Interpreter describes Taliban family fleeing Kabul

Interpreter describes Taliban family fleeing Kabul

Antifullah Ahmadzai, an Afghan national, takes a selfie inside a US military cargo plane before an evacuation flight from Kabul.

Credit: Antifullah Ahmedzai

WASHINGTON – A month ago, Atifullah Ahmadzai boarded a flight from Connecticut to Kabul, eager to pick up his wife and five young children.

The visit targeted Ahmadzai, a former U.S. Army interpreter nearly a decade ago, who was carrying the last documents his family needed to secure a coveted special immigrant visa.

While in Kabul, Ahmedzai planned to say goodbye to friends and extended family before bringing his wife and children to America, where he had spent the past two years preparing for his new life.

Ten days after their plans, the rest of Afghanistan had already fallen when US forces withdrew, with the Taliban occupying the Rashtrapati Bhavan in Kabul.

The rapid collapse of the Afghan national government forced Ahmedzai and thousands of others to flood the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, where Western forces were carrying out evacuation flights out of the country.

The story of Ahmedzai and his family is symbolic of the desperation and fear felt by thousands of Afghans as US and coalition forces withdrew their last troops from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of occupation .

In the 17 days to August 31, the United States and its coalition allies airlifted more than 116,000 people from Afghanistan on cargo planes. The Pentagon said it has dedicated more than 5,000 US military personnel and 200 aircraft to the mass evacuation mission.

Meanwhile, governments around the world have opened their borders to at-risk Afghan citizens arriving on evacuation flights.

“I didn’t expect everything to change immediately,” Ahmedzai told CNBC.

“The Taliban have built an outpost 800 feet from my house, where they will question you about your work,” he said, adding that he was too afraid to reveal his previous role in the Afghan army.

Taliban forces stand guard outside Hamid Karzai International Airport on September 2, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

silt | Reuters

At a checkpoint, Ahmedzai said his cell phone had been searched by Taliban insurgents, which would confirm his ties to the previous government or the United States.

“They also knocked on people’s doors and asked them questions about their work,” he said. “Those who worked for the government or with the US military, their homes were marked during the day and the Taliban came back to kill those homes at night.” Fears of Taliban-targeted assassinations fueled the desire of many Afghans to leave the country.

a rallying cry on facebook

Desperate to find a way out, Ahmedzai texted a US Army officer, which he translated during America’s longest war.

Asked about Ahmedzai’s initial message, Officer Mike Kuzpa, now a teacher in Connecticut, said, “He is addressing me as his brother.

“He texted me and said, ‘Brother, my family and I are here and the Taliban are looking for interpreters. Who knows what’s going to happen, they might kill me and my family, ”Kuzpa told CNBC. .

A 2004 photo of Antifullah Ahmedzai (left) and Mike Kuzpa (right) in Afghanistan.

Courtesy of Mike Kuzpa

He said, “I was holding straws. I didn’t know anyone, so I posted on a neighborhood forum on Facebook asking if anyone had any connection to the State Department sending my interpreter and his family on an evacuation flight. can help.”

The posts of the 109-member “Westville Dads” Facebook group sparked a wave of phone calls, Facebook messages, encrypted text messages and emails across a network ranging from academics to intelligence analysts on the way. by lawmakers and diplomats.

“I contacted one of my former students, a foreign service officer, to get his documents into the system so that he could not be returned to the airport,” said Matt Schmidt, professor of national security and political Sciences. could. ”University of New Haven, which contacted at least 16 people to help Ahmedzai.

“I advised Atif to wait for a phone call from the state to get to the airport,” Schmidt said, using an abbreviated version of Ahmedzai’s first name, Atifullah. “Mike was uncomfortable waiting and asked Atif to go to the airport. It was the right call.

struggle to escape

Western forces around the world have stepped up emergency humanitarian evacuations amid security threats and the August 31 withdrawal deadline set by the Biden administration.

“While sending a message to Atif, I started to receive alerts about the shooting at the airport. It was real, ”said Schmidt, who was eagerly awaiting Ahmedzai’s update.

In Kabul, Ahmedzai and his family were struggling to get out.

“It was difficult to get to the airport. I tried for three days in a row, but couldn’t make it to the door, ”Ahmedzai told CNBC. waiting at the airport.

Ahmedzai said, “On the fourth day, I received a message advising me to go through the second gate. When I arrived there were already over 1,000 people there. He said there had been occasional gunfire in the crowd.

“My family was very scared and shocked,” Ahmedzai said. “My wife asked me if we could go back because she was afraid for our children, but I told her that we should try to leave because it was better than dying at the hands of the Taliban.

After waiting more than three hours at the gate, Ahmedzai was able to get close enough to the US Marines guarding the entry point to show him their green card and visa.

“I then showed him the papers for my children and my wife,” he said. The Marines were able to verify his information, he said, after entering the State Department’s system two days earlier, thanks to a network of mobilized dads on Facebook.

Ahmedzai’s next message to his friends coordinating their evacuation came from the inside gate of the airport.

Antifullah Ahmadzai, a former Afghan interpreter for the US military, stands with her children and US Marines at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“When he sent a picture of him and his children with the soldiers in security at the airport, I cried,” Schmidt said.

“As a father, I couldn’t imagine the fate that awaited them if they didn’t go out,” Schmidt continued. “We were fathers who traveled the world to help another father. It tied us all together, more than culture or religion. We knew what it meant to protect your family.

an unhappy departure

Ahmedzai, his wife and their children, aged 2 to 12, boarded a C-17 military cargo plane and flew to Qatar, located about 1,200 miles from Kabul. He spent two nights and three days in the Persian Gulf country.

“The Qatar camp was good, but as soon as we got there my other son felt very sick and he threw up more than 15 times without being familiar with this kind of situation. Medicine came and gave him an IV quickly. After that, he was able to start eating and drinking again, ”Ahmedzai said.

Afghan national Antifullah Ahmadzai takes a selfie inside a waiting bay from an unspecified location in Qatar.

Credit: Antifullah Ahmedzai

After Qatar, the family were taken to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where they spent the night. The next day, they boarded a flight to the United States and arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

Ahmedzai said he and his family had been tested for COVID-19 and had a biometric health check before leaving Dulles airport. He was vaccinated against Kovid earlier this year. The Pentagon has previously said that all Afghan citizens moving to the United States and wanting a coronavirus vaccine will be able to get one.

“I didn’t expect to come back to the Living States,” said Ahmedzai, who spoke to CNBC over the course of a week from Qatar, Germany and the United States. He said he was “grateful that the United States has helped us in a very critical situation.”

“There was no other choice, no flight and no way out for me and my family to escape the Taliban,” he said.

Asked about his children, Ahmedzai said they were “very well and happy”.

“Children are very different now. They feel like they’re in a different world and trying to learn a new language and a new lifestyle.

Ahmedzai and his family recently left a US military installation in Virginia, where they filled out their special immigrant visa papers. He returns to Connecticut with his family.

Army officer Kuzpa said an outdoor barbecue was planned to welcome Ahmedzai’s family to the community.

“Now he is here and part of our family,” Professor Schmidt said. “His children will play with us.

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