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Americans refuse to leave Afghanistan without their families as evacuation flights resume

A Qatar Airways aircraft is reflected on a bus at the airport in Kabul on Thursday. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

In the days and weeks before the U.S. military’s hectic departure from Afghanistan, two former interpreters for the American military already resettled in the United States — one a naturalized U.S. citizen, the other a holder of a green card — journeyed back into the war zone to rescue stranded female relatives.

But nearly two weeks after the U.S.-led airlift ended, both men remain in harm’s way along with their relatives who have the paperwork that should make them eligible for evacuation, they said. As charter flights carrying other Americans began to depart Kabul again Thursday, the one with a green card had yet to hear from the State Department whether he and his family would be included. The U.S. citizen, meanwhile, said he was told he could exit with his wife via Uzbekistan but must leave behind other relatives, including his mother-in-law, a California resident who has a green card.

“No, this is unbelievable,” he said he told the U.S. government representative who called him Wednesday night. “I’m going to stay with them until you guys figure out something.”

Scores of Afghan dual nationals, including Americans, leave from newly reopened Kabul airport

The two former military translators, who do not know one another, spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the dangerous security environment that threatens Americans and others still trying to escape Afghanistan and evade detection by the Taliban.

The Biden administration announced Thursday that flights out of Kabul have resumed for U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and foreign nationals the result of “careful and hard diplomacy,” the White House said in a statement. But while the development is an encouraging turn for some, it was viewed as the latest in a series of letdowns for others who have tried to flee with their Afghan relatives only to be stymied, they said, at every turn.

Senior administration officials have estimated there are about 100 American citizens left in Afghanistan who want to leave, and on Thursday, the State Department said in a statement that the U.S. government was “in direct contact with virtually all of them.”

“We’re holding the Taliban to the commitments that they’ve made to ensure the free passage and safe travel for anyone who wants to leave Afghanistan,” the statement continued, adding the U.S. government would “do everything we can to try to facilitate safe passage.”

Independent organizations working to rescue those left behind say the government’s numbers are a drastic undercount, and that the Taliban is calling more shots than the Biden administration will admit.

“There’s a lot of conflicting information, and the Taliban isn’t being held accountable,” said Tamara Geyer, who works with one such organization, Team America. “These are American citizens. These are green card holders. And they were told that they would be able to leave. . . . But from what we are hearing, from locals, that is not the case.”

Many Afghans with U.S. citizenship or residency have close relatives who hold special immigrant visas or other documents that made them eligible for extraction during the U.S.-led airlift mission that ended Aug. 30. But for those who waited for State Department notices that never came or were turned back as they tried to cross airport checkpoints in Kabul, the military’s departure has left them in a dire predicament.

“We’re talking about parents of American citizens, brothers and sisters of American citizens, and it’s not that easy to say, ‘Leave your families behind,’ ” said Katherine Schuette, a coordinator with Team America. “We still believe people are being turned away that should not be turned away.”

Blinken says Afghans’ travel papers are impeding evacuation, denies Taliban is holding Americans ‘hostage’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week said the ongoing delays were due to Taliban claims that some Afghans lacked the proper documents to leave. The White House, meanwhile, has signaled the U.S. government has its own fears about clearing planes for takeoff when officials do not know exactly who is on board even though individual groups working to extract people claim they have screened those they intend to fly out of the country.

The former interpreter who is now a U.S. citizen nearly got out on the night of Aug. 31, after he and his family drove 10 hours from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif, through Taliban checkpoints, and boarded a charter flight. But the plane was not allowed to take off, and the family has been in the area ever since, changing locations daily in hopes of avoiding Taliban detection, he said. They are steadily depleting their funds while waiting to learn when they can leave — together.

“When the Americans say, ‘immediate family,’ that’s your spouse and your children. From an Afghan point of view, immediate family means spouse, children, sister, cousin, brothers; it’s a much larger definition,” said James Miervaldis, chairman of No One Left Behind, another group working to evacuate and resettle Afghan refugees. “This just shows you that 20 years later, we’re still talking past each other.”

Because the U.S. citizen’s mother-in-law is a green cardholder, his cousin has a P-2 visa, and his wife was just one interview shy of securing her green card, he figured he could stay in California and still help them leave. But they failed for several days to get inside the Kabul airport, his desperation grew and he decided to head to Kabul.

“It became clear that nobody’s going to help me,” he said in a telephone interview. “So I smuggled myself into Afghanistan. It was a nightmare.”

He arrived just after a suicide bomber struck outside the airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans. On his first attempt to reenter the airport grounds with his family, on Aug. 27, the Afghan army that turned him away, he said.

“I showed my U.S. passport to the Afghan special forces, and they pushed me away and said, ‘We are only allowing people whose names the Marines gave us,’ ” he recalled. “They had a list.”

The next day, he went to a different gate but encountered Taliban foot soldiers, who beat him, he said, as he tried to leave. The day after that, he brought his family to a rally point outside the airport to wait for buses that never came.

On Aug. 30, the last night of the evacuation, the U.S. citizen and his family were outside the Kabul airport trying to negotiate a way past the Taliban checkpoint as the last U.S. military planes prepared to depart the country. “Why are you leaving your country?” they jeered, refusing to let him pass.

The other former interpreter, who now has a U.S. green card and lives in Virginia, faced similar obstacles. He traveled from the United States to Kabul as the Taliban’s advance began to accelerate in late July, hoping to expedite paperwork for his mother, sister and wife — all of whom, he said, should have been eligible for special immigrant visas. Two weeks after his arrival, the Taliban took Kabul.

“Things happened so quick, nobody was expecting this quick,” he said in a telephone interview.

He said they slept outside the Kabul airport for two nights so they wouldn’t miss their chance to get inside. Instead, he said, when he approached a Taliban checkpoint with his green card, a militant snatched away his documents and smacked him in the face with them.

“They said that ‘you’re a U.S. citizen and you’re our enemy,’ ” he said, recalling being kicked and punched. “I thought my green card will protect me — but finally I realized that this green card will create a problem for me.”

Since the military’s departure, the green cardholder from Virginia said he has received one phone call from the State Department, in which an official told him: “ ‘You have to wait until we find a way, or make a flight, or tell you at least where to take a flight.’ But how long that will take, when it’s going to happen, God knows,” he said.

He has hidden his U.S. documents, and is afraid to go outside for fear of putting himself and his family in greater danger. He said he does not believe the Taliban will ever offer Afghans free passage out of the country, even if a few flights have departed the airport.

The Virginia man said he would gladly leave Afghanistan by land but that, for now, “there is no way for that.” Visas to Pakistan are available on the black market, he said, but there is no guarantee they will be accepted. The Uzbek border is closed to anyone without a business visa, he said, and while there is a U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, that border is mostly closed.

The United States has no diplomatic presence in Iran, which lies along Afghanistan’s western border, and getting to Turkmenistan, which also shares a border with the country, is also difficult.

The former interpreter with a green card said there is a sense in Afghanistan that civilians have become pawns in a geopolitical game, in which the players can exact a price for allowing U.S. residents to leave. He said that though he continues to be proud of his service with the United States, in Afghanistan, “everyone says Joe Biden sold this nation to the Taliban.”

Both former translators who went to Afghanistan to save their families said they remain hopeful they will find a way out. But they also know time is running out.

“My top priority at this time is just to be safe, not to be killed,” the U.S. citizen said. “When it comes to leaving the country, that is something I cannot do on my own.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.