I grew up as a refugee living in Pakistan. While I did not know what it meant to live in my homeland, I still desired to live in Afghanistan and feel like I was home. That desire was especially keen on the days when Pakistanis celebrated their country's independence and waved national flags throughout their cities. I wished to witness the day when I could celebrate my country's independence, and wave my country's flag in Kabul. Growing up in another country and always being treated as a second-class citizen was frustrating and demeaning; being a boy without a country was heart-breaking.
When the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001, and foreign countries began helping Afghanistan to reconstruct and develop, my dream came true. My family migrated back to Afghanistan, and we started our life from scratch. We rebuilt our torn-apart house, believing that we were home for good. We hoped and believed that we would not have to leave our country ever again. The brutal regime was over, and we thought they would no longer be able to rise. After returning to my country and having the experience of living as a refugee, I was no longer interested in living anywhere other than my homeland.
In 2016, I was granted a Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States and pursued my master's degree in Missouri. Despite living for two years in the U.S., and having multiple opportunities to stay, I returned to my country in 2018. I wanted nothing more than to live and enjoy my life in Afghanistan and to serve my country. Upon my return, the situation worsened day by day, but I still hoped things would become better. In 2019, when negotiations between the U.S. and Taliban were initiated, I became more hopeful of living in my country in peace. However, despite two years of negotiations and the efforts of the international community, my hope to live in a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan remained an elusive dream.
In August 2021, I saw increasing violence and the empowerment of Taliban over the Afghan government. When I saw an illustrated map of my country showing only 20 percent of the country under the control of the government, I started to lose hope.
On a Sunday morning, just three days after getting engaged to be married, I was in my office when I heard rumors that the Taliban had reached Kabul's entrance gates and were taking over the city. Everyone was overwhelmed with fear and left their offices. Our futures were uncertain, and everyone wanted to get home to be with their families. As a contracted employee of a U.S. funded project, I had to stay in the office and try to destroy as many documents as possible to remove any evidence that would identify me or my colleagues as U.S. affiliates. I somehow made it home in the afternoon. That evening, after hearing the news that the President had fled Afghanistan, I realized all the progress, achievements, and freedom we had worked for would vanish, and I felt like I had awoken from my dream. But the dream turned into a nightmare.
The Taliban started searching door to door for people who were affiliated with foreign entities and former military employees. I kept myself at home or with my head down and unnoticeable for so long in fear of falling into the hands of the Taliban. Every time our door was knocked on or I heard an SUV passing by our street, I thought it might be them coming to take me.
I was following the news about the amount of Afghans being evacuated through the Kabul airport, and was constantly checking my phone to see if I would be contacted to be extracted. Sleeplessness, stress, and the trauma of being hunted by extremists became my daily routine. I lost count of the number of forms I filled out for myself and my family for expatriation, the hours of phone calls with my American supervisor and manager to find a way to be put on the list of evacuees. But none of the efforts showed any result. In the middle of the night of August 30th, the entire city of Kabul city and its provinces heard constant gunfire for at least an hour. I thought perhaps foreign troops had attacked the Taliban and were trying to regain control of the country. After checking social media, however, I realized that the last evacuation flight had taken off from Kabul airport and the U.S. military had left. The gunfire we heard were the sounds of the Taliban celebrating their takeover of Kabul airport. It was that moment that I realized my family and I had been left behind; like thousands of other U.S.-affiliated Afghans, we were trapped in Kabul. The highways were insecure, the borders were under Taliban control, and neighboring countries were no longer accepting refugees.
With the airport now closed to all commercial or military transport, we started contacting trustworthy people to obtain Pakistani visas. Perhaps there would be a chance to escape to Pakistan. The Torkham and Spinboldak borders, however, were packed with Afghans trying to flee from the crisis, and Taliban forces were patrolling both sides of the border. Even if you were fortunate enough to find a flight and obtain a visa when the airport reopened, traveling became costly as ticket prices to Pakistan skyrocketed from approximately 200 USD to 2500 USD. For months we avoided anything that could draw attention to us and waited and prayed that we would be rescued.
My office was inside one of the ministries in Kabul, and in November, one of my counterparts in the Afghan government warned me that Taliban members in that ministry were curious about why my office was closed. They asked around inside the ministry to find me and "to talk to me." I thought these were the last days of my life and that I would have to run away somewhere or I would be killed. I started talking with my supervisors in the U.S. to find out a solution. Luckily, I was put on the list for evacuation, but my aged parents and my young sisters who lived together with me were not. Should I leave? Could I bear to leave them behind? It was the hardest decision of my life. I had to choose between leaving my family behind or staying with them and increasing the threat to them by being in Kabul.
When I received the call to go, I decided to leave on what proved to be the last such plane of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants bound for the U.S. I left my country with the hope that my family would be evacuated after me – but with less hope for my country. There is not a single day that I do not think of Afghanistan, of my family who is still there and struggling for our reunion. I bear a heart full of pain and sorrow as I left my family behind, and I carry all the beautiful memories I made over the past two decades. That I have made it out, again a refugee, is bittersweet.
After leaving Kabul in December, I was kept in a military base in Doha, Qatar for almost a month. The evacuation task force completed my paperwork and authorized my flight to the U.S. Now I am in a military camp in the U.S. waiting for the final process to resettle me somewhere in the states. I will start my life again from scratch, and my future is unknown.
I wholeheartedly wish that no one experiences becoming a refugee and witnesses the loss of their homeland while being unable to help in any way.
The Civil Servant Perspective, Anonymous
I suppose we can debate ad nauseam the decisions leading up to and following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban in 2021. We will never know all of the facts or all of the decisions made. What we do know is that many Afghans who were working with the U.S. Government were left with a sense of having been abandoned. Indeed, many were.
For me and my team of contractors in Kabul, the evacuation was an emotional roller coaster. My part in their story began in May of 2021. The U.S. Government advised us of its intent to extend our contract to staff an office in Kabul that we had been supporting since 2018 until August 2022. It was clear at the time of the extension that our team needed to be out of Afghanistan prior to the September 11 deadline broadcast by the U.S. Government for the removal of all U.S. military forces. No one, let me repeat, NO ONE on the ground believed that the Afghan government would continue to function after American troops pulled out. At best, chaos would follow, and at worst, a take-over by the Taliban.
I have to confess that in May 2021, I was more concerned about our inability to perform the contract than I was for the security of my team and the safety of their families. In early August, however, that priority changed. As emails became urgent texts and texts were supplemented by long, emotional calls, my singular priority became, "how do I help these three Afghan men and their families survive?"
My first call to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul was made on August 11th. Ironically, that day the Embassy had evacuated the first 200 U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) holders from the country. The person with whom I spoke was in charge of the evacuation and was preparing a manifest of the next 200 names to be contacted for evacuation to Virginia the following day. He made no guarantees for my staff, but he asked that I prepare and send to him a threat letter. That was easy. Not only was my team well known for their work with the U.S. Government, but they also had special knowledge of resources they were helping the Afghan Government catalog. What I did not know until that day was that they were also helping the Afghan Government crackdown on illegal activities in their country. That meant they were not only wanted by the Taliban for their knowledge and expertise, but they were also targeted by organized crime for their efforts to disrupt revenue from "licensing fees" paid to the Taliban and warlords for protection.
The threats were real, and the fear was not just for their own lives but for their families as well. The young, unwed sisters of two of them were at risk of being married off to Taliban fighters in the mountains if their brothers were caught and did not cooperate. The verbal jabs shouted from cars of Taliban sympathizers before the government fell – when the girls used to walk home from school or work unchaperoned – were now real and dangerous.
On the day the government fell, a sense of despair was overcome by a sense of duty. Our team went to the office. Everything that could be shredded in a day was shredded; we made a plan for digital devices and several contingencies for communication should any one of my team be detained for "questioning." It was like something out of a spy movie, but this was not play-acting. The Taliban swiftly entered the city and set up checkpoints throughout Kabul. This was now life or death. One wrong answer, one revealing text or social media message on their phones could mean death or imprisonment.
Fortunately, at least in the beginning, the Taliban were restrained. The only men hanged in the street were two Taliban fighters who were caught looting. Regardless, their reputation for brutality is well deserved, and this provided a reason not to challenge them or to even engage with them.
In the months that followed, the trauma and stress began to take their toll. For my Afghan friends, sleep did not come easily, decision-making became more difficult and irrational, and I had to push in every direction to keep their dreams of resettlement alive. Sadly, splitting families to get those most at risk to safety became increasingly likely. Without support from the U.S. military or State Department, how would we get these at-risk friends out of harm's way? Would it be in the back of a truck to a safe house near the border with Pakistan, on a plane flown by Emirates Special Forces to Abu Dhabi, on a chartered flight to Uganda? Or perhaps commercial flights would resume to Islamabad, New Delhi, or Tashkent and on to Kazakhstan, where we knew they would be welcomed and granted work authorization. Each path had its challenges, and each opportunity opened and closed as the Taliban negotiated with the international community and private organizations raised and spent funds in covert rescue operations.
In November 2021, we were informed that U.S.-sponsored evacuations would resume, but it was unclear who the Taliban would allow to leave and who the U.S. Government would select for resettlement. We were told that the list was coming from the White House, so we resumed our political efforts to get our people on the manifest. Finally, after efforts by top officials at USAID and State, the call came. The information it contained was both uplifting and tragic. The invitation for extraction included only six of the 10 requested evacuations. My liaison's elderly parents and his two young, unmarried sisters with whom he lived and supported would be left behind. As any parents would, they prayed and insisted that their son should go without them.
Thankfully, my staff, their wives, and children were soon in Doha safe from harm and on their way to America. My liaison's family, however, remains in Kabul, unharmed and living off their savings with the support of extended family and friends. We still hope to get them out of Afghanistan on a refugee, humanitarian parole, but most borders have been closed and visas seem no longer available to Afghans. So they remain in Kabul – mostly indoors.
This is a burden that haunts my friend and is a nightmare that haunts many families split by war. Imagine your daughter or your sister at risk of being married off against her will to a Taliban fighter in the hills. Only then can you really imagine the emotional hell into which those we "saved" have been thrust into. Of course, they are thankful, and their lives will be made better in America, but a terrible cost is being paid by those who believed our words of change with which we coaxed them into. The dream of freedom, safety, and peace was left behind, and the guilt is carried by those who weren't.