A U.S. woman who fought through a smoke bomb and gunfire to escape Kabul has been left shocked and traumatized at the Biden administration’s failure to keep Americans in the loop ahead of their botched evacuation.
Aria Raofi, from San Diego, California, registered with the State Department before spending the last year in Kabul operating a school for Internally Displaced People. She had no idea that Americans were supposed to evacuate and messaged the U.S. Embassy many times during the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
“It took a long time for them to message me, and finally they replied, not to inform me about the danger to evacuate, but rather to say they were no longer in Kabul and directed me to a vague website,” Raofi told the Washington Examiner. “I had to go through the beatings, the gunfire, and being gassed so I could leave.”
It took Raofi three days working her way up to the airport gates with her blue U.S. passport. Each day, she went back home, giving up because it was too hard. On the third day, she figured it would never get better, and, buoyed by Facebook friends urging her on, she plunged headlong in the throng, determined to reach the gate this time.
She wasn’t alone. American contractors, including many from the embassy, had to go through the gauntlet.
“The administration kept informing people in the U.S. that people who were trapped could get out, but that was not the truth,” she said.
“I met many U.S. contractors at the airport, and the embassy workers told me they had to fend for themselves upon discovering one morning that upper-level management had escaped without telling the rest of the staff.”
On Aug. 24, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a press conference that every “enrolled” American had been notified of the evacuation since Aug. 14, often multiple times. In past statements, he listed a series of dates when notifications went out.
But Raofi knew none of this on Aug. 17 when there was a strange vibe in Kabul. She went to check on her school, which was a 30-minute drive from her upper-middle-class apartment complex where many American government workers lived.
On the outskirts of Kabul, she saw a tank driving down the street, manned by a soldier with long hair. Instantly, she thought it was a Taliban member and was shocked that they could infiltrate Kabul, which had NATO-trained forces. Her return home took four hours as the entire population seemingly was fleeing.
“I see massive traffic, people with suitcases running. I saw so much fear on everybody’s face — people looked like ghosts,” she said. “People had sheets, clothes, everything they owned on top of cars.”
Raofi employed a driver who helped her navigate the streets of Kabul. She called him at 4 a.m. and begged him to take her to the airport.
“He said Kabul is taken over by the Taliban, and the checkpoint in front of your apartment, there is chaos on the streets and no way to go anywhere,” Raofi said. “But he desperately wanted to help me and got to my place at 6:30 a.m. The street was packed with people. There were gunfights and fires and people running.”
Raofi got out of the car and ran toward the airport. She blended in with a family containing men so she would not be accosted by the Taliban. She made it to a gate and called a Facebook friend who was monitoring the situation from America, who tried guiding her.
“Where are the U.S military? Where are they?” Raofi asked. “She said they are there. I said, ‘They are not here. Where are they? Tell me where to go?’ She couldn’t figure it out.”
A man in front of Raofi tried to climb the wall and was shot. She went home and tried the next day. This time, she made it to the Abbey gate, where 13 American soldiers would later be killed by a suicide bomber.
“I actually saw a U.S. Marine sitting on top of the gate, which was closed. He was shaking his head yes or no if you are allowed in, but you have to climb over the wall,” Raofi said. She got his attention and an affirmative nod but had no way to climb the wall. She returned home again.
The next day Raofi knew she had to succeed. Together, with her driver, they melded into the crowd and came upon a Taliban checkpoint where she showed her passport, believing President Joe Biden’s statements that they were assisting with the evacuation.
Instead, the Taliban member violently ran toward her and tried to beat her with a stick. Raofi and her driver ran toward the gate and saw another Taliban member with a machine gun, who used the weapon to club her driver, breaking his arm. He came after her to beat her with the machine gun, but she ran into the crowd, where he lost track of her.
“I started screaming to distract him, and he started chasing me,” Raofi said. Pushing into the crowd, Raofi found herself standing near a Marine outside Abbey gate. She showed him her passport, but he refused to wave her inside.
“I started begging and begging and begging,” she said. The Marine had an interpreter standing nearby, and Raofi said in Farsi, “’Please tell him. I am an American. This is not my home.’ The U.S. soldier said, ‘OK. Come inside.’”
Her fellow passengers were grateful to be leaving but angry at Biden over the evacuation process, she said. Once she arrived in Qatar, Raofi angrily spoke to a State Department employee who inquired about her welfare.
“I said, ‘How could you do this? If you are there 20 years, you could stay one month until you get everyone out?’” she said.
The State Department staffer said they were “looking for answers” and blamed the evacuation debacle on former President Donald Trump.
The State Department was asked to comment on Raofi’s situation, and in an emailed statement said anyone who enrolled in their traveler program received an alert on Aug. 14 asking people to fill out an online form if they needed assistance.
“The Department has been advising U.S. citizens not to travel to Afghanistan for decades. Since January 2021, Embassy Kabul issued 19 separate security alerts urging U.S. citizens to leave while commercial options remained available,” the statement said.
“When Embassy Kabul went on ordered departure, the Department notified private citizens of this posture change, again urging them to depart via still-available commercial options. … When commercial options narrowed, we reached out directly to U.S. citizens remaining in Afghanistan to gather specific data about their individual situations,” the statement said.
Now back home, Raofi worries about the school she created two years ago for children who came to Kabul as refugees from other poor parts of the nation. They live in squalor, gathering trash to burn for heat and begging for food. Home is a mud hut or a lean-to with no roof.
Raofi’s parents are Afghan citizens who emigrated to the United States when she was a baby. After receiving master’s degrees in education and filmmaking, Raofi returned to teach photography to the children in the refugee camp. It was a way to bring their impoverished lives some sense of happiness, she said.
When she started the school, more children arrived than Raofi had room to handle. They would eagerly wait in line every morning for a chance to attend class.
“I connected with a lot of little girls and got to know them. I asked, ‘What is your dream’ and they said their dream was a school.
“At first, I didn’t have a building. We had nothing,” Raofi said. “I saw a shipping container there. I turned this container into a building, and then I had 80 students, and they were all sitting on top of each other.”
Raofi then hired a teacher to assist her and divided the classes into age groups. The curriculum expanded to include English, reading, and writing. Now she wants the classes to resume and is trying to raise funds to build a wall around the school so it would be hidden from Taliban view.