Even now, 12 months later, the word “airplane” is enough to reignite the horror inside of Zakir Rezayee. Every time he hears it, the 42-year-old Afghan says he is jolted into a fit of trauma. It reminds him of the “hardest moment” of his life—the day his son fell from the sky.
It was August 16, 2021, the day after the Taliban seized Kabul, and Zabi and his brother Zaki were already on their way to Hamid Karzai International Airport when they called Rezayee, their father, for what would be the last time.
There were American military planes taking off, they explained, letting people on board regardless of whether they had official documents. The then 17- and 19-year-olds had the same idea as the thousands of other Afghans who flocked desperately to Kabul’s main airport that day: They were going to leave Afghanistan before the new leaders came to power.
“I told them to go ahead, but be careful,” Rezayee recalled in an interview with VICE World News ahead of the anniversary of the Taliban takeover. “I got a call from Zabi’s phone later and heard a stranger’s voice.”
It was around this time that two pieces of footage from Hamid Karzai started spreading on social media. The first showed dozens of Afghans clambering onto the fuselage of a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it accelerated down the runway, preparing for takeoff. The second was shot from below at a distance, as a similar-looking plane soared upwards and several tiny black specks, nearly imperceptible against the pale blue sky, dropped from its undercarriage: people.
Two of them hit rooftops in a neighbourhood near Hamid Karzai with such impact that one bystander described it as “sounding like a bomb.” Another hit the tarmac. Bodies rained down on Kabul as one of the last planes from America’s failed 20-year occupation departed Afghanistan for the final time. And 17-year-old Zabi was among them.
Zabi (right) was just 17 when he fell to his death from a departing U.S. transport plane. His brother, Zaki (left) hasn’t been seen since that day. Photo supplied.
“The guy on my son’s phone said they found Zabi’s dead body,” Rezayee said. Hours later, after rushing to the scene and fighting through the chaos and the crowds, he finally located him. “I found him in pieces.”
A previous VICE World News story about Rezayee’s family used pseudonyms, but he has since publicized their real names and agrees to their use in this article.
The 42-year-old father of eight is sitting at his shared flat in Kolola Poshta, a poor housing development near the centre of Kabul. The walls are cracked, the carpets worn. The ceiling plaster is peeling away like a scab that won’t heal. His family, he explains, is struggling: mentally, financially, physically. It’s been 12 months since the twin tragedies of Zabi’s death and the takeover of the extremist group. For 12 months, they have been living under the deepening shadows of poverty as well as grief, as Taliban leaders of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan tighten their grip on a country already afflicted with recession, hunger, and drought.
But this is not the hardest part, says Rezayee. Worse still is not knowing what happened to his other child, Zaki; the lost brother. Rezayee never found his oldest son, despite searching tirelessly in the weeks and months after the last American planes departed Kabul. The infinite possibilities surrounding his fate is more than he can bear.
“The death of Zabi did not affect me as much as the uncertain condition of Zaki did,” he said. “If you know that your son is dead, that will give you pain for sure. But if you remain in an uncertain condition where you don’t know what happened, it is the hardest… Different thoughts come to my mind on what happened to him and they just kill me.”
Rezayee and his wife think of Zaki constantly, but they hold little hope of finding him. It’s been too long. His wife has cried every day for a year, and in the aftermath of that devastating event they have both become ghosts: listless, reclusive, spending all day and night grieving the loss of their two sons.
“If I describe our condition, I can only say that we are not alive,” Rezayee said. “Me and my entire family are dead.”
Rezayee (pictured with one of his children) is struggling to keep his family alive while grieving the crushing loss of his two sons. Photo supplied.
The last American troops withdrew from Kabul at 11:59PM on August 30, 2021, officially ending the longest war in U.S. history after nearly two decades. But the Taliban’s victory was cemented more than two weeks earlier, as heavily-armed militants swept through the capital, entered the abandoned presidential palace, and negotiated a deal with the collapsed Western-backed government to replace them.
Within those 15 days, thousands of panicked Afghan civilians flocked to airports around the country in a desperate attempt to escape the Taliban; the last time the religious fundamentalists were in power, from 1996 until 2001, they placed the country under strict sharia law. Many were evacuated by international governments and airlifted abroad to countries like Australia, Germany, India, and Qatar. Many more were left behind—abandoned to live, or in many cases die, under the iron fist of the religious fundamentalists.
“We hear every day that people lost their lives during that time,” said Rezayee. “From one side there was a huge chaos in the country as the U.S. left Afghanistan. From the other side, there was fear of the Taliban. That is why the people were afraid for their lives and everyone rushed towards the airport.”
“Otherwise,” he added, “no one would be happy to allow his 19- and 17-year-old sons to leave the country.”
After retrieving Zabi’s body, Rezayee went out looking for Zaki. He searched the jails, but they were mostly empty—thousands of prisoners had been released during the takeover as part of a deal brokered between the Taliban and the Afghan government. He searched the hospitals, then the morgues, examining the bodies, but nobody could tell him where his son was. Nor could he ask the new de facto authorities for help, he explains, for fear that they would prosecute him as being anti-Muslim and punish him over his children’s decision to leave the country “with infidels.”
“I tried all possible options to find Zaki, but failed,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to him, but I believe he is also dead. There was a huge crowd in the airport during those days—maybe Zaki also fell from a plane somewhere where no one noticed.”
“Everything was in the control of the U.S. forces and they could have evacuated in a way that no one would be harmed… They knew that if they fly these people would be killed, but they still took off knowing this.”
It remains unclear exactly how many people plummeted to their deaths during those first few days of the U.S.’ botched evacuation. Former Afghan health officials claimed their numbers became almost impossible to confirm amid the turmoil. In some cases, they added, victims’ bodies were so badly damaged from the fall that they were difficult to identify.
The U.S. military, for its part, claims the C-17 that was swarmed by Afghan civilians was bringing in supplies for the evacuation effort, but took off before unloading as the pilots feared the aircraft would be overwhelmed by those desperate to escape. The air crew pulled up the rear loading ramp as people scrambled onto the plane’s wings and into the wheel well above the landing gear, officials said. The crew then contacted air traffic control, operated by U.S. military personnel at the time, and the plane was cleared for takeoff.
The Air Force has since conducted an internal investigation into the incident. In June, investigators cleared the aircrew of wrongdoing, claiming they “acted appropriately and exercised sound judgement in their decision to get airborne as quickly as possible when faced with an unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation.”
Footage from the day of Zabi's death and Zaki's disappearance showed figures falling from an airborne U.S. transport plane, moments after it was swarmed by desperate Afghans on the runway. Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES via Getty Images
Rezayee watched the announcement on TV, in disbelief at the decision.
“This incident has never happened in history: to see people on a plane’s wings and [still] fly,” he said. “Everything was in the control of the U.S. forces and they could have evacuated in a way that no one would be harmed... They knew that if they fly these people would be killed, but they still took off knowing this.”
Spokesperson Ann Stefanek said in the Air Force’s statement: “This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased.” But Rezayee doesn’t want the sympathy of a U.S. official on the other side of the world. He wants justice for the death of his son.
“The pilot must be prosecuted in an international criminal court,” he declared. “This is a war crime, and if there is true justice he must be put in court and answer why he took off in such conditions.”
“I can’t even describe how hard it is to lose your sons from one side and to live in poverty and restrictions from the other… Humans can survive without food and clothes, but it is harder than death to carry along the loss and memories of your two sons.”
This is unlikely to happen. Dr Binoy Kampmark, senior lecturer at the Australian RMIT University’s School of Global, Urban and Social Studies and an expert in international security and diplomacy, said that it is standard fare for the “washing hands principle” to come into play after a great military power withdraws from a country.
Kampmark cites Vietnam as just one spot on the U.S. military’s “historical record of being involved in foreign theatres, but then leaving having committed an assortment of offences, misdemeanours, and crimes and not necessarily compensating for them.”
Like Rezayee, he remembers hearing the findings of the Air Force’s recent investigation—but they surprised him far less.
“The only reason an inquiry will be held is that they know the outcome in advance,” Kampmark told VICE World News. “The outcome was never going to inculcate or impose liability on the pilots; it would have been very surprising had that been the case.”
That isn’t to say that he agrees with the outcome. Kampmark said the evacuating forces were “absolutely” at fault for the circumstances that led to Zabi’s death and Zaki’s disappearance. As he sees it, however, the pilots were simply “instruments of a broader policy” that failed at multiple turns: whether it was the inability to manage the flow of people at the entrance to Hamid Karzai; an insufficient number of personnel to keep the crowds back; or a simple matter of U.S. forces overpromising and underdelivering on the number of Afghan evacuees they could take.
“There were evacuees brought in to Hamid Karzai airport and promises being made that Afghans would be taken out,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily one person [to blame], it wasn’t even two or three people. But it would have been an issue of planning. It's an issue of insufficient personnel.”
“The management aspect of it is culpable, and that’s where the focus should be: It should be the way it was managed and the way it was executed,” he added. “Not necessarily the pilots themselves—low-level fruit—but more so the higher levels.”
In the 12 months since U.S. forces left, Afghanistan has rapidly spiralled into one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. Cut off from international financial institutions in the wake of the Taliban takeover, and with nearly $10 billion of its assets frozen by the U.S., the compounding calamities of a banking crisis, an energy shortfall, a collapsing public health system, and widespread famine have created a perfect storm of suffering inside the country.
A recent report from Save the Children found that, despite significant and continuing food aid, almost 50 percent of Afghanistan’s population needs urgent support to survive, while the U.N. has also launched a $5 billion funding appeal—its biggest ever for a single country—to avert the ongoing famine. In November, a World Food Programme spokesperson told VICE World News that 3.2 million Afghan children were facing severe malnutrition, along with at least 23 million people facing food insecurity.
Rezayee is among them. A wrestler turned fruit seller by trade who used to rely on the help of Zabi and Zaki to accrue customers, he says that since the loss of his sons and the Taliban takeover his income has trickled to almost nil. His remaining children are too young to work, and he is barely able to scrape enough money together to pay their school fees or afford the rent on his dilapidated home. He had to borrow money to pay for Zabi’s funeral.
“I am more concerned for my family’s health and future now than before,” he said. “Life was good before August—we were able to work and bring food for our children—but now we are not able to even find food for our family as there are no job opportunities… We all are running to find a loaf of bread to survive.”
“If I compare, I would say that our country was in good shape like Europe, and now it is backward and destroyed.”
Armed Taliban members gather near Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands of Afghans rush to flee Kabul on August 16, 2021. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.
Living under Taliban rule has made things harder still. A recent report from the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) confirmed that since the extremist militant group rose to power last August, basic human rights and fundamental freedoms have eroded across the country. Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and excessive force by Taliban authorities were all detailed in the UNAMA report, as well as cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments for individuals accused of “moral” crimes. In a return to their rule in the 1990s, severe restrictions have also been placed on women’s and girls’ access to education, the workplace, and public life—despite assurances this wouldn’t happen.
It is while contending with the harsh realities of Taliban rule that Rezayee and his family have had to come to terms with their grief, a life that has been “like hell since last August.”
“I can’t even describe how hard it is to lose your sons from one side and to live in poverty and restrictions from the other,” he said. “Humans can survive without food and clothes, but it is harder than death to carry along the loss and memories of your two sons.”
Rezayee is stoic, and speaks softly, like a man who is still processing his words even as he says them. But he suggests multiple times, with alarming candour, that he would rather die than continue to carry this weight.
“Death is much better than the life we go through. The hardest part is that you know you are in misery and you can’t do anything to help your family—there is no solution.”
Nor is there any escape. Rezayee knows many people who have left Afghanistan, and is clear on the fact that if the opportunity arises he too will flee the country the first chance he gets. “I will do it for my remaining kids,” he said. “I don’t want to lose more children here.”
As he fights to keep them all alive, he also continues to seek justice for his sons—but doesn’t know where to look for it. No one involved in their disappearance has so much as acknowledged his family’s loss, let alone atoned for it.
Certain other victims of America’s chaotic evacuation have been promised reparations. In October, the Pentagon offered unspecified condolence payments to the family of the 10 Afghan civilians who the U.S. military acknowledged were mistakenly killed in a drone strike on August 19—America’s last spasm of war before they completed their withdrawal. Surviving members of the family were also offered help to relocate to the U.S., according to a statement, after making publicised complaints that they were still awaiting compensation from U.S. officials.
Kampmark pointed out, however, that: “These payments are not done necessarily out of the goodness of the heart.” Instead, he explained, they serve the strategic purpose of laundering the U.S. military’s public image and dissuading the local population from supporting the Taliban.
“It's a strategic idea to pay money,” Kampmark said. “If the strategic imperative ceases, then of course they’re not interested.”
“The idea of forwarding money to individuals who were killed [after falling from planes]… the U.S. doesn’t gain very much from that particular perspective.”
Rezayee and his family, it seems, are a lower priority, and are unlikely to get their shot at justice. For one, there is a crippling dearth of information as to how people can seek out compensation—and now that most NGOs, human rights groups, and aid organisations have left Afghanistan, it’s extremely hard for most civilians to get the assistance they might need to put together a case. Even if they could, though, it would be a David versus Goliath struggle to navigate the labyrinth of red tape and actually have that case prosecuted.
Kampmark believes Rezayee and his family could theoretically take the U.S. military to court for something like a civil lawsuit, even if not a case of criminal accountability. But he also points to an “asymmetrical power relationship” between the world’s most powerful military on the one hand and common Afghan civilians like Rezayee on the other.
“The idea of putting together something against the U.S. military is always going to face problems because the U.S. military will of course make it as difficult as possible,” he explained. “Without assistance… it’s very hard to see direct accountability and direct compensation provided to these families. I fear that it would be very hard to imagine tangible justice being done.”
Rezayee also knows, in his heart, that justice is elusive.
“The Americans claim they are the most humanitarian people,” he said, “but I believe they are the most bloodthirsty people on Earth.”
When the media first started coming to his house and reporting on his story, he had hoped it would lead to support from the international community. Instead, he eventually came around to a crushing realisation: that awareness is not enough. That even after seeing and hearing the tragic reality of life on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, even after his telling and retelling the story of “bone-breaking” grief, most people around the world will carry on as usual.
With each month that passes, Afghanistan is receding ever more from the popular consciousness. But Rezayee is desperate for people to stay engaged, to keep their eyes on the spiralling humanitarian crisis there, and to remember those who have been left behind, languishing in its vortex.
“I want the international community to follow our case, and give us justice, and help us get out of poverty. If there is any opportunity, we want to leave the country,” Rezayee said. “The international community clearly knows the condition of Afghanistan and still they keep silent. Everyone knows what is happening in Afghanistan and unfortunately everyone ignores us.”