Habibul Rahaman, a former translator for British soldiers in Afghanistan, had applied for asylum in the UK so many times that he had practically lost count of the rejections.
But as the Taliban surged across the country this summer, a VICE World News report into Rahaman’s situation led the UK Ministry of Defence to reopen his case. On the 14th of August, Rahaman was finally granted asylum in Britain, the country whose troops he had served between 2009 and 2013.
There was just one problem: The Taliban were outside Kabul, and the city would fall within a day.
Rahaman’s initial excitement and extreme relief at his offer of asylum quickly gave way to worry and uncertainty, as he believed the Taliban would target him and his family for collaborating with the enemy – well-founded fears based on the numerous accounts of the Taliban seeking reprisals against those who worked with Western troops over the last 20 years. And while he had received his asylum offer, he had no information on how or when he would be evacuated.
The messages he exchanged with VICE World News over a period of ten days, as the world looked on in horror at events in Kabul, reveal the trauma of the process as the Taliban tightened their grip and the clock started ticking down to a total withdrawal of all foreign troops – and an end to evacuations.
“I am home. I cannot go out because the Taliban are now in Kabul. They have checkpoints everywhere,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message on the 15th of August.
“My children today – all day – they were crying because they [are] scared from the Taliban.”
VICE World News first spoke to Rahaman by phone from Kabul in early August. He was watching, aghast, as Taliban militants surged across the country, capturing one provincial capital after another.
For five years he served as a translator for British troops. In 2013, while stationed in a patrol base in Helmand Province, he received a call from his father, who told him his mother had had a heart attack and was in hospital. Rahaman was granted three days of compassionate leave and travelled to Kabul to be with his family. He overstayed by one day and was subsequently dismissed.
Returning to Kabul, and fearful of Taliban reprisals for his service, he tried to seek asylum in the UK but was consistently rejected, because he’d been dismissed from duty. Translators who were dismissed for disciplinary infractions, however minor, were long deemed ineligible for asylum: According to the Sulha Alliance, a group advocating for the rights of former local staff, up to 35 percent of translators lost their jobs in this way, and subsequently, all were ineligible to come to the UK.
Few people expected Kabul to fall to the Taliban as quickly as it did. Even as the Taliban swept through the country, on the 10th of August US military officials believed that Kabul would hold out against the militants for 90 days. They were proved decisively wrong. Five days later, President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, having earlier urged Afghan soldiers to fight, and Taliban militants entered Kabul.
The next day, Rahaman and his family passed Taliban checkpoints to reach Kabul’s airport, one family among thousands clamouring to be let on to evacuation flights. “What should I do?” he messaged from the crush.
“I can not go out because the Taliban will arrest me if I go out… I saw the British forces, but they are not coming close to me.”
US forces were occasionally firing in the air to disperse crowds, many of whom had breached the airport perimeter and were trying to climb aboard planes. Horrific images from that day showed people falling to their deaths after clinging to planes as they took off.
For the next eight days, Rahaman was in hiding in Kabul – scared to leave his home, anxious even about speaking too loudly. Regularly speaking to VICE World News via WhatsApp, he said the Taliban were setting up checkpoints, harassing people, and conducting house-to-house searches.
“The situation is really bad. Everyone is scared from the Taliban,” he said on the 17th of August. “The situation is getting harder day by day. I want to get out as soon as possible.”
“Should I go to the airport?” he asked on the 20th. “They didn’t tell me anything about the confirmation of my flight.”
Four days later, he went silent. VICE World News didn’t hear from him for three extremely anxious days.
Then, on the 27th of August, Rahaman got back in touch: He was safe.
“They called me to the Barron Hotel,” he said, referring to where British troops processed evacuees near the airport. “I wasn’t able to get in at first because the Taliban, they were smashing people.”
“I was lucky., he said.
“They [the Taliban] told me very bad words, and to my family. They said ‘If our leaders let us, we will kill all these people’…. Taliban smashed me many times near the Barron Hotel.”
“When we got to the airport, it was two o’clock at night… we slept on the ground, without shelter, without anything. We slept on the ground with my children, and because they had caught a cold, they were given a blanket by the British forces.”
The next morning, the Rahamans were put on a plane that flew them to Dubai, before transferring onto a commercial flight to the UK, then finally being directed onto a bus to quarantine in London.
“We’re really good now,” says Rahaman. “My wife and children are sleeping normally again.”
“I don’t know where they will relocate us after quarantine.”
Rahaman and his family are finally safe, but already he’s thinking about members of his family – his parents, sisters, and brothers – who remain in Afghanistan. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see them again.
“The situation is very bad,” he said. “I spoke to them yesterday, and they were asking ‘Is it possible to remove us from Afghanistan?”
“What will be their future in a few days?”
While much focus has been placed on Kabul, Rahaman believes the biggest threat right now is to Afghans living outside the city. He doesn’t think this will last long – he believes that once the Taliban have consolidated their hold on power, reprisals in Kabul will begin – but he thinks that for now, the militants are biding their time in the capital.
Hundreds of eligible former interpreters for the British Armed Forces remain in Afghanistan, not counting their eligible dependents. Rahaman isn’t sure how they'll ever get out. “Many of my friends, they are left behind,” he said. “What is your plan for them? The Taliban control all the borders.”
One such friend is Abdullah, who first spoke to VICE World News in July on the condition of anonymity. He was dismissed from the British army after a commander claimed to have found hashish in his patrol-base bedroom, something Abdullah denies. Like Rahaman, he was granted asylum as Kabul fell to the militants. But unlike Rahaman, he didn’t manage to get out.
Speaking to VICE World News, Abdullah said he’d left Kabul. “There was a huge threat waiting for me… They were asking about me to my relatives and friends, asking where I am. Even on Facebook, they said they were looking for me.”
VICE World News was unable to independently verify this, but it's clear that Abdullah has left the capital and was attempting to leave Afghanistan via a land border. If the Taliban catch him, and his family, he fears it could be a death sentence.
“I have to do something, before I get killed,” he said. “For my kids – I have to do my best.”
The UK is in talks with the Taliban in Doha about the evacuation of eligible people who remain. The Taliban have pledged to allow Afghans to leave the country if they want to – whether that pledge will be honoured, and how it will be carried out, is yet to be seen.
Rahaman repeatedly expresses his thanks to the UK government, and to the British army, for evacuating his family. But with friends like Abdullah still stranded, it doesn’t feel like a victory.
“It’s very bad,” he says. “It’s bad for me, bad for my family, for the other Afghans. For 20 years, we fought the Taliban. We lost a lot of friends, a lot of troops. The British lost a lot of troops… they spent a lot of money to make a peaceful Afghanistan. It’s just very bad for everyone.”
Afghanistan’s war is not over. ISIS–K, the Islamic State’s affiliate in the country, has claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing at the airport that killed almost 200 people. And while the Taliban claimed victory in Panjshir Valley this week, a resistance leader vowed to continue the fight.
But neither is the war over for Rahaman. He’s looking forward to building a new life in the UK with his family. But he says that his memories of home, of the conflict, and of those left behind will stay with him. A part of him, he says, will forever remain in Afghanistan.