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Caritas work under the Taliban: “I can’t get out of the office alone”

In mid-August, after the Taliban conquered Kabul, Stefan Recker had to leave the country in a rush. A few days ago the head of the local office was from Caritas International returned to the Afghan capital. There is a lot of work to be done for aid organizations: the United Nations is warning of a humanitarian catastrophe. “At the moment, people simply don’t have the money to buy food,” explains Recker in an interview with ntv.de. But Caritas is working on solutions to get money into the country. In addition, Recker reports on his return to the country, how he experienced the change in power and speaks about the arbitrariness of the Taliban.

Stefan Recker heads the Caritas office in Afghanistan. He recently returned to Kabul after several months.

(Photo: Caritas / Stefan Recker)

tv.de: You are back in Afghanistan after several months. What was your first impression of Kabul, what kind of atmosphere did you encounter?

Stefan Recker: The return to Afghanistan was a moving moment for me. I didn’t really want to leave here in August 2021, didn’t want to leave people alone. But then there were too many security concerns. Now, after my return, I find the situation here in Kabul to be very familiar, but also completely different from August. The traffic chaos on the streets, the office structure, the colleagues who stayed here for the time being are familiar.

What has changed?

What is different is that most of the explosion protection walls that protected most of the public buildings here in Kabul from car bombs before the takeover were removed by the Taliban. There are also far fewer women on the streets, although it is noticeable that only very few of them wear the burqa. The very high level of poverty is also striking – one indicator is the large number of baggage tractors at the airport. Even some Taliban were among them. The price of bread has not changed, but the mass of the individual flatbreads has been reduced from 200 to around 150 grams.

Do you feel safe?

I feel pretty safe myself, at least when it comes to the Taliban. A bigger problem, however, is the rise in crime, especially street robbery has increased. That’s why I can’t get out of the office by myself.

How are the Caritas employees?

Our local Caritas Germany employees who remained in the country are doing well under the circumstances. Some have chosen to stay in the country. Most, however, want to leave the country, and some have already reached Germany. Others, however, are still impatiently waiting for the promised opportunity to leave the country. We support them with all means at our disposal, but it is a very difficult and lengthy process.

How did you experience the change in power in the summer?

I’ve been working in Afghanistan for years, but even I was surprised at the dynamism of the change in power. The Taliban stood in front of Kabul on August 15 and by evening they were already in the city. That was completely surprising.

How did you get out of the country?

The Caritas management instructed me to leave the country. On August 17th I received a message via WhatsApp from a friend that I was coming to the airport. I quickly packed a few things, a bag with a laptop, important documents, underpants and flip-flops, and I’m off. Everything at the airport was full of people, soldiers shot in the air to hold people back. The gate was locked, but I held up my passport and was pulled out by an American soldier. Then it went on bit by bit until I was on the plane that brought 130 people to Tashkent. From there it went on to Germany with a special machine.

You are now back to work in Kabul – will you have to start from scratch or will the previous office continue?

We were fortunate that our office – unlike several other aid organizations – was not temporarily occupied by Taliban fighters when thousands of them came into the city and needed accommodation. So I am very optimistic that we have a working basis and can continue. One problem, however, is the staff, as some of our previous employees are no longer in the country and the female employees, for example, sit at home and work from there. Our office is very, very understaffed and we have to hire new people.

What is currently the biggest problem for local aid organizations?

The biggest problem is money, which is liquidity. We have to see how we can bring money into the country. The state accounts abroad were frozen as part of the sanctions, so both the state bank and the private banks have no money. This means that no wages can be paid out, and access to money is very, very limited. This is a problem for our employees because they not only need it to survive, but also for our projects and relief measures.

So the great hunger crisis that the United Nations are warning of is not so much due to the availability of food?

The groceries are there and the moment there is money, groceries would also be available. If necessary, traders would import these from neighboring countries. At the moment, however, people simply don’t have the money to buy food.

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Caritas International supports various projects in Afghanistan – here Stefan Recker at work.

Have the Caritas projects been able to continue in the past few months?

As far as possible, our aid projects continue. Perhaps a positive example of this: One of our partners in northern Afghanistan makes orthoses and prostheses for the disabled. There is still so much material in stock there that they can continue working, also because the employees are foregoing payment of their salaries for the time being. At the other extreme, we can’t distribute supplies because we don’t have the money to buy them. Our twelve projects currently range between these two options. At the moment we simply have to look, also in cooperation with other aid organizations, to see what needs to be done in certain areas and what is feasible.

Would it be helpful if the West were to release cash reserves for Afghanistan that were previously frozen for humanitarian aid?

There are negotiations at the United Nations level with the aim of lifting sanctions on humanitarian aid. But that also takes time. In this context, it is of course not helpful how the Taliban comment on women’s rights, for example, or reports about the lack of protection for former government employees. Most recently there was news that over a hundred police officers and security forces have disappeared since the change in power. Such news, of course, stands in the way of the sanctions being lifted.

Are there any donations from Caritas or are there any hurdles?

This is the same problem as with any money. However, we are optimistic that we will find solutions in a relatively short time, in the next six weeks. We have already brought money into the country, albeit on a relatively small scale; after all, we do not want to break any sanctions. As soon as we have a solution, we can also transfer larger amounts of money to Afghanistan for our projects.

How did the Afghan Caritas workers fare after the change of power?

That was and still is my greatest concern. Our employees were very afraid and still have them. There have been several Taliban visits to our office, some good and some bad. Our employees were berated for working for a western organization, that they were all spies and so on.

They were at the mercy of the Taliban.

Yes, that also reflects a bit of the general picture: what the Taliban leadership is doing is one side, but how the foot soldiers who patrol the act act is something completely different. Our employees are therefore also afraid of going out of the house and to work. Even if you have a Taliban document with you, it can happen that the patrol is not interested, that you are exposed to unpleasant questions, insults or worse.

Are you trying to get the Afghan employees out of the country?

We want to bring them all to Germany, with the exception of two who want to stay in Afghanistan. That’s a total of 25 people and their families. Some of them are already in Germany, some are still waiting for permission to continue their journey in neighboring countries. Overall, it’s a very, very difficult process, there is always new information, but we are working on it and are optimistic that it will work.

Markus Lippold spoke to Stefan Recker

More information on Caritas work in Afghanistan you’ll find here.

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