Echoes, uncertainty as Afghan pilots await US aid in Tajikistan
WASHINGTON – An Afghan pilot trained in the United States was speaking to Reuters on a smuggled cell phone from Tajikistan, where he is being held when something strange happened – his voice began to loop, repeating all he did. had just said, word for word.
His fiancée, an American nurse in Florida, was also online and started to panic. She called out his name, but her words kept coming back.
“I was in a panic,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect him. “The worst things have occurred to me.”
Whatever the reason for the phone problem, which only happened once, it added to a deep sense of anxiety for the couple. It also happened amid a growing sense of impatience and uncertainty among Afghan pilots and personnel detained by the Tajikistan government since their flight on August 15.
There are 143 Afghans held in a sanatorium in a mountainous rural area outside the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, waiting and hoping for more than a month to be transferred by the United States.
After flying there with 16 planes as their army’s ground forces collapsed at the advancing Taliban, Afghans say their phones were confiscated. They were first accommodated in a university dormitory before being moved on September 1.
Contact with the family is extremely limited. Although they appear to be held in human conditions, they are nervous, uncertain about the future.
“We don’t know our destination. … We are all worried about this, ”said the pilot.
The pilots want to join other Afghan servicemen being processed for US visas in places like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Germany.
“Whenever we ask the government of Tajikistan, they simply respond, ‘Please be patient,’” said a second pilot, speaking separately on condition of anonymity.
Among the installation’s military personnel are two Afghan women, including a pilot who is eight months pregnant, the second pilot told Reuters.
Such a pregnancy would be a big reason to move them quickly, said David Hicks, a retired U.S. brigadier general who helps run a charity called Operation Sacred Promise that works to evacuate and resettle Afghans.
There are also 13 Afghan personnel in Dushanbe, enjoying much more relaxed conditions. Several of the pilots told Reuters that they entered the country separately on August 15 and were staying in a government building. Speaking on a video call, they said they had not had contact with the Afghans at the sanatorium.
The pilots could not explain why the two groups were separated.
The US State Department declined to comment on pilots in Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
US-trained Afghan pilots in Tajikistan are the last large group of Afghan air force personnel overseas still in limbo after flying dozens of advanced planes across the Afghan border to this country and Uzbekistan in the last moments of the war.
Earlier in September, a deal brokered by the United States allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to leave Uzbekistan. Some of the English-speaking pilots there feared they would be sent back by the Uzbeks to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and killed for killing so many Taliban people during the war.
“No domestic emergency”
The new Afghan leadership has said they will invite ex-servicemen to join the country’s reorganized security forces and suffer no harm.
The offer rings hollow to Afghan pilots who spoke to Reuters. Even before the Taliban takeover, American-trained English-speaking pilots had become their main targets. Taliban fighters tracked them down and murdered them outside the base.
The pilots did not express fear that the Tajiks would send this group back to the Taliban. But after more than a month, the pilots and their supporters are complaining about the authorities’ lack of urgency to move the group forward.
Reuters has learned that U.S. officials have started collecting biometric information to confirm the identities of group members, a sign that help may soon arrive. A similar effort in Uzbekistan preceded the transfer of these pilots from there.
People close to the pilots said the United States has so far collected biometrics from around two-thirds of the group.
Paul Stronski, senior member of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon can be proud of his role in welcoming pilots as the Taliban rose to power.
Tajikistan, which shares a porous 1,345 km border with Afghanistan, has broken with its more conciliatory neighbors and has openly expressed concerns about the new Taliban government in Afghanistan.
“The Tajik government is probably playing this to try to get benefits,” Stronski said. “There is no national emergency, and it probably suits Rahmon to kind of say, ‘We are hosting these people. But they and other ethnic minorities are not represented in the Taliban’s interim government, a point Rahmon has made publicly.
“Fouling any political system in Kabul without considering the voice of the Afghan people, which is made up of diverse ethnicities, can have very negative consequences,” Rahmon said, quoted by Russian news agency TASS, as saying. last week.
Tajikistan says it has granted asylum to more than 3,000 Afghan refugee families, a total of 15,000 people, over the past 15 years.
A Tajik government source familiar with the situation blamed delays by the United States and Canada in issuing visas.
No phone, for security reasons
When the Tajik government confiscated phones from Afghans, it told pilots it was for their safety, explaining that the Taliban could follow their signal when they called home.
“You are not allowed to use your phone for the safety of your family,” said a Tajik official, said the second pilot.
The Tajik government source also said that Afghans’ phones were confiscated from them so their exact location could not be traced.
But being largely cut off from communications had a psychological impact. The pilots fear their families in Afghanistan will face retaliation from the Taliban, and with the war lost, they have no income to support them.
The second pilot said he saw people pacing outside the sanatorium in the middle of the night.
“Every time I ask someone why… they (say), ‘I’m not relaxed, I’m thinking of my family,'” he said.
The American nurse, who has dual Afghan-American nationality, and her fiancé spoke little to each other. After the tech glitch, where the pilot’s voice started to loop, they paused the calls for a while.
The nurse appeared exhausted and frustrated with the lack of progress after calling the offices of U.S. lawmakers and government officials.
“I contacted literally anyone and everyone I could,” she said. “No one could help.”
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