It’s Thursday, February 24th - later in the evening in the States, around 8:30 pm. It’s after early morning prayers in Afghanistan. It’s Friday there, the weekend - when everyone is home. I am glued to CNN watching Russians begin the invasion of Ukraine. I am thinking of my grandfather and how in the early 1970’s he used to make me read the Ballentine Books series on World War II and watch “The World at War” with him. He insisted upon it. He said one day he would be dead and gone and war again would come to Europe because those who could remember would no longer be around to remind those who preferred war to peace.
It begins. My phone starts flashing, buzzing, and ringing in a crashing cacophony of texts and calls. They are the indication of emergencies from Afghans in hiding, high ranking military men who are normally composed and experienced after two decades of fighting the Taliban. They know what to expect. They never call, and when I have talked to them on that rare occasion, they sound overly calm like stereotyped pilots reading British Lit poetry during an emergency. Sentences come from the Afghans like “There are hundreds of Taliban on my street…my neighborhood is sealed off… they’ve kicked my door in… my husband, brother and sons have been taken…. I’m on the run and don’t know where to go.”
Within an hour, my phone battery is nearly dead from constant video calls and feeds. I have received hundreds of photos of smashed furniture, ripped clothes, broken down doors, children crying, bloodied men, women, and children, and Taliban, sometimes in fragments on the screen. Taliban in American uniforms, carrying American guns, driving American military vehicles. Something has changed in Afghanistan. It’s palpable even from 6,600 miles way.
It’s February 25. It’s midnight 05, a silly way I have expressed time since working as a flight medic on a helicopter in the 80’s. I can no longer keep pace with the incoming communication on my encrypted phone app. The number of unread messages is consistently increasing. It’s 12:25 am and we are firmly into Friday in the States. I send a text to someone who works with me trying to save Afghans. It reads, “Have three in labor, trying to deliver seven emergency food drops, scheduling surgery for a five-month-old with a heart defect, waiting to hear back from someone trying to get access to old logbooks, and the Russians are invading Ukraine. Just another night? And WTF is going in an Afghanistan?”
It’s 3:30 am, and somehow people from around the world are sharing information as to what Police Districts and neighborhoods around Kabul the Taliban are in. A few of us are collating information coming from Brazil, England, Ireland, Iraq, Germany, Australia, and the United States and create “INTELLIGENCE VOLUNTEER BRIEFS” and start sharing locations of the search parties. Texts are increasing now and there are more questions than statements.
I sleep a few hours and get my son off to school. He is excited that it’s the end of his week. I feel like there is a tsunami coming my way. Waiting in the drop-off line at high school, I receive a BBC article from a Colonel in Afghanistan. It reads, “Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed in a statement that the ‘clearing operation’ had begun with the participation of three security agencies of the Ministry of Defense, Interior and Taliban Intelligence in Kabul and neighboring provinces. In recent days, there have been reports of hundreds of Taliban troops and equipment being sent to Panjshir province, as well as videos posted on social media showing house to house searches by Taliban force in Kabul, Kapisa, Parwan and Panjshir provinces north of the capital.”
Some of the volunteer evac groups, with names like “Freedom this” and “Allied that” are full of self-professed experts. They are telling people in large posts that this is just a panic, and the reports of searches are fake. I hate these American evac groups. They have fat bank accounts raised from donors who thought they were sending money to feed desperate Afghans and eventually evacuate them from danger. The money gets used for expenses of the evac groups for things like meals and hotels in DC to “influence congressional types” or digital marketing firms to raise even more donations. They contribute nothing towards medical care or humanitarian aid claiming they are waiting for the big day when they can land jumbo jets in Afghanistan and fly people out by the hundreds. I’ve learned nonprofits created by politicians usually have intentions hidden behind the curtain. They sicken me. Only one foundation stands on principle. It’s the Upperwood Foundation. They feed Afghans. They provide medical care. They help Afghans in country and in the US, and they don’t say a word. They don’t take a bow. They just keep on driving and pushing. They always ask what next? They are the epitome of leadership and character because they act when no one watches and no one cares to watch. They don’t even publicize their names.
Information comes in fast and heavy now. I stop for lunch, and my unread messages quickly shoot north of 650. Several of us send out another INTELLIGENCE VOLUNTEER BRIEF that informs confirmed ongoing Taliban activity around Kabul in districts 4, 11, 15,17, Parwan, and Khair Khana. I also confirm the Taliban have the districts blanketed in check points and are surrounding guest houses demanding registration documents for the occupants of the homes.
Notifications from an Afghan hospital tells me we have facilitated the delivery of five infants in the last twenty-four hours through our U Medical Corps, and another text informs of twenty-two food drops occurred through our U Medical Corps – both endeavors funded by the Upperwood Foundation. I call the delivery company and put future food drops on hold until searches lift. Can’t have any more die.
Within an hour the INTELLIGENCE VOLUNTEER BRIEF comes back to me from several people in Afghanistan as top-secret intelligence from the United States government. It seems humorous until texts and calls start coming in, “I can’t get a hold of my family… everyone is missing…they took my father away.”
I don’t have time to journal. Information comes in from individuals, gets confirmed, and then goes back out to large groups in Afghanistan. About a dozen of us in various time zones organize what we can. I’ve missed dinner. When did it get dark out? Desperate for sleep, the last text I read is from an Afghan fighter pilot, “It’s hard to define safe right now in Kabul.”
It's 2:20 am. I wake to a video taken from a covered third or fourth story window of Taliban in force on a street. They are in American Humvees and black armored Range Rovers. There’s a text, “This is the second time they are searching my house & asking for me & my brother! Fortunately, my family was moved to somewhere safe ahead of time! This is the price of loving our country that we are paying, but we are safe because of you. God be with you.” There is no way I can go back to sleep. I am going downstairs. I will sit on a stool at our kitchen island to stay awake. The sun is coming up here. It’s mid afternoon in Afghanistan. I am constantly calculating my time plus 9.5 hours.
6:30 am here, 4:00 pm there. Sun coming up here, sun going down there. I live in two time zones. I keep both times on my phone. I keep the weather in both places on my phone. I am hungry for dinner now and realize sleep deprivation has thrown off my sense of time. I double check the clock on our microwave to make sure it’s dawn and not dusk. The need for information has shifted and increased. Afghans are asking what is happening in the searches and what can they do to prepare. “They searched my uncle’s home. He was a Colonel in the Police force. They were asking for weapons. Threatened them and said to show them anything military before they found it or they would kill them. He turned over his uniforms and a gun. They beat them to death.” Our new communication recommends hiding guns in dirty diapers and in boxes of feminine pads where the Taliban men are less likely to look. There are medals or coins the Americans gave the Afghans like cheap souvenir pieces. They are as useless as the proliferation of certificates the American military and government gave the Afghans. Take photos of the certificates, email them to yourself and burn them with your uniforms I suggest. Put anything metal in dirty diapers. This advice circulates the globe and once again comes back to me as secret intelligence from the US Government. It only took eleven minutes.
1400: This text message from a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic takes my breath away. He’s 25 and the only male left alive in his family. “They put long metal in our clothes and trash. The search inside everything and rip holes. They collect everything in one place. The long metal found military buttons. They were old and Russian and belonged to my father. The Taliban took them.” Shit, metal detectors….. My eyes itch and sear wanting sleep. We compose a new INTELLIGENCE VOLUNTEER BRIEF, “It is reported the Taliban and possibly Badri specific is searching multiple locations for black market passports, weapons, and currency. Homes are being searched with metal detectors for guns, ammunition, and other incriminating evidence of relationship with Americans.” Still trying to get it right. Don’t hide shit in the house. They will find it.
2030: I’ve fallen asleep on the couch. My wife set up a table next to my face. On it are snacks, a power cord, and a charging cord. It’s dark again. Saturday or Sunday? I look at my phone calendar. CNN is on in the background. The Russians are closing in on the capitol of Kyiv, and there are Russian missiles landing 50 miles east of Poland. My unread texts have risen to 887. A quick perusal of texts shows the Taliban are now searching in Districts 4,6,7, 9, 13, 17, and 18. It’s just past morning prayers in Afghanistan. That means the Taliban kept up search activities through the night. We prepare another INTELLIGENCE VOLUNTEER BRIEF and reinforce no metal in the house. Knowing it still dark in Afghanistan, we suggest burying metal objects in the backyards or nearby lots. No sooner does the Intel Brief boomerang back and a text comes in, “The savages are in District 11. They’ve reached our neighborhood. There are drones circling over our street. FTT” It’s a rallying cry throughout the Afghan Signal threads. It stands for FUCK THE TALIBAN. Drones… shit – they can see people burying things in the backyards. A whole new warning has to go out.
Midnight twenty. I break into my wife’s Nantucket chocolate chip cookies knowing there will be hell to pay when she finds out I have eaten them all. The dog whines at my feet. I can’t remember the last time I fed him or walked him. I do both. He’s as screwed up as I am. From the outside of the house, I see my teenage son’s bedroom light is on. He’s up playing video games. It’s his Saturday night. I sneak upstairs. My wife is asleep. My side of the bed is still made. I go back downstairs. I make it to the bottom step and my phone begins to explode in a maelstrom of messages and calls. There is clearly panic in the voices. “Have you seen the latest order by the Taliban? Afghanistan is a prison.” I ask a General, a Colonel, and two Doctors to send me what they are referring to. Photos and translations come across my phone, and I imagine the screen brightening in patterns of three short, three long, three short, an SOS, but I know it’s just my sleep deprived imagination. An edict signed by Shir Mohammad Sharif, the Chief of Border Police of the Ministry of the Interior of the Islamic Emirate orders all borders, airports, and ports to prevent the departure of any Afghans who assisted the US or NATO forces. In addition, the edict prevents Afghans from traveling out of the country without a “valid reason”. The documents also referred to the process of evacuation of vulnerable Afghans by foreign forces and said the Americans had been told that they could take people they cared about, but that was not a permanent process.
0437: I fell asleep talking to a Doctor who needs evacuation. He knows his chances are slim. He’s still on the line. He chides me for snoring and jokes that he could hear me from six thousand miles away. I ask him how long I was asleep. He tells me almost two hours. I ask him why he stayed on the line. He says he had nothing else better to do. He said it comforted him. It’s early afternoon in Afghanistan. I have lost half a day. Sunday, right?
1100: Below 500 on unread texts. Al Jazeera news just came out with an article. Headline reads Taliban conducting house-to-house sweep across Afghan Capital. I think of the idiot evac groups and the morons who kept saying the searches weren’t real. They weren’t communicating or warning Afghans. They were more concerned about egos and enjoying meals in DC at donor’s expense. Funny how stagnant money in a non-profit finds a way to leak out. It starts with reimbursements and then consulting fees.
1830: Shit… four members of a family just got taken away because Taliban found military socks and shoes. How did we not think of that? Okay another Intel Brief needs to go out. I learn of four families missing – all of them. It’s eighteen people. I text them. One dot and not filled. Message didn’t go through. I scan through my unread texts and find one of the families. The last text reads, “Good morning my dear brother. We were doing well until now, but on move from one place to another.” I do the math. I am always doing math. It’s first light in Afghanistan. They’ve been on the run for several hours during their night. I check the weather in Kabul. It’s below freezing. I know this man well. He studied at the US Army Command College in Kansas multiple times. He has a Kansas driver’s license, and he has been photographed at the Pentagon. His wife helped me with new mothers-to-be kit suggestions, and he has four children in Afghanistan and two older twin boys in medical school in Russia. Oh shit – Russia. What is going on in Ukraine? Who turned off CNN?
2010: More people missing….There is no way every one is going to magically show back up in their homes tomorrow. There are no records. No death certificates kept by the Taliban. People are just gone.
Midnight 34: My favorite time of day is 12:34. I don’t care if it’s AM or PM. It’s the only time, twice a day, where everything is in order – aligned in my mind. My goals for the next two hours: confirm scheduling of two C sections today in Afg: one for a mother with a breech baby and one for a mother who has become eclamptic; then double check the code word for our twenty food drops going out, and then try and get unread messages below 800.
0230: I am below 800, but I have two diabetics without insulin and a patient who needs an escort to dialysis because the Taliban took her husband and brothers away. To go outside unaccompanied by a male is to die. To miss dialysis is to die. Problems, solutions…. The dog is making weird noises in his sleep. I realize he’s having a nightmare.
0410: I have ninety minutes until my alarm goes off to start a new week. My son needs to get up then, and my wife deserves coffee in bed. I am turning my phone upside down so I don’t see the flashes.
1000: I woke up to the alarm dreaming I was blowing a lifeguard whistle at people drowning in a pool. I know on some level there is someone who will find the Freudian connection to Afghanistan. My texts are above 900 unread messages, and I’ve got two in labor, and a kid with seizures. Have to get through the unread texts.
1430: I am going to sleep. I am seeing spots like white butterflies dancing.
1515: I am up. Four of us prepare our largest Intel Brief since Thursday: “INTELLIGENCE VOLUNTEER BRIEF: Multiple shepherds and intelligence sources are reporting the massive surge in Taliban activity is not only increasing but expanding to other geographic areas. In KBL, house to house searches have recently taken place in multiple geographic areas including but not limited to Districts 2,5, 6, 9, 11, and 19. During the searches, reports show increased levels of training via squad tactics, use of handheld biometrics devices, NDS uniforms, metal detectors, Badri 313 and Red Brigade involvement, as well as drones in flight with ISR suggesting day zoom and thermal night operational capabilities. In addition, there is confirmed intelligence that the Taliban have the capability to pull and intercept cellphone signals via portable devices that look like small pelican cases. There are reports that CHN MSS, PAK ISI, and both IRN IRGC and VAJA intelligence agencies are assisting in some of these operations. The Taliban and like groups are looking for connections to US and NATO forces from military uniforms to shoes, to weapons, to certificates of education. The Taliban is basically looking for any connection to ISISK, coalition forces or the NRF, false documents etc. There are unconfirmed reports that the Taliban has begun to seize and or destroy AFG passports preventing travel outside AFG as per a new edict banning travel by those who were employed and or associated with US and/or NATO forces. There are multiple reports that searches are going to start all over MZR next week but prepare NOW as it could be sooner. Sources are stating that the same searches are expected to begin in other larger AFG cities, specifically mentioned Jalabad, Kandahar, and Herat. Any intelligence sources suggest this will expand to smaller towns and villages as well. Please place your documents on a cloud if you can. These raids will most likely continue for several weeks.”
1943: I receive seven texts almost simultaneously, “Multiple confirmed eyewitness reports of mass execution and burial of 100s of Tajiks in Kapisa and other areas of Afghanistan.” I can’t stay awake any longer. It’s been almost 98 hours, and I’ve slept less than six since Thursday. The guilt of going to sleep covers me like a blanket. ∎
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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