Escape From Afghanistan

Even those with a visa must endure harrowing conditions on their way to freedom.

An aircrew assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron assists evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation.
Taylor Crul / U.S. Air Force / Getty

For the past 10 days, thousands of private citizens have been working around the clock, through informal networks of friends and colleagues, to organize evacuation flights from Afghanistan to countries like Albania and Kyrgyzstan, and to help Afghans get their name on passenger manifests and safely reach the Kabul airport. This effort, which is largely taking place on WhatsApp and Signal, has been called a “digital Dunkirk.”

At this point the phrase is too generous. In the spring of 1940, British and French forces were rescued from Dunkirk by a collaboration between the British government and ordinary people sailing their own vessels into the English Channel; it was a miraculous success. Thus far, only a fraction of endangered Afghans have gotten out of the country. The private rescue effort in Afghanistan is basically running separate from the United States government’s Operation Allies Refuge; it became necessary because the official evacuation is beset by chaos and bureaucratic blockage. Private citizens are intervening because the government, as a retired military commander told me, is “overwhelmed.” People involved in this collective effort have said that it’s the only aspect of the fall of Afghanistan that relieves a bit of their shame.

But I don’t want to talk about what Americans are doing to help. I want to describe what Afghans are doing to get out. I want to focus on the people whom President Joe Biden and other Americans have accused of refusing to fight for themselves, of giving up. The real courage and sacrifice in this ordeal are theirs. The Americans involved can take a moment to cry tears of frustration or pity or relief; I haven’t heard any Afghans cry. Escaping to safety takes every ounce of will. It takes wit and connections and the resourcefulness to use them. Most of all, it takes luck.

For a long time, I thought Khan was lucky. He’s a former interpreter for the U.S. military whom I’ve been writing about since March. At the end of July, along with his eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife and their small son, Khan made it past Taliban checkpoints to Kabul for his visa interview. Just days later their hometown fell to the Taliban. After years of delay, Khan’s application for a Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, was quickly approved, thanks to expedited work at the U.S. embassy and support from a few Americans: Julie Kornfeld, Khan’s lawyer at the International Refugee Assistance Project, and the office of Representative Jason Crow of Colorado. (My reporting on his story also seems to have helped.) Khan picked his visa up on Saturday, August 14—the day before American officials abandoned the embassy. The family had tickets on commercial flights to the U.S. by way of Istanbul and Brazil for Tuesday, August 17. They had just enough time to escape before Khan’s wife would no longer be allowed to fly.

Then luck turned against them. That Sunday the Taliban entered Kabul and the city fell, forcing Khan and his family into hiding. On Monday they tried to get into the airport for any flight out, commercial, official, or charter (Kornfeld and I had leads on all three), but they couldn’t get past the crowd of thousands of people and the Taliban fighters outside the gates. Khan saw that all kinds of Afghans were trying to escape Taliban rule—not just former U.S. military interpreters, like him, and others associated with foreigners, but ordinary people lacking even a national identity card. After nine hours in stifling heat, without water or food, Khan and his family had to return to their rented room. He sent me a picture he took of the three of them in a taxi. The child is half asleep, his head against his mother’s shoulder, his face shiny with exhaustion. Khan’s wife—who had been pushed to the ground and was suffering abdominal pains—also looks tired, but above her surgical mask her eyes possess a kind of strength. She isn’t defeated.

The next day, Khan returned by himself to the airport. The crowd outside was even larger, and armed Taliban fighters were threatening anyone who tried to get through. “Going to airport is just waste of time and facing threats,” Khan wrote to me. He wouldn’t go back, he said, until he received an email from the U.S. embassy with specific instructions to report to a certain gate at a certain time. But no email came. Rumors flew between Kabul and the U.S.—commercial flights were now cleared to land, a pro bono AIG charter flight would leave in three hours, the Taliban were about to stop all evacuations. Every rumor caused a wave of panic. U.S. officials with whom I was in touch knew not much more and often less than private citizens connected by phone with Afghans. At times it seemed as if no one knew anything.

On Wednesday I was surprised to hear from Kornfeld that Khan and his family had gone back to the airport again at six in the morning. Shops, banks, and ATMs had closed down because of looting, and Khan had no money in his pocket. The family left their small travel bags with a food peddler near the airport and waded into the crowd with only the clothes they were wearing, along with some water and biscuits, and their documents, hidden under Khan’s wife’s burka. They had decided that they would stay at the airport all day and all night. They planned to remain there until August 31, the deadline Biden had given for the U.S. evacuation. They’d stay at the airport until they got out or died. “She was giving energy to me,” Khan later said of his wife. “She told me that we should not lose our hopes.”

They went from gate to gate. At the north gate, Taliban fighters fired into the air. They kicked Khan and beat him with rifle butts and a lead pipe, landing a painful blow on his shoulder. His son began to cry at the sight of the men with long hair and beards. There were British troops behind the blast walls and concertina wire, and a Taliban commander with a black turban and a voluminous beard announced that the British had destroyed many Muslim homes—and that the Taliban would calculate all the sins of the people trying to get out. When Khan’s wife heard this, she became even more determined to leave. They abandoned the north gate, but they had no better chance of getting into the airport at the Abbey gate. Kornfeld, FaceTiming with Khan, advised him to go to the south gate, where she’d heard U.S. troops were stationed. Ten or 15 Marines were examining documents at the checkpoint, but no one in authority was calling out names of visa holders to come forward. The crowd at the south gate was bigger than elsewhere; getting through to the front was impossible. Khan’s wife kept getting jammed between people, but she wanted to hold their position and refused to let him pull her out of the crowd. They spent nine hours trying to get into the airport.

Suddenly they heard a burst of gunfire and explosions of percussion grenades, and Afghans began running in every direction. Khan saw his chance. At Kornfeld’s suggestion—they were texting now—he decided to leave his wife and son and try to get to the entry point on his own. His wife cried out not to be abandoned, and Khan promised not to leave without them. With the crowd temporarily scattered, he was able to make it to the checkpoint. “We took advantage of the crisis,” he later told me. “When the crisis increased I entered the crisis. If I was not entering the crisis I could not enter the airport. Dear sir, we were in such a situation that being killed is better than living here in Afghanistan.” The firing didn’t frighten him in the least.

At the checkpoint, an elderly American civilian looked over Khan’s passport and visa. Everything was in order. All the years of application forms and background checks and employment-verification letters and threat letters and waiting had brought him to this moment. Khan started inside, then he asked the official if he could go back for his wife and son, who were waiting 50 yards outside the gate. Did they have visas? They did. Khan ran back out and waved to them to come forward. The official went through their passports. How much luggage? “About 300 grams of documents,” Khan replied.

They were inside the airport.

Compared with Khan’s position, Hakim’s was dire. He was hiding with his wife and three young sons in a provincial city hundreds of miles from Kabul. The airport was closed and the routes to the border were under Taliban control. Hakim had worked as a combat interpreter with NATO forces for several years. I had been speaking with him on and off for months, tracking his desperate efforts to obtain a U.S. visa as the Taliban closed in on his city. He wasn’t even close—his application was stalled at an early stage.

While I was focused on Khan’s escape, Hakim kept calling and texting me, asking how he could get out. Back in March, he had kept repeating “H.R., H.R.,” because he was trying with little success to get the human-resources department of the military contractor he’d once worked for to reply to his emails. He took American rules so literally, insisted on them so doggedly, that he failed to see that their purpose was not to advantage him but to thwart him. Now he was fixated on another phrase, the one that stood between him and a visa interview at the U.S. embassy: “Chief of mission approval.”

“I want you to collect information for me about siv case waiting for COM approval,” he wrote me. “Are these cases pending still processing a new place which Embassy staff shifted in Kabul airport?” He sounded outraged when I told him that the embassy couldn’t possibly continue to process his case amid the chaos of the evacuation. I told him that he should wait in a safe place, inside or outside the country, until things settled down and his application could continue to move through the system. I knew that this advice was absurd—there was no safe place for him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we Americans come up with this jargon, these procedures, in order to keep Afghans like him hopeful and waiting, until one day he would wake up and we’d be gone.

Where Khan was almost painfully respectful (“Dear sir”), Hakim was demanding. He singled me out as a journalist. “When you guys know everything and keep quiet it is a big oppression for these U.S. allied,” he wrote. “Please reach our voices to Congress, U.S. officials and president biden that thousands of sivs waiting for COM approval to be evacuated.” He was now writing and calling me a dozen times a day. When he called twice in the middle of one night, I turned off the ringer and went back to sleep. I’m ashamed to say that Hakim began to annoy me. I wanted him to accept that his case was hopeless, but he wouldn’t.

On Wednesday, while Khan was fighting his way into the Kabul airport, I learned that no one in Hakim’s position was receiving official permission to be evacuated. The visa that Khan showed at the gate remained the only way onto a government flight—and even that was useless without the ability to reach a checkpoint. This news didn’t discourage Hakim, and he began to ask about a new document—a kind of temporary airport pass—that the State Department was sending out as a PDF to Special Immigrant Visa applicants who completed a long online form explaining why they needed to be evacuated.

“Are you thinking of trying to go to Kabul?” I texted.

“No why?” he wrote back. “I never plan to go to Kabul without permission of U.S. embassy because I will be beheaded by Taliban with my small kids and my wife.”

An hour later he asked me what I thought of his trying to get to Kabul. I told him that I couldn’t advise him—he had to make the decision himself. But he already had. One of his “stupid relatives” had informed “unknown people”—his phrase for the Taliban—about his connection to the Americans, and he’d heard that Afghanistan’s new rulers were looking for him. “This is the single way,” he told his wife. “If you want to stay here with me, then we will die here and stay.”

Once Hakim made his decision, he moved with great purpose and shrewdness. After uploading his documents related to his service with the U.S. military, he burned the physical copies. An educated man with a lean, refined face, he made his identity unknowable. He had taken care to let his beard grow out, and before leaving the city, he put on dirty clothes, didn’t take a shower, made sure that his wife and kids looked unclean and poor. He had the appearance of one of the “unknown men,” traveling with his family.

On Thursday afternoon Hakim and his family went to the bus station and boarded a bus for Kabul. Hakim sat in the front next to the man responsible for cleaning the bus and engaged him, so that they seemed to be two bus cleaners sitting together. By a piece of luck, his 3-year-old son cried almost the whole way, which obliged Hakim to busy himself with the boy and deterred other passengers from questioning him. The journey took 19 hours and passed through the most dangerous provinces of Afghanistan. Whenever the bus came to a Taliban checkpoint (there were at least 15) and men boarded the bus and brutally searched passengers, they always left Hakim, the dirty bus cleaner, the unknown man with the screaming child, alone.

On Friday morning Hakim’s family arrived safely in Kabul.

His decision completely changed my sense of who he was. Until then, I had seen him as a difficult and irrational man who refused to understand the situation he was in. Now I realized that he had understood it perfectly, that I had been the one who failed to grasp it. Hakim knew that if he didn’t push as hard as he could at every available door, he and his family were doomed, and he was moving with speed and persistence toward the last one left.

Private charter planes were beginning to receive permission to land in Kabul. I was in touch with a handful of journalists who had contracted a charter flight to Europe for endangered Afghans, at a cost of $1.7 million, or $10,000 per passenger, paid for by individuals and human-rights and media organizations. My friends were generous enough to save five seats on the passenger manifest for Hakim and his family. We located a safe house in Kabul where they could stay with the family of a Canadian exile whose siblings had seats on the flight. Hakim and his family rested there and prepared for the next leg. On Sunday evening, before the curfew, they joined a convoy that ferried 130 Afghans from several muster points around the city to the airport. After hours of crowd chaos, confused lines of command, Taliban thuggery, and warning shots outside the gate, American contacts on the inside finally came out a few yards past the perimeter to facilitate their entry.

Hakim’s wife and children had never flown before. The plane was scheduled to leave Kabul today, heading for Skopje, Macedonia.

“Where is Macedonia?” Hakim asked me upon his arrival in Kabul. Look at a map of Europe, I said, and we both began to laugh. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just not this hell.” Once in Macedonia, he will resume his long effort to be recognized for his service to America and thanked with a U.S. visa.

“First of all we want to be safe,” he said. “This is enough for us. We want our children to be educated, we want to see our children engineers, doctors, but we want our children to be safe, to be alive, we do not want to be murdered. This is the urgent, the key thing that we need. After that we will continue our safe place in the United States, the land of opportunities. I love this country, I love the people of this country. If you go to this country, you do not feel you are Muslim, you are Buddhist, you are Christian. If you go there you can live very freely as a person.”

Khan put himself and his family in a position to be among the beneficiaries of the evacuation. But their ordeal didn’t end inside the Kabul airport. On Wednesday night, a C-17 flew them alongside hundreds of other Afghans in its cavernous hold to the U.S. Air Force base in Qatar, where they immediately realized that the U.S. government was no more ready to receive Afghans than it was to evacuate them in the first place. On the tarmac, the passengers sat on the floor of the plane for three hours, some of them nearly suffocating in the desert heat, until buses could be located to transport them to a hangar. There they found no beds—just cots for the sick—and little food and water. The line to use a toilet was 40 or 50 people long. Worst of all, no one could answer Khan’s questions about how long they would stay at the air base and where they would be taken next. They were told it might take another day, another month, another three months. No system or order seemed to determine how soon anyone left. They were learning and relearning the refugee lesson of powerlessness. “The Kabul airport crisis and the crisis at Qatar was the same,” Khan told me. “There was not any plan.”

They were kept on the base for two days, barely able to sleep in the heat, ignorant of their destiny. On Friday, around the time Hakim was reaching Kabul, Khan’s wife suddenly began waving him over to the line where she was standing. Their names had been called—they were to board a bus, air-conditioned, destination unknown. Soon it became clear that they were going to Qatar’s international airport. Qatar Airways would fly them to Dulles International Airport, in Virginia.

With every step the journey now became more pleasant and humane, as if the refugees had crossed an invisible line after which their suffering began to recede. At the Qatar airport they received juice, coffee, and tea. The plane was full of Afghans, and 10 minutes before landing in the early hours of Saturday morning, the flight crew played a recording of Biden welcoming them to their new home in the United States.

At Dulles, immigration officials thanked Khan for his service and told him that they wouldn’t make his family wait in a long line—they had already waited enough. Khan immediately decided that he loved America—the weather, the orderly parks and roads around the airport, the people who gave his son colored pencils and paper to draw on. At the airport hotel, the receptionist kindly photocopied their passports for them, and they were shown to their room, still possessing nothing but the clothes they had been wearing for days. Outside the Kabul airport, the Taliban had beaten Khan for wanting to leave, and hadn’t stopped when his wife and son cried for him. Now the friendly face of the American Janus smiled at the arrival of these strangers.

“It was the first day and the first time that me and my family slept well during the last six years,” Khan told me. “There is not any burden, there is not any pressure on our brain. When we woke up from the sleeping, we do not think about any things, we just think about our future. But in Afghanistan, we could not think about our future, what we would do tomorrow. It was where at night we should watch for insurgents. If some people are left behind, if they are not killed by Taliban, they will be mentally crazy. They cannot sleep. They will think just about their safety.”

From Dulles they flew to Houston, where they were greeted at the airport by the family of Khan’s brother-in-law, who was killed by the Taliban in January, before his application for a Special Immigrant Visa could be completed. After his murder, the U.S. allowed his surviving family members into this country on humanitarian visas.

Khan’s wife is due to deliver in the middle of September. The baby will be born a U.S. citizen, whether Tucker Carlson likes it or not. With the qualities of character that enabled them to escape from hell, Khan and his family will make—and Hakim and his family would make—the most excellent Americans. We’re at least as lucky to have them as they are to have us. What do we owe them? The normal life that is all Khan says he wants. Acknowledgment of what they’ve endured and lost, mainly—as both Khan and Hakim insisted—because of the greed and weakness of their own leaders, but also because of American arrogance and fickleness. But first, ceaseless rescue for others in their position, until the last Afghans able to save themselves are out.