Afghan journalist, former University of Michigan fellow returns to Ann Arbor after escaping Kabul

‘If someone tells you that this is what’s going to happen ... you won’t believe it.’

Jawad Sukhanyar and his daughter, Setaish, at Michigan Stadium during his year as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. (Jawad Sukhanyar)

ANN ARBOR – Jawad Sukhanyar’s story reads more like an action-packed Hollywood screenplay than something experienced by a man and his family just two months ago.

A longtime reporter for The New York Times in Kabul, Sukhanyar had returned to his home country in 2019 after completing the prestigious one-year Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan.

“In 2018 I was thinking, ‘Well, it’s not a great place to live in Kabul, but it’s my country and if I leave and if people like me leave then who will stay there?’” said Sukhanyar. “It wasn’t that safe, even after the fellowship, (but) I decided together with my wife that we will go back and stay there.”

He and his brother spent their savings building a house in the capital city, and, along with it, a vision for the future the family would have in their hometown. They moved in only just recently as they put the finishing touches on the property.

Growing up during Afghanistan’s civil war, Sukhanyar’s family temporarily relocated to Pakistan before returning home. Unrest was not a new concept to them, but the speed with which the Taliban recently took over was not something anyone was prepared for, said Sukhanyar.

He got his start in journalism when he worked in a guest house in Kabul. There, he met numerous western journalists and he began working as a freelancer in the city. In 2008, he received a scholarship to study in Goa, India, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in political science. Upon returning to Kabul, there was a job opening at the New York Times bureau. Sukhanyar applied and got the job.

From there, many more doors were opened, he said. Working for a major publication allowed him to travel to the provinces that otherwise would have been too expensive for a freelancer.

Jawad Sukhanyar asks an Afghan government spokesperson a question at the Government Media and Information Center in Kabul in 2019. (Jawad Sukhanyar)

“It was the biggest thing to happen for me in my life,” said Sukhanyar. “A local reporter covering Afghanistan. It was wonderful.”

He traveled to the U.S. for a fellowship in Hawaii in 2015 and returned a year later with his wife for a book launch. When he was accepted to U-M’s Knight-Wallace Fellowship program in 2018, he had no idea how vital his relationship with the university would become.

Plan to escape

Months after U.S. President Joe Biden announced plans in April to fully withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Sukhanyar said it started to become clear that life in Kabul would soon become dangerous.

Without a western presence, Afghans who worked for the U.S. would be left exposed. In Sukhanyar’s case, nearly a decade of reporting on the atrocities of the Taliban made him and his colleagues at the New York Times walking targets.

A month and a half before evacuations began, Sukhanyar said he contacted U-M officials to see if he could return for a fellowship. He said it was hard to convince them at the time, since no one could fathom the horrific scenes that would soon unfold at Kabul Airport.

Once U-M got on board and began to make plans for his return to campus, it was too late to get a visa.

“If someone tells you that this is what’s going to happen and then you will be there, you won’t believe it,” said Sukhanyar. “I was stuck hoping that the fellowship would get me. They tried, but there was no way we could get the visas from the US embassy.”

Days before Kabul fell, the Taliban effectively froze the country, he said. Border crossings were blocked, flights to neighboring countries were canceled and visas were no longer issued.

On Aug. 15, he said he got a call from the New York Times who had plans to evacuate their 200 members of staff and their families.

“(They) said, ‘Leave everything, we have a charter flight and we’ll take you out,’” recalls Sukhanyar.

He and his wife packed some belongings and headed to the airport with their four children. They would never return home.

The airport

When the family arrived at Kabul Airport, Sukhanyar said they entered a “ghost terminal.” It was clear all airport workers had either evacuated on military planes or went into hiding, he said.

His family joined a group on the tarmac, but no plane arrived. A 48-hour nightmare would soon ensue, due to lack of communication between the New York Times and the American side.

“It didn’t work,” said Sukhanyar. “There were too many people.”

He estimates that 60,000-100,000 people arrived on the tarmac and described the situation as complete chaos.

Sukhanyar took a video of the scene on the tarmac and posted it on Twitter. To date, it has 5.9 million views.

“We thought there’d be a plane and we’ll fly,” he said. “For two days and two nights, we had no food, we had no water. The kids were crying and asking for food and for water. Everyone was dehydrated.”

His youngest child is three years old.

Then the Taliban arrived.

“On the second day, it was at night, the Taliban came to force everyone out and they started beating us,” he said. “They started beating people with a stick, with a gun, with a chair, whatever they had. Anyone.

“A few of my friends from the New York Times had fractured hands and women were lashed. Tens of thousands of people are desperately running from this corner to that corner. The Americans are on one side, the Taliban are on the other side and the people are running to the American side.”

During the scuffle, the family lost their luggage. Some families lost children.

“A Washington Post friend lost his daughter for two nights,” said Sukhanyar. “I’m not in touch with him. I think she was found. There was a stampede and people were being beaten. You either get your bag or your kid and you can’t see where everyone is standing. The longer you wait, you lose something else.”

The group left the airport and went into hiding until new evacuation plans materialized.

Each day that went by became more complex as people from the provinces began to arrive in large numbers, also hoping to flee.

Two to three days went by before the second attempt to evacuate. Communicating via WhatsApp, the group boarded buses and were able to get back into the airport after a tense night being turned away from overcrowded gates.

“This time, Americans were waiting for us. Someone from the New York Times was with them,” said Sukhanyar.

The group boarded new buses and was transported to the American side of the airport. It would be 24 hours before they would board a plane to Qatar. Hundreds of people crowded the C-17 military plane that had no seats.

“Because there was no space, I had to stand up so that my kids could sleep,” said Sukhanyar. “Many men would stand. And it was freezing cold. My wife and kids were all sitting around me. We were already exhausted from trying to get on the plane. There were no bathrooms. If you are between life and death, you just want to do it.”

Journalist Jawad Sukhanyar and his family are adjusting to their new life in Ann Arbor. (Meredith Bruckner)

When asked if people were worried about contracting COVID in such crowded conditions, Sukhanyar said it was the last thing on people’s minds.

“The pandemic is something that kills you, but the Taliban will kill you too. Hunger kills you too,” he said.

He and his family spent the night in the terminal in Doha without food or water. He estimated that they had skipped 3-4 meals since departing for Kabul Airport.

“(You) don’t have any money,” said Sukhanyar. “Banks ran out of cash days before the Taliban took over. We lost our proper bags with our best clothes. Most people did. It was either stolen or torn up. I think we had two backpacks.”

The next day, each family was moved to their own private apartment and were given meals, toiletries and an opportunity to rest.

Unknown destination

The group headed to the airport to board another C-17 they were told would fly to the U.S. or Mexico. This time, the plane had seats, two bathrooms and was only transporting New York Times employees and their families.

They would spend the next 27 hours on that plane, making stops in Morocco, Cancun, and eventually arriving in Mexico City. No one deboarded the plane until they arrived at their final destination.

When asked what it was like to spend so much time in a confined space with small children, Sukhanyar looked down. “We managed,” he said.

Once the group arrived in Mexico, they were met in the airport by charity workers who provided them with new clothes. After spending ten days in Mexico City, they were flown to Houston, Texas, where they would spend one month receiving vaccinations and acclimating to a new life.

Return to Ann Arbor

The family arrived in Michigan on Oct. 4.

Now settling into their new home in Ann Arbor, his three oldest children attend school and he shared that his wife is expecting their fifth child.

Sukhanyar said he is in touch with his mother and brother, who remain in hiding in Afghanistan.

“That’s my biggest worry now, that I have them there,” he said. “There’s no future for them. I’m worried about their safety. Being affiliated to someone who worked for the New York Times, it already created problems for them.”

Once his work permit is approved by U.S. immigration officials, Sukhanyar will receive his stipend from U-M and begin his new research fellowship as a journalist-in-residence with the Donia Human Rights Center and the International Institute. There, he will explore the ramifications of the U.S. withdrawal from his home country and the Taliban regime’s new rule.

Sukhanyar said Lynette Clemetson, the Director of Wallace House, was a central figure in securing his new fellowship. She remains in touch with him and has been a source of support as he and his family start their new life.

“I’m thankful to Lynette,” he said. “And I’m thankful they accepted me and offered me a place to come here.”

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.