Trigger Warning: This will be difficult for some to read. It has been equally trying to pen and grueling to have witnessed another human experience. I will talk about the loss of loved ones in vivid detail in hopes I capture some of what happened during the evacuation of Afghanistan before it is forgotten. Please be aware that the author will paint scenes graphically, as they were expressed and experienced, of death and great despair.
Escaping Afghanistan - Between Two Worlds
A Story of Loss
By Christopher Williams
This story, and others like it, linger as vivid in my memory as visceral in my soul. It is her story, not mine, but I trust history's annals to deem it worthy of record. I’m not sure how else these stories will be told — from who’s perspective — or how long it will take me to dig more out of the caverns of my skull, as occult as the human mind ever remains.
I believe I am an observer in this story and do not pretend to share experiences with those who have lived these events. It feels arrogant to capture these experiences. I have time and energy to write while many people still try to pick up the pieces of their lives. I hope the story is understood as a well-intentioned attempt to remember.
This event, which I am certain fundamentally changed how I perceive the world, occurred over a year ago. Due to fate or divine intervention— whatever suits the reader’s belief system— I was there to witness the pinnacle of the calamity in a people’s life. I do not say this to minimize the experience but to illustrate that I only annotate what I felt and saw. I was not the human that carried this into my future.
There exist times for me when it feels like this story is a passing dream, and in other moments, I am awash with the reality of what happened.
The emotional weight I carry from this experience leads me to tell this first story. I do my best to convey what was, by all accounts, a tragedy.
I first encountered her amid triaging hundreds of refugees coming directly from Afghanistan under extreme circumstances. She appeared to be in her mid-40s, though putting an exact number to someone’s age coming from a country like Afghanistan, under these circumstances, is virtually impossible.
I never knew her name.
On the ground, the scene was pure chaos. The medical professionals and volunteers were working beyond surge capacity to care for victims of heinous acts of violence sustained while they fled the Taliban onslaught in Kabul. Triaging conditions ranged from infants having recently undergone emergency surgeries, women in active labor and malnourished to those wounded from gunfire or shrapnel, and anything in between.
As someone who has seen war, it is hard to convey how surreal it was to witness it come to a country like Germany in today’s world. Here we witnessed thousands upon thousands of human beings fleeing a war-torn nation – with all the trimmings accompanying those terrors – land in a modern, westernized setting. These blended realities clash in a mind-bending fashion that escapes my ability to describe.
Seeing war when at war, we are somewhat desensitized to it – again, a luxury of mine not shared by these people.
In the first few days at Ramstein Air Base, there were only a handful of interpreters functionally able to leverage their language abilities to support these events. United States Military members from all walks of life, government civilians, military spouses, local-area volunteers with native ability - anyone able to help with a language organic to the region was essential. The efforts they each put in to help marginally improve another person’s circumstance were awe-inspiring.
As Charlemagne is noted to have said in the 7th century, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” I can tell you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the men and women who supported this effort on the ground as interpreters sacrificed that second soul during this crisis to provide even a moment of comfort to these travelers in their moment of need.
Initially, I found myself being one of the most fluent in Pashto. However, there were several languages woven among these people. More often than the other languages, Pashto would mean a lack of English speaking ability. My counterpart, ironically, having been an active-duty military linguist with me in a past life, rounded us out to a solid two fluent Pashto interpreters in the local area.
I could never fathom how a refugee crisis would force people – all the linguists/interpreters - to channel these languages. The adrenaline seemingly causes synaptic responses in those parts of the brain that handle language processing, acting as a catalyst to those memory wells and affording us the ability to adapt rapidly in the immersed environment. It is incredible what the brain can do when critical mass is reached.
She donned a traditional Afghan dress — based on my understanding of her, plus cultural identifiers, I assumed she was Pashtun. Likely from Ghazni or Kandahar. I mention this to illustrate Pashto spoken in the southern provinces was that with which I was most familiar. A detail, I admit, that seems trivial at first glance. It isn't until you consider the journey this woman endured to make it to that moment does this detail’s importance is understood.
She likely traveled from the southernmost Taliban-controlled portion of Afghanistan to the capital city of Kabul via the Ring Road, onto a U.S. Air Force C-17, and finally to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The scale of what these people were undergoing begins to impress more tangibly upon the reader.
With that, I feel I can finally tell her story.
Grasping is what comes to mind when I think of the first moments with her. She was alone, surrounded by perhaps 30 male refugees in a tent fit for 15–20 people. Everything was cold, wet, and thrown together. She knew none of these men, and if you know even the slightest of her culture, the shock of this experience must have felt as if she had been transported to another dimension.
Her eyes had a look that I am not sure I will ever be able to describe.
The shock I knew. The deepness of sorrow, loss, and the pain was familiar. But when she looked at me, I was convinced time had stopped. I perceived the most profound chasm of misery within a person with whom I had yet to speak.
I looked at a couple of the males huddled near the front of the tent, just behind the entryway. The rain was falling just enough to give that overcast, damp German summer’s eve feel. In Pashto, as was their native tongue, I asked a few of the men if she had family in the tent. They said she had been alone since they boarded and hadn’t spoken throughout the trip. I walked to the back of the tent and asked if she could walk with me – as I remember it now, I only could sufficiently give her a command to ‘Come with me.’ I would get her through processing quicker and set her up with a few other refugees traveling as single women.
She stood up, picked up a 1/4-full water bottle with no label, and followed me out of the tent. As we walked through the medical checkpoint to get her a temperature check and facemask, I began to sense she was slowly fading and likely would faint. Syncope was commonplace due to the dire circumstances into which these people had been forced. From the dry arid climate of Afghanistan to the cool evening air of Germany with little to no food or water for who knows how long would shock even the most hardened individuals. I attempted to tell her we were almost there, having taken maybe 3–4 minutes to snake our way through the system, as it were.
The hallways and rooms of the processing area were packed with so many refugees it is hard to explain what it felt like walking from a chilly, humid setting into a tight space with hundreds of desperate people trying to get to the next stage in this disjointed reality. The ceiling was dripping water due to the mixing elements. I vividly remember the two U.S. Air Force Captains, a young married couple, doing everything they could to bring order to the chaos of moving this many people with little to no support. Each of them ran back and forth, directing volunteers, aiding medical intervention, handing personnel babies to get back to the ‘maternity tent,’ and helping the interpreters like myself move as efficiently as possible. But that is their story. To them, they were just doing what had to be done. As many of America’s finest did during this evacuation effort.
She finally collapsed when we got to the broken metal detector, which signaled we were at biometrics. The last major processing hurdle. A few of the refugees and I helped her sit down in a chair intended initially for a volunteer to manage the processing smoothly — the sheer volume of people overwhelmed so many early laid plans.
As the refugees fell back into their places in line, some of which had been waiting over 12 hours, I finally asked if she needed anything. Again, remembering what I said verbatim probably came off as a terse, “Do you need things?” I didn't want to send for medical because they were dealing with a few women in labor and all the aspects of thousands fleeing a war-torn land.
The first words out of her mouth echo in my mind today, “How do you know my language?” It came through heavy, burdened breathing. Not heavy breathing in the sense of exhaustion, but that of near panic. A heaviness of caving in on oneself. It is hard to explain. “You are Afghan? I have lost them”, she said. The last four words sent my equilibrium into a tailspin. I asked her what she meant, “Who have you lost?”
As our eyes locked, I felt everything and nothing. Her eyes, again sorrow-filled, her hair slipping from under her headdress beyond what would have been usual for her. She reached out to me slowly as if wilting away. As I steadied her fall toward me, kneeling on the ground in front of her, I noticed the tears she was now crying, carving a river through the dust of chaos from which she had just come. I noticed her orange-dyed fingernails and the tattoo on her head. I could smell remnants of war, feeling as though we transcended time and were in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any ancient land where it seems war must always rage.
The entire hallway became distractingly silent. This woman the embodiment of an entire people’s living experience. Here she was, collapsing into the arms of an American man in Germany, having fled the only home she had ever known in front of hundreds of other people from her country. For lack of a better way to describe this human experience, the moment's power defied anything in my life short of waiting to hear my children take their first breaths.
I wrapped my arms around her and did everything I could to control my own emotions. Her tears fell at a rate that seemed slower than gravity should mandate. The wetness of the hallway air felt consumed by tears. My hand on the middle of her back, her breathing seemed laborious as if lifting the world with each inhale. I could see many of those in line beginning to weep. I looked around, maybe for help, but in retrospect, I am unsure. My passing gaze saw life, death, and so much about us humans that I will never know how to explain.
The only voice I recall was a child, maybe 4 or 5, telling his father, “Daddy, I want to go home.”
Loss — (Graphic stories of human loss)
She leaned back into her chair and gave the subtlest laugh. If you or someone you know has experienced uncalculatable loss, you likely know the expressed emotion I reference.
"What am I to do? My entire world is gone. Do you understand?" her words slamming into my eardrum as vibrations I never could have conceived my brain would need to process. A language I hadn't used in years, yet every transmitted word went straight into my soul. I asked her, "What can I do? What has happened?" Knowing the answer to those questions was lost to the sands of time.
I was right.
She continued, “My entire family…the Taliban.”
As cruel as it may sound, this story was not uncommon at this point of the evacuation. Most of our interpreter team, never trained to do this work, could each give a complete account of several such stories. This occurred, for me, about 48 hours into the first flight landing in Germany. Honestly, it shattered the facade I had made up for myself to think how invincible I was to the cruelness the world could breed. I had been so confident up until this moment that I could power through anything this life might sling my way. "Send it," was my response to the worst of times.
"They took my husband from us three days ago on the way to HKIA and shot him in the back of the head as we were forced to drive away." She motioned with her hand slowly to the back of her head and held it there for a moment softly as if she could feel her husband's death freshly on her own skin. "When we got near the airfield, the Taliban made us hand over my son-in-law's vehicle, then said he and my son must stay, but my daughter and I could go." She further explained, "Both my daughter's husband and my son told them they could not abandon their mother and wife (sister) who was expecting." My hope that they might be in the camp at this point swelled. There was a chance they made it onboard one of the seemingly endless flow of aircraft brave men and women had flown out of HKIA.
She lifted both arms and slowly rolled her head back, then down, looking toward her feet, "They shot them both. They killed them right there in front of our eyes." At this moment, I felt like I was standing right next to her in a crowded and chaotic street in Kabul. The gunshots rang in my ears; the screams, initially shrill, quieted to nothing. Everything froze, like in those movies where time stops, and one actor looks around and sees specks of dust paused in midair. This, however, isn't a movie. I still visualize the Taliban soldier dispatching two human lives and returning to their endless pursuit of this 'holiest of causes,' to kill the innocent and unarmed.
Jarringly, I felt myself return to the processing center, holding the hands of an Afghan woman in the middle of Germany, the furthest I ever thought I would be from needing to know Pashto. Barely hanging onto this ‘second soul’ as the moment's reality tried to tear it away.
Her final part of the story wasn't making it to the airfield with her daughter. Her daughter was snatched from her as the crowd surged toward the gates to get to the airfield. The last thing she said she remembered of her daughter, newly married and soon to have her first grandchild, was her being “…snatched from her hands by a man with a big rifle.” The man fired his rifle aimlessly at the ground to force the crowd to push increasingly into the barriers and wreckage blocking the path to freedom.
In the last 72 hours, this woman witnessed her husband being shot and killed. While nearing the airport — likely sensing possible freedom — her daughter’s husband and son were both killed in cold blood. Within hours, within eyeshot of those gates, her daughter is ripped from her embrace.
“Can you help me go get her from them? Please, please take me back to my daughter! You must, please.”
I weakly responded, "I am sorry, there is no way to go back now.”
As she held up a 1/4-full bottle of water with no label, giving it the slightest shake, the last thing she said to me was,
“Then this is all I have. This is all I am. You tell me what point there is now? What future is there in this?”
I reached for another interpreter and said, “Please help her get through processing.” I broke down, I went home, and I slept. I dreamed of being in the streets of Kabul, standing beside her.
But that wasn’t my experience.
I wonder where she is now.
This story, as hopeless as it has been to write, is a reality for so many humans in this world today. I do not think I will ever feel I have done her story justice. I do not feel that justice can ever be done for her story. I do hope when the reader delves into this story, they recognize the weight and history of a people as old as time itself. These people have one of the most vivid and ancient cultures, as varied and diverse as the regions of Afghanistan itself. It is hard to give up on the future of Afghanistan, even with the darkness it is shrouded in today.
This story is also just one of many the author encountered while acting as an interpreter on the ground in Germany during Operation Allies Refuge and Operation Allies Welcome. The entire team of interpreters with whom I had the honor to work each had experiences as vivid and graphic as the one above. The medical teams were the foundational component of this experience. They did more than many will ever know and did it quietly. These guests were our primary focus and concern at a most precious and desperate hour. Each of us knew we owed them more than we could hope to give, but we still gave them as much of our hearts as we could – and likely our second soul.
I doubt I will ever know her name. However, if, by some chance, I could send her a message through the ether, it would be a short quote:
“What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.” – Victor E. Frankl.
I will never be sure I told this story as well as it needed to be told.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Government, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.