An Afghan refugee who lifted his wife and toddler onto a C-17 military plane to flee Kabul tells the harrowing story of how they arrived safely in the US

Hundreds of people sitting on the floor of a transport aircraft
Evacuees crowd the interior of a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft carrying Afghans to Qatar from Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15. Courtesy of Defense One/Handout via REUTERS
  • Thousands of Afghan refugees have evacuated Kabul amid the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.
  • Insider spoke with one 32-year-old Afghan man who recently arrived in the US.
  • “I was the lucky person,” he told Insider.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Hours after the Taliban encroached on Kabul on August 15, Salim was in a taxi en route to the capital’s airport with his wife and 19-month-old son, praying they would safely leave Afghanistan.

He’d finally received notice the night before that his Special Immigrant Visa, for his 4 1/2 years as a translator with US forces, was processed. An international-migration agency told him it would be another two weeks until he could book his flight out of the city.

But Salim, 32, couldn’t wait. He was one of thousands who flooded the airport that Sunday evening, desperate to flee the country in fear of a Taliban government. The scene was mayhem: Crowds overwhelmed security agents, and airline workers couldn’t find any pilots. Salim, hearing echoes of gunfire and seeing throngs of people run toward the tarmac, made a quick decision.

“This is the time to save your life,” Salim, whose real name Insider is not using to protect his safety, said he thought to himself.

He lifted his wife, who was holding their son and had injured her feet during the long sprint across the tarmac, onto a C-17 American military aircraft, then climbed on board himself. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a small bag for their toddler.

American soldiers instructed the hundreds of Afghans who scrambled aboard to step away from the back of the jet and sit down. After a tense and uncertain wait, the crew shut the aircraft’s door.

“Everyone got hope,” Salim said. “People were happy. They were clapping for the Americans because they said they’re not leaving us behind.”

Afghans gather near a gate of Kabul airport
Afghans gather near a gate of the Kabul airport on Sunday. Rahmatullah Alizadah/Xinhua via Getty

The Taliban’s swift capture of Kabul triggered a collapse of the Afghan government and forced a frenzied evacuation of Americans and Afghan refugees amid the US’s military pullout of the 20-year war.

Over 37,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul in the past eight days, according to the White House. Thousands more still hope to leave Afghanistan. The US has deployed numerous planes to evacuate Americans and Afghan refugees to bases across the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe, where they will then be transported to their next destination, including the US for some.

Insider spoke with Salim a few days after he arrived at an accommodation near the Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, where he’s staying temporarily.

Transit in Qatar and arrival to the US

The American C-17 aircraft landed in an air base in Qatar. Doctors immediately attended to the refugees, including Salim’s wife, he said.

The crowd was provided with food, water, medication, and diapers and milk for babies, among other supplies. The area was small, Salim said, but had air conditioning and bathrooms. They got tested for COVID-19.

Hours went by with little information on the next steps. Nerves set in as Salim wondered whether he and his family would leave Qatar, so he spoke up.

“Everyone was worried that maybe they’ll send us back,” Salim said of the American troops.

But the troops, relieved to learn Salim knew English, asked him to translate to the rest of the Afghans that they would start the visa process for those without documents and that those who already had their American visas could get on a plane to the US after being screened and vetted.

Afghanistan-Qatar air base-US military
Service members prepare to board evacuees from Afghanistan onto a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster lll at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on Sunday. U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Kylie Barrow/Handout via REUTERS

Salim said he felt reassured. After five hours in Qatar, he, his wife, and their son were on a flight to Dulles.

Their stay in Washington is temporary. Afghan refugees in the US are being temporarily housed at military bases in Virginia, Wisconsin, and Texas before being resettled across the country. And the Pentagon announced the opening of a fourth base in New Jersey on Monday to accommodate the influx of refugees.

Salim said he hoped to resettle in Sacramento, California, where his childhood friend lives.

‘I was the lucky person’

Salim repeatedly described his chaotic escape out of Afghanistan as fortunate, while thousands of Afghans wishing to leave, including his family members, were stuck in the country.

Since their takeover, Taliban forces have attempted to present themselves as moderates, insisting they will guarantee the safety of Afghans. But history provides reasons to remain skeptical of their word, and there have already been reports of Taliban-led attacks this past week.

Salim was 7 years old in 1996 when the Taliban first seized control of the country and imposed a strict interpretation of Shariah law, including forbidding women’s education, banning music and television, and other harsh restrictions.

“The Taliban was not good for the people. Everyone lost jobs, no security, killing,” Salim said. “Still, people are dying right now.”

The US has eight days to evacuate thousands more Americans and Afghans, but President Joe Biden has considered extending the deadline if necessary. A Taliban spokesperson on Monday threatened “consequences” if the US stayed after August 31.

“It’s a red line. President Biden announced that on 31 August they would withdraw all their military forces,” Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson, said in an interview with Sky News. “So if they extend it, that means they are extending occupation while there is no need for that.”

Salim remains concerned for the lives of his parents and brother, a former Afghan special-forces officer, who are in Kabul and face an unlikely path out, he said.

“I was the lucky person,” he said. “It’s really impossible. We don’t know how to bring them.”