Summer nights in Kabul, Afghanistan, are normally cool and dry, a welcome respite from the daytime heat. But on an August night an overcast sky made it cool and dark, ideal conditions for Sayed and his family to escape the country. If their plan didn’t work, it might never work. In just over 100 hours, the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal would arrive, and the country’s collapse into Taliban hands would be complete.
After working eight years as an interpreter for the U.S. military, Sayed was a wanted man in Afghanistan. But he had his golden ticket out: an email from the U.S. Embassy saying that he was cleared to board a flight, destination unknown. The embassy email had this caveat: “Please be advised that a significant number of individuals have registered, and space on these flights is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.” Sayed understood the uncertainty. Twice he attempted to go to the airport the previous day, but massive crowds and Taliban checkpoints blocked his efforts to leave.
Tonight, though, he had a much more elaborate plan, delivered through a string of WhatsApp messages originating from Texas. He would go to a certain location in the city, and there board a bus with other strangers in similar predicaments — former translators or contractors — that would take them straight to the airport.
By the time Sayed, his wife, their three children and their nephew arrived, there was already a crowd forming around the bus. Only five families were scheduled to go, but dozens of other onlookers desperately tried to force their way onboard. Sayed’s family made it on the bus, but he remained stuck outside in what resembled a mosh pit. Fights broke out and a Taliban member soon arrived.
The Taliban member stepped onto the bus. “If you drive anyone to the airport,” he told the driver, “we will kill you.”
There is no easy way out of a country collapsing by the minute. The difficulty compounds when a job with the United States puts a target on your back. In mid-August, I spoke to three such individuals in Afghanistan — a former interpreter (Sayed), a vehicle contractor and a construction worker for the U.S. military — who were desperately trying to find a way out for themselves and their families.
In theory, they should have been eligible for special immigrant visas, a legal pathway paved by Congress in 2009 for Afghans whose service to the U.S. put them in danger. In practice, by mid-August, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was emptied, the Taliban was retaking power, and no time or resources were available for a tedious visa process.
My early conversations with each of these men were similar: They expressed fear and desperation. They were frustrated with what they viewed to be a broken promise by the U.S. government. They were in hiding and they didn’t know how long they would survive.
“The Taliban members don’t listen,” Sayed said. “They’re following just one ideology, which is to kill. That’s it.”
“We don’t know what’s going on and what’s happening next,” another said. “But the only thing we know is that we will not survive.”
“We will die,” the third, Abidullah, told me. “This is our future now. We can’t do anything.”
As news reports of allies left behind consumed U.S. media, some 3,500 troops were returned to Afghanistan to facilitate an airlift. But that was after makeshift evacuation operations of veterans and volunteers began to independently form in response. The ad hoc groups included congressional staffers gathering names and contact information for people in the visa backlog or those who should be eligible. Nonprofits and other agencies raised funds for chartered flights out of Kabul. Groups of veterans formed an Underground Railroad-style operation that pulled together the disparate work to evacuate over 1,000 refugees.
A pair of veterans in Celina, Texas, were among those orchestrating the rescue missions. Valentina Simich served in the Navy; her husband, Andy, was a reconnaissance Marine. Neither served in Afghanistan, but Valentina had been involved with refugee humanitarian projects previously in Greece and elsewhere. When she started hearing stories about the situation in Afghanistan, she and her husband felt a pressing desire to do something, though they didn’t know where to start.
“Valentina can’t see something going on on the other side of the world and not feel compassion for someone who is suffering,” Andy said of his wife. “She felt a moral responsibility to not leave anyone behind in Kabul.”
The couple connected with a woman in Colorado who’d been active in refugee aid previously, and they received a list of people from congressional offices who were trying to get out and might be eligible for visas. Their task was to contact as many as they could, help them fill out applications and find a way out of the country.
They eventually tapped into a huge network of veterans and interpreters who, like the Simiches, independently took on the task to evacuate Afghan refugees.
Andy connected with some of the special forces in Kabul and got information about flights and when certain airport gates would be open. Valentina stayed in constant contact with dozens of individuals in Afghanistan and organized transportation to the airport.
For two weeks, this was the daily battle for these volunteers — trying to console and aid the evacuees, creating transportation plans, maneuvering an evacuation for dozens of people on the other side of the globe, in a country neither had ever visited. “These were complete strangers,” Valentina said. “I mean, I just reached out to them and said, ‘I‘m trying to help you out with this evacuation request.’ And they just trusted us.”
Abidullah worked as a construction worker on a U.S. military base, and he met all the requirements for a special immigration visa. Earlier this year, he passed both of the required interviews at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In June, though, the embassy closed due to COVID-19; in August, all embassy staff were evacuated from the country.
The day after the embassy evacuation, Abidullah, or Abid, told me that he didn’t see a way out. “No one cares if I live,” he said. “(The U.S.) forgot our struggles and everything we did for them.”
A friend told Abid that Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., was compiling a list of individuals who needed a way out of the country and connecting them with resources. Abid emailed her, asking for help but received no response. At the end of the month, he received a surprise message: an email from a “state.gov” address with a visa attached and instructions on how to leave the country. Get to the airport, the email instructed, and if there is room on a plane, he could board.
Abid boarded a bus in Khost, some 200 miles from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. When he reached Terah Pass, just outside of the Logar Province, the bus was stopped at a Taliban checkpoint, with 20 or 25 armed Taliban members waiting. Several boarded the bus and began questioning the passengers.
“Why are you going to Kabul?” a Taliban member asked Abid, a gun slung over his shoulder.
Just days earlier, Abid heard about a friend who was killed at one of these checkpoints. Abid told those at the checkpoint that he was a student, going to his university in Kabul. When asked, he denied he’d done any work for the U.S. armed forces. They didn’t check his documentation, and he was able to go. “If I would’ve told them I worked for the (U.S.) government, they would have killed me,” Abid told me later.
When he arrived at the airport, he saw huge crowds of people at the surrounding fence. U.S. armed forces were stationed inside the fence and at every gate to the airfield, while the outside streets were patrolled by Taliban members. He wondered how long he would have to wait in the crowd — or if he’d ever make it on a plane.
Abid stayed all day, and during the early hours of the morning, the crowd started to dissipate. He inched his way toward the gate and showed his documentation to a U.S. armed forces member, who guided him to a plane. He flew to Germany then to the U.S., where is staying at Fort Lee, an Army base in northern Virginia. During the three weeks since he arrived in America, he filled out paperwork and ran biometrics while he waits to hear where he can settle and start a new life.
“I am fully excited, and very comfortable,” he told me, expressing himself as well as he can in English. But then his tone changed. “I’m worried about one thing. My family is still left in Afghanistan.”
Abid’s spouse chose not to travel with him to the airport. The 200-mile journey to Kabul was dangerous, and they’d seen news reports of people being trampled in the crowds at the airport. They understood that his wife could come to the U.S. at a later date should Abid make it. When that will happen is unknown, as her situation is largely unchanged.
Of the three individuals I spoke with from Afghanistan last month, the most hopeless and bleak circumstances were depicted in a conversation with a man in Kabul. He asked that I withhold his name because he feared retaliation from the Taliban. He hoped the anonymity would buy him some more time to escape.
“We are betrayed,” he told me. “We are trapped. We are waiting behind a closed door for someone to come and haul us outside and execute us in front of our family.”
He served for a decade as a vehicle contractor, but his U.S. military supervisor did not identify himself as a “direct supervisor” in the letter of recommendation and the application was denied. He spent seven years unsuccessfully trying to track down the supervisor. Other translators or contractors who aided the Canadian or British militaries worked a fraction of the time and they were already out of Afghanistan, he told me, while he was left behind because of a technicality.
My last communication with this man was on Aug. 26, days before the U.S. completed its evacuation. “I want you to know what is the ground reality about the evacuation,” he said in a WhatsApp message. “This evacuation seems to be a big lie and betrayal to the real allies. US communities might be happy that their efforts worked for their allies, but they are also misguided. Only 10% of SIV applicants might get the chance to fly. The rest are left desperately.”
After receiving that, none of my WhatsApp messages to him were delivered.
I first connected with this man through a volunteer at the National Immigration Forum named Christina Staats, a woman in Ohio who joined with the ad hoc groups of volunteers arranging flights out of Afghanistan. She sent me an unexpected email on Sept. 10. She’d somehow tracked down the Air Force commander who’d been this man’s supervisor years earlier, and she got another letter of recommendation. They resubmitted his special immigrant visa application and are now waiting for a new case number.
The man and his family have escaped Afghanistan and are in hiding in the region since being summoned to a Taliban court for his work aiding the U.S. military, Staats told me. Plans are underway to get them to a more secure location. His home in Kabul — stocked with months worth of food — is now being used as a safe house for others in the “underground railroad” operation.
This is the same man who, a month ago, told me that he didn’t know much, but “the one thing we know is that we will not survive.” So far, he’s beating the odds.
On that cool, dark August night, with Sayed’s family on the bus and Sayed stuck in a crush of people outside, the driver was scared off by the Taliban’s threat and the bus was abandoned. Sayed and his family returned to their home, dismayed and anxious, unsure if their only chance to leave the country was squandered. It was midnight, and they sent frantic messages to Valentina and Andy, who were orchestrating evacuation efforts from Texas.
Telling them to arrive to the airport on their own probably wouldn’t work — the crowds were overwhelming, and Sayed already tried that twice, to no avail — so they needed some mode of transportation that would get them right to the gate. After the chartered bus arrangement failed, Andy and Valentina managed to locate five vehicles and instructed Sayed to meet up with another family at 2 a.m. for another attempt to drive to an airport gate. Sayed and his family didn’t arrive at the airport until 6 a.m., and by then, the crowds were already surrounding the gate. Sayed and his family were in one of only three cars allowed in.
They are now at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, living in a tent with four other families. It’s cold at night, he says, and they aren’t given much to eat.
But “if I compare (it to Afghanistan), we are much safer,” he said. “We are no more in danger.”
In total, Valentina and Andy have helped 56 individuals get out of Afghanistan. They are still in touch with several remaining families, and they hope they can raise money, find sponsors for humanitarian parole (a legal pathway that allows individuals to enter a country without a processed visa) and at least get the families to Iran or Pakistan.
For all the U.S. lost during its Afghanistan withdrawal — dozens of lives, billions of dollars and damage to its global reputation — the recent Afghan arrivals who hope to start life anew are the products of heroes.
“We feel a weight to help, and that’s it,” Andy said. “To us, it was just a part of bettering humanity.”