Aurangzaib Sharifi doesn’t want to know who’s on the other end of his video chat.
Nearly every night for the past month, the former Afghan interpreter for U.S. and international armed forces smooths his hair, sets up his tripod and sits on his couch in Commerce City, interviewing anonymous fellow interpreters on Facebook Live, trying to raise awareness of the plight of his people and to document history as Afghanistan plunges back into chaos and Taliban rule.
These interpreters detail their fear to Sharifi of leaving their homes, their fear of feeding their families. They make sure not to divulge their locations or names for fear of reprisal. All of them, like Sharifi, had taken on the often-dangerous job of helping American soldiers understand Afghanistan and the people they were occupying for the past 20 years.
“Everyone was free, everyone was hopeful,” Sharifi said of the elation two decades ago when international forces threw the Taliban out of power. “Now it’s all to zero.”
Sharifi and other members of Colorado’s Afghan population are now praying for peace and the safety of family and friends back home after the swift collapse of their government this week in a country defined by conflict and grief for generations.
Thousands of Afghans who worked with Americans were so desperate to get out after Kabul collapsed that they clung to planes bound for international skies. Many of those left in the country — as well as their family abroad — are left wondering if Afghanistan will return to the Taliban’s iron-fist rule. For Afghan women especially, there is anxiety that their newfound freedoms will be snatched away.
Everything over the last week brings Meena Saber back to what she calls the best memory of her life: the day she got to attend school for the first time, without hiding, in Afghanistan.
It was 2001, and she was about 12 years old. The winter air chilled the classroom, which had no windows to close. There were no chairs, but there was a blackboard, she said. That was all they needed.
“It was amazing,” Saber said. “We see the difference that we make (through education) in our lives, in our family lives, in our community.”
Saber moved to the United States with her family in 2009. She has lived in Colorado since 2019, and the Commerce City resident is now pursuing a masters degree.
Saber worries about her family members still in Afghanistan, and talks to her aunts daily, who live in Kabul alone, trying to figure out how they can leave.
“I know they are in trouble,” Saber said. “… they’re not going to be able to go out and work, because there is nothing clear in the current situation. The Taliban is back.”
Saber remembers living under Taliban rule, her dad secretly taking her and her sister to get tutoring at 8 or 9 years old. They had to conceal their books and if they saw Taliban officials near their tutor’s home, they had to turn around. When they did make it, the windows were all closed, the walls covered so sound wouldn’t travel.
Images from Afghanistan have evoked painful memories that many hoped they would never have to revisit. For Sahar Nisar, they are of her father.
Sept. 11, 2001, is etched in Americans’ memory. It’s also the day the Taliban killed Nisar’s father, a philanthropist and businessman from Panjshir Province.
“It’s like an arrow into my heart when people talk about a lack of will from the Afghan people,” she said Wednesday at the Denver design incubator where she works. “I’m sure he’d be standing and fighting right now.”
Nisar moved to the U.S. with her siblings and mother just months after her father was killed, but like many ex-pats here, she worries about the family left behind — especially her teenage cousin who started a girls’ book club.
“She’s scared, devastated,” Nisar said.
For Nisar and others of her generation, all they know is war, conflict, foreign powers. It’s hard to place blame, the 28-year-old said, but she believes the U.S. should have left a long time ago.
“It’s been 46 years since Vietnam,” Nisar said. “I thought we’d make progress in ending wars.”
“If I’m not doing it, who will?”
The Taliban’s rapid takeover in Afghanistan came as the U.S. is winding down its longest war, 20 years that have cost more than $2 trillion dollars and left more than 20,000 U.S. military members wounded and 2,312 dead. More than 47,000 Afghan civilians were killed.
The general consensus among the U.S. government, regional experts and its allies was that the Afghan government could probably last another two or three years after troops withdrew before any major threats to its existence, said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.
The fall suggests “a massive colossal failure of intelligence, on behalf of the United States and its allies,” he said.
“This is on the scale of Vietnam,” Hashemi said “… this recent event in Afghanistan ranks up there as one of the great disasters of U.S. foreign policy in the modern period.”
Colorado’s Afghan community has pleaded for the Biden administration to expedite visas for the thousands of translators and contractors who worked with the U.S. over the past two decades and are now fearing for their lives. U.S. Rep. Jason Crow had sponsored a bill this year to move more people out.
In a letter to Biden on Wednesday, Gov. Jared Polis told the president that Colorado is ready to welcome Afghan refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders.
“I urge the Biden administration to act quickly to rescue, evacuate and resettle eligible Afghans as there are lives at stake,” Polis wrote. “In particular, I hope that the administration does not let bureaucratic processes stand in the way of rescue.”
But somewhere in Afghanistan, an interpreter tells Sharifi over video chat that he’s terrified to leave his home for fear of abduction or being shot.
“I don’t know what will happen,” the man said, “but I need to get out.”
Most of Sharifi’s family is in Kabul, while he left seven years ago. They’ve pleaded with him not to do these videos for fear of Taliban reprisal.
“Somebody has to give sacrifices,” said Sharifi, who insisted on using his name for this story. “If I’m not doing it, who will?”
When the Afghan government fell Sunday, Sharifi couldn’t bear to do his usual translator interviews. Instead, he spent most of the day crying, watching the Afghan flag replaced by the Taliban’s.
“That was the worst day of my life,” Sharifi said.
During his morning prayers, Sharifi — a father, immigrant and interpreter — thinks about his home country.
“When are we going to be released from this grief?” he said asks himself. “When will this proxy war end?”
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