Afghans at risk urgently seek a way out: “The Taliban are looking for us”
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, a former Afghan army colonel named Mohammed was part of the massive crush of people trying to flee at Kabul airport last week.
Mohammed and his family – a wife and five children – waited for hours to reach a Taliban checkpoint outside the airport. He presented identification documents including his US Social Security card and a Texas driver’s license, both acquired during two periods of training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, over ten years.
He has come up against a wall of hostility.
“The Taliban arrested everyone, including me,” said Mohammed, who is only identified by his first name to protect him from possible Taliban retaliation. “When they saw American documents, they wanted to tear them all up. But my wife yelled at them. She wouldn’t allow them to tear up the documents.”
His wife’s courageous gesture saved the documents. But the Taliban ordered Mohammed and his family to sit by the side of the street, which they did for hours.
That evening, while they were still there, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives nearby, killing 13 US soldiers and over 100 Afghans.
The bombing was the last straw in a series of events that convinced Mohammed that it was too risky to try to get through Kabul airport.
“We left Kabul because we cannot live there. The Taliban are looking for us,” said Mohammed, who spoke to NPR by cell phone from northern Afghanistan, where he and his family are now hiding.
He is now part of a group of around 20 families, more than 100 people in total, who discreetly traveled by bus to the north of the country in the hope of finding a way out.
On the bus trip, the men wore the same burqas as the women so the Taliban would not stop to search them.
All the families have members who were part of the collapsed Afghan army. Many, like Mohammed, were instructors at the National Military Academy in Kabul.
Another former instructor is Wazhma, who is also identified by a single name for her safety. She says families are constantly changing locations.
“One night we stay in one place, the next night we stay in another. It’s so dangerous for us,” Wazhma said, also by cell phone.
Many Afghans do not trust the promises of the Taliban
Taliban leaders say the group will not punish Afghans who worked with the Americans and encourage them to stay. The Taliban also say they will not prevent Afghans from leaving the country if they wish.
But many Afghans do not believe the Taliban, and say the reality on the ground turns out to be very different from statements by group leaders.
Mohammed said the Taliban picked him up from his home in Kabul recently, although he was not there at the time.
“The Taliban entered my house looking for me,” Mohammed said. “My children have seen the Taliban, and they are very, very afraid of these bearded men.”
Mohammed’s five children are aged 3 to 15, he said.
Meanwhile, Wazhma says there is no easy way out of the country. The US military airlift is complete. There are no commercial flights, at least for now. And neighboring countries mostly keep most Afghans away.
“All borders are now closed,” Wazhma said. “It’s so hard. At night, we can’t sleep. What’s going to happen in the morning?”
Mohammed and Wazhma are both firmly rooted in Afghanistan. They had no intention of leaving – until the Taliban stormed the country within days, seizing the capital on August 15.
Because they expected to stay in their home country, Mohammed and Wazhma did not apply for a special US immigrant visa, a program for Afghans who have worked with the US military or government.
They changed their minds and applied when the Taliban entered Kabul. The Biden administration has said it will continue to process visa applications, but it’s unclear how long that will take, especially now that the U.S. military and diplomats have left the country. The United States Embassy in Kabul is closed and operations have so far been moved to Doha, Qatar.
“The Biden administration has a moral obligation to give a full account: What is the exact number of Americans trapped in Afghanistan? What is the exact number of lawful permanent residents? How many SIV allies?” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska.
An American effort to get families out
Lark Escobar, who lives in San Antonio, works with an informal group of fellow Americans who are urgently trying to help these Afghan families out. She has known many Afghans since she was an academic advisor at the National Military Academy in Kabul ten years ago.
“They are afraid. They are hiding. They have no money,” said Escobar, who is in frequent contact with the group. “And the fear that is very legitimate is that the hotels and shelters they are currently hiding in will hand them over to the Taliban for not paying bills.”
Mohammed says families feel trapped.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “We’re just looking for any kind of help. Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s nervous.”
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. Follow him @ gregmyre1.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
With Taliban control, many Afghans who have worked with the United States are desperate to flee their homelands. And we spoke with some of them, one of whom we only identify as Muhammad. He was a colonel in the Afghan army. He completed two training periods at a US Air Force base. Now he and his family, along with other military families, are in hiding. Greg Myre from NPR has our story.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Mohammed, his wife and their five children were among the massive crowd trying to get to Kabul airport last week. When Mohammed reached a Taliban checkpoint, he presented his documents. They included his US Social Security card and a Texas driver’s license acquired while training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He has come up against a wall of hostility.
MOHAMMED: The Taliban arrested everyone, including me. When they checked my document – when they saw American documents, they wanted to tear everything up. But my wife yelled at them. She did not allow them to tear up the document.
MYRE: This courageous gesture by his wife saved the documents. But the Taliban ordered the family to sit by the side of the street. Hours later, a suicide bomber exploded nearby, killing 13 US soldiers and over 100 Afghans. Mohammed then decided that it was too difficult and too dangerous to cross the Kabul airport.
MOHAMMED: When the Taliban captured Kabul, we are really in a bad situation. And we left Kabul because we can’t stay there. You can’t live there. They are looking for us.
MYRE: He is now part of a group of 20 families, more than a hundred people in total, who have quietly traveled by bus to northern Afghanistan in the hope of finding a way out. During the trip, the men wore women’s burqas so the Taliban would not stop to search them. All the families have members who were part of the collapsed Afghan army. Many, like Mohammed, were instructors at the military academy in Kabul. Another former teacher is a woman whom we only identify as Wazhma. She says the group is constantly changing locations for their safety.
WAZHMA: One night we all stay in one place, and another night we will stay in another place. It’s dangerous for us.
MYRE: The Taliban say they won’t punish the Afghans who worked with the Americans, but many don’t believe them. Mohammed says the Taliban picked him up in Kabul when he was not at home.
MOHAMMED: The Taliban entered my house, inspecting my house. And my children, they saw the Taliban. When they saw the Taliban, they were really scared.
MYRE: Mohammed and Wazhma are both firmly rooted in Afghanistan. They had no intention of leaving until the Taliban swept over the country within days. The American Lark Escobar, who lives in San Antonio, is urgently trying to help these Afghan families out. She has known a lot since she was an advisor at the military academy in Kabul ten years ago.
LARK ESCOBAR: So they’re scared. They’re hiding. They do not have money. And the fear that is very legitimate is that the hotels and shelters they are currently hiding in will hand them over to the Taliban for not paying bills.
MYRE: She contacted the State Department but said there is no clear plan to help. The American airlift is over. There are no commercial flights at this time. And neighboring countries mostly close their borders to Afghans.
WAZHMA: It’s so difficult. All night long we can’t even sleep. You know, what’s going to happen tomorrow morning?
MYRE: Families, Wazhma says, feel more vulnerable every day.
Greg Myre, NPR News.
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