Ahmadullah Sediqi fled Afghanistan years ago, after his work as a U.S. government translator resulted in death threats. He lives in Houston now and has American citizenship. But he can’t stop thinking about the colleagues he left behind, as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates. When the Taliban first took over in the 1990s, he says, “people could easily escape or leave the country to neighboring countries. But now that all the borders are closed, the only way is to stay and die.”
The U.S. government estimates there are tens of thousands of Afghan nationals trying to leave their country. Many are stuck behind red tape, trying to get to safety. Sediqi gets messages from them, dozens each day, working with the nonprofit No One Left Behind. He’s also worried about his family, all seven siblings and his parents, still in Afghanistan. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Sediqi about the obstacles Afghans are facing and what he’d say to Joe Biden right now. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ahmadullah Sediqi: I have my immediate family there, my siblings, my brothers. They’re all younger than me. My mom and dad, they’re still in Afghanistan.
Mary Harris: How are they doing now?
Well, they’re moving around. They’re hiding. They can’t go out because they’re scared of my work, my affiliation with the U.S. forces.
Have they thought about just going to the airport? I’ve seen so many people doing that.
They wanted to, but I didn’t let them, because if you don’t have the proper documentation—and what if you are caught by insurgent groups and Taliban? So that’s why I stopped them. I said, OK, wait until you get documentation, then you can go and leave the country.
How long do you think the documentation will take?
That’s the problem. So we already let everybody know here how risky it is to live in that country right now. I’m waiting. I’m waiting for the paperwork to get out to me. And as soon as I get it, I’ll let them know to get out of there.
The right paperwork is key to getting out of Afghanistan. For some visas, like the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, for Afghans who assisted the U.S. government, the application can take months or even years to get approval. There are letters of recommendation applicants have to get from their U.S. supervisors, and interviews to go through. No One Left Behind estimates more than 300 interpreters have died while waiting for their applications to be processed.
You need to have paperwork. You need to have something from the embassy. You need to have something from the National Visa Center, while you are waiting for your visa.
It took you a year, right?
It took me a year, but still there are some people who are waiting for years only for their interviews. And they keep calling me, texting me. Right now, I’m interviewing you. I’m seeing a lot of text messages and emails are coming in. They are waiting for help. They said, what should we do? Paperwork. We don’t know how long will it take.
The American government has said we want to evacuate people who worked with us, that is our plan.
If that is the plan, then why there are thousands of people waiting only for the approval? They send their paperwork and they are waiting for the approval. They don’t get anything. They send the email to the embassy. They send email to the NVC, National Visa Center, but they don’t get a reply back.
Reading accounts from people stuck inside Afghanistan, there are all these incredibly heartbreaking moments. This one woman who works for a Western NGO in Kabul, she wrote for the Guardian. She said, “When we were evacuated from our office, some of my male Afghan colleagues joked saying, ah, it’s the last time we will ever see you again! Now, we will have to get permission from your brother to see you, and he will say no! They found it funny.” And I didn’t know what to make of that. It’s just so harsh. But at the same time, of course, you understand gallows humor. I wonder if your family is telling you any stories like that.
Well, that’s true. I have friends, family down there. They were working. Then suddenly everything shut down. Some of them were locked. Some of them just left the offices. They are still at their homes. They can’t even come out in fear of getting caught by Taliban. And because they have their paperwork, most of them, they just trashed or they just put their documents away.
Because they don’t want to be identified.
Of course. Yes. Even they removed and they cleared their phones, everything they had, all the documents. And that’s true. That’s scary. It was kind of a joke with that woman. But that’s a fact now. You never know what happens with these fundamentalists.
Were they clearing documents that they might need to leave the country, but they just felt like it was a choice between having the documents and being alive?
They might have sent it to a friend, the documents, and then they cleared everything up. If they need them, they will get it. But at the moment, to stay there, you don’t have to have those. Even though the Taliban announced that they won’t say anything. But you can’t believe them, because we have witnessed from the past and they are the same people.
I heard one reporter call it a charm offensive—they seem to be coming out and saying, you know, women can still work. A Taliban member did an interview with a female journalist on television sort of giving these messages that it’s a new Taliban. Do you believe that?
[Laughs.] That’s a joke, actually. Even in 1996, when they had control over the country, for the first few months, they were the nicest people on the Earth. And later on—oh, my God, I can’t explain what they did to the people. And they never change. The fundamentalist and extremist groups, they never change, because they don’t believe in democracy. They don’t believe in women empowerment. They don’t believe in human rights. As I said before, 1996, after a few months, they took the control all over the country and then they came with their own sharia laws and the laws that they have. Most of them were actually nonsense. So they never change.
Do you remember when they came into power last time?
I was a kid. I was around 6 or 7, so I don’t remember a lot of stuff. But since then, I have watched everything. We were kids, but we were mentally, mentally tortured. You know, when you were a 7-year-old kid and you see all these things happen in front of your eyes, how can you ignore that? How can you forget those nightmares that they brought us?
The women couldn’t go to schools. We didn’t have internet. We didn’t have technology. Nothing at all. And now, in the past 20 years, girls were going to schools, universities. We had educated people, many master’s, even Ph.D. Many women were working with NGOs. We had free speech media. Of course we had some problems, but overall it was good. Now we don’t know.
They are OK, they are the nicest people right now. But you don’t know what will happen next. They need to show the people how good we are, how nice we are. But they have given their exam once.
This woman who wrote for the Guardian said, “When we asked our foreign boss for assistance, she said that nothing will happen to us and she will stay here with us, and she refused to refer us for any visa. … I was worried for my family and me and so shared my concerns with a western women’s rights activist in Afghanistan to get help. She said no, I can’t help you. You can get a pretend husband, she said.” And to me it seemed so dark, that people were turning away from each other at this moment. I guess it could be self-protection, but it surprised me. Are you hearing accounts like that?
It’s possible that somebody works with you and then you turn your back to that when they need you. So where is the humanity? Leave everything aside, where is the humanity? Everybody is talking about human rights, human rights, human rights. Where are that? If I work for you, I risked my life for you when you need me, now I need you. So it’s the time. You gotta help everybody as much as you can, help each other. Actually nobody wants to leave their own country unless you have to.
The number I’ve heard from the American government is 18,000 people waiting to get out, somewhere in the process of getting a visa. But do you think that number actually reflects how many people are trying to get out of the country right now?
Well, it’s more than that. Eighteen thousand is just on the paperwork, who got their approvals. There are more than that who are not even qualified for the visa program. But they have worked. They’re trying to reach out to their supervisors, to the company they have worked with. But everything shuts down. Nobody answered them.
This woman wrote, “In sadness I say my life is worth more than my sisters’,” because they didn’t have a chance to work with the Western community. They don’t have a pathway out. And I wonder if in your darker moments, that’s something you wonder about yourself.
Imagine or not, since the Taliban got in and they have the control, I haven’t slept well for nights. Just three, four hours a night, wake up and check my phone, what’s going on. I check my phone even five to six times at night. No matter what time it is, I just wake up, three, four, six times. It’s been days now—to see if something is at risk, to see if something is there, to see if my dad is OK, my mom is OK. It’s not only me, it’s thousands of other people actually.
I’m wondering what stories you’re hearing now about people who are trying to get out, who know they’re at risk, who are trying to maybe get through checkpoints.
The other day, two interpreters were killed by Taliban, and their pictures were shown on social media everywhere. And there are some people, they even can’t come from the suburbs outside the country, they live far away in the other provinces. They even cannot come to Kabul to reach out to the embassy. I heard stories that people are being checked, being searched on the way to Kabul.
The American government has said we’re committed to helping people get out of Kabul. But there’s been less said about helping people get to Kabul to get out.
So how can they help people to get out of even Kabul while thousands of people are waiting outside the embassy? Actually, there is no embassy right now, but they’re in the airport, the embassy is in the airport. Thousands of people are waiting outside in the sun, the kids. There should be a technique or a mechanism where they can easily get everybody in who are eligible.
There have been accounts that some Taliban are letting people with documentation leave the country. Do you trust that? Have you heard that?
How can you believe them? How can you believe the people who have killed interpreters and people who work with U.S. forces?
The Biden administration has set a deadline to end the evacuation mission by Aug. 31, which is very soon. Do you think that’s enough time to get people out?
I don’t think so, because there are thousands of people waiting. How can you get them out? They said, OK, we will leave, they said Sept. 11. But there are thousands of people. How can they do that, if they just only bring those who got their visas or those who are waiting for their interviews? There are thousands of other people who still don’t have their approval from the National Visa Center. They submitted all the paperwork. What will they do with them?
It must be really hard to be in the U.S. by yourself, but then also fully embrace this country when you feel it so thoroughly letting you and people you love down. I don’t know, maybe you see it differently.
It really is, it really is. So you are here, you feel safe, but your mind is there. You are physically here, but you are mentally somewhere else. But that’s why I want to ask everybody to listen to the SIVs. These are unsung heroes. These are hidden heroes. They work with us shoulder to shoulder in a battlefield. They were in the front line when they were on a mission. They were showing our troops the way, where to go, the communications. They were the culture adviser. They were multitasking.
Who do you hold responsible for the situation you’re in now, with so many translators still in Afghanistan, your family still in Afghanistan, and all this paperwork seeming to hold things up?
Where is government? The government should take action, honoring our nation’s promise to the interpreters who risked their lives for our country and our soldiers and for our democracy. It’s a promise we have to fulfill right now.
What would you say to Joe Biden? He was asked point-blank, does the U.S. bear responsibility for people who are dying now? And he said no.
I want to see him for five minutes. Give me five minutes.
How would you use those five minutes?
I just want to talk about how I feel, as an Afghan, what I feel that I work with our forces in Afghanistan. And I will show him the facts, the examples, and tell him what’s going on. How can you leave a country like that? It’s OK, we really respect that decision from the bottom of our heart. But at the same point, we know that we have equipped them with everything. But again, we are a strong nation here. U.S. is one of the strongest nations, No. 1 in the world. So we got to stop them. We can stop them.
And some people would say it’s a quagmire, we’ve tried so hard for 20 years and we have to leave at a certain point, we have to go. What would you say to those people?
We had a mission there, we completed the mission, but if we don’t stop them, the history will repeat. If we don’t stop them, that will be the biggest threat to the world, to the United States, and to the international community.