“Look at this man… he worked for British forces,” shouted one Taliban fighter, as a group of them began to beat Ahmad in front of his screaming wife and children.
It was 15 August 2021. The family were at the entrance to Kabul airport, trying to get on to an evacuation flight. They’d been met with scenes of chaos as thousands of other Afghans tried to get out of the country.
To get to Western troops, Ahmad had to get past the Taliban at the airport entrance – the same people he was trying to escape.
Taliban fighters stopped him, asking to see his passport. As they were searched, Ahmad was anxious – his military records from his time working with British forces in Helmand Province were hidden in the bottom of his bag.
There was a tense pause as the family’s possessions were checked. The inevitable happened – one of the fighters pulled out Ahmad’s documents, seeing they featured printed army insignias and Union Jacks.
He was instantly knocked to the ground and beaten in front of his wife and children. He was just 20 metres from British troops – his former colleagues.
“Stop!” screamed his wife but the fighters continued pounding Ahmad, leaving him with bruises and scratches across his back.
Ahmad’s five years working for the army had ended in 2014 when it withdrew from Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, the centre of the British presence in Afghanistan. His work, especially in helping communicate with captured fighters, made him a target.
That is why on 6 August last year, with the Taliban entering his home city of Kunduz in the north, Ahmad decided his family would be safer in Kabul, which was yet to fall.
He drove them the 200 miles (322km) to the capital, in hope of escaping on an evacuation flight.
Safety was their only priority. “We were thinking about how we can stay alive, how we can save ourselves,” he said.
The beating didn’t deter Ahmad’s family. For 10 days they tried and failed to get on to an evacuation flight, spending days in the baking Kabul sun.
One day they came agonisingly close, being picked out of the crowd by a British soldier when Ahmad said he was a former interpreter eligible for the evacuation flights. Before his family could move forward, a stampede of people caused chaos at the gates, moving the family away from safety once again.
During the 12 months after failing to get a flight out of Kabul, Ahmad spoke to Sky News, to tell of his long and treacherous journey to safety.
His name has been changed and some details omitted in order to protect those in Afghanistan that helped him escape.
Ahmad believes the UK government “didn’t have a plan to specifically help interpreters … they told people to go to the airport, but it was rushed full of people, so many people were there”.
“So many interpreters got left behind because they couldn’t find a way to get there safely.”
A foreign affairs select committee investigation found “systemic failures” by the Foreign Office during the organisation of the withdrawal.
Facebook death threats
A terror threat at the airport prompted Ahmad to stop trying to get a place on a plane. This decision arguably saved his life. That day, 26 August, IS-K attacked the area – killing at least 170 civilians and 13 US marines.
But he wasn’t out of danger. A post on Facebook, by a Taliban member he helped detain in Helmand, identified him as a former British interpreter, sparking a series of death threats to both him and his family.
With little prospect of an evacuation flight, and now openly targeted by the Taliban, Ahmad resolved to find another way out of Afghanistan. He drove north, to the Uzbekistan border.
Smuggled to Uzbekistan
It was now early September and Ahmad and his family were waiting in a small village on the Amu Darya River, a natural border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
His sister in Turkey had paid $600 for them to cross the border with people smugglers – $100 for each family member’s chance at safety.
They waited for days on the river bank until a particularly dark night, two days before the new moon. All six were crammed into a small dinghy and began to paddle.
“It was very scary.” Ahmad said, but a risk he had to take.
Suddenly a gunshot broke the tension. Border guards in Uzbekistan had spotted the boat and were firing on it.
Ahmad was filled with fear for his family but the smugglers continued, landing on the Uzbekistan side of the river. The guards surrounded the boat and quickly moved the family back over the border.
Detained, beaten and tortured
After two failed escape attempts. Ahmad lived for months in a village away from his family, using medical skills learnt when working with the British Army to work in a pharmacy.
This relative respite was shattered in late December during one visit to his family near Mazar-i-Sharif.
The Taliban were searching homes in the village, just metres from Ahmad.
He panicked, deleting everything on his phone linked to his work as an interpreter – every photo, video, and message from his former life.
Minutes later, several Taliban fighters stormed the room, and he was taken to a local police station.
There he was detained in a cramped cell with other men accused of previously working for Western forces.
Through initial rounds of questioning Ahmad insisted he was simply a local pharmacist.
“I showed them my medical documents, I showed them pictures from the pharmacy, and I told them to go and ask local people because I was a doctor.”
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He was moved to Kabul, where his questioning continued.
For 17 days he was beaten and tortured. He says that the Taliban would electrocute him while continually questioning him. He now struggles to reflect on those days spent in a cell, simply calling it a “very bad situation”.
Ahmad said at night men with documents linking them to Western forces were taken away and he never saw them again. He assumes they were killed.
In January, the UN said there were “credible allegations” that the Taliban had killed at least 100 former government officials, security forces and interpreters in the five months since they took power.
Ahmad wasn’t one of them. His family and village elders successfully petitioned for his release. He went into hiding nearby to his family.
Safety in Iran
Until July 2022 Ahmad lived a quiet existence, when he received the worst news. The Taliban had beaten his wife and children for refusing to say where he was.
They were accusing him of being responsible for the death of Taliban fighters while working with British forces.
For months, coming out of hiding was too risky but Ahmad had to get his family to safety. They spent days crossing Afghanistan, heading west to the Iranian border.
They crossed into Iran on 12 August – a year after the family failed to get on to an evacuation flight in Kabul.
For the first time in 12 months, they could envision a future without fear of the Taliban.