My harrowing escape from Afghanistan without US gov’t help

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My harrowing escape from Afghanistan without US gov't help

On Tuesday afternoon, Rohullah Sadat boarded a Kam Air flight from Mazar-i-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan to Doha, Qatar — and prayed that he was finally free.

Since the United States withdrew their troops in late August and the country fell to the barbaric Taliban, the 29-year-old medical student, who had also worked as a translator for journalist Toby Harnden, was desperate to leave his home country.

“In Afghanistan, nothing is guaranteed; not my life,” Sadat told The Post from Doha. “The Taliban — not all, but most — are really cruel. They are uneducated. They shot people like birds. In Western countries, you don’t even treat birds the way they treat people. We live by chance.”

Until this week, Sadat was one of the many citizens, visa-holders and Afghan allies still trapped in the country desperately seeking to escape. Since President Biden’s chaotic withdrawal, they’ve been forced to rely on ad-hoc networks rather than any US government support.

Twice, Sadat spent 24 hours on a bus attempting to board a flight in Kabul and was turned away — once by the Taliban, another by an American soldier. While at the airport, he witnessed people trampled to death and his foot was gruesomely split open after being crushed by a panicked crowd.

And he narrowly missed the horrific suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport that killed 60 Afghans and 13 US service members, leaving the gate minutes before the attack.

Frustrated and losing faith, he wondered if he would ever make it out alive.

Sadat's first freedom selfie taken from Doha, Qatar
Sadat’s first freedom selfie taken from Doha, Qatar
Courtesy of Rohullah Sadat

But when he finally landed in Qatar with only a backpack filled with a change of clothes, a laptop and some medical textbooks, he knew his guardian angels had come through for him. He took his first free breath in over a month.

“I am extremely tired but deeply happy. I prayed, but I couldn’t believe it until I reached Doha. I am fine and happy, but it is still a dream to me,” said Sadat, who had slept for only one hour over the previous two days.

Sadat was able to flee his homeland thanks to a network of people spurred into action by Harnden, who had been tweeting about Sadat’s plight as the situation in Afghanistan worsened.

Harnden — who has worked for The Telegraph and The Sunday Times — has now written two books on Afghanistan and spent a lot of time in the war-torn country. He met Sadat while working on his most recent tome, “First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA’s Secret Mission to Avenge 9/11,” about the early days of the US invasion. Sadat had been an invaluable resource to Harnden — not only acting as an interpreter but also tracking down important sources for his book. The pair remained friends.

“I still don’t know who specifically helped me out, but I know this all happened through Toby. He helped me a lot. He tried his best. I am so thankful,” Sadat said.

Harnden credits private organizations on the ground and a few former members of the CIA’s Team Alpha, the first group of combatants to go behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. Also involved is Shannon Spann, the widow of CIA paramilitary officer Mike Spann, who was the first American killed in combat there.

Journalist Toby Harnden (left) with translator Rohullah Sadat at the memorial for Michael Spann.
Journalist Toby Harnden (left) with translator Rohullah Sadat at the memorial for Michael Spann.
Rohullah Sadat

“It’s like an underground railroad. It is improvised networks working together to get this done,” Harnden told The Post.

“The cool thing is the fact that the first CIA officers who were there after 9/11 are the ones getting people out. They are working their networks and contacts and getting results. It’s a great thing. These groups are still helping even though the US left and it looked like it the window closed and it was all over. The United Sates government had nothing to do with this.”

Initially, Harnden — a British-born US citizen based in Northern Virginia — had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for Afghans on behalf of Sadat. But he only received an automated reply.

“To this day, I have never gotten a response or a case number or anyone saying they were going to process anything,” said Harnden.

Desperate to help his friend, the journalist took to social media on August 22, tweeting a thread about Sadat’s harrowing bid to escape. His heartbreaking story caught the attention of various private organizations working to get American allies out, and Harnden began sharing his information in hopes he could facilitate a visa or some escape plan.

While Sadat prayed, Harnden waited every day for “proof of life texts” from his interpreter.

“We were talking nearly every day, and I felt like he was never going to get out. He is saying, ‘Please help me.’ I was doing my best. It was never a guarantee, so I always had this fear that the Taliban would find him and he disappears. Or that I was going to have to say at some point, ‘I am really sorry but we tried,’ ” said Harnden.

The contents of Sadat's backpack
The contents of Sadat’s backpack
Courtesy of Rohullah Sadat

Finally all of their efforts paid off. In Kabul he was contacted by an Afghan man who gave him a rendezvous point. And he was taken by bus to a safe house in Mazar-i-Sharif.

“I was in a safe house for 16 or 17 days. We had to hide our faces if we went outside to buy something. I was already frustrated when I got there. Day by day, I was losing hope,” said Sadat, who waited for the next direction.

A coordinator was able to wrangle up an Albania visa, which he used as his official paperwork to leave. His first flight was canceled and again he waited. Finally when he left the safe house to travel to the airport, he said many others in his group were still waiting for their visas and he worried that, like before, he would be sent back.

Sadat and fellow travelers anxiously wait to board a flight to Doha in the Mazar-i-Sharif airport.
Sadat and fellow travelers anxiously wait to board a flight to Doha in the Mazar-i-Sharif airport.
Courtesy of Rohullah Sadat

But instead, he is now in Doha, staying in a refugee center. He was tested for COVID-19 (thankfully he was negative) and is undergoing other screenings. Grateful, he still remains on edge.

“I will not be satisfied until I am settled,” said Sadat.

Sadat grew up in Kandahar but had been living in Mazar-i-Sharif for the last few years. He learned English from watching cartoons and Hollywood movies. Among his favorites: “The Expendables” and, quite fitting, “Captain America.”

He was only five months from finishing up his medical degree when the US withdrawal happened, but he and his family decided to prioritize his safety and future over his education.

“They say everything happens for your own good. I have seen extreme adversities in my life. This might be a better chance for me. I left my entire education. I want to go to America. I want to improve my English and continue in my field,” said Sadat, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Harnden said the former Team Alpha Members and others are now trying to get him to the United States, where he said his door is open to Sadat.

“Everything from Afghanistan has been so grim and depressing. It’s just a great feeling a great person has gotten out, survived and is looking forward to living his life,” Harnden said. “I told him in many years time, you will tell your grandchildren about today.”

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