Project Brazen (00:00):
Early one morning at the end of August, a few days before the last of the U.S. troops left Afghanistan, Mohammad and his wife Taara approached the north gate of the Kabul airport and stepped onto a long queue. The line was full of Afghans with green cards. Three layers of armed men stood guard, keeping order. At the outer perimeter, Afghan special forces. At the inner perimeter, Taliban, and at the gate itself, American soldiers from the 82nd airborne division. After the green card holders were cleared to pass, helicopters would lift them over the desperate crowds gathered outside. It was one of the last remaining chances to get inside the airport and out of the country.
Mohammad and Taara were newlyweds. They’d been married a few weeks before in a big ceremony in Kabul. She was just 19 and he was 26. Taara and her family lived in the U.S. and had green cards. They traveled to Afghanistan for the wedding, but Mohammad didn’t have a green card or a U.S. Visa. Just an Afghan passport and a marriage certificate written in Dari, one of our Afghanistan’s main languages. They waited in the queue for three hours, along with Taara’s mother, her three brothers and two sisters, and then around 11: 00 AM. They heard one of the Afghan special forces call their names, but not Mohammad’s name. He wasn’t on the list of Afghans approved to fly. The couple tried to explain he was her husband. Mohammad pulled photos and videos of the wedding on his phone to prove they were married and that he belonged on the plane with her.
The whole family was in shock. How could they separate a young couple? Couldn’t they make an exception? But without the proper documents, no amount of pleading would get him through the gate. Mohammad turned to Taara and told her to go to America without him, to live freely 7,000 miles away. There, in front of the gate, they took a final moment to say goodbye. They didn’t know when they’d see each other again, or if they’d ever have a chance to build a life they’d dreamed of. Taara couldn’t stop crying. Mohammad was gutted too, but tried his best to comfort her.
[foreign language 00:02:30]. It was the worst feeling. Your life partner is leaving you, but you have to let her go because her life is in danger.
He was a little stronger than me, but I was, you know, I was breaking down and crying in tears a lot and he was just telling me “it’s okay.” That was the last words. “That’s okay” and “everything will be all right.” And “you’ll be here one day Inshallah.”
A car pulled up to take Taara’s family through the gate. She turned, while Mohammad watched his wife get into the vehicle, leaving him behind.
From Project Brazen and PRX, this is “Kabul Falling.” I’m your host, Nelufar Hedayat. This is episode five, Land Route.
Mohammad went home alone, shattered. He asked his American friend, Ben Owen, to help him find another way out of Afghanistan, but at this point, there weren’t many options. In the final days of August, leaving the country by air was nearly impossible. The suicide bombing at Kabul Airport had put security on high alert. Then just before midnight on August 30th, the last plane carrying American soldiers took off, leaving the airport compound to the Taliban who now controlled the entire city. Today, nearly a year after saying goodbye to Taara, Mohammad is still in Kabul, waiting for an opportunity to move to the United States and join his wife. In February, the Taliban came looking for him, so he went into hiding. Mohammad had been working with Ben’s charity, delivering food to orphans and other needy people. Ben arranged for him to move to a safe house and is currently helping him through the notoriously slow U.S. Immigration process.
We’ve got a picture of Mohammad and his wife at their wedding hanging in our house so that we see it every single day and we remember what’s at stake here. I firmly believe without a shadow of a doubt I will have him in America one day.
Ben is hopeful that Mohammad will be able to leave Afghanistan soon, maybe even in the next few months, but in the meantime, Mohammad spends his days inside to avoid being captured. He speaks to Taara whenever he can.
The situation is like I’m inside a prison, so the only thing right now I want is to get outside safely.
So I don’t know if it can may happen. I’m just praying. I hope he do, and he come out and come here soon Inshallah.
There are still thousands of Afghans in Mohammad’s position. Wanted by the Taliban, stuck in hiding, praying for a chance to get out. But there are also others who took harrowing risks and made epic journeys to escape after the U.S. troops left Kabul. You heard from Rodaba in our earlier episodes. She’s from Herat, where she was a medical student and part of an all female robotics team. On August 30th, America’s final day in Afghanistan, she was still trying to get into the Kabul airport. Early in the morning, the thunder clap of a rocket blast ripped Rodaba from her sleep. She jumped out of bed in a safe house, suddenly alert her heart racing. Rodaba steadied her nerves. The explosion sounded nearby. She nudged her younger brother Rashid awake. 10 days earlier, they’d made it to Kabul from their home in Herat. Since then, they’d spent most of their time on a series of hot, stuffy buses trying to reach the airport, but they’d run into countless dead ends.
Danna Harman (06:46):
You got to know how to get into the airport. And even when you knew, you could fail a million times over.
That’s Danna Harman, an Israeli American journalist who became friends with Rodaba while writing a story about the robotics team. She’d been in touch with Rodaba constantly since the fall of Kabul, trying to help her evacuate.
Danna Harman (07:06):
There was just one thing after another. And then she got taken off the bus at the last minute, because her papers were not in order. And then she lost her suitcase on another bus.
Rodaba didn’t know who launched the rockets that morning, but Kabul was on edge after the ISIS-K bombing at the airport’s Abbey gate. Just the day before the U.S. claimed to have taken out a car full of suicide bombers with a drone strike, preventing another attack on the airport. Later, the Pentagon admitted they’d gotten the target wrong. That mistake left 10 civilians dead, including an aid worker and seven children. One thing was clear: the sooner Rodaba could get out of Afghanistan, the better. She told her brother to get up and get ready. Danna had another lead.
She called us and told us go to this address, just like five buses for people who have worked with German government. These buses go to the airport.
They headed to the meeting point and found seats on the final bus in the convoy. It drove towards the airport, like all the other buses they had been on and like all the others, it stalled outside the entrance, waiting for the signal to advance. Rodaba and her brother sat inside the bus for hours, sweating as the late summer sun lifted higher in the sky. Around 1:30 in the afternoon, a German man who was one of the organizers, boarded the bus and told everyone to get off. There would be no more trips to the airport that day.
He’d say “We are so sorry, you can just go to your homes. And tomorrow we are going to try it.”
Rodaba wondered how much longer she could keep trying. It seemed hopeless. She and her brother got off the bus, carrying their backpacks. She called Danna and told her she was ready to give up, to head back to the safe house.
Danna, I’m not moving today. I’m not going to airports. And then she was like “No, no, do…
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:09:04]
…not leave it because there’s no more tomorrow. There’s no more airport and no plan. Just go to another location. I will send you.”
Danna told her there was a bus going north to Kunduz province near the border with Tajikistan. Rodaba had no idea what she would do when she got there, but there was no time for questions. The bus was waiting in another part of the city and if she missed it, there might not be another chance. Rodaba flagged down a taxi, jumped inside with her brother and told the driver to step on it.
Even I didn’t have the location yet, I just get into the taxi and I told the man, “Just please start driving. I will give you the location. Please rush.”
Danna traveled to have Afghanistan for the first time 20 years ago, in the early days of the American invasion and she returned for several reporting trips. She likes to keep in touch with people she’s interviewed. So when Kabul fell, the people she’d met in Afghanistan weren’t just another story. They were friends.
Danna Harman (10:16):
There’s a closeness involved with people agreeing to tell you their stories or their secrets, and then you being able to present them. So there’s a certain intimacy that sometimes I keep going with it and maintain friendships over the years.
With the Taliban in control, she was worried about Rodaba and the other girls on the robotics team. Danna wrote an Instagram post about what was happening to young women in Afghanistan, and then a story for an Israeli newspaper called Haaretz.
Danna Harman (10:47):
Then I thought, “Could I do more than that?”
Danna is someone who’s used to doing more.
Danna Harman (10:55):
Most schools of journalism tell you that you should be somewhat of an objective observer and I am. I am a good journalist, but I definitely have a tendency to get over-involved. My mom always says that to me, as do my editors. For example, one time I was covering in the earthquake in Nepal. And since then, I have these two little girls who are basically my adopted little sisters and I’ve paid for their school and I’m involved with their parents and I speak to them three, four times a week.
So Danna joined a global community of volunteers working around the clock to help Afghans evacuate. Soon she found herself in dozens of WhatsApp groups with other journalists, former service members, and anyone else with a connection to Afghanistan who wanted to help. Through one of these groups, Danna received work from Sylvan Adams, a Canadian Israeli businessman. He was a real estate tycoon, a billionaire and an avid cyclist. He wanted to help evacuate a group of female cyclists in Afghanistan, and if Danna and her team could coordinate the logistics, he would pay for a plane. Like any reporter piecing together a story, Danna seized on the lead and started researching.
Danna Harman (12:08):
So where could we pick up a plane? Where would the plane go? Where would be the next and the next and the next destination? Because it’s like a domino situation, whereby you actually have to start at the end. Where are they heading?
She worked closely with two Canadian lawyers trying to figure out the Kafkaesque process for getting Afghan refugees cleared to land and she reached out to any connections that might be able to help.
Danna Harman (12:33):
I called a friend of my parents who’s the former minister of justice in Canada. His office wrote us a letter, which was pretty broad. It said Canada would look favorably on such high caliber Afghans coming to its country. We then put that letter on top of our Excel list of all the people in our group and it sort of looked like they were welcoming us in.
At times, it felt like one step forward, two steps back.
Danna Harman (13:02):
But Canada can’t let them in without a whole long process. And where will they sit while they’re doing that process? So we need to find a country that will let them sit there for a while and then we need to find a neighboring country that will let them pass through. So those are all different pieces of the puzzle and each one is reliant on another country saying yes.
By now, the number of people Danna was trying to evacuate had grown.
Danna Harman (13:27):
About 20 people in Kabul waiting on me and my friends, who basically don’t know what we’re doing, to figure out a plan.
So they figured it out on the fly. It was too late to get a plane, but they would find a way to get the group out of Afghanistan.
Danna Harman (13:43):
We just started looking at maps and putting our heads together, thinking where we could cross.
Like Rodaba, Shaima, a 20-year-old cyclist from the mountainous province of Bamiyan, had broken barriers for young women in Afghanistan. When she was 18, she joined a local cycling team where boys and girls trained together. It was rare for girls to ride bikes in Afghanistan and some people in the community didn’t accept it. But peddling through the Bamiyan Valley, taking in views of the steep sandstone cliffs and snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains, Shaima felt free and she wanted to share that feeling with others.
I joined to the cycling team because I really love freedom and cycling was one of the measure or sport that shows the freedom of women in Afghanistan. We wanted to create some kind of freedom for ourself and for the other girls to see us and learn to have their own freedoms.
Shaima was a role model for many around her. One of her younger sisters followed in her footsteps and joined the cycling team too. Before Kabul fell, Shaima was excited to start university and for the upcoming cycling season. She thought one day she might like to become a cycling coach. None of that would be possible with the Taliban in power.
I called to everyone that I know to please help me, that if Taliban understand that I’m a cyclist girl, they will kill me.
But for more than a week, no help came. Shaima grew increasingly anxious. She stopped eating and she couldn’t sleep.
I lost my hope, my ambition. I was in a situation that I did not know what to do.
Finally, on August 25th, one of her cycling coaches called. They’d been contacted by a foreigner offering to help. There were no guarantees, but if Shaima could get to Kabul, she might be able to get out of Afghanistan. It would be very expensive to pay a driver for the four-hour trip to the capital. But her mum pressed the money into Shaima’s hand and hugged her girls goodbye. In Kabul, Shaima and her sister stayed with an aunt and waited for further instructions from her cycling coach. Some of the other girls from the team had made it to the capital too, staying in hotels or with relatives. They tried to get into the airport three times, but like so many others, they never made it through the gates. Plan B was to try leaving Afghanistan by car. They could drive to the Tajik border and attempt to cross there, but it would be risky. Shaima’s coach told her to ask her parents for permission to go.
If your parents allowed all of you, we will go from border.
Shaima’s parents were wary. To them, this was a suicide mission. It was a nine-hour drive from Kabul to the border through Taliban territory. They were young women and they were Hazaras, members of an ethnic minority group that Taliban persecuted, but Shaima took a deep breath and told them…
It will be a hard journey, but it is not harder than living in Afghanistan.
Shaima’s parents eventually agreed to let her go. They had raised their daughters to be strong and proud, and there was no future for women like that in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. On August 30th, Shaima put on a blue burqa, left her aunt’s house in Kabul and boarded a bus to Kunduz. Danna had instructed all the girls on the cycling team to wear the burqas. That was how the bus driver would know who to pick up. There were about 40 people on board, including 18 girls from the cycling team, one girl from the Herat girls robotics team, an Afghan singer, and some of their family members. In the end, there wasn’t room for Shaima’s younger sister and she went back home to Bamiyan. The bus was about to pull away from the curb when a boy ran up with a young woman following…
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:18:04]
…not far behind. It was Rodaba.
I saw that the bus started to drive and it was… already the driver turn on the key. And I just told my brother, “Go to the bus and sit down. I will come.”
She couldn’t believe she’d made it. She quickly paid the taxi driver who had zoomed through side streets to get them there and climbed on board. On all the other buses, Rodaba had never felt certain she was actually going to leave Afghanistan, but this time she was sure. With a gentle lurch, the bus began to move.
On the outskirt of Kabul, Taliban fighters stopped the bus at a checkpoint setting everyone on edge. But the Taliban just asked the bus driver where they were going and he repeated the story they had all agreed on beforehand.
We are going to our wedding party. We are all relatives and we are going from Kabul to Kunduz.
The guard waved them through and soon they were on the highway. They passed through city after city and day gave way to night. Rodaba dozed off.
And then suddenly somebody just told us, “Hey, wake up, wake up.” And we saw that there were two Talib men. They came into the bus, they talked with the driver like, “Who you are? Where are going? What’s the purpose of your trip?”
Rodaba slipped her phone and her papers under her clothes. But the driver repeated the story that they were going to a wedding and the Taliban let them go. It was well after midnight when they pulled into a border town in Kunduz province. The group hadn’t been cleared to enter Tajikistan yet. Danna and her contacts were still working on that.
The bus let them out in front of a rundown building. Inside there was just one big room. There were no sheets, no blankets, no pillows and no air conditioning. The women laid down on the hard floor and the men had to sleep outside on the road. They all tried to get some rest. They spent the next day waiting inside. Around four in the afternoon, one of the men in or Rodaba’s group rushed into the room and said-
“Hey, get out. We are going to go to the border.”
Rodaba was surprised. Danna had told her to be patient, that it might be a while until they get permission to cross. But others in the group were saying the Taliban had convinced the Tajik government to open the border for just one hour. It sounded too good to be true. After all, there were thousands of Afghans hoping to get across. But before Rodaba could figure out what to do, a group of Taliban stormed in and told everyone to leave.
We saw that there were two buses and the Taliban that time, they were just pushing everyone. Even they hit one… they hit some people to get into the bus. One of the mother of my teammate, the Taliban just tried to hit her with a piece of wood. She was trying to get the suitcases, and then the Taliban were trying to hit her just to leave, even not to take the suitcase.
Rodaba didn’t understand. They wanted to get out of a Afghanistan. The Taliban also wanted them out of the country. So why were they acting this way? They got back on the bus. It was a 20-minute drive to the border, but soon Rodaba realized they were going in the wrong direction, away from Tajikistan.
Suddenly I just had a look to the driver and the guard, which was sitting next to the driver.
Both men had long beards and fierce sunken eyes, darkened by circles of eyeliner. They wore traditional embroidered caps and carried large guns slung across their shoulders. It hit Rodaba like the crack of a whip. The Taliban had taken over their bus.
The bus continued barreling forward away from the border and back towards Kabul. The girl spoke in hushed voices trying to figure out what was happening. Had they just been kidnapped? Rodaba knew one thing. She did not want to go back to Kabul. Somehow she had to stop this bus.
To be honest, that day, the men were silent. I was telling them, “Why you do not speak?” Yelling on them, start talking on them, “We don’t want to go back to Kabul.”
The women started shouting at the driver to stop.
We were starting yelling and talking them, “Hey, if you don’t want to go to Kabul, stop the bus.” And all the women were like yelling.
The Taliban ignored them. The driver kept going, his eyes fixed on the road ahead, but Rodaba kept shouting at them to stop. One of the men in the group turned around and hissed-
“These are Taliban. Shut up. If you do not be quiet or silent, they just will start even shoot on you. So be quiet, be silent. Then we can decide what’s going on.”
The bus rolled to a stop in the middle of the desert. A white Toyota Corolla pulled up. Two more Taliban fighters stepped out. The driver and guard got off the bus to talk to them. Rodaba started shaking and tears rolled down her face.
All of us thought that these Talibans are here because this is a big desert. There is no one. They will just take all our 42 people and they will kill us. And then they will bury us into this, and then no one will understand what happened to us. Everyone was so scared and they started reading a piece of holy Quran, and they thought this is the last minutes of their life. Some of them were crying, praying for God to bless them.
She looked out of the window. She saw no grass, no trees, nothing but sand and dust and packed yellow dirt, stretching for miles in every direction. Her brother was seated at the front of the bus, several rows away. She wondered if she’d seen him for the last time.
We just remember the whole, our life memories, the whole past, the whole families, friends.
Rodaba began to pray.
“If I’m going to just go die and buried in this big desert, what will happen? My brother, my family. How was my mother feeling to just lose about two kids.”
Then after a few minutes, Rodaba watched the two Taliban fighters get back into the white Corolla. The car sped off down the road. The Taliban boss driver and the guard got back onto the bus. Without a word, they began driving again, back in the direction of the border. Rodaba isn’t sure why, but the Taliban driver took them back and dropped everyone off at a bus station. The fighters never provided any explanation. It was getting dark and under the Taliban regime, women aren’t supposed to be out at night unless they are chaperoned by male relatives. They were a big group of women with only a handful of men. People were staring and more Taliban fighters were walking around. They needed to get out of there. Over WhatsApp, Danna helped lead them to a safe house. Meanwhile, she was pulling out all the stops, still trying to get permission for the group to cross the border.
Danna Harman (26:03):
We just got an onslaught of pressure on the Tajiki government. We had everyone calling them. We found out that… I found someone who is the jeweler for the Tajik president’s wife. We found out that he likes this specific Bukharan dancer in New Jersey. We got her to make a video. I mean, we went all out. He must have thought we were crazy VIPs. Tony Blair called him.
Countless Afghan refugees had come to the Tajik border, hoping to cross. The authorities weren’t letting anyone through. But after three days, Danna’s relentless campaign paid off. The Tajik government agreed to make an exception for their group.
Danna Harman (26:44):
They said we could come through the border, but then we had to leave after 24 hours.
That was all Danna needed to hear. She still had to find a second country to take the group while their Canadian visas were being processed. But that could wait until everyone got into Tajikistan. On Rodaba’s fourth…
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:27:04]
… day in Kunduz, three cars arrived to drive them to the border. Now there was nothing between them and Tajikistan, but a long bridge crossing to the other side of a wide river. In the middle of the bridge, they were greeted by a pair of volunteers and a Tajik border official.
And they had a list they were checking and telling us, “What’s your name? What’s your last name?” We told them, they put a tick mark on it. And then they said, “Welcome to Tajikistan.”
Rodaba turned around. She had to take one last look at what she was leaving behind.
When they said, “Welcome to Tajikistan,” to be honest, I had two feelings. I felt happy and comfortable because after a long time of trying, I could just get into that. But another feeling that I had was I was thinking that I will never see my family again, I will never see the Afghanistan again. And it was so complicated. It was near to sunset. The river was so beautiful that day. And I miss Afghanistan again.
One of the volunteers waiting on the bridge that day was Anahita Saymidinova, a Tajik journalist. She had never met Rodaba or Shaima or any of the other young women in the group, but she felt a connection to them. And she was particularly inspired by the Bamiyan cycling team.
The cycling for me is something very amazing you know. I can’t do it. But for me to see these women and girls, like “Wow you do it,” and so I was asking them how.
Anahita’s husband is also a journalist and works in Israel. He put her in touch with the Israeli embassy who connected her with Danna. Anahita jumped into action, helping to coordinate evacuation logistics on the Tajik side. That day on the bridge, she waited for more than three hours, and finally she spotted the girls.
They were shaking. They were very scared. So we were trying to talk to them, but of course they were traumatized.
Anahita noticed how little luggage they had. And she tried to crack a joke to make them laugh, but it didn’t go over well.
I said, “Oh, so your life, you put it in this one small bag.” And one of them started crying and I was like, “Oh my God, what did I say?”
Here’s Shaima, the cyclist from Bamiyan.
It was really painful for us that we did not… from all our life, we just carry one bag with ourself. And we were crying here that how life is hard and how life is painful.
After crossing the border, the girls removed their burqas and boarded a bus that took them another three hours north to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. On the way, they sang a song called Sarzamin-e-man. It means my country in Dari. It’s an emotional song written in 1998 when the Taliban were in power. It’s about what it’s like to live in exile and to love a country that’s been scarred by decades of war and ruled by oppressive regimes.
I remember hearing my mom sing this song from time to time when I was growing up in London. She’d be standing in our kitchen cooking whilst I was watching TV in the living room. She’d warble the long note on man, the my in my country. And I’d hear her voice break with sadness. It’s strange to hear it here. It echoes my own past as a refugee. “I’ve become homeless,” the song begins. “My country, so exhausted from persecution. My country without any hymn and song like a desert full of dust. They stole your treasures to enrich themselves. Everyone in turn broke your heart.” When the girls finished singing, everyone on the bus was in tears.
Danna had flown to Dushanbe to meet the group. At the hotel, she embraced Rodaba. And for the first time in weeks, she felt a wave of relief. No matter what else might happen, they had managed to get these 42 Afghans out of the country. In the evening, everyone gathered in a large ornate banquet hall.
Danna Harman (31:50):
They treated us like VIPs, and it was a big celebration.
Long tables spilled with food and drink. A Tajik singer gave a live performance, and one of the Tajik government ministers even showed up with his son. They sang, danced and laughed.
Danna Harman (32:05):
It was really joyful to see them. And it was monumental. They were incredibly thankful, and I was incredibly thankful to… I don’t know, to life that allowed me to help them out to such an extent.
But Danna was getting tons of messages from Afghans who still needed help.
Danna Harman (32:29):
I don’t even understand how we suddenly quickly turned around and went back in to do another round. But I guess we felt that we had a system, and so maybe we could do it again. And either because we were cocky or because things changed, we didn’t succeed in the same manner and everything went really wrong.
On the next episode of Kabul Falling.
Danna Harman (33:00):
Oh my God, this is not a joke. Just walk these people into an ambush.
Going to the border has thousand percent chance to be killed. Even now. I can’t believe how it happened. Each kilometer of that road was like, “I am going to die.”
We want to hear from you. Please get in touch via our website, kabulfalling.com, or you can send a voice message or tweet using hashtag #kabulfalling. We’ll share some of the best responses during the course of the show. Also, to support the women of Kandahar Treasure, you can buy one of their hand-embroidered scarves on our website. 100% of the proceeds will go to this women-owned collective in Afghanistan.
Kabul Falling is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. It’s hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, are executive producers. Sandy Smallens is the executive producer for Audiation. Our managing producer is Lucy Woods and Ireland Meacham is the producer. Susie Armitage is our co-producer and story editor. And Siddhartha Mahanta is our consulting producer. Our associate producers are Dan Xin Huang, Fatima Faizi, Francesca Gilardi-Quadrio-Curzio, and Neha Wadekar. Additional reporting was done by Nigel Walker. Our translators are Hasan Azimi and Muhibullah Shadan. Arson Fahim composed the original theme music. Sound design, musical scoring, and mixing by Brad Stratton. Cover design by Ryan Ho and Jane Zisman. Embroidery by Women of Kandahar Treasure. Additional audio and video by Nicholas Brennan, Megan Dean, and KK, with special thanks to Clayton Swisher. For more information on the people featured in this podcast and additional interviews, visit kabulfalling.com.
PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [00:35:11]