Since the last military flight out of Kabul and the Khider District Massacre, both events occurring on 30 August 2021, Chapman and Pritchard have co-authored numerous heartbreaking stories about Afghans in peril.
By Scott Chapman and Russ Pritchard
Operation Freedom Birds facilitates safe and reliable air transport for American Citizens and Afghan Allies, including asylum seekers currently hiding in Afghanistan. Acronyms associated with these categories include: AMCIT’s, SIV, P1, and P2. The acronyms represent human beings hunted by the Taliban. Primarily a volunteer organization with a pending 501C3 nonprofit status, Operation Freedom Birds does not hold a political view. It is a humanitarian operation to save lives in imminent danger from the Taliban. Through working relationships with other evacuation efforts and maintaining open lines of communication with the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, Members of Congress, and numerous subject matter experts, Operation Freedom Birds provides transport from Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and operates strictly within airports and legal air spaces.
Flooded by requests from around the world, the unanimous message vocalized to Operation Freedom Birds is a fear-driven plea for help. In recent weeks, many have had friends and family tortured and killed by the Taliban; many are actively being hunted and in peril. Entire families, 15 or more, move every few days, hoping to stay ahead of the Taliban while waiting for a mechanism of transport to safety.
This is Shurali’s story:
Born into a poor family in a rural region of Afghanistan, Shurali’s father taught primary school and insisted his son complete high school. Upon graduation, Shurali joined the Afghan National Army (ANA) and earned the rank of Sergeant in 2011. Shurali’s first duty station as a leader in the ANA was at the Kabul Airport. His ANA unit assignment was near the Afghan Air Force Academy where he watched Afghan pilots perform training, orientation, and maintenance on their aircraft. He was inspired by watching the airmen and soon developed a love of planes. After a year watching the pilots train at the airport, the Army deployed him to Kandahar, “This was a very dangerous place as many consider this area as home to the Taliban,” says Shurali, “I feel lucky because I received orders for Officer Candidate School (OCS) three months after I arrived at Kandahar. OCS was far away from that dangerous province.”
During OCS, he stood out among his peers and excelled in areas concerning leadership, tactics, and discipline. Shurli earned his gold 2nd Lieutenant bar at the completion of OCS. He was hand picked to begin flight training in the United Arab Emirates to fly planes for his country.
This was his first time away from his country. It was a challenge to be immersed in a foreign culture and away from his family, but he loved flying and took every opportunity to increase his hours in any aircraft available. Upon returning to Afghanistan with a new swagger of confidence, the Afghan Air Force selected him to attend fighter pilot training in the United States.“I arrived in the U.S. in March 2016 and attended the Defensive Language School (DLI) at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio, Texas,”says Shurali. “They gave us nine months to learn the English language before sending us to the Columbus Air Force base to start flight school. I learned aerobatic maneuvers in a T-6. From there, we went to Moody Air Force Base to fly A-29 close air support attack aircraft. It was an exciting time in my life and a dream come true.”
Shurali returned to Afghanistan in June 2018. Anxious to flex his wings and fly his A-29 in combat for the first time, he was cleared to drop two MK81 250lb bombs on a known Taliban drug manufacturing center in Ghazni Province. “I was so proud. I couldn’t wait to tell my family,” says Shurali, “My excitement ended fast. Once they learned who dropped those bombs, the Taliban threatened to kill everyone in my family. For the next three years, everyone I loved had to change homes and cities every three to four months. It was a constant struggle to stay ahead of the Taliban scouts and their information networks. It was hard on everyone. I worried when I was in the air. I worried when I was on the ground.”
Stationed at the Kandahar Airfield in Mazar e Sharif in August 2021, and with more than six hundred hours of combat time accumulated in his A-29, Shurali was home on leave visiting his wife and children when he heard the Afghan President fled the country, “I told my wife to give me the ATM card to withdraw as much money as we could. I knew what troubles were on the way and we needed to purchase necessities,” recalls Shurali. “On the way to the Kabul City Center, I noticed stores closing and people running in the streets. Cars fled from the city in chaos. I asked a man what happened, and he said the government had collapsed. Taliban were coming. I raced home. I found my wife in hysterics because she knew what the Taliban would do to all of us. I called my advisor in the United States. He told me to stay in my home and help would be coming.”
“We stayed in hiding for several days while the Taliban ransacked and tightened its grip on the city. I called my U.S. advisor every day for guidance. He must have been out of options because he finally told us to try and get to the East Gate at the Kabul Airport. He said our names would be on a list with the gate guards. We encountered over 5,000 people fighting to get in the gates. We saw Taliban everywhere firing their guns at people or in the air. It was chaos. At one point a stranger offered to take our five-month old daughter because we were having a hard time carrying everything. He said he’d help carry her while I carried our two year old. He disappeared into the crowd with my daughter.”
“For hours my wife and I searched for our daughter and the man who took her. I told my wife we should split up to increase chances of finding her. Our cell phones still had signals so we could at least call each other. I took our son and held him tight against my side. In the pushing and surging, my son and I got inside the gates and found our daughter. I called my wife and said to come meet us at the gate. There was yelling and gunfire and I could barely hear her, but I told her we were just on the other side. She cried, and said she could not get through the crowds. For four days we tried, and each day the violent mobs forced her back. Each day the Taliban closed in further. She was a woman traveling alone and unable to find a safe route to the airport. If caught and recognized, she would be tortured then killed. All I could hear was the sound of constant gunfire in the city. My heart sank every time I heard a gun go off because I thought they’d found my wife. On the fifth day, all my electronic devices ran out of battery. The last time I spoke to my wife, she told me to get on the plane and take our children to safety in the United States. Maybe someday she could get there too. I had to make the hardest choice a husband and father will ever make - sacrifice my wife to save our children.”
At the time of writing, Lt. Shurali and his two children, ages two and five months, are living with a sponsor family in the midwest. His wife remains in hiding in Afghanistan.
Help bring Shurali’s wife to her husband and her family. Help Operation Freedom Birds.
Scott Chapman is an independent journalist, author, former Army Ranger, OGA Blackwater contractor, entrepreneur, husband, dog lover, and astrophysics scholar. Scott is the co-founder of the Afghan Medical Corps and can be reached at ScottChapmanAuthor@Protonmail.com
Russ Pritchard is an independent journalist, professional writer, former Chief Marketing Officer, flight medic, triathlete, husband, father, and grandfather. Russ is the co-founder of the Afghan Medical Corps and can be reached at RussPritchard@Protonmail.com