Trying – and failing – to save the family of the Afghan who saved me

In mid-March, I texted my friend Tahir Luddin, an Afghan journalist living in the Washington area, after I saw a video he had posted on Facebook of his teenage son running on a treadmill. . My text was banal, a quick check-in to see how he and his loved ones felt in the midst of last year’s isolation. “How is your family? How are you?” I wrote. “See the pictures of your children on FB. Your son is very tall !!! ” Tahir did not respond. At that point, I did not worry and assumed he would return to me. Our communication was sporadic, but our bond was unusual.

Twelve years ago, Tahir, an Afghan driver named Asad Mangal, and I were kidnapped by the Taliban after one of their commanders invited me for an interview outside Kabul. Our guards moved us from house to house and eventually brought us into the remote tribal areas of Pakistan, where the Taliban enjoyed a safe haven. Our guards told Tahir how eager they were to execute him and the many ways they would mutilate his body. They treated me far better and demanded it Times, my employer at the time, pay millions of dollars in ransom and secure the release of Guantánamo detainees. We were all kept together in the same room, and Tahir and I spent hours talking and regretting the anguish we caused our families.

After more than seven months in captivity, Tahir and I fled. As our guards slept, Tahir guided us to a nearby military base. (Asad fled on his own several weeks later.) It was an end to our ordeal that neither of us had dared to believe was possible. I was reunited with my wife – we had been married only two months before I was kidnapped – in the United States. Fearing reprisals from the Taliban, Tahir and later Asad also moved here. In the years since, Tahir and I both changed our lives. I renounced war reporting and became the proud father of two daughters. Tahir’s road was more difficult. He settled in northern Virginia and worked as an Uber driver, then began delivering packages to Amazon. He lived with other immigrant men in a series of cramped apartments and sent most of his earnings home to his large family, who remained in Kabul. In 2017, after becoming a U.S. citizen, Tahir brought his five oldest children to the United States to live with him.

Tahir Luddin and David Rohde at the New York Times’ office, which Rohde reported on after escaping the Taliban.Photo by James Estrin / NYT / Redux

In April, I tried to call Tahir, but I could not reach him. Worried, I sent him a series of text messages. Again, no answer. Terrified, I sent him an email and he responded immediately. “I have been in Kabul since March 28,” he wrote in fragmented English, which I had come to know well during our months in captivity. “The Taliban are just outside Kabul. Thousands of Afghans are leaving Kabul every day.” He said he had applied for visas that would allow the rest of his family in Afghanistan to join him in the United States. I was relieved to hear this. A few days earlier, President Biden had announced that all U.S. troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11th. For years, Tahir had been hoping for a peace deal in Afghanistan. Now he was focused on getting his loved ones safely out of the country. I assumed that Tahir, as a U.S. citizen, would be able to secure a visa for his wife and the remaining children, the youngest of whom is four.

About the same time, another Afghan friend of mine, Wahid Wafa, who spent a decade as a journalist for Times in Kabul, had come to the same conclusion as Tahir about the prospects for his country. Wahid had made repeated visits to the United States, but always returned to Afghanistan, determined to stay in his homeland. In 2019, an armed man had shot at a car that was to take Wahid to the airport and injured the driver. Wahid was not in the vehicle at the time and is not sure if it was him who was targeted. He helped rescue the driver and bring him to the hospital. By 2020, the Taliban carried out a wave of targeted assassinations that killed more than a hundred Afghan civilian leaders, including doctors, journalists and human rights defenders. In a new tactic, the Taliban had begun placing magnetic bombs under their victims’ cars – to terrorize the city. “They go to the soft targets,” Wahid told me in a phone call.

In May and June, I contacted refugee aid groups, nonprofit legal organizations, and academic units to see if they could help Tahir and Wahid. The responses I received were warm but non-committal. Becca Heller, head of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told me she was shocked by the Biden administration’s lack of advanced planning. Senior White House and State Department officials did not appear to understand the number of Afghan civilians who, like Tahir and Wahid, had supported US efforts and would be in grave danger if the Taliban regained power. The United States had attempted one of the greatest efforts to rebuild a nation since World War II and funded the establishment of schools, health clinics, and independent media across the country. According to the International Rescue Committee, over the past twenty years, three hundred thousand Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the American project in the country.

Tahir spent two months in Kabul, waiting for his wife and children to receive visa interviews at the US Embassy, ​​and then, in mid-June, returned to the United States. He was frustrated and lacked money. In the wake of Biden’s announcement of the US withdrawal, thousands of Afghans had applied for visas, and Tahir’s applications for his wife and children stood somewhere in the queue. ONE COVID outbursts at the US Embassy further slowed the process.

In mid-July, as the withdrawal of U.S. troops approached, Tahir and Wahid told me they had both given up the idea of ​​U.S. visas. They told me that they would welcome visas to Turkey or another third country where they would be out of the reach of the Taliban. I reached out to current and former officials that I had met during previous reporting. They told me that priority was given to processing applications from twenty thousand Afghans who had worked as translators and other employees of the U.S. military. Current and former military officials also attacked the pace of this effort on the part of the administration. Three months after Biden’s announcement of withdrawal, only about seven hundred of the twenty thousand military translators had arrived in the United States. Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. to lack urgency. When I asked the administration staff about the Guam possibility and Tahir’s case, I got caring answers, but the same message: there was nothing that could be done for Tahir’s family in Kabul.


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