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KEYBOARD: When suicide bombers and gunmen slaughtered crowds flocking to Kabul airport, they also cut off the escape route that Ali Rezaie said would lead him to a new life abroad, away from the Taliban and their suspicion of well educated middle class people who worked with foreigners in Afghanistan.
In the chaos, Rezaie could not reach the airport where flight after flight took off without him. The 27-year-old has had no choice but to take charge of his future. Like many other Afghans, he resolved to find another way out and embarked on a perilous journey of thousands of kilometers to Europe, much of it on foot.
More than three months later, Rezaie’s odyssey through five countries took him high in the Franco-Italian Alps, where he pushes knee deep in snow to escape border guards, with a journalist from the ‘Associated Press on his heels.
The Afghan exodus that some feared to flood Europe with migrants after the Taliban came to power has not materialized. And in the middle of the alpine rocks bristling with icicles, we quickly understand why: only the most robust, the most motivated and the most ingenious exiles make it so far.
In front of Rezaie in the snowy landscape is the French border, unmarked but guarded 24 hours a day by police looking through thermal binoculars for thermal signatures. Rezaie’s companion, another Afghan bearing the scars of a suicide bombing that prompted him to flee, had already tried – and failed – to reach France by this winter road.
So the Afghans are advancing cautiously. They stop to listen to the sounds in the freezing silence, to consult a map on Rezaie’s phone before the cold kills his battery, and to munch on the croissants they bought in the border village of Claviere in Italy. If they are caught by French guards patrolling the border on foot, by bicycle and in vans, Italy is where they will be forced to return.
The Taliban takeover and the rapid collapse of the Afghan economy have sent people illegally flocking to neighboring Iran, which is often the first stepping stone for Afghans – including Rezaie – pushing towards the European Union.
Afghans are now on track to overtake Syrians as the main asylum seekers in Europe in 2021. Internal EU reports on migration trends show that more than 80,000 Afghans have applied for asylum so far. in November. That’s a 96% increase from the same period last year, and the increase is in part due to Kabul airport evacuations.
Rezaie, from Herat in western Afghanistan, says he went to Kabul in search of a robbery, but then doubled down after the suicide bombing and the attack on the gun in the last days of the airlift. He believes he would have been killed if he had stayed in Afghanistan because of his work with foreign aid groups.
So he emptied his savings, borrowed money and left behind his printing press, his friends and a comfortable life.
The quest took him first to Iran and Turkey, then by boat and for 25 days on foot in Greece. Next come Italy and then the French border.
Rezaie thinks it will be easy going through it, compared to everything he’s been through. But it’s even easier for European vacationers that he suddenly meets on a ski slope that crosses his mountain path. They rush past, paying him no attention, not having to worry about police patrols.
Feeling in full view on the manicured slope, Rezaie is struck by how much their carefree joy contrasts with his urgent need to get back into the camouflage of the trees.
“Some people fall happily,” he said, his lungs rising in the air. “Other people come up sad. “
By finding deep paths to Europe, Rezaie and other migrants offer hope to those who are sure to follow. Their knowledge of obstacles, their contacts and their travel advice will trickle down to Afghanistan. Migrants attempting to cross the Alps share phone cards with GPS markers showing the way.
Rezaie targets the fortified French town of Briançon. Sayed and Mortaza, both cousins ​​and 16, had passed through Briançon a few hours earlier. They too fled in the days following the fall of Kabul and crossed Iran to Turkey. From there, they were smuggled aboard a cramped ship to Italy, a brutal six-day journey that made them too weak to stand.
Caught at the French border, they were allowed to continue because they are minors. Seven adult Afghans they crossed paths with were returned.
The Taliban takeover dispersed Sayed’s family. Her father and older brother worked as police officers. They have fled and Sayed thinks they are hiding in Pakistan. Without their wages, Sayed and his mother had no income, so they left too. She lives with a sister in Iran. He is targeting Germany.
“Maybe Dortmund, because I love Dortmund football club,” he said. “We just want to escape.”
Others who left long before the Taliban took power say they no longer hope to return.
“It’s over for us now, for everyone in Europe,” said Abdul Almazai, 26, who left Afghanistan as a teenager. Refused at the French border with eight other Afghans, he plans to try again.
“We have crossed so many mountains,” he said. “I have to make my future.”
Aid workers fear that Afghans more accustomed to mountains and the dangers of winter will take riskier roads in the snow than migrants from warmer climates.
“They are confident, and sometimes being confident is not helpful,” said Luca Guglielmetto, a volunteer worker at a shelter on the Italian side who equips migrants with warm clothes and boots for the crossing.
At nightfall, Rezaie’s phone battery drains. He and his companion advance in the snow.
Few manage to cross on the first try. Rezaie pulled off this feat and beamed with pride the next morning as he ate breakfast at a migrant shelter in Briançon.
He sent a video of himself wading through the snow to his mother and brother in Iran.
He is targeting Germany. But he hopes to return home one day.
“I had a car. I had a job, a job. He said.“ I’ve had a great life.

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