The collapse of Kabul, the families of tears are separated
Just a year ago, Farhad Wajdi was in Kabul with his parents and siblings, running a non-profit organization that set up local women with street food carts.
They were attracting international media headlines and gaining support from US-based NGOs and the Afghan government. But now, the Taliban’s return to power in the country, which happened much more quickly than US or Afghan officials said was possible, has upended the family’s fortunes and tore it between two countries.
The United States withdrew its last remaining troops from Afghanistan on Monday, signaling the end of its 20-year war in the country. But the legacy of US actions in the country will continue through families like the Wagdy as well as the often terrifying consequences they face. The Wajdi organization has attracted coverage in media outlets such as The Guardian, BBC News and Al Jazeera as well as recognition and financial support from international organizations such as the US-based Asia Foundation and Global Citizen. The Afghan government has even donated the recovered motorcycles to non-profit organizations. But it was this interest that eventually forced him to leave his country last year – and now he is putting his family at risk.
He noted that Wagdy lives in Virginia, where he moved last year to seek asylum after his life was threatened by ISIS militants. He had arrived in America before his parents and siblings, and planned to eventually join him – but none of them realized the short time they had left before the government collapsed. Since the Taliban came to power, Wajdi’s family has been in hiding, and he has called everyone he knows to try to evacuate them. Many people and organizations have tried, but nothing has worked.
The nonprofit organization of their families’ food cart enabled women to sell quick lunches like pasta and rice to pedestrians in Kabul. Street food is popular in Kabul, but it is usually sold by men. When Wagdy started the organization by helping his family in 2010, one of the problems was that women had to push carts themselves, and that was a taboo, Wagdy said. “Culturally,” he said, “it is considered a very bad thing for a woman to push a cart.”
As a result, my grandfather and his father, who was knowledgeable about electronics, worked together to design solar-paneled carts. He said his mother advised and helped wagon sellers. Wagdy said they faced verbal insults and threats, but that the carts helped them earn money for their families, which made a big difference for those widows.
Last year, after Afghanistan went into lockdown due to COVID-19 and street food vendors could no longer operate, the carts were converted into mobile disinfection units.
“Seeing my mom empowered herself, it helped make my vision clearer, and that I had to help more women to be like my mom,” Wajdi said.
But not everyone supported the project. Last summer, my grandfather started getting threatening phone calls.
“With fame, there was a danger to us,” he said. “Someone called me from a private number and said that you are promoting Western thought in Afghanistan.”
More calls came. At first, he didn’t take them seriously. But then he received a message on Facebook, which he shared with BuzzFeed News, threatening to “target [his] workplace and home” and that “his final destination will be Hell.” The account he sent, which appears to be still on Facebook, identified itself as being part of Islamic State Khorasan, a regional branch of the Islamic State that uses the historical name of a region covering parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Modern Era.The letter said Wagdy was targeted for his employment of minority Hazara women as cart sellers.The statement read, “If you surrender yourself to us, we can commute your punishment.”
“I was afraid,” Wajdi said. He closed the office and took about 40 carts to an area near his house. His parents took the threats seriously. Years of living in war showed them that they had to.
The family decided that my grandfather would travel to Virginia to seek asylum, since he already holds a tourist visa to the United States and has an uncle who lives there. His parents, who do not hold US visas, could not accompany him.
It was a painful decision, but at the time, Wajdi assumed he could eventually help his parents join him. But then everything changed.
“Once the Taliban took power, we quickly abandoned our home,” his parents told BuzzFeed News via an email. Their neighbor told them that the gunmen broke into their house as they were leaving, and they searched the place and inquired about them. On the day the Taliban overran Kabul, Wajdi watched television news reports of people flocking to the airport, and there were rumors of Afghan passengers on planes once they were in the right place at the right time. It was dangerous, but given the threats, staying behind could have been worse.
My parents and grandfather decided to take the risk. With their young children, they left behind everything but a few bags of food and drink, and asked a neighbor to keep an eye on the house. For several days, they stayed in areas near the airport, sleeping on the street to avoid wasting any opportunities, and moved from one gate to another based on rumors they had heard of a place that would let people in. Waving papers, they shouted for help to foreign military officials and interpreters. Nobody will interfere.
Wagdy said the water was constantly running out while they were at the airport. “Only people can pass – only you with your documents and children. No bags, no luggage.”
The family spent days in the camp near the airport, praying for her evacuation. (BuzzFeed News is withholding their names for their safety.) My grandfather spent his nights on the phone with his mother, who charged a cell with a power bank. His parents kept saying the same thing: “Son, no progress is happening.” He spent the days making calls to anyone who could help – the institutions that supported him, journalists and friends in the US and Europe.
When terrorists bombed Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday, killing at least 170 Afghans as well as 13 US service members, Wajdi’s family was outside the airport – but at a different gate, where they could hear the explosion but did not feel the impact. They are now in hiding again. Wajdi heard about the bombing on the news – he immediately tried to phone but was unable to reach his parents. “I was very worried,” he said. Eventually, when the cell signal came back, he was able to connect.
Now that the United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan, Wajdi is trying to maintain hope. The Taliban promised to allow Afghans with visas to other countries or foreign passports to leave, but my grandfather does not believe them.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. When you watch the situation on TV, when you see the future of your country, it looks really bleak. You think, what if one day your parents were executed in front of your eyes? “
These days, his mind is filled with what-ifs. Wajdi spoils the excessively rosy expectations of the Afghan and US governments about Kabul’s stability. “That’s why my mom and dad didn’t already have passports,” he said. “We were not mentally prepared to leave the country.” If Wajdi didn’t trust a friend in the Afghan government who sought to allay his fears that the Taliban would quickly defeat the army, he might have seen it coming.
“It feels like we’re still in a dream,” he said. “How can things change so quickly? I never thought that everything would fall apart so easily.”