Antifullah Ahmadzai, an Afghan national, takes a selfie in a US military cargo plane before an evacuation flight from Kabul.
Courtesy: Antifullah Ahmadzai
WASHINGTON – A month ago Atifullah Ahmadzai boarded a flight from Connecticut to Kabul to detain his wife and five young children.
The purpose of this trip was nearly a decade in preparation when Ahmadzai, a former U.S. military interpreter, carried the last documents his family needed to issue a coveted special immigrant visa.
While in Kabul, Ahmadzai planned to say goodbye to friends and family members before taking his wife and children to America, where he had spent the past two years preparing for their new life.
Ten days after his plans, after the rest of Afghanistan fell while the US military withdrew, the Taliban occupied the presidential palace in Kabul.
The rapid collapse of the Afghan government forced Ahmadzai and thousands of others to flood the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport, where Western troops were conducting evacuation flights from the country.
The story of Ahmadzai and his family is a symbol of the despair and fear of thousands of Afghans when the US and coalition troops withdrew the last of their troops from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of occupation.
In the 17 days leading up to August 31, the United States and coalition partners have flown more than 116,000 people from Afghanistan in cargo planes. The Pentagon said it used more than 5,000 U.S. soldiers and 200 aircraft on the colossal evacuation mission.
Meanwhile, governments around the world opened their borders to vulnerable Afghan nationals arriving on evacuation flights.
“I didn’t expect everything to change immediately,” Ahmadzai told CNBC.
“The Taliban set up a checkpoint 250 meters from my house where they questioned you about your job,” he said, adding that he was too afraid to divulge his previous role in the Afghan military.
Taliban troops guard the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 2, 2021.
Stringer | Reuters
At one checkpoint, Ahmadzai said his cell phone had been searched by Taliban insurgents looking for anything to confirm his ties to the previous government or the United States.
“They also knocked on people’s doors and asked about their jobs,” he said. “The houses of those who worked for the government or the US military were marked during the day and at night the Taliban came back to these houses to kill.” Fear of targeted killings by the Taliban made many Afghans want to leave the country.
A collective call on Facebook
Desperate for a way out, Ahmadzai sent a text message to a US Army officer for whom he had translated during the longest American war.
“He addresses me as his brother,” said officer Mike Kuszpa, now a Connecticut teacher, when asked about Ahmadzai’s first message.
“He wrote to me saying, ‘Brother, my family and I are out here and the Taliban are looking for interpreters. Who knows what’s going to happen, they could kill me and my family,'” Kuszpa told CNBC.
A 2004 photo of Antifullah Ahmadzai (left) and Mike Kuszpa (right) in Afghanistan.
Courtesy Mike Kuszpa
“I grabbed straws. I didn’t know anyone, so I posted on Facebook on a message board in the neighborhood and asked if anyone had connections with the State Department who could help my interpreter and his family take an evacuation flight, ”he said.
The post to the 109-strong Facebook group “Westville Dads” triggered a deluge of phone calls, Facebook messages, encrypted text messages and e-mails to a network that ranged from academia and intelligence analysts to lawmakers and diplomats.
“I got in touch with a former student of mine who is a foreign service to get his documents into the system so he wouldn’t be turned away at the airport,” said Matt Schmidt, professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, which reached out to at least 16 people to help Ahmadzai.
“I advised Atif to wait for a call from the state to go to the airport,” said Schmidt using a shortened version of Ahmadzai’s first name, Atifullah. “Mike was restless while waiting and told Atif to go to the airport.
A fight to escape
Around the world, Western forces stepped up emergency humanitarian evacuations amid security threats and the Biden government’s self-imposed withdrawal period on August 31.
“At some point I got news of gunfire at the airport while I was on the phone with Atif. It was surreal,” said Schmidt, who was breathlessly waiting for updates from Ahmadzai.
In Kabul, Ahmadzai and his family fought to escape.
“It was difficult to get to the airport. I tried three days in a row, but I couldn’t get to the gates, ”Ahmadzai told CNBC, explaining that every time he and his family returned home after a full day, he bypassed the Taliban checkpoints had to wait at the airport.
“On the fourth day I received a text message advising me to go through another gate. By the time I got there, there were already more than 1,000 people gathered,” said Ahmadzai. He said there were occasional shots in the crowd.
“My family was very scared and shocked,” said Ahmadzai. “My wife asked me if we could go back because she was afraid for our children, but I told her we had to try to go because it was better than dying at the hands of the Taliban.”
After waiting more than three hours at the gate, Ahmadzai was able to get close enough to the US marines guarding the entry point to show them his green card and visa.
“I then showed them the papers for my children and my wife,” he said. The Marines were able to verify his information, he said, because it was entered into the State Department’s system two days earlier thanks to the network of mobilized fathers on Facebook.
Ahmadzai’s next message to his friends who were coordinating his evacuation came from inside the airport.
Antifullah Ahmadzai, a former Afghan interpreter for the US military, stands with his children and US Marines at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“When he sent the photo of him and his children safely at the airport with the soldiers at his side, I burst into tears,” said Schmidt.
“As a dad, I couldn’t imagine what fate awaited them if they didn’t get out,” Schmidt continued. “We were just fathers who went all over the world to help another father. We were all connected more than culture or religion. We knew what it means to have to protect your family. “
A fateful departure
Ahmadzai, his wife and their children, ages 2 to 12, boarded a C-17 military aircraft and flew to Qatar, which is about 1,200 miles from Kabul. They spent two nights and three days in the country of the Persian Gulf.
“The camp in Qatar was good, but when we got there my second son felt very sick and vomited more than 15 times because he was not familiar with this situation. A paramedic came and quickly gave him an IV and after that he could eat and drink again, “said Ahmadzai.
Antifullah Ahmadzai, an Afghan national, takes a selfie in a waiting bay at an unspecified location in Qatar.
Courtesy: Antifullah Ahmadzai
After Qatar, the family was flown to the Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where they spent the night. The next day they boarded a flight to the United States and arrived at Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Ahmadzai said he and his family had been tested for Covid-19 and had biometric health screenings before leaving the Dulles airport. At the beginning of the year he was vaccinated against Covid. The Pentagon previously said that any Afghan nationals moving to the United States who want the coronavirus vaccine can get one.
“I never expected to get back to the States alive,” said Ahmadzai, who spoke for a week with CNBC from Qatar, Germany and the United States. He was “grateful that the USA helped us in a very critical situation”.
“There was no option, no flights and no way for me and my family to escape the Taliban,” he said.
When asked about his children, Ahmadzai said they were “doing great and happy”.
“The children are very different now. They think they are in another world and are trying to learn a new language and way of life.”
Ahmadzai and his family recently left a US military facility in Virginia where they were finalizing their special immigrant visa papers. He returns to Connecticut with his family.
Army officer Kuszpa said there were plans for an outdoor barbecue to welcome Ahmadzai’s family to the community.
“Now he’s here and part of our family,” said Schmidt, the professor. “His children will play with ours.”