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Thousands of Afghans who helped Canada trapped in Afghanistan, struggling to leave

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By Marie Woolf in Ottawa

MPs and veteran-led aid groups are urging ministers to do more to help thousands of Afghans who assisted Canadian Forces but remain trapped in Afghanistan a year after the Taliban seized Kabul.

They warn that 8,000 Afghans approved to come to Canada have not yet been able to escape. Many do not have a passport or visa and applying to the Taliban for documents could put them in danger.

Another 3,000 Afghans who helped Canada’s Armed Forces and government have not been approved to come to Canada, according to Aman Lara, a veteran-led non-governmental organization working to help interpreters and other Canadian government employees on the ground.

Brian Macdonald, Aman Lara’s executive director, urged Canada to extend the special immigration program, set up to settle 18,000 former local employees of the Canadian Armed Forces or government, which is being effectively wound down after reaching capacity.

“There are 8,000 people in Afghanistan who have been approved to come to Canada under the special immigration program who can’t get out,” he said.

“We are asking the government of Canada to keep the special immigration program open and unlimited in numbers until everybody who helped Canada gets out.”

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in June the department has received over 15,000 applications for the program, as well as referrals for the remaining 3,000 spaces.

Official figures show Canada’s resettlement efforts have lagged behind federal targets and efforts to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

More than 17,300 Afghans have arrived in Canada since last August compared to 71,800 Ukrainians who have come to Canada in 2022 alone, according to government statistics. The federal government has promised to resettle 40,000 Afghans.

Fraser predicted in December that it could take two years to fulfil the government’s promise to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada.

Canadian activists and opposition MPs accused the Liberals of not doing enough and say some families are in hiding from the Taliban as they await approval of their immigration applications.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan, who has been in contact with many Afghan refugees who worked with Canadian Forces, said there is a “stark difference” between the government’s treatment of those fleeing the Taliban and those fleeing the Russian invasion.

She said the situation for Afghans who helped Canada is “grave,” with many unable to escape the country and facing persecution by the Taliban.

Kwan said some received no reply to their applications from the Immigration Department other than an automated response. Others seeking visas from the Taliban authorities to escape their regime were put in peril if they identified themselves.

“Their lives are in danger. They told me what the Taliban are calling them: they are called ‘the Western dogs,'” Kwan said.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude. We cannot abandon them.”

Amanda Moddejonge, a military veteran and activist, said she has witnessed families being split up, with only some members making it to Canada. She also warned that Afghans who worked for Canadian Forces “are being hunted” by the Taliban.

“Nobody should face death for working for the Government of Canada, especially when this government can identify those who worked for them and is able to provide them life-saving assistance,” she said.

Macdonald said safe houses set up by Aman Lara for Afghan interpreters and their families, and others who helped Canada, have closed because the exodus to Canada has taken so long and it could not afford to keep them open.

He said the Pakistan government had agreed to a 60-day window in June to allow Afghans without full documentation to leave the country to fly to Canada, but not all Afghan and Pakistani officials at borders and airports were aware.

He called on the Canadian government to negotiate to keep that window open until all Afghans approved to come to Canada are able to get here.

His plea came as aid agencies working in Afghanistan raise alarms that the country is in a dire humanitarian crisis, with 18.9 million people facing acute hunger.

Asuntha Charles, national director of World Vision Afghanistan, said aid workers have encountered acute poverty and malnutrition, including among children.

“At least one million children are on the brink of starvation, and at least 36 per cent of Afghan children suffer from stunting — being small for their age — a common and largely irreversible effect of malnutrition,” she said.

“In the four areas we work, we’ve found that families live on less than a dollar a day. This has forced seven out of 10 boys and half of all girls to work to help their families instead of going to school.”

Vincent Hughes, a spokesman for Fraser, said the Afghan and Ukrainian immigration programs are very different.

He said Afghan refugees who arrive through programs set up to bring them to Canada have a right to stay permanently, whereas it’s believed many Ukrainians who have fled to Canada intend eventually to return to Ukraine.

Helping get people out of Afghanistan and to Canada was very challenging, he added, as Canada has no diplomatic presence there and does not recognize the Taliban government.

“Our commitment of bringing at least 40,000 vulnerable Afghans to Canada has not wavered, and it remains one of the largest programs around the world,” he said.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, who has no contact with the Taliban regime, said “the experience of the past one year in Afghanistan has been very painful and disturbing.”

Hassan Soroosh said the Taliban had swiftly reintroduced “repressive policies” including restrictions “on almost every aspect of girls’ and women’s lives and rights.”

“The Taliban’s forced takeover has caused a huge disruption to constitutional order, socio-economic development, public services and civil society activities,” he said.

The ambassador called for the international community to take a unified approach toward the Taliban and put greater pressure on them “as they continue to insist on their uncompromising approach and repressive rule.”

“We remain grateful to Canada for maintaining a principled position on the current tragic situation in Afghanistan and for a sustained commitment in support of the people of Afghanistan including women, girls and those who need resettlement support,” he said.

In a joint statement on Sunday, Canada’s ministers of foreign affairs, immigration, international development and national defence said “we have witnessed the hardships endured by the Afghan people, with some having undergone harrowing journeys to flee the country and countless others living in fear of persecution and retribution.”

“Faced with a heart-wrenching situation in Afghanistan, Canadians opened their hearts to help people rebuild their lives and more than 17,300 Afghans have arrived in Canada over the past year.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022.

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Peru’s protest ‘deactivators’ run toward tear gas to stop it

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By Daniel Politi in Lima

LIMA, Peru (AP) — When police fire tear gas at protesters demanding the resignation of Peruvian President Dina Boluarte, most run away.

A few, though, run toward the gas canisters as quickly as possible — to neutralize them.

These are the “deactivators.” Donning gas masks, safety goggles and thick gloves, these volunteers grab the hot canisters and toss them inside large plastic bottles filled with a mixture of water, baking soda and vinegar.

The deactivators made their debut in Peru street protests in 2020, inspired by protesters in Hong Kong who in 2019 unveiled new strategies to counteract the eye-stinging, breath-stealing effects of tear gas. With protesters in Lima facing a nearly daily fusillade of tear gas, more people have joined the ranks of deactivators trying to shield them and keep the demonstrations going.

Peruvians have been protesting since early December, when former President Pedro Castillo was impeached after a failed attempt to dissolve Congress. His vice president, Boluarte, immediately took over — and has faced strong opposition ever since.

Fifty-eight people have died in connection with the unrest, including one police officer. Forty-six of the deaths occurred during direct clashes between protesters and police.

The protests have exposed deep divisions in the country between the urban elites and the rural poor. Demonstrations were first largely concentrated in the south, a long-neglected region of Peru that felt a particular kinship to Castillo’s humble background as a rural teacher from the Andean highlands. But earlier this month, thousands descended on Peru’s capital, and police met them with tear gas. Lots and lots of tear gas.

On Thursday, as protesters gathered in downtown Lima, Alexander Gutiérrez Padilla, 45, was giving a brief course to anyone who would listen around Plaza San Martín about how to mix vinegar and baking soda into the water and how to grab the tear gas canisters most efficiently.

“If we don’t deactivate, people disperse and the protest breaks,” Gutiérrez said. “That’s why we’re pillars of this demonstration.”

Next to him was Wilfredo Huertas Vidal, 25, who has taken it upon himself to collect donations to buy gloves and other protective equipment and hand them out to those who want to help.

“Who wants gloves? Who wants gloves?” he yelled as he stood next to several large bottles of water, gas masks and eye goggles.

When protesters descended on Lima earlier this month, old networks were reactivated. A tactic first seen in Peru in late 2020 during protests against then-President Manuel Merino resurfaced.

Vladimir Molina, 34, who participated in the 2020 protests, now runs what he calls a “brigade.” It consists of around 60 people, including paramedics, deactivators and “front-line” activists who stand in the middle of protesters and police with shields, in an effort to block any pellets or tear gas police may fire into the crowd.

“Every day more and more people are joining,” Molina said. Interest in his group is so great that he’s made it a requirement for anyone who wants to join to have their own equipment.

By tossing the hot tear gas cartridges into the water solution, “what they do is extinguish the pyrotechnical charge so the tear gas cannot come out anymore,” said Sven Eric Jordt, a professor of anesthesiology at Duke University.

Water alone should achieve what the protesters want, although the carbon dioxide created by mixing vinegar and baking soda could “form a foam bath that suffocates the charge” further, Jordt speculated.

It may be only a matter of time before authorities deploy methods to blunt the deactivators’ effectiveness. Manufacturers are now developing tear gas with plastic cartridges that stick to the road so it “can’t be lifted up anymore,” Jordt said.

Fearful of being targeted by police and prosecutors, many of the deactivators prefer to remain anonymous, keeping their faces covered even when there’s no tear gas around.

Boluarte has given strong backing to law enforcement, and the government recently announced a bonus for police officers. Boluarte has characterized the work of police controlling the Lima protests as “immaculate,” despite their often indiscriminate firing of tear gas and pellets. In contrast, she says the demonstrations are violent and financed by drug-trafficking rings and illegal miners.

Andrea Fernández, 22, is new to deactivating tear gas.

“The truth is I love the adrenaline,” Fernández said shortly after grabbing a pair of gloves from Huertas and listening to the instructions closely.

She said she hadn’t been really interested in the country’s political crisis at first. Then the deaths started piling up.

“There are a lot of farmers who’ve come from lots of parts of Peru and they come here to march, face-to-face, but don’t have the necessary protection,” Fernández said.

Felix Davillo, 37, also says the casualties pushed him to become a deactivator.

“I made this decision for all the death that is going on in Puno right now,” Davillo said, referring to a region in Peru that has experienced some of the deadliest protests.

A general lack of protective equipment has also meant protesters have been injured by the widespread use of less lethal weapons.

From January 19 to 24, Doctors Without Borders treated 73 patients at the Lima protests suffering from exposure to tear gas, pellet wounds, contusions or psychological distress, the non-profit organization said.

The deactivators’ increased chance of injury doesn’t scare Julio Incarocas Beliz, who grabbed one of the big water bottles in the plaza for his first day trying to diffuse tear gas.

“I served in the military and I’ve never been afraid,“ Incarocas, 28, said. “I’m fighting for my homeland.”

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78 years on, Jewish Holocaust rescuers want their story told

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By Alon Bernstein in Kibbutz Hazorea

KIBBUTZ HAZOREA, Israel (AP) — Just before Nazi Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jewish youth leaders in the eastern European country jumped into action: They formed an underground network that in the coming months would save tens of thousands of fellow Jews from the gas chambers.

This chapter of the Holocaust heroism is scarcely remembered in Israel. Nor is it part of the official curriculum in schools. But the few remaining members of Hungary’s Jewish underground want their story told. Dismayed at the prospect of being forgotten, they are determined to keep memories of their mission alive.

“The story of the struggle to save tens of thousands needs to be a part of the chronicles of the people of Israel,” said David Gur, 97, one of a handful of members still alive. “It is a lighthouse during the period of the Holocaust, a lesson and exemplar for the generations.”

As the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, historians, activists, survivors and their families are all preparing for the time when there will no longer be living witnesses to share first-person accounts of the horrors of the Nazi genocide during World War II. In the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were wiped out by the Nazis and their allies.

Israel, which was established as a refuge for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, has gone to great lengths over the years to recognize thousands of “Righteous Among the Nations” — non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Accounts of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, are mainstays in the national narrative but rescue missions by fellow Jews — such as the Hungarian resistance — are less known.

Hungary was home to around 900,000 Jews before the Nazi invasion. Its government was allied with Nazi Germany, but as the Soviet Red Army advanced toward Hungary, the Nazis invaded in March 1944, to prevent its Axis ally from making a separate peace deal with the Allies.

Over the 10 months that followed, as many as 568,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies in Hungary, according to figures from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

Gur said he and his colleagues knew that disaster was looming when three Jewish women arrived at Budapest’s main synagogue in the fall of 1943. They had fled Nazi-occupied Poland and bore disturbing news about people being shipped off to concentration camps.

“They had fairly clear information about what was happening, and saw the many trains, and it was obvious to them what was happening,” said Gur.

Gur oversaw a massive forgery operation that provided false documents for Jews and non-Jewish members of the Hungarian resistance. “I was an 18-year-old adolescent when the heavy responsibility fell upon me,” he said.

There was great personal risk. In December 1944, he was arrested at the forgery workshop and brutally interrogated and imprisoned, according to his memoir, “Brothers for Resistance and Rescue.” The Jewish underground broke him out of the central military prison in a rescue operation later that month.

The forged papers were used by Jewish youth movements to operate a smuggling network and run Red Cross houses that saved thousands from the Nazis and their allies.

According to Gur’s book, at least 7,000 Jews were smuggled out of Hungary, through Romania to ships on the Black Sea that would bring them to British-controlled Palestine. At least 10,000 forged passes offering protection, known as Shutzpasses, were distributed to Budapest’s Jews, and around 6,000 Jewish children and accompanying adults were saved in houses ostensibly under the protection of the International Red Cross.

Robert Rozett, a senior historian at Yad Vashem, said that although it was “the largest rescue operation” of European Jews during the Holocaust, this episode remains off “the main route of the narrative.”

“It’s very significant because these activities helped tens of thousands of Jews stay alive in Budapest,” he said.

In 1984, Gur founded “The Society for Research of the History of the Zionist Youth Movements in Hungary,” a group that has promoted awareness about this effort.

Last month at a kibbutz in northern Israel, Sara Epstein, 97, Dezi Heffner-Reiner, 95, and Betzalel Grosz, 98, three of the remaining survivors who helped save Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary, received the Jewish Rescuers Citation for their role in the Holocaust. The award is given by two Jewish groups — B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.

“There aren’t many of us left, but this is important,” said Heffner-Reiner.

More than 200 other members of the underground were given the award posthumously. Gur received the award in 2011, the year it was created.

Yuval Alpan, a son of one of the rescuers and an activist with the society, said the citations were meant to recognize those who saved lives during the Holocaust.

“This resistance underground youth movement saved tens of thousands of Jews during 1944, and their story is not known,” he said. “It’s the biggest rescue operation in the Holocaust and nobody knows about it.”

International Holocaust day falls on the anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz death camp 78 years ago. Israel is home to some 150,600 Holocaust survivors, almost all of them over the age of 80, according to government figures. That is 15,193 less than a year ago.

The United Nations will be holding a memorial ceremony at the General Assembly on Friday, and other memorial events are scheduled around the globe.

Israel marks its own Holocaust Remembrance Day in the spring.

___

Associated Press writers Eleanor Reich and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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