Johnny finally heard from his parents in Afghanistan after two weeks where he could not reach them.
“Johnny 5” is the nickname the US Marines in Afghanistan gave him while working as an interpreter between 2010 and 2013. He came to the US in 2014, and now lives in Fitchburg. WPR does not use its real name to protect its family, which is still in Afghanistan.
“Their phone was off and I was a little worried about them,” Johnny said.
Johnny’s parents, siblings and other immediate family members have been living in hiding in Kabul since the U.S. military withdrew from their country in late August.
Because Johnny and his brother both worked as interpreters, his family received approval from the U.S. State Department to be evacuated in the final days of the military withdrawal. But Johnny said his elderly parents and young sisters were unable to find their way through the crowds that surrounded the airport. While two of his brothers arrived on a plane out of the country, 13 of his family members were left behind.
Johnny said his family’s home is about half an hour north of Kabul, but his parents decided to stay in the city and have changed places and lived with trusted family and friends.
“We grew up in a place where everyone knows us. Like our friends, our family, our relatives and the neighbors, the people we went to school with. They’re the same people, it never changes,” Johnny said.
This close-knit community has become a threat to his family, who do not know which neighbors can tip the Taliban about their connection to the US military.
“You do not even want to know that someone has reported you. They just come at night and knock on your door and they just take you to an unknown place … and they just disappear. That is it,said Johnny.
He said none of his family members are working right now and that the money is scarce, especially because the prices of everyday commodities like oil and flour are more than double what they were before the Taliban took power.
“They say that (Kabul) is not the same as it used to be. You know how it was crowded, how people were happier and they were able to walk. It is not the same anymore,” said Johnny. “All they see is that the Taliban are using the old government vehicles, they are wearing their flags and they are looking for people.”
Remembers his first encounters with the Taliban
Johnny said that the fear and chaos his family is currently experiencing reminds him of one of his first experiences with Taliban fighters as a child – during the Taliban’s first takeover of Afghanistan in 1996.
He remembers his mother telling him and his siblings that they should stay home from school one day. Johnny, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, said his father was not home and that his mother kept looking outside.
“How and there she threw out some words and said like ‘Oh, I feel something is happening outside’ and ‘I feel like some people are coming’. And we just did not know, we had no idea what was going on. happened, “he said.
Eventually, a helicopter was shot down near their house, creating a deafening explosion. Johnny still remembers the sound and the fear his family felt. He said one of their neighbors came to check on them shortly after. The man said Taliban fighters had already taken over his house nearby.
“There came a whole lot of cars and stuff like that, they had people with ammunition and all. And we were so scared we thought, ‘What’s going to happen now?'” Johnny remembered.
Johnny said the neighbor’s father had been injured in the crossfire and a couple of Taliban soldiers had agreed to drive him to the nearest clinic in Kabul. That was when Johnny’s mother decided it was time for them to leave too.
“She had a smart decision at the time. She was like, ‘Oh, we should go too, because I’m sure they will take him to a place where there is no fight going on,'” he said. he.
Johnny said they drove in the rental of the fighter jets’ pickup truck down a main road into the capital. He remembers seeing corpses along the sides of the road where the fighting had taken place.
“I kept an eye on the Taliban. They stepped on my stomach to see if they were still alive or not, to check on them,” Johnny said. “These are the moments I will never forget. That’s how I imagine the Taliban.”
He said his family returned to their house later and found it had burned to the ground. He believes Taliban fighters found his parents’ television, a luxury in his neighborhood at the time, but one that was badly seen by armed Islamist group known for its strict cultural rules.
Now, 25 years later and thousands of miles away from his parents and siblings, Johnny said he keeps wondering what his 7-year-old sister is experiencing with this new era of Taliban fighters, and about his family on a will somehow succeed in escaping the violence forever.
An impossible situation
Johnny is a full time student at the university. But every spare moment he has had in recent weeks has been spent trying to call the U.S. State Department or the offices of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to ask for help getting his family out of Afghanistan.
He said the instructions he has received from federal officials so far seem impossible to follow.
“All they tell me is to take your family out to another country, which is impossible for me,” Johnny said. “(My family’s) passports were thrown away while trying to get through the crowd and go to the airport. So they were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint and their passports have been thrown away … How to leave a country, how should they go to another country if they do not have a passport, how is that even possible? “
A State Department spokesman said in an email that “all eligible and referred Afghans (US Refugee Admissions Program) must be outside Afghanistan in a third country in order for their cases to be processed.
“We recognize that it is extremely difficult for Afghans to get to a third country,” the spokesman said in the email. “We continue to call for safe passage for all those wishing to leave Afghanistan, and we have been very public about advocacy with other countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement and to allow entry for Afghans seeking protection. . “
Johnny said the passport offices in Kabul were recently reopened, but the same crowd that once surrounded the airport now needs the office. Like the United States, Johnny said many Afghans do not have a passport and never expected to try to flee their country.
But even more troubling than the crowd is the fact that going to a government office makes his family known to just the people they are trying to hide from.
“I say to them, ‘Do not even do that, because right now they do not even know where you live. But if you go there and someone recognizes you … it will be an easier catch,'” Johnny said.
Zac Lois is a former member of the US Army Special Forces and grew up in Burlington. He now works as an eighth grade social studies teacher in New York State. But for the past two months, he has been helping Task Force Pineapple, a group of veterans from across the country, evacuate Afghans with ties to the United States, such as Johnny’s family.
“Most of these people are people we know personally. They are our former combat interpreters. They are former Afghan special forces and commandos that we served with in Afghanistan,” Lois said.
Lois said Johnny’s concerns about the safety of applying for a passport are justified. His group has heard reports of people agreeing to apply for documents and have been arrested instead.
He said it was “very unlikely” that people whom the Taliban considered high-value targets would be able to leave Afghanistan on their own. Lois said the Taliban control airports, so anyone traveling by plane must go through what he calls the “Taliban TSA.” His group has also heard reports that the Taliban have gained access to US biometric systems left behind in the evacuation and have used it to verify whether anyone is a target.
“(The people we help) can not work, so funding is a major issue. They are being hunted down, so they need any support they can get to be given intelligence and early warning and a safe house,” said Lois. “But just also navigating the process. We spend 20 hours a day on this, and we still do not always have a good understanding of what the (immigration) process is.”
He said the task force has been instructed in only evacuating persons with U.S. citizenship, permanent residence permits or a completed special immigrant visa or SIV, a specific program for Afghans who helped the U.S. military. That excludes many people who applied for visas this summer in hopes of being evacuated.
In collaboration with other veteran groups, the task force has compiled a list of 100,000 people they believe are eligible for evacuation.
A State Department spokesman said in an email that the agency is working on a case-by-case basis to help U.S. citizens and their immediate families leave Afghanistan. They said that as space becomes available, they will also facilitate departures for legal residents and SIV holders. But the agency “does not provide accelerated departure or resettlement support in the United States for extended family members of U.S. citizens.”
Lois said it could take years to help all the people affected by the U.S. withdrawal. But Johnny said his family and friends, who also worked as interpreters, hope to find a more immediate way out of the country.
After 40 years of conflict in his home country, Johnny said that all he wants is peace for the people of Afghanistan, whether it is under the control of the previous government or the Taliban. But he has become discouraged by the news of continued explosions and violence in the capital.
“If peace does not come, then I want my family to be evacuated somewhere. As a US citizen, I think I have a right to ask the US government (for help),” Johnny said. “It’s not like we did not work for this country. I served and I worked. I worked hard in a really dangerous place … That life does not matter to me if they die. Everything I want, is just someone to help me, to evacuate my family. “