Danna Harman was in a water taxi vacationing in Venice last August when her phone began to beep. The United States was about to withdraw from Afghanistan, and she was getting frantic pleas for help from young Afghan women she had met three years earlier while writing a story for The New York Times. The women, who had been members of Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team, feared retribution from the country’s new Taliban leaders because of the media attention they’d received when they competed overseas.
We are just so scared
The Taliban can do anything
Please please help me
Harman, a 52-year-old Israeli-American journalist who has reported all over the world, contacted a few people she knew in Afghanistan and managed to get the women seats on evacuation buses to the Kabul airport. During those last chaotic weeks of August, the United States and other governments were running a series of evacuation flights, and the airport offered the surest way out.
But the scene at the airport was desperate and dangerous. Many buses circled for hours without getting in. After a suicide bomb exploded at a main gate, killing at least 183 people, escape became even harder. The women were stuck.
The women, who had been members of Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team, feared retribution from the country’s new Taliban leaders.
The messages on Harman’s phone became increasingly panicked. Back home in London, she couldn’t sleep. She was determined to help, but she didn’t know how. She called anyone she could think of, from a friend who sold jewelry to a Russian oligarch, to an old boyfriend who worked for Trump, to a Hollywood agent, and even me, because I am a friend who grew up in Canada, and she thought Canada could be a final destination.
She wasn’t alone. The U.S. and its allies were able to evacuate only a fraction of the many thousands of people trying to escape. This left others turning to foreigners who, like Harman, had no experience rescuing people from war zones but who found themselves scrambling to save their friends.
“It was crazy,” said Harman. “We were all in the dark. I had no idea what I was doing.”
But she kept on doing it: mining her contacts, asking for help, hearing every “no” as “yes.” As the world grows inured and even resigned to the plight of Ukrainians fighting Russia’s invasion, Harman’s example is a reminder that untrained but determined individuals can sometimes accomplish more than they ever imagined.
Harman called companies she hoped might hire the women and expedite visas, news organizations she had heard were still flying people out. But nothing gelled until her friends Charlene Seidle, a foundation executive in the San Diego area, and Roni Aboulafia, a documentary filmmaker in Tel Aviv, suggested she contact Yotam Polizer, the C.E.O. of IsraAID, a humanitarian-relief NGO based in Israel. Polizer’s extensive diplomatic connections opened crucial new doors.
Connected by WhatsApp while googling maps of Afghanistan, Harman, Polizer, Aboulafia, and Seidle—who no longer trusted the Kabul airport as an escape route—discussed the best way of escaping by land. Iran and Pakistan were out of the question for Israelis. Early conversations with officials in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan quickly stalled. But when a Russian oligarch whom Harman had met at a London party contacted another oligarch, who called his friend the president of Tajikistan, passage through Tajikistan emerged as a possibility.
“It was crazy. We were all in the dark. I had no idea what I was doing.”
Polizer contacted a colleague from a previous relief effort, who found an Afghan refugee who agreed to return to Afghanistan and lead the operation. Seidle drew up a spreadsheet listing the evacuees, their ID numbers, and what about their work, education, or achievement made them a target for the Taliban. But how to get them to the border? They would need a bus and driver. They’d need money for transportation, lodging, and bribes. They’d need passports.
Harman and Polizer reached the Afghan ambassador to Russia, who’d just lost his job but still had the keys to his embassy, where he instructed his staff to make new passports for those who needed them. A Canadian-Israeli philanthropist and cyclist, Sylvan Adams, offered to finance the operation as long as members of Afghanistan’s all-girls cycling team were added to the list. An Afghan pop star, Shakiba Teimori, was also included when worried fans pressed another person aiding the operation to add her to the list.
Finally, only hours after the U.S. officially withdrew its diplomatic presence and flew its last evacuation plane out of the country, messages went out to everyone on the list explaining where and when to meet Harman’s bus.
But even as people boarded the bus, their destination had still not been finalized. Tajik officials wouldn’t allow them into the country if there was any risk they might try to stay, and this meant providing clear assurances of where they’d be going next.
In a sad echo of Harman’s grandparents’ experience writing letters to universities around the world in a futile attempt to flee pre–World War II Poland (“They all perished,” Harman said. “My mother grew up with hardly any relatives”), she put out feelers to the governments of the U.S., the U.K., Israel, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Iceland, Mexico, Rwanda, Brazil, Bahrain, and Jordan to see if anyone would take the refugees. But they all refused.
They’d need money for transportation, lodging, and bribes. They’d need passports.
Harman saw no reason to tell this to the group. The important thing was to get them to the border. But there were stragglers. One member of the robotics team, Rodaba Noori, was making her third attempt to get to the airport. She had heard that German planes were still taking off.
“Danna said, ‘Get off this bus and go to another bus that will drive you to Tajikistan,’” Noori told me. “I wanted to stay on the bus I was on because an airplane would be an easier way to leave the country. But Danna said, ‘No, I don’t trust the airport anymore. Get off this bus, take a taxi to the other bus, and hurry up or you will miss it and then you will be stuck.’” Noori obeyed and reached the evacuation bus just as the driver was about to pull away.
As 42 passengers started the nine-hour trek to the border, Harman continued looking for a final destination. She focused on Canada, calling lawyers from coast to coast and shocking them with her chutzpah. “In Canada, we stand on line and wait our turn,” Michelle Segal, a lawyer in Vancouver, explained. Segal nevertheless handed her toddlers over to her husband so she could work around the clock lobbying the Canadian government. Finally, as the evacuation bus made its way to the Afghan border, a letter came from Ottawa saying that Harman’s group “may be eligible” for re-settlement. “It wasn’t anything official,” says Harman, “but it could be finessed.”
“No, I don’t trust the airport anymore. Get off this bus.”
Tajikistan agreed to let the group in. The bus dropped them off in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, where the Taliban followed and harassed them. But after several days moving from shelter to shelter, the evacuees traveled by minivan in groups of five to the border, which they finally crossed.
Harman and Aboulafia greeted them in Dushanbe, the capital, with hugs and shrieks of joy, and the Tajik government—assuming from all the high-level calls that they must have admitted a group of V.I.P.’s—threw a lavish welcoming banquet in a gilded wedding hall. Surrounded by marble, gold leaf, and massive platters of food, members of the cycling team danced with a Tajik journalist to the singing of the Afghan pop star.
The operation had been so successful that Harman decided to do it again. She was already hearing from Afghans in Kabul who were supposed to have been on the bus but missed it.
I swear the Taliban will kill my brother.
Please help my family. They serve US forces from last 13 years, I will attach their documents.
How hard would it be to repeat the performance? “Just cut and paste,” she says sarcastically. Looking back, Harman is amazed at her own naïveté.
Three weeks later, three more buses, loaded with evacuees—including more relatives of the robotics and cycling girls, and more individuals with friends who assisted the operation—started on the journey to the border with the intention of repeating the plan. But by now the Taliban were better organized, and everything went wrong.
The operation had been so successful, Harman decided to do it again. Looking back, she is amazed at her own naïveté.
In Kunduz, armed fighters found the dilapidated safe house and forced all the men outside, demanding their names, IDs, and the names of the mosques back home where they prayed. Everyone was instructed by the Taliban to return to Kabul. Some obeyed, taking taxis to the local bus station and returning home. But Harman, who was just across the border, urged those she could contact to find a way to placate the Taliban, find some other place to spend the night, and wait for new instructions.
“We were so scared,” said Javed Khan, a 28-year-old father whose newborn baby was burning with fever. “The Taliban wouldn’t let me get medicine for my daughter. They slapped me and said, ‘If I see you again and don’t kill you, I will be your wife.’ That means ‘For sure I will kill you.’ This was the first time I was responsible for my whole family, and I wanted to take them home to Kabul. But Danna said, no, don’t do that or you will never have the chance to leave again. She said, ‘I’m sorry we don’t know how to help you tonight, but if you find somewhere to spend the night, we will have a new plan in the morning.’”
Khan and his family spent the night with relatives nearby. Another young father, Fariedoon Hakimi, found a hotel for the others. The next morning, Harman instructed everyone to board a bus to the airport at Mazar-i-Sharif, where they could then fly to Dushanbe. Harman, Polizer, and Aboulafia argued about what to do with the passports they were still holding, but which the group would need at the airport. “We hadn’t slept,” Harman said. “We hadn’t eaten. We were yelling at each other about what to do, and we made a terrible mistake. We gave the passports to a taxi driver to drive over the border.”
“We hadn’t slept. We hadn’t eaten. We were yelling at each other about what to do, and we made a terrible mistake.”
The Taliban in Kunduz seized the passports and arrested the driver. Panic spread on both sides of the border. Polizer pulled out all the diplomatic stops and contacted a former world leader, who contacted a current head of state, who leaned on the Taliban to release the documents. But nothing worked until a number of young Afghan men in the group proved themselves to be partners in chutzpah. Javed Khan was one of them—calling old classmates who called cousins who called friends who finally reached members of the Taliban who agreed to return Khan’s family’s passports if he traveled from Mazar back to Kunduz to get them.
Against the pleas of his wife, who had lost her own father when she was little and didn’t want their daughter to suffer the same fate, Khan hired an old man to drive him through the night to Kunduz to meet the Taliban fighters who were holding his documents.
“I was so scared,” said Khan, who is epileptic and was worried that the stress and lack of sleep might bring on a seizure. “Danna talked to me the whole ride, the whole night. She kept saying, ‘Javed, I know you can do this. You are so strong, you are so brave. I know you can do this.’”
Khan retrieved his family’s passports. Other brave men did the same. The group flew to Dushanbe, and then on to temporary quarters in Albania.
“She kept saying, ‘Javed, I know you can do this. You are so strong, you are so brave. I know you can do this.’”
Sobered by the dangers of the last operation and troubled by the growing awareness of just how difficult re-settlement was going to be, Harman didn’t see how she could conduct any more evacuations. But as the Taliban became more entrenched and she sensed that her exit routes would soon be shutting down, she didn’t see how she could not. Albania offered to grant 22 more visas. But she had 39 people on a new list. So she called Dorian Duçka, Albania’s former deputy minister of energy and industry.
“The NGOs did a great job evacuating people,” Duçka told me later. “It was their job. This was not Danna’s job. But it was her personal mission to help as many people as possible, and she devoted all her time, energy, and network to making this happen. When you see someone with no ulterior motive, who only wants to help people, then you want to help them. So I went to see the prime minister and asked if we could give her all the visas she needs.”
With that, she was able to fly 39 Afghans out, this time through Pakistan. But there were troubles and delays, as always. Harman once again called whomever she could think of. “You contact so many people you’ll probably never know whose effort ended up making a difference,” she explained. “So you give credit to everyone.”
“When you see someone with no ulterior motive, who only wants to help people, then you want to help them.”
She stayed in Albania with the refugees, working on the complicated business of re-settlement. “It’s amazing how much you can love people you’ve only known a short time,” she said. Though she never had children of her own, she became a mother and camp counselor to hundreds. She mediated fights over who took too much food in the dining hall; organized virtual yoga, Pilates, and Zumba classes; and listened to women cry about unrequited love, missing home, and worries about their hair falling out from stress.
When Harman noticed that many people weren’t eating their rice (“These are the most humble, grateful people, but they are very, very snobby when it comes to their rice”), she found an Afghan vendor in London who sells the longer, chewier kind that many Afghans prefer, and whenever she went home to visit her husband, Josh Berger, a film producer, she brought back as many pounds of it as she could carry.
Of the 262 people she managed to evacuate, about 200 re-settled in Canada, while others went to the U.S. and European countries. Harman finally returned home to London, her phone filling with messages from people calling her “hero mom” and “an angel in a human’s body,” and thanking her for saving their life.
“It should not have fallen on private efforts like ours to rescue people who should have been rescued by governments,” she says. “Individuals saving individuals or people they see on Facebook is not the way to handle this kind of tragedy. You don’t teach people to dream big and then just walk away.”
Meanwhile, a year into Taliban rule, Afghanistan is in economic collapse, and civilians are being abducted, imprisoned, and killed. People who aided Western governments continue to be hunted down. Women and girls have been restricted from attending school and are suffering from isolation, depression and in some cases, forced weddings to Taliban fighters. This week, Save the Children, a U.S.-based charity, reported that 97 percent of Afghans are struggling to feed their families, and girls are systematically receiving less food than boys are. The messages on Harman’s phone have become more desperate than ever.
Does anyone know who can help me, my family is hungry.
The Taliban killed my brother, please help me, I am very unsafe.
Bad Afghans are getting worse day by day. Please help me you are my only hope.
Lisa Wolfe is a New York–based writer