Afghan journalists and civil servants described desperation, terror and panic as they waited for a chance to evacuate after multiple bomb blasts killed dozens of people and injured scores in Kabul on Thursday.
Sources on the ground told Truthout they heard multiple explosions and gunfire near the airport in Afghanistan’s capital city, where thousands of people have gathered in hopes of fleeing the country on U.S. military airplanes and international charter flights. At least two suicide bombers detonated themselves in separate attacks on Thursday outside the airport and near a hotel, killing at least 60 people, including at least 13 American servicemembers, according to reports. ISIS-K, a group reportedly affiliated with the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the bombings and gun attacks on civilians and U.S. personnel.
M.E.M, an Afghan journalist who declined to give his full name due to fear of reprisal, recently resigned from his position at a prominent Afghan television network and news outlet as the Taliban took over the country due to “serious threats” to his safety. M.E.M was still waiting to evacuate when Truthout reached him by phone at his home in Kabul on Thursday.
“This morning a number of Taliban searched my house, but fortunately I was somewhere else,” M.E.M .said, adding that he believes he has been accused by the Taliban of spying on behalf of the U.S. and assisting U.S. forces.
M.E.M says he is certainly not a spy, and his press credentials and related documents show that he has covered relations between NATO and the Afghan government for an independent news agency.
M.E.M has applied for a U.S. Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) under a State Department program that allows Afghans employed on behalf of the U.S. government relocate to the U.S. M.E.M says he is an independent journalist but is sponsored by an American colleague, and some of his coworkers have already been evacuated.
M.E.M was advised that evacuations would continue after President Biden’s August 31 deadline for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, but he fears time is running out.
“They are promising me to evacuate me, but I don’t know what they are going to tell me,” M.E.M said.
The White House reports that U.S. and coalition airplanes evacuated 13,400 people from Kabul on Wednesday and Thursday, and the U.S. has relocated more than 101,300 people since July. However, Pentagon and NATO officials are still scrambling to evacuate Afghan colleagues in Kabul under the SIV resettlement program, according to prospective refugees stranded in Kabul. Others are still desperately searching for sponsors and approval under the SIV program.
As Afghans rush to evacuate, it’s become increasingly unclear who is eligible for the SIV program, as many members of Kabul’s civil society have participated in one U.S.-backed development program or another. A group of 67 House Democrats sent a letter to President Biden on Thursday demanding that the U.S. increase the annual admissions cap for refugees from 125,000 to 200,000 in order to allow more Afghans to evacuate and resettle.
“The urgent need to double down on our efforts to welcome and protect refugees is evidenced by the racist, virulent anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment that exploded over the last decade — often as a result of U.S.-fueled wars — and was further heightened under the last administration and now with the evacuations occurring in Afghanistan,” the lawmakers wrote.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki declined to comment specifically on the letter from House Democrats on Thursday but said that the U.S. is doing everything in its power to evacuate as many Afghans as possible. In an earlier news conference, Biden said that “millions” of Afghans would choose to come to the U.S. if given a chance, but indicated no plans to dramatically increase the U.S.’s refugee resettlement program. He emphasized the U.S. would stick to its original August 31 deadline for withdrawing forces from the country.
Afghan journalists said the U.S. government must do more to address a humanitarian crisis that ultimately resulted from the invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago. M.E.M shared a letter “from Afghan journalists to the world” that urged the U.S. and international community to relocate journalists and media workers who covered the U.S.-led coalition’s mission in Afghanistan and promoted free press and democracy. He said the letter was backed by more than 100 journalists but did not provide names.
“We think the U.S. [is facing] a humanitarian issue and should help Afghans such as me who are in danger of death,” said Abdul Lafif Badii, a former freelance journalist and university student in Kabul who said he worked to promote free speech and fair elections in Afghanistan, in an interview.
Badii said he was waiting near the airport for a chance to evacuate on Thursday and fled home after the first suicide bomb detonated, killing Afghan civilians as well as U.S. servicemembers running security at the airport. Badii said his brother was a soldier in the Afghan military and was killed by the Taliban in a battle in Ghazni province, and his father was killed earlier in the war by a landmine. He is currently hiding at home in Kabul with his mother, the last remaining member of his family.
Khabeer Zhabeez, a journalist, social activist and former civil servant in Kabul, said people were in a state of shock and panic near the airport and Afghan government offices as bomb blasts and gunfire erupted on Thursday. Zhabeez, who was waiting to flee Kabul outside the airport on Thursday, fled home after the first blast. He said hundreds of people have been severely injured, including women and children. Other Afghan civil servants, journalists and students also said they fled the airport and are currently hiding in their homes.
“Really after the U.S. abandoned us in the firewall and submitted Afghanistan to the Taliban, everything is devastated and destroyed,” Zhabeez said in an encrypted text message. “Here we have no more way of breathing, and we don’t know [what the future will bring].”
Like other desperate Afghans who contacted Truthout, Zhabeez has contacted the State Department and requested a Special Immigrant Visa to be evacuated and relocated but has not received a response. To qualify for the visa, Afghans generally must have worked for a U.S. or coalition agency or have a sponsor within the U.S. government. This, of course, excludes millions of Afghans urgently wanting to leave. In some cases, Afghans are evacuating to countries such as Mexico, Uganda and Qatar, where visas are easier to obtain.
Biden decided to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of war and occupation failed to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, but refugee and human rights groups say the U.S. failed to make adequate plans for evacuating and relocating vulnerable Afghans before the withdrawal.
“It is also very clear that all those who worked and engaged in the ex-government, or in any other NGOs, civic groups and activists, are definitely under threat,” Zhabeez said.