Film maker Alison MacLean knows Afghanistan well.
The former South Surrey resident was there for four separate media embeds with the forces of six NATO countries during the past decade – much of it for her feature-length documentary passion project Burkas2Bullets, celebrating the Afghan women who chose to become part of the police and the military in the fight against Taliban and ISIS-K forces.
Long before the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, her activities had made her a marked woman, she notes, adding that she still continues to receive anonymous death threats on a regular basis.
But even more in peril are those who assisted her and others as ‘fixers’ and interpreters during the time she was filming in Afghanistan.
Since the democratic government was ousted, the plight of anyone who worked with Western humanitarian organizations, journalists or military personnel over the past 20 years – particularly women and children – has become dire at the hands of the Taliban and ISIS-K, MacLean said.
Right now she’s doing everything she can through contacts in Washington D.C., as well as in other countries, to find safe passage for Afghans fleeing their homeland – with help from White Rock Rotary, to whom she made an impassioned plea during their Aug. 24 online meeting.
“There are five families in hiding that I’m trying to get out,” she said, during a recent, frequently emotional conversation with Peace Arch News and Rotary friends Sept. 1 at South Surrey’s Red Rose Restaurant.
“That’s 22 people in all, most of them women and children.”
The interpreters and ‘fixers’ she relied on while embedded in Afghanistan provided security, driving and arranging interviews for her, she said.
“These are very smart people,” she said. “They speak as many as five different languages and they all have university degrees, but this was the work they could find.”
MacLean said she receives “credible daily updates” from connections in Afghanistan and Washington that these Afghan friends, and many like them, are anything but safe following the fall of Kabul.
“The Taliban are hunting down and executing human rights workers, journalists – anyone they perceive worked with any NATO countries,” she said.
“I know of one family where the Taliban broke in and executed two young men in front of their mother. They were trying to protect their sister, who was taken away. The mother is saying ‘why am I still alive? – I had a family, and now they’re all gone.’”
MacLean said the sister, like many other young women and girls in the country, will likely be forced to become a Taliban bride, or else will be trafficked to a neighbouring country – human trafficking, along with the international drug trade, has been a major source of funding for the Taliban.
A 2018 recipient of Canada’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers, MacLean, relocated to Kamloops earlier this year, after nine years in South Surrey.
“But my support base is still here,” she added noting that, through the White Rock club, and the sponsorship of past president Jack Rae, she was accepted for a 2021 Rotary Peace Fellow scholarship.
She little suspected that the training she received this year as a Peace Fellow– from international instructors and professors from the Hague, in Holland – would be put to work immediately helping the refugees find safe passage to a third country (for obvious reasons MacLean isn’t divulging where).
The ultimate goal, she said, is relocating them to Canada, and preferably B.C. where she can continue to monitor their progress in adapting to a new life.
MacLean, who had virtually exhausted her own resources to send money to the refugees to pay for visas, joined the Rotary club’s online meeting in hopes that members would be able to offer some support.
Barely a week later, MacLean had received some $10,000 in donations, thanks to individual members who contributed privately to the cause, including Rae, Renee MacRae, Kristina Eng, Winston Conyers and Tom Akam.
More is to come, the members agreed, as the club gets behind it as an organization, enabling tax receipts to be written for donations from the public.
MacRae said she did not hesitate to write MacLean a cheque – years ago, during the course of adventurous world travels, she found herself in Afghanistan as the people were breaking fast after Ramadan and counts herself fortunate that she was invited into homes and experienced the hospitality and generosity of the Afghan people.
“I loved Afghanistan,” she said. “This is my way of saying thank you to the people – and it’s amazing to think that something I do might save somebody’s life.”
The situation has, quite literally, come down to that, MacLean said.
When she spoke to the Rotarians she had just spent four fruitless hours trying to liase the evacuation of two of her Afghan families.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
“My two families had papers; they had seats on one of the last US military flights, but they could not get on the plane because the Taliban would not let them into the airport. They put themselves at risk in a desperate attempt to escape, but eventually we had to make the hard decision to move them back into hiding again.”
Western nations, she said, should be under no illusion about the Taliban’s plan for anyone they believe assisted NATO forces – or harbour any naive belief in a negotiated solution.
“Canada needs to take a hard stance on the Taliban government,” she said, noting that the many “stakeholders” involved in the fall of Afghanistan included China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
Public contributions to MacLean’s mission to help her Afghan families will be accepted by the White Rock Rotary Club (whiterockrotary.org), Rae confirmed at press time.
Anonymous cash donations can be accepted, but for tax receipt purposes, cheques must be accompanied by full identification and address and must be marked as an ‘Afghanistan donation’ he said.