- Thousands of Afghan refugees have evacuated Kabul amid the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
- Insider spoke with one 32-year-old Afghan man who recently arrived in the United States.
- “I was the lucky person,” he told Insider.
Hours after the Taliban encroached on Kabul on August 15, Salim was in a taxi en route to the capital’s airport with his wife and 19-month-old son, praying they would safely leave Afghanistan.
He’d finally received notice the night before that his Special Immigrant Visa, for his four-and-a-half years as a translator with US forces, was processed. An international migration agency told him it would be another two weeks until he could book his flight out of the city.
But Salim, 32, couldn’t wait. He was one of thousands who flooded the airport that Sunday evening, desperate to flee the country in fear of a future Taliban government. The scene was mayhem: the crowds overwhelmed security agents and airline workers couldn’t find any pilots. Salim, hearing gunfire echoes and seeing throngs of people run toward the tarmac, made a quick decision.
“This is the time to save your life,” Salim, whose real name Insider is not using for his safety, said he thought to himself.
He lifted his wife, who was holding their son who had injured her feet during the long sprint across the tarmac, onto a C-17 American military aircraft, then climbed on board himself. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a small bag for their toddler.
American soldiers instructed the hundreds of Afghans who scrambled aboard to step away from the back of the jet and sit down. After a tense and uncertain wait, the crew shut the aircraft’s door.
“Everyone got hope,” Salim said. “People were happy, they were clapping for the Americans, because they said they’re not leaving us behind.”
Over 37,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul in the past eight days, according to White House chief of staff Ron Klain. Thousands more still hope to leave Afghanistan. The US has deployed numerous planes to evacuate Americans and Afghan refugees to bases across the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe, where they will then be transported to their next destination, including the US for some.
Insider spoke with Salim a few days after he arrived at an accommodation near the Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC, where he’s staying temporarily.
Transit in Qatar and arrival to the US
The American C-17 aircraft landed in an air base in Qatar. Doctors immediately attended to the refugees, including Salim’s wife.
The crowd was provided with food, water, medication, diapers and milk for babies, among other supplies. The area was small, Salim said, but had air-conditioning and bathrooms. They got tested for COVID-19.
Hours went by with little information on the next steps. Nerves set in as Salim wondered whether he and his family would leave Qatar, so he spoke up.
“Everyone was worried that maybe they’ll send us back [to Afghanistan],” Salim said of the American troops.
But the troops, relieved to learn Salim knew English, asked him to translate to the rest of the Afghans that they would start the visa process for those without documents, and those who already had their American visas could get on a plane to the US, after being screened and vetted.
Salim felt reassured. After five hours in Qatar, he, his wife and son were on a flight for Dulles.
Their stay in DC is temporary. Afghan refugees in the US are being temporarily housed at military bases in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Texas before being resettled across the country. And the Pentagon announced the opening of a fourth base in New Jersey on Monday to accommodate the influx of refugees.
Salim said he hopes to resettle in Sacramento, California, where his childhood friend lives.
‘I was the lucky person’
Salim repeatedly described his chaotic escape out of Afghanistan as fortunate, while thousands of Afghans wishing to leave, including his own family members, are stuck in the country.
Since their takeover, Taliban forces have attempted to present themselves as moderates, insisting they will guarantee the safety of Afghans. But history provides reasons to remain skeptical of their word, and there have already been reports of Taliban-led attacks this past week.
Salim was seven years old in 1996 when the Taliban first seized control of the country and imposed a strict interpretation of sharia law, including forbidding women’s education, banning music and television, and other harsh restrictions.
“The Taliban was not good for the people. Everyone lost jobs. No security. Killing,” Salim said. “Still, people are dying right now.”
The US has eight days to evacuate thousands more Americans and Afghans, but President Joe Biden has considered extending the deadline if necessary. A Taliban spokesperson on Monday threatened “consequences” should the US stay after August 31.
“It’s a red line. President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces. So if they extend it that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that,” Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with Sky News.
Salim remains concerned for the lives of his parents and brother, a former Afghan special forces officer, who are in Kabul and face an unlikely path out.
“I was the lucky person,” he said. “It’s really impossible. We don’t know how to bring them [here].”