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“Massacre of My Dreams”: Afghan Reporter Bilal Sarwary on Fleeing Kabul & Afghanistan’s “Brain Drain”

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The United States has helped evacuate over 75,000 people since the end of July from the Kabul airport, but the Taliban is now allowing passage only to people with foreign passports or an invitation from the U.S. or one of its allies. President Joe Biden says U.S. troops are on pace to leave the country by the August 31 deadline, despite pressure from U.S. allies in the G7 to stay longer to help more people flee the country. We speak with Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, who fled Kabul in recent days after reporting on Afghanistan for 20 years. He says his plane out of the country was an encapsulation of the brain drain from the country, with some of the most prominent artists, journalists and other civic leaders fleeing for their lives. “This is Afghanistan going down the drain in a matter of seconds,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Afghanistan, where President Biden says U.S. troops are on pace to leave by the August 31st deadline, despite pressure from U.S. allies in the G7 to stay longer to help more people flee the country. The U.S. has helped evacuate over 82,000 people from the Kabul airport. Biden spoke Tuesday.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are currently on a pace to finish by August the 31st. The sooner we can finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops. But the completion by August 31st depends upon the Taliban continuing to cooperate and allow access to the airport.

AMY GOODMAN: Amnesty International criticized Biden’s decision to halt evacuations in the coming days. The head of Amnesty’s U.S. office, Paul O’Brien, said, quote, “The U.S. government should continue to negotiate to proceed with evacuations for as long as necessary to evacuate all of the country’s most vulnerable,” he said.

Meanwhile, it’s become far harder over the past 24 hours for Afghans to reach the Kabul airport. The Taliban has blocked the main road to the airport and set up checkpoints to only allow passage to people with foreign passports or an invitation from the U.S. or one of its allies. At a news conference on Tuesday, the Taliban said Afghans can no longer go to the airport.

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID: [translated] Unfortunately, this problem has not been resolved yet. The Islamic Emirate is seriously trying to control the situation there. We have blocked the way that people go to the airport by it. Afghans are not allowed to use this road, and foreign nationals can use it. But domestic nationals cannot go this way because it is blocked.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as aid groups are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe. The U.N. says 14 million Afghans — about a third of the country — face food insecurity.

For more, we’re joined by Bilal Sarwary, an Afghan journalist who was based in Kabul and reported on Afghanistan for 20 years before he fled for safety. This is Bilal speaking just last week on Democracy Now! about whether it was safe for him and his family to stay in Kabul.

BILAL SARWARY: I hope that I’m able. And I hope that my daughter is able to basically one day go to school here. But there are things that are beyond my control. There are things that people like myself and my colleagues and other Afghans simply are powerless; we can’t do that.

AMY GOODMAN: That was last Wednesday. On Sunday, Bilal tweeted, “The day I leave my country, my city, my Kabul. A massacre of my dreams and aspirations. A tragic day in my life.” His latest piece for the BBC is headlined “In the city I loved, suddenly nowhere was safe.” He’s joining us now from Doha, Qatar.

Bilal, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you describe — talk about your decision to leave with your family, and then describe your journey, from Kabul to the airport to where you are now, in Doha, Qatar.

BILAL SARWARY: Extremely painful decision. All of a sudden, I had to leave my office, which was next door to my home, without being able to tell my sisters or family members where we were going. I took my parents, my wife, my baby daughter with me. We were hiding for a couple of nights. And then we headed towards the Hamid Karzai International Airport. And since I know the city so well — it’s my hometown, it’s my city, it’s where I grew up — you know, I felt like nowhere was safe for me, as Taliban fighters and certain members of Taliban factions continued to knock on doors. I don’t know why they were doing that, what exactly they wanted, and why did the Taliban political leadership fail to prevent such searches, you know, which are widespread across many different parts of the city. The only thing that I could really leave with was a pair of clothes.

And only two weeks ago, I had gone to the northern parts of Kabul city, speaking to people who were forced because of the war in Kunduz province and elsewhere in northern Afghanistan. And at that moment that I was talking to them, I immediately went back to the 1990s, when I was a kid and we were forced to leave Kabul because of the fighting. And I would never and ever thought that only two weeks later on, it will be my fate, as well. So, the fact that I could only pick up my own computer and couple of iPhones and chargers and a pair of clothes, and not knowing actually if we will make it into the airport and outside of Afghanistan, was, I think, you know, a very, very painful period of time, especially for my family’s sake, for my daughter’s sake.

But once I was on the plane, thanks to the Qatari government for evacuating close to 150 people alone on that flight, I could see everything that Afghanistan was over the last 20 years. I saw the country’s most popular TV presenter. I saw the most famous woman, who started every morning on TOLO’s most popular show, Bamdade Khosh. And my wife recognized her; I could not immediately, because she was covering her face. And, you know, you talked about burials of dreams as we spent, you know, like the next 12 hours all together. A lot of these are people that I know. There’s an artist. His name is Sharifi. He was known as the ArtLord. He was painting a lot of these peaceful messages, anti-corruption messages on these blast walls on the streets of Kabul. He was there. And no matter what I did, you know, to not think about it, I thought, “Well, this is the tsunami, you know, of brain drains. This is Afghanistan going down the drain in a matter of seconds.” And some people were crying. Some were quiet. Others just simply did not want to talk. And that literally, like, summed it up for me.

You know, when I first arrived in the military airport, I think it really had a very, very negative impact on me, because it was that location that over the years I traveled to across the country with senior Afghan military officials covering their operations, and coming back to it, you know, knowing that nothing exists anymore, and Afghanistan’s institutions, Afghanistan’s National Security Forces, Afghanistan’s Air Force, all crumbled, I think also hit me very hard.

AMY GOODMAN: So, describe the scene at the airport before you got on that Qatari flight to Doha. What was it like to go through the checkpoint? Who checked your family’s documents on the outside of the airport?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, we were very grateful to the dynamic Qatari ambassador, who basically transported the convoy of 150 people, plus people, including some of the most important people in every aspect of the life, including media and civil society. And we went through the airport, with the Taliban escorting the ambassador’s motorcade in the front. Then we arrived to the last point, where the Afghan forces, special forces, who have been working with the Americans, were only two to three meters from the Taliban. There was what I would call a buffer zone. And once we got past that, you know, there was a sense of jubilation and happiness among families.

There was a young, bright student from the American University of Afghanistan with her family, and I was just watching her cry as she was trying to record something on her smartphone. And I think it was at that moment, as well, that it hit me really, really hard, because, as a kid, I fled Kabul, not by air, by road, and I had never thought that, you know, let’s say, 30 years down the line, this will be a repeat, not only for me, but also for other generations. So it was a very, very painful moment.

Once we were inside the airport, the situation was more orderly than the previous days inside. There were more and more of these massive, humongous military planes, from Sweden, from Australia, from Czech Republic — I saw a lot of them — from Australia, coming in and trying to pick up Afghans, as well as foreign nationals. Chinook helicopters were also flying over several directions into the city, assuming that they were airlifting people.

But outside of the airport, the situation remains extremely miserable for thousands of Afghans, including women and children, and even more so for a generation of Afghans who feel that their lives are under threat if they leave their homes towards the airport, let alone people who are stuck in the provinces across the country. And this is, I think, the more painful reality, that those people continue to ask for a humanitarian corridor, they ask for safe passage, and every time you have an artificial timeline or you have a deadline that is announced, I think it is sending shockwaves among those people, because they will be exposed, they will be vulnerable. And this is also the best of the best of the best of the educated generation that Afghanistan has. And the failure on the part of the previous government, Afghan politicians as well as the international community, not to preserve this generation will have consequences for everyone in the years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk also about the thousands that are fleeing over land, going over the Turkish border, trying to get into Iran? Reports are suggesting Turkey is closing its borders and turning away refugees. If you can talk about the responsibility of neighboring countries? Turkey, of course, a close ally of the United States, may be running that airport after the U.S. leaves.

BILAL SARWARY: To be honest with you, I cannot comment on something that I don’t know. I haven’t heard that people can leave by land. I think there’s a sense of fear and uncertainty. People are not feeling secure. I did hear that some people managed to cross into Pakistan via the Torkham crossing in the eastern province of Nangarhar, but very limited numbers.

I think here we are talking about Afghans who have a history of working with the American military, the American government and other Western and NATO nations. Their lives are at risk. They are the people who were told that they will be evacuated. And the remaining numbers are big. There are thousands and thousands of people, including people in the provinces who simply cannot come in. So this is, you know, a sense of betrayal among these people. They know that they have a massive threat against their lives by the Taliban. So, we will have to see what happens to them if the evacuation ends in the deadline that the American government has announced.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the conditions in Doha? Thousands of Afghans have gone to Doha, also to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Some of the media is reporting the conditions are getting worse and worse in Doha because of the numbers of people coming in. Is that your experience?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, we are both very lucky and grateful that the plane that we were in, you know, we have been provided accommodation by the Qatari government. We have been looked after. And our families have been able to basically relax, at least for a bit. And I want to say this publicly: I want to thank the Qatari government, because the world should work with governments, like Qatar, who has the ability on the ground to evacuate people that we should be evacuating. This is, I think, where allies of the United States and other countries can come in and play that crucial role.

I also feel that a lot of my friends and people that I know who I’ve been in contact with are quite confused. They’re angry. They’re disappointed. But they’re confused because they hear different messaging. And now, this morning, someone was talking to me. She is a very prominent member of the civil society. She’s outside of Kabul. She said the fact that she needs to take a bus to Kabul is out of the question, and she will not be able to go through the Taliban checkpoints into the airport. I think this is the crux of the issue at the moment, you know? People want assurances that the West and the international community will evacuate for as long as it takes, that they will put sufficient pressure on the Taliban to allow the safe passage, because these people genuinely feel that their lives are at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal, in your article for the BBC, you write about the fall of the Taliban after the U.S. invasion in the fall of 2001. You say, “I saw a genuine willingness amongst the rank-and-file of the Taliban to lay down their arms, and resume their lives. But the Americans didn’t want that. From my reporting, it seemed to me and many other Afghans that their motivation was revenge after 9/11.” We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Can you talk about the peace moments lost, when you actually had the secretary of defense under Bush, Rumsfeld, saying no to the Taliban saying they would surrender if Mullah Mohammad Omar could remain living in dignity in Kandahar, and even the Taliban saying they would turn over, before this, Osama bin Laden?

BILAL SARWARY: I think, in hindsight, when the Taliban government was toppled by the Americans at that time, their fighters and most of their mid-level commanders did go back to rural Afghanistan. They wanted to start their normal lives. There were raids. They were jailed. They were killed, mostly at the hands of warlords, who were allies back then with the Americans. And there was a lot of family politics, tribal and clan rivalries. People wanted to settle old score. Or people simply wanted to lie to the Americans so that they can get something back in return. And those mistakes would cost Afghanistan immensely.

But it’s also true that the Americans shut down the door on negotiations very early on, refusing President Karzai’s request that such negotiations and back-channel talks must continue. We know that there were a lot of letters and communications at the highest echelons of the Taliban leadership with the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other elements of the government at that time.

Obviously, the other mistake was also the fact that the leadership went back to Pakistan, where they got help from the Pakistani intelligence services and the Pakistani Army, institutional support, something that has been well documented.

And on the ground, the Afghan government literally failed to curb corruption, injustice, provide basic services, you know? The Afghan government was seen as a milking cow among these various powerful figures, where government positions were handed over as trophies.

So, I think when you think about that and the U.S. decision at the time to invade Iraq, the hijacking of resources, I think all of those mistakes, all of those policies at the time, contributed towards the bigger problem.

And I would also say that the Taliban, over the years, had this feeling, this very prevalent feeling among their leaders and commanders, that they can win militarily. When they found out that the Americans were withdrawing, the announcement in the absence of a peace process or a comprehensive ceasefire, it was just a matter of time before the Taliban would take over, but no one thought this quick.

And I also think that a 9/11-style commission report must be launched to find out what led to the crumbling of state institutions in Afghanistan, to the billions of dollars’ worth of sensitive military equipments the Taliban now control, because, after all, this is taxpayers’ money from many of these countries invested.

And I would also cite a personal example. Where I lived, in a very central part of Kabul, my next-door neighbor appeared as a neighbor. We had a good relationship with him. We were on friendly terms. After the fall of Kabul, it was very clear to us that that was the Taliban’s intelligence operations, in a street that was home to special forces commanders, former interior minister, the head of the Defense Committee of the Afghan Parliament and a number of intelligence chiefs across many provinces. So you are also talking about a massive intelligence failure, that should go back to a few years, when Taliban were able to, for example, recruit university students, who had a job at the central part of Kabul in a bank. I knew a court and I knew a bank employee. Over the years, I would go and talk to them. And the fact that the Taliban were able to recruit right into the heart of the Afghan capital, right under the eyes of the Afghan intelligence service, I think, also shows you that this is a massive process of failures, the responsibility of which is with the Afghan government, with the Afghan institutions and leadership, in how could have they, like, failed the people of Afghanistan on so many levels.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Bilal, we just have 30 seconds. Should President Biden pull out all U.S. troops and end evacuations on the 31st? The Taliban are insisting on this, though it was a U.S.-set deadline. But the U.S. government is also saying they are most concerned about terrorist attacks not from Taliban, but from Taliban’s enemies, ISIS-K and al-Qaeda.

BILAL SARWARY: The Americans must honor the promises that they have made to people. This is about human lives. This is about a generation of Afghans. And I don’t think anyone would want such massacres and such tragedies to be a stain on their legacy and on their government.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Bilal Sarwary, Afghan journalist based in Kabul who’s reported on Afghanistan for 20 years. We’ll link to his BBC piece, “In the city I loved, suddenly nowhere was safe.” We spoke to him last week in Kabul. Now he has fled with his family to Doha, Qatar.

This is Democracy Now! We continue to look at the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ending of America’s longest war with leading antiwar activist Medea Benjamin. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones. The Stones’ drummer, Charlie Watts, died Tuesday at the age of 80.

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