The Voices You'll Never Hear
"I am in Afghanistan in a very bad situation. I have nothing to eat. My wife and my baby son are facing an unknown fate. My son is very afraid. Terrorists are following me every day and threatening me with death. I have been tortured a hundred times. Please help me. I have no more courage. I'm in pain, I'm in pain, I'm in pain."
My email and direct message inboxes are a chronicle of heartbreak and desperation. Since I began working with Paws Unite People to try to assist a group of Afghan veterinarians and their families in escaping from Taliban persecution, I've been contacted by numerous other refugees, all desperate for help.
Some are members of the group of veterinarians abandoned in Pakistan without paperwork or passports by British animal rights activist Dom Dyer and a UK veterinarian who is probably glad, at this point, that she chose to remain publicly nameless.
Some, like the above individual, are former members of the Afghan National Army who worked alongside western nations to fight the Taliban and have now been left behind, starving and terrified, to face the repercussions of a lost war alone.
Many of the people who write to me are young, in their late teens to early thirties. Some are men. Many, many of them, are women.
"I was working for media and women's rights, trying to bring joy to those women who had harsh experiences in their lives. The Taliban sent us death threats because they don't allow women to work or promote women's rights, and they kill whoever works for promoting women's rights and empowerment.
"Even after I stopped working, I received death threats and was attacked by the Taliban and seriously injured. I moved to another city seeking safety but they found me there as well and attacked us. I am now hiding, but if they find me, they will kill me."
One of my goals when I began trying to assist Paws Unite People with their work helping the former veterinarians of the Kabul Small Animal Rescue was to try to boost the signal and bring more public attention to the horrors these folks have faced.
To me, there's plenty about that story that should resonate with a western audience. Women who were among the first female veterinarians in Afghanistan and who risked their lives so that dogs and cats could find homes in North America--and/or be reunited with American families who'd lived and worked in Kabul--and whose families are now facing torture and death themselves...
Surely, I thought, given the incredible worldwide media attention that surrounded the evacuation of our 286 dogs and cats from Afghanistan, at least someone would want to write about the people who sacrificed so much so those dogs and cats could get out.
As it turns out, someone did. Anya Zoledziowski wrote a fantastic article for VICE about the ex-KSAR veterinarians and their struggle.
But besides Vice, we've hit a wall with the media. It turns out Afghan refugees aren't really moving the needle these days.
"I'll be honest, the challenge is this," an accomplished investigative reporter told me. "The news cycle is a fickle friend. As long as the story is in crisis mode, everyone wants in. As soon as the next crisis comes up, the old one disappears."
I had similar responses from other folks in media and PR, including one public relations guru who advised me to manufacture as sensational a spin on the issue as I possibly could, to hell with the facts, and convince our refugees to lean into that narrative and, fundamentally, lie to reporters in order to drive clicks.
We opted not to go that route.
By and large, though, the response from journalists and media organizations big and small has been silence. Not even a "thanks, but no thanks."
And meanwhile, my inbox keeps filling up.
"I am an Afghani widow. My husband was in the Afghan army and was killed in the war with the Taliban. I cannot provide food and clothing for my two children. I am so disappointed and have no way of doing this. The situation is very difficult. Can you kind brother help me and my children prepare food?"
"I was a civil society member and women rights activist in Afghanistan. During the years in Afghanistan, I have been fighting for democracy, human and women rights. Alongside losing my job, and shutting my voice, in recent months, I am facing serious direct and potential threats from the Taliban.
"The Taliban troops have come to our house several times, searching for me. I am subsequently hiding myself during the last months. As a human being , I respectfully request you to help me and save my life through any available option."
"I am bothering you sorry for that but our lives are at risk and my daughters are starving, yesterday my daughter said why dad you don't bring me pizza anymore before you used to buy for me. My children will die of starvation because we don't have anything to eat. Kindly suggest what should I do next, I am living in hell here."
"The Taliban is threatening me that they will kill me, now I am hiding underground with my family and don't have freedom of movement. I have two beautiful daughters can't take them to doctor and I have an old sick mom. I have spent all my savings buying medicine and food for my family now I feel helpless and weak, I am experiencing the worst conditions a man can resist. These pressures sometimes make me want to commit suicide but seeing my daughters and mom stop me."
"We are in Pakistan we apply for USA visa but we still in Pakistan for one year. There is very bad situation for Afghans here, please help us."
"I have conducted operations with [NATO] forces, I have carried out anti-terrorist work, but I have been ignored by your government. I am in a bad and dangerous situation. My son is a child. He needs education. Unfortunately, he and my wife are under physical pressure. I am afraid that we will starve. Please take me out of this bad situation and help me with human compassion, thank you."
"One day in the morning I was asleep and got a call in my phone, the number was unknown. They said are you [name], I said yeah, they said you worked with foreign agencies and now we will kill you as soon as possible. I was very very scared and ended the call and got out of my house. I have no place to sleep or be safe, and don't have money to feed or buy anything, and no one to help me. Please respond to me."
Among the news organizations I've reached out to on behalf of the ex-KSAR veterinarians are numerous outlets and journalists in Vancouver who covered the arrival of the 286 "Mission Possible" animals from Afghanistan in February.
I explained that a group of staff and volunteers here in Vancouver are working to raise funds to help the veterinarians and their families. I talked about how many dogs and cats from that mission have found forever homes here in our city, and how I hoped Vancouver's animal lovers would rally to help the people behind this historic evacuation.
Not a single news outlet in Vancouver replied to my letters.
This last week, a volunteer from the Mission Possible shelter approached a few of those same news outlets. This time, the focus was on the few animals left from those 286 who are still looking for homes.
Within days, reporters who hadn't replied when I'd contacted them about the veterinarians were jumping to send camera crews to interview me about the animals.
I care about animals, very much. I think that there is something wrong when we as a society are willing to do more for animals than we are for our fellow human beings. And I've noticed that it's much, much easier to get people to care when I write about cute dogs and cats, rather than families from Somewhere Else with a different skin colour than most of my contacts.
"A key issue is also that each Afghan story sounds the same," the investigative reporter told me. "And so, if you pitch one specifically about veterinarians and shelter staff stuck in limbo, a producer or reporter will likely respond, well, how is this story different from the translator/driver/fixer who is also stuck in limbo which we've already done 5 times? It can be quite dehumanizing."
The Queen died last week at about the same time as the VICE article about the ex-KSAR veterinarians dropped. The British press is singularly focused on the monarchy.
To date, no one has written anything about the 58 refugees once employed by Britain's Mayhew International, and abandoned by the UK-based organizers of the much-heralded Operation Magic Carpet.
These families have been left helpless and without documentation in Pakistan and are unable to work, travel, or otherwise sustain themselves due to the manner by which they were evacuated from Afghanistan.
It's abundantly clear that the organizers of Operation Magic Carpet have abdicated their responsibility to preserve the lives of the people their actions have put in serious danger. But nobody in the media appears willing to hold their feet to the fire.
"There may not be broad public interest in these refugee stories, but, frankly, there was never broad public interest in the war and its consequences," the journalist tells me, and I know that they're right.
Hell, I wasn't screaming about the situation in Afghanistan until I linked up with these veterinarians and the few people trying to help them. It's too easy to just look away.
I'm not sure if the media doesn't want to tell these stories because people just don't care, or if people don't care because the media has other things to talk about.
Either way, you'll never hear these stories. But they'll keep filling up my inbox. And the folks on the other end will keep begging for their lives.
I truly wish more people were willing to listen.
Or better yet, to speak up on their behalves.
"I believe in humanity, democracy and justice and I lost everything but never regretted it."
- an anonymous refugee, via Twitter.