KATHMANDU, Nepal – The suicide bomber driving a sedan loaded with explosives struck in the early morning hours as the minibus crawled through Kabul’s traffic.
A piece of shrapnel pierced Amrit Rokaya Chhetri’s left ear. He was lucky. Nine of his pursuers, hired by a contractor to protect the Canadian embassy in Afghanistan, were killed instantly in 2016 when metal ripped through the overcrowded bus. Ultimately, 13 Nepalese were among the dead.
They were less than 700 feet from their dormitory. The Taliban have claimed responsibility.
“During the day I play the harmonium to forget, or I hang out with my friends,” said Mr Chhetri, now 41 years old and living in his native village in Nepal. “If that day haunts me at night, I go to the gym for exercise, as my doctors have suggested.”
The attack five years ago drew attention to the little-known but crucial role Nepalese security personnel play in protecting officials, diplomats and companies in Afghanistan. Many are hired by private contractors, many are ethnic Gurkhas who have served in the Nepalese, Indian or British military, and they often work under conditions that have sparked protests from labor activists. But Nepal, a landlocked country in the Himalayas, is one of the poorest in Asia, making security jobs abroad seem appealing.
Now Nepal is trying to get thousands of people out of Afghanistan. The task is daunting. Reports from Afghanistan suggest that the Taliban are tracking those who have worked with Western countries. The exact number of Nepalese nationals in the country is unclear, and the country has no embassy in Afghanistan and has no resources to help people detained there.
The government of Nepal’s new Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is urging Western countries to help rescue Nepalese guards as they evacuate their own citizens from Kabul.
“We have made diplomatic efforts to coordinate their evacuation,” Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, Nepal’s minister of law, justice and parliamentary affairs, said in an interview with NewsMadura.
Mr Karki said evacuating Nepalese contractors is complicated by the fact that many have worked illegally in Afghanistan for years, making it difficult to find and count them, let alone rescue them.
The number of Nepalese working in Afghanistan depends on which government agency you ask, Mr Karki said. “There is no accurate data,” he said. “But we are determined to make their repatriation as soon as possible, regardless of their status.”
Some who escaped described a nerve-racking experience.
“It was difficult to get to the airport,” Kamal Deep Bharati, a security guard from Nepal who worked in Afghanistan, said last week as he waited to leave Kabul. “We have already handed over our weapons to the Taliban. The Taliban have surrounded the hotel where we are staying.”
Over the weekend, Mr Bharati managed to reach the airport and board a flight to London.
Nepal reacted with relief last week when more than 100 of its nationals were flown out by the United States, including Gurkhas who had worked at the US embassy. On Sunday, 504 Nepalese indentured workers, including those who work for the US and British embassies in Kabul, were evacuated from Kabul, Nepal’s foreign ministry said.
There may be many more left. For example, some people from Nepal get a job abroad after passing through neighboring India to avoid hassles with the government. More than 350 contract workers have sought help from the State Department for immediate evacuation from Afghanistan.
Government data in Nepal shows that 14,565 Nepalese have been granted work permits to get jobs in Afghanistan in recent years. Of these, an estimated 1,500 Nepalese worked in security positions for the embassies of the United States and other countries, as well as for international groups.
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Many in Nepal believe that the Taliban can single out their citizens for reprisals. His soldiers fought fiercely against the Taliban, either as part of British or other forces, or later as security contractors. Between 2001 and 2014, British Gurkhas were involved in several tours of Afghanistan, killing 12 and injuring 16, according to Tim I. Gurung, a Gurkha veteran and author of a history of the Gurkhas.
Security work abroad has sometimes sparked anger in Nepal. Injured guards and the families of the dead sometimes struggle to get the compensation they claim they owe.
Nepal had tried to stop its citizens from doing private security work in Afghanistan after the suicide bombing in 2016, although many continued to look for work, some illegally. Nepal lifted the ban after Western countries put pressure on them to reverse the decision.
The crisis in Afghanistan struck at a time when the Nepalese government is in disarray. The country has no foreign minister and a foreign employment minister after a court last month removed the previous prime minister, KP Sharma Oli, from office. No Nepali diplomat has submitted credentials in Kabul; the country conducts what little diplomacy it has with Afghanistan through the Indian embassy there.
For now, Nepalese citizens in Afghanistan have to rely on other countries to help them escape. Chhetri, the survivor of the 2016 suicide bombing in Kabul, urged officials to assist in the evacuation efforts to ensure that those protecting the safety of others would be safe themselves.
“Afghanistan has never been a safe zone,” he said. “It is not safe and will not be safe. Our fellow guards must therefore be evacuated from Afghanistan as soon as possible. What happens if someone is killed in an explosion or shooting because of a delayed evacuation?”