Afghans Without Formal Papers Develop Signals to Tell Military They Qualify for Evacuation

Afghans without formal papers have developed special signals with the Italian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) they work for and with the Italian military to let soldiers know they qualify for evacuation, according to the Associated Press.

Nove Onlus, a charity group, came up with a system to help Afghans that worked for them get evacuated from the country. It created a WhatsApp group that shared instructions and information on Taliban checkpoints, the AP said. As members went to the airport, each one was geolocated and identified.

For Nove Onlus members, the password was to flash a red handkerchief tied around their wrist to alert Italian soldiers to get them and help them go to the airport. Pangea, another Italian NGO, had workers write a P on the palm of their hands as a signal to the military.

The signals have helped evacuate hundreds of Afghans—as well as their families—who have worked with Western organizations and are trying to flee the country but have been unable to prepare the proper paperwork.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Afghan refugees in Europe
Italian NGOs have given Afghan workers signals to identify themselves to Italian military at Kabul's airport in order to be evacuated. Above, people disembark on Tuesday from a chartered Air Belgium airplane carrying evacuated people from Afghanistan at the military airport in Melsbroek. Eric Lalmand/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

Amina, an Afghan worker for Nove Onlus, tried twice to enter Kabul's chaotic airport, to secure her promised seat on an evacuation flight. The crush was too much, and on her second attempt she feared she would die in the stampede. Getting the attention of Western troops, never mind being believed by them, was impossible.

Amina, who asked to use a pseudonym for her own protection, wanted to give up and stay behind, despite the threat posed by Taliban rule against anyone, especially women, who had worked with Western organizations.

"When I saw the Italian army, I climbed on a pole and I raised my arm with that red scarf and also with Italian flag in my hand,'' Amina said. It worked.

She was among a group of 150—Afghan women and their families—who landed in Rome on an evacuation flight early Tuesday. Pangea has brought to safety 30 activists and more than 200 of their family members, some of whom arrived in Italy on Monday.

Both groups coordinated the evacuations through Italian diplomatic and military authorities. More arrivals are expected in the coming days.

Amina, who worked as a job training coach for the charity, collapsed into the arms of Nove Onlus' Italian staff when she arrived at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport early Tuesday. She was able to bring with her three of her sisters and two brothers.

"I can't express my feelings,'' she said. "It is a feeling of joy and is a feeling of sorrow. I feel happy that I saved my own life and my [family's] life. We feel safe."

Dissolving into tears and covering her face, she said, "But instead on the other side I just feel also sad since I just left my homeland, where I was born, where I grew up."

She added, "This is not easy, to leave our homeland. Sorry. So sorry."

Livia Maurizi, Nove Onlus' evacuation coordinator, credits the Afghan women's own determination with saving themselves, and others in need.

"They not only managed to escape the Taliban, they not only liaised with us for their own evacuation, but they contributed to the evacuation of many other women," Maurizi said.

The Afghan arrivals are undergoing a 10-day COVID quarantine. The charity is working on finding "dignified accommodation" for them, and some companies have already stepped forward to offer jobs and training, said Nove Onlus spokeswoman Flavia Mariani.

For now, Amina doesn't see a future for herself in the country she tried to reshape. Already, she says Afghan women have disappeared from the streets of the capital, keeping out of sight for their own safety and escaping when they can.

With the Taliban's return, she sees Afghanistan "going back to the 19th century and maybe women in Afghanistan will face a dark future. Maybe they will remain uneducated, they will remain far from the society."

Amina shows red scarf
On Tuesday at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci international airport, Amina shows a red scarf worn by women activists to identify themselves to the Italian military at Kabul's airport in order to be evacuated from Afghanistan. Paolo Santalucia/AP Photo