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This Vermont Army Veteran Is Scrambling To Get His Former Afghan Interpreter, And Friend, To Safety

A photo of a crowd of people standing in front of a wall topped with barbed wire in Afghanistan outside of the Kabul airport.
Courtesy Jamil (VPR is not using his last name for safety reasons)
An Afghan interpreter and his family waited outside a security checkpoint at the airport in Kabul earlier this week. He was close enough to the gate see U.S. troops. After an explosion outside the airport Thursday, the family doesn’t think they can leave by plane. They might try to flee Afghanistan in a vehicle.

Zac Conaway has been checking his phone nonstop for the past week and a half. He’s been staying up late, and his wife is mostly taking care of the kids.

He says the most stressful part of his day is his drive home. It’s 45 minutes from his job — he runs environmental services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center — to where he lives in Groton, a small town in Caledonia County.

As soon as Conaway gets home, he checks his messages.

“Did I get any emails from the State Department? Did I get any emails from the operation center at the airport? Who did I hear from?” Conaway said.

This all started when Conaway saw a video posted on Facebook last week, from someone he knows well — his friend Jamil. VPR is not using his last name for safety reasons.

Jamil was Conaway’s interpreter in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, when Conaway was deployed there with the U.S. Army in 2009. They traveled together for a year, and have stayed in touch since, sharing photos of their kids and checking in.

The video Jamil posted showed chaos in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, which is not where Conaway was expecting his friend to be.

“I’d just assumed he’d left the country and was here somewhere,” Conaway said.

Because of Jamil’s work with the U.S. Army, Conaway says if he stays in Afghanistan, he’ll almost certainly be killed. So when Conaway realized Jamil was still there, he sent him a message right away.

“And I go, ‘Who do you have with you?’ And he goes, ‘My wife and seven kids,’” Conaway said. “And I go, ‘Let's do this, let's get him out of there.’”

Army vehicles drive down a road in Kunar Province, surrounded by tall mountains. And with a helicopter overhead.
Courtesy Zac Conaway
Zac Conaway traveled throughout the Kunar Province during his deployment in Afghanistan in 2009. His interpreter, Jamil, was on the road with him for nearly a year.

Jamil traveled with his family to Kabul earlier this year, so he could find his way out of the country. But he was still waiting on a response about his visa from the State Department. He hadn’t been able to get passports for his family.

Then the capital fell. The banks shut down, so Jamil just had a couple hundred American dollars on him, and that was it.

From Vermont, Conaway has been gathering paperwork, making sure Jamil has food and water, and connecting him with American troops on the ground.

This help also poses a real risk for Jamil and his family.

“Just making sure that the things that I'm doing aren't going to get leaked to the Taliban checkpoint or somebody that's going to come find him and could lead to his capture, kidnap or death,” Conaway said. “Knowing that realization is a distinct possibility is hard. It's hard to think through.”

Earlier this week, Jamil made it to just outside a security checkpoint at the airport with his wife and kids. They brought enough food and water to last three days.

Jamil sent Conaway a picture from where he stood Wednesday. It was the middle of the night, and Jamil’s face and beard were covered in dust. He showed his teeth, like he was trying to smile, but you can tell, he was tired. At that point, Conaway says, he’d been standing outside the gate for 14 hours.

By Thursday morning in Afghanistan, Jamil had spoken to U.S. troops. They told him the gate might open later that day, and Conaway thought he had a good chance of getting through.

More from VPR: 'We Have No Guarantees': One Vermonter's Effort To Help Women Judges Flee Afghanistan

Then there was an explosion at the airport. Two suicide bombs went off, according to the Pentagon. One was at the same gate where Jamil and his family were waiting.

Conaway got a call from Jamil a few hours later. Jamil had taken his family to a safe room while he checked another entrance to the airport. That's why they missed the blast.

“They were lucky, very lucky,” Conaway said. “But now they’re in their safe place in the city, away from all of the danger, I think, at this point.”

Conaway doesn’t think they’ll be able to get out through the airport any more. He’s trying to find a vehicle so Jamil and his family can get out of the country by land. That’s the plan, at least for now.

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp @KruppLexi.

Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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