Kolkata: With the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, after sweeping into its capital city, Kabuliwalas (people of Kabul) in Kolkata are a worried lot, having not been able to get in touch with their family members back home.
Afghans in Kolkata — commonly known as Kabuliwalas — usually visit from one door to the other selling wares from their country, mostly dry fruits, rugs and perfume, or deal in the business of lending money.
Fifty-eight-year-old Omar Masood, a moneylender who has been living in the city for the past several decades, said that he hasn’t been able to establish contact with his family and friends in Kunduz over the past two weeks.
“It was in July that I last spoke to my younger brother and family. Since May, I have been asking them to leave Afghanistan and move to either India or any other country… I am clueless about their whereabouts now,” Masood said.
Taliban fighters, who were removed from power in Afghanistan by US-led forces in 2001, have resurfaced again, taking control of key cities including Kabul on Sunday, after the government there collapsed and embattled president Ashraf Ghani fled home, much like his fellow citizens.
Thousands of people have died and millions have been displaced in the conflict.
Mohammed Khan (49), who moved back to Kolkata from Kabul last year, said the situation in his country had been taking a turn for the worse for a while now.
“I I left Afghanistan in the mid-nineties after the Taliban took control of the country for the first time. But in 2017, I decided to return as everything seemed fine back home. I even opened a shop there. But after the US decided to withdraw its forces from the country, things started going downhill. I had no option but to move back to Kolkata with my immediate family, he explained.
Khan further said that he had been spending sleepless nights with no news from his extended family on the outskirts of Kabul.
“Many people from my family were killed by the Taliban in the nineties as we were opposed to their regime. I don’t know what fate awaits my family there,” he rued.
Several Afghans living in the city expressed hope that the Indian government will take in the refugees who have fled their country.
“We would request the authorities in India to look after the Afghan refugees as they have no place to go,” 60-year-old Omar Farooqi said.
Farroqi also said one of his relatives studying in Pune has decided to file an application for extension of student visa as he does not wish to return to the Taliban-controlled country.
Kabuliwalas had been visiting Bengal since the late 19th century and early 20th century for door-to-door sale of merchandise, and the profits earned by them are usually ploughed into the money-lending business.
Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, in one of his iconic works written in 1892, immortalised the Kabuliwalas in a tale of friendship and sacrifice.
Shortly after Independence in 1947, when formal trade between the countries began, the Kabuliwalas found their market for dry fruits shrinking, with most switching over to the business of money lending once and for all. Many of them had even procured a license for the business.
According to some Afghan residents of the city, with the advent of the easy banking system, microfinance companies, Kabuliwalas are struggling to keep their business afloat.
Such is the dismal state of affairs that the number of Afghans in the city has come down from 10,000 in 2001 to just around 1,000 at present. Many of them went back to Afghanistan after peace returned to the country, following its first parliamentary elections in 2005.
Official sources said there are around 15-20 Afghan kothis or tenements left in the city where the Pathans live with their friends and families.
Mullah Khan, who has been residing in the city for the last four decades, lamented that he wanted to spend his retired life in his hometown in Kandahar, but now that seems to be a distant dream.
“After my father left for his homeland in 1981, I took over his dry fruit business in Kolkata. Later, I shifted to the money-lending business. I, too, had decided to return to my homeland by next year. But now it seems to be a distant dream,” said Khan, whose relatives were killed by Talibans in 1999.
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