A first-hand account of the effort to help Afghans at risk make it onto one of the last flights out
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital last August, thousands of Afghans rushed to the city’s airport. Fearing that they were targets of the militant group, they hoped to flee before international military forces withdrew.
People with ties to Tufts, including many linked to The Fletcher School, sprang into action to aid those whose lives were at risk. They worked their connections, from the U.S. State Department and the United Nations to the U.S. military and embassies around the world.
Meanwhile, two Tufts graduates on the ground deployed their training in humanitarian assistance to lead a large group attempting to get out of the country, even as gunfire and a suicide bombing exploded dangerously close by.
Here is the story of their efforts, told in their own words.
Lima Ahmad, F19, watched the chaos descend on her native country from a distance. A prominent Afghan women’s rights advocate and Fletcher School doctoral student, she had almost traveled to Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in August to celebrate her youngest brother’s wedding, along with most of her relatives. But she had decided to stay in her home in Virginia to draft her dissertation proposal.
My family was there and I was babysitting my three nephews here. The Taliban had not entered Kabul yet, but [things were changing quickly]. My husband [artist and activist Omaid Sharifi] was painting outside [in Afghanistan]. He posted a video of him and his colleagues painting a mural. It looked like that scene from the Titanic movie, where the boat is sinking, but the artists are playing the music. Everybody’s running, the taxis are going, people are fleeing on bicycles, and they’re just painting.
Akbari, who asked that his full name be withheld, earned a Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance (MAHA) degree in 2018 through a joint program of the Fletcher and Friedman schools. In August, he was working as a humanitarian affairs officer for an international agency in his native Afghanistan:
Right after they took over Kabul, we received reports that the Taliban had already started searching for people who have worked for the U.S., people who have worked for the government, and those who had some sort of association with Western countries. I was one of them.
The next day, the Taliban came into the town where I was living. They were searching for people, and they did come to my home. Fortunately, I had gone to my in-laws’.
One or two UN staff that I knew in other provinces were taken from their homes. Some of my friends were arrested. Some were shot.
Current Fletcher student from Afghanistan who requested anonymity, based in the United States:
On August 16 or 17, the Taliban showed up at my family’s house, searching for a brother of mine who worked as a women’s rights activist. That brother jumped from the roof of our house to the neighbor’s house and ran away.
"The Taliban showed up at my family’s house, searching for a brother of mine who worked as a women’s rights activist. That brother jumped from the roof of our house to a neighbor’s house and ran away."
My other brother who opened the door tried to buy time. He said, “No, he’s not home.” And they said, “We want to search the house.” He refused.
The Taliban started beating him with the end of a gun. Then another Taliban member played the good cop and said, “OK, stop beating him… When your brother comes, you should give us a call.”
I have a sister who was principal of the largest girls’ school in a province. The Taliban showed up to her house, asking for her. She did the same thing, jumped from the roof, ran away to the neighbor’s house. Her husband went to argue with the Taliban. The Taliban beat him severely, broke his leg.
I have another brother who worked in Afghanistan’s finance department. One of his jobs was to prevent the Taliban from infiltrating the banking system. He got calls from colleagues that the Taliban were searching for him. So he ran away from his house.
A 2020 graduate of the MAHA program who was living in his native Afghanistan and asked to be identified only as Gul:
I thought having worked for one international agency and then currently working for another international agency, and then having a master’s from the U.S. would create problems for me and my family. My evacuation was approved by my agency, but I could not wait as it was taking time. I decided to contact friends abroad. One of my friends who was with me in Blakeley, which is the dormitory for Fletcher, told me [to contact Tufts]. I said, “Come on, I only studied there. Maybe they’re not in a position to help me.” He said, “Well, you’re not losing anything in contacting them, so just contact them.”
I didn’t have a visa. I reached out to the Pakistan embassy, [applied for an] Indian online visa, and so many other options. Then a good friend of mine, another MAHA alumnus, called me and said that The Fletcher School is helping Afghans to evacuate. I immediately contacted my professor: Professor Dyan Mazurana.
Dyan Mazurana, a research professor at The Fletcher School and the Friedman School who teaches in the MAHA program:
We put a message out on the Fletcher listserv, which goes to all the Fletcher students and alums. We said, “We need help. Our Fletcher colleagues and their families are trapped in Afghanistan. They are definitely targets.” Some of them were already being hunted down. They were moving house to house; they had abandoned everything. We had to get them out.
My family tried several times to enter the airport. My mom, my brother, and brother-in-law, all three of them were beaten by the Taliban. My husband once tried with one of his friends and their family. They were shot at. Each time they went, they were beaten. I would just tell them, “Try again.”
My nephews asked me, “Our parents were supposed to come here on Tuesday, why are they not coming?” And I would say there is no flight. They said, “What do you mean there is no flight? They can buy another ticket.” You know, the American kids. How can you just tell them the country has fallen?
The previous year, Ahmad’s younger sister—a human rights advocate—had been killed by an IED explosion in Kabul that drew international attention to their family.
Knowing that the family might be targeted, U.S. State Department officials contacted Ahmad and offered to evacuate her relatives. The family was let into the Kabul airport but wasn’t able to get on a plane.
I was sending emails everywhere. I sent an email to the dean, to all the professors I knew, that I needed help. They were reaching out to those at a high level, like senators. Somebody working in a senator’s office literally got water to my parents in the Kabul airport. I don’t know how they did it.
Fletcher alums who have never been to Afghanistan, that we might have never taken classes together or been in the same cohort, made it possible for my family to leave. I connected to somebody, somebody knew somebody, and that person knew somebody in the military who was on the ground. They found my family and put them on a flight after two days in the airport.
Fletcher School Dean Rachel Kyte, F02:
At Fletcher, we are a community that is tight knit, and we’re a community that will respond. We’re not going to leave people behind.
"At Fletcher, we are a community that is tight knit, and we are a community that will respond. We're not going to leave people behind."
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Abigail Linnington, F04, F13, professor of the practice in international security studies at Fletcher and former special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
I spent a year in Afghanistan working on the U.S./NATO rule of law task force and several years on programs and assessments related to the international intervention in Afghanistan. I was able to use my military network and Washington, D.C., network to raise attention to particular cases. I’ve never been a part of something that was this frantic and ad hoc involving the U.S. government.
Professor Linnington sent me an email asking, “How are you doing?” So, I wrote to her that I’m in distress, that several of my siblings are wanted by the Taliban. She asked student volunteers to start collecting information about my siblings and their family. I was so lucky, because she gave me hope. She said, “I’m with you. You’re not alone. And we will get your family to safety.” I passed that hope to my siblings, who were in hiding, that my professor at The Fletcher School is working to put you on the list for evacuation.
After I gave my family’s information to the State Department, within hours, there was this flood of [U.S. government staff] reaching out. “Lima, help us identify women at risk. Do you know these women on this list?” I would say, “Yes, I know these women: These are ministers; these are deputy ministers.” Starting from there, it became a nonstop thing, just working on lists and crying and filling out lists. Within 24 hours, I filled dozens of Excel sheets.
Dyan is my advisor; she was checking on me. I said, “I need somebody to type. I can’t even type, my wrists are hurting.” Once I texted her, “I need food because children are here. I’m taking care of them, but I’m all the time typing. If you could just send some food for the children.”
My second brother and his wife came, although they have their own two children. They took the children and took care of them.
There was a time where I think I had not slept for more than 70 hours, and I couldn’t sleep. So Dyan flew me to Boston to stay at her place. She would put me to sleep with a sleep aid. And she said, “I’m going to be watching your phone and your computer, just sleep for an hour.”
Ahmad, Mazurana, Kyte, and others associated with Tufts were able to acquire visas for a group of about 100 people in Afghanistan.
The group included Tufts alumni Akbari, Gul, and another graduate of the MAHA program and their immediate families and six relatives of a current Fletcher student, as well as several artists, Afghans who worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Afghans who worked for another U.S. university.
The Fletcher network and others from Tufts helped get the names of everyone in the group onto a list to enter the airport in Kabul.
Gregory Gottlieb, a Friedman School professor of the practice and former director of the Feinstein International Center, who worked at USAID for nearly 30 years:
I contacted two special advisors in the front office at USAID, both retirees who’d come back to work there, so I knew them both well. I sent our list of people with all their names and all the paperwork, and I got a confirmation back from them saying, “We’ve put those names into the list.”
As it turned out, one of my cousins married a guy whose brother was a quite senior former National Security Council officer and staffer, a former Marine who served in Afghanistan. I called him up and he gave me the name of a colonel who was in the airport, who was the right-hand guy for the commanding two-star general.
Now, the guy was super busy, but I sent him a message. I didn’t hear from him. I sent him another message. I sent him the whole list. I don’t know what worked. You’ll never know what worked. I got just one brief WhatsApp note: “Got your info.”
It’s hard to know, frankly, whether anything that I did helped. Two weeks into it, I was taking phone calls until 10 at night and at 6 in the morning, trying to figure out, “Hey, what’s going on? Is there an avenue that we can get this person through?”
We were contacted by U.S. intelligence sources who said, “We need vans. We’ve got people we need to move into the airport, but we can’t get any local vehicles.”
Lima said, “How many vans do you need?” They said five. She said, “We’ll add four more, and those will be all our people. And you’re taking our people too.” They said fine.
I called the families, told them, “You have to find a minivan that you will be abandoning. Pay whatever you are going to pay for the car from wherever you are getting it.” I told them, “You have two hours.”
I think it was 25th of August that I received a call from Dyan. It was 1 a.m. I was sleeping. I had to wake up my family members and we found a car. I took my two laptops and a couple sets of clothes in a very small bag.
At 2:30 a.m., I went to my father’s room and woke him up. The most difficult part was I couldn’t take him with me, because he wasn’t on the list. Dyan told me it was only me and my wife and children.
He drove us to the assembly point. There were nine minivans. We didn’t know other group members. We were scared of each other, because we didn’t want any Talib or anyone else, any stranger, to get into our group and then make trouble for us. The only source of verification was Dyan.
I’m a father of two daughters and one son, 9 years old, 6, and 2. When we woke them up that night we told them, “We need to go to the U.S.” They didn’t know that the Taliban were after us. They were excited.
It was a clandestine convoy operated by our Special Forces, in coordination with the drivers, with myself, and Lima, trying to get them into the airport. The Taliban weren’t letting anybody in. They were shooting up in the air; cars beside the convoy were getting shot. A group of people in one van panicked and got out and ran. For 24 hours, U.S. Special Forces just ran these convoys around this area, circling them, circling, circling, circling, trying to get both an agreement from the Taliban to let them through and the agreement from the U.S. forces to let them in.
Inside the van it was very crowded. Usually, it’s for eight people. But we had 14 to 15. In one van we had 18. We had to sit very close to each other, tight, and we had to keep the windows closed. That’s how we all stayed inside the van for 24 hours in front of the airport. We were going from one gate to another. We couldn’t even stay in one location, because the Taliban would not allow people to stay there.
In the van, children were crying. They were asking for water, food. We could only bring some biscuits from the nearby shops and some water. There was no toilet. We did find one which was very far away in one of the restaurants. At first, the restaurant owner would not allow anyone, because there were thousands of people and only one toilet. Later on, he couldn’t resist.
At one point when we were in front of a gate, the Taliban came close and started shooting. We had a 14-year-old girl with us who went into shock.
Gul, who was in a different van:
Our van was having some technical problems. The engine was getting hot. I had to move a few people from this van to other vans. If we stopped, my brother and I had to push the car to start it again. We had to find water to put it in the car, because the water was leaking from the vehicle. The driver told me, “It seems that we won’t be able to get you to the plane, unfortunately.”
The first attempt we made was in the morning around 7 a.m. But when we reached the gate, the Taliban did not allow us. We had to go to another gate. The whole day was spent like this: going to one gate after another.
We were told [by Dyan and Lima] to stay calm, we are getting in in another 10 to 15 minutes, another 10 to 15 minutes. Finally, after 1 a.m. on the second night, they said, “You need to go to the American gate.”
When we reached that gate, we saw [guns] firing. Huge amounts of firing. But Dyan said, “Don’t be afraid. They’re firing to disperse the crowd to let you get in.” It took us two hours to get to the gate. But the Afghans and the U.S. Marines safely got us through the gate.
Once the Tufts-affiliated group entered the Kabul airport on August 26, they were given food and water and completed an initial screening. They found the conditions appalling: garbage on the ground, overflowing toilets, and a line for biometric screening that barely moved for hours.
“Waiting outside was far better than making it inside, honestly,” Gul said. At 5:50 p.m. that day, a suicide bombing outside the airport killed at least 183 people, including 13 members of the U.S. military. The Tufts group took shelter against a wall inside a terminal.
We didn’t hear the sound. The explosion happened far away, and there was so much noise already. But the U.S. military started to run here and there, and ambulances came in, and there were maybe 10 to 15 people handcuffed brought from outside after the attack, who were put on the ground just in front of us.
I was talking to Dean Kyte and she said, “OK, what else can I do?” She was doing everything; she was using all her contacts. I said, “I can hardly stand up. I’ve got to get three hours of sleep. I need somebody who knows how to run this operation and I need that person from 1 to 4 in the morning.” She said, “Fine, I’ll take that shift.” She didn’t even hesitate.
At night, it was cold. I had a blanket I had brought from home. I had to wrap my kids and they had to sleep on the garbage.
Then it was like 11 p.m. or something. I was half asleep in the crowd when I heard this huge explosion. I thought it was a rocket that hit inside the airport. I quickly ran and jumped over other people to go to my kids. The 14-year-old who had gone into shock before fainted.
"When that plane was taking off, I thought: Did I just send all my friends to their death?"
U.S. military staff sedated the teenage girl; she remained unconscious until morning. At the request of an international agency, a member of the group took responsibility for two orphans, even though there was no food to give them.
On the second evening in the airport, the Tufts group, now including the orphans, boarded a chartered plane. Mazurana warned Akbari, whom she had appointed the leader of the group, that there might be a rocket attack on the plane. She urged him to try to keep the group calm if they came under fire.
For me, it was the most difficult job. We didn’t have any other option but to go into the plane, no matter the rocket attack or not, because we were one of the very last groups at the airport. After the suicide attack, the U.S. closed all the doors. Nobody could get in or out.
There was this fear: What if the U.S. leaves us here and the Taliban get into the airport? We said, “OK, if you’re left here, the Taliban is coming for sure and they will shoot us directly.” The only option was to board that plane and take the risk of a rocket attack.
When that plane was taking off, I thought: Did I just send all my friends to their death?
I think it was around 6 p.m. on August 27 that we made it to the plane. We hadn’t slept for almost 70 hours. As soon as it took off, I just slept immediately. One time, we were told that we may go to Canada. Then it was Mexico. Then it was Uganda, or North Macedonia. In the end, it was Albania.
This group had been totally below the radar [for U.S. evacuation plans]. Nobody was coming to help them. We put out that message on the Fletcher network and it sprang into action, but it was people like Akbari and the others on the ground who kept everybody alive.
After the U.S. military withdrew, things got worse for the Fletcher student’s relatives who were being harassed by the new regime. The Taliban warned one brother, who was refusing to disclose his sibling’s location, that they would kill him and his wife and child if he did not turn in his sibling in one week. But there were few safe ways to leave.
We tried to get information to inform our friends’ decisions. We had reports that people were being shot if they had certain visas in their passports. We had mixed reports about the Uzbek border, that even if you somehow talked your way through the border control point, we heard the Uzbek authorities might just turn around and hand you back to the Taliban again. We wanted to be really, really careful about providing any advice about what to do, because only the people on the ground could determine what risks they were willing to take.
The student and Linnington contacted Alan Solomont, A70, A08P, former dean of Tisch College of Civic Life and former U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra. He helped them connect with the Clinton Foundation, which in mid-September took some of the student’s relatives on chartered flights from Kabul to another country in the region. With help from the Tufts network, those relatives were able to relocate to Mexico while they seek permanent resettlement in the United States. The student’s other relatives remain in Afghanistan.
Many people, like the student’s family members who stayed behind, are still in harm’s way within Afghanistan. The country faces a humanitarian crisis, including widespread hunger, because most international aid was cut off after the Taliban took power. Professor Beatrice Manz of the Tufts Department of History, with help from her friends and family, is financially supporting about 30 members of the student’s family, including those in Afghanistan and those who fled.
I wish to bring them to the United States, but the process is very complicated. We are applying for visas, but it does not seem promising.
Most members of the large Tufts group that left through the Kabul airport—including Akbari, Gul, and their families—remain in Albania awaiting resettlement.
We are happy that we are here in Albania. We are safe. But we are sad as well. We lost everything. We lost our country. We lost our home, our jobs, our bank accounts, our families, friends, colleagues, everybody. And there isn’t a clear timeline that we will go to the U.S. When we talk with our colleagues, with our family members in Afghanistan, the situation is worse. There are so many problems: kidnappings, shootings, target killings.
We have good accommodations; we don’t have restrictions of movement. The people of Albania are very nice. But this is not life. Life is when you settle somewhere, when you have a job, work opportunities. Your brother can go to school, you can meet your friends and relatives—that is life. This is not our final destination. We have to move.