SIV applicant in Afghanistan details harrowing Kabul airport experience

On Sunday morning, Same, who had been working as a translator for the U.S. Embassy for four years, went to the Kabul airport with his wife and three young children in his second attempt to leave Afghanistan.

The U.S. Embassy had instructed all American citizens, lawful residents and those who worked with the U.S. government to go to Hamid Karzai International Airport on Monday, Aug. 23. Same (whose last name is being withheld for his safety) and his family sat on the floor, among a crowd of people, waiting at the front of the gate so they could be the first to enter the next morning.

At 7 a.m. on Monday, American soldiers verified Same’s documents and told him to wait behind the gate as they verified other people. But moments later, any hope he had to enter those gates was lost.

“[There were] more than or near to 3,000 people behind the gate. They all are pushing. And the weather was very hot. So it was very hard for my family, especially my kids and their mother. They can’t breathe, there was no water,” he said.

It was only four days earlier that Same and his family had faced similarly difficult conditions. On Aug. 19, he was finally given instructions from the U.S. Embassy to go to the airport, after having submitted his application for an SIV — a Special Immigrant Visa, for Afghans who have worked with the U.S. government — more than a month earlier.

Afghans near the Kabul airport
Afghans at the Kabul airport seeking to flee the country after the Taliban takeover. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

During their first attempt to leave Afghanistan, Same had waited outside the airport gates overnight. After watching evacuation by other nations, including the United Kingdom, Italy and France, he was told that the U.S. was not working that day, despite the email notice, and the remaining crowd was instructed to return the following day.

As he left the airport, Same said he saw the Taliban pushing people, using gunfire and hitting people with guns in the large crowds outside the airport. He knew it was not safe to be there and rushed home with his family.

The chaos at the airport remained the same on Monday — with people pushing each other and tear gas being fired into the crowd. Again, Same and his family returned to their home, where he had already begun to see the trauma of the past week manifest.

“[My children and their mother] were in a very bad situation. They [are] shocked,” he said. His wife woke up from a nap in a frenzy, he said, asking “Where’s my boy?” as Same comforted her.

Now the family remains in their home, unsure if they should try again. Same does not want to put his wife and children through such a difficult experience for a third time. He feels frustrated with how the U.S. is handling the evacuation of SIV applicants.

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the Kabul airport on Aug. 20. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

“I don't know why the United States Army didn’t [take] any action,” he said. “They were just there watching people die.”

The administration has come under immense pressure to expedite the evacuation process for Afghan SIV applicants and other Afghan refugees. The U.S. has evacuated approximately 37,000 people from the country since Aug. 14.

On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy released guidance on who should come to the Hamid Karzai International Airport that states that specific instructions have been given to those groups, including U.S. citizens and SIV applicants.

But it also warns that the evacuation may not be as immediate as hoped for. “Please understand, however, that this process may take an extended period,” the guidance reads.

Paula Bronstein contributed to this reporting with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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