Marked as enemies of the new Taliban regime by his work with Westerners and his family’s Hazara ethnicity, Hamid, his wife, their 8-year-old daughter, and their new baby move furtively from place to place, living under assumed names. Their year in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan echoes Hamid’s own war-torn childhood as he tries to guarantee his daughter’s future. Suddenly, an escape route opens: Will they finally make it out?
Hamid: After the crowd subsided, we leave the scene in clothes full of dirt and blood and bare feet.
Summia Tora: That’s Hamid, the man I tried and failed to help leave Afghanistan last year. After the suicide attack at the Kabul airport last summer, Hamid and his family went back home. They huddled there, keeping their heads down. They kept using the nicknames Hamid had come up with when the Taliban took control. I’m not using their real names because they are still in danger.
Hamid’s wife, Jamila, has a master’s degree in sociology. She was pregnant when the government collapsed. And then there was their daughter Eliza, who was just outside the blast radius of the bomb that killed more than 180 people at the airport.
Hamid: As a father, everyone hopes for their children, the first thing is to be safe. And then they should have access to at least basic life facilities. Like, the first thing is education. Good nutrition. We cannot provide the basic needs. When we cannot provide it today, so the future, it worries us the most.
Summia Tora: On December 2, 2021, Hamid got an email from Geres, the French NGO where he’d worked for four years.
Hamid: “France does not wish to expand its reception capacity for political asylum. It is therefore with great sadness that we have to acknowledge that we cannot, today and without the support of France, help you to leave Afghanistan.”
Summia Tora: So how did you feel, knowing all of this and receiving a rejection letter?
Hamid: Hopeless. I lost the only option I had in my life to get out of this country. So I missed it. I missed the only hope for myself, for my family, for my kids.
Summia Tora: I’m Summia Tora, a human rights advocate. This is No Way Home, a production of The Intercept and New America.
In this four-part series, you’ve been hearing stories that were found, developed, and reported by Afghans like me, who have been forced into exile. Our stories reflect what we saw with our own eyes and what we and other Afghans have experienced firsthand since the U.S. military pulled out, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took over last summer.
This is Episode Four: “Getting Out Alive.”
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Like everyone, Hamid and Jamila knew the Taliban’s history of denying basic rights to girls and women. It was one of the main reasons they risked their lives trying to leave last August.
Jamila (translated voiceover): You know, it all happened so suddenly. There were fights in the provinces, and you would hear about it on Facebook that this province or that province has fallen. In that moment, the first thing I remembered was my daughter. I looked at her, and she was sleeping, and then I cried intensely and said, “My daughter’s future is over and ruined.”
Summia Tora: But something else was even more threatening to Hamid and his family. They are Hazaras, an ethnic minority that has faced decades of discrimination in Afghanistan. Hiding is difficult: Their ethnicity is clear from his and his family’s facial features and their accents, and they practice Shia Islam in a place that is mainly Sunni.
Hamid was born in Kabul and spent his early childhood in a mainly Hazara neighborhood called Dasht-e-Barchi. That’s where he and his family lived last year, when the U.S.-backed government fell.
Hamid: I went to school until two grades in Dasht-e-Barchi, in west of Kabul. So I felt that it was obvious for everyone that like other people, except Hazaras, they had a good life. They had access to more facilities in their lives. They had cars, they had bicycles, they had motorcycles — all these things that most of the Hazaras didn’t have at that time.
Summia Tora: Hamid was 8 years old when the Soviet-backed Afghan government collapsed — the same age his own daughter, Eliza, is now.
When the mujahedeen factions that had been fighting the Soviets with backing from the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries took Kabul, each group seized control of a different part of the city, and they began fighting each other. The country fell into civil war.
The mujahedeen factions were dominated by different ethnic groups. A Hazara faction called Hezb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami controlled Dasht-e-Barchi. Hamid and his family spent about six months in Dasht-e-Barchi, while the mujahedeen fired artillery at each other, destroying Kabul’s buildings and killing many civilians. Then his parents decided to take the family to Bamiyan, a mountainous province north of Kabul that is known as the Hazara homeland.
Hamid: So when we left Kabul for Bamiyan, it was a very tough time. All the roads linked to Bamiyan were closed at that time, and everyone was detained and questioned.
Summia Tora: Bamiyan has remained relatively peaceful over decades of war. But getting there was hazardous.
Hamid: So when we were going in this route and passing these route, we were questioned. We were insulted, like Hazaras, for our features and our faces. And all the kids were, everywhere that the kids were around the street and when we were crossing, they were shouting at us and laughing.
So many checkpoints were on the road and stopped our car many times and asking, “Who are you? Where you going?” And even they made us to pay them some money to allow them to cross the road.
Summia Tora: The Taliban’s leaders grew up fighting the Soviets, and the group came to power for the first time in 1996 by defeating other mujahedeen factions.
One of their most notorious acts, in 2001, was to destroy the giant 5th-century Buddhas carved into the mountains in Bamiyan. The Taliban blew up the towering sculptures with rockets, tank shells, and dynamite. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last summer, some said they had changed. But much remained the same — including their attitude toward Hazaras.
Last July, the Taliban killed nine Hazara men in Ghazni, a province southeast of Kabul. In August, just after the Taliban gained control of the country, Amnesty documented another massacre in the central province of Daykundi. The Taliban killed 13 Hazaras there, including a 17-year-old girl.
Around the same time, some Taliban decapitated a statue of renowned Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, in Bamiyan city, the capital of the province that Hamid had fled to as a boy.
Rabia Khan: Mazari was actually killed by the Taliban in 1995 when he went to meet them for peace talks. So I think, symbolically, the fact that you are destroying a statue of an important political leader for the Hazaras kind of shows what your intentions are and the direction of your rule on what it means for these people going forward.
Summia Tora: That’s Rabia Khan, an academic in the U.K. who did her doctoral research on the Hazara community. In the late 1800s, Khan told me, Hazaras had their own self-governing region in the central part of the country, an area known as Hazarajat. But at the end of the 19th century, the Hazaras’ circumstances suddenly — and drastically — changed.
Rabia Khan: The rhetoric of religion was used to justify a really horrific and severe war against the Hazaras, which started around 1890 and lasted for several years. And then in that time, countless Hazaras were massacred. And many Hazara women were raped.
Summia Tora: Many were forced to flee to Iran and the part of British-occupied India that is now Pakistan. In the 1920s, a new Afghan king outlawed slavery — but for Hazaras, the practice continued.
Rabia Khan: They were the cheapest slaves in Kabul. So what we see in the earliest 20th century is, although the war has ended for some time, perception of Hazaras as the slave class and having a low social status is something very prevalent in the wider society. So that’s something very widespread in the early to even mid-20th century, and that perception you can even say it persists to this day when we started to see more Hazara visibility in more recent years.
Summia Tora: The 1990s, when Hamid was growing up, was a pivotal period for Hazaras in Afghanistan.
Rabia Khan: And again, they’d be mocked and ridiculed for their appearance. So even the word “Hazara” was used as a pejorative. Not only in the 1990s, but even now “Hazara” is used as a pejorative by some people. And that there are even specific racial slurs that are used in reference to Hazaras only and not other ethnic communities. The most common one that came up in my interactions and discussions was with the Hazara community was a racial slur, which I won’t say in Persian, but the translation in English is “rat eater.”
Summia Tora: After the United States forced the Taliban from power in 2001, Hazaras welcomed the new Western-backed government and embraced opportunities, particularly for education. They routinely scored at the top of the national university entrance exams, and Hazara-majority areas recorded among the highest voter turnout in elections. Many went to work for Western NGOs and the government. But with that progress came risks.
Rabia Khan: So you see this very strange situation unfold post-2001, in terms of visibility and representation, but how that’s also almost a threat for the community. Because in having this heightened visibility, there’s now this perception that “Hazaras are now a threat, so something needs to be done about that.”
Summia Tora: I thought of the story my dad had told me about the killing of Hazaras in northern Afghanistan. My parents left Afghanistan in the 1990s to escape persecution and give my siblings and me a better life. That’s what Hamid wanted for his kids, and especially for his daughter, Eliza.
Eliza: I am 8 years old.
Summia Tora: Aww.
Summia Tora (in Dari): What subjects do you like to study?
Eliza (in Dari): I like Dari and math subjects.
Summia Tora (in Dari): Why do you like Dari and math?
Hiding and Surviving
Summia Tora: After we failed to get Hamid and his family out of Afghanistan, I kept in touch with him through my colleagues at Dosti Network, an organization I founded last year to help Afghans get aid and support, and to leave the country if necessary. But after the U.S. pulled out, many countries refused to help more Afghans evacuate.
Hamid worked for a French nonprofit organization, Geres, which focuses on climate and the environment.
Michael: The French government, I think, turned their backs on a lot of the civil society workers that they funded through their programs. Which is a shame because if you really think about it, it’s like the whole idea of trying to build up Afghanistan really was the idea that you tell people not to, say, pick up guns and fight through politics.
Summia Tora: That’s the American I’m calling Michael, who worked with Hamid and tried to help him and his family leave last year.
Michael: The whole idea of having a peaceful civil society was what NATO was trying to push, right? To build up this country. You can’t just say that it’s just the military members that were the ones that were at risk here. It was actually a lot of the civilian and civil society workers who were really a critical part to any kind of Afghanistan that would be peaceful and would actually be built under the principles that NATO was trying to achieve.
Summia Tora: On March 24, I sent Hamid a text message to find out how he was doing and if he was still in Kabul.
NBC: A missile striking an industrial park in western Ukraine [explosion]. A helicopter assault on an airport outside of Kyiv, close intense fighting. And there are civilian casualties.
Summia Tora: The war in Ukraine had started a month earlier. Europe, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. had welcomed thousands of Ukrainian refugees, while Afghans still had to jump through hoops and fill out endless forms. Hamid sent me a voice memo while standing in line at the passport office.
Hamid (Dari translated): Salam, Summia Jan, I hope you are doing well. Sorry for the delay in responding, as I was standing in the passport line.
Summia Tora: Hamid told me that he was still in Kabul, and that he and Jamila recently had a baby boy. Hamid was trying to get their travel documents in order when Afghanistan suddenly burst into the news again.
Ari Shapiro (NPR): Three blasts rocked the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Tuesday. They appeared to target schools, and six people were killed.
Summia Tora: On April 19, a school called Abdul Rahim Shahid — known for its students’ educational achievements — was attacked. Hamid had studied there himself years earlier.
Hamid: The recent attack in Abdul Rahim Shahid high school. It reportedly killed about 200 schoolchildren. This attack also was called the series of ISIS attacks that targeted Hazara Shia ethnicities in west of Kabul, particularly schoolchildren in this area.
Summia Tora: Dasht-e-Barchi had gained a reputation as a place where Hazaras could get a good education for their kids and lift their families out of poverty. But since 2015, deadly attacks like these had grown common.
Rabia Khan: That status and reputation of the area really changed post-2001, because there were so many targeted attacks against Hazaras there. Although there have been great achievements, and the community has really worked hard to lift themselves out of their previous circumstances, there were outside elements that made it very hard to just live a normal life as a Hazara in Kabul since 2001.
Summia Tora: Bombings were occurring so frequently the shock of them wore off.
Hamid (in Dari): Whenever there is a bomb incident and you find out, you are shocked, but when it keeps repeating often, you either become courageous, you don’t feel scared, or you try not to think about it because you know it will happen again.
Summia Tora: Hamid would try to find out who was killed, how many people were injured, if any of the victims were family members. There were times where he was close — 500 meters from a targeted school. Bomb attacks had become a part of everyday life for them.
So far, the Taliban has allowed education for girls up to sixth grade in schools that are segregated by sex. But Hamid and Jamila moved often to avoid being found by the Taliban, and they were too scared to send Eliza to school most days because of the threat of violence. After the attack at Shahid school, Hamid decided he’d had enough. He would take his family to Bamiyan.
So this past May, they fled Kabul and made their way north. Bamiyan was familiar, but it was far from the life Hamid and Jamila had imagined for themselves and their children.
Jamila (translated voiceover): We don’t have hope; we don’t have motivation. We are always thinking about how can we leave. We don’t feel free. Even now, when I am at home and my head is not covered, I constantly make sure the curtains are closed so that the Taliban don’t see and send [the Ministry for the] Propagation of Virtue to inspect. “Why is this woman walking around at home without her head covered?” I have no interest in going out. I am at home all day.
Summia Tora: Hamid had managed to renew his and his family’s passports and to get one for his son. But they still couldn’t leave.
Hamid: Having a passport is one side of the matter. The visa to leave the country is another side of the problem. So it is the only two countries we have, Iran and Pakistan, they give us visas. So if we go to Iran or Pakistan, we cannot accommodate. We don’t have, like, our expenses to live there. That is why we prefer to be here under the Taliban rule.
Summia Tora: In Bamiyan, Hamid registered Eliza for school. But like Jamila, he felt lost.
Hamid: Staying in Afghanistan, it is also scary here. And also everything is unknown. We don’t know what happens next, what is waiting for us. We don’t know, days and nights, what will happen, what our future would be. What should we do, which way we should follow to reach to our goal or to at least to stay safe. And it is a kind of advice for myself just to be patient. It is the only option right now.
A Door Opens
Summia Tora: Last month, I messaged Hamid to see how he was doing. He replied with amazing news: He and his family had made it to Pakistan. I reached him by phone there on August 15, exactly a year after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
Summia Tora: Hello? It’s great to hear that you’ve heard back about your P-2 application. I had completely forgotten that you had applied for that. Would it be possible if you could share about the process of the P-2 application for the U.S.?
Hamid: When I received the approval for my P-2 application for the U.S. program, I got so happy. It was a cheerful moment sharing this good news with my wife and my little kid.
Summia Tora: A few months after the final U.S. withdrawal last year, Hamid had applied to come to the United States through what’s known as the Priority 2, or P-2, program. It’s a visa program for Afghans who worked as employees, contractors, or interpreters for U.S. and NATO forces, for U.S.-funded programs or projects, or for U.S.-based media organizations and NGOs. I knew Hamid had worked for Geres. But it turns out he’d also worked for an Afghan NGO that was funded by the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
On August 2, about a year after he applied, he got an email from the U.S. government saying that he and his family met the eligibility requirements for the program.
Hamid: When I received the approval for my P-2 application, actually it was in the morning. When I shared this good news with my wife, she suddenly stood up. She got so happy to express her feelings by shaking her hands and head to dance. And she got so hopeful, and also she got surprised. She was hopeful that we would be able to leave this country finally.
Summia Tora: Hamid and his family drove from Bamiyan to Kabul and then took a taxi to the Pakistani border. The crossing was hot and crowded, and Hamid worried that his kids might get sick or overheated. But after 12 hours, they made it.
They stayed in a hotel for a couple of nights in Islamabad, then found a house to rent. The U.S. makes Afghans go to a third country to await the next stage in their immigration process. Hamid and Jamila don’t speak Urdu, and they don’t have visas that allow them to work in Pakistan.
Summia Tora: Do you have any thoughts about living in Pakistan and how long you’d be able to live there because you have to wait for a couple of months until the P-2 process moves forward?
Hamid: Our concern is the unemployment for refugees. For sure, I’m looking for a job for myself and my wife too. And in Pakistan, particularly in Islamabad, it is very difficult to find a proper job. And also it is very low-paid job that does not cover the family expenses and it is very difficult to afford.
Summia Tora: Leaving Afghanistan, as anyone who’s done it knows, comes with its own difficulties. Just ask my father.
Summia Tora: So you are now in Virginia. What is it like living there?
Sayed Tora: Living there have some benefits, and some it’s good. On the other side, it’s hard to live in USA. You have to work. You miss your friends, family. Now you can speak, but [laughs] there are no people to listen to you. [laughs] This is the difference. [laughs]
Summia Tora: My father is safe, but his life isn’t the same, and it never will be. And it never will be for Hamid and his family.
Summia Tora: Does getting this email and now moving to Pakistan, waiting for this process of P-2 — is it giving you hope about being able to have a future that you hope for, for yourself and for your family?
Hamid: Actually it is not very certain that I can move to U.S. one day because I am right now in the third country. So I hope so, that it will happen one day to go to U.S. It is the only chance I have right now. And I hope so it will happen one day.
Summia Tora: No Way Home is a production of The Intercept and New America’s Afghanistan Observatory Scholars program.
This episode was written and reported by me, Summia Tora.
Our executive producer and editor is Vanessa Gezari.
Supervising producer and editor is Laura Flynn.
Candace Rondeaux is the director of Future Frontlines Program-New America and project editor.
Ali Yawar Adili, is the Afghanistan Observatory Project Coordinator.
Laura Flynn and Jose Olivares produced this episode.
Rick Kwan mixed this episode.
Zach Young composed our theme music.
Legal review by David Bralow.
Fact checking by Emily Schneider.
Awista Ayub is the director and project manager of New America’s Fellows Program.
Voiceover in this episode by Humaira Rahbin.
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Thanks, so much, for listening.