Escape from Kabul

Col. Khial Shinwari, Former Afghan air force pilot

“So, one day the Taliban came over in front of my house. They took my car.

“My house door is open. Lucky my family is not there.

“So, I knew it. Somehow, I knew they might go after my family.

“So, I called my family — come.

“They were looking for eight individual pilots so they could shoot one, assassinate one or two, and the rest would get scared off and leave their jobs.

“So, on the 15 of August 2021— when Afghanistan starts falling into the Taliban’s hands— that was the moment, it was a big change, and it was like a dream.

“Kabul has fallen into the Taliban’s hands.

“Seriously? It’s only 9 o’clock and I just landed.

Read the full transcript

“I just wear the civilian clothes, walked out and what I see in two hours, it was a completely different world.

“I went outside and saw around the buildings.

“Many people with a lot of guns.

“Everyone carries their own rifle.

“Pilots in the air force, in Afghanistan, were the first high targets of the Taliban.

“They assassinated many pilots of ours during those couple of months.

“There was no capturing them and putting them in jail.

“Just shoot them and put them right there, and which they did to a couple of our friends.”

Col. Khial Shinwari never expected Afghanistan would fall into the Taliban’s hands again after 20 years. But the harsh reality hit him when an air force commander told him of the evacuation plan of 130 people in Kandahar, the city where Khial was born.

Col. Khial Shinwari

“When the air force commander asked me to go to Kandahar,

“I just told him, ‘Sir, it’s a mission suicide.’

“It’s because you’re taking a big C-130 with the Afghanistan flag on it and going to a city where there’s Taliban.

“He told me, ‘You have no choice other than saving them.’ ”

Khial was the first Afghan pilot to learn to fly C-130s, one of the largest military planes, capable of carrying about 150 people. He knew 130 people were holding out hope for an evacuation, and he was one of a few remaining pilots who could fly a C-130. Khial called his father before taking off for the risky rescue mission. His father advised otherwise.

Col. Khial Shinwari

“As much as you’re worried about me, there are 130 people waiting for me to go back and evacuate them.

“And each [of those] 130 people has their father, mother, brother, and sisters.

“I am going to take care of them.

“If something happens to me, that’s only me, one person.

“If nothing happens to me, then I save 135 instead of one family.

“He didn’t say anything. He was quiet for a couple of seconds.

“Then he just told me, ‘When you get back home, call me back.’ ”

Khial’s final mission to evacuate 130 people was his last flight in Afghanistan. After the successful mission, his friends and family urged him to leave.

Col. Khial Shinwari

“I was receiving many calls from my all-advisor colonels, and best friends, good friends.

“The people who flew with us. The people who were working with us.

“All the Americans were calling me like, ‘Hey, you were on our priority list, and you have to leave the country.’ ”

Within 24 hours of receiving those calls, Khial was evacuated from Afghanistan with his wife and two children. One week after their evacuation, Khial and his family arrived in the U.S.

Col. Khial Shinwari

“So, I work with a company that’s a subcontractor to Volkswagen as an AVG maintenance specialist.

“So, AVG is the automatic-guided vehicle.

“There’s a robot that runs over the magnetic tape, and if anything happens to those AVGs during the production we’re the ones, they call us, and we go fix it.

“I am on my way.

“So usually, I get up at 4:30 and get ready by 5 o’clock and leave the house by 5:00 a.m.

“It’s a 20 min drive to work, and about 25 minutes walking from the parking lot all the way to the plant.

“And the work starts at 6 o’clock.

“Every single time, we have overtime of one hour, two hours, sometimes even three hours.

“So, it goes all the way to 5 to 6 o’clock, even sometimes until 6:30.

“By the time I come back home, I have only one to two hours to play with my children, and talk to my wife and have dinner.

“And go back to sleep and do the same thing tomorrow.

“So back home, I was in the air force, and I [was] ranked full bird colonel as a director of training and education for the air force.

“I was also [an] instructor pilot for C-130s, instructor and evaluator pilot.

“It’s a big change in the life – being a pilot, and flying for the air force, and having a colonel rank, and come and start the life from the beginning to be maintenance.

“That’s a big change of the life.”

Manizha Shinwari, Wife of Col. Shinwari

“American food and Afghani food is very different.

“And so American food is good food, the taste is good.

“Yeah, the size of the market is a little big.

“In Afghanistan, there are different stores, different supermarkets.”

Manizha hasn’t seen a fully- stocked supermarket since before the Taliban took over Kabul.

Manizha Shinwari

“I want to make food, Afghani food. Like a kabuli pulao, kofta.”

Marina Peshterianu, Associate Director, Bridge Refugee Services

“How have things been going since the last time we met?”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“Well, things are going great so far.

“I was still working on installing internet, EPB (electronic parking brake), and setting up the gas account.

“With all those things being through, I have a job now.”

Marina Peshterianu

“If I’m right, one of the community members helped you locate this job, correct?”

Khial has been reaching out to local nonprofits organizations to find a side job that can supplement his income.

Col. Khial Shinwari

“A lady, who was originally from Iran, she has good connections and good friends here in town.”

Marina Peshterianu

“I think you, Mr. Shinwari, are so good at meeting people and making the first step and pursuing your goals.

“I’m so glad it worked out.

“We also talked about your wife possibly pursuing a professional job or education.

“So where do you stand there?”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“—Since I have a young boy, he’s only 5½ months old, and day cares are expensive —

“I was at a couple of day cares.

“Each day care is asking for $1,000 a week and some of them are $500 a week, but But still, it’s a $2,000 of paycheck to only pay for the childcare, which I don’t even make this much.

“So, my plan for now is she will stay with the children so that way I don’t have bigger bills to pay.

“But, eventually while she is taking care of the babies, she will also do the online English learning classes.”

Voice on computer

“Hello, welcome to the first course English class.

“You will learn how to introduce yourself.

“I am Sylvie. What’s your name?”

Manizha Shinwari

“My first name is Manizha.

“I need to speak with people in this country.

“So, I need to learn English.”

Manizha studied law in Afghanistan but the language barrier blocks her from getting even a simple job.

Manizha Shinwari

“And their English is a little difficult for me.

“I hope – I want to go to classes in English and learn and read.

“And my English will become better, better, and better.”

Until Manizha’s English is proficient to get a job, Khial needs to wait for his dream of returning to the sky.

Col. Khial Shinwari

“The payment I’m currently making is exactly the same amount I’m renting a house.

“That’s without food and bills.

“Only the rent, and my income, are about the same.

“So, I’m still short of the bills that I have to pay, electricity, gas, internet, water.

“But, I’m lucky that I have a younger brother working with me.

“With both of us combined, working with two incomes, it’s all gone by the end of the week.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“Did you call him?”

Khan Mohammad Shinwari, Col. Shinwari’s brother

“No, I haven’t yet. Let’s check what time it is there.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“Yeah, what time is it in Kabul now?

“Check if he is online.

“Okay wait, it is 2:40 a.m.”

Khan Mohammad Shinwari

“Hmmm, Let’s call. See if someone is awake.”

[phone ringing]

Col. Khial Shinwari

“When did you talk to him last?”

Khan Mohammad Shinwari

“Last night I talked to him.”

Khial’s greatest fear is an unanswered phone. Unless his parents answer, he has no way of knowing if they are safe.

Col. Khial Shinwari

“I am going to try one last time.

“If he picks up that is good. If not, we can call tomorrow.

“Tomorrow is Sunday, right? It is a holiday.

“We can try then and if it doesn’t work out, we will try the next day.”

Tennessee Aquarium

Col. Khial Shinwari

“Aquariums, we don’t have [them] back home.

“So that was really, really exciting for my daughter especially.

“She loves penguins and that was her first time seeing penguins, actual penguins.

“I wanted to go back to the flying career, and have my children grow up and study here, and they become American and change their life.

“Live not the way I lived, but live peacefully and have a better life here.

“The situation in Afghanistan is getting critical every single day.

“The reason is that most of my family were military.

“Like my dad, my brothers, my uncles, cousins.

“Most of them were police, army, air force.

“We were separated all around, but not only being military, but even in civilian life there’s no jobs, there’s no salary, there’s no income for each person who was working.

“If you have your own shop or taxi driver you are the only person who could find money, but everyone else including the instructors, the teachers, the pilots, the normal worker in an office, every single person lost their job.

“There are no jobs.

“The electricity shortage is a big problem, and it’s a cold winter this year.”

Taylor Newman, Owner, Crystal Aviation Flight School

“—Your documentation and what you have, what it appears since you can’t have a military equivalency from where you’re coming from — because of the social positions of various countries involved —

“I know you’ve already got your medical and already passed your private pilot written test. So, then the next step forward is for us to get the TSA approval.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“Will there be any classes or preparation, pre- check rides, or anything like that?”

Taylor Newman

“Yeah, we’ll get you comfortable in the airplane.

“So, probably in a Cessna 172.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

I graduated from pilot training here, from Enid, Oklahoma, Vance Air Force Base.

I’ve completed all my qualification of single ship airdrop, formation, low level, all those training of C-130 beside doing the pilot training.

The problem right now that I’m facing with the civilian life of FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) is that we are military from a different country.

But we have the same documents that the U.S. military has.

Same diploma, same certificates, and the same qualifications.

But the information I’ve been receiving from the flight schools, based on [their policies], we somehow have to start from the beginning.

Taylor Newman

“We believe we can document your experience.

“Let’s say the prep for your private is 5 to 10 hours of flying.

“So, that translates to be $2,500. So, not a terrible amount of money, but it is money.

“I mean it’s not free.

“And then your instrument may be a little bit more, just because you can fly basic instrument stuff, but using the G1000, using the different avionics, may take just a little bit of time to acquire.

“The backbone is still there.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“Seems like with all the courses going through, it’s about $30,000–ish.”

Taylor Newman

“That would be probably a good idea.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“So, I don’t know when to start and how can I start it, but that’s a good approach that I have done today.

“So far, talking to the flight schools.

“Getting back into flying—that’s where I belong. I belong to the sky. I belong to the airplane.

“If I can do it again and come back to flight, that will help me with everything, plus mentally, physically, and all the problems I am having.

“It could have been — it will help getting back into the sky.

“It will help with everything.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“Pasoon, Pasoon. Come here, baby. Come, come.

“Who do you want to talk to, huh?

“Grandaddy’s phone is not working.”

Khan Mohammad Shinwari

“It is winter and there is no electricity.

“There was a heavy snowfall.”

Col. Khial Shinwari

“My biggest hope would be if I can get a job as a pilot, fly again.

“That way I can send my children to school.

“And my daughter will be her first school starting, like first time going to school,

“which she is the luckiest because she’s going to school in the United States.

“That’s the future.

“What I see for myself is being an airline pilot, my wife being a lawyer – and probably a good refugee lawyer, because she’s been through this process.

“Our whole life has been through changes of regimes and fighting and war.

“So, I want a peaceful life for my children and have the best education they need to be successful in the future.”


Euna Lee
Senior Executive Producer
Mariko Hirose
Cameron Becht
Amish Srivastava,
Brian Kim
Video Editor
Austin Green
Thomas Leahy
Sound Mixer
Jan Hoff

About the project

One year into Taliban rule, VOA has taken a detailed and objective look at Afghanistan, yesterday and today. In this special project, we bring you previously untold stories, features on Afghan refugees and their struggles in foreign lands, eyewitness accounts of the day Kabul fell, analytical pieces on the Taliban’s governance, security challenges, and relations with regional countries, and several documentaries.