Rami does eyebrows for a living, and she's managed to save $300 to pay a smuggler. He's going to take her and her daughter to neighboring Iran. From there, she says a friend will help them sneak over the border into Turkey. There's a large Afghan diaspora over there, including friends she'll stay with.

RAMI: (Through interpreter) It's impossible to get to Turkey legally. You can buy a visa in the black market, but it's, like, $3,000. I'm using a smuggler because it's the cheapest way.

HADID: Cheaper but dangerous. A U.N. official warns that Afghan migrants are being kidnapped and held for ransom in Iran. For women and girls, there's the added risk of sexual assault and even rape. Rami believes she has no choice.

RAMI: (Through interpreter) Of course I'm worried, but I want a better future for me and my daughter.

HADID: Others, just teenagers, are planning to flee, like Mahbooba (ph). She's a volleyball player. NPR caught up with her after a game.

(GROANING)

HADID: She asked we don't use her family name because she doesn't want to be identified by authorities. She's 19, and she sees no future for herself in Afghanistan.

MAHBOOBA: (Through interpreter) When we heard that the Americans are leaving and the Taliban are coming, I became scared that I won't be able to continue my studies or play sports.

HADID: The Taliban say they'll allow women to study in segregated institutions. But in areas already under their rule, activists say girls struggle to study beyond grade six. As for sports, the Taliban don't allow women to play in public. So Mahbooba's found a people smuggler who'll take her and a fellow volleyball player into Turkey.

HEATHER BARR: You and I would be doing exactly the same thing if we were in their shoes.

HADID: Heather Barr has followed Afghanistan for years at Human Rights Watch.

BARR: There's a new, younger generation of Afghans that have different expectations for what they want the country to be like.

HADID: Barr says that's especially true for women like Mahbooba and Rami, who took advantage of the presence of foreign forces to fight for their right to study, work and play sports. It's not just urban women, though, or wealthy Afghans with property who are trying to leave. Tens of thousands of Afghans who work for the Americans are hoping to be let into the U.S. soon. Then there's Afghanistan's poor. Escalating conflict means many are already going hungry. They're even starving, as a severe drought grips parts of the country.

But Barr says America and its NATO allies bear much of the responsibility for the exodus because of their abrupt decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, which has emboldened the Taliban. She says they should expect Afghan refugees will try and make their way to Europe.

BARR: And the very, very least that you could do at this moment is treat those people who wash up on your shores with decency and respect.

HADID: As for the Taliban, they've called on Afghans to stay and help rebuild the country. But many Afghans don't trust or believe the insurgents, like Jahani, the property dealer.

JAHANI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, "if I had the cash, I'd leave right now as well."

Diaa Hadid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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