Taliban fighters armed with AK-47s fired warning shots over the heaving crowd at the entrance to Kabul airport. Fourteen-year-old
shuddered. Her 3-year-old sister, Mehrsa, started to cry. “Don’t be scared,” the older girl said. “It’s just a game.”
The sisters and their grandmother had been standing for hours on Aug. 21, part of a group that had been cleared to fly out of the Taliban-controlled Afghan capital. They would head first to Ukraine and then hoped to join the girls’ parents in the U.S.
They had been trying for days to get into the airfield, the hub of U.S.-led evacuation efforts. And now they were just a few yards from the gate. They could see the Marines and a group of Ukrainian soldiers waiting inside to help them to safety.
Maryam was sure this time they would make it. Earlier in the day, she sent a message to her mother, waiting anxiously in California. “Don’t worry. We’re here.”
But the doors didn’t open. The chaos outside was too great. The Taliban began beating people, and the group with Maryam, Mehrsa and their grandmother was forced to retreat.
Back in Sacramento, the girls’ mother,
was frantic. For two years, she had been working to reunite her family while also trying to lay the groundwork for a better future for her daughters in the U.S. She knew it was a gamble. She didn’t expect it to so quickly become a matter of life or death.
For years, Ms. Sharifi, 34, an Afghan national, worked as the director of a U.S. Agency for International Development project for women and young people in the western Afghan city of Herat. That had made her and her family targets of the fundamentalist Taliban.
As the Taliban swept to power in a matter of weeks in August, Afghans with ties to the U.S. looked for ways to escape. Ms. Sharifi, who had been shuttling back and forth between California and Afghanistan, was caught on the opposite side of the world from her girls.
An American-led airlift evacuated more than 120,000 people before the last U.S. forces pulled out on Aug. 31. Tens of thousands more wouldn’t make it. Ms. Sharifi was determined that her daughters would.
Herat fell to the Taliban on Aug. 12. Soon after, Maryam, dressed in her school uniform, and her grandmother,
were stopped on the street by a fighter, who ordered them to return home and not venture out again—unless they were accompanied by a male relative and wearing burqas.
“Next time I see you in this uniform, I will shoot you,” Maryam said the man told her.
Taliban officials eventually showed up at the family home, looking for Ms. Sharifi. Maryam, Mehrsa and their grandmother went into hiding, spending days huddled in dank basements as the Taliban prowled the streets of Herat.
Gunfire cracked in the streets outside. Maryam says she wrapped her arms around her sister and wondered if this would be the end. “I thought I’d never see my mother and father again,” she said. “I thought my education was over.”
The family decided that the girls and their grandmother should try to make their way to the capital 400 miles away.
On their first attempt, the bus they were riding was stopped by the Taliban a few hours outside Herat. Two fighters in turbans and dirty clothes boarded the bus and pointed their weapons at the passengers. The bus turned back to Herat.
After Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, they tried again. The three wore veils and sat silently as the bus stopped at Taliban checkpoints. Fighters boarded the bus one time, looked up and down the aisle at the mostly female passengers and told the driver, “OK, you can go.”
They arrived in the capital on the 17th, relieved and cheered by the prospect of flying out of Afghanistan. The next morning, they arrived at the airport, travel documents ready, and waited as soldiers called out names of travelers and let them inside. The girls weren’t on the list.
In the U.S., Ms. Sharifi and a group of former American government officials she had enlisted to help obtain visas for her daughters went into overdrive trying to get Maryam, Mehrsa and their grandmother on the radar screens of U.S. authorities in Washington and Kabul.
Advocates for the Sharifi family reached out to aides of Defense Secretary
according to people involved in the rescue efforts. Top Pentagon officials said they were flooded for requests to help Afghan families, including the trio, and that they tried their best to get them to all to safety.
Maryam, Mehrsa and their grandmother returned the next morning and the mornings after that. Each day the crowds outside the airport in Kabul grew larger and more restless, and the Taliban fighters stationed outside grew more violent, whipping people in the crowd with cables.
Maryam and her sister and grandmother repeatedly pushed to the front to plead with the Marines at the gate, only to be turned away, they said.
One day, hungry, thirsty and deeply tired, the three watched as the crowds surged, trampling children. Gunfire popped and ambulances parted the crowds, carrying away the injured and the dead. “I was so scared,” said Maryam. “I was scared for my sister.”
Mehrsa, dehydrated after days of waiting in the August heat, passed out. Maryam and her grandmother scooped her up and screamed for a rickshaw to take her to a hospital, where she was revived with intravenous fluids.
The trio decided it was too dangerous to keep trying to get to the gates.
Then they got some good news. American volunteers helping evacuate the girls had contacted the Ukrainian government, which offered them seats on a plane that would be evacuating civic leaders. Ukraine sent a team of soldiers to help escort the Afghans out of the country.
The trio stood outside the gate with about 50 others. Half were holding orange balloons inscribed with the word “Ukraine” so that the soldiers could identify them. Inside the gate, the Ukrainian team was ready to push its way into the crowd to bring them into the airport, according to a Ukrainian official and the American volunteers helping the Sharifis.
U.S. Marines declined to open the gate, saying the risks were too great because of the chaotic situation outside. Officials at the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“I’m very sorry,” wrote one of the American volunteers to a member of the group. “I was making calls for 3 hours trying to convince the Americans to open the gate, but they refused due to violence and crowds.”
On Aug. 26, organizers worked with Qatar to get the family on a minibus that could drive into the airport. It seemed like the best shot to get inside.
The girls and their grandmother had just boarded the bus when a suicide bomber hit a crowded Kabul airport gate, killing 200 people, including 13 members of the U.S. military. The blast threw rescue efforts into disarray. No one was sure if the U.S. would allow any more people into the airport, as the time ran short before American forces planned to leave.
The family spent the night on the bus, as it drove from place to place seeking a safe spot to park. “We are still on the bus,” Maryam said in a voice message to her mom sent after about 12 hours on board. ”I am dying. My back is in pain.”
As the sun rose on Friday Aug. 27, the group again approached the airport. They were again surrounded by Afghans banging on the windows and trying to get inside. The bus came to a halt.
That might have been the end. But a squad of Ukrainian soldiers emerged from the airport gate. Firing over the heads of the crowd, they made their way to the bus and escorted it to the gate. Once they were safely through, Maryam started to cry with relief and joy.
“I felt like a huge weight was off my shoulders,” said Zahra Sharifi.
Hours later, Maryam, Mehrsa and their grandmother boarded a Ukrainian plane. Exhausted, they landed in Kyiv the next day, with a single backpack.
On Aug. 30, Marzia Sharifi landed in Kyiv. In the airport, she walked through the sliding doors from the baggage claim to find her mother and two daughters waiting in the marble-walled arrivals hall. She lifted Mehrsa to her chest with one arm, embraced Maryam with the other and wept.
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