For this man, America is home. But so is Afghanistan
Twenty years ago, an Afghan boy stumbled into his own American dream. He never imagined he’d end up helping his family flee the Taliban
Part One: Over There
Nov. 27, 2001
I step on a tugboat with four other journalists and we start across the river that separates Uzbekistan from northern Afghanistan. The current is fast and deep. For the first time in weeks, I breathe deeply. I feel the line being crossed, and, yes, I want to go. Roughly two months have passed since the twin towers fell and America changed forever.
On the shore of Afghanistan a man in a worn-out sport coat and scarf stamps my passport, and I cram into a Toyota microbus heading 60 miles south to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Mazar sits on the flatlands before the Hindu Kush mountains. The streets are mud, and the buildings are brick and concrete cubes sprouting clusters of rebar. There are men pulling carts with wood wheels. There are women wearing burqas. There are shops with skinned goats hanging upside down, shops where chairs and tables are made, a shop where a man is pounding out food cans and riveting them together in the shape of a satellite dish.
The one hotel that’s open is across the street from a blue-tiled mosque. My room is tiny and cold, one window, and a thin cotton mattress on top of wire springs that sag and creak almost to the floor. The electricity is off. The bathroom is down the hall, but I’m told there’s no water now.
I stare at a bare lightbulb as the call to prayer breaks through a loudspeaker at the mosque.
I decide to go for a walk and stop to look at the blue-tiled dome. Very quickly there are five young men around me. Then there are 10, then 30, then 50 — all men and boys, close together, all yelling at me.
Then I hear a soft voice say, “Excuse me, sir, can I help you?”
I turn and see a young boy with a freshly shaved head, beautiful green eyes and long eyelashes.
“Yes,” I say. “You can make these people go away.”
So he stands up on a bench and starts yelling. He’s wearing a Planet Hollywood T-shirt under an old ski parka with bell bottom pants that are two or three sizes too big, cinched by a belt, and he’s castigating the crowd, throwing his finger at them, shaming them all in Pashto. And, amazingly, they all turn and walk away with their heads down.
“That was impressive,” I say.
“Do you need an interpreter?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. “What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” he says.
I look away and wonder, maybe he’s too young.
“I will help you in any way I can,” he says. “And I will not leave your side. As long as you are here, I will be with you.”
“I don’t want you to get hurt in the process,” I say.
“Come,” he says. “Let’s go to the hotel.”
Dec. 2, 2001
Najib and I are in a taxi headed to Qala-i-Jangi, a medieval-style fortress where the first battle of the war has taken place.
Najib is driving. The old chauffeur is relaxing in the passenger’s seat while the teenager speeds 90 miles an hour, pounding the steering wheel to the beat of Afghan disco music. He drives too fast, and he slows down and speeds up too quickly as the car crashes through a series of large potholes. This happens again and again, even though I keep telling him to slow down.
In the distance, there are small caravans of camels and herds of goats, and along the road runs a natural gas pipeline, rusted, resting on the ground or on small dirt mounds.
“Is that a real pipeline?” I ask Najibullah.
“Yes, it’s real. It’s the only one in Afghanistan. The gas goes to Mazar-e-Sharif.”
“And it works?” I ask.
“Yes, for electricity,” he says. “My father helped design the pipeline as a geology engineer.”
Up ahead, there’s a young soldier with a Kalashnikov on the side of the road. Najibullah pulls over. The soldier comes up to the car pointing his gun at Najib. He has his finger on the trigger.
“What are you doing?” Najib shouts at him. “You shouldn’t be out here on the road stopping cars. This man is an American and you should be careful not to upset him or the bombs will find you in your house.”
The soldier falls back like he’s been punched in the gut, and he lets us go.
“He really believed that,” I say.
“Yes, they all believe it,” Najibullah says, “and it’s true.”
“But I can’t make it happen.”
“He doesn’t know this,” Najibullah says. The old chauffeur looks at me and smiles.
Dec. 4, 2001
I’m sitting beside Najib’s father in the back seat of a taxicab. Najib is driving again. We’re headed to Sheberghan, 90 miles west. Najib’s father, Sadiq, is going to translate as I interview two Taliban prisoners in the Sheberghan prison. Both speak Russian. Najib’s father will translate into Pashto for Najib and Najib will translate into English for me.
Sadiq is wearing a corduroy jacket and looks like a college professor, which in fact he is. He teaches geology at Balkh University. He’s calm and quiet. Running along the highway is the pipeline that he helped design.
“The electricity seems to go out a lot,” I say. “Is there a problem with the pipeline?”
“No,” he says, smiling. “The pipeline is fine. And we have plenty of gas. It’s the power plant. It was built by the Soviets and is always breaking down. We need to build a new one.”
“Maybe the U.S. will help,” I say. “Inshallah,” he says, God willing.
My question could have offended him, but it didn’t. He knows I’m new here.
Sadiq doesn’t talk much. He’s different from Najib in this way. Najib’s strength is his voice and he’s always a step ahead of you. Sadiq sits back and takes everything in.
Dec. 5, 2001
I asked Najib to buy three burqas for me at the market, souvenirs to take home. He brings them to my hotel room and spreads them out on the bed — two sky blue, one white. They look ghostly.
“So have you ever gone on a date?” I ask him.
“What’s a date?”
“Like when you go somewhere with a girl and maybe hold her hand or kiss her.”
“No,” he says. “I’ve never even spoken with a girl other than my sisters. If I speak with a girl in this way, then our fathers would beat us with a stick.”
“OK,” I say, “let me ask you a hypothetical question. Do you understand what I mean by hypothetical?”
“Yes,” he says.
“What if your sister slept with someone and they’re not married? What would happen?”
“My father would tie her to a tree and shoot her with a Kalashnikov.”
“I doubt that very much,” I say. “I’ve met your father. He’d never do it.”
“It’s true,” he says. “Believe me.”
“What if he wouldn’t do it?”
“Then my oldest brother would do it,” he says, clearly upset.
“What if he didn’t?”
“Then my next oldest brother would do it.” “And what if he didn’t?”
“Then I would do it,” he says.
“Najib,” I say, “just think about it. You’d never tie your sister to a tree and shoot her.”
He looks at the floor and then he looks at me like he wants to fight. Then he turns away and walks out the door. I insulted him by saying he wouldn’t shoot his sister. I’ve read that nothing is more important to an Afghan than his honor, but man, I just didn’t see it coming.
The next day he is back. He tells me he went home thinking he couldn’t work for me anymore. But his father talked him down, explaining that I don’t understand the Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of honor, and I didn’t intend to insult him.
“But only because I gave you my promise,” he tells me.
Part Two: Najibullah in America
Najib has been calling me in the middle of the night. “How is your family?” — always the first thing he says. He’s calling from the United Nations office in Mazar. He’s the assistant to the radio operator, and after lunch his boss falls asleep. So Najib whispers, saying that he needs to get out of Afghanistan. Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum’s men are after him.
“I have a plan,” I say. “I have a friend who’s a high-ranking professor at a university where I’ve accepted a job, also as a professor.”
“Congratulations,” he says.
“Maybe,” I say. “I’m afraid it’s not a good fit for me. But anyway, my friend might be able to get you accepted as a student. You could get a student visa and come here.”
“What do I need to do?”
“You need to write an essay, a letter, to show you’re up to college standards.”
“What do I say in the letter?” he asks.
“Write about your life,” I say.
Three weeks later, I get the first draft by email. It’s barely readable, full of misspellings, grammatical errors, problems with punctuation. I realize Najib doesn’t know how to write because he learned English from watching movies like “Rush Hour” and “Rambo.” But writing is mainly about the movement of the mind, and Najib’s mind moves like a Ferrari, so once I figure out what he’s trying to say, I see he’s written an amazing story.
He begins with the Russians pulling out of Afghanistan in 1989, when he was five years old. There was peace for a few years, but there were no jobs or money, just a lot of weapons left over from the war. When people got hungry all they could do was go kill somebody and take whatever they had. This is how the civil war started. Various ethnic groups — Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras — fought against each other.
Najib was a bad student. He often fell asleep in class. His family had no money. So, when he was 12 years old, he asked his father if he could quit school and go to work. Reluctantly, his father agreed. He’d keep Najib’s two older brothers in school because this would be better for the family in the long run, but in order to get by in the present, he was willing to sacrifice Najib’s future.
Najibullah’s first job was collecting fares on buses. Then, for a while, he bought gasoline downtown, filling one-liter bottles and carrying them 10 kilometers out of the city where he sold them for a few cents profit. Then he built a box he could carry with a rope slung over his neck and filled it with gum and cigarettes. He made as much as a dollar a day hawking his wares on the street.
At that time, 1996, the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan, but Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Uzbeks were in charge of Mazar. Najib was afraid of Dostum’s men, as they sometimes abducted young boys. He believed the Taliban had higher morals, so he wanted them to come and take over.
In 1997, the Taliban attacked. Najib was selling gum and cigarettes as the first tank came barreling into the city at full speed, flying a dirty white flag, carrying men with long beards.
Everybody started screaming, “It’s the Taliban!” and ran away. The battle went on for four days and in the end Dostum’s militia killed every single Talib — thousands of them — and left their bodies in the streets. Najib saw the bodies being eaten by wild dogs. The smell of death was everywhere.
A year later, the Taliban took the city and imposed Sharia law. Najib would walk around, passing bodies of men hanging from lampposts, their mouths stuffed with money. He saw public executions of women who’d shamed their families. At night, in his friend’s basement, he watched smuggled videos from America and dreamed of someday being able to go there.
It’s a wild essay, written in a form where even the words seem to have been blown apart. I send it to my friend without changing a thing. He writes back in less than an hour, saying, “We want him. Tell him he’s accepted.”
Najib is at my house in Salt Lake City for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s been going to school at Utah Valley University, where I work as a journalism professor. The job is not going so well for me. I don’t like most of my students, and they, in return, do not like me. Najib, however, gets along with them quite well. He makes friends easily, especially girl friends. In Afghanistan, the only women he knew were his mother and his sisters, but in America, he’s a rock star, changing his look from day to day, sometimes a goatee, sometimes a ponytail.
The only problem is when they invite him to their church. He tells them conversion is not possible for a Pashtun. A Pashtun who becomes a Christian is no longer a Pashtun. He’s banished or killed. So his best friends are young people who’ve fallen away. They like to party. He doesn’t drink, and this makes him the designated driver. Unlike some of his friends, he studies hard and earns good grades. He’s thinking about running for student body president.
At dinner, Najib makes an announcement. “I’ve realized I will no longer tie my sister to a tree and shoot her with a Kalashnikov if she sleeps with someone to whom she is not married.”
My whole family knows the story. We’re silent for a moment, and then we applaud. I have to choke back some tears.
Najib is studying business, but I talked him into taking a course on Dada, an art movement from the early 20th century. I promised to help him write his final paper.
My plan is to teach him how to write like he talks. We drive up Provo Canyon, following the river up to the Heber Valley, a place they call Little Switzerland. “Take out a pen and paper,” I say, “and tell me who were the Dadaists.”
Najib sucks on his pen and says, “The Dadaists were artists in Europe who thought art had too many rules and was boring. So they moved to Zurich, where there were no rules about art.”
“Excellent,” I say. “Write that down, just what you said.”
This takes him about five minutes, and when he reads it back he’s completely messed it up by trying to make it sound proper, and it makes no sense at all.
“Look down at that river,” I say. “Do you see any places where you could jump from rock to rock and make it across to the other side?”
“No,” he says. “There’s too much water.”
“Well, imagine there is a place like that. I want you to think about writing as jumping from rock to rock. Can you swim?”
“Not very well.”
“Good,” I say. “In order to jump to a rock, you must first answer my question honestly, in your own voice. If you try to answer in someone else’s voice, you’ll fall into the river and drown. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he says.
“OK. You jumped from the first rock by telling me who the Dadaists were. In order to jump again, tell me, what did the Dadaists do?”
“They sat in coffee shops and talked about new ways to make art,” he says. “Whatever was pleasing to them, they called it art.”
“OK, good,” I say, “jump to the next rock. Now tell me, what kinds of things did the Dadaists find to be pleasing?”
“The one called Duchamp took a toilet and turned it upside down to make people see it for its shape, not for what it does.”
“And what do you think about that?”
“But what I think doesn’t matter,” he says.
“So now you’re in the middle of the stream and you’re just going to stay there?” I ask. “Will I have to call your father and tell him you were last seen in the middle of a river contemplating Dada? In order to keep going, you have to say what you think. Now! Jump!”
“Back home, if we wrote what we thought, we’d get beaten up by the teacher.”
“Do you think your professor is going to beat you up?” I ask.
“Then go for it. What did you think about the upside-down toilet?”
“I didn’t see it as a toilet. I saw it as a beautiful shape. Duchamp was trying to show there’s more than one way to see the same thing, and that blew my mind.”
“Very good,” I say. “Write that down, everything you just said.”
It takes a while, but he’s doing it, writing it like he said it.
“This next jump is the hardest one of all. You’ve told me who the Dadaists were, what they did, and what you think about it. Now tell me if learning this stuff made any difference in your life, or changed the way you see yourself and the world around you.”
He thinks about it.
“The Dadaists liked to hang out and go crazy,” he says. “This is what some of my friends do here, even though it’s against the rules of their society. They used to believe in those rules, but now they don’t. They want there to be no rules.”
“And how does that make you feel?” I ask.
“How does that make me feel?”
“Yes. Do you have any feelings? Do you know what they are?” I ask this as a joke, but then I see Najib walking through a street filled with dead bodies and wonder if I’m being too harsh.
“It’s fun and scary at the same time,” he says.
“Yes, good,” I say. “And what’s the word for that kind of feeling, fun and scary at the same time?”
He thinks about it for a while, and then he says, “I don’t know.”
So I tell him. “Freedom,” I say. “Fun and scary at the same time is called freedom, and that’s what America is all about.”
I give him the ending, just as so many others have done for me in the past.
Up on the stage, our president is handing out diplomas as the name of each student is called. The graduation song is playing over and over again. Babies are crying. People are yelling and whistling. Najib is finally at the front of the line. He has a friend with a telephoto lens shooting pictures for his family back home. I try to whistle.
He’s made it. In two months, he’s getting married to an Afghan American girl in California, and he has a lot of job offers. He wants to run for president of Afghanistan some day, and he just might pull it off.
A master stood with his student on the edge of a cliff.
“Jump,” the master said.
“But I’ll fall,” said the student.
“Jump,” the master said.
So the student jumped, and he flew.
Part Three: The Longest War
April 30, 2021
Najib calls to tell me he’s bought a second condominium.
“I feel like I’m living the American dream,” he says.
He bought his first condo last fall, in the suburbs. This one is downtown in an old art deco apartment building a block from Temple Square. He’s 37 years old — a licensed accountant auditing Fortune 500 companies for one of the big four accounting firms, taking flying lessons, working on his CPA certification.
“Why do you want a second condo?” I ask.
“For an investment,” he says. “I want to have 10 rental properties by the time I retire. And I need to buy some land out in the country, like in the mountains, somewhere with a runway where I can land my plane.”
“When are you going to learn how to play golf?” I ask him.
“Afghans play golf on horseback, but instead of a ball we use a goat.”
“But you’re an American now,” I say.
“Then I will join the polo club,” he says. “You should come down and take a look at my new place. And I need some help hanging my curtains.”
A lot has happened in Najib’s life since he graduated. First, he got married. The wedding was huge and went on for three days. His wife was beautiful with a sharp wit, very much into fashion.
Then, a year later, he took a job working for the Department of Defense and went back to Afghanistan, first with the 82nd Airborne and then with the U.S. Marine Corps. He’s never told me his job title or much about what he did, just that they were shot at, a lot. He calls the sound bullets make as they go by a “swizzle.”
Najib came back, and within a year his marriage was over. He left their apartment with only his car, which he lived in for the next three years while going to school for a master’s degree. Those were bad years. He didn’t come to visit. We spoke only rarely on the phone.
“Do you really sleep in your car?” I once asked him.
“Yes,” he said, “in the college parking lot by the library where I study. But I have two cars. The Land Cruiser I sleep in and keep all my stuff. The sedan I use for driving Uber.”
He finished his master’s and took this job. He had a desk in a tall building with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. He rented an apartment. Then COVID-19 hit and he spent a year alone, working remotely on his computer screens until he was sure he was going out of his mind. He decided to move back to Utah to be among his old friends in a place that felt like home.
His new building has a chandelier and mosaic tile in the foyer. The condo is small, 650 square feet, one bedroom, up on the second floor with an interesting view looking down on people going in and coming out of Harmons grocery store.
“Sometimes I’m blown away thinking how my life would be different if I hadn’t gone to the mosque that day we met in Mazar,” he says. “If I never met you, if America didn’t go to war in Afghanistan, I’d be driving a truck in Kabul right now.”
This is when I tell Najib we should go back to Afghanistan together. I want to produce a radio story about how things have changed.
“We could be there as the last plane flies away,” I say. “I want to ask people if they’re afraid the Taliban will take over.”
“They’ll tell you it’s not a possibility,” he says. “They won’t tolerate that kind of thing. They’ve had 20 years of exposure to technology and news. A whole generation has grown up that never knew the Taliban. They’re educated now and know how to make better decisions.”
“But the Taliban seem to be winning the war,” I say. “They already control most of the country outside the cities. When our troops leave the Afghan National Army will be even weaker.”
“The Afghan Army can fight the Taliban and win,” he interrupts. “I’ve seen them in action, at least the special forces. Their capabilities and talent in war is as close to the American Special Forces as you can get.”
“How will we travel around?” I ask. “Don’t the Taliban control all the highways?”
“My brother is a captain in the Afghan Air Force,” he says, “and he has his own plane, a Cessna 208, used for reconnaissance. He’ll take us wherever we want to go — Mazar, Herat, Kandahar. We can talk to whomever you want — people on the street, military officers, government officials.”
“And where will we stay?” I ask.
“With my father in Kabul.”
“I’d like to see him again,” I say.
“We used to not get along so well, but lately we’ve been talking on WhatsApp,” Najib says. I try to remember what Najib told me about his father. I ask, “He took a second wife and then your mom moved to Istanbul to live with your sister?”
“Yes, and now he has three young daughters I’ve never met. I’d like to see them and my dad. As I get older I realize I have a lot of respect for him.”
July 6, 2021
The trip to Afghanistan is looking iffy, with no word on my visa. Also, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is not what Najib predicted. The Taliban have been taking control of district after district, often without a fight. I read today that over 1,000 Afghan soldiers fled across the border into Tajikistan. And yesterday, in the middle of the night, the U.S. military abandoned Bagram Airfield — apparently a surprise for the Afghan government. We still have 600 troops protecting the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but President Joe Biden now says everyone will be out by August 31. I call Najib to ask what’s happening and why.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “All of the planes and helicopters used by the Afghan Air Force were maintained by American contractors at Bagram. Now those planes and helicopters will be grounded, which means there will be no air support for our troops, no way to get them food or ammunition.” Still, he believes the Afghan army can protect the capital.
“What if they don’t?” I ask. “What if they fail? What will happen to your family?”
“My dad will be OK,” he says. “He’s in charge of maintaining the country’s infrastructure for natural gas. He’s a well-known and respected public servant, so he can work for either side. But my brother will be in trouble as the Taliban have placed pilots at the top of their kill list. They’ll just shoot him first chance they get.”
Aug. 14, 2021
The Taliban have taken some major cities — Kunduz, Herat, Spin Boldak — and now they have overrun Sheberghan, Gen. Dostum’s stronghold. Najib comes by my house. He walks in without saying hello, stands in the kitchen for a bit looking at his cellphone and then says his father may have been killed.
“He was in Sheberghan when the Taliban came into the town,” he says, “with his wife and three daughters. It’s said the Taliban were killing public servants, shooting them, cutting off their heads. My dad tried to get away by driving to Mazar, along the same highway we were on 20 years ago, but he didn’t make it. No one has heard from him in over 24 hours.”
In all the time I’ve known Najib, I’ve never seen him scared. I’ve never seen him weak or vulnerable. But he’s all these things now. He’s sitting at my table, hunched over his phone. He starts to cry, just a bit. I’ve never seen him cry.
“I just hope they didn’t torture him,” he says, defeated. “Last time the Taliban came, they beat him nearly to death, but his body was younger then and he could recover. Now I just pray they shot him or hanged him quickly. This would be a relief.”
I don’t know what to say. I know Najib’s father. People I know are not beaten and hanged, their heads are not cut off. This is barbarism, something in books and movies, not real life, not my life.
“I can’t grieve for him now,” Najib says. “He was old and lived his life, and he knew what he was doing. But his three daughters ... without him to protect them ... I’m afraid Taliban soldiers will take them for wives and their lives will be over.”
“Maybe he’s hiding out somewhere,” I say.
“He knows lots of people in the area who would help him,” Najib says. “He may have thrown away his cellphone and is staying out of sight until he grows a beard.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” I say.
Aug. 16, 2021
Kabul has fallen. The Taliban drove into the city in seized U.S. military vehicles and not a shot was fired in resistance. Now the victorious commanders — freshly coifed and wearing fine clothes — are posing for social media in the presidential palace. The markets stay open but the streets are quiet. The city is full of people hiding in their homes, afraid they will be killed if they don’t get out of the country. Najib and I won’t be going back to Afghanistan, not anytime soon.
Biden has 5,000 U.S. Marines at the Hamid Karzai International Airport to begin evacuating U.S. citizens, as well as Afghans with visas, Afghans who assisted U.S. troops and Afghans who worked for media organizations.
By 10 a.m. Najib is at my house asking me to help his brother obtain an exit visa. He’s talking loudly on the phone, in Pashto, pacing through my living room and kitchen. I can hear his brother’s voice clearly, with no time delay. Sometimes they’re laughing, making jokes, saying short phrases in English. Najib is no longer frightened. He has a plan and he’s running with it. I need to keep up.
“The Taliban have a list of pilots’ names,” he says. “They’re searching the city and have already murdered three aircraft mechanics. My brother is on the run, moving from house to house.”
“Oh, man,” I say, “what can I do to help?”
“The State Department is accepting letters from journalists who have been assisted by Afghan translators in the field,” Najib says. “Say hello to your new translator in the field, my brother Zabi.”
I talk to Zabi while Najib pulls up an online form. I have a copy of Zabi’s passport that he sent by email. He’s 39, two years older than Najib, and looks like a banker.
Zabi says it’s nighttime in Kabul and he’s doing OK in his present location, that his family is safe. He thanks me for helping out. Then Najib takes the phone and motions me to start typing.
I write a short letter saying Zabi, my translator, is in grave danger of being killed by the Taliban and that he poses no threat to the United States of America. Then I send it off by clicking a button. It seems like a weightless, fruitless endeavor, but at least we’re doing something.
Najib hangs up and starts ranting about how badly Biden messed up the exit strategy. “Every decision he makes is only about the next elections,” he says. “He doesn’t care about the Afghan people. And I will not forgive him for this.”
Aug. 27, 2021
Over the past week there have been thousands of people — men, women and children — pressing up against the gates of the Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul, desperate to get on a plane out of Afghanistan. They fight to get to the front of the crowd to show their documents. Those with U.S. passports and special visas are let through, with as many as 19,000 evacuated in a single day. Yesterday a suicide bomber worked his way through the crowd, and when he got to the gates, he pushed his button or flipped his switch and killed over 150 people — men, women and children — 13 of whom were American soldiers.
I haven’t seen or heard from Najib in a couple of days and I’m worried about him, so I go down to his condo. He looks terrible, puffy face, swollen eyes. The floor is littered with photocopied documents that look like he’s been sleeping on them. He has six video monitors showing different news channels, email, messages. He says he’s been on the phone, night and day, trying to get Zabi to the airport with his wife and three kids. They are in a car and Najib uses WhatsApp to see their location on a map of the city. Zabi tells him what he sees on the road and Najib looks for alternate routes when the street is blocked by Taliban soldiers.
Earlier today, nighttime over there, Najib was on the phone as Zabi and his family were hiding in the shadow of a concrete wall from Taliban soldiers in a pickup truck across the street. Najib was whispering, trying to sound calm. Then, through the phone, he heard the Taliban start the truck. He could hear the revving of the engine, the shifting of the gears, and Zabi’s children holding their breath as the truck drove away.
“And then my nephew said, ‘It’s OK uncle, don’t worry, we’re safe now,’ and I felt my heart break,” Najib says, choking up.
“I grew up tough,” he says. “I’ve seen wars. I’ve seen death from a very young age, six, seven years old. I’ve been in a run my whole life, my whole life, but nothing has scared me or petrified me like being on the phone with my niece and nephews as they were hiding. They’ve always thought of me as a hero, but I could do nothing to help them.”
When I met Najib he was just a boy, but I’ve always thought of him as an adult because he always acted like an adult. Now I realize this is because he never had a childhood. Or his childhood stopped the day the Taliban came to town. He buried the trauma inside his body and came to America to start a new life where every move was to ensure the trauma would stay buried. But then the Taliban came back, and the trauma rose up from the grave like a zombie. He’s been through living hell.
And still there is no word from his father.
Aug. 31, 2021
The last U.S. troops flew out of Kabul at one minute before midnight. In two weeks, coalition forces evacuated more than 123,000 people, but Zabi and his family were not among them.
They almost made it. They kept trying to get to the airport, day after day, but it was always too dangerous and they had to turn back. Then Najib got in touch with a network of former intelligence and military people who have friends in Afghanistan who can somehow get things done. Najib can’t talk about who the people are or how he got in touch with them. These things need to be a secret because there are still lives on the line. With their help, Najib was able to get Zabi and his family to the airport. It took 22 hours for them to travel a distance of only five miles, Najib on the phone with them the whole time. But just as they got to the airport perimeter, the last plane departed.
I meet Najib at Harmons for lunch. He hasn’t been sleeping and isn’t hungry, but he seems to be in a good mood.
“When the last plane took off, I was speechless,” he says. “I felt like a doctor whose patient is going to die and you don’t know what to tell him.”
“You needed a whole new plan,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, “we had to hide them in Afghanistan.”
With the help of his nameless accomplices, he hired two cars and two drivers — one for Zabi and one for his wife and kids. They traveled north along back roads through the Hindu Kush. Many of the mountains are over 15,000 feet tall, and some are covered by glaciers. It took them two days to get over a remote pass and down to the countryside in their tribal homeland.
“There they can ask for protection under the Pashtunwali,” Najib says. “If you come in peace you can ask for protection from another Pashtun and he must protect you.”
“So they are safe?”
“For now, yes,” he says.
“How do you feel about America now?” I ask him.
“You know, I voted for Biden and it crushed me that I had such a misunderstanding of how incompetent he can be,” he says. “And I’m critical of the government. The government screwed up and has been screwing up for 20 years. But this is my country now. I adopted it and it adopted me. It’s not perfect, but it’s still much better than the rest of the world.”
“So these people who helped you, they were Americans?” I ask.
“I can’t really talk about that,” he says, “but the way we were able to get my brother to the airport and then to safety in the countryside, this all came from American technology and American creativity. No government could help us, so we figured it out step by step, on our own. This is the American way of living, the spirit of thinking free.”
Something has changed. Najib has confidence. And he’s calm, more quiet. He reminds me of his father, Sadiq, who is still missing.
Sept. 21, 2021
Najib just sent me a photo of Zabi and kids, big smiles, inside a commercial passenger jet. The message: “I got them out!”
I call him up but he can’t tell me how he did it. For now, the point is, he saved his brother’s life and got the family to safety.
“I can’t believe what I’ve been through,” he says. “For three weeks straight I’ve been on the phone with people in so many countries, just guessing what to say, how to get their attention — people in the military, intelligence, government officials, even a Taliban soldier at a checkpoint who was questioning my brother. I pretended to be a Taliban commander from Kandahar. Suddenly I was speaking with a Kandahari accent, dropping the names of Taliban commanders I knew from when I was there. I told him to let my brother go and he did. It was so close, so many times, and every time the right words came out of my mouth. I don’t know how I did it.”
The longest war in American history is over. For two decades we fought an enemy in one of the poorest countries in the world, and we lost, a lot. And there are nearly four times as many jihadis in the world today as there were in 2011, with up to 64,000 in Afghanistan alone as of 2018. They all must consider our departure to be a great victory.
As for Sadiq, Najib still has hope he’s coming back. I’m afraid the chances this will happen are small. He may never return, and the details of how and where and why he died will never be known. I once sat next to him in a car as we drove down the highway, along the pipeline he helped design, the same highway where he disappeared. He was a good man, a public servant who wanted to help bring Afghanistan into the 21st century. And that may never happen now.