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Thousands Of Afghans Likely Stuck Near Mazir-i-Sharif Airport, Trying To Flee

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Washington, where Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers today the U.S. is continuing what he called relentless efforts to help remaining Americans and Afghans who want to leave get out of Afghanistan. Many are navigating circuitous routes and Taliban checkpoints to try to do that. Today, I spoke with one of them - an Afghan man who, for his safety, we are identifying by his first name only, Mohammed. He says he worked for years for private security companies. He was based in Kabul, doing jobs for many Western organizations until the Taliban took over last month.

MOHAMMED: The Taliban - they came to my door and they were asking for money, even, like, weapons or other things. That's why I couldn't go to home.

KELLY: Mohammed's home became his car. He drove around trying to evade Taliban forces. He tried to escape on a flight out of Kabul. But like so many others, he could not get inside the airport. Eventually, with the help of a team of American veterans, he says he drove north to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which is where we caught up with him at a guesthouse waiting for a flight out with his sister and young nephew.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Vocalizing).

KELLY: I hear - is that the...

MOHAMMED: Go ahead.

KELLY: ...Baby behind you?

MOHAMMED: Yeah, the baby's here.

KELLY: How old is he?

MOHAMMED: He is 10 months.

KELLY: Mohammed has applied for a U.S. SIV - special immigrant visa. He's waiting to hear back. I asked him what he fears will happen if he cannot get out of Afghanistan.

MOHAMMED: It's very dangerous for me. The Taliban told me they will kill me on that day. They will not stop. I know that.

KELLY: And you're hoping to get on a plane and leave the country.

MOHAMMED: Exactly.

KELLY: What is stopping you? Can you tell? Is it the Taliban won't let the planes take off, is it that other countries won't let them land, or do you even know?

MOHAMMED: It is - it's not just me. There's a lot of people that are living here right now here in the guesthouse with me. They are waiting for the plane or they are waiting for the last discussion. Who is going to deal with the Taliban and the U.S.? And we are under order here to stay in the guesthouse. If they want me to go maybe by land exit, I will be able to land exit as well.

KELLY: How many people are in the guesthouse with you?

MOHAMMED: I think around 70 people are living here now with me.

KELLY: Seventy - seven zero?

MOHAMMED: Yeah, seven zero. In Mazar-i-Sharif, I guess it is more than 1,000 people all are waiting for the plane or they are waiting for the last decision...

KELLY: Yeah.

MOHAMMED: ...After evacuation team to make for them.

KELLY: So the plane could take off - what? It could take off in an hour. It could never take off. Do you know?

MOHAMMED: Exactly. I don't know that. Exactly. If the time the plane will be ready, then the team will call me to be ready to go.

KELLY: If you get on the plane, do you know where you're going?

MOHAMMED: I don't know. And my first priority is - anywhere it's going to be, for me, it's OK. It's going to be OK for me. I want to just get out from Afghanistan, and that's it.

KELLY: So I'm just trying to imagine what it's like to be in your situation. Every morning you wake up, you try to find out if there's any news. And you're just every day hoping, hoping that there's a plane that will take you somewhere.

MOHAMMED: Believe me, I don't have a good sleep. Like, 1 o'clock and 2 o'clock, I'm always watching, like, online news. And when I wake up from the morning, the first thing that I do is I'm checking my emails, my text messages, and I'm looking for a hope. But until now, nothing happened.

KELLY: Looking for hope, but until now, nothing has happened.

MOHAMMED: No, no. No. No. I'm a security specialist, and I have a lot of ability. I have many resources. And never I have faced like this problem because I have ability to just solve the problems. But it is something else, which is I'm stuck in between in these problems. I don't know how to solve this problem.

KELLY: Just stacking up piles of different problems, yeah.

MOHAMMED: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: Are you scared?

MOHAMMED: Oh, of course I'm scared because I have my family - my mother, my sisters. I've got two young sisters at home. And I have got six kids. I have my wife. Even I can't call them by cellphone because I don't want to send - like, Talibans track my phone. And my kids are missed me, so it is a lot of things that scare for me. Yeah.

KELLY: You're worried about the Taliban tracking another phone in Afghanistan where your family is and maybe be able to track them down.

MOHAMMED: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah.

MOHAMMED: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.

KELLY: Oh, that's terrifying. I'm sorry.

MOHAMMED: I'm going to...

KELLY: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Vocalizing).

KELLY: And I can hear your nephew behind you. Well, thank you. We wish you luck. And we really appreciate your telling us a little bit of your story. Thank you, Mohammed.

MOHAMMED: No problem. Anytime. Just I want to say once again, thank you for you guys as well to taking care of these people left behind in Afghanistan like me. And there is not just me and my family. A thousand of Afghans who work for the U.S. government, who work for the NATO, they are left behind. Please help those guys who are deserved for that, for the SIV or for the evacuation. Please help them.

KELLY: Mohammed, thank you.

MOHAMMED: You're welcome.

KELLY: He was speaking to us from a guesthouse in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, where he and his sister and her son are waiting, trying to board a flight out of Afghanistan. Listening along to that, our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, Mohammed says it's an American evacuation team that is helping him. To be clear, this is not an official U.S. government team, right? Who are these guys?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Yeah, that's right. It's not an official U.S. government effort. This is a loose network, Mary Louise, of former Marines, Green Berets, intelligence experts and others working to get people out either by flights or even roads into the former Soviet republics to the North. They've been working in Afghanistan, of course, for many years on multiple deployments, so they have a lot of contacts on the ground - tribal chiefs and others.

Now, everyone in Afghanistan has a cell phone, so it's fairly easy to keep in touch and coordinate efforts. So they would likely work with the Taliban on flights, this network, since the Taliban control the airports. Or secretly, they could get people over land through out-of-the-way places or mountain passes with the help of these tribes and others. Now, someone described it to me as being akin to World War II, when allied pilots or underground agents were moved out of, let's say, France over the mountains into Spain. That's kind of the effort that's underway now.

KELLY: Yeah. And stay with that geography for a second because we've heard so much about the bottlenecks at the Kabul airport. Mohammed, again, he's near the Mazar-i-Sharif airport, which is how far?

BOWMAN: Well, it's roughly six hours on a good day to Mazar-i-Sharif. You go through fields. You go through the mountains, through a long tunnel into Mazar-i-Sharif. Again, six hours away or so. But the problem now is, of course, there are a lot of Taliban checkpoints.

KELLY: Yeah.

BOWMAN: So if you're a bunch of guys in a car, you're going to have a lot of trouble getting through the checkpoint. If you're, let's say, a male like Mohammed with a family, with a wife and kids, it might be a bit easier. There won't be as many questions.

KELLY: And fact-check that number he gave us - that there are a thousand or more people like him in Mazar, in hiding, waiting on a plane. Does that square with your reporting?

BOWMAN: It does - at least a thousand. And this network I'm in touch with say they are tracking - get this - 7,000 Afghans they are trying to get out, and all over the country. But a lot of them now are really stuck in Mazar-i-Sharif. They just can't seem to get out.

KELLY: And can you shed any light on that question I put to him? What is holding up flights?

BOWMAN: You know, we don't know. Satellite imagery shows at least six commercial aircraft on the ground. We don't know what the holdup is with the Taliban. I am told it's possible this week we could see another flight get out of Kabul airport. But now a lot of this is people getting out have valid documents, passports, visas and official documents. But a lot of people don't have that kind of information. It's going to be difficult to get out, even if they were allowed to board a flight. It's a desperate situation for Mohammed and thousands of others.

KELLY: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.