This story won the 2023 Society for Professional Journalists Dateline Award for column in a newsletter or trade publication.
The emails are straightforward and desperate.
Last August, as the Taliban advanced on Kabul and the U.S. military began its hectic withdrawal from Afghanistan, emails trickled in to our inboxes.
In the most generous telling, the notes came because Military Times covered the war in Afghanistan for 20 years, mostly from afar but occasionally by embedding with units. Sometimes the writers picked us because we’re Americans who cross paths with those in power. But mostly, their tone revealed, they emailed because we are as good of a lottery ticket as anyone.
Subject line: “Help for evacuation.”
Nov. 8, 2021 2:29 p.m.
“my family’s lives are in grave danger, we have been receiving death threats via phone calls and text messages, Taliban messages are as follows: ‘we will not rest until you are found Infidel.’ Me and my family have given the United States 100% of loyalty and commitment, regardless of the fact that my father was gunned down and killed by the Taliban for working with the U.S military.”
The notes are not unique to us. Reporters worldwide shared the same observation. Sure, Military Times and Defense News employ freelancers and correspondents working across the globe. But the stories of families devastated by the consequences of war are not the pieces we cover daily, or even weekly. We can offer no comfort or refuge.
Dec. 7, 2021 6:16 a.m.
“I am afraid to go to university to teach. The Taliban have repeatedly threatened to kill anyone who had work experience with the US military now that the American forces are gone. I have nowhere to go. We have no food, I need your help.”
To a skeptic, the emails could be a scam. And the authors know their plight sounds unbelievable, so the notes come with attachments. Photos of passports. Family members’ names. Company names. Copies of clearance forms from the U.S. State Department. PDFs of letters from NATO. Affidavits that this man “provides no threat to the safety or security of the United States.” Any crumb of information the writers imagine could possibly help.
Jan 24, 2022 11:13 a.m.
“some of our acquaintances reported us to the Taliban, that [we] are christian and the Taliban are following us ... During this time, we fled several provinces and are currently hiding in Mazar-e-Sharif safe place. Please help us to get out of Afghanistan, otherwise the Taliban will find us and hang us.”
In Washington, a town of policy papers and pre-supposed outcomes, everything can feel theoretical. But the threats in the emails are graphic. They are specific. And because of that, they pierce our conscience.
Jan 29, 2022, 11:38 a.m.
“During last 20 years we have seen a lots of people who work with foreigner specially who worked with U.S Govt. and Foreigners. Has been killed, punished tortured and slaughtered.… we are under terrorist and insurgence threat. I got phone calls from known sources and person who threat me, because I helped and worked with foreigner, special U.S Governments and International Organizations. They kill me or chop my head.”
For many, the war in Afghanistan was always confusing. Why were U.S. forces there? Why did troops remain as long as they did? And now, how do we make sense of the Americans’ departure?
The letters have dribbled in all year. They didn’t stop in September 2021. The latest arrived last week, this time asking for assistance from the United States.
Aug. 23, 2022 2:54 p.m.
“My friends and I have two families we’ve been trying for year to get out of Afghanistan. They are going to die before the SIV process is complete. The women are willing to leave their sons behind, in order to escape with their daughters. The Taliban, as you know, are going to force marriages.”
One credo of journalism is to give a voice to the voiceless. I share these notes today because our country is irreparably divided about who gets help from whom. And because too often we want to believe a story is over, after a day, a week or even a year.
The letters from Afghanistan remind us it is not.
Editor in chief Mike Gruss leads Sightline Media Group's stable of news outlets, which includes Army Times, Air Force Times, C4ISRNET, Defense News, Federal Times, Marine Corps, Military Times and Navy Times.