Fatema’s Story: Escaping Danger
She escaped one war to face another. Fatema Hosseini, then 27, was living with her family in Kabul, in August 2021 when the Taliban took over the country. As a journalist who worked for the American media, Fatema had to find a way out. But another war would confront them, this time in Ukraine.
Fatema Hosseini, Afghan Journalist
“Ukraine was absolutely out of my thoughts, out of my life, out of my imagination. Until, until August 16th.
“My name is Fatema Hosseini. I’m twenty-eight, and I am from Afghanistan.
“I was born in Bamiyan which is a central place in Afghanistan. It’s a central province in Afghanistan. And because of the war that happened in 1994, my parents migrated to Iran, so I was raised there. And when I was 10 years old, my parents returned to Afghanistan.”
Iryna Andrukh, Ukrainian Military Psychologist
“My name is Iryna, I’m a psychologist. I lived and worked in Kyiv until the war. I lived and worked in Kyiv, in Ukraine.
“I was in India, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran. One of my tasks was to negotiate with terrorists in order to exchange prisoners of war, and so we could take away the bodies of the dead. I’ve seen war in other countries, yes. It’s hard for the most unprotected, for those who have never been prepared for the fact that they won’t have water, food, a roof over their heads, all the essentials.”
“It was during a fine day. I woke up, I got ready, I went for my job. Around 1:00 p.m. that we heard that the president fled the country.
“And the Taliban are entering Kabul. I decided to get back home, it was too late for me because the Taliban was already in the city, and they were riding police rangers’ cars. And they were fully armed. But, again, luckily, I was not stopped, though they saw me like with my dress, and everyone was looking at me crazily because there was not even a single woman. I mean there were women, but they were already covered.
“The first thing that happened was my mom hugging me and slowly telling me in my ear: ‘Your dress is short.’ And that was the moment that I realized I lost my freedom.
“To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking of myself, I was thinking of my father, because he served the army for almost 12 years.
“And when I saw the video, it was like around thousands of people waiting to cross the border illegally to go to Pakistan. It was like, it was so bad; it was so scary and horrible! And when I saw my mom with that little baby, with my sister, I don’t know, I did not have the guts or I did not have the bravery to tell my mom that, okay, this is the situation, and you have to cross the border no matter what.
“Because I was working with USA Today as a freelancer, one of the colleagues, he texted me from the U.K. saying, ‘Fatema, are you safe? What should I do for you?’ He said, ‘Listen, are you able to leave the country without your family?’
“It was a very tough decision for me because, you know, when you have this supportive family, and the time comes that you have either the chance to save your life or all of you will be in danger, what would you chose? But at the same time, there was this, I don’t know, there was this feeling coming to me that, ok, you have to leave, you have to be in a safe place in order to save your family. If you’re in danger, your family will be in danger too, right?”
Lt. Alex Cornell du Houx, President, US Navy Reserve
“I heard about Fatema when a reporter, friend of mine, called me up and said, ‘Hey, we have a journalist stuck in Afghanistan.’ And I had already been thinking of ways how do we get people out of Afghanistan. Because another friend of mine, Jessica Serafin, she and I would run with Afghan women athletes for their protection when we were deployed out there with the Navy. And sadly, the Taliban went to one of the athlete’s houses, beat them up, took their running sneakers and then graffitied their house. And so we were thinking how do we extract and protect our Afghan allies?”
“I got a call from a man I met in 2019, we trained together at a NATO school in Germany. He said I have a friend stuck in Afghanistan, a reporter, she can’t get out, she worked for USA Today, and she’s in great danger. I said, ‘Well, drop me the girl’s passport details, ask for her phone number. I’ll think about how we can help,’ because I knew that Ukraine was already arranging an evacuation flight.
“There are so many wonderful, terrific, kind and helpful people in my life. One of them is General Kirill Budanov. In the same way, I sent him all the data… And I started talking to Fatema. I wrote: ‘My name is Irуna, I want to help you evacuate from Afghanistan, just follow the instructions I’ll give you.’ ”
“Ok. Should I go to Ukraine? Like, where is Ukraine? I knew it was somewhere in Europe. But I did not know where. And one of the Ukrainian army, he called me saying that I should get to the airport at 5:30 a.m. in the morning, and he told me I had only three hours.”
Lt. Alex Cornell du Houx
“So, we prepped Fatema ahead of time to make sure that she was hiding the documents in the appropriate places, making sure she had multiple cell phones, ensuring that there was a male driver with her to as far as we could get, right?”
“I was having my mom’s hijab, my backpack, and I had like three layers of clothes, and the weather was so hot! I kept sweating, and I forgot to take a water bottle with me.”
“She woke me up at three in the morning, I think, because she was already leaving. We were in touch the whole time, I mean every move she made, every minute. I had a huge, long correspondence over this whole process. How she was walking, how she was getting in the car, how she was getting out.”
“My brother and brother-in-law they were carrying my suitcase, and I had to walk quick. I lost them. The place was really crowded. I didn’t know how many gates airport has, but I had that specific gate that the Ukrainian force told me once you reach behind the gate, just text me, I’m going to come out and get you. I was like “okay.” I passed the first checkpoint, and the Taliban who was, like, controlling people, he swore that if I would be going back and he would see me, he would kill me. So, he swore in front of the public. The second checkpoint, so, the one of the Taliban commanders was trying to, like, he ordered people to sit down, and because it was so crowded and I was literally pushing people to get aside so that I could go forward, like I did not know that that commander is having a whip with him. The moment when I pushed the woman aside, he whipped the woman behind me. Her shoulder. The skin was gone, the flesh was visible.”
“I received a text message from the Ukrainian army forces saying that ‘Come to this gate, not to the gate where we told you earlier.’ And I had only 30 minutes.”
“I guess at that point I did something a little cynical. I didn’t reassure her, I said, ‘You’ve got 30 minutes, the plane will take off. That’s it. Either you make it, or you don’t.’ That got her really fired up; at some point, she saw it was her last chance, even though the plane was still supposed to wait for about six hours.”
“I started asking people, is there any way to go, to get out of this place? Because I was pushing, and I was trying to get to the gate. One of the Taliban members started firing next to my ears and I could see the bullets falling next to next to a woman, and I saw a woman’s arm disjointed from her body, she could not pick up her arm because it was stepped on by so many people.
“The moment we decided to go back home, the Ukrainian army first called me. He only said two sentences, ‘Fatema, I bribed this Taliban to come out to take you. Where are you? That’s it. That’s it.’
“He ended the call. I wanted to say: ‘I’m leaving.’ He ended the call.”
Lt. Alex Cornell du Houx
“We had kind of set up a command center at a hotel in Washington D.C., as well as at our own houses because this was 24/7 work. It was an emotional roller coaster of, like, ‘hey, yes, we’re almost there!’ But then, at the last minute, something would block us.
“And then everyone else with the USA Today team is on the edge of their seats too. So, it was extremely stressful, but the same time, I mean, her courage in this endeavor was very inspiring. I mean, she didn’t give up.”
“And I received phone calls from a stranger. I was like “I’m here.” He said, raise your hand, so that I can find you. He found me. And I was like ‘You’re not the Taliban, only the Taliban could be easily identified.’ And he said: ’Not really, I am a Ukrainian, I’m an Afghan Ukrainian, and I’m here to get to the airport, and this person called me saying that, to have you with us.’ So, he took me to a place where 50 Ukrainians were standing and waiting to get to the airport.”
“I stood up and I shouted the name of that Ukrainian force. And he was right in front of me. But because I did not have his picture, I did not know who he is, right? And he said: ‘Fatema?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, it’s me, come!’ And he sent another force to pick me up, and then take me to another side.
“So, it was a very huge plane. It was a military plane, and it was my first time getting to the military plane. So, there was no safety belt. There was nothing.
“The moment that I fall asleep, I literally did not wake up until the morning because I was so tired. When the plane left Kabul, when we were out of Kabul, I literally had a relief breath, I took my relief breath, and it was like, ‘I’m out!’ ”
“They landed, I think, a day later at five in the morning. I met her at the Boryspil airport.”
“And I saw this girl coming to me.
“She said, ‘Hey, I’m Iryna!’ I was so happy, but, you know, the feeling of me, it was completely drained. I could not express my feelings. I knew that I am happy I knew that I am safe, but I could not express it. So, I was like ‘okay.’
“She said, ‘I’m Iryna’, and I was like ‘okay.’ ”
“I met her and immediately took her home. I didn’t even have the choice that someone else would find her a place to live and set her up in Ukraine. She knew one person, that was me. Fatema ate, took a shower, and that was it. And she slept till the next day, we saw her in the evening, we had tea together, and she went back to sleep, she called her parents.”
“Her apartment had two rooms, it was, like, one for her parents, one for her. But she gave me her room and she herself was sleeping in the kitchen. So, there was a sofa, and she was sleeping there.”
“I met her mom, and I was like — oh, she’s so beautiful! And it gives you the feeling that you’re at home.”
Svitlana Andrukh, Iryna’s Mother
“She comes up to me and says something, and I’m like, ‘I don’t speak English!’ She says, ‘No problem!’ She turns on the phone interpreter, talks to me out loud, and I answer through my interpreter. We instantly got along, we even cooked together. We cooked borscht together.”
“I really wanted to show her Kyiv. Of course, Kyiv is my love. In summer time it is all green and full of flowers. The best places for her to remember Kyiv is the city she dreams of seeing again. Naturally, I witnessed her struggles every day. You can’t be truly happy when your family is in trouble.
“Again, I turned to Kirill Budanov and asked if we could help this girl we had already gotten out, evacuate her family. He said, ‘Yes! If you want to help, you can do it personally.’ ”
“The evacuation process that we organized was kind of unique. We left the airport area, and we were picking up people in the city. Generally speaking, all the military personnel who were evacuating civilians from Afghanistan, they were waiting for people to go to the airport grounds because it was secured. The Taliban had total control outside the airport grounds. I personally, with the support of the Ukrainian army, went outside the airport, checked the buses, checked the people. The buses were taking people onto the airport grounds, and Fatema’s parents were there, too.”
“I was receiving text messages from my brother, like mom cannot breathe, Mobina cannot breathe, Mobina keeps crying, my mom is exhausted. And the only thing I could say was ‘Wait. Wait. You are going to make it.’ ”
“When we were already approaching the plane, we seated everyone, gave them water and food, Fatema’s brother came up and tried to ask me in broken English, ‘Are you Ira?’ ‘Yes, I am.’ He took me by the hand and brought me to his parents, and they hugged me, with a baby in their arms. How could I help crying?”
“I left Kyiv and came to the US for work and for my studies. Back then, I was sure that my parents were safe, right? It was before February 24th.”
Vladimir Putin on TV
“I have made the decision to conduct a special military operation… ”
“Fatema called me in tears: ‘Ira, what is going on? Is it true that there’s a war in Ukraine?’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s true.’ I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that it’s not true, that we’ll wake up… It’s not true, it can’t be true. How? Why?”
“I woke up, and I read the news that I think the fall already happened, and the Russians started attacking.
“My mother, I think she sent my brother and my father to the grocery shop. There was just one grocery shop near her house. And once they got back home, my mom said: ‘The war is happening.’
“I knew how was this situation, and I was trying to keep her calm, because once she gets worried, I get worried, right? So, I was, like, I’m going to find a way to book a cab for them to get out of Kyiv.
“My sister found a contact information of an American person, she is a retired Navy force in the US, and she had this entire team in Kyiv who were trying to evacuate people taking them to the western part of Ukraine.
“I texted her, and all she said was, like, ask your parents to go to the railway, get a train, go to West part, and then there my team is taking care of them to get out of Ukraine. And I was, like, the problem is I don’t know how to take my parents to the railway because they are on the Russian side, and all the bridges, the ways going to that site were destroyed.
“I have this Ukrainian friend, I started texting him about taking my parents to Lviv. he said that he could have taken his own parents to Lviv. I begged him. My parents do not know the language, no one is accepting to go to that home address to take them. He eventually accepted and then took them to the railway, and then, from railway, they were supposed to go to Lviv. So, once they were in Lviv, this journalist, friend of mine, she got a car and directly helped my parents to pass the border to Poland. So, there were many people involved. Without them, I don’t know how my parents would make it to safety.”
“For them, of course, this is horrible. It’s like déjà vu… They don’t even know where to evacuate, to get away from the war. In general, all these situations with Afghanistan, with Ukraine have shown how people who don’t know each other help each other, because there’s a disaster.
Iryna is playing with the dog
“Yes? Who’s a good boy, who’s a good boy!”
“You know, God has rewarded me a hundredfold. I helped people a little back then, and some people came along to help me get my parents out. They lived in a basement, and when my mother got sick in the basement, she caught a very bad cold, because it was February, very cold, we managed to arrange a car for my parents to take them out of Kyiv, along with the dog. They came to the border of Poland and Ukraine, I met them there.”
Iryna Andrukh is meeting her parents in Poland
“That was all I needed in the world. At that moment, I knew I could breathe a sigh of relief; I knew this would be the first night I would finally get some sleep. I was happy. I know what happiness is.”
“My parents survived the horrible war of Taliban, right? They survived the horrible war of Russia and Ukraine; they were in a strange country with the language they did not understand but they survived it. War is something that is really ugly, and it takes lives of thousands and thousands of victims. War is like that; war is as ugly as that. People are losing their dearest members of families. So, what I learned from war, to care so much for people, to love so much. You know them, you don’t know them, it’s fine, because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
“If I come back to the country, maybe I can do, I can dig more. The country was almost drowning in corruption. You could not talk about transparency anymore.
“I want to sit in one table with the Taliban to ask them these questions. Why are they so much afraid of us? What’s our fault? Why they always have this goal and this wish of us to be dead? Why do they want to torture us? So now if it is journalism that can make me to sit in one table with them, I can go for journalism. I have already put so much of my concentration, and focus, and efforts on surviving two wars, two wars! The ugliest ones, right? And I made it. So, I’m sure I can make this one too. I have to make them sit at one table with me. If it’s going to take my entire life to do that, I’m ready for that.”
“She is like a sister for me. With the relatives, it’s an unconditional love, you love them just because they exist. Fatema is like that for me. She has become like that for me.”
“We both are stubborn. I know Iryna is stubborn, and so I am.”
Fatema is continuing her studies, and pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Maryland. She wants to be an investigative journalist. Her parents and siblings now live in Canada.
Since 2021, Ukrainian military forces have rescued approximately 4,000 Afghans. There are still thousands more who have not been able to get out of Afghanistan.