Much of the recent reporting on Afghanistan – mine included – has rightly focused on the chaos at Kabul airport, where thousands are desperately trying to flee the Taliban. Heartbreaking images of men hanging outside of US military planes and bodies falling after takeoff are etched in our minds.
But what about the thousands of people who cannot enter the part of the airport secured by American soldiers?
And what will happen to those who dare not go through Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport?
Even less fortunate are the thousands of people who have no hope of receiving a coveted invitation from the US State Department to try and get to the airport. Some have worked alongside American agents or are family members of those who have. Many continue to go into hiding for fear of the Taliban’s house-to-house armed searches that have already started, according to some news outlets.
They all fear as much for their lives as the thousands of people screaming at the airport. They know the history of violent intolerance of the Taliban and put no faith in the promises of amnesty.
These souls live with heart-wrenching fear and little hope. All because they, or their families, bet years ago on the promise of decency and democracy represented by foreign occupiers – us or our government – who now can abandon them.
Among them is a blind and aging Kabul who, years ago, lost his eyes and a hand while clearing explosives planted by Taliban insurgents.
His daughter, Halima, mourns for him here in Modesto, where she settled five years ago after a career as an interpreter for American officers in her native country.
Tears fall even faster when she talks about her younger sisters, also trapped with little hope of extraction. She is aware of atrocities such as public amputations and stoning under the Taliban before the arrival of American soldiers 20 years ago, and some have been reported recently. She remembers the almost nonexistent rights of girls and women and knows the suffering her sisters face when they are brutally touched.
“These animals,” Halima started, then said, “no, I love animals.
“My young sisters, they are in danger – because of me. Because of me! ”She sobbed.
” I did not sleep. How can I sleep when they are not sleeping?
Because she worked closely with the US military, Halima’s fingerprints are in a database. Those of his father too. She has nightmares that he will be arrested and scanned with biometric devices.
I’m not using his full name because the Taliban are perfectly capable of monitoring reporting – and taking revenge on those close to those who disrespect them.
For this reason, press cameras have been diverted from Thursday’s grim gathering of over 200 people at Hope Commons, the outdoor gathering place of the New Hope Christian Fellowship in Modesto.
Halima and several other Afghans resettled in Modesto said it helped Thursday to see and hear government officials offer compassion, so little helpful advice. They know that representatives from Stanislaus County or California cannot fight the Taliban.
Most of the advice – filling out this form and that, and following the instructions when people arrive at Kabul airport, if they are finally invited and lucky enough to arrive in one piece – were already known. The one piece I had never heard before – encouraging people to try the entrance to Camp Sullivan – jumped out at me.
Perhaps this is how Sam and his wife, who were in hiding when I contacted him on the phone on Monday, managed to get to safety.
Originally from Afghanistan, Sam moved to Modesto a few years ago, then to the Bay Area. He was visiting his wife and parents and found himself trapped in Kabul when the Taliban stormed in on Sunday. He had brought his departure forward by now, but found himself stranded when commercial flights were canceled.
Some here have no sympathy for those who did not flee in time. We have to recognize that COVID-19 restrictions have kept most from traveling there throughout 2020, and many were eager to see their loved ones when they are finally cleared this year. And the argument is ludicrous that these people should know better than President Biden how quickly the Taliban could take control.
This is why around 36 Modesto residents, including Sam’s sister-in-law and her three children, remain stranded in Kabul. Turlock’s US Rep. Josh Harder’s office, after reading Monday’s tense story Sam passed on to me, is now trying to help 160 people there.
When I asked how Sam was able to escape the Taliban checkpoints and get to safety, he replied, “They started taking people to the other side of the airport. But it was still the bad situation at the gate. It was the Afghan army at the door and they kept people from rushing in and shooting in the air. … My sister-in-law with her children couldn’t get by.
On Thursday night, Sam and his wife were the only ones with links to Modesto known to have evacuated safely, Harder’s office said.
The life of a refugee is not a walk in the park either.
In a text, Sam said he and his wife flew three hours to Qatar “sitting on hard ground”, referring to the C-17 cargo planes used by the US military to evacuate large groups of Afghans. A now famous photo shows 640 crammed into one, heading towards Qatar.
Upon landing, they waited 2 hours and 40 minutes before disembarking, Sam said. They boarded a bus at 11:00 p.m. local time and waited two hours for the bus to start moving to a camp. refugees. When they arrived, they waited 40 minutes to get permission to get off the bus.
Although Sam became a U.S. citizen two years ago, his wife is not and they are in an immigration processing camp.
So while they are grateful to have left Afghanistan, “it has been a very long day with a lot of frustration,” he said.
It is heartbreaking that Biden refused to take the blame for what is happening to these people. This game was perfected by its predecessor and Biden was touted as better than that.
I understand that this war has cost too many American lives and that no other should be sacrificed. But if this chaos, fear, trampling, gunfire and people falling from planes were all part of the withdrawal plan, I would hate to see what any plan could look like.
People faced with a choice between evil and democracy, who bet on the side of decency, should be treated with certain.