From Kabul to Lille, the incredible exfiltration of an Afghan family

They are there, smiling and prepared, gathered around makeshift tables to take in the food they have long prepared, and it is a miracle. They are together; You are safe. It smells festive in the apartment in the Faubourg de Béthune in Lille that now houses her. Her relief, the four women and two young girls, ages 13 and 16, who make up the Alizada family don’t try to hide it for a moment. It is that they went through many dangers before they could flee Kabul in Afghanistan where they were threatened.

When we met Suraya last September 22nd in a brasserie in Roubaix, the young woman had a closed face, distorted features. Since the Taliban invaded Kabul just over a month ago, the 28-year-old journalist, who fled to France in late 2018 to escape the religious extremists she openly criticized, has lost sleep. She constantly follows the news from her country and thinks about the women in her family day and night. “It’s my fault,” she repeats in hesitant and somewhat choppy French, it’s my job. If I had chosen someone else, none of this would have happened. »

From Kabul to Roubaix, Suraya Alizada’s appeal to save her family threatened by the Taliban

After the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, everything is in a hurry. Suraya calls the French Foreign Ministry’s crisis team. But nothing moves. After a large wave of evacuations, led in particular by the United States, the flow of departures quickly dried up. Suraya is desperate. His mother, two sisters and nieces are Hazara, a persecuted Shia ethnic minority. When they were warned that the Taliban would visit their homeland, they were able to flee and found refuge with acquaintances, where they are hiding. By when?

bottles by the sea

Between the four walls of her tiny student room in Roubaix, Suraya no longer knows what to do. She multiplies the bottles in the sea, the letters to Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron, to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the Prefect of the North, to Martine Aubry … and begs that members of her family be granted temporary visas. His portrait moved in the columns of the Mediacités. An informal network is organized behind the scenes to support them. And soon Suraya finds the ear of the mayor of Lille.

“By the time France announced at the end of August that there would be no more flights, we had already received 900 files.”

Martine Aubry quickly established himself as one of the most important French figures in the exfiltration of Afghans threatened by the Taliban. His long-term observation of the situation enabled him to show reactivity: between August 17 and 20, 58 Afghans were able to reach the Flanders capital. Artists, personalities from the judiciary, education or health. Lists were urgently made thanks to a 34-year-old Franco-Afghan from Lille, Wali Mohammadi, who played an active role in the epic of her departure from the country.

“When the Afghans in France understood that we were doing our best to welcome threatened families, we saw long queues in front of the town hall,” Martine Aubry describes. When France announced at the end of August that there would be no more flights, we had already received 900 files…” Within two weeks, around 2,600 Afghans were evacuated from France. Accordingly The world, which investigated many Afghans who believe they had been abandoned by the French government, sent more than 270,000 emails and 70,000 phone calls to the Crisis Cell at the Quai d’Orsay over the same period. But since a suicide attack in Kabul on August 26 and the end of the airlift, repatriations have been dribbling.

Sleepless nights

Autumn is coming to an end; the situation of the women of the Alizada family, gathered in a single room where they live as hermits, has not changed one iota. Alone in Roubaix, Suraya finds it difficult to concentrate on her studies at the university: she suffers from sleepless nights, consumed by guilt for putting her family in danger. Her hope hangs by a thread and the connection she made with Stephan Kutniak, Deputy Director General for Culture and International Relations at Lille City Hall.

One night, a phone number she doesn’t recognize appears on her cell phone. That of Martine Aubry, who tries to reassure her: her family is one of the last three files linked to the residents of the metropolis of Lille, which she follows closely. Of course nothing is finished yet. But the student must believe that she is about to find her family. His morale goes up. She is making amazing progress in French. Telephone calls to City Hall increase; Exchanges between Martine Aubry and Paris too.

In early 2022, the Foreign Ministry finally agreed to welcome his family to France; Suraya transforms. But how can you leave the country without risking your life? Several weeks pass in dense fog. In the utmost secrecy, some options are discussed and then discarded. At the same time, the health of Fatima, Suraya’s 71-year-old mother, is deteriorating: too much tension, constant stress. The country is sinking: the diplomatic relations that the Taliban are trying to establish internationally are at a standstill, the humanitarian situation is catastrophic, women’s rights are being disregarded…

High risk exfiltration

Patrols are intensifying on the streets of Kabul. Temporary roadblocks appear at all intersections. Randomly selected vehicles are scrutinized. The identity of their passengers is carefully checked. Suraya’s family has no choice, no time: they decide to flee across the Pakistani border. In late February, with the whole world watching the war that had just broken out in Ukraine, Islamist militants launched a full-scale home search operation in Kabul, claiming to be looking for weapons and criminals following a spike in thefts and kidnappings.

Blocked from WhatsApp, the women of the Alizada family are annoyed. For several weeks they have been waiting for a signal from the Quai d’Orsay, which is arriving slowly. Your meager belongings are gathered around you – ready to go. The exfiltration operation is set up between Lille and Paris: everyone uses their networks, mobilizes all their knowledge. Treasures of ingenuity are used to eliminate each obstacle one by one; Nothing is left to chance.

“The two cars are driving straight towards Pakistan at a good distance and at high speed. The way seems endless”

It is pitch black on March 6 when two vehicles pull up unobtrusively in front of a building in Kabul. It’s time we must go. No turning back. Fatima, Suraya’s mother, gets into the first one alongside the driver. In the back seat is one of his daughters, in her mid-thirties. The others climb into the second. Too many women in the same car would not be prudent. They have prepared believable stories to justify their presence on the street in the event of an arrest and repeat them in their minds.

The two cars are driving towards Pakistan at a great distance and at high speed. Veils and masks against the Covid largely hide the downcast faces of silent travellers; the way seems endless. The border does not appear in the distance until 5 a.m. To cross them you will have to wait many more hours and tame the fear as much as possible. A third vehicle awaits them on the other side; He takes them to the French embassy in Islamabad, where they get their visas. Along the way, Suraya’s sisters send her a photo with a message: Everything went as planned. You are safe, saved. It is not easy to achieve this.


A few days later, a plane takes them to Paris. On March 11, in the airport hall, Suraya meets a family she hasn’t seen in over three years – and wasn’t sure she’d ever see again. In her hand a small bouquet of flowers, which she hands to her mother before hugging her. The following days are full of joy. In Lille, all five are gradually gaining ground. The services of the town hall are organized: the two teenagers find the benches of the school again after too many months. In Afghanistan, middle school and high school girls aren’t as fortunate: the Taliban oppose their education.

The Alizada family gathered around Martine Aubry, Mayor of Lille, and Stephan Kutniak, Deputy Director General for Culture and International Relations at Lille City Hall. Photo: Clémence de Blasi / Mediacités

In this new life everything has to be learned anew. The language, the codes, the people. Rebuild everything patiently. Determined not to give in to the Islamist terrorists, Suraya is about to pass the entrance exam for the Graduate School of Journalism in Lille. Aged 32 and 33, Sediqa and Tahira, her older sisters, also hope to one day find a job: the first was a nurse, the second a teacher and accountant. As they leave Kabul, the women of the Alizada family know what they have lost. Giving up what they had to leave behind. And everything they won too. It can be summed up in one word, priceless, Suraya smiles: “Freedom.”

I was deeply touched by the story and courage of Suraya Alizada, whom I met in September 2021 to write my article for Mediacités. After this interview, it didn’t seem possible for me to stick to a strict journalistic exercise. Over the months, therefore, I multiplied the steps with different interlocutors, trying to get the authorities to react, until they caught the attention of Martine Aubry, who was very involved in humanitarian work. The Mayor of Lille has spent many hours supporting the Alizada family’s case lest it be forgotten. His determination and his networks overcame a hopeless situation. The chain of solidarity that formed around the young woman was decisive for the success of this secret exfiltration operation, which could have ended very badly. The Mediacités Lille team is proud to have played its part in this story and its happy ending. We would like to thank everyone who has joined us.

Clemence de Blasi

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