The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghans in Washington area gripped by fear, anger after Taliban takeover

Shakila Enayat, a former translator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, stands at a window in her apartment in Alexandria, Va., on Aug. 16. Enayat, 33, is worried about her family back in Afghanistan. (Valerie Plesch for The Washington Post)

The Washington region’s Afghan diaspora reacted with horror and fear as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban over the weekend, with families desperately searching for fragments of news about relatives still trapped in the country.

“This has broken everyone,” said Ferishta Stanekzai, a local Afghan activist who spent Monday trying to reach her brother and his family in Kabul after her brother’s cellphone and electrical service both stopped working. “Everyone’s feeling is: For 20 years, we spent a lot of money to help the country and everything is wasted for nothing?”

The Washington region has become home to a flourishing Afghan community in the two decades since the United States invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — a byproduct of the fact that many government and charitable groups rebuilding the country are based in the area.

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Many already here arrived in recent years, either because they were former U.S. military interpreters and government aides who qualified for those visas, gained U.S. asylum after fleeing Taliban persecution, or because they benefited from a boost in Afghanistan’s educational system that allowed them to study or work in the United States.

But their ties to their homeland have remained strong, particularly after it became clear that the United States would leave the country to its own fate after two decades of helping to fight the Taliban.

W. Sahar, a 31-year-old woman who was forced to marry a man with ties to the Taliban when she was 13, said Monday she was at a loss over how to help her family members still in Kabul.

Sahar, who requested that her full name not be used to protect her family, had fled to the Washington region seeking asylum in 2014 after her former husband beat her and repeatedly threatened her family. He has renewed his threats against her father, Sahar said, more confident that he could fulfill them after the Taliban entered Kabul.

On Monday, Sahar’s voice was raspy after she and her family spent the entire night on the phone trying to work out routes for help and safety.

The banks were all closed in Kabul, so sending money is no longer possible. A sister, who had recently qualified for a special immigrant visa, tried to reach U.S. officials holed up at the Kabul International Airport, but couldn’t get past the crowds storming the tarmac.

And her father told her that the Taliban had blocked all roads out of the city.

“My mind is not working anymore,” Sahar said, after sending emails on behalf of her sister to the American Embassy in Kabul, which has been shut down. “There is no hope.”

A 33-year-old woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears for the safety of family members actively hiding from the Taliban, was frantic Monday over the dangers faced by her brother and cousins in the Parwan province north of Kabul.

A cousin told her during a brief phone call that Taliban fighters were going door-to-door in search of people who have worked with the United States.

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Two decades ago, her brother had allowed part of his land to become part of the Bagram military base, she said. The cousin and a sister worked as U.S. Army interpreters.

Neighbors, seeking to curry favor with the Taliban fighters, shared those details about the family — forcing them to go into hiding, the woman said.

“This is not going to work much longer,” she said of hiding. “I may lose my brother.”

With news reports showing people desperately clinging to a departing U.S. Air Force plane in Kabul, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Monday vowed to make it easier for even more Afghan refugees and special immigrant visa (SIV) recipients to settle in the area.

About 200 SIV applicants were recently flown to Fort Lee, Va., for processing, while Maryland said it expects to receive another 180 Afghan nationals in the coming weeks.

“Maryland receives more of these SIV’s than nearly any other state, and we stand ready and willing to receive more. It is the least we can do,” said Hogan in a statement, calling the U.S. withdrawal “irresponsible.”

The situation fueled a protest in front of the White House on Sunday afternoon that drew several hundred people, many directing their anger at President Biden and Pakistan, which has harbored Taliban fighters.

Khalil Parsa, one of the chief organizers of the protest, said the hope was to persuade the president and the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan.

Parsa — a former human rights advocate in Herat who was shot by the Taliban because of his work — said the international community should not believe assurances by the group’s leaders that they want peace and stability.

“We cannot trust the Taliban,” he said, referring to reports that fighters have ordered women to stay indoors and men to stop wearing Western-style pants in what many Afghans consider a precursor to the harsh sharia law that led to mass executions during the late 1990s. “I think it will be a very, very bad situation in two weeks or three weeks.”

Shakila Enayat agreed with that assessment. Her family in Herat has stopped going outside, while friends who have worked as teachers or journalists wonder if they can still earn a living and feed their families.

Enayat, 33, a former translator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, summed up her feelings these past few days in two words.

“I’m burning,” she said.