Thursday, September 23

Taking your family out of Afghanistan 8,000 kilometers away: “They are already in Madrid, we have done it”

Sitting in the living room of his home in Madrid, Ahmad spent hours glued to his mobile phone. The screen showed an actual location close to the Kabul airport, yet far away at the same time. His father, mother, brothers and sister-in-law were trying to reach Afghanistan’s only escape route in a taxi without running into Taliban checkpoints. More than 8,000 kilometers away, this former interpreter of the Spanish Army, resident in Spain since 2012, indicated to the driver the best way forward to avoid possible problems.

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He knew that getting to the airport would not be easy, and had asked a good friend to come to the area to check those more “clear” areas. It was just one day more than a week of paperwork, calls, begging and sleepless nights to do everything possible to get his family out of Afghanistan, a few days after the capture of Kabul.

The fighting raged in Herat, when Ahmad, who worked as a translator for the Armed Forces and for Spanish journalists on different occasions, began to make the first steps. At the time, I still thought that they could migrate with a visa, the usual way. The Taliban took over his hometown of Herat on August 14, and things started to get messy. They still did not imagine how quickly the taking of Kabul would come and, with it, the definitive change.

“When they took Herat, that nightmare had not yet come true. They hoped that the Government would do something and not take Kabul. When it fell they already thought: it is done, there is no possibility of fixing it. The level of pessimism rises. and people go into a state of alert, looking for a way to escape “, reflects Ahmad, who studied Computer Engineering in his country.

Worried about his sister

From Madrid, he says, the uncertainty brought many images to his mind, but above all one: that of his sister Zahra. He did not want the 13-year-old to grow up in a Taliban regime. “I was especially worried about my sister. Seeing how they treat women, seeing the statements where they threatened to marry teenage girls to Taliban soldiers … all that kept me from sleeping.”

The Taliban, he says, had already begun to “mark” some houses of Afghans who “had collaborated with the enemy.” And in his neighborhood, Ahmad was known. “If they ask about the interpreter’s house, they point out my family’s house. I was afraid that something would happen to them because of it.”

The Taliban advance closed the door to obtain visas in the usual way but, after the capture of Kabul, another was opened. “From the day Herat was being taken, I started pulling all the possible strings and trying to get the passports, even without an evacuation plan. When Herat fell, the passport offices closed. Thankfully the evacuation plan was started If not, there would be no possibility. ”

And to get out that one door, her family needed to get to her. He needed to get to Kabul. As he began to call his contacts in the Armed Forces and the Spanish Embassy, ​​Ahmad arranged for his family’s trip from Herat, more than 1,000 kilometers away by car.

Change hotel every two days

Everything had to be left as if they were not going to leave. The small shop of Safdar, his father, remained as he left it the last day. In the house where they grew up, there couldn’t be much movement. They had to be discreet: “I forbade them to do any kind of action, to show that they were trying to go somewhere.”

The nearly 15 hours by bus, he says, passed without problems. In the vehicle, his family feared a check by the Taliban forces, which they sometimes watched through the window. From Madrid, Ahmad was nervously waiting for news: “They saw soldiers, but they didn’t get to check what they had on them … I was worried about the telephone issue. I asked them to delete everything: all the photos I have sent them from here, for For example, on vacation with a friend … Simple things that, there, can be the death penalty if they find it on your mobile. But nothing happened. ”

Already, in Kabul, Ahmad explains, his plan lacked the key that opened that only door to leave the country: a pass from the Spanish Embassy. For safety, the family would only spend two nights at each hotel. “A family that has just arrived at a hotel with suitcases is a very obvious sign that they were going to the airport, and I was afraid that they would associate them with foreign collaborators,” says the young man, who now works for an office of lawyers in Madrid. “I thought the best thing was not to spend a lot of time in the same place. In case, in some way out, they were identified and they came back for them. That is why, every two days, they changed places.”

At the second hotel, they couldn’t hold out for long: “There were Taliban in the next room. So they went out and went somewhere else to sleep.” An email from the Embassy confirmed that they could travel from August 22. The day before they went to the airport. Ahmad, aware of all the information published in the media, knew that it would not be easy.

He came up with a plan. “I know the city of Kabul and I was able to find out where the Taliban have the controls. In the ‘green zone’ or ‘the safe zone’, where the embassies and government offices were, there were the controls,” Ahmad details. I asked a good friend if I could go around that area, take a taxi for a ride and see how the atmosphere was. We saw that the way to go was another, with large streets, which did give access to the airport. ”

When his family was in the taxi, Ahmad’s voice sounded inside the vehicle despite being at his home in Madrid. Very aware of the real-time location sent by his relatives, the Afghan gave precise instructions to the taxi driver, who managed to get close to where they were allowed by the crowd of Afghans desperate to leave the country, crowded at the airport gates: “All this from my living room, glued to the phone. ”

Next obstacle: entering the airport

The amount of crowded people prevented them from approaching the meeting point with the Spanish troops.

“They came as close as possible, to a point that was a few meters from the entrance, but it was very difficult. My father managed to see a Spanish soldier, and he handed me the phone, because he does not speak any Spanish or English: I explained everything to him and we got them to go looking for them, “he says. It was seven in the morning. It had been almost 24 hours since they left for the airport. “And that is being lucky, because many were left behind …”.

As he explains, the support received by the journalists Mónica Bernabé, with whom he worked, and Antonio Pampliega, who he asked for help after reading the thread of other Afghan citizens of whom the reporter had denounced their situation, was essential in order to enter the premises. via Twitter.

Arrival in Torrejón

That night Ahmad had no contact with his loved ones. He spent the night awake waiting for news, until the phone rang: “We are on the plane,” his father said on the other side.

Ahmad slept for only a few hours, and followed the course of the flight where, he hoped, his family was traveling. He was on the lookout for a flight tracking app all day. Around eight o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, he confirmed the landing. The media began to publish news about the new arrival of refugees in Madrid and Ahmad kept his eyes searching for them in some of the broadcast images.

Impatience got the better of Ahmad, who planted himself at the Torrejón base. “I went to the airport, but I could not get in. I have spoken with them by phone. They are fine,” he told by message a few hours after the arrival of his relatives.

The camp’s poor internet connection prevents newly arrived Afghans from talking to their families easily. “It’s choppy all the time, but at least I already know they’re here and they’re fine.”

Ahmad has not yet been able to hug his relatives. Neither did he talk to Zahra, his little sister. This Wednesday, he was trying to contact his father to, again, give him directions on the next step: although he lives in Madrid, the Afghan had thought that the best place for his loved ones to create a new life was Zamora, a city where he has support networks and where he believed it would be “easier” to get ahead. This is how his father transferred him in the interview that all refugees have with members of the Ministry of Inclusion and NGOs, but there was no luck.

His next destination, according to what his family has told him in the choppy conversations, will be Bilbao or its surroundings. Ahmad is still waiting for a clearer confirmation of where they will be sent to buy the first flight to the Basque Country. He does not care that they are not as close to him or his networks as he expected.

“I’m happy. Compare where they were with Spain … I don’t care. I love Bilbao, I think it’s a good place. The only problem for my relatives is that they have just arrived in a new country, and they are going to have to learn Spanish and also Basque. What a mess, “he laughs.

“I am happy,” he says pending each new piece of information, eager to stand wherever they are sent and see with his own eyes that they are already safe. “The feeling of helplessness of not being able to be there has been horrible … The risks were many and I was very afraid, but they are already in Madrid. We have achieved it.”