Inside Afghanistan, a mad scramble to save those left behind
The avenues of escape for trapped journalists are crumbling. Only the U.S. government may be able to rescue them now.
Journalism is too opaque and misunderstood. Chills gives a behind-the-scenes look at how dangerous investigative journalism gets made.
The gate to Kabul’s former U.S. “Green Zone” stands deserted. There are no canines in its small K-9 unit shed. A portico under which American vehicles used to pass is unmanned, and the traffic lights have been turned off. This is the description inside Kabul from a source on the ground, who told me what had become of the gate through which she would pass each morning to go to work, before the Taliban came.
Yet within the now-abandoned safe zone, people terrified of the Taliban are clinging to what it once symbolized: a harbor for an oppressed people from a fundamentalist, terrorist regime. A number of Afghans targeted for retribution — activists, journalists, ethnic minorities — are now hiding there, despite the surrounding presence of armed Taliban patrols.
I spoke with one journalist who is lying low in the former security zone, on the condition of anonymity because she fears for her safety. The woman worked for an Afghan TV station until the Taliban overtook the city on Aug. 15. She showed up at work the following day and was told she no longer had a job; a man from the Taliban had replaced her. That same day, two Taliban members searched her home, and she fled. She had to leave three of her brothers behind.
Now, she is one of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans doing everything they can to find a way out. But, at this point, she sees no escape route.
“Everyone is rushing to the borders,” the woman, who is in her early 20s, told me. “I’m waiting for an opportunity so I can save my life.”
Because this woman also worked for the Afghan government, I asked whether it or the U.S. had made any arrangements to help her leave the country, considering the dual target on her back.
“No, they didn’t try to get me out,” she said, clearly exhausted. “Because I am a journalist, my life is really in danger. They didn’t pay any attention.”
Over the past couple of weeks, the world watched as the Americans orchestrated a chaotic and dramatic airlift that evacuated nearly 120,000 people out of the country, including thousands of Afghans, to U.S. military bases around the world. But we didn’t see the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who were unable to physically reach the Kabul airfield, or who did not have a visa or a connection to an American, Canadian or European citizen who could advocate on their behalf.
Worse yet, a senior State Department official said Wednesday that a “majority” of Afghans who held, or had applied for, a Special Immigrant Visa — given to people who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government, such as interpreters — were left behind. Just 5 percent of these visa holders and their family members were able to leave Afghanistan, according to the Association of Wartime Allies. Then there are the people who qualify for a different kind of visa, the P-2. This program is for government employees and journalists, including journalists who are employed by the federal U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). They are among those who have not been rescued.
As the military and even the CIA steadily flew their people out, Afghans who have spent the past two decades risking their lives to bring news of the war to Americans, the Afghan people, and the rest of the world are stranded behind enemy lines. At least 550 journalists who work (or have worked) for the USAGM and their families were slated for evacuation by Aug. 31. The USAGM runs Voice of America (VOA) and funds Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). It’s not clear how many staffers made it out, but a USAGM spokesperson told me that “our journalists and their families are among many on the ground who have not yet been evacuated.”
A senior State Department official told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the USAGM staff “was until the very last moment the highest priority.” The official admitted that “the clock just ran out.”
In a statement, Yolanda López, acting director of VOA, said she is “incredibly disappointed that our efforts over the past few weeks to get our colleagues safe passage out of Afghanistan have been unsuccessful.” But she, like several U.S.-based journalists I have spoken with, are still working around the clock to facilitate our colleagues’ evacuation. This week, a fellow journalist in New York who is trying to rescue several stranded employees asked me if I knew anyone in a European embassy in one of the “-stan” countries—that’s how convoluted and widespread the efforts are right now.
But can the journalists even get to Tajikistan? Uzbekistan? Pakistan? Will they be allowed in, even if they are able to make it through the dangerous checkpoints and unrest in these border areas?
Tajikistan has said it will take 100,000 Afghans, but as of August 30, news reports said that only 1,000 people have crossed into the country so far. Now, Tajikistan has suspended border crossings until September 20. As of August 31, Pakistan was discouraging Afghans from heading to its border, and the border with Uzbekistan was closed.
My colleague who is trying to help evacuate a family of Afghan journalists — one of whom works for USAGM — said the Taliban was reportedly taking away passports of U.S. visa holders at the main Tajik crossing. She’s been told that the border guards have even been handing people who attempt to cross illegally back to the Taliban. Still, she is trying to get the Afghan family Tajik visas. She doesn’t have many other alternatives.
Another U.S.-based colleague has been trying to get more than 50 journalists, including one who works for RFE/RL, out of Afghanistan — but to no avail. “Every option we tried was a dead end,” she said. As far as she knows, all of these journalists are sheltering in place.
The uncertainty is one of the hardest elements for these people to manage. The reporter hiding in the former Green Zone stressed that no one knows what will happen next. She and her fellow journalists cannot, of course, make money to survive.
“Everyone in Afghanistan is in a very deep depression,” she said. Her only hope, she added, is that countries like the U.S., Germany and Canada will save her life.
While so many people — be they fellow journalists, NGO staffers or activists — are doing everything they can to extract as many people as possible, the exhaustion and sense of defeat is palpable on both sides: from the people helping, and the people they are trying to help.
Even though my colleague is relentlessly seeking an avenue out for her colleagues, she said she believes there is only one real solution to the problem: “The Defense Department needs to get them.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Washington Monthly.
On Chills, there are no ads, and no outside influences because of it. This is a subscriber-supported space that gives a behind-the-scenes look at how risky investigative journalism gets made, from a journalist with 20 years of experience. Read Chills for free, or subscribe for bonus content like this. You can sign up here. Thank you for supporting independent journalism.