Khan and Julie Kornfeld
June 27, 2021. A day my family and I had been looking forward to for more than three years. It was the day I was scheduled for my visa interview at the US Embassy Kabul, where I would have the chance to prove my eligibility to receive a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for US-affiliated Afghans. I had started the process more than three years ago which would allow me, if successful, to bring my family to safety in the United States.
But, less than a week before my scheduled interview, I received a notice from the Embassy that my interview was canceled because “Afghanistan is experiencing an intense third wave of COVID-19 cases throughout the country.” I was devastated to receive this email, especially at a time when my family and my country are facing intense tragedy. This interview had been our last remaining hope that my family and I would soon be safe. The cancellation demolished the last scrap of hope we had left.
Hope in an era of terror is a powerful weapon. As the Taliban increase their control over my country while the United States withdraws its troops, knowing that I still had a chance to escape helped quell the nightmares I have lived through. Over this past year, the Taliban murdered four close members of my family because of my and my family’s work with US forces. Most recently, in mid-January 2021, my brother-in-law, who also happened to be my dear friend and colleague, was murdered on his way to our worksite in front of my nephew, his 10-year-old son. My nephew, after a week of being silenced from the trauma, finally reported that when the Taliban gunned down his father, they shouted: “Where are the American forces to save you? Where are their helicopters? Where are their airplanes? You’re an infidel, a traitor! You helped them for a decade! Where are they now?” The Taliban is proclaiming victory as the United States pulls out of Afghanistan, and knowing that the United States is no longer willing to fight in Afghanistan, the Taliban are systematically hunting down Afghans who worked for the US mission.
The assassination of my brother-in-law – which upended my family’s safety, sent us all into hiding and foreclosed my ability to go to work – happened even before President Joe Biden made his April announcement about the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Two days before the announcement, my father received a call from a Taliban insurgent anticipating and celebrating the withdrawal: “We have defeated the world superpower, and now US forces will escape, and Taliban will kill your son and his family. Today, we celebrate the US defeat, but tomorrow, we will start targeting people like your family.”
Anxious to hear the formal announcement about the US troop withdrawal, my wife and I impatiently stayed up on the evening when President Biden called his press conference on Afghanistan. I was hopeful that his announcement would articulate a plan to provide safety for Afghans like me. Yet, when President Biden’s speech came to an end, I turned off the T.V. and stared at the empty screen. President Biden announced the withdrawal without any mention of people like me, Afghans who risked their lives to support the US mission. My wife and I went to sleep with sorrow and tears in our eyes, feeling as though we had been forgotten and left behind.
As I lay awake that evening, tossing and turning in my bed, I played out the various ways the Taliban would seize control over my country. In almost every scenario, my hometown was one of the first cities to fall. Sadly, I was right about this.
Right before the Taliban conquered my hometown in June, I was able to return home to celebrate Eidul Fitr on May 13. While the Taliban had yet to gain full control over my hometown, their presence was palpable. Three nights after Eid, the Taliban wired a live grenade to the deadbolt of my front door. Luckily, the family dog seemed to catch the scent of the Taliban assassins and barked the whole night, putting me on notice of suspicious activity. To investigate, I used the back door to exit my family’s compound and went around to the front of the house, where I saw the live grenade wired on the house’s front gate. Beside the grenade, on the gate, a note was hanging:
You have been helping US occupier forces, and you have been providing them with intelligence information. You are an ally and spy of infidels. We will never leave you alive and will not have mercy on your family because they are supporting you. Your destiny will be like your brother-in-law’s.
Since this near miss, more and more US troops have left the country, and more and more of my country has fallen to the hands of the Taliban. As of mid-June, the Taliban have annexed my hometown. My house, my car, my personal belongings have been seized or destroyed. Like clockwork, as the US troops leave an area, the Taliban follow right behind, setting up checkpoints, rampaging through towns looking for “infidels.”
Four weeks ago, I received notice that my interview was rescheduled for late July. While previously, this update would have given me hope, this email only gave me anxiety as my thoughts immediately turned to how I would get my family to Kabul safely. The Taliban control the only highway that connects where I live now to Kabul, and with each passing day, they become more militarized and stronger. It is a hard decision – stay put and wait for the Taliban to come and kill us, or run the gauntlet to Kabul and hope that we come out alive. It is the kind of choice I hoped never to have to make.
Yet, with the United States exercising its choice to leave Afghanistan without providing us with safe alternative options, I was forced to make this life-or-death decision. After much deliberation, planning, and coordination, I arranged for my 32-week pregnant wife and our son to make the harrowing journey to Kabul. Knowing that the Taliban does not stop ambulances and that my pregnant wife would not be searched, we stashed all of our important identity documents in my wife’s clothing and rented an ambulance to help us bypass the two Taliban checkpoints. Days before my scheduled interview on July 29, my family and I arrived safely in Kabul.
My family and I now wait in Kabul, having completed our interview on July 29, hoping we soon will be included in an evacuation. It is not safe for my family to leave Kabul, and return to the place we had been living, but we also cannot afford to stay in Kabul for an indefinite period of time.
What pains me the most is that my life does not have to be this consistent calculation of life and death situations. There were, and still are, many things the US government could do to protect Afghan allies as they withdraw troops. As the US has started to evacuate SIV applicants from Kabul directly to the United States, they could speed up the evacuations, make more people eligible for the evacuations, and provide support to those applicants that are not in Kabul to help them reach Kabul safely.
As the US government has stalled, weighing its options and only just now effectuating its evacuation plans, I am running out of time. Each day longer we have to wait, we are more at risk of being attacked and killed. The administration must act immediately to prevent the murder of the thousands of people like me who face death because of our aid to US forces. I urge President Biden, the US Congress, and the people of the United States to hear our pleas and not leave us behind.
Khan and Julie Kornfeld