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'We're still here' | East TN woman caring for animals in Afghanistan lives under the watchful eye of the Taliban

In the year since U.S. troops left Afghanistan, an East Tennessean remains in the battered country caring for injured and homeless animals.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Around a year ago, people filled the streets of Kabul trying to escape Afghanistan. They abandoned homes, hoping for a spot on a plane leaving the country before the Taliban took control. A cacophony of panic and fear filled the city.

Now, the city is different. It's quieter, except for an animal clinic run by an East Tennessee woman. There, animals cry out for help.

Charlotte Maxwell-Jones knows she is needed in Afghanistan. The Oak Ridge native, who has called Kabul home for years, runs down the list of animals she and a team of vets are caring for at the Kabul Small Animal Rescue.

“We are back to a population of almost 250. Mostly dogs and cats. We have some sheep, tortoises, and peacocks," she said.

Around a year ago, U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban took control of the country. As a result, the clinic had to change.

Women can no longer work there. Maxwell-Jones is allowed to stay in her role, but must now only hire men. She said the clinic is training new staff members after much of the previous staff fled the country.

As an American, Maxwell-Jones says she has “privileged status," but only to a degree. She said she forged “a delicate relationship” with Taliban leaders.

“They’re allowing us to operate so we’re grateful that is in place. There aren’t many resources here and if we leave there will be even less,” said Maxwell-Jones.

There’s less of almost everything in Afghanistan. Drought, natural disasters and cuts in foreign aid put millions of people on the verge of starvation. When the U.S. military left, Maxwell-Jones says the world’s spotlight on Afghanistan dimmed.  

“Since the Ukrainian war started a lot of media attention has turned there. Rightfully, a whole lot of money has gone to the animal rescues there, so we have really dropped out," she said. "That’s hard because the cost of everything here is going up.”

Maxwell-Jones said the clinic relies on donors. Their dollars helped fund a charter plane carrying 286 dogs and cats which flew out of Afghanistan earlier this year bound for Canada, and for new homes.

Donors can give money through Facebook. The clinic posts information about animals they save and shares photos of their recovery process. Videos of energetic pups playing with toys are posted alongside tortoises enjoying their summer. The clinic also has a GoFundMe campaign, where they are collecting donations for supplies and to help cover the costs of operating a clinic.

But there is no end in sight for the mission to care for animals in Afghanistan. It's why this woman from East Tennessee chooses to stay. But she still has a message for the world — "We’re still here."

“It’s been my home for a long time," she said. "I will always love it here. It’s not a fun place to be. We have to build that institutional knowledge back where we’re not every day just putting out fires.”

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