In a desperate attempt to escape persecution a group of Afghan artists and creative figures have delivered a letter to Boris Johnson and other world leaders pleading to be rescued.
The authors, who describe themselves as the “suffering artists of Afghanistan” write: “Jobless, futureless, in constant fear of arrest and death at the hands of the Taliban, we do not live but merely exist.” Unable to sign their names, the undisclosed number of signatories have instead attached pictures of themselves holding signs that identify their creative profession, shielding their faces.
The open letter, which has been published in French, Farsi, English and German, outlines Afghan artists’ work over the last two decades to revive the arts and culture scene in their country. They say they gained grounds in freedom of expression, among other achievements, all of which has now been demolished.
“It is beyond belief that the Taliban, one of the largest and most deadly of terrorist organisations, has subjugated Afghanistan. A group that murdered thousands of innocent people, destroyed our cultural heritage, exterminated artists and obliterated cultural centres with their ceaseless, brutal suicide and other terror attacks, are now in control and seen in the comfort of the most luxurious hotels in Kabul and elsewhere,” they write.
“Many artists, cultural workers and journalists are in the gravest danger at Taliban hands and are stranded in Afghanistan. These people need urgent help to leave. There is no future for them in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Instant death will be the inevitable result of defiance and to remain is to be forced to forswear our working vocations, an agonising form of slow death,” the letter goes on to say.
Artists at Risk
Artists at Risk (AR), a non-profit institution that has been involved in assisting Afghan artists inside and outside of Afghanistan, delivered the letter today on behalf of its signatories to Boris Johnson and its other addressees: the US President Joe Biden, the newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the French President Emmanuel Macron, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
“We are genuinely touched and honoured that these courageous artists turned to Artists at Risk to be the messenger of this disheartened cry for help,” Marita Muukkonen, the AR co-founder and director, tells The Art Newspaper from Berlin.
“The burden of helping artists, activists, journalists and human rights defenders has fallen almost exclusively on the shoulders of individual families, activists, civil society and NGOs. There is only so much we can do. Government-level assistance is urgently needed.”Ivor Stodolsky, co-founder and co-director of Artists at Risk
Muukkonen says since the withdrawal of US forces and its allies from Afghanistan in August, AR has joined forces with other activists and NGOs to push for those in grave danger onto evacuation lists while advocating for governments to recognise the group as being at high risk of persecution under Taliban rule. However, she says the artistic community has especially struggled to make contact with British authorities.
“The British government is just unreachable. Our partners have all failed in their attempts, high profile and otherwise, to convince the Johnson government that artists and cultural life is in great danger. The same goes for many countries that regularly pride themselves for standing for human rights—they seem completely unwilling to assist Afghans, artists or otherwise—beyond their own military and diplomatic assets. What happened to winning ‘hearts and minds’?” says Muukkonen.
Ivor Stodolsky, the other AR co-founder and co-director, says most governments have slowed or even completely stopped receiving new names to be considered for evacuations. “The burden of helping artists, activists, journalists and human rights defenders has fallen almost exclusively on the shoulders of individual families, activists, civil society and NGOs. There is only so much we can do. Government-level assistance is urgently needed,” says Stodolsky.
Life under the Taliban
So far the Taliban has limited many cultural aspects of day to day life. For example, television programmes have been cancelled and replaced with religious series and music has been all but banned, with wedding parties and venues warned that they will face serious repercussions if they play music.
In November, a 19-year-old boy was reportedly beaten and shot dead by the Taliban in Zargaran village, in the Ashkashum district of Badakhshan, for listening to music.
In the same month the Taliban unveiled new rules that barred women from appearing on television shows. The beatings and arrests of journalists have been extensively documented. The majority of art lecturers and academics have not been allowed to return to work and their future remains in limbo.
Where is the UK?
In early October the Campaign to Protect Afghanistan’s Musicians (CPAM) organised a letter to the Sunday Times signed by more than 200 leading figures in the music world and beyond, asking the Home Office to recognise the extreme dangers faced by Afghanistan’s musicians and to offer them safe haven. CPAM says to date the Home Office has not responded.
Another open letter was published in the Times in September, signed by some of the biggest British creative professionals including Emma Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen and Colin Firth, asking the British government to open a “humanitarian corridor” to help artists escape Afghanistan.
As the Taliban tightened their grip over Afghanistan in August, the government announced that it was launching a scheme to help Afghans resettle in the UK. However, more than three months has passed and the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) has not yet opened. It is unclear whether artists and creative figures would even qualify to apply for the scheme.
In a statement the Home Office would only confirm that ACRS would prioritise: "Those who had assisted the UK efforts in Afghanistan and stood up for values such as democracy, women’s rights, freedom of speech, and rule of law" and "Vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, and members of minority groups at risk (including ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT+)."
The UK is not the only country that has failed to provide refuge for Afghan artists and cultural figures. America's Afghan refugee resettlement scheme requires referred applicants to travel to an interim country with a US embassy, where they can expect to wait for at least 14 months, a condition that advocates say is completely unreasonable. Artists and creatives who are in danger due to their affiliation with the US embassy and US funded projects are among those who have been referred but are stuck in Afghanistan or unable to live in another country for an extended period of time.
The taxing conditions of pursuing a refugee status from a foreign country drove over 25,000 Afghans to apply for the expensive and onerous humanitarian parole, which allows admission to the US for a temporary period for urgent humanitarian reasons. However, it has been reported recently that despite charging $575 per application only about 100 have been granted. Afghan artists are amidst applicants awaiting response.
“The US, of course, has the largest capacity and resources, but in the last months the number of evacuations has dwindled dramatically, with reception and transit centres through third countries full, and no sign of further resources being allocated to resolve the blockage,” says Muukkonen.
“The French have been remarkably open, but the initial flood of generosity has unfortunately slowed to trickle. The Germans did initiate a process, but it was highly limited, and has since been hampered by bureaucratic and political obstacles. There are similar political obstacles throughout Europe and beyond,” adds Stodolsky.
Despite the lack of response from governments, institutes like AR continue to drive for change. It is about to launch a campaign with a wide network of partners to raise awareness about the plight of Afghan artists and cultural workers, putting pressure on governments to start evacuations and to mobilise resources and funds to support abandoned Afghan artists in Afghanistan and third countries.
CPAM has also announced that it has teamed up with South Asian Arts-uk (SAA-uk) and the Daanish Foundation UK (DFUK) to raise funds to provide life-saving aid to musicians in Afghanistan who are facing starvation this winter. They are organising two concerts in London and Leeds (11 December and 18 December respectively) in support of the cause. All donations and profits will go directly to musicians identified by CPAM as being in desperate need of support.
“The situation is getting worse every day for artists and activists still hiding in Afghanistan. Every day we receive news of threats, beatings, destruction of their art and homes, torture and even murder. The ‘Coalition of the Willing’ as it was called at the time it invaded Afghanistan, cannot turn their backs and allow artists, journalists and human rights defenders,” says Stodolsky.
The authors of the letter end their plea for help by asking to be relocated to safety to guarantee “the precious national culture and spirit of the Afghan people remains alive for future generations”.
The open letter
A letter from the suffering artists of Afghanistan to President Biden, Prime Minister Johnson, President Macron, Federal Chancellor Scholz, President von der Leyen, Secretary General Stoltenberg, Secretary General Guterres, and to all governments and people in the free world
Our warm regards to you!
We, a group of dedicated Afghan artists and cultural workers, are writing this letter at a time when our arts and cultural activities have been brutally halted and we pass our days and nights secretly inside our homes in poverty.
Jobless, futureless, in constant fear of arrest and death at the hands of the Taliban, we do not live but merely exist.A profound darkness has befallen Afghanistan.
Over the last two decades, and despite myriad challenges, our generation eagerly grasped the freedom and opportunities that the international community so generously helped open up in Afghanistan to study, educate, and develop ourselves, to fight for freedom, and to defend human rights. We worked passionately for the regrowth of our arts and culture so grievously wounded by decades of war. We succeeded in gaining ground in free expression and the right to vote. We opened cinemas, painted our subjects freely, played music and sang. We made movies, held art exhibitions and music concerts.
Now, due to Taliban bigotry, this rich legacy of two decades is at extreme risk and our work and way of life have come to an abrupt end.
Over the years, sadly, numerous innocent artists and cultural workers have fallen victim to horrifying Taliban suicide attacks and other inhuman atrocities. Yet we have continued to fight against their dark mentality. Our colleagues have faced the many accompanying dangers bravely. Artists of our generation have become the bloodied symbols of artistic integrity, abjuring extremism, upholding freedom, democracy, and human rights.
The Taliban consider creative artists anti-Islamic. These are lies. Knowing them, however, during the recent peace negotiations we raised our concerns about the likely fate of Afghanistan’s cultural community if the country fell to the Taliban. Tragically, these warnings went unheeded. Now our country is in the grip of a barbarous and destructive sect and a dark future awaits millions of innocent Afghans.
Our fervent hope, like those of our many friends throughout the international community, was that Afghanistan would have peace under their protection and that no power would undo the gains Afghanistan has achieved over the last two decades. Tragically that was not to be and the reality is that freedom of speech, international human rights, the rights of women, artists, cultural workers, filmmakers, democracy itself – the bases of civilized life enjoyed by our friends and shared with us - have been extinguished in Afghanistan.
It is beyond belief that the Taliban, one of the largest and most deadly of terrorist organisations, has subjugated Afghanistan. A group that murdered thousands of innocent people, destroyed our cultural heritage, exterminated artists and obliterated cultural centres with their ceaseless, brutal suicide and other terror attacks, are now in control and seen in the comfort of the most luxurious hotels in Kabul and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan the Taliban impose their reign of terror, destroy the futures of Afghan women, close down education for Afghan girls, and preside over the collapse of the national economy and a fast approaching famine that risks the lives of millions of innocent Afghans.
We shall never accept the monstrous misery and darkness they have brought and will continue to struggle against it by every means possible.We urge the world to rise up and join us in condemning the horror and cruelty growing daily in our country.
Many artists, cultural workers and journalists are in the gravest danger at Taliban hands and are stranded in Afghanistan. These people need urgent help to leave. There is no future for them in a Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Instant death will be the inevitable result of defiance and to remain is to be forced to forswear our working vocations, an agonizing form of slow death.
We implore you, Mr Biden, Mr Johnson, Monsieur Macron, Mr Scholz, Madame von der Leyen, Mr Stoltenberg, Senhor Guterres, leaders of the Free World and the international community, recognizing that Afghanistan’s present predicament belongs not only to Afghans but to all those who have bravely fought and died there, to acknowledge our agony.We ask you directly to hold out your hands to us with practical steps to help us relocate to safety where we can continue our stewardship of Afghanistan’s arts and culture and ensure that the precious national culture and spirit of the Afghan people remains alive for future generations.As Saadi, one of our greatest poets, has written:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In the creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
With deep respect,
A group of Afghan artists, cultural workers and journalists
The Art Newspaper has been reporting on cases of Afghan artists and cultural workers who have been forced into hiding in the ongoing series "Dispatches from Afghanistan". The stories have provided a glimpse into the appalling conditions the creatives in the country have been experiencing. Find all of the profiles so far here and a list of resources to help Afghan creatives here.