The Afghans Who Couldn’t Get Out

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S1: I first spoke with Ahmadullah Sediqi last week, and when I caught him on the line, one of the first questions I had was simple. I wondered how he, an Afghan national, thought an American drawdown in Afghanistan might go. I just wondered if he’d pictured it in his head. It turned out he hadn’t

S2: I couldn’t imagine, you know, that would happen.

S1: You couldn’t imagine the Americans leaving. Now, this week, it became clear just how many Afghans felt the exact same way as Kabul’s airport, filled up with desperate people willing to do just about anything to catch a flight out of town. Ahmadullah is comparatively lucky. He lives in Houston. He’s got American citizenship. He fled years ago after his work as a U.S. government translator resulted in death threats. In that first call we had, he couldn’t stop thinking about the colleagues he’d left behind. Some had been waiting years to get out. For others, it was already too late.

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S2: Yeah, like our co-worker, he got his visa. He was waiting for the flight and he got shot while trying to meet his grand mom and dad. He got shot. Many more people got shot before came to the states.

S1: Do you feel a little helpless?

S2: Well, yes, you know, the interpreters and those who work with them, they can’t do anything. The only way is they stay and die because in 1990, you know, when the Taliban attacked, the borders were open. People could easily escape or leave the country to neighboring countries. But now the all the borders are closed. The only way is to stay and die.

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S1: Then this week, Kabul fell, the Taliban took charge. So we decided to call Ahmadullah back. So Ahmadullah, can you just describe how your world has changed in the last few days?

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S2: Well, as far as my world and everything just collapsed down. The things happened that we even did not imagine that would happen that fast. Things changed so rapidly, nobody could easily understand, and it’s shocking and scary.

S1: Today on the show, now that the Taliban is firmly in control, the U.S. government estimates there are tens of thousands of Afghan nationals trying to leave their country between desperate text messages from friends and family. Ahmadullah agreed to tell me some of their stories. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. The despair you’re seeing right now at Kabul’s airport, Ahmadullah knows exactly what that feels like, not just because he left Afghanistan himself, but because he wakes up to dozens of messages every day from Afghans like him trying to leave. Ahmadullah now works at the non-profit. No one left behind helping other interpreters flee. That means constantly fielding requests for help. And in the last few days, those requests have only ramped up. Thousands are stuck behind bureaucratic red tape trying to get to safety.

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S2: It really is overwhelming at some point. But in the meantime, I have to, you know, take care. I have to be alert. I have to be watchful to see what people are going through. And it’s our job to be in touch with people who need our help in the situation. So we are trying our best to help us as much as we can to bring our allies home.

S1: This mission is as personal as it gets for Ahmadullah his entire family. All seven siblings and his parents, they’re still in Afghanistan because of his past work with the U.S. They’ve been moving house to house to stay safe. And that was before the Taliban took control of Kabul. Can you introduce me to the relatives you still have in Afghanistan?

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S2: I have my immediate family. They’re my siblings, my brothers. They’re all younger than me. And I could twenty, eighteen, 13, 21 something. My mom and dad, they’re still in Afghanistan.

S1: How are they doing now?

S2: Well, they’re moving around. They’re hiding. They can’t go out because they’re scared of my work. What my affiliation with the U.S. forces.

S1: So why have they thought about just going to the airport? I mean, I’ve since you’ve seen so many people doing that, did they ever consider it?

S2: Well, they wanted to, but I didn’t let them, because if you don’t have the proper documentation and what if you are being 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 leave the country.

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S1: How long do you think the documentation will take? Do you know

S2: that’s the problem? So we are to let everybody know here that 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 him, I’ll let them know to get out of there.

S1: The right paperwork is key to getting out of Afghanistan for some visas, like the special immigrant visa. For Afghans who assisted the U.S. government, the application can take months, 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. Ahmadullah is organization. They estimate more than 300 interpreters have died just while waiting to get their applications processed.

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S2: You need to have paperwork. You need to have something from the embassy. You need to have something from the National Visa Center. You know, while you are waiting for your visa.

S1: It took you a year, right?

S2: 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 in emails are coming in. They are waiting, you know, for a help. They said that what should we do? Paperwork. We don’t know how long will it take.

S1: So you’re literally getting text messages and emails right now from people saying

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S2: right now, right now, right now, people think that what should we do? Show us the way to get out of here. Even though they work with the U.S. forces, they are still waiting for their paperwork to complete. Thousands of people are still there.

S1: I mean, the American government has said we want to evacuate people who worked with us. That is our plan.

S2: If that is the plan, then why there are thousands of people waiting only for the approval defense, their paperwork, and they’re waiting for the approval. They don’t get anything. They send the email to the embassy. There’s an e-mail to the NBC National Visa Center, but they don’t get a reply back

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S1: reading accounts from people stuck inside Afghanistan. There are all of these incredibly heartbreaking moments like this one woman who 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 colleagues joked with us and said, oh, it’s the last time we’ll ever see you again. We’ll have to get permission from your brother to see you. And they found they thought it was funny and it just I didn’t know what to make of that. I found 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.

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S2: Well, that’s true. I have friends, you know, families down there. And they were working. They did suddenly everything shut down. They stopped whole you know, they locked some of them were locked. Some of them just, you know, left the office. If they are still, you know, at your homes, they can’t even come out in fear of getting caught by a Taliban. And because they have their paperwork, most of them, they just, you know, trashed or they just, you know, put their documents away

S1: because they don’t want to be identified.

S2: Of course. Yes. Even they they removed and they cleared their phones. All the everything that they they had all the documents. And that’s true. That’s scary. You know, if you it was kind of a joke with that woman. But that’s the fact now, you know, you never know what happens with the fundamentalists.

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S1: 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

S2: when they cleared it, because that they they only applied. At some point, though, they might have sent it to a friend, a close friend, the documents, and then they cleared everything up. If they need him, 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 he can believe them because we have witnessed from the past and they are the same people.

S1: Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that because one of the things that stands out to me about. This moment is that the Taliban, I heard one reporter call it a charm offensive, like 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, you know, sort of giving these messages that it’s a new Taliban. Do you believe that

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S2: it’s a joke? Actually, even in 1996, when they they had the control over the country for the first few months, they were the nicest people on the earth, you know, and later on, oh, my God, I can’t explain what they did to the people. And they never change, actually, the fundamentalist and extremist groups that never change because they don’t believe in democracy. They don’t believe in women empowerment. They don’t believe, you know, in human rights. As I said before, 1996, after a few months, they took the control over all over the country and then they came with their own Sharia laws and these, you know, the laws that they have. So a lot of a lot of most of them were actually nonsense. So they never change.

S1: And do you remember that time when they came in to power?

S2: Last time I was a kid, actually, I was around I was around six or seven, 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 seven year old kid and you feel these, you know, things happen and in front of your eyes, how can you ignore that? How can you forget that those nightmares that they brought to us, the the women couldn’t go to schools. We didn’t have Internet. We don’t have technology and nothing at all. And now, like in the past 20 years, girls were going to school with universities. We had educated people, many masters, you know, even we have PGD men and women. We’re 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’re OK. They’re 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 but they have given their life.

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S1: And once one of the things that stood out to me reading some of these accounts from people inside Afghanistan is how people around the country seem to be shutting themselves down, shutting themselves off from each other, like this woman who worked at an NGO who worked for The Guardian, talked about going to her boss at the NGO and saying, help me get a visa. And the boss said, oh, no, you’ll be fine. I’m not going to help you get a visa. We’re going to a Western women’s rights activist and asking for help and being told, I can’t help you. You can just get a pretend husband. And to me that it seemed so dark that people were turning away from each other at this moment. And I guess it could be self-protection, but. It surprised me. Are you hearing accounts like that,

S2: how it’s possible that somebody worked with you and then you turned your back to that when they need you? So where are the humanity? Leave everything aside, where the humanity that, you know, everybody is talking about human human rights and 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 if the time you got to help everybody, I Ahmadullah you can help each other. Actually, nobody wants to leave your own country unless you have to.

S1: The number I’ve heard from the American government is, is 18000 people waiting to get out sort of 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?

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S2: Well, it’s more than that. Eighteen thousand is just on a people who got get approvals. There are more than that who are not even qualified for the visa program, but they have worked there trying to reach out to their supervisors, you know, duty to the company they have worked with. But everything everything shuts down. Nobody and them

S1: Ahmadullah family finds themselves in a similar situation. They don’t qualify as civs like Ahmadullah. Those visas are only available to people who actually worked for the U.S. government or their spouses and kids. But because they’re close relatives to a translator, they’re still at risk. You’re in Texas now, your whole family’s in Afghanistan. I can’t imagine being in your situation, sort of waiting to hear I read one person writing about her situation where she lives in a similar state she worked with in the international community. And so she was able to apply for a visa. And she put it in this really cutting way, she said, when I’m sad. 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,

S2: imagine or not, since the Taliban, you know, got into it and they have the control. I haven’t slept well for four nights, just like three, four hours. And I’d wake up and check my phone. What’s going on? I check my phone like even five to six times at night.

S1: Like you wake up in the middle of the night and check it.

S2: No matter what time it is, I just wake up three, four, six times. It’s been days now to see if something of that risk, to see if if if something is there, to see if my dad is OK, my mom is OK. It’s not only me, it’s the thousands of other people, actually.

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S1: After the break, the risks involved with getting out of Afghanistan. Stick around. I know that even before now, you’d been warning about the danger to people like you, people who worked for the American government in Afghanistan as this transition takes place and troops leave. You told me the last time we talked to this awful story about a translator who is actually on his way to a flight and was killed. 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

S2: and the other two interpreters were killed by Taliban and their pictures were shown on social media everywhere, and there are some people that even can’t come from from from the city, you know, from the suburbs outside the country, the surrounding countries in the suburbs where they live far away in the other provinces. They even cannot come to the to Kabul to reach out to the embassy. I heard stories that people are, you know, being checked, being being searched on the way to Kabul,

S1: that 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.

S2: So how can they help people to get out of even Kabul while thousands of people are waiting outside the embassy? Actually, there are no embassy right now, but there in the airport, within the airport. Thousands of people are waiting outside in the sun, the kids. So if you all have a proper documentation and mechanism for them, so there should be a technique or a mechanism where they can easily get everybody in who are eligible.

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S1: There have been accounts that. Some Taliban are letting people with documentation leave the country. Do you trust that, have you heard that,

S2: how can you believe them? How can you believe the people who have killed interpreters and people who work with us for this?

S1: It seems like right now there’s kind of a race going on because there are so many Afghans who want to leave their country. Yes, but the Biden administration has set a deadline to end the evacuation mission by August 31st, which is very soon. Do you think that’s enough time to get people out of the country?

S2: I don’t think so, because there are thousands of people waiting. How can you get get them out? They said, OK, we will like leaving. They said 11 September 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 interview? There is one story. There are thousands of other people who still don’t have their approval Carmel approval from the National Visa Center. They submitted all the paperwork. What will they do with them?

S1: It must be really hard, first of all, 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.

S2: 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 what I felt. You know, I want to ask everybody to listen to the sigh of, you know, these are unsung heroes. These are hidden heroes that work with us shoulder to shoulder in a battlefield. They were in the front line when they were on a mission. They were on a directly fighting with the Taliban or the insurgents that were on the front line that were showing our troops the way where to go, the communications, you know, that were the cultural adviser that were multitasking.

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S1: 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. Who do you blame?

S2: What is the government the government should take action on honoring our nation’s promise to, you know, the interpreters who risked their lives for our country and our soldier and for our democracy is a promise we have to fulfill right now.

S1: Do you ever imagine going back to Afghanistan?

S2: I don’t know. I can’t say anything because everything can happen there, especially in the past weeks, in the past month.

S1: What would you say to Joe Biden if he asked you? He was asked point blank, does the US bear responsibility for people who are dying now? And he said, no,

S2: I want to see him for a five minute. Give me five minutes.

S1: How do you use those five minutes?

S2: I just want to talk about, you know, how I feel, how as an Afghan, what I feel that I work with our forces in Afghanistan. And I will I will show him the fact that real fact, the examples that I will have a five minute presentation and tell him what’s going on, how can you leave a country like that? It’s OK. We we really respect that decision from the bottom of our heart. But at the same point, we know that, you know, we have to equip them with everything. But again, we are a strong nation here. US is one of the strongest nations, No. One in the world. So we got to stop. We we can’t stop them.

S1: 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?

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S2: We had a mission there. We we completed the mission, but if we don’t stop them there, 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.

S1: Ahmadullah Sediqi, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

S1: Ahmadullah Sediqi is a former interpreter for the U.S. in Afghanistan. He’s also an ambassador for the group No. One left behind. He’s based out of Houston. He’s dedicated to bringing interpreters from Afghanistan and Iraq to the U.S.. All right. That’s the show. What Next is produced by Carmel Delshad Allena Schwartz, Danielle, Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Davis Land. We get oversight from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Tomorrow, stay tuned to this feed. Lizzie O’Leary is going to be here with what next TBD. They’re going to be talking all about vaccine booster shots for covid. I know you’ve got questions. I totally do. Anyway, come catch the show and I will catch you back here on Monday.