Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series on Afghan refugees marking one year since the U.S. withdrew its military from Afghanistan, ending its longest war. The series – Here, There, Everywhere – tells the story of life after the evacuation through the eyes of Afghan refugees in the U.S., vulnerable Afghans who have been unable to escape the country, and those refugees scattered across the globe. To protect those in hiding and their families, The Hill used pseudonyms in this story.
Gul Mohammad managed to hide for a few months before he was kidnapped by the Taliban.
They kept the former senior special forces commander tied up in a house for two days, demanding cars and cash.
He kept lying about his rank.
“If they understand who I was before, that I was special forces, they would kill me,” he said.
“They always loaded the rifle very close to me, sometimes they would shoot close to my head, and they told me they would kill me at any moment, at any time,” Gul Mohammad recounted to The Hill.
He thought he was going to die.
“The Taliban doesn’t have rules. They don’t care about killing one person, they’re just thinking about one round. They’re just thinking of the price of one round, one bullet,” he said.
They ordered him to come up with $300,000 Afghanis, or about $3,500. He pleaded with his wife to sell their house as quickly as possible, enabling her to secure the ransom money before they figured out who he was.
They let him go, leaving him on the side of the road, something he suspects was due to his kidnappers’ desire to hold on to the cash themselves rather than turn him over to Taliban superiors.
The ordeal wiped out his savings, and he got home to realize he had lost 10 pounds in the two days.
For every story of Afghans who navigated a hectic Kabul full of Taliban checkpoints, contended with crowds and chaos at the airport gates, and found their way onto a flight ultimately bound for the U.S., there are just as many stories of people who didn’t.
Advocates estimate there are more than 100,000 they deem to be vulnerable Afghans due to their ties to the U.S or its democracy efforts and goals, a figure that jumps significantly when adding former Afghan military members.
Many have gone into hiding – and they’re disappointed the U.S. has no clear plan to get them out.
Imran, a former special forces commander who led thousands of troops before the government’s collapse, spent days waiting outside the airport gates in Kabul.
“You fight against insurgents and fight against these people for all your life, the most beautiful years of your life you fight against them, and then all at once you’re just sitting there in front of them with no arms, with no weapons, in just local civilian clothing and looking at them,” he said through a translator.
“This is the most annoying feeling any human being could have. And the four days at the airport were the hardest days of my life, under the sun with my children, my wife, some friends, just sitting there with no resources, waiting to get out,” he added.
When he found out he wasn’t going to get in, “it was like all my hopes shattered into pieces.”
“I was thinking ‘OK, so I’m going to go home now, and I’m all on my own with all these groups I’ve fought against for all these years,'” he said.
The end of the evacuation was the start of months of traversing the country for those left behind, moving from place to place, in hopes of getting out on another flight or simply to evade detection by the Taliban.
Gul Mohammad and Imran were among those who spent months in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, hundreds of miles from Kabul, hoping to get out on another evacuation flight, both cramming their large families into one-bedroom apartments while awaiting any word.
But the flights never materialized, and for their own safety, they had to move on.
Both are now in hiding in a large city where they won’t be as conspicuous.
In the early days of the evacuation, a number of outside groups were stood up to aid in the evacuation, both with charter flights and with helping pay for visas for those trying to leave the country. But as the American attention span has shifted elsewhere, initial funding for such efforts has largely dried up.
Now many vulnerable Afghans are relying on charity from U.S. veterans they served with.
One former U.S. special forces officer said he spends between $1,000 and $1,500 a month helping various families, something he is able to do largely because he and his wife still work full time after retiring with a military pension.
“When we say shoulder to shoulder and honor the promise and finish the mission – these are all things that are a commitment and we also realize it’s a multiyear commitment,” he said. The Hill is not identifying him in order to protect those he served alongside.
That he expects to do so for years is a reflection of how little hope many Afghans have for reaching the U.S. any time soon.
There are no U.S. consular services in Afghanistan, but even if families took the risk of making it to another country that does have an American diplomatic presence, the options there aren’t promising either.
Soldiers in Afghanistan's military aren't eligible for the special immigrant visa (SIV) program that allows those who contracted with the U.S. government to immigrate to the United States. That leaves them applying for the new refugee program categories open to Afghans, which require referrals and often take years to process.
“They have no clear, unobstructed pathway forward,” the officer said. “Maybe three years from now that pathway will be open to them but it hasn’t happened up until this point.”
Being in hiding is both boring and terrifying.
Ahmad worked on a security team contracted by the U.S. Embassy that coordinated with those screening for bombs. Now, even though he barely leaves the house, he has little sense of safety, he said.
“Life here under the Taliban, it’s like living in a jungle where you can be attacked by the lions, by any kind of wild animal, any single minute,” he said.
Gul Mohammad said he’s alert to any noise near his apartment.
He also made the difficult decision to separate his family, staying with his wife and daughter while his sons stay with friends in another part of the country. His sons also served in the military, and he figures it will be tougher for the Taliban to figure out who they are if they aren’t all together.
“The disruption that has – it destroys families. Because you can’t have half your family in hiding and half not hiding, and still be a whole family,” said Joseph Azam, board chairman of the Afghan-American Foundation, which advocates for the Afghan diaspora.
“So it destroys families; it separates parents from their children; it separates siblings; it separates families that usually live together multigenerationally,” he said.
Both Gul Mohammad’s and Imran’s families are still crammed into small apartments – in the latter case squeezing nearly 10 family members between two bedrooms. Schools are now closed to girls, but they don’t send their sons either, because if they are identified, the whole family will be at risk.
Ahmad has been passing the time tutoring his sisters.
“Our home is like kind of a jail for me now. I am barely just going downstairs,” he said. “I’m just living the life of a prisoner here.”
Imran is struggling with feelings of isolation. Many of his former soldiers have his number, but he doesn’t want to talk.
“Now when my soldiers call, I don’t pick up. I feel ashamed because I don’t have anything to do; I don’t have anything to tell them,” he said.
The situation also leaves women in their family in an unfortunate Catch-22 – they’re the best option for running errands but uniquely vulnerable when they leave the house.
Imran’s daughter, Freshta, has been doing the bulk of the family’s food runs, able to conceal her identity with a now-required burqa.
But women can go only about 45 miles without being escorted by their father or brother. And anytime she leaves, she risks getting stopped by the Taliban and getting asked a series of questions about where she lives and where she is going.
When she leaves the house, she doesn’t bring her phone because those at Taliban checkpoints will go through it. If they stop her, she has to lie, saying she had an emergency while none of the men in her family were home.
The 25-year-old gets choked up talking about her new life. She was dismissed from her job as an IT specialist as the Taliban directed the vast majority of women in the workforce to return home.
“We continue to receive and process submissions for Afghans who may be eligible for referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Once an individual with a complete referral arrives in a third country, they are eligible to begin processing their refugee case,” the spokesperson added.
State has received some 44,000 referrals between the priority programs, a figure that does not include the main applicants’ family members. But of those, only 23,000 have been accepted for review after being “determined to be complete.”
Recent legislation introduced in Congress would expand the SIV program to include Afghan special forces members such as Gul Mohammad and Imran. It’s part of the broader Afghan Adjustment Act that would provide a pathway to citizenship for evacuees that did make it to the U.S., but it’s not clear when it may come up for a vote.
In desperation to leave the country, many Afghans have applied for humanitarian parole, one of the few options that provides a pathway to enter the U.S. without having to first escape the country.
But the 49,000 applications have overwhelmed the Department of Homeland Security, which has ramped up processing but typically gets only 2,000 such applications per year. It’s not designed to replace the refugee program, the agency has stressed.
Of the applications that have been reviewed,9,000 have been denied parole, while just 380 have been granted conditional approval, a roughly 4 percent approval rate.
For Gul Mohammad, the evacuation was confusing, as the U.S. left behind “important military people.”
“With American special forces we were very close. We fight shoulder by shoulder against terrorism. Sometimes we cried together. Sometimes we sleep under one blanket if it was very cold in the mountains. But we feel like two brothers. It doesn’t matter that we belong to different countries or otherwise belong to different religions. Always we had one important point – that’s to fight against terrorism,” he said.
“The only thing I think about the American government is help us because we were very close friends with Americans; we fight together,” he added.
“My only wish is to go out with my family,” he said.
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This story was originally published August 30, 2022 6:00 AM.