Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Santa Fe man escapes Afghanistan

Ali Azimi, here in Afghanistan, on the day he fled a military compound in a helicopter. KINDNESS / Ali Azimi

A New Mexico man stuck in Afghanistan when the country fell to the Taliban is back home after being brought to safety in a spy hood the days before American troops left the country played.

Ali Azimi, who was born in Afghanistan and has lived in Santa Fe since 2015, was stuck in a traffic jam in Kabul in mid-August, where he was working as a consultant for a bank on a planned hydropower project in the country.

During this time, cities and regions of the country fell to the Taliban, who came back to power after a 20-year war before US troops left the country. When the group took control of Kabul in mid-August, Azimi decided to leave the country.

But thousands of people from the rural areas had streamed into Kabul for days and caused chaos at the airport. Azimi tried to have a driver take him to the airport around August 20, but he never made it to the entrance because it was too dangerous to navigate the thousands of panicked people around the airport.

“So I came home and was kind of in a (anxious) state,” he said in an interview. “I couldn’t understand how did that happen?”

It wasn’t long before Azimi said he had received a call from an unknown number and a woman on the phone asked him if he wanted to return to America.

“She said, ‘We have a code word for you. The code word is Beirut. ‘ Someone will call you and you … answer with the code word, “Azimi said.

An hour later, Azimi received a text message asking if he wanted to go to Beirut.

“Yeah, I think Beirut has great restaurants,” he wrote back.

Development of Afghanistan

Azimi was born in Afghanistan and grew up in India. He was educated in America and received a PhD in environmental science.

Since the Taliban fell into US forces in 2002, Azimi has traveled to Afghanistan regularly to work as a consultant for various groups, usually on renewable energy projects aimed at energizing huge rural villages across the country supply. He also helped develop the country’s first national parks.

“I was just fascinated by the friendliness and generosity of the (Afghan) people,” he said. “And my (intention) has always been to return to Afghanistan to help these people participate in its development.”

Azimi arrived in Afghanistan on July 17 for a hydropower project that was delayed because others involved in the work could not get to Afghanistan on time. Then the Taliban began to come back to power.

Leave Afghanistan

After giving the code word, Azimi was instructed to go to a specific location and meet an Afghan who would take him to an American base. He was told to put his clothes in small carry-on bags and to dress in traditional Afghan clothes, unlike Western clothes.

The instructions led him to a truck that drove him to Eagle Base, a Central Intelligence Agency site on the outskirts of Kabul.

The New York Times reported last week that the site where the CIA trained Afghan counterterrorism units was the hub of the country’s clandestine evacuation efforts in the days leading up to the troop withdrawal.

Passengers who left Afghanistan on August 26th. Ali Azimi, a man from Santa Fe on board, took the photo. Courtesy / Ali Azimi.

The Times reported that three Mi-17 helicopters made at least 35 flights at or at the time after the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15.

Azimi was one of them.

He said when he got to the base he met two American men in Western clothing who were coordinating the evacuation. They never identified which agency they worked for, Azimi said.

He had to give the Americans his passport and phone while he was at the base and was told to wait in a small room for the day food was brought to him.

Azimi said he was waiting in the room when explosions went off around the base. He asked one of the Americans what kind of noise that was.

“He said, ‘We are just warning the Taliban that we are fine,’ but in reality they blew up sensitive equipment in the base,” said Azimi.

That night, Azimi and others at the base were flown to the airport by helicopter, where he boarded a plane to Qatar at around 2 a.m. on August 26.

Hours later, a suicide explosion outside the airport carried out by an Islamic State partner killed 13 American soldiers and around 170 Afghans.

After years of working on Afghanistan’s development, Azimi said it was depressing to hear how quickly the country had fallen back under Taliban control.

The Taliban enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law. For example, women are restricted from work and school under Taliban rule.

Other problems also persist for the country, said Azimi. He said Afghan citizens have no access to money from banks and the prices of goods are rising rapidly. And it all happens while Afghans face an uncertain future.

“I am very sad,” he said. “I have contact with former colleagues and it is a desperate situation.”

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