The call came long after dark. At 11 p.m. on Thursday evening, Shaqaiq Birashk received a message to be ready. Twenty minutes later, an Afghan driver arrived at her home in central Kabul and got into the vehicle. The undercover rescue mission had begun.
Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the 37-year-old US citizen, a former Afghan refugee who was an adviser to a US-funded Afghan government project, has been trying to find a way out of the country.
She watched in panic as the Taliban marched into the presidential palace on Sunday, August 15, and the next day the huge national flag that usually flew over a hilltop was brought down.
“That was the moment that basically confirmed everything,” she said, recalling how she collapsed in tears. “My heart was in my throat. The efforts of the past 20 years are all over – the lives lost on all sides, the sacrifices of the mothers and wives on all sides, and the dreams . . . just flushed.”
The Taliban’s victory came after the Biden administration followed a 2020 deal, after which President Donald Trump struck with the Taliban to withdraw all US troops in Afghanistan and end America’s longest-running war. The US first overthrew the Taliban in 2001. Now the Islamist group was back in power.
Their victory sparked chaos at the airport as thousands of people tried to leave. Among them were Americans and people from allied countries, as well as Afghans who had worked with them and feared reprisals.
As the Taliban controlled the main routes to the US-controlled Hamid Karzai International Airport, Birashk watched in horror as a huge struggle unfolded outside. A group of Birashk’s friends reached the airport but returned after being robbed.
On Tuesday, Birashk received an email from the US embassy telling her to head to the airport. But the chaotic scenes made her change her mind. By Thursday morning, she had received three evacuation emails from the US government. But going to the airport was “like going through the death valley,” she wrote in a statement to the The Washington City Times.
“I wanted to leave with respect,” she would later say in a message to friends and family. Determined to avoid death by stampede, she began to mentally prepare for life under Taliban rule.
But on Thursday, one of her Afghan friends with ties to the US tried to get her and others out. She got a text and then a call from a man who said he was a friend of hers and a representative of the US government.
But she hesitated, upset at the thought of others being left behind, and declined the offer of help. The girlfriend called back and insisted there was no time to wait: the security situation changed quickly and she had to go.
That Thursday evening she got into the car. An international Afghan couple (each with a European passport and visa) was already waiting in the vehicle. The two women had dusted off their liquid abayas to ensure that they were dressed in accordance with the mores of the Taliban.
They passed a few Taliban checkpoints on their way to an unknown location. Birashk noticed how young some Talibs were, some in their teens, too young even to have a beard. They didn’t all look Afghan to her eyes. Finally they arrived at the location. Birashk was greeted by Afghan security forces, who handed her over to special US operators.
There she met the American commander who had called her. The special operators were “super helpful and nice,” she recalls.
On Friday, President Joe Biden acknowledged bailouts in public remarks just after aides said he had been briefed on them. The US had taken 169 US citizens from the Baron hotel to the airport. In that case, the commander would have “called the scene,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby later told reporters.
On Monday, Kirby said the US had since created “at least one” additional airlift and “went out as needed and helped Americans get into the [air]field”.
He said field commanders had the authority to conduct local missions on a case-by-case basis. Biden said Tuesday that the US has evacuated and facilitated about 70,700 people since Aug. 14.
“The military is really trying to come up with creative ways to hide the mess of the government’s departure,” Birashk said.
Birashk lined up and boarded one of the three Chinook helicopters. She sat on the floor, huddled next to medical equipment. The helicopters flew close together and took the short ride to the Kabul airport.
A second US citizen, who took the same helicopter flight as Birashk after his two previous attempts to reach the airport failed, confirmed her account of the ride. The The Washington City Times postponed the publication of this article at the request of the Biden administration.
“It was a very difficult ride. I didn’t know if that would be my last observation of the country,” Birashk said in tears. “After 20 years of Afghans being told to dream, they learned to dream, the promises they would never be left behind – all broken.”
Birashk and the others were checked in by the US military and handed over to the Hungarian military to be taken to Uzbekistan, where officials nursed the shaken group. There she ran into a fellow Afghan-American and her two-year-old who had been evacuated, both bruised from the stampede at the airport.
From there, Birashk flew to Budapest, where State Department officials looked after her and the others, and she was scheduled to fly on to the US on Wednesday.
Birashk, who values her American rescuers, called Biden’s withdrawal “irresponsible and inhumane”.
She added: “I have sworn I will never vote for this government. . . again.”