The last few weeks should have been among the happiest of Safia’s life. She was supposed to be a new bride by now, on her way to a new life.
Instead, the collapse of Afghanistan and the internment in Tajikistan of her fiancé, a former Afghan Air Force pilot, have turned her dream into an ongoing nightmare.
Safia, a Canadian citizen of Afghan origin, told her story to CBC News on the condition that she be identified only by a pseudonym in order to protect her relatives and those of her fiancé, who are still trapped in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Their wedding had been scheduled for the first week of September in Afghanistan. The couple had carried out a long-distance relationship after meeting in the United Arab Emirates just before the pandemic. She had planned to sponsor him to become a Canadian citizen after his military service was completed.
‘I was terrified’
Instead, Safia spent August watching in horror as the western-backed government of former president Ashraf Ghani dissolved and the hardline Islamist Taliban returned to power.
“I was terrified,” she said, describing the day Kabul fell. “I kept messaging that day back and forth and calling.”
Her fiancé tried to calm her down by saying the U.S. military would evacuate the Afghan pilots. Those pilots had been targets of a Taliban assassination campaign throughout the summer, and there was every reason to believe that those captured in the aftermath of the government’s collapse would be slaughtered.
It was sheer luck that Safia’s fiancé was still at the military airbase in Kabul on the day the government fell. He was off duty and should have been home.
Instead, he and dozens of other pilots and ground crew staged a desperate, last-minute escape, fleeing the capital in their aircraft on Aug. 15. Hundreds of former Afghan air force members made it to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Safia, who was used to getting daily texts and chats from her fiancé, was suddenly faced with an ominous silence.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “I was scared for him and had no idea what had happened to him.”
Her fear only deepened as she watched the horrific images of Afghans clinging to the wheels of departing American transport planes and falling to their deaths.
“My family was comforting me and telling me it was going to be OK, but I had so many different thoughts going through my head,” she said.
“I will never forget that night. It was probably the scariest night of my life.”
Eventually, she discovered he had made it to Tajikistan. That led to frantic efforts to get in touch with him and to put his plight and that of the other interned pilots before the Canadian government.
Some of the pilots managed to avoid having their phones confiscated by Tajik intelligence and border authorities. The young couple was able to connect through a borrowed device.
“The first time we talked, it was such a relief. I think I talked less and cried more,” Safia said.
CBC News has elected not to identify her fiancé because of his internment near the Tajik capital of Dushanbe and the risk that he and the other interned pilots could be handed over to the Taliban. His identity has been verified separately through U.S. military training records.
CBC News was the first to report on the daring escape of over a dozen former Afghan military fliers and their plea for asylum in Canada.
Safia has been furiously emailing and calling multiple federal departments and international agencies, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
‘I expected so much more’ from Ottawa
She said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office told her it was an immigration matter, while Immigration Canada said her fiancé does not qualify under the special resettlement program introduced at the end July for Afghans who had a direct relationship with Canada’s former mission in Afghanistan.
“Of course he doesn’t fall under that, but that doesn’t mean Canada should not help. Canada should be responding to this as well,” said Safia, who added she’s deeply disappointed by the response from her government.
“I expected so much more from them.”
A second immigration measure introduced by the Liberal government — which aims to bring up to 40,000 at-risk Afghan refugees to Canada — might be an option for her fiancé. But he remains in Tajik custody, with no access to the internet and no way to apply.
Safia is not the only Canadian with a connection to the stranded pilots. The uncle of another flier spoke to CBC News last month. He said he’s also struggled to get the attention of Canadian government officials since the crisis erupted.
A group of U.S. veterans who have banded together to lobby Congress and the State Department to help the Afghan military pilots has been in touch with the men daily through various means.
Frustrated hopes, low morale
Former U.S. Air Force brigadier-general Dave Hicks commanded the military air training mission in Kabul in 2017 and is part of the non-profit group OpSacredPromise, which is attempting to help resettle former Afghan air force personnel. He said it has been a long, tough road for the interned pilots over the last several months, and their morale is low.
Just under 500 former Afghan air force pilots, ground crew and other military personnel were evacuated from Uzbekistan last month.
Hicks said efforts to extricate the fliers from Tajikistan have been more complicated at the diplomatic level.
“There have been times when we were kind of hopeful, only to be disappointed more than once,” Hicks told CBC News. “It is the kind of situation where we have to let diplomacy play itself out.”
He said he and his comrades have taken heart from the fact that the pilots have undergone preliminary biometric scans and fingerprinting in preparation for travel to the U.S.