Against the Wall – An Afghan Evacuation Story – Part 1

August 5, 2022

[This story first appeared in October of 2021. We repost it as the anniversary approaches of the fall of Afghanistan and as we continue to work for the evacuation and resettlement of our Afghan colleagues. Parts 2 and 3 will be released later this month.]

Sunday, August 15

The day Kabul fell to the Taliban, August 15, 2021, Basir and his family made their first attempt to get into the airport and onto a plane. Four hours after their ordeal started, I got this WhatsApp voice recording from Basir:

At 4 am we left the house after getting a call from a friend in the US saying that the American military were taking Afghans out of country at the airport.  “Run and get yourself to the airport,” they said “and definitely the Americans will take you out.”

So, we rushed to the airport. You won’t believe it, but I saw tens of thousands of people storming the airport. There was no security, no airline personnel, no government officials, computers broken, kids wailings, moms crying, elders screaming, everyone yelling at each other.

I got within 2 to 3 meters of an American soldier and he pointed his gun at us and screamed “Get the fuck down” over and over. Then there were dozens of guns firing into the air. People were terrified and squirming on the ground.

There was one domestic airplane surrounded by Afghans and two US military planes surrounded by American forces and people trying to get through them. But the Americans fired into the air to terrify people. I got within 2 to 3 meters of an American soldier and he pointed his gun at us and screamed “Get the fuck down” over and over. Then there were dozens of guns firing into the air. People were terrified and squirming on the ground.

Basir and his family had been part of what many of us subsequently saw on social media, US C-17 cargo planes taxing toward the runway with people chasing and clinging to them.

This began 15 days of repeated attempts to get Community Supported Film filmmakers and their families through violent Taliban checkpoints and crushing crowds to find international soldiers willing to let them through gates and onto planes.

Monday, August 16

Via WhatsApp I ask Basir how he is doing.  “I am fine,” he says, “but my family and many of our people, Qasem, Reza, Aqeela and Hasib are terrified and don’t know what to do.”

Since the beginning of August, as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban province by province and then city by city, the conversations with the people I had worked with in Afghanistan since 2009 became more and more focused on what was happening on the ground and how to help. We had been working for some months on Afghanistan 21 – LookListenLocal, a new project to forefront Afghan voices and visions as the international community disengaged. Little did we know that the disengagement would be throttled forward by the Taliban advances and that our project would get sidelined by immediate evacuation concerns.

On August 7th Rahmat, a video editor for our Afghan 2010-11 training and filmmaking project, emailed me asking if I had heard about the new program mandated by the US Congress to help get Afghans that worked as journalists and with US-based media organizations out of the country. The writing was on the wall that they would be targeted by the Taliban. The last time they’d been in power no TV or media was allowed under Islamic law.

The Priority 2 Referral program was new to me but all of us quickly got up to speed and started preparing documents to submit to the US State Department. At the same time however the US State Department was falling apart as the demand increased and the shuttering of the US Embassy and evacuation of staff became the focus.  No one could get clarity or response from officials and soon we were all scrambling to find any immediate opportunities for evacuation.

But on August 16th, I was still trying to believe that the State Department would get organized and start an orderly evacuation of all the Priority individuals designated by Congress.  Based on the process outlined in the documents provided by the State Department, and in response to the anxiety about what to do among our Afghan filmmakers, I wrote to Basir on the 16th:

I expect that the next step in the process will be to file for asylum from a third country.  Some of those in Afghanistan may or may not be assisted with getting to a safe third country – we don’t know yet.  There is a lot of confusion and with the US embassy staff moving out of the country, I expect it is all waiting for them. They may be the ones that need to be figuring these next steps and communicating them.  I am reaching out to my Congressional representatives to try and get clarity as well as other colleagues that may have some access to the US State Department or Department of Defense.  People should stay put for now. I am trying to learn more about organizations providing safe havens for Afghan journalists and media workers.

It was the beginning of a near sleepless effort to try to get clarity from the US government during the day and at night – daytime in Afghanistan – to help Afghans pursue any immediate leads for ways out of the country.

It is painful and infuriating to think that at that time, as I frantically prepared multiple documents for each Afghan that worked on CSFilm projects, I believed that by getting these into the State Department, they would be used to inform their evacuation plan. There was no acknowledgment of documents being received and when one probed, you’d find out that there were four different Afghan taskforces, that all had different processes, and were working with different priority populations. None of this was being communicated or clarified. To this day I have not received one case number for a Priority 2 Referral as promised by the document describing how the program would work.

At 11pm on August 16th I saw the first image of Afghans packed into a C-17 cargo plane. Basir sent it to me from social media and said that a friend of his was on that flight and had been contacted by the US to get to the Embassy for transport to the airport. I naively wrote to Basir, “Oh this is good to know because it is probably the same process that they will use for the Priority 2 evacuees.” It was only a few days before the US Embassy was abandoned.

At 11:30pm I got a panicked call from Texas. It was from the sister-in-law of one of CSFilm’s filmmakers.  This filmmaker hadn’t bothered to be in touch for months as we rolled out the Afghanistan21-LookListenLocal initiative; nor when I reached out to him on social media and by email to try to learn how he was doing with the growing crisis. Today, as the crisis exploded, he got in touch. I suspected that he hadn’t done so earlieir because it would have meant communicating with me through my Hazara coordinator. Ethnic racism is extreme in Afghanistan and particularly for the Hazara minority. Now that his Sister-in-law would do the talking he could communicate. I was furious but also aware that the crisis meant putting these issues aside in the face of families in need of aid.

His sister-in-law was beside herself with fear. This is the email she sent me before finding my number and calling:

Hello Mr. Micheal,

This is the sister-in-law from America. [the filmmaker] and his family are in severe danger in Afghanistan and need your help. He couldn’t contact you directly because of his language barrier. Moreover, They don’t have access to the internet and have relocated from their home due to his sensitive job position as a photographer of the head of the parliament and film makings at CSFilm. Additionally, he is from Panjshir, the province which is the opposition party of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The films he helped make with CSFilm had been released through One TV channel and on his Facebook. This puts his life at risk.

He is not in a good mental state due to the stress of what is going on in his life. He is worried about his family. And his kids and wife are terrified of the Taliban killing him. Your help can save their lives and It is greatly appreciated, sir. 

The filmmaker panicked as the Taliban did house to house searches in his neighborhood. He destroyed his documents and phone – including any papers he had referencing Community Supported Film.

We spoke with him for hours last night. He has totally lost his decision making capacity and is in absolute panic. He has been suffering from constant panic attacks and has repeatedly cried and said that the Taliban will kill him. There is no way around it for him to survive. He has lost his mental stability. In fear of the Taliban, he was trying to burn all his documents, passport and e-mails he was receiving from you. He thinks the Taliban will get access to his e-mail and documents. His wife and children are so desperate and asking for help. It is heart wrenching that we are here and can’t do anything but watch them suffer.

I responded with the following email:

Dear [Sister-in-law],

Thank you for your email and call. I hope you are doing ok, all troubles considered.

To be painfully direct with you, my Afghan colleagues and I have tried to be in touch with Mohammed [name changed]  for months, sending messages by email, Facebook and other social media and asking for his contribution to our work to communicate the situation in Afghanistan from the local perspective. He ignored us through all of that. 

Out of the blue and without any acknowledgment of our previous outreach, I did hear from Mohammed by email last week and put him in touch with my Afghan colleague, Basir Bita, cc’d, to facilitate any issues of language barrier – in either Pashtu or Dari.  I’m sorry it has taken this extreme situation for Mohammed to follow through and decide to reach out to me through you, not my Hazara colleague, to be in touch with us. It does not feel good.

Of course, we are here to help with P2 referrals, as I have explained to Mohammed in my email last week. We have worked night and day since August 2nd with nine others from the CSFilm programs to guide them through the needed documents and submit them – before the crisis erupted. Many of them, and their families, as women, activists and journalists are in extreme danger.  We understand the threat.

If Mohammed is now interested in our assistance, we won’t be his tool, but assuming he wants to work equitably with us, we will work tirelessly to try and help. 

I went on to provide information about all the documents they needed to send me for filing a Priority 2 Referral for Mohammed and his family: referral from, signed employment contracts, identity documents including Passports, National IDs, birth certificates, wedding licenses, as available. In Mohammed’s case, having destroyed many of them and no government offices were functioning, this was going to be a challenge. I concluded the email with:

Send whatever documents are available immediately. I will also write a letter of recommendation which I will share with Mohammed for his review.

The process after submission is very unclear, but as we understand it right now, if your referral is accepted by the Americans, you will have to be in in a third country outside of Afghanistan (and not Iran) for processing of refugee status and relocation.  It seems that this can take up to 15 months.  If the Americans follow through on their promises, which seems less and less likely considering the numbers gathering for evacuation, they will fly approved applicants out of Kabul airport.

I was starting to question whether the US was going to be able to follow through on its intention to evacuate people like Mohammed and his family before the pullout.

Another filmmaker that we were very worried about was our only Pashtun participant, the Pashtun being the ethnic group from which the Taliban came. Majid is a journalist who stood against the Taliban and lived in a province that was one of the first to be taken by the Taliban. He and his family were taken into custody by the Taliban and were only released because of the efforts of his village elders. He and his family escaped to the outskirts of Kabul from where he contacted us. He had no passports or even national IDs for his wife and children but would try to get me the other documents I needed for his Priority 2 referral. He has mostly stayed in hiding without internet and we haven’t received anything yet.

Tuesday, August 17th

Close to 3am, 11:30pm Afghan time, I let Basir know that I needed to sleep for a few hours. I hoped that by later in the morning the State Department would reach out about our applications. Before sleeping I checked my news feeds on Al Jezeera, The Guardian and Associated Press and got into a panic about what was happening at the airport. I wrote to Basir:

Basir, in reading the news I’m seeing that the US has the runways cleared at the airport and has resumed evacuation flights. I’m very concerned that we do not miss our opportunity to get on flights. It is chaos there but before the Taliban shut the access down we should try and get people with their Priority 2 Referrals to the gates to see if they can get admittance. I of course don’t know, but am anxious about waiting for the State Department’s Priority 2 application process to take its course… What do you think or what news have you heard from the airport?

Basir said he’d check with friends and try and figure out what the best options were.

When I woke four hours later, the BBC Newshour headline was “Taliban assert authority as US defends pull-out.” Two powerful negatives without reasoning or legitimacy. I realized on waking that it was urgent to find out what the State Department was or wasn’t going to do; That we needed to raise our voices through our representatives to get action and clarity. To that end I spent the day reaching out to my representatives – which ended up being exchanges with multiple answering machines, some bounced emails and the sending the following appeal to our networks:

We urge you to contact your Senators and Representatives and tell them that the Priority 2 Referral program that they legislated into action on August 2nd is not being implemented fast enough to save Afghans who have worked with the media and international NGOs. TARGETED KILLINGS ARE HAPPENING – despite the sweet talk of the Taliban. Please contact whomever you can. We need to act fast to get the US government to act responsibly.

It was over a week before I heard from any congressional or Senate staffers.

Wednesday, August 18 – The Polish Option

Miracles of strange miracles, Rahmat emailed me saying he was in Poland.

Dear Michael,

Hope you are doing well. Now I got Poland. Warsaw airport. This is the contact number of a polish woman who was responsible to assemble us to travel to Poland. Hope you and Basir can find a solution to evacuate all members here. 

Rahmat is the video editor that had worked with CSFilm projects and the one that first informed me about the P2 program. Now he had taken the lead in getting himself evacuated. I emailed him back:

“How did you do it? How does it work?  Can any of our other people take advantage of the Polish Option?”

There was a reason that Rahmat was the only Afghan filmmakers that I knew that had survived as an independent documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan. He’s the only one anywhere that ever reached out wanting to collaborate on trainings and production work with CSFilm and his networks. He knew how to push, to network, and to communicate, to get jobs and to get jobs done.

Afghanistan is not a society for independents, it is a patronage system. You work for, give your loyalty to, ethnic group, tribe, clan, family. To survive as a freelancer, you’d have to be able to drum up work across these lines and that was nearly impossible. While the internationals were active, Rahmat was able to get some work through them but that was rapidly drying up over the last 10 years. One of the internationals he’d done a project for was the Polish. He’d reached out to the woman he had done the job for and she responded – immediately. 

The Polish were flying military evacuations out of Kabul airport. They had one consular agent in Kabul, a handful of soldiers at the airport and coordination through their embassy in Delhi India. I know all this now – it took me weeks to piece it together. Everything happened so fast and with such disjointed communications. Rahmat responded to my questions with:

Below is the contact email of a Polish woman. I worked for their team in Ghazni Province of Afghanistan. She can insert the names into the list of the flights. There would be 3 or 4 more flights in near future as I heard. This woman will complete the list and another woman in Kabul will assemble/gather all the flight passengers from Kabul and coordinate with them. 

Hope to see all CSFilm Friends here in Warsaw. 

Thursday, August 19

I immediately emailed ‘Polish woman’ asking if I could submit our people to their list. No response. I pursued other options, frantically continued to prepare 21 Priority 2 Referrals, submitting each to 4 different state department (DoS) “Task Force” emails and a few DoS insiders that were supposedly going to help walk them through the system. Eight hours later I glanced at my phone and saw the Polish email address pop up. Clicking over to email my heart leapt and my mind raced with these fifteen words, and one grimace:

Hello,

I only now got your email. It had to be stuck :/

What is your situation.?

I had to get used to all communications being extremely curt and that everyone receiving and sending were multi-taking to the nth degree. This isn’t what I was expecting from an Embassy staff person. Communications like this were in the mix with a myriad of email and text scams and fakers that were trying to take advantage of the situation and the vulnerable. The Taliban were also using communications to trap and kill people.

But I so loved the personality that came through in these 15 words and one emoji. There was a sense of humor and a willingness to engage. The Polish engagement led to three more families getting on planes in the next days and nights. Basir and family were not included, but not for want of trying.

More on this traumatic fight through the hell of Taliban checkpoints, crushing crowds and menacing international forces – in part two.

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Since the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Kabul last year, the Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans has helped over 600 Afghans restart their lives. The Biden administration is preparing to turn the experiment into a private-sponsorship program for refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and is asking organizations [and individuals] to team up with it to launch a pilot program by the end of 2022.

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