PHILADELPHIA — The video arrived with a ding on Mohammad Sadeed’s phone as he sat in his small home here.
His wife and five children had sent it from the outskirts of Kabul’s airport, where they’d been standing for hours amid a teeming mass of Afghans struggling to enter the airport gates.
Among the tens of thousands trying to flee Afghanistan, Mohammad’s wife and children had a precious advantage: U.S. green cards in their passports.
But as he pressed play Thursday morning, Mohammad heard the rapid crack of gunshots from Taliban fighters. Some in the crowd yelled and scrambled for safety. Parents pulled their children to the ground for cover.
Mohammad, 40, frantically called his family. No one picked up. It was already late in the afternoon in Afghanistan, and he knew reception at the airport was bad. Finally, he reached his older brother, who was with Mohammad’s wife and children.
It was hard to hear over the crowd, and the connection didn’t last long.
He urged his brother to take his family back to the basement where they had been hiding.
“The situation is out of control,” Mohammad said. “I don’t want them forced into a decision that could be the difference between life and death.”
He never expected to face a crisis like this after all seven of them had moved to America in 2019. It had been Mohammad’s reward for working five years for the U.S. Embassy.
Then, in July, they flew back to Afghanistan to visit grandparents and relatives one last time before U.S. troops withdrew, in case the Taliban made it impossible to ever see them again. Mohammad had returned to Philadelphia ahead of his wife and children because of his job as an office manager for a refugee agency.
Ten days later, Kabul fell.
Now women and children were being trampled trying to reach the airport. Taliban fighters were whipping and kicking those in line, calling them traitors. And Mohammad realized how wrong he’d been about the green cards. They didn’t matter at all.
Throughout the morning, Mohammad watched and re-watched the video.
His wife and brother had spent hours fighting through the crowd with his children — ages 13, 11, 10, 7 and 4 — in tow. Despite their efforts, he could tell from the footage how far they remained from the American checkpoint, ringed with razor wire, where they might present their documents.
“I don’t see a way out for them,” he said as they abandoned the airport.
He stopped the video, unable to watch anymore.
When they left Afghanistan two years ago, Mohammad cried.
He was the youngest of four brothers, and his mother was furious with him. She was in such bad health from diabetes and other ailments that doctors would soon amputate her leg. Mohammad tried to reassure her: “I am leaving my house and giving everything to you and my brothers. Once I get to America, I will work hard and support you.”
“It is so easy,” she responded bitterly, “for you to say that and make your plans and go.”
She never forgave him. When she fell ill this summer, she told Mohammad, “If something happens to me, I’ve told your brothers not to tell you, because it’s clear you no longer think about me.”
So Mohammad booked a flight for July 17, fearing it might be his last chance to see her. When he told his wife, she was equally upset.
“Why are you going without us?” she demanded to know. “Do you think I don’t have parents? That I don’t miss them?”
Four days before his departure, he found six additional tickets for more than $6,000 — a price they could barely afford. The problem was the return flight.
President Joe Biden had announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of August. Mohammad was flying back Aug. 5. But the earliest flight back he could find for his family was in early September. Any sooner would cost thousands more.
Mohammad called several former Afghan colleagues at the U.S. Embassy. They passed on what they were hearing from their bosses — America’s top analysts and diplomats. The Taliban remained far away in the outer provinces. Even if the Afghan army faltered, it would take months for the militants to seize Kabul. So Mohammad bought the tickets.
Now, instead, the people he loved most were stranded at his family’s home in Kabul.
Many in the neighborhood knew Mohammad had collaborated for years with Western authorities. He had worked for the U.N. Refugee Agency, and four years for the Embassy of the Netherlands, then even longer at the U.S. Embassy as a travel manager for diplomats. To get the job, U.S. security officials had extensively interviewed friends and neighbors. People knew all about his job with the Americans even before he got it.
To protect his family, Mohammad asked The Washington Post to avoid showing his face, using the nickname by which most people in Kabul knew him or identifying his wife and children. Already, there had been clashes in their neighborhood between Taliban supporters and those deemed traitors. A friend’s nephew had been shot and killed.
Shortly after arriving in America, Mohammad took a job as an office manager for the refugee resettlement agency that helped him. And for months now, he had been assisting one Afghan family after another so they could create new lives in Philadelphia.
Now, all of them and their relatives in Afghanistan were calling him, asking for him to look over their documents, to get them onto the U.S. Embassy’s evacuation list or forward their information to Western officials.
For every person he helped, he pumped them in return for fresh intelligence — piecing together possible escape routes for his family from the other side of the world.
Some Afghans he talked to were dehydrated from camping for days outside the airport’s gates. A few parents were so desperate they tried to throw their children over the wall to U.S. troops. Others called on borrowed phones after watching theirs run out of battery — cutting off their only lifeline to the outside world.
But the hardest calls for Mohammad came late at night — early morning in Afghanistan — when there was enough internet bandwidth for his family to video-chat with him from their basement hideout. The night before, his youngest son had begged for Mohammad to save them.
“Why can’t you just buy a plane to bring us home? When will you buy this plane for us?” the 4-year-old had asked.
“He thinks it is a decision I’ve made not to bring him,” Mohammad sighed. As horrible as it made him feel as a father, he decided it was better than explaining to his son the danger surrounding them.
“I told my son, ‘I am collecting my money now. I will let you know when I have enough for the plane.'”
By the afternoon, Mohammad had come to a decision, which he shared with friends and relatives who had stopped by to try to cheer him up.
“I need to go back,” he told them.
His friends — who had been smoking, guzzling Monster energy drinks and fielding calls and texts from relatives in Afghanistan all afternoon with Mohammad — stared at him, shocked.
“You saw the crowds at the gate,” Mohammad said in his native Dari. “There’s no way my wife and children can get through all that without me.”
Sediq Azimi — a friend who had worked as a financial officer for the U.S. Embassy — was the first to speak up.
“That’s crazy. Even if you find a way to get in the country, how will you get back?” he asked.
Sediq had arrived in the United States six months earlier with his wife and five children. Mohammad had taken them in, somehow squeezing their large family and his own family into his tiny rowhouse for 15 nights.
Just before Kabul fell, another evacuated family — a distant cousin with three small children — had arrived and sought Mohammad’s help.
“Come stay with me,” Mohammad told his young cousin. “My house is empty. Treat it like your own.”
Now, the cousin, Sediq and others were shaking their heads, trying to talk Mohammad out of his ill-advised rescue plan.
“If I’m there in person, maybe I can use my connections with the Netherland and U.S. embassies,” Mohammad said. “They know me. They don’t know my family.”
“What about those who know you worked with the Americans?” Sediq argued. “It will only make it more dangerous for your family. Everyone in the village knows who you are.”
At that, Mohammad’s shoulders sagged, and he nodded to his friends in defeat.
“He hasn’t been sleeping,” said Fahim Sekandari, a barrel-chested man who’d worked in Kabul as a guard for the U.S. Embassy. For days now, Fahim had been stopping by — as late as 2 a.m. during his shifts as an Uber driver — to make sure Mohammad didn’t feel “crazy and alone.”
Even now, sitting beside him, Mohammad kept making calls and sending texts.
He reached out to his former supervisor at the Embassy of the Netherlands. The Dutch diplomat replied, expressing sympathy for his family’s plight, but said that because their visas were with the Americans, there was little his embassy could do. “I will keep my fingers xxx for your wife and kids,” his text message read.
He talked to friends in Kabul who had made it past the U.S. checkpoint and into the area controlled by the American military. They described chaos even inside the secured perimeter, with many sleeping on gravel night after night as they pleaded to be put on a plane.
He talked to the lucky ones who had finally been flown to an air base in Qatar. They sent him a photo of a crowded airport hangar where hordes of Afghans were now being housed.
“The conditions are not great,” they warned. “There is one bathroom and shower for thousands to share.”
His brother-in-law brought a dinner of Afghan flatbread stuffed with potatoes and leeks for them to share. As he ate, Mohammad scrolled through news updates on Facebook. The airport had only gotten more dangerous after Mohammad’s family left that morning, with reports of people being shot.
A video started playing on his Facebook feed — a CNN reporter, Clarissa Ward, describing threats from Taliban fighters that her crew had experienced at the airport.
“If you’re an ordinary Afghan trying to get past those Taliban guards and trying to get into the airport. I mean, I don’t see how you’re able to do it,” the reporter concluded. “It’s their last hope. But, frankly . . . there’s no real hope.”
Mohammad thought about the expensive tickets he had bought the month before. The return flight was scheduled for early September, more than two weeks away. It was unclear when commercial flights would resume, but that now seemed like his family’s best and perhaps only chance for escape.
But could they stay safe for two more weeks and somehow get into the airport to catch that flight?
He told himself they would.
As night fell, Mohammad was alone again.
Pulling out a small rug, he knelt to say his evening prayers.
“In the name of Allah, the gracious, the merciful,” he whispered in Arabic. “Upon you we call for help. Guide us to the straight path. The path of those you have blessed.”
He checked Facebook Messenger to see whether his family was awake yet. It was still 4 a.m. on Friday there. No one yet.
As he waited, he rummaged through his bedroom closet, pulling out mementos of his old life in Afghanistan.
He kept a record of every bill he’d spent on his education — the course in English that he took in secret, his college tuition, training courses for work.
He’d planned to show it to his two daughters next year to inspire them as they prepared for high school. To prove that if they studied and worked hard, they could build a road for themselves out of any situation, like he had.
Now, as he leafed through the receipts, he couldn’t help but think how dark their future would be if they remained trapped in Afghanistan. Mohammad’s wife had grown up under the Taliban in the 1990s, when girls were banned from school. To this day she could not read or write even in Dari, their native language.
The night before, after the sluggish internet in Kabul cut off their video chat, Mohammad’s wife had sent him texts through their 11-year-old daughter. Even in those secondhand messages, Mohammad could tell how rattled his wife was from their morning at the airport.
“Father, mom says to tell you we don’t want to come through a military flight. The situation is not good.”
Before the video cut them off, his wife had commented on how haggard Mohammad looked — with his unkempt hair and shaggy gray beard.
“Are you not sleeping, husband?” she had asked. “Please don’t worry about us. Everything will be fine. You must take care of yourself.”
So, as he waited for his family to wake up 6,800 miles away, he showered and shaved off his beard, not wanting them to worry. And he decided that he would take a completely different approach to their conversation that night — avoiding all talk of the airport, of escape routes and evacuation.
When he called his wife’s phone, the video opened on his 4-year-old’s face. The boy’s eyes were closed, but Mohammad could see the beginnings of a smile on his lips.
“Are you asleep or awake?” Mohammad asked.
“Half and half,” his son laughed.
“How does that happen?” he joked back. “Your eyes are asleep but your belly is awake?”
He talked to his daughter about new glasses she was wearing. He talked to his wife about the cousin’s family now staying at their house. For a half-hour, they talked about everything except for the one thing on all their minds.
Mohammad could tell his wife had come to the same decision he had before their call. When he asked his daughter whether she missed him, she answered all too quickly, as if she’d been coached. “No, it’s OK. I have my uncles here.”
He knew they were trying to protect him as much as he was trying to protect them.
After the call ended, Mohammad slumped down on the carpet of his bedroom floor.
Beside him sat the empty crib of his youngest child.