SAN ANTONIO — For years Riaz Sardar Khil, a soldier with the Afghan army, assisted U.S. troops during their mission overseas. He was rewarded with an immigration visa to start a new life in America. Three years ago, Sardar, his wife and a newborn daughter resettled in a sprawling apartment complex in a working-class neighborhood in San Antonio.
The Sardars were reminded of the dangers they left behind during a visit back home last summer that coincided with the chaotic exit of U.S. armed forces. Sardar’s wife, Zarmeena Sardar Khil, and daughter, Lina, found themselves feet away from a suicide bomber who killed 13 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Afghans. Lina fainted near the blast but later regained consciousness, and the family was flown to safer surroundings back to San Antonio.
But a different peril lurked in America, a country long considered a safe haven for exiles like the Sardars. Last December, Lina joined more than a dozen children at a playground visible from the family’s front door.
Then she vanished without a trace.
Nine months later, the case continues to rattle the small Afghan community and investigators, who have been at a loss to explain how a 3-year-old girl could have simply disappeared from a gated apartment complex without witnesses or any other tangible evidence.
“We came from Afghanistan to have a happy and safe life here, but it didn’t happen,” Riaz Sardar said. “My whole life was ruined.”
The San Antonio Police Department, which is spearheading the investigation with assistance from the FBI, said officers have unsuccessfully chased every tip that came their way, no matter how obscure, even those from psychics who claimed to have had visions of Lina.
“I have not talked to anyone about this case, family or law enforcement, that’s just not baffled,” said William McManus, the chief of police. “Nobody vanishes into thin air. And I don’t believe that Lina did either. I never give up. I don’t think the police ever give up on a case.”
Lina’s case is rare. Most children who are reported missing are eventually found, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The few who remain missing are often categorized as runaways and, in some cases, they fall victim to sex trafficking, experts said.
The mystery surrounding Lina’s case has only added another element of turmoil to already traumatized émigrés. Many come to America starting from zero, without a place to live, with limited English skills, if they speak it at all, and few job leads to support their families, said Amir Mohammad Amiri, an Afghan community leader.
“We come here looking for peace, stability, security for our children,” Amiri said. Now, he is not so sure America is the safe haven he once believed it to be. San Antonio, after all, is an hour and a half away from Uvalde, where 19 children and two teachers were killed in May by a teenage gunman.
News of the girl’s disappearance was all people could talk about at Aryana Halal Meat Market, a gathering spot for many Afghan refugees. Aminullah Amir, 38, stood next to the cashier and tried to explain that he has become paranoid every time he takes his children ages 2, 4, 6 and 9 to the park. “I keep my eyes on them all the time. I am scared that they will disappear like Lina,” Amir said. “We always thought America was safe. Now, we are not too sure.”
There was a time when the future looked a lot brighter for the Sardars. They tried their best to acclimate to their new life in San Antonio, a Latino majority metropolitan area where hundreds of Afghan refugees resettled after the fall of Kabul, bringing the total population to more than 2,660, according to some estimates. Riaz Sardar soon found work as a truck driver, and his wife made friends with close-knit Afghan women in her complex and with neighbors of diverse ethnicities. Their son Rayhan was born in San Antonio.
The siblings made fast friends and practiced their English with other children at the playground.
Then on Dec. 20 their idyllic life was shattered. After a long, rainy and cold week of being cooped up inside their one-bedroom apartment at Villas Del Cabo, the children pleaded with their mother to let them play outside, the Sardars said in an interview.
It was 5:30 p.m. when Zarmeena Sardar finally relented. She kept a watchful eye steps away from the complex’s playground and a gazebo where Lina, wearing a black jacket, red dress and black shoes, followed other youngsters. She last remembered seeing the back of Lina’s head and turning away for no more than five minutes.
When she looked back, a cold fear paralyzed her. Where is my Lina? she asked herself. Time seemed to slow down as she scanned the dozen-plus children unaware of what had just happened.
Still, she tried not to work herself into a frenzy. Lina must be nearby, she told herself. It was not unusual, after all, for children to run into another Afghan home to use the restroom or take a sip of water during playtime.
She knocked on every familiar door for about 30 minutes, she recalled in her native Pashto. “I kept thinking Lina would appear,” she said.
Sometime after 6 p.m., after yelling Lina’s name and not getting a reply, her heart sank. It was then that Zarmeena Sardar phoned her husband, who was at a relative’s home. “Lina has disappeared,” she told him.
Riaz Sardar rushed home to find his wife in a state of shock. After seeing that Lina was indeed gone, he called for help.
As is common with new immigrants, the Sardars first reached out to a leader of the Afghan community known to help new arrivals, Lawang Mangal, instead of calling the police first. “Our community does not trust the authorities. He did not know what to do,” Mangal said, referring to Riaz Sardar.
Mangal told Riaz Sardar the time gap worried him. By that point, Lina had been missing for more than an hour. “I told him, you are already delayed. You have to call the police,” Mangal recalled.
The police descended on the apartment complex sometime after 8 p.m., family members recalled. McManus said his department conducted a thorough search and inspected every square inch, every car driving in and out, even trash dumpsters, he said. The department later brought search and cadaver-sniffing dogs. “Nothing was spared,” he said.
The FBI assisted the police with additional resources, including diving teams who looked for her in a nearby creek. Still, no Lina.
Two agents from the Special Victims Unit, which specializes in sex-related crimes, are assigned to Lina’s case full time, police said.
Not long after Lina vanished, community members joined the search, including Pamela Allen, the founder of Eagles Flight Advocacy & Outreach, a nonprofit that helps migrants in crises.
Dozens of volunteers spread across 30 miles of lush area along a creek in the Northwest section of the city, near where the Sardars live, looking for any clues or her remains, in the event that Lina had been abducted and killed. Each time area residents saw vultures flying, Allen would get a call and she would investigate, only to return empty-handed.
Living in the same place where Lina went missing has been wearying for the Sardars. Riaz Sardar is often out of town, driving for a living. His wife, who recently gave birth to a baby boy, Saud, and her older son are left behind to wonder what happened to Lina, who would now be 4.
From 2013 to 2019, Riaz Sardar, an Afghan soldier, worked alongside the Americans in the Khost province in southeastern Afghanistan. For his efforts, he was given a special visa to start a new life in the United States.
The Sardars visited a little more than a year ago and were reminded of the dangers they thought they left behind. Zarmeena Sardar recalled rushing to the airport in Kabul moments after learning that the U.S. forces had abruptly left the country, allowing for the Taliban to regain control. The scene at the airport was chaotic, with thousands of Afghans trying desperately to flee.
And when Lina collapsed feet away from the blast of the suicide bomber, her mother and relatives feared she was another casualty until the girl opened her eyes.
Now, in San Antonio, thoughts of Lina are a constant. Some nights Zarmeena Sardar dreams that Lina, looking scrawny, her skin darkened, calls out to her pleading for help. “When I wake up, she is not there,” she said.