We have fled the home of our ancestors with what we can carry in our hands and on our backs. My oldest child is five years old and she has no idea what horrors await her if we don't leave. Why? The Taliban are no longer coming, they are here amongst us. They began arriving in trucks a few days ago, shortly after the U. S. announced they would begin a final withdrawal by the end of August.
At first, the Taliban did nothing but walk around our small village. Then they began telling everyone that women and girls needed to stay inside their homes unless they were accompanied by an adult male of the immediate family. They also warned everyone that all women were subject to Sharia law and would be required to cover their hair and faces when out in public. Then they went house to house looking for our elders and anyone that might represent the government or who may have worked for the government.
We were blessed because we received advanced warnings and were able to sneak out of our home during the night and flee. You see, my husband fought against the Taliban with the Afghanistan National Army and was promoted to interpreter after he was assigned to a U. S. Marine Corps unit. If the Taliban had captured Khalfani, my husband, they would have executed him. Before we left, we took anything that identified him as ANA and burned it. We only packed our most important documents, a few photos, and what little food we had. We had no vehicle and very little money.
Our village is a small place right outside Kandahar. My family has lived in this village as far back as the written records show. We are farmers and traders. It's always been this way. Even when the war started back in 2001 it didn't really affect us here, not until Khalfani joined the ANA coalition forces to overthrow the Taliban the first time, did we understand the impact of removing them from our country. For the first time in years, women were able to attend school, work outside their homes, to participate in society without the burdensome burka. When the Americans arrived, we were given hope and freedom. Now that the Americans have left, the Taliban have returned and with them, they are bringing back the fear and the old ways.
My country, Afghanistan is a beautiful place filled with beautiful people who dream and want the same things as other people. We dream of being able to walk outside, shop, go to school, and worship, all without fear of being murdered in the street because we were born in the wrong province or happened to forget our place in society. We know these dreams aren't impossible to achieve because, at one time, we had those things until the mullahs reared their ugly heads. But that's for another time and place. For now, my family and I are trying to escape our home and make it to the HKIA Airport in Kabal before the last American and plane leaves us stranded here forever.
We fled our home in the middle of the night with only what we could carry. Khalfani was in touch with a Marine he had served with, but who had returned to America several years prior. The Marine told us he could help us, but only if we could get to the airport in Kabal. The journey would be our responsibility. This would be no small undertaking and neigh on impossible unless we had transportation. The distance between Kandahar and Kabal is almost 500km on some of the most dangerous roads in the world. Not only are the roads in terrible disrepair, but they will also be blockaded by bandits and the Taliban.
Our first thoughts were to flee to Pakistan (It's closer), but then decided against it because we heard that the Taliban had been leaving Pakistan in droves to return home to Afghanistan. So the choice was made for us; we would make it to the airport in Kabal or die trying. We began our journey in the dead of the night, walking in the shadows adjacent to the main road. As we approached Kandahar, we saw more and more blockades and checkpoints. The Taliban were more focused on the hundreds of travelers who had decided to walk along the roadway. We managed to stay off the road and creep around them. On one occasion, we watched as they beat a family and then dragged them off to the other side of the road never to be seen again. Most of the time, they were more intent on robbing the travelers of anything of value.
We walked maybe 25km before an old truck pulled over on the side of the road to repair a broken tire. Khalfani saw this as an opportunity and volunteered to help the old man repair his tire. When he had finished, the old man offered us a ride as far as Ghazni which put us within 150km of Kabal. He stopped the truck on the outskirts of town and let us out before the blockades. He bid us farewell but told us that if we hurried, he would pick us up again on the other side of Ghazni at the crossroad to Zurmat. From there, he could take us to Kala located on the outskirts of Kabal. We offered him what little money we had to wait for us, but he refused and instead wished us luck. He said he would only wait for a little while before he had to leave again.
We abandoned all of our belongings except our papers and most valuable things, picked up our children, and began the short journey in haste. We still had to be aware of the Taliban so we avoided main roads and crowds as much as possible. By the time we got to the crossroad, the sun was already setting and there was no truck in sight. Exhausted, I sat down with my children and began to cry while Khalfani looked for us a place to rest for a while. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the truck appeared with the old man behind the wheel. He was grinning and apologized for being late. He told us his deliveries took longer than he thought and the Taliban had several checkpoints throughout the city which caused traffic jams. We quickly entered his truck and fell asleep from exhaustion and hunger.
I wasn't sure what time we arrived in Kala, but it was either very late at night or very early in the morning. The stars still shined brightly and there was no one on the streets. The homes were all dark. The truck pulled over on the side of the road and we exited. After Khalfani thanked the old man profusely, he drove away leaving us standing there. For the first time since we started this escape, I felt truly alone. We walked and walked and walked some more. I felt as if my legs would fall off, but we kept walking. The kids were complaining of tiredness and hunger and I knew if we didn't stop to rest and feed them soon, it would be bad for them.
We finally made it to Barchi City Center just as the sun started to rise and we found a place with a fountain where the kids could cool off and we could rest. Khalfani left us for a few moments to find us something to eat and returned quickly with naan, cheese, and fried eggs. I didn't ask where he got the food, I only thanked him for it. We fed the kids and then ate what was left. We drank from the fountain before continuing our journey. The plan was to try and make it to a friend's apartment in Qasaba, right outside the HKIA airport and stay there before attempting to contact our Marine friend.
Other than exhaustion and stress from our travels, we had weathered our journey well. Khalfani's feet were blistered from walking barefooted. He had given his shoes to me because I had broken mine along the way. We were filthy from our journey, but we could see the end of our journey and that empowered us. I was so happy to be another anonymous face amongst a crowd of millions as we made our way through Kabal. People were quick to warn others of the Taliban in the area so those in need could avoid them.
I was very thankful we had made the journey this far without any threats to our own lives, especially when I saw the fences and gates to HIKA across Airport Road. We still needed to cross Airport Road and we needed to also cross Tajikan Road on the northside of HKIA in order to get to our friend's apartment, but I knew the worst of the journey was behind us.
We had just crossed over Airport Road with a large crowd of people and we had stopped in front of the Ministry of Interior. Apparently, a Taliban patrol were stopping people and going through their papers and belongings. The rumor was that if you had any official-looking papers written in English in your possession, they were taking you away. Khalfani began to dig through his bag when he was surrounded by five Taliban all carrying rifles. They asked him what he was doing and before he could explain, one of the Taliban hit him with his rifle and then ordered his men to take all of us over to a truck. When I looked around for help, no one would make eye contact with me. Everyone was afraid of the Taliban and they refused to acknowledge us. It was over!
The Taliban dragged Khalfani over to a U. S. military truck with a Taliban flag on it. Me and my kids followed. One of the Taliban took Khalfani's bag and tossed it onto the hood of the truck and began searching Khalfani for contraband, weapons, and money. They found his waistbelt that contained our family valuables, money, and a little bit of gold. They tossed the belt into the rear of the vehicle and began questioning Khalfani. Ever so often, one the Taliban would strike Khalfani in the face or the back of the head, but he never wavered. Finally, the man seated in the front seat of the truck got out and searched the bag on top of the hood. He looked through the papers before shoving them back into the bag and tossing the bag to Khalfani. Then he let him go with a warning.
When Khalfani returned to us, I asked him what was said and he replied they had stolen all of our valuables, all of our money, everything. He also said they now know what we look like and if we are seen in line to enter the airport, they will shoot us, even our kids. I was afraid but Khalfani looked even more determined. He picked up two of our kids and ordered me to follow him and to stay close. When we made it to the other side of the airport and had crossed Tajikan Road, we stopped. He dug deep into the crotch of his pants and retrieved the cellphone he had secreted there and tried calling his Marine friend.
There was no answer, so he tried again and again and again. Finally, his friend answered the phone. Khalfani explained the situation and told his friend we had made it. He explained we were now going to a friend's apartment in Qasaba and once there, would wait to hear from him on further instructions. The Marine asked him if there had been any troubles and Khalfani said no. Everything was fine. I had heard enough. I love my Khalfani and I trust him. I know he is a brave man, but everything was not fine. I jerked the phone away from him and in my broken English I told the Marine everything was not fine. I explained what had just happened and I told him of the Taliban warning.
There was a long silence and I thought maybe he had hung up or we had disconnected. Then there was a very calm voice that said he understood. He asked me to put Khalfani back on the phone. I did and I listened as the Marine instructed him to not go to Qasaba. Instead, he told us to turn around and walk to the nearest north gate. When we got to the gate, we were instructed to hand our phone to any Marine who would take the phone. He said he would stay on the line. We did as we were told and found a lone Marine, not at a gate but standing watch about 100m from the gate on the inside of the airport fence.
Khalfani put his phone on speaker and the Marine spoke to the Marine on guard duty. I don't know what all was said, but the Marine radioed someone and in a few minutes a large truck with several Marines arrived at our location. They came over the fence like it wasn't even there and they quickly grabbed me and my children and Khalfani and brought us to safety inside the airport. In a matter of a few quick moments and a desperate call for help, our journey to safety was over.
The Marines drove us to a tent where other Marines cared for me and my children. They even took care of Khalfani's feet and someone found him some shoes to wear. We stayed there for only a few hours before we were put on a plane to Germany. From there I'm not sure what lies ahead, but I am told that we will soon be in the land of milk and honey.
Our story has a much happier ending than most. Some people who helped fight against the Taliban during the war won't ever be evacuated. Some will be punished and others may die. Others will eventually be evacuated. I have been asked why we were so lucky. Why were we able to get out so quickly when others wait and languish for their turn. I don't have a solid answer for those people. Luck and determination are certainly a big part of our journey. Fate is another part. We weren't special diplomats with unusual skills or empowering information. We were in the right place at the right time and we had a real live person on the other end of the phone who was just as determined as us to get us help.
If it weren't for that Marine, we would most likely still be in Afghanistan. I might be a widow by now or worse, my children might be orphans. The atrocities the Taliban have brought and will bring to the people of Afghanistan pale in comparison to what will be reported in the news. I could continue writing about this forever because it's just that important. I chose to bring it to a close here. I want to leave you with the thought that regardless of how the U. S. Marines and the People of Afghanistan were introduced to each other so many decades ago, we know who the good guys are and we thank you each and every day for the help you've given us, even when we were three days from nowhere.
The above story is true as told to me by an Afghanistani interpreter and his wife assigned to work with the U. S. Marines in some of the harshest parts of the country. I'm withholding the names to protect their privacy per their request. You will notice many similarities between their story and others that are playing out in real-time daily as the American withdrawal nears.
It has been said that in war there are no winners and losers, only survivors. This is true for Afghanistan too. Even though the Americans will withdraw, there will be other world powers who seek to fill their void. The only constant will be the Afghani People and they are survivors!