Shaqaiq Birashk, 37, an Afghan-American, was working in Afghanistan when she was forced to evacuate last month. Here, she reveals how she made her terrifying journey…
There’s chaos outside my apartment and from my window I see crowds fleeing and cars honking. I check Twitter and read that the Taliban have taken the city where I live, Kabul. Outside, Taliban soldiers have replaced my building security. Everyone knew this day was coming but no one predicted it would happen so fast. Friends across town tell me they’re rushing for the airport. I start getting panicked calls from family telling me to get to the airport as quickly as well. I’m not going, though. The airport is a deathtrap and I’ve already fled Afghanistan, where I was born, once that way – in 1989, when I was four and civil war broke out after the Soviets left. I still have haunting flashbacks to that terrifying day, clutching my mum’s hand as we were crushed in the chaos at the airport trying to get out. We became the first wave of Afghan refugees to reach India, and then a few years later we settled in the US. I returned to Afghanistan in November 2020 as part of a US AID-funded Afghan NGO project with the Afghan government. Now, despite the calls to head to the airport, I’ve always known I won’t go through the trauma of fleeing that way again – I want to leave with respect. I’m staying put until the airport stabilises.
It’s 11pm and dark when I get a call saying there’s a car downstairs waiting to collect me for an undercover rescue mission with US special forces. For the past three days I’ve been in my apartment, huddled together with friends and neighbours, some of whom I didn’t previously know, gathering for comfort. I’ve been ignoring evacuation emails from the US embassy because I don’t want to leave the others, but I’m told this is my last chance. My heart breaks as one of my new friends pleas for me to take her with me, but I can’t; she doesn’t have a US passport.
I share my live location with the special forces and they follow the vehicle that has collected me. Every side street is heaving with people carrying backpacks making their way to the airport. I’ve never seen so many women and children out this late. It’s terrifying to see Taliban have taken over Afghan police cars. After an hour-and-a-half drive we reach a US base and I have to temporarily hand my phone over so our location isn’t revealed.
After a night at the base, I’m driven to an open field and join dozens of other Westerners and Western-passport holders. We’re herded on to Chinook helicopters; around 30 pile into the same one as me. I sit on the floor and watch the mountains whirl past out of the window. The helicopter’s blades spin noisily and I break down thinking of those I’ve left behind and whether I’ll ever be able to return. We land at Kabul airport and after processing I’m handed over to Hungarian military, avoiding the chaotic crowds outside. There’s rubbish everywhere and mothers comforting screaming babies. I’m tortured by a feeling of guilt, aching for the people outside who don’t know what their next move is. An hour later, I’m put on a plane with 30 others, but we don’t know where we’re heading; when we land two hours later, someone says, ‘Welcome to Uzbekistan.’ There’s media with cameras waiting to capture the weary faces of evacuees. We’re shown to tents outside the airport, where we’ll wait until there are enough people to fly to Hungary. The Uzbekistan government has provided tents and food while we wait in what feels like no man’s land between Afghanistan, where our hearts still are, and the Western countries we’re lucky enough to be heading back to.
After three nights in the tents we fly to Budapest in Hungary, where we’re taken to a hotel for processing before we’re all sent on our separate ways. I board my flight to Denver, where my family lives. I’m the only evacuee on the flight. The weird sense of normality exacerbates my survivor’s guilt.
I watch an affectionate couple next to me returning home from their holiday in Budapest and think about how one part of the world has continued their normal lives, while another has just entered a period so uncertain and terrifying they don’t know if they’ll ever see peace again. A rush of emotions comes over me and I start jotting down my feelings on my ticket because it’s the only paper I have: the disappointment that was the Afghan leadership; the irresponsible American administration withdrawal; the false promises from Western leaders saying ‘we’ll always be with you’; the way the Bush administration said, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists,’ and then fast forward 20 years and Afghanistan has been handed over to the same terrorists they didn’t want to negotiate with after huge bloodshed. If they had negotiated 20 years ago, Afghans wouldn’t have had to die at the rate they have and there wouldn’t be this mass exodus then and now. What was the point of the last 20 years? Afghanistan has been played and betrayed by this political game.
It’s past 1am when I land in Denver. As I edge closer to my safe and loving family the guilt follows me. Even though it’s the middle of the night, my parents are up and Mum has prepared dinner for me at home. I can barely look them in the eye, thinking of the pain I’ve put them through by choosing to return to Afghanistan against their wishes. I think back to an early morning in Kabul 10 days earlier, when I stood on my balcony at sunrise looking out over the city with tears in my eyes, thinking about how my family must feel having me there. That afternoon, I noticed the Afghan flag on the hill had been cut down by the Taliban. Now I’m home, I have breakdowns in bursts thinking about the state of the country I went back to help and then left behind, but I keep those emotions to myself. I want to be strong for my family, to protect them from any pain. I sleep, but only for a few hours. I can’t stop checking my phone for updates from my friends and colleagues who are still trapped there.
This morning, I saw a haunting video of what’s left of Kabul airport. There are backpacks full of clothes and the remnants of people’s lives strewn across the ground after robbers have taken whatever valuables they can find and discarded the rest. Who knows where the owners of the backpacks are now and whether they made it out alive. I’m more in touch with the people I left behind than I am with people here; I’m glued to my phone, desperate to help, but all I can do is check in with them, leaving VoiceNotes. They’re in my thoughts constantly. At some point, I’ll begin work again and rebuild my life in the US. I’m physically here now, but part of me will always be in Afghanistan.