June 16, 2024

From Afghanistan to Tennessee: The Voyage of Two Brothers

Sitting in silence, staring at his fingertips, he whispers: “It is not easy.”

Obaid is a 20-year-old Afghan immigrant to Tennessee who was evacuated by the U.S in August 2021, together with his younger brother Ebad, after the fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban. He remembers Aug. 15, when he was in his uniform at his base station in Kabul as a member of Afghan Police Special Forces. They were told to be ready to defend Kabul from possible attacks by the terrorist group.

Despite the rumors and speculation, few could believe the Taliban were again going to take over the country. The Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001 left such a dark history for the country that its repeat brought fear to many Afghans.

Under the previous Taliban regime, women were banned from employment and education, and were not allowed to leave their houses without a male guardian, and covered in Burqa, a blue hijab that covers a woman’s body, including her face. The group also abused, harassed, and killed religious and ethnic minorities.

For Obaid, who was born after the U.S invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and lived in Kabul, the Taliban was more of a tale and darkness that overshadowed part of the country. He has heard many stories from his family and those who lived through the previous Taliban regime. He was going to do whatever he could to defend his country, not knowing the ability to defend his country would soon be taken away.

As Obaid was getting ready to get into his squad, he received a text message from a cousin who informed him that Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president at the time, and other high-ranking officials, had fled the country.

This news devastated him. “What was our plan going to be? Where was the frontline going to be? What is our next move? What was the plan? And how were we going to defend?”

Soldiers quickly realized they were on their own at a base with no commander, ammunition, or backup.

“It was usual for soldiers not to get paid, fight with no food, and get killed in their base station by Taliban fighters, either because they were sold to the group by their commanders, or they have never received ammunition and supplies, in time.”

“It is hard to talk about this. I did want to defend my country.”  He pauses. “We were lied to and stranded in the base with no direction by the chain of the command.”

Disappointed, Obaid soon realized that the city was taken by the Taliban and that they have entered Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Fearful of being recognized and caught by the Taliban fighters, Obaid changes his clothing from the police uniform, and like other soldiers, left the base.

On his way home he saw an unfamiliar city. People panicked, running from each other with no clear direction. Taliban fighters moved in the city with their guns out, in their long clothing. Some had turbans on, some had Sindhi caps (a braided hat worn by men, mainly in southern parts of Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan), and long beards.

This scene wasn’t familiar to him. People “desperately running in the city, as if they all were looking for the same thing,” while the Taliban fighters looked at them with “cold smiles.”

“That day so many dreams died, and so many people were separated from their family members,” Obaid recalls. “Those who worked with NATO, foreign organizations, NGOs, journalists, female athletes, and now the former government’s employees and soldiers feared revenge by the group. The Taliban leader promised general amnesty, but do they follow any rule of law? How are we to trust them when their actions prove otherwise?”

The chaos outside the Kabul International Airport was well-documented even by Western media, as desperate Afghans tried to escape the Taliban while being shot at by American forces, and Taliban, in an attempt to scatter them.

That night, Obaid and his younger brother, Ebad, who worked as a voiceover actor for the BBC, left their family home to make their way to Kabul’s airport. They spent a week there, like other families, sleeping on the runway without food. Soldiers threw warm water at them during the extreme heat of the day.

After a week of waiting, and after their biometrics were taken by the U.S soldiers, they finally sat in a C-17 with almost 600 other Afghans, the most ever flown in the Boeing military plane. As they left, Obaid said he felt like “a newborn baby in an unfamiliar world, lost, with much unknown ahead.”

In Qatar they were once again kept outside designated containers for their biometrics to be taken before they could finally be let inside the containers. From Qatar, they went four days later to Fort Pickett Army base in Virginia, where “[they] could shower for the first time, two weeks later after Aug. 15,” Ebad said.

The brothers were sent to live in Knoxville, where they hope to study and, eventually, to reunite with the remainder of their family in Afghanistan.

Editor’s note: The full names of the brothers were not used at their request. 

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