Those we left behind
A virtual underground railroad working to free at-risk Afghans struggles to succeed against U.S. roadblocks
Jennifer Cervantes and her husband, Juan, run their law firm out of a restored building in historic downtown Fredericksburg, Va. The couple, both graduates of Liberty University Law School, have had an eclectic client roster handling immigration cases, businesses, and nonprofits—but the crisis in Afghanistan has overwhelmed their practice.
Cervantes found herself yanked into the unfolding drama of the U.S. withdrawal operation out of the Kabul International Airport in August after 20 years of war. A client asked for her help getting out his three brothers, all of whom worked for the U.S. government in Afghanistan. Cervantes dropped everything to put together paperwork for the State Department so the men and their families could board flights out.
The firm began to help other Afghans. Moments after the Aug. 26 bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and hundreds of Afghans, Cervantes was on the phone directing 18 women and their children to find another way into the airport. They climbed over dead bodies to reach another entry, and for the next 35 hours their Virginia attorney stayed with them by phone. At gate after gate, U.S. soldiers turned them away even with papers in hand and their names on flight manifests. One of the women, 20 weeks pregnant, became sick from exhaustion and dehydration. She later miscarried. (The women remain in Afghanistan.)
Shocked by what she saw unfolding—and the way the U.S. exit on Aug. 31 stranded thousands deserving American protection—Cervantes took on hundreds of cases. Afghan Americans with friends or family left behind gathered outside Cervantes’ office each morning. They came from all over Virginia, some traveling 150 miles or more, she said, “begging for help.”
Since then, Cervantes has worked on nothing else. On one Sunday in September, she received 400 new cases. Four days later, she had 600 more. She and her husband have three small children who practically live at the office: “My 7-year-old knows more about what’s going on in Afghanistan than most Americans do.”
Since U.S. military evacuations from Afghanistan ceased, the Biden administration and many media outlets have downplayed the number of American citizens and other vulnerable allies left behind. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in September, “We had about 100 American citizens in Afghanistan who told us that they wish to leave the country.” The New York Times reported “around 1,000 people” were stuck, counting U.S. residents plus Afghans with visas who legally could travel to the United States and other countries.
Cervantes and others I spoke to attest to thousands on their lists awaiting evacuation. “I have dozens of citizens and permanent residents I’m working with, and that’s just my firm,” she said. In addition, the International Rescue Committee estimates 300,000 Afghan civilians worked alongside Americans during the 20-year conflict. Hundreds of top Afghan officials also remain—including police, judges, and others once involved in tracking, jailing, and sentencing Taliban members. Their ties to the United States and its allies are easily traced in government records, and Taliban threats have forced them into safe houses. Only a fraction of them managed to fly out among the 120,000 the United States and others airlifted in August.
Their plight—and the discrepancies in official U.S. accounts—are stoking a not-so-small army of volunteers and evacuation groups working around the clock and across the globe to mount private, nonprofit-run extractions. Their efforts mirror the Digital Dunkirk network that sprang up in August among military veterans, a modern-day version of the self-mobilized British boatmen who rescued Allied troops from the beaches of France in World War II. WORLD has been tracking their progress, participating in group chats and Zoom calls under the agreement to withhold movement, names, and other details to protect the lives of those who want to depart Afghanistan.
Among evac groups are pooled expertise and ground reports from military veterans, former diplomats, human rights monitors, churches and other religious affiliates, and attorneys like Cervantes. They monitor exit options, from charter and commercial flights to overland routes that have included packing into boats and dodging checkpoints. Some share live maps pinpointing Taliban checkpoints and other obstacles. And for all the effort, nothing is guaranteed: “There is no Plan A and very few Plan Bs,” one evac group leader told me. “It’s more a choice between Plans Y and Z.”
FOR MORE THAN A MONTH NOW THEIRS has been grueling 24/7 work with little to show for it. Not only the Taliban but also U.S. Central Command and the State Department have blocked chartered flight departures—flights nonprofits contracted at roughly $1,000-$2,000 per seat.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve had to unboard planes, with people crying,” said Rudy Atallah, a 21-year Air Force veteran who served as the Pentagon’s Africa counterterrorism director. Now CEO of security firm White Mountain Research, Atallah runs the Nazarene Fund’s operations to assist and extract vulnerable Afghans. The group, founded by talk-show host Glenn Beck, has become the leading nonprofit for chartering private flights out of Afghanistan, and Beck reportedly raised millions of dollars on-air to do so.
The Nazarene Fund managed to airlift between 8,000 and 9,000 people in September, Atallah said, mostly to air bases in Gulf countries, Albania, Greece, and other “lily pad” or interim destinations. Most ultimately will resettle in the United States. Departures have slowed considerably with regular shutdowns by U.S. and Taliban authorities.
In addition, borders with most neighboring countries are closed. One extraction group—comprised largely of former Rangers and other special ops veterans—tried to get people across at the Afghan border with Tajikistan but rescued fewer than 10 in September.
Cervantes too said she’s seeing little success despite weeks of effort. She has many candidates with completed U.S. paperwork who after repeated attempts can’t find a way out of the country. One family with two children has valid U.S. Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs. “It’s stamped and in their passports,” she said. “In any other country, any other airport in the world, they would be legal to board a flight and fly to the United States.”
Cervantes’ roster includes U.S. citizens, permanent residents, SIV applicants, and those with approved SIVs. Some are former Afghan government officials, including some with U.S. security clearances who regularly came in contact with classified information. One was a bodyguard to former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country in August. Another, a woman, is a parliamentary official whom Taliban militants attacked and chased by car. One of the gunmen broke her 1-year-old baby’s nose with the butt of his AK-47.
“It’s not reported how bad it is,” Cervantes told me by phone. “Nearly all of my clients are people who did not intend to leave but now find they have to. It’s overwhelming.”
WHY SO MANY OBSTACLES TO orderly departures?
“This is a refugee crisis the United States is framing as an immigration crisis,” said a former U.S. diplomat who spoke on condition of not being named.
Post-war refugees and asylum-seekers under international and U.S. law may seek protection in the first country they can reach if they can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution or harm. With vetting, they qualify for resettlement into the United States. Under that framework, the United States in 1975 flew out more than 130,000 South Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, the largest evacuation under wartime conditions since Dunkirk. Within four months, 120,000 Vietnamese had settled across the United States.
This time, the Biden administration requires Afghans in most cases to have—before they depart Afghanistan—U.S. visa or humanitarian parole paperwork already on file. Each requires onerous paperwork and hundreds of dollars in filing fees. The average processing time for SIVs is more than two years—yet by statute each should be processed within nine months.
Going through these procedures adds to Afghans’ risk. With the U.S. embassy in Kabul closed, it’s more difficult to complete filings. And it assumes that Afghans with legitimate claims for asylum already have passports, which many do not.
The State Department acknowledged its limitations in a statement released last month. “We understand the concern that many people are feeling as they try to facilitate further charter and other passage out of Afghanistan,” it read. “However, we do not have personnel on the ground, we do not have air assets in the country, we do not control the airspace—whether over Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region.”
Yet at the same time, the State Department insists on reviewing manifests and granting “concurrence” before allowing anyone to fly out of Afghanistan. The State Department told evacuation groups at a Sept. 21 meeting they must continue to submit all manifests for State approval but also noted the system is “inundated” and “we must continue to enlist your help.”
Those on the front lines say the United States can avoid the bottleneck.
“I think that the State Department is trying to control its press, and it doesn’t want to have to acknowledge the vast numbers of people who have been left behind,” said Atallah. “All this stems from the State Department not declaring a humanitarian disaster. They don’t want to admit responsibility that it was a disaster.”
The official declaration could allow for an international response and humanitarian corridors via neighboring countries to specified destinations, rather than ad hoc transports or dangerous overland escapes.
U.S. officials “are controlling the exits yet they want the NGOs to pay,” said Atallah.
THREATS MOUNT WHILE MANY WAIT. Since the country’s fall to the Taliban, more than 200 media outlets in Afghanistan have halted news operations, but daily reports circulate showing brutality.
Onlookers captured photos of a Sept. 25 execution in Herat, showing the headless body of a man hoisted by crane in a crowded street. WORLD spoke to multiple people who confirmed the execution.
Since Kabul’s fall, targeted attacks, beheadings, and forced displacement of Hazaras—a Shia Muslim group the Taliban have long targeted—“have increased exponentially,” said Homira Rezai, chair of the Hazara Committee in the United Kingdom, in an interview with the BBC. An estimated 500 to 1,000 Hazaras who left Kabul for Tajikistan are trapped near the Tajik border, surrounded by Taliban and without aid.
Cervantes’ clients have sent her images of brutalized former government officials. One of her clients was forced to watch as Taliban soldiers cut off a daughter’s fingers because her nails were polished. “Cutting off of hands is very necessary for security,” Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, a member of the Taliban’s interim government, told the Associated Press.
About 1,600 Afghan Christians remain desperate to flee the country, said Atallah, out of the country’s estimated 12,000 believers, who are largely Muslim converts and face dire risks under a Taliban government.
A coordination group hosted by Sam Brownback, former U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom, met daily through September to facilitate emergency evacuations. Now it meets twice a week. “This is the most humiliating thing we have seen done by our own country in decades,” Brownback said. “People are ashamed of it.”
In late August the group had a list of 180 names, most of them Christians, unable to board flights out of the Kabul airport. By Oct. 1 that list had grown to more than 800 Afghans. Brownback said besides Christians, the group has also tracked Hazaras, Ahmadi Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus.
One of the leading problems for Christians is that so many lack passports, said Joshua Youssef, president and CEO of Atlanta-based Help The Persecuted.
For that reason he, along with Brownback and others, have looked to other countries besides the United States to grant Afghan believers asylum. Brazil, Greece, and Albania are likely destinations. Even tiny Faroe Islands, a self-governed archipelago in the North Atlantic with ties to Denmark, is a possibility.
“We’ve been quite stuck,” said Youssef. “Some of our group have gotten out, but others typically get higher priority.”
Several hundred Christians have made it out overland, and at least 100 won passage on charter flights, including 22 leaders of a house church network WORLD reported on in August.
Yahiya, an Afghan Christian, flew out from Mazar-i-Sharif on Sept. 21, arriving at camp near the U.S. air base in Doha, Qatar. His biggest problem now: No word on what’s next. “We have no information. No one is telling us what we need to do, how long we will stay.”
Yahiya, 30, has parents in Germany and family he left behind in Kabul. But he hopes to go to the United States and has applied for P-2 refugee status for Afghans who worked with U.S. partners. Yahiya (who asked to go by an agreed-upon alias, and whose story was corroborated by a U.S. aid worker who has known him 15 years) worked for American, British, German, and Dutch organizations in Afghanistan.
In August after the Taliban entered Kabul, he received calls from men claiming to be with the Badri 313, the Taliban’s “special forces” who have been pictured wearing looted American equipment.
“They asked for me by name,” he said. “I told them it was the wrong number and threw away my SIM card.” He returned to the office where he was working to discover it looted, along with his apartment. He began staying with a friend, and tried to get on a flight out of Kabul.
Outside the airport, Taliban soldiers beat him with a pipe and he barely escaped gunfire. “The shells were going inside my shirt,” he told me by phone.
Life in a camp where he doesn’t know anyone is familiar territory for Yahiya who as a child experienced Taliban rule: “They burned our house and took my dad. He disappeared and for a long time we didn’t know what happened.” His family paid a ransom, then moved to Pakistan to live in a refugee camp. “It’s the same thing happening, for the second time,” he said.
Cervantes had a breakthrough, too, in October when she learned her family of four with SIVs made it to Pakistan. But none of her new clients have received approvals from the State Department.
“It has turned my faith,” she said. “I have never had God tell me ‘no’ so, so many times. My children’s prayers are the only things that have gotten me through the night.”
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