A network of Afghans and their supporters in Victoria have undertaken a secret mission to save the lives of 64 families during a harsh Afghanistan winter.
The covert operation, which used an informal web of contacts on the ground in Afghanistan, saw money transferred in to the country - no easy feat because, under Taliban rule, there are no banks or non-government aid organisations - and trusted volunteers buy food staples and deliver them to desperate families linked to Hazara refugees living in Ballarat.
Volunteers hired trucks and drove in to remote mountain villages to deliver the much-needed supplies, at some points having to shovel snow by hand from precarious mountain roads to get the hired trucks through to their destination.
The relief operation was the brainchild of the newly-formed Ballarat Afghan Action Group, who relied on personal contacts throughout the Ballarat community to raise the $12,000 needed for supplies.
The crisis is really just beyond imagination how hard it is in Afghanistan- Abdul Rasuli
But it was not their first course of action. The group began helping to complete and lodge refugee visa and asylum applications for 10 families to escape Afghanistan and come to Australia and other countries, then realised they had to ensure the families actually survived the winter and long enough to have their applications processed.
With just four weeks until mountain villages were snowed in and roads impassable, the Ballarat working group of Hazara refugees and supporters coordinated the delivery of bags of flour, rice, lentils, tea, sugar and oil through trusted brokers in Afghanistan.
Without the food drop it is likely some would not have survived the winter.
There are around 15 to 20 members of the Hazara community in Ballarat, who have watched from afar with terror as the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan last year, receiving calls from traumatised family members in Afghanistan fearing for their lives and pleading for help to escape.
In August as the Taliban advanced on Kabul, many Hazaras fled the cities back to their villages of origin but the Taliban and severe drought had already taken a severe toll in the villages, with not enough food and fuel to survive the winter.
The Ballarat Hazara connections are mainly in the area of Ghazni, 300km from Kabul, and neighbouring provinces in the mountainous region of central Afghanistan known as Hazrajt and it was there that the relief operation was centred.
"The crisis is really just beyond imagination how hard it is in Afghanistan," said Abdul Rasuli who works for Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council and established the action group.
"I'm from the area ... and I talk to people there on a regular basis," Mr Rasuli said. "I know the area and how people are struggling with food since the crisis happened ... and the mental stress on the Hazara boys here because of what the families are going through back in Afghanistan.
"I had the idea that maybe we can do something from Ballarat, not just watching how things are going but to contribute."
Because the relief operation was being carried out through informal networks the group could not put out a public appeal for funds, instead asking known contacts around Ballarat and other supporters to whom they could explain the plan.
It took just two weeks to raise $10,500 with the other $1500 coming soon after.
Hazaras in Ballarat nominated families in Afghanistan who they knew were desperate, and three volunteers who Mr Rasuli knows well and trusts contacted and surveyed each family to assess their needs and prioritise who was in the most dire circumstances.
With no banking system, the only way to get money in to the country is the hawala system, an informal system most Hazara use when sending money back to their families.
Through this system the money was transferred to the volunteers who bought supplies wholesale, packaged it, hired trucks and distributed the food and fuel to those in need.
"Everyone is struggling, everyone is really desperate. We covered a very large area and those who were in a really bad situation. We surveyed everyone and only supported those who were really desperate," Mr Rasuli said.
Some are former military staff and their families who fled from the Taliban to the mountains for safety, others had worked with overseas forces and organisations, families split by the refugee process, some were soldiers who had been disabled from fighting in the conflict and their families, others were women and children whose husbands had been killed or were addicted to drugs and living elsewhere.
"One family we supported the husband was killed and he had a wife and five children aged five to 14. They have no one so we provided food and some cash as well so they could use it in winter to get other stuff they needed," Mr Rasuli said.
"$10,000 to $15,000 isn't much here in Australia but it's a lot of money there - a truckload of food to deliver to everyone."
A severe drought has further complicated the food situation in the troubled region, with families struggling to find enough water to survive.
It means villages went in to winter without the usual food reserves, and with no crops growing during the harsh winter there are fears of what will happen in the coming months.
"The crisis happened just before winter hit and lots of people have been sick so we have given some cash to people to go to a doctor, especially lots of women and children," he said.
As the Taliban swept back in to power throughout Afghanistan last year, Afghans in Ballarat watched on with horror.
"Everyone was really stressed. I had lots of people calling me thinking I work for immigration but I don't. Lots of people called me, lots of refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran desperate to leave their country.
"People who knew me rang to say we have to do something to intervene, but we are all living in limbo as well. We only have temporary protection visas so we have been really struggling as well, we can't save our families."
Mr Rasuli arrived in Australia in 2013 through a government program to resettle Afghan refugees. He was given a temporary protection visa, known as a Safe Haven Enterprise visa, but must reapply every five years and has a requirement to live in a regional area.
"We have been living for 10 years in limbo. We have less rights, we can't invest here, can't buy property and can't study so it's really limited in what our future will be. We can't be reuinted withour family - many of us have children and wives in Afghanistan," he said.
"In Australia we are writing letters to government to increase the number of the refugee intake to come here because the crisis is much bigger."
Australia has committed to taking 3000 refugees from Afghanistan but there are calls for that number to be increased to 20,000 with priority given to those who worked with Australian military forces and close relatives.
Maureen Doonan has seen first hand the impact of the Afghanistan crisis, the shocking toll it takes on those whose families are still there, and the effect of the temporary protection visas
For 10 years she has had Hazara refugees boarding at her Ballarat home.
They send money to help their family but because of the type of community they live in they help one another- Maureen Doonan
"They are allowed to work because the government doesn't want to keep them, they want them to keep themselves. They expect them to act like citizens but won't give them citizenship," she said.
"The boy boarding with me now is working four jobs at moment because they're all casual jobs with one or two shifts a week so he's keeping himself here, but also keeping (supporting) his family in Afghanistan.
She said typically the money sent to families in Afghanistan would help not just the family but neighbours and others in the community.
"They send money to help their family but because of the type of community they live in they help one another."
Many of Ballarat's Hazara community travelled to Canberra this week to attend a rally pushing for changes to the complex temporary protection visa system, calling on the federal government to grant permanent protection to Afghan refugees in Australia.
As permanent residents they have more pathways to bring their families, many of whom they have not seen for more than 10 years, to Australia.
For David MacPhail from Ballarat Rural Australians for Refugees, who is part of the Ballarat Afghan Action Group, the concern is what happens after winter for those struggling to survive in Afghanistan.
"I'm concerned what will happen at the end of winter. The drought is still there, nothing will have grown over winter, people will still not have the food, fuel, oil and resources they need to live at the end of winter.
"How do we deal with that given that our process has all been very informal. Can we do that again on a bigger scale without people being suspicious?"
In October, City of Ballarat publicly supported the city's small Hazara community and after representations from the Ballarat Afghan Action Group, Rural Australians for Refugees Ballarat and other groups, mayor Daniel Moloney wrote to the Prime Minister and other federal government ministers to highlight the need for further support.
In that letter he extended Ballarat's support and made a commitment to work in partnership with all levels of government.
"We are all proud to have a terrific multicultural community that brings fresh ideas and creativity in abundance to our city. Our city is all the richer for the advantages that this diversity brings, and it is essential in such hard times that we embrace and support the Afghan community of Ballarat as they have embraced us," he said.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.