February 17, 2022
The Canberra Times Opinion

Afghanistan’s people can’t be forgotten

Around the time Fred Smith took a selfie standing at the “arse end of a C-130” bound for Kabul, just two days after the city fell to the Taliban, I received a message from his wife. She was distressed over the apocalyptic images out of Afghanistan, as desperate souls clung to the wings of departing airplanes. We were all aghast at the speed of Taliban takeover.

Any Australian who has worked or served in Afghanistan during “our longest war”, or who has loved ones involved, knows the dumfounding sense of uselessness during the horror evacuation of August 2021.

Fred’s wife was wondering where he was. I didn’t have the foggiest. We found out the next morning. There he was, front page of a newspaper, captured in a photo with other Australian diplomatic staff and ADF personnel seated inside the C-130, flying into Kabul.

At the time there was talk of evacuating around 800. Nine days and 32 flights later, the unflinching ADF and DFAT team had lifted 4200 evacuees form that hellish place.

The story of what happened at Kabul Airport is breathtaking in heroics and soul crushing in reality. Hopefully Fred, one of Australia’s treasured song writers, will one day pen a book and share this story, because Afghanistan is not only a war story with a shocking end, it is a human story. We need that acknowledged.

Thousands of Australians have a heartfelt connection to this beguilingly, beautiful and tormented nation. Those who served and those who have toiled in NGO’s have not stopped grieving for its passionate and proud people. How can we, when we see the hateful Taliban banish women from public sight, like they did last century? And how can we turn away and “move on”, when we see the carefully pieced frameworks of governance and Australia’s meticulous efforts to shift cultural norms and embed gender equality stoned dead.

Among the countless hidden heroes of those who served are Australia’s ADF gender advisors. This “new breed” of soldier are the sharpest strategic weapon a nation can deploy in 21st century warfare, where “hearts and minds” are the holy grail. These are the women and men expertly trained to help prise open pathways for women’s inclusion in civic participation and leadership. They were doing a critical job in Afghanistan.

The globe is now awash with evidence-based research that proves “gender equality and the status of women are together the single most reliable indicator for conflict prevention.” It must have been the saddest moment of their lives when the ADF gender advisors had to tell their Afghan counterparts “we are leaving”.

Australia invested heavily in Afghanistan. Making sense of the loss, or simply voicing frustration and sadness over it, is a necessary part of the grieving process. This is why gatherings such as Thursday night’s fundraiser concert to welcome recently arrived Afghan refugees to Canberra is so important. Fred will sing: I will try not to cry.

Since last August the Red Cross has settled several hundred Afghan evacuees in Australia: 130 of them in Canberra. Sadly, the city’s housing crisis has complicated the task.

Last month Australia prioritised 15,000 places for Afghan refugees through its humanitarian and Family Visa program. The Red Cross has called for an additional 20,000, saying what you and I know only too well, “… the hearts of Australian’s are open”.

Twitter: @Virginia_Hauss
This article was first published in The Canberra Times, Feb 17 2022

Virginia Haussegger AM is a Canberra journalist and founding director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation.

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