International 18/08/2021

Afghan translator's harrowing journey to get a seat on Spanish plane

A long-time collaborator of journalists, he has travelled by bus through half of a country held by the Taliban

4 min
Taliban patrolling the streets of Kabul

BarcelonaJust seven days ago, a bus ticket to travel from the city of Herat, in western Afghanistan, to the capital, Kabul, cost 1,000 Afghanis - about 7.7 euros. This week, it was already 1,500 Afghanis (11 euros). But Javad willingly paid for four seats, even though there were only three people travelling: his wife, his 5-year-old son and himself. So at least they would be more comfortable to undertake a 24-hour journey across much of Afghanistan. Their goal was to reach Kabul so that the Spanish government would evacuate them. That's all they want: to flee the country as soon as possible.

Javad has been a translator for several Spanish journalists for years. His English is impeccable. A month ago he began to worry about the rapid advance of the Taliban because, in addition to having worked for foreigners, he and his family belong to the Hazara ethnic group. The Taliban have a special hatred for them, because the Hazara are Shiite Muslims - the fundamentalists are Sunni. And they are very easy to identify because they have slanted eyes like the Chinese.


"We left Herat on Sunday at six o'clock in the afternoon", Javad explains by phone. They had to reduce their entire lives to three small suitcases and a handbag. He also deleted all his photos and WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Messenger and Viber apps from his mobile phone in case the Taliban checked it. He didn't want to have anything that would identify him. He hid his mobile phone and laptop in a suitcase, and only took an old Nokia mobile phone with him, one of those that are only good for making calls.

His wife, for her part, hid the passports and the dollars they had managed to collect. She kept them inside her bra, because if there is one good thing about the Taliban, it is that they do not search women, and even less so if they are wearing burqas.

"I made a pact with my wife that if the Taliban asked us why we were going to Kabul, we would answer that my father is sick", says Javad. The hardest part, he admits, was convincing his son not to tell the truth. He replied, "But, Dad, Grandpa is in Herat and he is not sick".

Herat is 800 kilometres away from Kabul, but this is only in theory. The road that would link this city to the capital by the shortest route was never fixed during the two decades of international presence in Afghanistan. Taliban attacks made it impossible. So you have to travel more than halfway across the country through the south and through some of the most dangerous areas - such as Helmand and Kandahar - to reach the capital. In total, 1,200 kilometers on a road that is largely unpaved.

In the bus, a rickety vehicle, 60 people were travelling. "Every few kilometres there were Taliban controls on the road", explains Javad, who explains that on the way the radicals always acted in the same way: they stopped the bus, asked the driver if among the passengers there were soldiers or people who had worked for the foreigners, and then they got into the vehicle to check for themselves. "We families would travel to the front of the bus, and they wouldn't bother us. But the men travelling alone, who were in the back of the bus, were made to open their luggage and show their papers", he says.

The journey was a horror. Because of the tension, the heat and the potholes that made the bus shake as if it was going to fall apart. Javad admits that he ended up vomiting into a plastic bag and so did many other passengers, because it was unbearable. They only stopped twice to rest, and despite this the driver made the journey without flinching. He was smoking opium, Javad says.

The translator says that what surprised him most on the road was the sheer number of Taliban everywhere. "It was impressive, I wonder where they have come from". Even the former Afghan army bases were now flying the white flag of the extremists.

He arrived in Kabul with his family at six o'clock on Monday evening. At the entrance to the capital, the search was even more thorough. Three Taliban armed with Kalashnikovs boarded the vehicle and asked many of the passengers for their papers. They also searched the trunk, and even the bags that were tied with ropes to the top of the bus. "During a good part of the trip I was talking to one of the passengers. He never explained to me why he was going to Kabul, but when we arrived, he told me that he had worked for the Italian troops in Herat and that he was also waiting to be evacuated", Javad says.

Now he and his family are staying in a hotel in Kote Sangi, in the west of Kabul. They pay 500 Afghanis a day (about 3.8 euros) for a room with a shared bathroom and have no idea how long they will have to wait. They believe they are on the list of people to be evacuated by the Spanish government. At least that is what they have been assured, but so far they have not been called by the Spanish embassy in Kabul to confirm that they will be able to board the plane. They live day and night waiting for the phone to ring.