A week after President Ghani fled Afghanistan on August 15, 2021 with cars and $167 million in cash and the immediate, subsequent collapse, Lieutenant Shurali, his wife, and two children, waited for hourly calls from American Advisors as to the best time to come to the gates of HKIA airport for evacuation. When the frantic call came, the US voice said, “Get here any way you can and fast.” LT Shurali and family found themselves thrust into a surging crowd of over five thousand people by an airport gate with Taliban firing automatic weapons sporadically into the crowd. Their infant daughter taken by a stranger, Shurali and his wife split up hoping to find their daughter. It was the last time LT Shurani saw his wife…
Born into a poor family in a rural region of Afghanistan, Obaidullah Shurali’s father taught primary school and insisted his son complete high school. Upon graduation, Obaidullah joined the Afghan National Army (ANA) and earned the rank of Sergeant in 2011. Shurali’s first duty station as a leader in the ANA was at the Kabul Airport. His ANA unit assignment was near the Afghan Air Force Academy where he watched Afghan pilots perform training, orientation, and maintenance on their aircraft. He was inspired by watching the airmen and soon developed a love of planes. After a year watching the pilots train at the airport, the Army deployed him to Kandahar, “This was a very dangerous place as many consider this area as home to the Taliban,” says Shurali, “I feel lucky because I received orders for Officer Candidate School (OCS) three months after I arrived at Kandahar. OCS was far away from that dangerous province.”
During OCS, he stood out among his peers and excelled in areas concerning leadership, tactics, and discipline. Shurali earned his gold 2nd Lieutenant bar at the completion of OCS. He was handpicked to begin flight training in the United Arab Emirates to fly planes for his country.
The first time away from his country, it was a challenge to be immersed in a foreign culture and away from his family, but he loved flying and took every opportunity to increase his hours in any aircraft available. Upon returning to Afghanistan with a new swagger of confidence, the Afghan Air Force selected him to attend fighter pilot training in the United States.“I arrived in the U.S. in March 2016 and attended the Defensive Language School (DLI) at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas,” says Shurali. “They gave us nine months to learn the English language before sending us to the Columbus Air Force base to start flight school. I learned aerobatic maneuvers in a T-6. From there, we went to Moody Air Force Base to fly A-29 close air support attack aircraft. It was an exciting time in my life and a dream come true.”
Shurali returned to Afghanistan in June 2018. Anxious to flex his wings and fly his A-29 in combat for the first time, he was cleared to drop two MK81 250lb bombs on a known Taliban drug manufacturing center in Ghazni Province. “I was so proud. I couldn’t wait to tell my family,” says Shurali, “My excitement ended fast. Once they learned who dropped those bombs, the Taliban threatened to kill everyone in my family. For the next three years, everyone I loved had to change homes and cities every three to four months. It was a constant struggle to stay ahead of the Taliban scouts and their information networks. It was hard on everyone. I worried when I was in the air. I worried when I was on the ground.”
Stationed at the Kandahar Airfield in Mazar e Sharif in August 2021, and with more than six hundred hours of combat time accumulated in his A-29, Shurali was home on leave visiting his wife and children when he heard the Afghan President fled the country on August 15, 2021, “I told my wife to give me the ATM card to withdraw as much money as we could. I knew what troubles were on the way and we needed to purchase necessities,” recalls Shurali. “On the way to the Kabul City Center, I noticed stores closing and people running in the streets. Cars fled from the city in chaos. I asked a man what happened, and he said the government had collapsed. Taliban were coming. I raced home. I found my wife in hysterics because she knew what the Taliban would do to all of us. I called my advisor in the United States. He told me to stay in my home and help would be coming.”
“We stayed in hiding for several days while the Taliban ransacked and tightened its grip on the city. I called my U.S. advisor every day for guidance. He must have been out of options because he finally told us to try and get to the East Gate at the Kabul Airport. He said our names would be on a list with the gate guards. We encountered over 5,000 people fighting to get in the gates. We saw Taliban everywhere firing their guns at people and in the air. It was chaos. Bodies in the streets. At one point a stranger offered to hold our five-month-old daughter because we were having a hard time carrying everything. He said he’d help carry her while I carried our two-year-old. He disappeared into the crowd with my daughter.”
For hours, Lieutenant Shurali and his wife searched in vain for the man carrying their daughter. The danger and chaos only increased, and finally they decided they could double their chances of finding her if they split up and communicated by cell phone. Shurali held firm to his son as he moved through the crowd and texted his wife every few minutes. The Taliban sought out anyone from the Afghan military and government, and there was great danger in being recognized. Random gun fire pushed the crowds of thousands in different directions. “In one of the surges, my son and I got forced inside the gates, and we found our daughter. I called my wife and said to come meet us at the gate. There was yelling and gunfire and I could barely hear her, but I told her we were just on the other side. She cried and said she could not get through the crowds.”
“For four days we tried, and each day the violent mobs forced my wife back. Each day the Taliban closed in further. She was a woman traveling alone and unable to find a safe route to the airport. If caught and recognized, she would be raped, tortured, then killed. All I could hear was the sound of constant gunfire in the city. My heart sank every time I heard a gun go off because I thought they’d found my wife. On the fifth day, all my electronic devices ran out of battery. The last time I spoke to my wife, with both of us on Afghan soil, she told me to get on the plane and take our children to safety in the United States. Maybe someday she could get there too. I had to make the hardest choice a husband and father will ever make - sacrifice my wife to save our children.”
Lieutenant Durali was evacuated with his two children to the United Arab Emirates on August 24, 2021 and from there to a refugee camp on a military base in the United States a month later. In late fall, he was relocated to Arizona where he is raising his two children as a single father hopeful he can someday be reunited with his wife. The Underwood Foundation assists with clothing, food, and childcare costs which allows Obaidullah Shurali to enter the U Cadet Program and move forward with a career in commercial aviation. ∎
In partnership with The Upperwood Foundation, Awareness Ties produces and publishes the 'Hope For Afghanistan' stories written by Russ Prichard.
From delivering babies in Afghanistan to delivering supplies sent from the U.S., Russ Pritchard delivers hope to the people of Afghanistan. While he would say he’s just a glorified telephone operator, he’s so much more. He runs the U Medical Corps, bringing help and hope to those unseen and unheard.
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