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STRASBOURG: Hanifa has no complaints about the welcome she has received in France since her arrival six months ago as a refugee from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Her youngest son Osman, three, and his sister Bahar, eight, are with her in eastern France but not their six-year-old brother Mustafa. The mere mention of his name has her break down in tears.

"My heart still weeps," she says.

Hanifa is one of a few hundred Afghans evacuated by France from Kabul on August 17, just two days after the country was taken over by the Taliban.

In the chaotic scenes that followed the ousting of the previous pro-Western government, Hanifa managed to get on a bus heading from the French embassy to the airport with Osman and Bahar.

But Mustafa, who was travelling separately with his aunt, did not make the flight. He only got out of Afghanistan a few days later by road with his father, a former high-ranking official in the deposed government. They are both now in Uzbekistan.

"I really thank France very much. It gave me an apartment, social security. When I was sick, I didn't have to pay for the medicine," Hanifa said, casting around her sparsely-furnished flat.

She proudly brandishes a 10-year residence permit and a debit card topped up by the French state.

"But my problem is Mustafa," she weeps. An official procedure has begun to bring the family together but there is no guarantee of success.

'Extraordinary services'

France evacuated over 2,600 Afghans from the country in the second half of August, a section of the 123,000 civilians who were airlifted out of Kabul in that period.

The United States took in 70,000 Afghans, Britain more than 15,000 and Italy nearly 5,000. Germany identified some 10,000 Afghans at risk but has only brought some 4,000 out so far.

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France has evacuated nearly 400 more Afghans since September and says it has received many new applications. The foreign ministry said this week the country was fully mobilised for new airlifts "when it is possible".

For those already in France, there is only praise for their new homeland.

But half a year after their arrival, they fear for the security of loved ones living in Afghanistan under the fundamentalist Taliban regime while the country falls further into financial crisis and endures a devastating famine.

Hanifa, filmed by AFP, refused to allow her face to appear on the screen for fear of reprisals against her family back home.

She even wanted her place of residence in eastern France kept secret, fearing the Taliban would find her there, however unlikely that may seem.

"Usman", 28, insisted that his real name be withheld.

The former Afghan civil servant -- who now lives in a rundown building in the suburbs of Strasbourg with his wife and three children, one of whom is barely a month old -- finds his mood swings wildly.

He hails the French system and its "extraordinary services". His eldest daughter is already at school, where the teacher "organises special classes" so that she and other newcomers can learn French faster.

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His wife gave birth in hospital -- "like any other French woman" -- even though her asylum application had not yet been processed and she did not have social security.

A neighbour in his 70s helped with the paperwork and has even been teaching him the art of petanque, the French national pastime akin to lawn bowling.

'Cannot forget Afghanistan'

Refugees from Afghanistan have benefitted from fast-tracked asylum application procedures, a French social security employee, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

"We used to travel inside Afghanistan in bulletproof cars, with bodyguards and guns, because we were not safe," said Usman. "Here, we live in an ordinary apartment, in an ordinary building, with social benefits. It is far better."

But while daily life is tranquil and safe, the anxiety over events back home lingers.

Usman's father was held for three days by the Taliban last autumn before being freed under pressure from tribal elders. Usman sleeps badly and takes anti-depressants.

"Leaving our people behind -- and we love our country -- we couldn't do anything but cry, although we were in a safe place," he said. "We belong to Afghanistan."

Usman, who studied for six years in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan and worked as a ministerial adviser, hopes to become a social worker in a French reception centre for asylum seekers to give back "what was given to me".

'Body without a soul'

Mostafa, 31, who gained his higher education in India, says he will take on any kind of work once he gets his residency permit. "I just want to make myself busy."

He came to France with his mother Yasamin Yarmal, an Afghan actress.

In the chaos of the evacuation from Kabul, he left behind his wife, their son and their daughter.

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"There was a lot of firing (at the airport). It was so packed that my children fainted. My father took them to hospital with my wife. Then we got in. When they came back, we were already inside, but they couldn't join us."

A former member of the military, Mostafa thinks he made the right choice. Staying behind would have forced him underground in fear of Taliban revenge.

But living like this, far from his country and most of his family, still makes his heart heavy.

He lives in the Paris suburbs and travels to the centre of the capital three times a week for French classes.

"I see people, places, but I just feel the same. Everything is meaningless, useless," he says.

Although she keeps her radiant smile intact, his mother Yasamin sometimes wonders what she is doing in France when her husband of 40 years lives hidden in Afghanistan with their son's wife and children.

"I feel that I am not alive anymore, that the roots that I had are all dry. A body without a soul," she says.

According to a UN report seen by AFP, the Taliban have killed more than 100 former government employees, Afghan security personnel and Afghans who worked with foreign troops following their takeover of Kabul.

But this is not even close to the real figure, according to several Afghans based abroad who are seeking to document the violence online.

At the end of November 2021, Human Rights Watch said that in just four provinces of Afghanistan alone, the Taliban had carried out 100 murders or enforced disappearances.


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