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Nebraskans from Afghanistan angry, fearful over home country’s collapse

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Feroz and G Mohmand escaped death threats and assassination attempts in Afghanistan.

They’re just little girls.

Ages 2, 4, and 11.

Nebraskans — Afghan-Americans on a visit with their mother and grandmother to their family’s home country.

Now all five are in hiding somewhere in Kabul. They’d gotten so close to leaving the country earlier this month, their uncle back in Nebraska says. They’d arrived at the airport for their scheduled flight, tickets in hand, only to find they had been bumped from the plane. Why? A fleeing Afghan politician and his family had taken their seats. After that, they faced one setback after another as they tried to catch a flight out.

Images of chaos and collapse in Kabul as the city falls to Taliban forces have riveted America’s attention on Afghanistan, but for hundreds of Nebraskans from Afghanistan, what’s happening there is deeply personal. The people scrambling at the airport for a safe exit are their friends, their former neighbors, their family.

“Everyone is scared to death,” said Shafiq Jahish, of Omaha, who served as an interpreter for U.S. military and diplomatic personnel for nearly a decade before emigrating to the United States in 2014.

Several people spoke with The World-Herald about their relatives’ efforts to flee Afghanistan. Some asked not to be named, out of concern for their loved ones’ safety.

“Almost every Afghan wants to get out. Right now they are just stuck,” Jahish said.

Somewhere else in Kabul is a Nebraska couple who had rushed to the airport Sunday and were awaiting an emergency flight home, when gunfire and chaos broke out. In a panic, American soldiers, who were ushering the Nebraskans to safety, kicked the couple, ages 68 and 73, out of the airport.

And somewhere else in Afghanistan’s capital city are two sisters of an Afghan American man whose years-long assistance to the American military had placed a target on their backs. He’s been moving his sisters from place to place over the last four years as they worked through the U.S. immigration system. For the last two years, all that stood in their way was a single interview and a visa stamp.

There is no more time to wait, said the man. Not days, not weeks.

“Minutes,” he said. “Minutes are precious. There is no law over there right now, any local commander can just pull up and if he didn’t get his cup of tea correctly that day ... terrible nasty things are happening and anything can happen. Any second.”

The sisters are isolated from others. The sound of a car door slamming shut is terrifying, he said.

“My sisters literally are running for their lives,” he said.

For the Nebraska uncle with his three nieces, sister and mother stranded in Kabul, the fear is equally palpable.

“Nowhere is safe in Afghanistan,” he said. “Anytime, someone can walk in and basically capture, kill or torture them.”

The family had tried three times in the previous 72 hours to reach the airport but couldn’t — his sister nearly lost track of her 2-year-old in the crowd, he said.

Until Monday evening, he wasn’t even sure if the U.S. government knew his family was in need of help.

He had called the U.S. State Department’s hotline and was told to fill out a form. He did that and all he got back was an autoreply.

On Monday evening, he received an email from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s office that his office was working on the case.

“We are despondent on what has happened in Afghanistan,” Fortenberry said in a statement.

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Felix Ungerman, deputy chief of staff in Rep. Don Bacon’s office, said the State Department hotline and form is the proper way for Americans to register for evacuation. What’s making things difficult is that the system has has become overwhelmed, he said.

Additionally, to get non-Americans evacuated, people should work through their congressional or U.S. Senate office, Ungerman said.

Ungerman said that the situation is uncertain in Afghanistan and that each family will need to assess its own risks. Anyone headed to the airport should bring as much water and food as they can carry, in case they become stranded there.

Feroz Mohmand, now a U.S. citizen but at one time a press aide to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said Afghan Americans are fearful of even trying to reach the airport. Seventeen Americans he knows of are afraid they will be killed at a Taliban checkpoint before reaching the airport.

His own mother and seven of his 10 siblings live in Afghanistan, exposed to the potential wrath of the Taliban. He is at his wit’s end.

He has had tearful phone conversations with family members, wondering what to do about their seemingly hopeless situation. They fear they could be arrested or killed at any time.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘Let’s say goodbye now,’” Mohmand said. “I’m speechless how to respond. ... For the past several days, I haven’t slept well. I have my phone in my hand all the time. I’m lost. I’m shocked. I’m helpless. I can’t do anything.”

Kubra Haidari, 27, of Omaha is terrified for women and girls in her native country.

Some of her young female cousins live in a rural province in central Afghanistan where the Taliban took control a month ago. They have already been forced to quit school.

“They said ‘We don’t have a normal life anymore,’” Haidari said

In some places, she said, the Taliban have demanded that families turn over girls as young as 12 to marry Taliban soldiers three or four times their age.

“The situation is so painful, I don’t know how to express it,” Haidari said.

Haidari was part of a light-skinned ethnic and religious minority group that was targeted by the Taliban. She was only 17 when she and her husband, Nematullah, left Afghanistan. They spent five years in a United Nations refugee camp in Indonesia, waiting for approval to emigrate to the U.S.

Now they have three children. Her husband has worked at a meatpacking plant, and she has worked for a local nonprofit that aids refugees.

But her thoughts are with those in her home country.

“Things were slowly getting better, and then the Taliban came back,” Haidari said. “We’re going back, not forward.”

The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 20 years. This year, President Joe Biden followed through on the commitment of his predecessor, Donald Trump, to withdraw the last remnant of U.S. forces from the country, estimated at about 2,500 U.S. troops.

The swift collapse of the government and army, built at the expense of so much U.S. blood and cash, brought charges that the Biden administration hadn’t prepared. Only a few of about 88,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or affiliated nonprofits have been evacuated.

“There has been despair, and a feeling of abandonment by the Americans,” said Sher Jan Ahmadzai, who heads the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “All these situations were predicted. The so-called ‘responsible withdrawal’ was not responsible at all.”

“Afghans,” he said, “have been stabbed in the back.”