Until that moment, the dark hours of Aug. 26 and the morning of Aug. 27 had been one more sleepless, terrifying night among many for Sharif and his family since the Taliban had retaken Kabul. Hours earlier, it looked as if they, too, would be among the unlucky.
The collapse of Afghanistan’s always wobbly democracy meant more than just the return of the Taliban and their harsh edicts, which in the past have seen summary executions, women deprived of basic rights and the banning of most forms of entertainment. It also shattered any remaining illusions about the invincibility of the American military.
The Taliban had outlasted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 20-year occupation of Afghanistan – a conflict that left 170,000 people dead, including 165 Canadians – that was initially dubbed “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
And now the final withdrawal was a chaotic mess that stranded tens of thousands of people who had worked with Western governments and companies over the course of a war that in the end proved futile.
The mighty U.S. military had failed to get an estimated 10,000 of its own translators out. The Canadian army, which ended its mission in Afghanistan in 2011 but redeployed special forces troops to Kabul airport last month to stage its own evacuation, was also unable to rescue many of its own citizens and support staff, let alone those who had worked alongside Canadian media, including The Globe.
(While 43 Canadian citizens were evacuated to Qatar on a Thursday flight, the Taliban is not allowing Afghan citizens to leave.)
The American withdrawal had been announced in April, and warnings about a swift Taliban takeover were plentiful. But Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (or IRCC) had only a vague plan in place, and it buckled swiftly under the sheer volume of Afghan allies in need of evacuation.
In addition to Sharif and his family, The Globe was also trying to evacuate Mukhtar Amiri, a plucky 37-year-old father of six who had worked as the full-time news assistant in the newspaper’s temporary Kabul bureau. That office had opened in 2011 to cover the final year of Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan.
For two weeks I barely slept, consumed with worry that Sharif and Mukhtar would be left to endure whatever came next under Taliban rule.
I called every personal contact I had, pulled every string I could find, but these people who had been so essential to Canada’s understanding of our war in Afghanistan were stuck in Kabul a dozen days after Taliban fighters took over the city.
Three hours before the Ukrainian rescue, Sharif and Mukhtar were sitting nervously with their families packed into a convoy of more than a dozen cars, waiting for what they hoped was a rescue by U.S. troops. They were in the right place – idling alongside a major road in eastern Kabul – at the designated time, but as hours passed and gunfire and explosions sounded nearby, with Taliban militants repeatedly ordering the parked convoy to move along, it became clear that the cavalry wasn’t coming.
I got a call at 2:42 a.m. Afghanistan time from an official from the U.S. State Department, who had been overseeing the convoy. The mission had been arranged after a group of U.S. congresspeople urged action to save a larger group of trapped translators. It was over, the official told me, her voice heavy with defeat. Because of a suicide bombing carried out by the local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State at the airport gates a few hours earlier – which had killed 170-plus Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers – she said, there would be no rescue that night. There also wouldn’t be any more attempts to get anyone but Western passport holders out of Afghanistan. “I’m calling to say that your people should do whatever they think is best for them,” she said. It sounded like she was crying. “Tell them, I’m so, so sorry.”
I called Sharif and Mukhtar, feeling very much like I’d failed them. We were all concerned by what kind of revenge the Taliban might exact on those who had co-operated with foreigners. We worried that Mukhtar and his family, members of the Hazara ethnic minority, were at particular risk.
“You must do what is best for your families now,” I wrote to them via WhatsApp. “I still hope to see you all in Canada one day.” I felt like I had to keep offering them some hope, even though I knew the odds of getting them to Canada were now very remote.
None of us expected what came next. Shortly before my call from the State Department official, Sharif received a message from an unknown Ukrainian number. He was told to have his group ready for evacuation three hours later from a hotel in central Kabul, where he and Mukhtar had been staying.
Another crazy long-shot scheme, I thought. Over the previous 11 days, there had been so many false starts. Canadian plans, American plans, Qatari plans. Several days earlier, Sharif had thought he would soon be on a plane to Istanbul. Another half-realized plan would have taken him to Uganda. I had personally begged the diplomats and ministers from half a dozen countries – including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino – to help get the Globe team.
Special visas for Sharif and Mukhtar were issued by Mr. Mendicino’s office, but too late for some of the early, safer ways out.
Canada, the U.S., and Qatar all assured us that they had Sharif and Mukhtar on multiple evacuation lists, but each of those plans had required the Afghans to take enormous risks to get near the airport for collection. The chaos on the ground made predictions and planning impossible.
The U.S. decreed, after the suicide attack, that the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport were closed to all but those carrying Western passports. I felt the Ukrainian plan was likely to fail just like all the others.
But with other routes becoming more dangerous by the minute, I advised Sharif and Mukhtar that it might really be their last shot at a swift escape from their country.
They both balked. They had put their families through so much. Just two days earlier, a Canadian plan to bring 16 translators who had worked for Canadian media (including the CBC, The Toronto Star and The Canadian Press) into the airport had dissolved into utter chaos.
Mukhtar sent me a video of him wading knee-deep in a canal that surrounds the facility, separated from his family, his shouts that he had permission to enter ignored by the U.S. and British troops just metres away. His 92-year-old grandmother emerged from the fracas with a deep gash in her left leg.
The Globe and Mail
Thursday night, the same canal that Mukhtar had been standing in 48 hours earlier was filled with the bodies of some of those killed in the ISIS-K suicide bombing.
I called the Ukrainian number that had messaged Sharif about the plan. It was answered by a man named “Markus” who I would later learn was a high-ranking member of Ukraine’s Defence Intelligence service. (Because of his profession, The Globe is only identifying him by his code name.) The rescue had been ordered by the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, after a request from The Globe for assistance.
Markus sounded groggy – I had awakened him from a pre-mission sleep – but surprisingly confident. “We are coming,” he said nonchalantly.
I asked him if they could also collect Jawed Haqmal, a translator who had been left behind by the Canadian military he served. Markus – to my shock – said just to send him the new names so he could add them to Ukraine’s evacuation list. “It is a humanitarian mission,” he explained. “Just tell them to be at the [hotel] at 0600.”
At 6 a.m., Sharif received the next instructions. The translators and their families should get into two minibuses and send photos of the licence plates to the Ukrainian military.
As the buses approached the airport, the Ukrainian troops rushed out to bring them to safety. Sharif and Jawed were on their way to new lives in Canada, albeit with an unexpected and comically complicated interlude in Ukraine.
But when the rescuers came, Mukhtar wasn’t there.
On Sept. 10, 2001, Sharif (pronounced Sha-REEF) was the 30-year-old director of the Enough Language Centre in Kandahar, an institute that taught boys from the city and the surrounding countryside English, as well as the local languages of Pashto and Dari. Under the previous Taliban regime, girls were not to go to school, or to work outside their homes.
A day later, everything changed. Two passenger planes slammed into the Twin Towers, forever altering the skyline of New York, and another crashed into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. military.
More than 3,000 people were killed in the attacks, which were claimed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who masterminded the strikes on the symbols of American affluence and power from their base in one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan.
Within days, then-U.S. president George W. Bush delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban: Hand over bin Laden and close the al-Qaeda camps, or there would be war. On Oct. 7, the first U.S. missiles struck Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Sharif says one of the first blasts hit near his home in Kandahar, obliterating a building that he says was used by al-Qaeda fighters.
The first time I met Sharif was in January, 2002. Like everyone else, my own world had been flipped upside down by the 9/11 attack. I was supposed to be in Ottawa, completing my Russian lessons and preparing for a move to Moscow and The Globe’s bureau there. Instead, at the age of 27, I was in Quetta, a Pakistani city in the lawless tribal areas along the country’s border with Afghanistan. Back then, it was me who needed to get across a border.
Canadian troops were about to land in Kandahar, a city that was, then and now, the heart of the Taliban movement. It was from a nearby shrine in 1996 that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s founder, proclaimed the Taliban’s first “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” and the most dangerous place any NATO army could be assigned to. Though U.S. troops controlled Kabul, as well as Kandahar airport, the Taliban still controlled much of the countryside, as they would throughout the long war. My editors badly wanted me to get there before the Canadians deployed.
Presaging the events of 20 years later, I had no visa, and a series of Taliban checkpoints to get through before I would reach the relative safety of Kandahar city. Steve Chao, a veteran correspondent who then worked for CTV, was in the same situation, as was his jovial cameraman, the late Greg Danilenko.
Raad, a translator I met in Quetta – who is still in Afghanistan today and whose real name can’t be used for fear of retribution – hatched a plan even more unlikely than the Kabul-to-Kyiv escape. He had done some work for UNICEF, the children’s charity, and when he was wearing his blue-and-white UNICEF ball cap, he usually got waved straight through the checkpoints. Greg, Steve and I would lie in the back of a station wagon, covered with some of Afghanistan’s famously intricate carpets.
It was madness, but under heavy pressure from our editors, Greg, Steve and I decided to try it. And so we bounced west along the broken road from Quetta to Kandahar, a journey surrounded by desert on all sides. At each checkpoint, Raad would shout out, “Salaam aleykum, UNICEF!” and the Taliban would wave us through, never examining the wriggling carpets in the trunk.
Astonishingly, it worked. That night we reached the city’s bedraggled Noor Jahan Hotel, and the next day I met Sharif. He was introduced as one of the smartest people in Kandahar – someone with contacts all over the region of southern Afghanistan that Canadian troops were about to be deployed into.
During that first assignment to Kandahar, Sharif worked in the background helping to make arrangements as Raad and I drove around the city and the surrounding region. We reported on the arrival of the first Canadian troops, who famously arrived in the desert region sporting forest-green uniforms, and the liberation of Taliban prisoners (including a donkey who had bizarrely been thrown into a Kandahar jail for its role in aiding a thief’s escape). I visited a newly reopened girls’ school and a flourishing opium bazaar. With Sharif’s help, we met the new governor of Kandahar province, and visited the childhood home of Mullah Omar.
In the evenings, after the reporting was done, we’d often gather in my room at the Noor Jahan to watch Mr. Bean DVDs on my computer. My new Kandahari friends were all deeply conservative Muslims who were shocked by the fact that I would often speak privately with my female colleagues, sometimes with the door closed and none of their male relatives present to supervise us.
As a young reporter who had read precisely one book about Afghanistan before entering the country under a carpet, I was just as bewildered as the Kandaharis were. Somehow, I had ended up in a dingy hotel (squat toilets only) in one of the world’s most dangerous places, with only this group of relative strangers to protect me. Even Raad had only limited English skills. His vocabulary then didn’t include words like “great” or “amazing” or “awful” – only a range from “okay” to “very, very, very okay,” and from “not good” to “very, very not good” – so I had to invent my own dictionary for translating his translations. “Very okay,” meant “great,” and we’d work up and down from there.
Amid all this confusion, Mr. Bean’s ridiculous – but well-intentioned – bumbling was a language we all understood perfectly.
At the end of that three-week trip, I left Afghanistan as an illegal migrant, with no visa in my passport. Sharif was one of those who accompanied me back to Pakistan to make sure I wouldn’t be detained at the border.
He says now that it was no big deal, that he did plenty more dangerous things for other correspondents.
I’ve always felt that I owed him one.
Mark MacKinnon, Aug. 16 (sent via WhatsApp):
How is the situation now?
In Kabul city not bad but airport is still not good
Where are you? Still near the airport?
At my home 5km away from airport
I have been told you and Mukhtar will be called by the Canadian government when the situation is safe for you to come to the airport.
I am sorry this has been so difficult for you and your family so far
I have also asked the French government for help.
Mark my friend, I appreciate your help with us and you are the man who helped us greatly.
We are trying everything we can
Sharif started working full time for The Globe in the summer of 2006, as the war intensified, and the newspaper was looking to bolster its coverage of the conflict. A battle group from Canada had deployed to Kandahar in the early months of the year, shortly after Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry had been killed in the area by a suicide bomber. The federal government was hoping that journalists would visit Kandahar for occasional articles about troops giving medical help to villagers and securing roads for aid workers. Instead, the Canadian press corps was gearing up for day-to-day reporting on a bitter war against the resurgent Taliban.
Canadian troops faced their toughest battles in the Panjwai valley, a warren of grape fields and opium farms southwest of Kandahar city. Panjwai was the birthplace of the Taliban in the 1990s, and thousands of the group’s insurgents gathered in the valley in 2006 for a push toward the city. Canadian troops blocked the Taliban advances, turning the Panjwai into a slaughterhouse.
No journalist knew the Panjwai valley better than Sharif, as long-time Globe Afghanistan correspondent Graeme Smith told me recently. The Sharaf family grew grapes and dried raisins in the same villages where Canadian troops were dying. He knew tribal leaders on all sides of the war. In the dusty aftermath of a battle, Sharif could get on the phone and ask local farmers to count the bodies. He could explain why the farmers in some villages were putting down their tools and picking up Kalashnikovs, offering an insight into why the Canadian military’s victories were not as triumphant as they seemed.
Sharif’s work profoundly shifted the way Canadians looked at their conflict, revealing that the “good war” had a dark side.
He negotiated The Globe’s access to Sarpoza prison in the spring of 2007 and spent a month sitting cross-legged on the floor of jail cells for an unprecedented series of interviews showing how detainees were passed from Canadian custody into the cruel hands of Afghan security forces. Torture wasn’t accidental; it was part of the rhythm of the conflict, something the Canadian government wanted to ignore. Sharif’s work put that topic on the front page.
“Sharif was … a cautious journalist who never made assumptions about whether a story might be true or whether it was safe to travel on a particular road. He checked, checked and checked again. These habits protected his credibility and his life,” Graeme said.
“His instincts became a bellwether for The Globe and Mail’s correspondents when they flew into Kandahar and faced hard decisions about their own security. Should we drive around the city today? Ask Sharif. Would it be safe to visit that village? Ask Sharif. How can we interview Taliban without getting killed? Ask Sharif.”
It was Sharif’s innovative method of surveying the Taliban that earned The Globe its first-ever Emmy Award in 2009. Sharif knew a former member of the Taliban who was looking to start a career in journalism. Sharif and Graeme sat for several days in a sweltering room, teaching him the basics of how to conduct an interview so that he could get his former comrades-in-arms to tell their stories. Over the course of eight months, a rudimentary survey of Taliban fighters gave audiences in Canada and around the world a window into what drove the insurgency – and the mindset of the movement that again rules their country.
My own last trip to Afghanistan was in 2003. I went back to report on how the country looked after a year of NATO occupation, and saw things that both impressed me and worried me. There was plenty of progress – highlighted by newly gained rights for women – but also plenty of indications that the country could easily slide right back to where it had been before 2001.
I met Fahima Kakar, director of the Women Assistance Association, at her office in Kabul. She told me that Afghanistan needed not only education for women and girls but also a change in the mindsets of the country’s men. “These are guys who went to jihad 20 years ago when they were teenagers. They only know how to use weapons – nothing else. They need 40 years to wash their minds,” she told me. “We are happy that we have democracy now, but we need to be free of the gun.”
After that trip, like many Western journalists, I was redirected to Iraq, to focus on Mr. Bush’s obsession with taking down Saddam Hussein.
The Iraq war was a failure in almost every way. Among its many resulting tragedies was that it drew effort and aid money – as well as U.S. and British troops – that could have been used to secure and rebuild Afghanistan.
This summer, after 18 years away, my editors asked me to go back to Afghanistan, and to report on what the country looked like on Sept. 11, 2021.
On July 21, I wrote to Sharif and Raad, to see if they would work with me again, and help me see what had and hadn’t changed during the long NATO occupation. I had a visa this time – unlike 20 years earlier – and told them I was expecting to arrive in Kabul on Sept. 1. Sharif wrote back immediately: “Any service you need my friend.” Raad was now working as an engineer, and busy with contracts to build (and often rebuild) schools and clinics, but said he’d also be glad to see me as soon as I arrived.
A series of shockingly poor decisions in Washington and Kabul (along with a lack of preparation in Ottawa) rapidly intervened.
On Aug. 15, the day that the Taliban entered Kabul, Sharif wrote to ask if I could help him somehow get out of Afghanistan. The answer was easy for me and for The Globe. If my assignment had gone ahead as planned, I would have been in Kabul, expecting Sharif to keep me safe. It was our duty to try to do the same thing for him and his family.
We spent five fruitless days of submitting online forms and scanned documents to IRCC – which was flailing as it tried to evacuate Canadian citizens, as well as translators who had helped the military mission.
Then Graeme, who now works for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, came up with an interim plan. Vice News had hired a security company to take care of their correspondent during his own reporting trip to Kabul. If we could get Sharif to a particular hotel in the city, he and his family would be reasonably safe, and if the security company came up with a plan for an escape, they would be able to quickly move together.
I called the security company’s Vancouver-based boss, Sharbil Nammour, and asked if we could share costs with Vice – and if they could move Mukhtar to the same hotel, too.
I asked Raad if he also wanted help getting out of Afghanistan. The engineer thanked me, but said that even with the return of the Taliban, he wanted to stay and keep building his country.
Mukhtar (pronounced MOOK-tar) joined The Globe in 2011, hired by correspondent Susan Sachs to be the interpreter and driver for the newspaper’s fledgling Kabul bureau, which was opened to cover the final year of Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan.
The Globe bureau – really just Susan and Mukhtar – worked out of a large villa operated by a British security company that also provided protection for foreign television crews. Susan dubbed the house the “Villa Testosterone” because of the ever-present, tattooed security guys. It had a full gym in the basement with an ear-splitting stereo system where the Brits could always be found when not out in convoys accompanying a television crew.
The house also had an ample staff of Afghan cleaners, cooks and security guards. It was in Wazir Akbar Khan, a neighbourhood of marble-clad multi-storey houses built by the warlords of the civil war years and their cronies. A small team of two people was ideal, Susan said, because “too obvious a footprint and too menacing a security detail screamed ‘military’ or ‘spy.’ We didn’t need to draw any more attention to ourselves.
“Journalists rely on people like Mukhtar not only as interpreters of words spoken in an interview or written on a billboard or document. They are also interpreters of their own experiences and culture,” said Susan, who later served as The Globe’s foreign editor. “At best, such local staffers anticipate what we journalists need to know or might find interesting to see. And Mukhtar, who worked in the Globe and Mail bureau in Kabul for the year it existed, was the best.”
That service put Mukhtar and his family at grave risk after the Taliban returned to power. On Aug. 14, he wrote an e-mail to Susan.
“Dear Susan Jan,” he wrote, using the honorific often used as a sign of warm respect in Afghanistan, “I am having hardest time in my life now.” He feared the Taliban and their sympathizers would attack him, as it was no secret that he and others in his family had worked as journalists with Western media. “I just feel sorry for my Daughters and my poor wife,” Mukhtar wrote. “Everybody in the neighborhood know[s] I have worked with globe and mail and other international news agencies and several times blamed me as a spy for Canadians.”
Like Sharif, Mukhtar needed to get out too. And we needed to help him.
Mark MacKinnon, Aug. 15, sent via WhatsApp:
Hi Mukhtar, this is Mark MacKinnon, a journalist with The Globe and Mail
I am a friend of Susan Sachs
Are you somewhere safe right now?
Mukhtar Amiri, Aug. 16:
Oh my god my house was attacked by the unknown men’s we left from the house to some where else
It is hard time we having
I was with globe and mail for several years I hope i could revive some help by your government Canada
For days, Mukhtar and Sharif and their families stayed in the relative comfort and security of their hotel, sharing occasional photos with me of their dinners of bread, lamb, rice and tea. The tension was obvious, even in the photos. No one at the tables even attempted smiling for the camera. “In Pashto we have a proverb: Waiting is [more] difficult than death,” Sharif wrote one night after I’d told him that I still hadn’t heard back from IRCC about the requests for emergency travel documents.
As a journalist, you’re not supposed to take advantage of your professional connections for personal benefit. Especially not those within the institutions you report on. For instance, I had never spoken to or e-mailed Mr. Mendicino since we last saw each other in the offices of Carleton University’s student newspaper some 25 years ago. I had occasional dealings with Ms. Freeland, who was a senior editor at The Globe before she entered politics, while she was Foreign Minister, but I don’t think we’ve ever had so much as a meal at the same table. But with Mukhtar and Sharif stranded, I felt the usual rules were suspended.
“Now is the time to call in any favours you might have with anyone who might be able to help,” I e-mailed my Globe colleagues at one desperate hour. For me, that meant appealing personally to Mr. Mendicino, who immediately called back with a promise to speed things up as much as he could, and Ms. Freeland, whose senior policy adviser Bud Sambasivam would become intimately familiar with the details of Mukhtar and Sharif’s cases.
It also meant calling on my contacts in every foreign government that I thought might be able to help. Several times, I ended up in the bizarre and journalistically awkward position of passing messages between senior officials in different governments. Canada wants to do something like this. Ukraine is happy to help, but wonders why, if they’re so useful in a crisis, they can’t join NATO. Qatar is hoping for this specific wording in the next letter. Maybe it will help at Taliban checkpoints?
Even with all that official muscle behind it, the process dragged. And the Canadian evacuation efforts, when they finally happened, were chaotic.
The first real Canadian attempt to rescue the stranded media fixers happened on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 21, six days after the fall of Kabul. Sharif and Mukhtar had both received an overnight e-mail instructing them to try to get to the Baron Hotel, just outside the airport.
Because of the crowds, the interpreters and their families had no choice but to try to get as close to the Baron Hotel as possible by taxi, then walk the final stretch on foot. I would follow them both from afar, using the “Find my iPhone” functions on all our phones. From my home in London, where time zones and concepts like sleep had long since become theoretical, I would watch their two little blue dots advance on Hamid Karzai International Airport.
A Taliban checkpoint was suddenly erected in their path, and the little blue dots representing two families – 16 people – never got closer to the Baron Hotel than about 350 metres. They had no choice but to return to the hotel where they were staying.
The next day, another Canadian plan emerged. A group of 16 media fixers, including Sharif and Mukhtar, were told to each make their way to scattered collection points around the airport. The plan – detailed on photographed maps of the airport, with circled collection points where each of the interpreters could be pulled through the fence by waiting soldiers – always seemed fraught. I spun the map around and around on my computer screen, but was never completely sure of exactly where it was that the Canadian soldiers wanted Sharif and Mukhtar to arrive, let alone my ability to direct them there.
Sharif had a rival invitation to join a convoy organized by a non-government organization that thought it had the necessary permissions to drive a group of translators through all the Taliban and U.S. checkpoints, with a plan to put them on a plane bound for Uganda. It sounded safer, he felt, for he and his wife and five children than trying to reach an obscure map point on foot.
Neither scheme worked. Sharif’s convoy drove around the airport for hours – never being allowed inside – before he returned to his hotel. Mukhtar, meanwhile, never found the circled point on the map.
Pushing his 92-year-old grandmother in a cart, there was no way he could make it through the desperate crowds. Hours after I told Mukhtar that this plan sounded dangerous – but as credible as any other I’d heard – he sent me a video that he made on his phone, capturing the scale of the mission’s failure, and mine. In the video, Mukhtar was standing waist-deep in the canal that surrounds the airport, looking as though he had aged several years just that morning. He had left his family, including his infant daughter and his grandmother, behind in the crowd in a vain effort to hand his phone to one of the soldiers so that I could talk to them. In one video that circulated online, soldiers – including some in Canadian uniforms – can be seen turning their backs on a throng of Afghans screaming for help.
“All of my family is in the crowd, and I don’t know what happened to them. So, please,” Mukhtar said in the video. His voice trailed off as he lifted the camera to show the desperate crowd behind him, and the line of coalition soldiers atop the airport wall beyond.
During the second and final Canadian rescue effort, our guide and lifeline was Yousef, a translator inside the gates working with the Canadian soldiers, who tried to direct Mukhtar and the others to their collection points. “He can’t find his exfiltration spot,” I wrote to Yousef in a panic after seeing Mukhtar’s video of the dangerous scene outside the airport. “Can someone get him in?” I pleaded.
“I know, Mark, I know, I know, I know,” Yousef replied in a voice message (Yousef is not his real name). “But I can’t do anything right now. … The Germans are leaving right now. The Canadians just stopped and are also leaving, and maybe today and tomorrow the U.K., the British are also leaving. We can’t do anything. Just tell him go back.”
Twenty-four hours later, Yousef sent me another audio message – this time from Germany, where he’d been evacuated as the Canadian military abandoned Kabul airport. He asked me if I could somehow help his own family get out of Afghanistan. “I couldn’t get my family. Just I just came [to Germany] because of the [risk to my] life and I still I haven’t received anything from Canada – just some e-mails that saying that you will receive [visas] soon,” he said. I could hear the sound of a baby crying somewhere in the background.
“I’m very, very sorry I couldn’t get your guys.”
The series of events set in motion by Sept. 11, 2001, continued – and continue – to unfold unpredictably. After The Globe closed its Kandahar bureau, Sharif carried on working as a researcher for organizations including the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch. But he also continued working with journalists on a freelance basis.
One day in June, he got a call from a reporter. She wanted to know if Sharif could arrange some interviews with former military translators who feared they would be left behind as NATO withdrew its forces and left Afghanistan to its fate.
Sharif dug into the assignment with his customary diligence and came across a name from the past: Jawed Haqmal. Though Jawed is 16 years younger than Sharif, they wound up in the same Kandahar classroom together in 2006, learning computer programming skills.
In 2009, Jawed (pronounced “Jah-ved”) joined the Canadian military, initially serving as an interpreter for special forces troops attached to the Second Battalion of the Royal 22nd Regiment that was deployed to Kandahar in March of that year. The unit lost 10 soldiers – most of them to improvised explosive devices – during its seven-month mission to clear the region of Taliban fighters. Later he served in several Canadian “provincial reconstruction teams,” an effort that was supposed to rebuild the Afghan countryside and thereby swing hearts and minds away from the Taliban.
Jawed is preternaturally cheerful, and his English is more fluid and colloquial than Sharif’s staccato bursts. He quickly developed a strong bond with the Canadian troops he served alongside. Photographs shared with The Globe show he was trusted enough to carry an assault rifle at times, something rarely done with other translators.
His job, during Operation Athena, was to be the eyes and ears of his unit. Wherever their mission took them, he would listen and watch the locals for cues. It was Jawed’s job to look for signs of hostility, and to signal when it might be a good time for the Canadians to leave. “The missions were special, and the translations he did were … special,” reads a letter by one of the soldiers Jawed worked with, written to support his resettlement to Canada.
Canada ended its involvement in Afghanistan in 2011. Jawed found himself jobless except for buying and selling used car parts. This year, as the U.S. and NATO began their final withdrawal, Jawed began to fear that he’d be left behind – and punished for providing help to the Canadian army.
“I’ve worked for them, we did such special missions in areas that even the Americans didn’t go into. [The Canadian soldiers] were so brave. If there was a fight, if there was an attack, they would run after the Taliban,” Jawed said. “But here [during the evacuation of Kabul], I don’t know what was going on. They were not coming out for their people.”
Jawed says he was called 10 separate times during the days after the Taliban victory and told to come to various collection points for evacuation. Usually, the pickup spot was the Baron Hotel, or somewhere nearby. But moving with his wife, mother, three young daughters and infant son – plus his siblings and their families – he never made it through.
The crush of people trying to leave was becoming just as deadly as the conflict they were fleeing. “Many times I saw kids on the ground, dying under [people’s] feet. Kids and women dying because there were hundreds of people, so crowded. My kids were asking me, ‘Father, what is this blood?’ I had no answer for them.”
But Jawed has a survivor’s instinct. He spent the weeks before the fall of Kabul reaching out to every Canadian with whom he had ever had contact. He wrote to the soldiers he served alongside, who put him in contact with the offices of MPs. He accumulated a growing file of letters supporting his request to be evacuated and resettled to Canada. His efforts were such that he received laissez-passer papers – an e-mailed document that identifies the bearer as having been granted a visa, and asking that they be allowed “safe travel” to Canada – from IRCC two days before The Globe was able to secure them for Mukhtar and Sharif.
After the fall of Kabul, Jawed called Sharif, who suggested trying to get to the same hotel where he and Mukhtar were located. It was the last safe place in the city. Jawed took his extended family – 12 people in all – and moved them into a single room. And so, when Sharif and Mukhtar got the call on the night of the 26th to head out in a convoy that was supposed to be met by U.S. troops, Jawed and his family were with them.
Mark MacKinnon, Aug. 27, sent via WhatsApp:
Is it safe there?
Unfortunately no, everyoment Talibans are shouting on us
What is the situation now?
If there is any one inside.to push them some how, because this area is very dangerous.
We are just waiting.there is no updates yet.
Right now we are like in a war zone
Evey moment there is chance of firing.
As Sharif and Mukhtar idled in their hotel, waiting for a rescue, a group of Canadian journalists leaned on IRCC and the Deputy Prime Minister’s office to do whatever they could to rescue Afghans who had worked for Canadian media. The effort was spearheaded by the tireless Rachel Pulfer, executive director of a Toronto-based organization called Journalists For Human Rights, with the support of such prominent names as CBC’s Carol Off, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme and Globe editor-in-chief David Walmsley. Meanwhile, military veterans’ groups lobbied hard to get the same help for their stranded translators.
The message from our groups to the government was despairing and blunt: If there’s no rescue coming, at least give our interpreters the documents they need so we can get them out ourselves. Don’t let these people die because of red tape.
Even with the personal support of Ms. Freeland and Mr. Mendicino, the machine of Canadian bureaucracy moved painfully slowly. Only a week passed between the first time I called Mr. Mendicino’s office on Aug. 18 and the issuing of the critical laissez-passer documents that allowed Sharif and his family to enter Ukraine, but that was a week during which the situation in Kabul dramatically worsened, and several much safer routes out of the country evaporated one-by-one.
At one point, I arranged places for Mukhtar and Sharif on a convoy organized by Qatar (which has unique influence on the Taliban after hosting their leadership throughout years of failed peace talks in Doha) that had permission to enter the airport. But the IRCC laissez-passer documents arrived hours too late for them to join.
Every message I got from Ottawa was filled with apologies. Good people, it was clear, were working as fast as they could. It just hadn’t been fast enough.
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“We need these two buses!” The Ukrainian soldier – a member of an elite unit of their country’s Defence Intelligence Agency, known as the GUR – is off-camera, and pointing at two vehicles barely visible over the heads of a crowd of hundreds of Afghans clustered outside the northwest gate of Kabul airport on the morning of Aug. 27.
Several days earlier, Roman Waschuk, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine, wrote to me on Twitter with a suggestion. He knew I was trying to get The Globe’s people out of Afghanistan and wondered if I’d asked the Ukrainian government – which was quietly evacuating its own citizens via a military plane stationed at Kabul airport – for help. He put me into contact with Andriy Bukvych, an adviser to President Zelensky.
The Ukrainians were indeed planning one more evacuation flight, and Mr. Bukvych promised to put The Globe’s names on the manifest. Even more importantly, the Ukrainians – who value the military and economic assistance Canada has given to Ukraine in its undeclared war against Russia – were willing to send troops into Kabul to escort our people into the airport.
The video shot from the Ukrainian’s chest camera shows a unit of perhaps 12 troops, wearing body armour over black T-shirts, advancing cautiously toward the crowd outside the airport. As they move toward the buses – which are barely visible over the other Afghans trying to flee – the soldiers fire bursts of gunfire to clear a path. Men, women and children – nearly all of them clutching documents they hoped would get them inside the airport too, scrambled to get out of the way as the Ukrainian soldiers yelled “Get back! Get back!” in English. A man holding a child stumbled. A woman wearing a niqab covered her ears at the gunfire all around her.
Realizing that for some reason the bus was being brought into the airport, a young man trotted alongside, waving others aside and pointing at the bus in an attempt to convince the soldiers that he was among the passengers to be evacuated. The Ukrainians shoved him aside.
Just over two minutes into the operation, there was a burst of shooting from another direction, and the Ukrainians – swearing in Russian – started to move faster, jogging alongside the buses for the final stretch into the airport. The video captures a soldier checking whether the first bus, which was white, is carrying United Nations personnel.
The second bus, which was yellow, carried the passengers from the list I had provided to Mr. Bukvych. Later, when we met in Kyiv, Mr. Bukvych said that “it came as a surprise for us that other countries, who are supposed to have more capabilities on the ground, and more troops and more aircraft – they did not cope with the [size] of the task.”
Markus, the commander of the GUR unit, said he doesn’t believe Canadian or U.S. troops would have acted any different from his troops had they been given the same orders to go out and rescue people. “If your main task is to evacuate the base, you should evacuate the base. Our main task was to evacuate civilian people, therefore we were put in a situation where we must take risks,” he said. “It’s not fair to say Ukrainian guys went inside Kabul and others were scared. They had their orders, and they followed those orders. They are good soldiers.”
“People were clutching at us, trying to hand us their children, but we were just focused on trying to find the buses,” said Dima, a member of the GUR unit that carried out the mission in Kabul, who met with The Globe this week in Kyiv. (Because of his profession, The Globe is not using Dima’s full name.)
Dima said the Aug. 27 rescue was the most difficult of six evacuation flights the Ukrainian army carried out after the Taliban takeover of Kabul. In the wake of the suicide bombing, the Americans told the Ukrainians that the northwestern airport gate would soon be welded shut like the airport’s other entrances. “We told them we had one more list, and they said okay – but after this, that’s it guys.”
Everything happened so quickly, and so randomly. After waiting for three hours for the State Department rescue that never came, Mukhtar and Jawed and Sharif and their families were exhausted.
Mukhtar’s family, in particular, were at the end of their rope. His grandmother, who turned 93 as they sat in their cars waiting for the American rescue that never came, was in bad condition. The gash on her leg had been festering untreated for two days, and now she was struggling to breathe.
When I told him about the Ukrainian plan, it was clear that he didn’t think he could push his family – old and young – any further. “Sorry man, I have some responsibility,” he wrote to me.
He sent me a photo of the gruesome and discoloured gash on his grandmother’s leg. “She is poor. I have to be with her. Can’t leave her alone man.”
It was an agonizing moment. I was starting to believe the Ukrainians were serious about their rescue mission, and I was worried that Mukhtar was making a mistake by choosing to stay with his grandmother – who still had other relatives in Kabul – rather than seizing the chance to get his six young children, all under the age of 10, out of Afghanistan.
“Only you can decide,” I wrote to him. But the die was cast. “We will pray for you bro,” he wrote back.
Jawed’s family was also exhausted after the flurry of failed escapes. Feeling defeated, he and his family retired to their room at the hotel to sleep, as did the Sharaf family.
Only Sharif himself stayed awake. “I am in the lobby waiting for the Ukrainians,” he wrote to me after the U.S. mission had collapsed. Somehow, at this late hour, he was still dogged, faithful Sharif, convinced that if I said it was worth one more try, he should stick it out.
Sitting alone, waiting for dawn to come, Sharif had one request: If Mukhtar wasn’t willing to try again, would the Ukrainians take Jawed and his family instead?
Anyone who watches the video of the rescue – or any of the scenes outside Kabul airport during recent weeks – can’t help but wonder at the monumental unfairness of what happened.
Sharif, Jawed and their families – 19 people in all – are safe because of their connection to The Globe. But others in that cowering crowd could and should have been evacuated. Among the people who ducked as the Ukrainians and then the Taliban opened fire, there were almost certainly people who had served the NATO war effort, and definitely many who just wanted a better Afghanistan than what lies ahead.
That same night, a convoy of several dozen journalists and their families, organized by Ms. Pulfer and her group, was trying to get to the airport and onward to Qatar, only to be told it was impossible after the suicide bombing.
After news of the evacuation to Ukraine was made public, my various inboxes began to swell with dozens of desperate pleas from Afghans hoping that somehow I could help get them out, too.
Women’s rights activists. Translators who served the U.S. and Canadian armies. Ordinary residents who were simply terrified of the Taliban.
“I am sure you can safe my life,” wrote one prominent female journalist who remains stranded in Kabul. “I am sure you don’t want to see me beheaded on the news by Taliban after the withdrawal deadline. Please help me. I feel so helpless right now.”
I replied to her and others that I’d put their names on every evacuation list I could think of. That was all I had left to offer. The truth was that – after the miracle of the Ukrainian rescue – I was helpless, too.
“Women are the drivers here?” Sharif asked me as we walked along a busy Kyiv street, peering over his dark sunglasses into the cars idling in rush hour traffic. “Our women are very surprised by this.”
I couldn’t hear that from the women themselves. Not only did Sharif and Jawed’s wives speak only Pashto, they also walked roughly a city block behind us at all times. When I rented a minibus to help get the whole group to a succession of appointments at the Migration Office, the Canadian embassy or to the mall to buy suitcases and clothes, the men and boys sat at the front, the women and girls at the back.
I had spent so much time worrying about getting Sharif and his family out of Afghanistan, that I’d forgotten that what lies next will be almost as challenging. There are few places in the world that are further apart culturally than Kandahar and Kyiv. The former is perhaps the most religiously conservative place on Earth, a place where most women continued to wear head-to-toe burqas even while the Taliban was out of power and where vice of all manner was rejected, at least in public.
In Kyiv, Sharif and Jawed and their families were settled into seven rooms in a hotel on the right bank of the Dnipro River. There was a well-stocked bar in the hotel lobby, and the same building housed both a casino and a strip club (thankfully, none of the group could read the Cyrillic alphabet). Samiullah and Hashmatullah – Sharif’s two oldest sons, both in their early 20s – widened their eyes as our group occasionally crowded onto the subway, elbow to elbow with Ukrainian men and women scantily dressed for the last warm days of summer.
At one point, as we walked in a group of 20, trying to hustle from Friday prayers at Kyiv’s main mosque to medical appointments at a nearby clinic, Sharif started to laugh at the reversal of our previous roles. “You are my fixer now!” (The group arrived with an array of chronic ailments that had gone untreated for weeks – from allergies to much more serious issues. Sharif needed emergency dental surgery, and Jawed’s mother needed diabetes and epilepsy medication.)
I tried to assure Sharif that Canada would be an easier adjustment, that it had a little bit of both Kandahar and Kyiv, that the signs would be in English, and that no one there really minded what people wore or how they prayed. Sharif, who will turn 50 next month, told me he knew that he’d have to change, and that even his wife would likely wear different clothes in Canada. The look on his face suggested that, of all the people in his family, the adjustment was going to be toughest on him.
“Operating in close quarters with a woman – a woman who was making the decisions about where we would go and who we would talk to – was completely foreign to him, and violated all sorts of cultural norms,” former Globe correspondent Gloria Galloway told me, recalling her multiple stints working in Kandahar alongside Sharif. Though Gloria was in charge, Sharif told her that, for safety reasons, she had to wear a burqa and sit in the back seat when they went on reporting trips. This was Kandahar after all. “Three blocks before we got back to the hotel … he would insist that I flip back the veil covering my head so the Taliban, who might have been watching, would know he was not bringing a good Afghan woman into that place where Westerners lived.”
Food was another challenge in Ukraine. The first night I arrived in Kyiv, I proposed that we all go to a nearby Uzbek restaurant, since I knew from experience that the food in Uzbekistan contained the same key dishes and ingredients – lamb, rice, bread and vegetables – that I had been served in Afghanistan. Only the men joined me – we later delivered food to the women in their hotel rooms – and the group’s eyebrows collectively lifted in shock at the prices on the menu at the teahouse I selected for them.
I told them not to worry about the prices. Their families hadn’t had a decent meal since Kabul, and The Globe was happy to buy food for them. But the offering was a flop. “The women rejected the food – they said it was not tasty,” Sharif told me the next morning.
Attempt number two was a Crimean Tatar restaurant recommended by a staff member at the Canadian embassy. This time the men seemed impressed with the Turkish-style cuisine, but the women, we learned the next day, were still unhappy with the food. They wanted to cook for themselves, but there were no kitchens in the tiny rooms in their hotel.
In desperation the next day, I suggested we try the Domino’s Pizza right across the street from where they were staying. Finally, we achieved success – not with the pizza (which was again rated “not tasty”) – but with the side orders of chicken wings and French fries that I’d added to their order as an experiment.
Twice a day, for the next five days (until the International Crisis Group secured rooms for the group in an apartment hotel that featured kitchenettes), we delivered the same order: five double-sized boxes of chicken, five double-sized boxes of fries and four litres of Coca-Cola.
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Mukhtar woke up the morning after the Ukrainian rescue ready to try again. There was another airport convoy being organized, and his grandmother was feeling well enough to make another attempt. But almost as soon as he and another fixer (for Vice News) got to the designated location, the plan was aborted because of yet another bomb threat near the airport.
Mukhtar, I worried, was trapped.
But Mukhtar, like Sharif, had friends in many places. The best of them was Kathy Gannon, a 68-year-old native of Timmins, Ont., and the news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan coverage at the Associated Press wire service. Over the past two decades, it’s likely that no Western journalist has spent more time in Afghanistan than Kathy.
While the rest of the world was trying to get out of Afghanistan, Kathy was heading in, as she always does, to continue her coverage of the country’s latest tumult. She was supposed to be in New York, on medical leave after her latest round of treatment. She had been shot seven times in 2014 by an Afghan police officer, leaving her unable to use her left hand, among other injuries. The colleague she was travelling with, Dutch journalist Anja Niedringhaus, died at the scene.
Kathy types more slowly these days, using her right hand and one finger on her left – but she refuses to complain. “People have gone through so much worse,” she told me this week over the phone. “I’m just so grateful each morning when I wake up.”
Kathy recommended to Susan that she hire Mukhtar for The Globe’s Kabul bureau, having known his father for years. Now, Kathy had a plan to get Mukhtar and his family out of Afghanistan.
The details can’t be reported now – for fear it could compromise the route for others Kathy is trying to help – and the first attempt saw Mukhtar and his family spend three days at an overland border crossing, unable to get his family of nine through the crowds while pushing his ailing grandmother.
On Friday, Sept. 3, he gave up and returned to Kabul. “It was horrible and so sad. My grandmother and children are sick,” he wrote to me after the eight-hour drive back from the border.
I wrote to the Qatari Foreign Ministry – whose government, along with Turkey’s, has been asked by the Taliban to take over the management of Kabul airport – to check when they would be able to resume evacuation flights, and to beg that Mukhtar and his family be put on the first plane that flew out. But Kathy was convinced that her plan would work faster than anything involving the airport – which the Taliban claimed this week needed more than US$300-million in repairs before it could resume normal operations.
Sunday night, Mukhtar agreed to try again to leave Afghanistan overland. This time, he told me, he would leave grandma behind with other relatives. His WhatsApp messages came one heartbreaking line at a time.
“I love her a lot.”
“Maybe I couldn’t see her again in my life.”
“She will die.”
I tried to console him from afar. “I’m so sad for you Mukhtar. But you are doing the right thing,” I replied. “I am so sorry. But she has had a long life. We need to make sure your children have the same chance.”
A few hours later, Mukhtar and his wife, Sayema, and their six children – all under the age of 10 – got into a taxi and left Kabul one more time.
On Monday, Sept. 6, at just after noon Afghanistan time, I received a joyful message from Mukhtar. “Hi sir,” he wrote, with a waving emoji between the two words. “We entered” the third country. I double-checked on my phone. The little blue dot showing Mukhtar’s location had indeed departed Afghanistan.
It was the end of a 22-day ordeal for myself, Susan, Kathy and everyone who knew Mukhtar. The Globe finally had all of its people out of Afghanistan. Fifteen of the 16 people on our list – all except for Mukhtar’s grandmother – had been evacuated. Plus 12 others that we had met along the way.
Mark MacKinnon, Aug. 27, sent via WhatsApp:
Is your grandmother also travelling tomorrow?
No man she will stay I couldn’t convince my dad
Finally said she has to stay in Kabul
Fell sorry for her
Oh I am sorry for you mukhtar
You did so much for her
I love her a lot
She is 100 years old
I can see that you love her
Needed for me and my children
But now we must focus on you and your wife and children
Let’s see buddy
In 20 days all life system destroyed
On one of the first days that we walked around Kyiv, a motorcycle roared just as we were passing under a bridge. Sharif instinctively ducked, as though we were under attack. “The sound reminded me of the explosions we heard in Kabul – it made me afraid,” he said with a nervous chuckle. I pulled on his elbow to keep him from walking into the more immediate danger of Kyiv traffic as he talked.
Several times, I asked Sharif what he wanted from life in Canada. He seemed genuinely surprised to hear how cold the country got in wintertime, and frequently worried – as I do – about what kind of work he and his older children could find. “I just want them to get a good education in Canada,” he told me, referring to five kids who will be starting from scratch at ages 12 to 22. The anxiety in his voice made it clear Sharif knows this is not going to be easy.
Jawed and his family seemed less concerned. At 33, the gregarious Jawed is the kind of guy who could network and make connections anywhere. He already has invitations from friends suggesting that he settle near them, one in Calgary, another in Thunder Bay. His three young daughters – nine-year-old Marwa, six-year-old Safa and five-year-old Dunya – are precocious and making daily progress with their English. By our third day in Kyiv, Marwa walked right up to me in her brightly coloured dress and shook my hand. “Hello Mark,” she said with a proud and mischievous grin. Soon her sisters were lined up behind her, doing the same each morning.
On our seventh day in Kyiv, Jawed arrived in the hotel lobby wearing blue jeans and a Canada’s Wonderland fleece. It had been among the donations to the two families that came through an effort organized by the staff of the Canadian embassy in Ukraine. Safa, meanwhile, sported a donated Ottawa Senators ballcap on her head, and a smile bigger than the team’s logo.
Kandahar and the Taliban are already in the past for them, the scary and amazing origin story before the start of their new lives in Canada. Sharif and his family, who continued to wear Kandahari robes throughout our stay in Kyiv, were having a harder time moving on.
I sat down on the sidewalk one afternoon beside his oldest son, 22-year-old Samiullah, to ask him what he thought of it all. Besides wondering whether Canadian universities would accept his business diploma from Kabul’s Dunya University, he mostly wanted to talk about Ukrainian women – and to ask whether Canadian women would be “so beautiful.”
On Sept. 4 – three weeks after the fall of Kabul, and almost exactly two decades after the attacks on New York and Washington that set all this in motion – the good news finally came. Sharif and his family had been approved to fly from Kyiv to Canada. As we sat around a table at their temporary apartment in Kyiv, eating rice, lamb, bread and vegetables cooked by the women I still had yet to properly meet, I frantically tried to grab the last seven seats on a LOT Polish Airlines flight to Toronto a few days later.
My credit card, battered by a week of playing host to 19 Afghans in Kyiv, finally failed, but Globe publisher Phillip Crawley stepped into the breach and paid the fare on his personal card.
Jawed was still in Kyiv, awaiting the paperwork that would allow him and his family to fly to Canada, and Mukhtar is awaiting the same in another country bordering Afghanistan. But after three terrifying weeks on the run, all were safe and en route to something better.
Only when his family’s tickets to Toronto were finally booked on Saturday night did Sharif – who had worried so much about his family’s safety in Kabul, and the culture clash in Kyiv – seem able to relax.
The relief was so palpable that when we reached Kyiv’s Boryspil airport on Tuesday his 18-year-old daughter Samia – who had studiously avoided even eye contact throughout our time in Ukraine – looked directly at me and put her hand over her heart in a Muslim gesture of respect.
“We are so happy because we are now going to your Canada,” Sharif smiled as we embraced outside airport security, two decades after he had helped get me out of Kandahar. “When we land, Canada will be my country.”
Special thanks to these colleagues who provided invaluable support for this story:
Susan Sachs was The Globe and Mail’s Afghanistan correspondent from 2010 through 2011, when the paper closed its bureau there, and served as the Globe’s foreign editor from 2013 to 2016. A long-time foreign correspondent, she previously worked for the New York Times and Newsday as the bureau chief in Cairo, Jerusalem, Moscow, Baghdad and Istanbul. She now lives in Washington, DC.
Graeme Smith is a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group. He spent a decade in Afghanistan, including several years for The Globe and Mail as a correspondent.
Gloria Galloway is a former Globe reporter who is now a media consultant and freelance writer.