‘Flashback’: Ukraine war revives painful memories for Afghans

Los Angeles, California, US – Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, the world has been gripped by images of buildings reduced to rubble, millions of civilians fleeing their homes in search of refuge, and acts of defiant resistance.

For some Afghans who have also lived through the violent displacement of war, the images have reawakened painful memories.

“Everything with Ukraine is a flashback for us,” Zahra Nawroz, who was six years old and living with her family in Kabul when the Soviets invaded in December 1979, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview.

“You see images of people leaving everything behind, and it touches your heart. I know that even those who make it to a new country have a very difficult path ahead.”

Other Afghans look at the war and see parallels with their own more recent history. But while they sympathise with Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by the violent whims of a foreign power, they are also frustrated by the massive outpouring of international solidarity and support that was never extended to Afghans or other non-European victims of war.

“I’m happy that Ukrainians are receiving the support they are,” Farhat Azami, a woman from Afghanistan who works with refugees at a counselling centre in Austria, told Al Jazeera. “But if it was really about humanity, they would treat all of those trying to escape violence equally.”

Zahra Nawroz, pictured here at age 2 alongside her grandfather and uncle in Afghanistan, and her family left the country in 1990 and eventually resettled in the United States [Photo courtesy of Zahra Nawroz]

Violent occupation

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began in December 1979 and ended a decade later, when Soviet troops withdrew after a prolonged insurgency by Afghan resistance groups, some of which received lavish funding and weapons from the United States as it sought to bog the Soviet Union down in a bloody quagmire.

Afghan civilians paid the highest price, with around one million killed and millions more displaced.

“The devastation was extensive,” Timothy Nunan, a historian at the Free University of Berlin, told Al Jazeera. “Around a fifth of Afghanistan’s adult male population was killed, and large parts of the agricultural economy were destroyed.”

For those who lived through the conflict, the memories remain poignant even now, decades later. Nawroz recalled sleeping with a pillow over her head to drown out the sound of bombs, and being cut with glass on a bus when a nearby explosion shattered the windows. Family friends were killed, while relatives who joined the resistance were imprisoned and tortured.

“The occupation defined my childhood,” she said. “One night, a large group of soldiers came to our home when my father was out of town to interrogate my mother. My sister and I had heard of Russian soldiers sexually assaulting women, and we were shivering, we were so afraid. I will never forget it.”

Nawroz and her family left the country in 1990 and eventually resettled in the US, where she obtained a university degree and started a family of her own. “Watching the news gives me bad memories,” she said.

“You see people leaving with only what they can carry, and this is also how we left.”

European double standards

Since Russia’s war began in late February, three million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country, according to the United Nations. In contrast to the experiences of refugees from countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East – who have been met with militarised borders, deportation and squalid camps – Europe has pledged to give safe haven to Ukrainian refugees.

With the conflict about three weeks old, the commitment of western nations to shelter the displaced has yet to be truly tested, and some countries are already being chastised for offering vocal support to Ukrainians while miring their immigration efforts in red tape.

Still, the international response has clearly differed when compared with the experiences of refugees fleeing violence in non-European countries, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Media outlets have been criticised for comparing the conflict in Ukraine with those in less “civilised” Middle Eastern countries, while African and Arab refugees fleeing Ukraine have reported widespread instances of racism and mistreatment.

Meanwhile, despite a public outpouring of concern over the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, fuelled by the collapse of the US-backed government and the ascension of the Taliban last August, Afghans seeking to come to the US have been largely abandoned, refugee advocates say. Thousands have yet to receive an answer on their humanitarian parole applications, and those who have are being overwhelmingly rejected.

Such experiences have caused some Afghans to offer a word of warning amid the robust support for Ukraine: The sympathy of the international community can turn on a dime.

“When I was watching the invasion, I was deeply affected by it. Your heart breaks for Ukrainians,” Arash Azizzada, a co-founder of the progressive diaspora group Afghans For A Better Tomorrow, told Al Jazeera.

“But I also see parallels to the Afghan experience. There’s this outpouring of solidarity, and western powers likewise made a lot of lofty promises to us. But over the last few decades, the experience has been one of abandonment. They washed their hands of us once it became convenient.”

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