‘I was panicking’: Afghans share stories of escape, fear and hope

Afghans evacuated to US military base tell Al Jazeera they are eager to start new lives and help loved-ones back home.

Military bases across the US are housing thousands of Afghans awaiting immigration processing [Zubair Babakarkhail/Al Jazeera]

Fort McCoy military base, US – In the weeks leading up to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, a journey to the United States through perilous checkpoints, sleepless nights and multiple flights was largely unimaginable for the thousands of Afghans now living at Fort McCoy military base.

But as the Taliban captured the country’s capital, Kabul, in mid-August, getting onto departing American flights became the best hope for survival for countless Afghans who feared retaliation from the group.

Now, weeks after the hurried and chaotic evacuations, Afghan families find themselves in an unfamiliar place thousands of kilometres from home.

Al Jazeera spoke to several Afghans* at Fort McCoy, an expansive US military base in western Wisconsin where they are awaiting immigration processing before being released into host communities across the country. The facility housed more than 8,000 Afghans in early September.

Here, they recount how they escaped from Afghanistan and share their hopes for the future, as well as their desire to help and reconnect with loved ones in their homeland.

Abdul: Leaving son behind is ‘biggest sadness’

Abdul, a father of three who has worked with Afghan security forces, said he was “terrorised” by the Taliban’s sweep across the country. “We knew what the Taliban are and how they behave,” he told Al Jazeera.

As reports of revenge killings in Taliban-controlled areas spread, he says he and his family had no choice but to flee. The Taliban has promised to not seek retaliation against Afghans who worked with the government or US forces.

“I was panicking. On the one hand, I felt like I needed to go, but I was feeling so sad to be leaving my country and my family,” he told Al Jazeera.

Abdul’s panic grew as his nine-year-old son fell ill while the family was trying to reach the airport in Kabul. He said his initial attempts to reach the compound failed because Taliban fighters at checkpoints near the airport simply pushed people back and denied them passage.

With time running out, he said he had to leave his sick child with his parents in the capital and try to reach an airport gate guarded by American and Afghan forces. “That is my biggest sadness,” said Abdul, of having to leave his son in Afghanistan.

Eventually, Abdul, his wife and two younger children spent three sleepless nights at the northern entrance of the airport. Abdul had not applied for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programme available for Afghans who worked with the US. At the airport gate, he showed proof that he worked with Afghan security forces, and American forces let him in.

Once inside, they took his biometrics and he was approved for evacuation. Abdul and his family were flown to Doha then to Ramstein, a US air base in Germany, before being transferred to Fort McCoy. While the conditions were not ideal during the journey, Abdul said his family was relieved to have succeeded in leaving Afghanistan.

Abdul also thanked American forces, crediting them with saving his life. “I’m fully committed to following the rules and the laws of this country in the future,” he said, adding that his top priority is to bring his son to the US – and then also his brother and two sisters. “We want to be self-sufficient and find a job,” Abdul said.

The US administration says it evacuated more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan in August [File: Armend Nimani/AFP]

Abas: ‘Our Hazara community will suffer’

Abas said he was enjoying a “happy life” before the government’s collapse. He lived in Kabul and planned to attend university while his SIV application was being processed. His family, from the Hazara community, farmed potatoes in the Bamyan Province, west of the capital.

“They were happy until the Taliban captured the province,” he said. “We resisted against the Taliban all the time, and now that they are ruling, our Hazara community will suffer.”

Amnesty International documented a massacre by Taliban fighters against Hazara men earlier this year.

Abas said he was shocked and “felt hopeless” when the Taliban reached Kabul on August 15, capturing the city with hardly any resistance.

“Because I had worked for the US military in the past, I went and hid at a relative’s house on the day when the Taliban entered Kabul,” he said. “I chose to stay in a high populated but working area, which does not get attention … I thought all my wait and struggle to get SIV was just drowning in the ocean.”

The following day, he decided to head to the airport in hopes of being able to leave the country. “There was already a huge crowd of people and the Taliban were stopping them from entering the airport,” he said.

After a day of waiting, Abas said he reached the military gate where he “waved” his SIV papers at every American soldier he encountered. Eventually, he was let into the compound. “I immediately called my family telling them that I was in safe hands; my mother cried, which also made me cry,” he said.

Abas was brought on a military aeroplane to Kuwait, then to Dulles International Airport near Washington, DC, before being transferred to Fort McCoy, where he told Al Jazeera that conditions are improving.

“It is totally a different continent and country; we need to adapt and get used to this food,” he said. “Also the soldiers are treating us nicely. I like it very much when they call us guests, not migrants.”

Abas said he hopes to start working to help his family back in Afghanistan. “The economic situation has already started getting bad over there,” he said.

Thousands of Afghans are housed at Fort McCoy [Zubair Babakarkhail/Al Jazeera]

Hashima: ‘Everyone wants a good life’

Hashima, 23, was studying international relations at a private university in Kabul before the Afghan government collapsed.

She said she had no immediate plans to leave the country before the Taliban captured Kabul, but with two family members who worked with American forces, she felt she had to flee.

She first headed to the airport in Kabul, but with large crowds at the gates, Hashima was not able to reach the compound. Her brother, who worked with the US military and fled Afghanistan to China, instructed her to head to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to catch a flight, she said.

“We went to Mazar and waited for two days over there, then we were put on a flight to Qatar,” she said. But Hashima, who has no children, had to leave her husband behind.

“My husband’s name was not in the list of evacuees, so I had to come alone,” she said. “It is because this all happened all of a sudden, and my brother had not submitted my husband’s name in his SIV case yet.”

She said she feels “happy and relaxed” at Fort McCoy, but her main focus is to help bring her husband to join her in the US. “He was working with an American company. He is really under the threat by the Taliban. The Taliban has come to our house and checked to find my husband, but he is not staying at home,” she said.

Hashima added that fears for her husband’s safety, in contrast with her effort to be happy in her immediate surroundings, has left her feeling “confused”.

“Everyone wants a good life,” she said.

“I grab my pen and my notebook these days here, sit in the shade of a tree and write down my plans for my future here. I write my wishes and goals. I want to be the representative of the Afghan people here in America. I wanted to have the full freedom to reach my goals.”

A girl evacuated from Kabul waves at a US serviceman at Washington Dulles International Airport on September 1 [File: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Photo]

Mohammad: ‘Almost impossible to accept’ Taliban takeover

Mohammad, 54, said he is still trying to process the Taliban’s takeover of the country. “I think I must have seen a dream, but then I realise and say wait, that was real,” he said of the collapse of the Afghan government.

“It was almost impossible to accept the reality that our forces would leave provinces and Kabul the way they did.”

Mohammad, a father of six who worked as a cleaner at an American base in Afghanistan, had applied for SIV four years ago, but he said he was “happy” living in Kabul with his family. “The only fear we had was that our lives were in danger because of our service with the Americans.”

The Taliban’s arrival in Kabul changed everything, Mohammad said. “The day when the Taliban captured Kabul was like a doomsday,” he told Al Jazeera.

He and his family waited for four days at the northern gate into Kabul airport before finding their way in, after troops fired tear gas to disperse people trying to climb the walls of the compound.

“Everyone started breathing hard, having their hands on their eyes,” he said, recalling how the crowds disappeared from the vicinity of the gate. “Everyone was shouting the names of their family members and looking to find them,” he said.

“As soon as we saw the front of the gate empty, we ran to the gate again and showed our papers to the American forces, who immediately opened the gate and let us in.”

They were flown to Kuwait and then to Wisconsin. “The only thing I was seeing on my family members’ faces were smiles. Although we were tired, everyone was so happy to be in the US finally,” He said.

Mohammad said he had no complaints about being at Fort McCoy while his family’s visas are being processed. “I would not mind even if I wait for months here because it is at least peaceful here. Kabul was like hell when we left,” he said.

*All the interviewees are identified by pseudonyms or first names due to safety concerns.

Source: Al Jazeera