KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — While some 120,000 people were evacuated by the United States and its partner nations in the final frantic weeks of the US withdrawal and Taliban takeover of the country, hundreds of thousands more remain, still desperate to flee — turning to any route possible and in fear for their lives.
“It has been my third time changing locations in the last couple of months,” Mir, 28, says anxiously from a distant relative’s home a couple of hours from an Afghan border town. “Everyone locally here knows me as ‘the driver.’ My youngest brother last year was targeted and killed by unknown people. Taliban carry night raids now and take people out. I am safe because they haven’t located me so far.”
Mir started his 12-year run as a driver for the US military and contractors when he was just 16 years old, he explains, unveiling a trove of carefully kept certificates, documents and letters of recommendation. He and six other members of his family — including his mother, sister, niece, wife and their two children, ages 4 and 8 months — at the time were waiting on tenterhooks to get the green light on an escape plan.
Often, such operations are coordinated by US veterans groups in a bid to help those who aided and served the United States through its 20-year presence in the conflict-ridden country.
“We have created a series of covert routes which we use to extract Afghan families under threat and deliver them to the relative safety of neighboring countries,” says Ephraim Mattos, a former Navy SEAL and founder of the NGO Stronghold Rescue & Relief.
“Stronghold’s extraction routes are operated solely by courageous Afghan personnel who put their lives on the line to protect and escort at-risk families through the complex routes until they reach safety,” Mattos said. “In addition, our former special ops personnel support these operations from outside of Afghanistan itself.”
Mir said he had not received any direct threats or correspondence from the Taliban, yet his sister Aki claims her husband disappeared when the extremist group took Kandahar several days before Kabul fell.
“He used to work at the Kandahar airport, he had a shop,” she says. “I don’t know where he is, if he is in jail, or alive, or dead.”
The family waited together in that small living room before finally getting the coveted call this week that a driver was waiting — and within hours, they were in a safe house on the Pakistan side of the border.
According to Mattos, families are provided at least three nights in their arrival country to rest and plan their next moves. During those few days, a team member assists the family with starting an initial visa application — but that is all the visa support they can give.
“After the three nights at the safe house, we give the family a pre-determined amount of financial support, which is equivalent to about three months of the family’s projected expenses, so they can either start a small family shop or travel to live with friends or family,” he explains. “And then the family sets off on their own — usually to meet with relatives — and then we prep for the next family.”
Foreign governments have continued evacuation flights, mainly to Qatar, in the wake of the complete US exit last month. However, these are mostly for foreign passport holders or permanent residents in other countries — leaving Afghan minorities, women, activists and even those with fully vetted relocation documentation stranded with little recourse.
Many were told to stay in the safety of their homes in the chaotic twilight days of the US presence — informed that they would “get a call” to come to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. But the last planes lifted off, and that much-anticipated call never arrived.
“In the days and weeks prior to the fall of HKIA, I saw that there was going to be the current desperate need for an Underground Railroad of sorts to rescue the families who were left behind,” Mattos explains. “If we can help a family, we will, and as a general rule, we move families in the order they were referred to us. The only exception is for extreme risk cases which require immediate and priority extraction.”
Immediately after the takeover of the Presidential Palace on Aug. 15, Taliban authorities announced a “general amnesty” across the entire country, stressing that there would be no retaliation against any Afghan regardless of their work for the US or Afghan militaries of the previous government.
“They are making announcements to come and live freely but I don’t trust them,” Mir warns.
There have been numerous reports of individuals being dealt with with vicious wrath. Several Afghans said the Taliban have come to their doors “with a list” seeking information about loved ones who held high intelligence and military positions. A query alone is enough to send most Afghans into hiding. Chilling videos have also emerged online showing police and military commanders in various provinces being executed in recent weeks.
Yet we have also spoken to numerous Afghan army and intelligence commanders who say they have not been targeted or contacted by the Taliban, despite their roles in the 20-year conflict.
In addition to safety concerns permeating the lives of many left behind, Afghans are in a dire economic and humanitarian spiral as banks remain cash-strapped. The foreign aid that once poured into the country is frozen. Burqa-clad beggars line the roads with ill and hungry young children, and many have been forced to sleep in mosques or squalid camps — dependent on locals for donations.
Some activists have also expressed concern over the safety of the small Christian community — estimated to number around 10,000 and mostly comprised of converts from Islam — left behind in Afghanistan. The former government, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, did not recognize any Afghan as a Christian and converting was considered illegal. It is expected that the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will take an even more stringent approach to religious diversity. Even before the Taliban’s rapid rise to power last month, monitoring group Open Doors deemed Afghanistan the second-worst country for Christians.
“We’ve extracted a total of 44 people so far — 31 of the group were children, and seven were Christians,” Mattos says. “The list at this point is close to 200 people — many of whom are Christians. We desperately need more support to get the Christian families out in particular.”
Washington has not carved out a special status for Christians or other religious minorities endeavoring to enter the US. However, provisions have been made for women at risk, journalists, academics, pilots and those who worked in the civil society sector. Moreover, there is little in the way of adequate housing or camps for internally — or externally — displaced Afghans.
“People are fleeing the country for a myriad of reasons — some security, some economical, some religious — but all reasons lead back to one thing: the takeover of the Taliban and the withdrawal of US military security forces,” Mattos notes. “The biggest challenge with our process is that the international community still has yet to set up adequate refugee camps and processing centers to help these refugees.”
Despite Pakistani authorities having almost entirely shuttered the major border crossings between the two countries, for those with some semblance of support, there is a sliver of hope.
Smugglers lurk indiscriminately inside the crowded border tow Spin Boldak. Many distraught Afghans lamented to me this week that ruthless smugglers took much of their precious savings and failed to deliver on promises to get them across.
Yet it is a risk that many are still willing to take.
“Injured people are dying here — women, kids,” one young tradesman tells me breathlessly as he searches for a way out along the border, having been waiting days to make a legal crossing without success. “What else can we do?”