These Afghans helped the United States. Now they need our help.
CAMP ATTERBURY, Indiana — When the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan collapsed this summer, film producer Joan Lynch worked tirelessly from her desert home in the West to help people flee. The desperation of Afghans who had aided the United States during our 20-year occupation alarmed Lynch, a friend and colleague. She keeps her sources and approaches confidential as a journalist, but the results of her pro bono exfiltration efforts are awe-inspiring.
That Lynch felt compelled to such heroics as a private citizen after our government — the CIA, State Department, etc. — stopped returning calls from patriotic Afghans we exploited for years speaks volumes about our collective moral failure as a country. Nevertheless, we, as individual citizens, are not powerless. We can donate money and supplies and get to know and help the Afghans as they move into Hoosier cities and towns from this sprawling Indiana National Guard outpost.
Every major religious tradition and our shared respect for human dignity demands that we welcome the Afghans — many who face torture and certain death if they return to their mountainous, landlocked homeland at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. In Indiana, this is not our first experience with “welcoming the stranger.” The smaller flow of Syrian refugees several years ago readily comes to mind. Although we sometimes lurch about, as we are now, we eventually find our way.
Lynch, a Peabody-winning former ABC journalist and executive producer for ESPN’s 30 for 30, came into my friend circle several years ago because of her visual storytelling for WorkingNation, a nonprofit project in Los Angeles. Lynch’s partner working to liberate fleeing Afghans, Melissa Panzer, is also a film producer with WorkingNation. This week, Panzer coordinated with moms in Los Angeles to line up supplies such as diapers and strollers for the more than 150 pregnant women at Camp Atterbury whose newborns will enjoy the privilege of American citizenship.
Last week, Lynch texted and asked me to join her at the camp (she planned to fly in this week to help deliver supplies). The former journalist in me could not pass up an opportunity to meet and talk with these refugees, who have given up so much and will be my neighbors. (Some also will resettle in Texas, Virginia, and other states.) Muslim imams and resettlement operations such as Catholic Charities and Exodus Refugee Immigration are working diligently at the camp to help the Afghans rebuild their lives.
As we drove through the camp’s main gate, we saw children playing, women in headscarves bustling about purposefully in the summer heat, and Afghan men smoking cigarettes and talking in small groups outside their assigned barracks. With nearly 70 buildings, a reservoir, and a tunnel system, Atterbury serves as an urban warfare training facility. The camp has hosted thousands of regular and reserve Army forces before deployments to hot spots in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo.
Meeting my Muslim brothers was a highlight of my week. Naturally, the Afghans at Camp Atterbury are curious about American citizenship and green cards. They inquired about the availability of jobs. And they wanted to know how people in Indiana would react to their sudden arrival.
Lynch and I told them the United States is a nation of immigrants — that as they move into local communities, many people will welcome them. (Please, please, do not let them down.) I mentioned that Burmese residents in Indy have opened businesses and sent their children to public schools. (In fact, Indianapolis is home to the largest Burmese population outside of Myanmar, with about 24,000. Another 10,000 live in Fort Wayne.) Matt Hall, a program director for Indy Warrior Partnership, a nonprofit working at Camp Atterbury, told them about the Sikh community, which is large and well established.
Hall led troops in Afghanistan as an officer and infantry company commander embedded with the Afghan army. He served with Terry Best, a former senior enlisted infantryman. (After introducing us, and while Hall and Best were off at a meeting and we were with the refugees, Lynch recommended “Above the Best,” an Amazon Prime documentary that features video shot on the ground and from a helicopter gunship of a three-hour firefight involving Hall and Best in the Tagab Valley in the mid-2000s. The film (with this segment starting about 15 minutes in) helped us grasp Hall and Best’s commitment to aiding the Afghans.
The story of how Lynch and I came to visit is somewhat involved on Lynch’s end. On mine, it was simple: I was her guest and Hall’s. Lynch’s story will emerge in an interview with PBS NewsHour. But she and Hall came this week to deliver 400 prayer rugs and 300 Qurans that my employer had helped Hall’s nonprofit buy at Lynch’s request. Most Afghans at the camp had left home with the clothes on their backs, and it shows. One teenager wore a Decatur Central Hawks shirt. The men wore donated flip-flops, pants, and shirts. The Afghans told us they were grateful to have worship materials. I observed one young man place a prayer rug on the ground for the Islamic mid-afternoon call to prayer, or Asr. Camp officials also have set up buildings for Muslim prayer worship.
Cell phones seemed the only modern convenience. The Afghans told us they are using the camp’s wifi to stay connected with friends and family, some of whom are in hiding in Afghanistan, fearing death at the Taliban’s hands. (In stark contrast, as we drove from the camp, I saw a teenage Afghan girl posing for a selfie in an open field near the barracks. She made me smile.)
We spent several hours with Afghans (they call them “guests” at the camp, even though they cannot leave). After standing for a while, we seated ourselves on cots outside of the concrete block housing units. In the barracks, the men reside two to a room. The hope is this situation is temporary. But the Afghans told us that rumors abound and reliable information is difficult to come by. A shortage of apartments could make moving them into local communities more difficult, Hall said. The barracks alternate all-men in one unit/women and children in the next, with families living close to each other. There was a lot of laundry hanging out to dry. And the children were amusing themselves — pushing younger children in strollers across parking lots and down hallways, playing soccer in the fields, and chasing each other around structures while yelling.
One 2-year-old Afghan girl who did not belong with any of the men (no one knew who she was) plopped down during our discussion to bask in some adult attention, entirely at home in the company of strangers. Her belly laughter as she tossed a ball and poked and nudged the adults drew smiles as we talked.
The two most English-fluent men were a former Afghan general who might teach at Indiana University and a former Afghan intelligence operative reimagining his future. After hearing the younger intelligence officer talk about his life in Afghanistan before espionage, I told him I could see him in business development for a construction company, given his industry knowledge and remarkable soft skillset. We connected on LinkedIn, and I offered to introduce him around if he makes it to Indy. (Later, I sent him information about the Immigrant Welcome Center and jobs at local Amazon warehouses and FedEx distribution centers.) The general said he had shed his military uniform in Qatar. He now wears donated clothing. He and the intelligence officer say they told the CIA more than once what would happen if Americans abandoned the country. Neither man was surprised by the quick collapse. The general predicts the Taliban will not be able to govern — the United States will be back. The intelligence agent said his CIA contacts have stopped answering calls. He gets this is part of the intelligence business, but said a disappointing response would beat silence. “Even telling me no, there’s nothing we can do, would be better,” he said, adding the power dynamic is always lopsided. “They know where to find us when they need us.” The intelligence officer said the evacuation was frighteningly chaotic. As a result, the camp features a collection of people who helped the United States militarily or otherwise and people who were just lucky enough to be swept up in the airlift. Lynch noted that some people who were flown to countries in the Middle East and Central Eurasia claim they ended up on planes quite by accident and want to return to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Lynch is calling upon military officials and other contacts to get people out.
It was refreshing for us to see the area of the camp we visited was not overly militarized, and the Army is treating the Afghans like visitors and not captives. Camp Atterbury is tranquil compared to what the Afghans are used to, and they are thankful for their safety and steady improvements in the camp’s routines and livability. When the Army learned the larger clans were claiming so much food that refugees there by themselves or with smaller families were having trouble getting meals, it revamped the dining system, the men told us.
The Afghans miss their country, and they worry about relatives the rapid Taliban takeover forced them to leave behind. They are not so different from us, even though they have seen more chaos and carnage. It was easy to strike up conversations. They want to make friends here. They want what most Americans want: the freedom to worship, the ability to find work they enjoy, better lives for their children.
As we talked, one man brought meals in Styrofoam containers and invited us to join them (chicken with spices they were accustomed to, Brussels sprouts, fruit, and Naan, a kind of flatbread common in Central Asia). Soon after, we had hot tea, another regional custom. Conversations turned to the guerrilla warfare in their country going back to the Soviet invasion (although the list of would-be conquerors is centuries long). We talked about their work with the American military and told them we were disappointed by how the evacuation had unfolded. The men described the steep mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and treacherous valleys. They seemed disappointed to hear Indiana’s landscape is mostly flat. They noted the temperature and humidity in Indiana are similar to Kabul’s this time of year.
When we parted, we shook hands until our paths cross again — and I hope they do. One man traded texts with me so we would have each other’s cell phone numbers. “Thanks, brother, for coming,” he wrote.
Kevin Corcoran is a former investigative journalist living in Indianapolis whose work in the nonprofit sector supports nonprofit and public media.