When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, a former Afghan army colonel named Mohammed became part of the massive crush of people trying to flee at the Kabul airport last week.
Mohammed and his family — a wife and five children — waited for hours to reach a Taliban checkpoint outside the airport. He presented identification documents that included his U.S. Social Security card and a Texas driver’s license, both acquired during two training stints at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, more than a decade ago.
He hit a wall of hostility.
“The Taliban stopped everybody, including me,” said Mohammed, who is being identified by only his first name to protect him from possible Taliban reprisals. “When they saw American documents, they wanted to tear them all up. But my wife yelled at them. She didn’t allow them to tear up the documents.”
The gutsy move by his wife saved the documents. But the Taliban ordered Mohammed and his family sit on the side of the street, which they did for hours.
That evening, while they were still there, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives nearby, killing 13 American troops and more than 100 Afghans.
The bombing was the final straw in a series of events that convinced Mohammed that it was too risky to try to make it out through the Kabul airport.
“We left Kabul because we can’t live there. The Taliban are seeking us,” said Mohammed, who spoke to NPR by cell phone from northern Afghanistan, where he and his family are now in hiding.
He’s now part of a group of about 20 families, more than 100 people altogether, who quietly traveled by bus to the northern part of the country in hopes of finding a way out.
On the bus trip, the men wore the same all-encompassing burkas as the women so the Taliban wouldn’t stop and search them.
All the families have members who were part of Afghanistan’s collapsed military. Many, like Mohammed, were instructors at the National Military Academy in Kabul.
Another former instructor is Wazhma, who’s also being identified by just one name for her safety. She says the families are constantly changing locations.
“One night we stay in one place, the next night we stay another place. It is so dangerous for us,” Wazhma said, also by cellphone.
Many Afghans don’t trust Taliban promises
Taliban leaders say the group won’t punish Afghans who worked with the Americans, and are encouraging them to stay. The Taliban are also saying they won’t prevent Afghans from leaving the country if they want to.
But many Afghans don’t believe the Taliban, and say the reality on the ground is proving far different from the statements by group leaders.
Mohammed said the Taliban came for him at his home in Kabul recently, though he wasn’t there at the time.
“The Taliban entered my house looking for me,” said Mohammed. “My children saw the Taliban, and they are really, really afraid of these bearded men.”
Mohammed’s five children range in age from 3 to 15, he said.
Meanwhile, Wazhma says there’s no easy way out of the country. The U.S. military airlift is over. There are no commercial flights, at least for now. And neighboring countries are mostly keeping most Afghans out.
“All the borders are now closed,” said Wazhma. “It is so difficult. At night we can’t sleep. What will happen in the morning?”
Mohammed and Wazhma are both firmly rooted in Afghanistan. They had no plans to leave — until the Taliban swept across the country in a matter of days, seizing the capital on Aug. 15.
Because they expected to remain in their homeland, Mohammed and Wazhma hadn’t sought a U.S. Special Immigrant Visa, a program for Afghans who have worked with the U.S. military or government.
They changed their minds and did apply when the Taliban entered Kabul. The Biden administration says it will continue to process the visa applications, but it’s not clear how long this will take, especially now that the U.S. military and diplomats have left the country. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is closed, and operations have been moved for now to Doha, Qatar.
“The Biden Administration has a moral obligation to give a full accounting: What is the exact number of Americans trapped in Afghanistan? What is the exact number of legal permanent residents? How many SIV allies?” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican.
A U.S. effort to get the families out
Lark Escobar, who lives in San Antonio, is working with an informal group of fellow Americans who are urgently trying to help these Afghan families get out. She’s known many of the Afghans since she served as an academic advisor at the National Military Academy in Kabul a decade ago.
“They’re frightened. They’re in hiding. They have no money,” said Escobar, who’s in frequent contact with the group. “And the fear that is very legitimate is that the hotels and safe houses that they’re currently hiding in will turn them over to the Taliban for nonpayment of bills.”
Mohammed says the families feel trapped.
“We don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “We’re just looking for any kind of help. Everybody is afraid. Everybody is nervous.”
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.