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Hundreds of Afghan gather at the Passport Office in Kabul daily to apply for a passport to leave the country (Picture by Mohammad Aqa Raadmanish)

Hundreds of Afghan gather at the Passport Office in Kabul daily to apply for a passport to leave the country (Picture by Mohammad Aqa Raadmanish)

The alarm woke me up at 5 a.m. I had made a date to go to the passport office with my cousin and nephew, who had recently decided to get travel documents to leave the country. Since I did not have a passport, I decided to join them.

We reached the passport office around 5:45 a.m. but already there were four huge lines just for the initial security check. When we entered the compound, we were submerged in an ocean of humanity: thousands of young men and women had come to get their passports.

On the right, there were people who were following up on their applications from a week ago. An officer would call out some names at regular intervals, and those lucky few were taken for follow-up procedures. On the left were those who had come to apply for a new passport.

Around 6:00 a.m, Sayed Omar Saboor, head of the passport directorate, made an announcement asking people to settle down. He recited a line of the Holy Quran and then gave his  own interpretation of the hadith.

The crowd reacted negatively to this; they seemed bored and anxious to get started.

“If Saboor wants to pray so much, perhaps he should have been a mullah in a mosque!” grumbled one young man.

Another, a bit older, was also irritated.

“We’ve been hearing such hadith all our lives,” he said. “They need to start work now.”

But Saboor responded by saying that the office would open for work at the official time at 8am.

In the meantime, he said, he would continue talking. He then jumped into a long discourse about how Afghanistan was a proud nation. “We defeated Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan. We brought Great Britain to its knees and demolished the Soviet Union,” he said.

A man beside me shouted out impatiently, “We beat the British, that’s why we’re in this mess! Please get to work!”

Then they separated us on the basis of gender and age. Security forces used tasers to force people into lines. Anyone who objected was beaten and abused. Some were even thrown out, not allowed to complete their application.

Then Saboor came again and started to complain about the number of applicants.

“In the past 24 hours, I have spent only two hours at home,” he said. “The rest of the time I have been working on your passports.”

The number of applicants was mushrooming, and was becoming impossible to handle, he added.

“We issue nearly 1000 passports daily in Kabul and close to 2500 passports in the provinces,” he said. “Last year we would receive around 600 applications per day, but now this has increased to nearly 4000.”

This has led to delays in processing, and many dissatisfied applicants. The also attributed the delay to the lack of facilities and the number of people renewing their old passports for the new digitized ones.

Saboor also urged his fellow countrymen not to leave Afghanistan.

“Those who leave the country due to poverty, unemployment and security issues are making a mistake,” he said.“They should stay here and help build the country.”

His speech made little noticeable impression on the crowd, however. Everyone has his or her own reasons for wanting to leave.

“Why should he be worried?” a man from northern Afghanistan said.  “He has a job, he has status.  He does not face the problem of feeding his children and providing them a home. He is not aware of what people without jobs are going through.”

Another young boy on the other line added, “If the head of the passport directorate knew how large the number of unemployed university graduates was, he would not have said these things.”

Saboor spoke for almost 90 minutes. The sun was hot, and people were getting restless. But what could they do? They had to stay there if they wanted to complete their applications.

At the end, we submitted our applications and were told to come after 12 days for the next steps. Not too long ago, this waiting period was just two or three days, but now it’s nearly two weeks long.

A group of young men who were obviously not from Kabul were upset and angered by the length of the processing time. They had come from far away, and did not know what to do.

“Where are we supposed to stay for the next 12 days?” one of them asked.

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Will the last person in Afghanistan please turn out the lights?

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