‘I’m lucky I’m not there’: Afghan bomb expert safe in Boise, among first wave of refugees
Kevin Fixler, Idaho Statesman
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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Wadded up in a crumpled piece of notebook paper among Akhtar Silab’s limited possessions is an assortment of cellphone SIM cards that made their way with him from Afghanistan to Boise and contain the many memories from a now-past life half a world away.
The miniature memory chips together hold a decade’s worth of photographs and videos from the 20-year American conflict in Silab’s home nation, which came to an abrupt end last month. They include his numerous wartime triumphs slinking in and out of rudimentary tunnels to detonate roadside bombs intended for United States military vehicles. And, as if locked in time, they also contain pictures of him with fellow troops and American commanders working to rid Silab’s country of Islamic extremists, including the Taliban.
This month, from the once-unthinkable calm and safety of a Boise hotel, Silab reflected upon the renewed dangers in Afghanistan for his family and countrymen, who find themselves once more under Taliban rule.
“Everything there now is really bad,” Silab said after finishing a cigarette, donning the same thick beard and shoulder-length black hair from his days in battle. “With the Taliban, everything stops. … Everything is blocked. This (is) not good for my people, my Afghanistan people. Many, many will be killed.”
Silab, 30, along with his wife and their toddler, were some of the fortunate ones among the estimated 100,000 at-risk Afghans who got out ahead of the Aug. 30 U.S. pullout. Since that time, the Taliban have taken control of the Kabul airport and prevented several international flights from departing. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said regime leadership has claimed that many Afghans who already had approval to head to America lacked proper documentation to leave the country.
Despite the Taliban’s efforts to hunt down and halt exit to former members of the Afghan armed forces, as well as interpreters, translators and others who helped the U.S. military, the Silabs escaped. As a decorated member of the Afghan Army special forces who led a unit trained in removing landmines from critical routes, Silab was prioritized to depart Afghanistan through a special American visa program.
Idaho this year has welcomed 37 Afghans who fled their nation, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees, to either Boise or Twin Falls. With tens of thousands more seeking asylum, the Biden administration included the two cities among a list of almost 140 locations across the U.S. designated for Afghan refugee resettlement, according to Gov. Brad Little’s office.
More than half of those Afghan refugees who arrived to Idaho have come since the end of July, just ahead of the American-backed government’s collapse. Nine of those individuals came through the special immigration visa program that also offered Silab and his family entry into the country.
Even so, Silab’s journey was hardly straightforward, or free from suffering.
In June, Silab, his wife, his child and his brother’s family were traveling between Kabul and his home about three hours south in the Paktia Province for interviews at the U.S. Embassy. They made the scheduled trip to finalize their visas. Upon their return, Silab said the Taliban ambushed their vehicle; his wife, Brishna, was struck by a bullet on her left side, leading to more than two weeks of treatment in a Kabul hospital.
His brother’s wife was also shot in the neck, Silab said, and a bullet passed through the back of Silab’s 11-month-old nephew. Both survived, though he said shrapnel in his sister-in-law’s throat has required additional medical care in California, where his brother’s family arrived a few weeks before Silab made it to the U.S. in mid-August.
‘I’M LUCKY I’M NOT’ IN AFGHANISTAN
Rising through the ranks of the Afghan military after enlisting in 2011, Silab became accustomed to the constant violence of what seemed an endless war. That reality is depicted in the countless pieces of data stored between a small hard drive and his collection of interchangeable phone memory cards.
“Important. Everything is here,” he said. “The videos, the pictures. Many, many stuff.”
Silab was twice injured during missions alongside American troops, including in 2016, when he was awarded a certificate representing the U.S. military’s Purple Heart for suffering wounds while working against combatants. Three years earlier, Silab said he was hurt in a bomb attack on the family home, where he lived with his parents and his eight brothers.
Such clandestine assaults, Silab said, increased with frequency in recent months as the Taliban came out from hiding while the U.S. approached its permanent withdrawal. He said regularly swapping residences became a necessary survival tactic; wearing a bulletproof vest became a way of life.
“I’m changing homes all the time,” Silab said. “The last two months, a lot of people were targets. It’s not just me. They’d say, ‘Where’s Akhtar? He worked for the Americans.’ … No, this is my country. I worked for my country.”
For Silab, the lingering threats back home conjure the November 2018 deaths in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province of four American troops with whom he trained and developed strong bonds. During an interview with the Idaho Statesman, Silab wore customary tiger-striped Afghan military pants, as well as a black T-shirt honoring his fallen friends, with a white viking logo on the back reading: “Victory or Valhalla.”
Among the Americans killed in the improvised bomb explosion of their heavily armored vehicle were a pair of Army Green Berets: Capt. Andrew Ross, 29, of Lexington, Virginia, on his second overseas tour, and Sgt. First Class Eric Emond, 39, a 21-year military veteran of Aberdeen, North Carolina, serving in his seventh combat deployment, according to their respective obituaries. Silab said he hopes to locate members of their families to pay his respects now that he is living in America.
“We were one team, like one family. This is my brother,” Silab said, choked up with emotion while looking at a picture of Emond he kept inside a leather folder holding all of the documents he brought with him to Boise. “A lot of my friends were killed there. This was a very bad day. F— that day.”
Still, the heartache has rarely ceased for Silab and his family. Last month, just a week before he and his wife received final approval to go to the Kabul airport for an initial flight to Qatar, the Taliban shot and killed another of his brothers in an evening raid on the family home, he said.
Then, on Aug. 26, about two weeks after Silab and his family arrived in Boise after one-night stays in Washington, D.C., and Texas, a suicide bombing attack rocked the Kabul airport. Among the more than 100 people reported killed were 13 U.S. service members, as well as one of Silab’s close friends who served on his specialized mine detecting unit, and three other former members of the Afghan military he also knew.
“This is really bad. He’s coming to the United States, like, had his documents, it’s done. He was just waiting for a flight,” Silab said of his close friend. “I’m lucky I’m not there.”
MANY MORE AWAIT AMERICAN REFUGE
As many as 300,000 additional Afghan civilians are desperately searching for ways out of the country, according to the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit with an office in Boise that works to resettle refugees. So far, the Taliban have not followed through on their pledge to the international community to grant exit from Afghanistan, including safe passage to the Kabul airport, to those who wish to leave.
Silab was part of an initial wave of refugees who escaped while armed American troops were still on the ground, with the help of Boise-based nonprofit Agency for New Americans. Future departures for Afghans who fear Taliban retribution are expected to require diplomacy and stepped-up pressure from the leaders of Western nations.
Up to 400 more Afghan refugees are expected to arrive in Idaho through next summer, joining the roughly 850 Afghans who have come to the state since 2000, according to the Idaho Office for Refugees.
“… Our hearts continue to go out to all Americans and Afghan allies who have sacrificed throughout the conflict. It is our nation’s responsibility to provide safety to those who have stood alongside American in even the most difficult times,” reads a Sept. 10 letter to President Biden, signed by Little and Idaho’s U.S. congressional delegation. “Idaho has a long history of helping those who face persecution and life-threatening circumstances due to their religious beliefs, ethnicity or other political affiliations.”
The push to relocate Afghan nationals like Silab, who are aligned with the U.S. and contributed to the war effort, has only increased in urgency since the Taliban regained control. The risks they took, including many personal losses, deserve to be rewarded, with the U.S. making good on its promises to provide them and their families safe harbor, said Yasmin Aguilar, an immigration specialist with the Agency for New Americans.
“These people are seeking safety,” said Aguilar, herself an Afghan refugee who arrived in Boise in fall 2000. “Each of these people worked hard with the soldiers and saved the lives of even some of them. That’s what I hear from some of the veterans. The community should welcome them as they look to call this place home.”
Silab specifically requested Boise, following a friend who arrived a couple of years before him — a man he commanded in the Afghan National Army. Silab said he appreciates the size of the city — not too big — and the fact he already has a connection or two here while navigating a brand-new experience with his young family.
“I like Boise. Everything here is nice, like for my safety,” Silab said. “For my safety, America is good. No fight, nothing there, no bad people. I like the people.”
Instead of each day dodging gunfire or identifying primitive explosives bored into the sides of roadways, Silab is already at work attending courses to improve his command of the English language. He aims to quickly get a good job and reconstruct his life with Brishna and their son, Samiullah, who on a September afternoon ran around the hotel grounds outfitted in his own mini-military fatigues. “My little soldier,” Silab said.
But as the Taliban increases its influence and impacts on those back in Afghanistan, Silab can’t help but think of his family and friends still there. He said there were mementos and other records from his distinguished military career that couldn’t fit on his mobile phone memory cards and had to be left behind. He directed his father to discard them out of concerns they would be found and his family would pay with their lives.
Silab said he has intentions of stepping foot in Afghanistan again, and hopes the situation there changes over time so he may do so. For now, he plans to spend downtime lending whatever help he can to family that has yet to make it out, while also embarking upon a fresh start in a new land more than 7,000 miles away.
“My mind is there, my heart is there. Their lives are in danger,” he said. “I’m new here. A new life. A lot of things starting from zero. … Maybe one day my day’s coming and I’ll come back to my home. One day, I think, yes. Maybe Taliban change regime, maybe I go back — one day.”