Signatories of the open letter submitted anonymous photographs instead of signing their names for fear of Taliban retaliation. (photos courtesy of Artists at Risk)

A group of 53 cultural workers in Afghanistan is urging international officials to help them relocate to safety as humanitarian conditions in the country reach catastrophic levels. In an open letter published yesterday by the nonprofit Artists at Risk (AR), they describe a “dark future” awaiting millions of Afghans, among them artists, journalists, and creative workers who are “in the gravest danger at Taliban hands.”

The signatories chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, submitting photographs of themselves holding up signs with their profession in front of their faces instead of signing their names.

“We, a group of dedicated Afghan artists and cultural workers, are writing this letter at a time when our arts and cultural activities have been brutally halted and we pass our days and nights secretly inside our homes in poverty,” the letter begins. “Jobless, futureless, in constant fear of arrest and death at the hands of the Taliban, we do not live but merely exist.”

The missive is addressed to US President Joe Biden; UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson; French President Emmanuel Macron; German Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres; and “all governments and people in the free world.”

AR co-founders Marita Muukkonen and Ivor Stodolsky say that government responses to the crisis have ranged from “genuine concern and engagement to stoney-faced denial.”

“The French have been remarkably open. The initial flood of generosity has unfortunately slowed, but it is still one of the few countries issuing visas and evacuating some artists at risk,” they told Hyperallergic. “The Germans did initiate a process, but it was highly limited, and has since been hampered by bureaucratic and political obstacles. There are similar political obstacles throughout Europe and beyond. The British government is just unreachable. Our partners have all failed in their attempts, high profile and otherwise, to convince the Johnson government that artists and cultural life is in great danger.”

With the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan this summer, after nearly two decades of occupation, the Taliban regime swiftly seized control of the country. A chaotic evacuation of foreign nationals and refugees out of the Kabul airport left behind thousands of at-risk individuals. Drained of foreign aid, Afghanistan has succumbed to economic collapse, drought, and mass starvation exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as the Taliban imposes tight restrictions on women, journalists, artists, and other civilians, many of whom have been targeted by the regime and forced into hiding.

“The Taliban consider creative artists anti-Islamic,” the open letter says. “These are lies. Knowing them, however, during the recent peace negotiations we raised our concerns about the likely fate of Afghanistan’s cultural community if the country fell to the Taliban. Tragically, these warnings went unheeded.”

A letter penned by 53 cultural workers in Afghanistan makes an urgent plea for international aid. (courtesy of Artists at Risk)

It’s far from the first desperate plea for help from creatives in Afghanistan. In August, hundreds of artists, cultural figures, and arts organizations signed a letter penned by Arts for Afghanistan imploring the US government to facilitate visas, aid, and asylum for members of the cultural community. They also said the Taliban should be held accountable to commitments made during the 2020 Doha negotiations, including the “safeguarding of the right to free expression.”

In a sign of worsening conditions in Afghanistan, the most recent missive makes a single request: relocation to safety for the nation’s creative workers.

“These people need urgent help to leave,” the authors write. “There is no future for them in a Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Instant death will be the inevitable result of defiance and to remain is to be forced to forswear our working vocations, an agonizing form of slow death.”

AR has called for the immediate provision of visa documents and resources for artists and creatives seeking to escape Taliban persecution.

“Artists, especially visual artists including political caricaturists, musicians and film directors are threatened as a particular social group. They are singled out specifically by the Taliban, and therefore they should be issued humanitarian visas without delay,” Muukkonen and Stodolsky told Hyperallergic.

“However, most governments slowed or even completely stopped receiving new names to be considered for evacuation from Afghanistan following the departure of the US forces and their allies on 31 August,” they continued.

AR is hoping to amplify the voices of Afghan creatives by launching a new social media campaign, encouraging supporters to share the letter along with a photo of themselves with a sign stating their creative profession and the hashtag #SaveAfghanArtists. The org is taking donations on its website to continue putting pressure on governments, and is also working closely with the International Campaign For Afghanistan’s Musicians (ICFAM), which has launched a winter fundraiser.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...