A dance with death to escape Afghanistan

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American journalist based in Istanbul and host of the On Spec podcast. She’s also the author of “Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey through Afghanistan.” 

It’s 1:30 a.m. in Istanbul as I’m writing this. It’s 3 a.m. in Kabul. The two families that I’m trying to help evacuate just boarded a chartered bus for the Kabul airport. I sit, waiting. 

From the airport, they are meant to board a flight out of Afghanistan to avoid Taliban reprisals. I don’t know where the flight is going, and neither do they. We know it’s a flight to safety. But each time, getting through the airport is a dance with death. 

On Thursday night, the two families, with their five children, had made it to the airport gate, hoping for an American soldier to grab them from the crowd. Since the Taliban seized control, thousands of at-risk people have been gathering there in hopes of evacuation. These families had all their documents. But the soldier didn’t come. 

Then they heard a bomb, 100 meters away. They weren’t injured, but they were shaken. They told me they began to run, but there were bodies on the way out, blood everywhere. They had lived through these wars before but had never witnessed such carnage. Their children will never forget. 

“We had to make sure we weren’t stepping over the bodies as we ran out, scared the next bomb was going off,” said one of the women, trying to hold back tears. “I wish I could forget what I saw.” 

Then another bomb exploded. Somehow, both families made it out. 

About 170 Afghans and 13 American service members died in Thursday’s twin bomb attacks. The Islamic State of Khorasan, a rival to the Taliban, has since claimed responsibility. But Western countries and NATO are yet to claim responsibility for the people they should have evacuated before this mayhem unfolded. 

But I’m not here to join the blame game of partisan bickering. I just want to help the Afghans who helped me do my job. It’s my duty as a journalist — and as an Afghan who has benefited from American citizenship. 

I lived through Afghanistan’s Soviet invasion as a child, witnessed the bombing of my school and walked across the desert to safety in 1982. My family stayed in Pakistan for 10 months before receiving asylum in the U.S. It’s a nightmare replay of events that I had hoped to leave in the past. 

So when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban this month, and evacuations began, I immediately reached out to the people who had guided my reporting when I was there. One of the men was an IT expert who had fixed my computer and later worked for NATO at Herat airport. He had received death threats from the Taliban after I left; then his car was shot at while he was driving. He miraculously survived that attack. 

His younger sister had also helped me fact-check stories and introduced me to women sources. When I asked her how she was doing after the Taliban took control of Herat, she could barely answer me.  

“I was married off at 13 the last time the Taliban was here. I don’t want that to happen to my daughters,” she said. “What kind of future will they have under the Taliban?” 

I promised to evacuate them with their families through the help of American news outlets I have worked for over the years. We applied for a P2 visa, which is particular for those who aided American media. They then had to get to Kabul on a daylong public bus ride that we did not know would be safe. They packed one suitcase each and said goodbye to their parents. They reached Kabul safely and stayed with relatives until I started to receive orders on evacuation efforts.  

Since then, each day has been a harrowing nightmare of trying to get them to the airport and on a flight. And failing. 

They get up in the middle of the night, try to board chartered buses and reach the airport, only to be pushed aside by crowds, gun-toting Taliban, or other forces with tear gas and weapons. Then they come back, dejected but not defeated. 

After Thursday’s explosions, I told them to stop going to the airport. I would find another way for them to leave, maybe through the land borders. Wait it out, hide if they feel unsafe, and we would continue processing their case.  

But now, they are giving it one more try at their own risk. 

A Canadian reporter I had reached out to regarding a way out for the families asked me, “Why don’t they stay and fight back for their country? This mad rush to get out isn’t going to solve anything.” I wanted to shout back at her: Haven’t they fought enough?  

I have been writing a version of the same story for 25 years. So much has happened, but the ending remains the same — more war. Can you blame Afghans who want a ticket out?  

It’s 4 a.m. now, and I check in with the sister.  

“We are close to the airport, on the bus. We can hear shots. It’s not safe to go forward. We may have to return home again,” she says. “My son is scared. My daughters are being brave. I hope when we leave our homeland, we can stop worrying [about being killed].” 

I stop texting, turn off the lights and keep my phone on. I wait. 



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