This week I was sent a photograph of a quintessentially English scene. A cricket match on a beautiful May afternoon in rural Sussex. Lewis St Michael’s won its match by four wickets, helped along the way by its two latest recruits, Naimat and Naweed Zafary.
The story of how these two players found their way to the stump is one of the greatest and most shocking of recent times. The two brothers were on one of the final flights out of Kabul, one a Chevening scholar, the other his dependent young sibling.
The sights they saw even after they had been granted permission to travel as they struggled to reach the airport boundary wall and be lifted to safety still haunt them. Many others did not make it. Families lost their lives in an explosion which left people maimed or dead in an open sewer.
This week the UK House of Commons Select Committee published its report into what happened at the time. Entitled Missing in action: UK leadership and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it pulls no punches.
It’s opening comments state, “The manner of our withdrawal from Afghanistan was a disaster… The hasty effort to select those eligible for evacuation was poorly devised, managed, and staffed. The lack of clarity led to confusion and false hope among our Afghan partners who were desperate for rescue.”
Naimat Zafary knows he was one of the lucky ones. A personal intervention by the prime minister made it possible for this year’s extraordinary Chevening Scholars to enter the UK. Today he is nearing the completion of the masters in Development which brought him to the UK, and working with his university to support other young scholars.
His family are safe, his young daughters in school unlike their beloved Afghan cousins. He is hoping to begin a PhD and to eventually to put his experiences and education to the service of a world in which the conflict and collapse in government he has witnessed are all too common.
But Naimat also remembers his fellow Afghan Cheveners still waiting for their chance to come to the UK. After at first hearing they were eligible to leave and then not, those remaining are at serious and increasing risk in a country in which house-to-house checks are common and the very values they worked for as alumni of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Chevening Scholarships now explicitly rejected by the new regime.
“It is painful and risky to speak to people desperate for us to fulfil our promises while fearing they have been forgotten”
In January it seemed there was hope. The handful of Chevening alumni and their young families were named as a priority in the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, but that was before our heads were turned by Ukraine. As the poet Wisława Szymborska put it, “all the cameras have left for another war”.
Now we are approaching the anniversary of the coalition leaving Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul and the country to the Taliban. Over these many months I have kept in touch personally with those waiting for us to fulfil our promises. It is painful and risky to speak to people desperate for us to fulfil our promises while fearing they have been forgotten.
Modern technology means our extremely different lives and circumstances can be connected, just for a moment. I am moved by their vast courage and dignity under such duress. I tell them, truthfully, that I know influential people continue to plead their cause. All is not lost. Hold on.
But as the situation of women declines and famine bites, the alumni who once gathered in London to be feted by a future prime minister and a future King are still waiting for us to keep our word. We told them that they were “scholars for a year, Cheveners for life”, that they were our urgent concern. Now they are at risk by association.
As the anniversary of the fall of Kabul approaches, we appeal to the UK to welcome back our Chevening alumni as we said we would. They are brilliant and courageous, but also living with fear. It’s long past time to bring them home.
About the author: Ruth Arnold is Senior Advisor (Global External Relations) to Study Group
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