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    Borderland Residents Shut Down Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s Illegal Wall / TheIntercept · Wednesday, 21 December - 11:01 · 28 minutes

Last week, the Justice Department sued the state of Arizona and its governor, Doug Ducey, for installing a shipping container wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This week on Intercepted: Ryan Devereaux, an investigative reporter with The Intercept, breaks down Ducey’s makeshift, multimillion-dollar container wall. Devereaux tells the story of everyday people and community members who live along the border, and how they stood up to the governor and won.

Ryan Deveraux: Michael and Christie Brown resisted putting a barrier around their beloved desert home for years, but the nights were getting too dangerous. It was a question of safety. They needed a fence.

Michael Brown : My house is about ten miles north of the border.

RD: The Browns live at the foot of the rugged Huachuca Mountains in Cochise County, Arizona. Like many of their neighbors, the Browns’s worry was javelinas — tenacious borderland omnivores often mistaken for wild pigs. Their dogs had been attacked. Their garden was in peril. Javelina damage is the kind of thing that keeps the Browns up at night. A purported wave of migrants laying siege to their community is not.

MB : In ten years I’ve only seen one migrant.

RD: But in late October, Gov. Doug Ducey began unloading thousands of shipping containers on the border in the Coronado National Forest. The container wall was supposed to thwart an alleged “invasion” of immigrants on the Brown’s doorsteps.

Topped with concertina wire and welded together, the nearly 9,000-pound boxes would be stacked two-high on land where the Browns chop wood every winter, where they took their sons hiking and camping as kids, and where they still hike and camp to this day.

MB: This area I’ve cut wood there for probably ten years. So I’m out there a few times each year and it’s just a really peaceful, quiet, beautiful area — grasslands, oaks.

RD: The valley where Ducey was setting his sights was one of the few protected desert ecosystems still intact after the Trump years.

MB : And on October 24th we heard that Governor Ducey had started stacking containers west of the Coronado National Monument.

RD: Two days after Ducey’s project began, the Browns climbed in their truck and set off into the mountains to see it for themselves.

MB : And we drove down to the border, we got close to the border and stopped for a guard — a private security guard.

[Audio from construction site plays]

RD: The scene was horrifying. Heavy duty pickups were ripping down the border road hauling in shipping containers on trailers. The containers were then transferred onto a large military truck that raced down the road running parallel to the border, blaring a loud horn as it passed.

At the end of the line, the containers were wrapped in a thick chain and hoisted by backhoes. Swinging precariously through the air, they were plopped in the dirt then shoved into place with a forklift. The clanking and screeching of metal on metal filled the otherwise quiet landscape. The grinding of the heavy vehicles on the desert soil enveloped the entire area in a thick cloud of fine dust.

As they neared the border, the Browns were stopped at an ad hoc checkpoint. A bald man, dressed in black with reflective sunglasses and body armor, approached.

Christie Brown: Yeah, we can see your project…

MB: You don’t have any dust control here. You don’t have any signs posted up.

Security Guard: There are signs posted up.

MB: Where?

CB: No there’s not. [CROSS TALK] We came all the way back here and there are no signs.

RD: The guard wore no insignia and refused to say who he worked for. Michael asked if he could drive up to the containers and take some photos.

MB: Can I drive up and look at it?

Security Guard: No, you can’t.

MB: Why not?

Security Guard: I’m not answering any more questions, sir.

RD: Christie was incensed.

CB: I’ll walk up there and take a picture of your sign.

Security Guard: This is a dangerous area, ma’am.

CB: Yeah, we just passed some of your dangerous drivers on the road, blowing dust everywhere, driving fast.

RD: Suited with walkie talkies and a body cam, the guard shrugged.

Security Guard: I mean, this is a desert.

CB: This is our national land.

Security Guard: This is also the state of Arizona.

CB: No it is not. This is federal property.

Security Guard: Are you a federal employee?

Michael Brown: I was and I do know the laws.

Security Guard: OK.

CB: And I know. I read the papers and I know this is an illegal operation and I don’t know why the national forest isn’t down here telling you to get the hell off their land.

[Intercepted theme music plays]

Ryan Deveraux: This is Intercepted.

I’m Ryan Devereaux, an investigative journalist with The Intercept.

For the past few months, I’ve been digging into Governor Ducey’s make-shift container wall. Ducey, who’s leaving office in January, has committed at least $95 million to this effort.

For seven weeks, the Biden administration watched as the governor broke law after law — laying a massive, unauthorized wall across a remote stretch of treasured public land. In the face of federal inaction, local residents put their bodies on the line to stop the project. Last week, after nearly two months of silence, the U.S. government filed a lawsuit against the governor demanding that the construction be halted.

As of this week, Ducey’s wall of containers still stands — though lawyers for the state have informed the federal government that construction on the project has ceased. Whether the existing containers will be taken down — and if so, when — remains to be seen.

Arizona’s wall of shipping containers is a story about immigration and conservation, of public lands and insurrection. But as the weeks went by, it turned into something more.

In the shadow of Ducey’s wall, a roughly four-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border became the setting for a remarkable and unlikely story of everyday people who, with no one to count on but each other, stood up against the most powerful man in their state and won. This is their story.

[Inquisitive music begins]

Michael Brown has lived in southern Arizona for nearly 50 years and knows as much about border walls as anyone. As an inspector and contract manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for two decades, he oversaw the construction of Border Patrol stations. In 2007, he installed the first federally contracted wall in Arizona. He continued to oversee border wall construction across the southwest before retiring in the spring of 2021.

Looking out across the landscape, Michael saw a reckless operation that he would have shut down in a heartbeat. After their encounter with the guard at the container wall, Michael decided to walk through the brush, snapping photos of birds while taking in evidence of environmental damage.

MB : And Christi stayed at the truck. And shortly after I started hiking, a truck pulled up close to her and just sat there and watched her.

RD: A man parked nearby and climbed into the bed of his truck with a pair of binoculars. He watched Christie for an hour until Michael returned, then continued to watch as they drove away. An hour later, the Browns were back home when the doorbell rang.

MB : And we were home for about 20 minutes, and the doorbell rang and there were two deputy sheriffs and they said that my truck had been reported at the hotel of these border workers. And they came in. I asked them in.

RD: It was Sheriff Mark Dannels’ heavily subsidized and much-advertised border strike force. The deputies told the 67-year-old they’d received a complaint that a truck like his, carrying four suspicious men, was spotted outside a hotel where the governor’s contractors were staying. The men were frightened.

MB : They asked me if I had been down to the border. And I said I had. I told them we had spoken to a guard. I actually showed them a video of us speaking to the guard. Pretty shortly a third deputy pulled up at my house, which I really thought was odd, to send three deputies out.

And so we talked for a bit. I showed them my house. They like the adobes and they soon afterwards left.

RD: Michael explained that he and Christie had simply gone to see the container wall. They never stopped at a motel. He showed the deputies cellphone video of their interaction with the guard. Before long, the deputies’ demeanor softened, they turned friendly and appeared satisfied. As they left, one of the men remarked to Michael that the governor’s wall was a “sensitive political situation.”

Sitting at his dining room table a month later, Michael was still processing the deputies’ visit.

MB : I knew the guards out there had taken my license plate number and made up something, I guess. So it was kind of surprising to have three deputies here.

RD: In the intervening weeks, Ducey had cut across nearly three miles of pristine desert despite multiple warnings from the U.S. Forest Service that he was breaking the law. But at this point the feds were doing nothing to stop him. The Browns were shocked.

MB : The Forest Service is mandated to preserve and to protect our national lands. These lands should be here for future generations.

RD: In the face of inaction, the Browns were left with one choice: gather as many friends, neighbors, and allies as they could and stop the governor themselves.

While the Browns were taking in their first ground-level glimpses of Ducey’s wall, Russ McSpadden was monitoring the scene from above.

Russ McSpadden: I’ve been, I’ve been coming, um, to the site of, uh, construction activity here every week for a bit more than a month now.

RD: Russ works for the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. He was documenting the construction crew’s activity.

RM: They’ve got bulldozers knocking over oak trees and forest service land and illegally building new roads, and then obviously placing shipping containers illegally at the border — just south of here, where they’ve completed a large section of wall runs, you know, right through jaguar critical habitat.

RD: Ducey selected AshBritt, a Florida-based disaster response company with significant ties to the Republican Party, for the Coronado container installation. When I reached out with questions, AshBritt directed me to contract the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, the state agency responsible for the project. The department, in turn, directed me to the governor’s office.

Ducey’s office did not respond to questions for this story. A spokesperson for the governor did, however, speak to me during my earlier reporting on the container wall. Ducey’s press secretary, C.J. Karamargin, defended the project and said that the Biden administration had failed in its duty to secure the border, and that left the governor with no choice but to build a border wall himself.

During the Trump years, Russ was among a network of Arizona advocates who fought to counter the narrative that the former president’s vows to “build the wall” had amounted to nothing. They did so with compelling visual evidence, documenting the Department of Homeland Security tearing through many of the most treasured desert ecosystems on the planet, blowing up national monuments, and depleting a sacred Native American oasis.

RM: It’s [a] globally recognized biodiversity hotspot for species, for species of cats, ocelot, jaguar, mountain lion, and bobcat live here, bears live here.

RD: Russ’s encyclopedic knowledge of Arizona’s backcountry is matched by his passion for the animals that live there. From iridescent bugs to lightning-fast pronghorn, Russ loves them all. But one borderland resident stands above all others: el tigre de la frontera, the jaguar.

RM: It’s [a] federally protected habitat for this endangered species. And so, as part of my work is documenting and understanding the presence of jaguars in southern Arizona. There’s a really small number that exists in this state, and we’ve gotten photos and videos with trail cameras of a wild jaguar just to the mountains, just to the north of here.

RD: The Center for Biological Diversity has been central in the fight to return the big cats to their historic range across the American Southwest. As part of the Center’s legal efforts, the federal government was forced to designate about twelve hundred square miles in Arizona and New Mexico as critical jaguar habitat in 2014, limiting the kinds of activity permitted there.

That habitat included land on the western slope of the Huachuca Mountains in the Coronado National Forest where Ducey began dropping his containers on October 24.

[Sound of airplane]

Russ was in a single-engine airplane flying low over the border when the project began. His phone rang. Robin Silver, a co-founder of the Center, was on the line. He told Russ to get to Coronado right away. Tell the pilot to land, he said, or better yet, fly to the installation site.

I happened to be in the air with Russ that day. For more than a month, we had both been trying to confirm rumors that Ducey was preparing a mass deployment of containers somewhere outside Nogales, likely in the Coronado National Forest. Hundreds of the metal boxes had been stored at an unused armory in the border city. But those boxes began quietly disappearing. The governor’s office was being cagey, confirming that Ducey was eyeing locations but refusing to confirm where.

Russ and I took an airplane tour to scout for signs of activity in the Pajarito Mountains. By the time we touched back down in Tucson, it was clear we should have been flying further east.

Two days after our flight, I climbed into Russ’s work truck. Setting off in the morning, we pulled into the Coronado National Memorial before noon, then hiked south along a ridge with a commanding view over the San Rafael Valley.

[Sound of hiking]

Though we were miles from the site, the noise of Ducey’s project echoed through the valley. One after another, pickups pulling containers came rumbling down the Forest Service road that leads to the border. Plumes of dust curled above them. Russ set his backpack in the grass and unloaded his drone. I leaned against a wire fence and squinted into the valley. In just two days, Ducey’s contractors had fashioned a shipping container fort to serve as their base of operations. Armed guards waited at the entrance.

[Sound of drone]

The drone zipped into the air and within seconds was out of sight. We spent two hours on the ridge watching Ducey’s trucks transform wilderness to junkyard. Trump’s wall building was jarring for anyone who saw it up close, but this ramshackle operation was something else entirely.

Fox 10 Phoenix Anchor : The border battle between Governor Ducey and the federal government rages on tonight.

Fox 10 Phoenix Anchor: Today, the governor filed a lawsuit after the feds ordered Arizona to take down the double-stacked shipping containers that are filling the gaps along the border.

RD: On the Friday before Governor Ducey’s container installation began, a team of private attorneys filed a lawsuit in Arizona federal court on behalf of the governor against the Biden administration’s land management agencies.

Ducey was arguing that the federal land along the border actually falls under state jurisdiction, particularly in times of emergency and cases of invasion. Ducey declared both were present in Arizona in August.

Governor Ducey : The southern border is a federal responsibility. But in Arizona we’re taking every action possible – and I would say aggressive action – to protect this community, our state, and the law-enforcement professionals who keep us safe.

RD: The governor was saying all of this, despite the fact that the Biden administration was already in the process of filling those gaps. Ducey’s reading of the law would grant border governors unprecedented power to sidestep federal statutes that have governed public lands for generations. The Center for Biological Diversity quickly filed suit against Ducey citing the threat to jaguar habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

RM: The Center for Biological Diversity filed a 60 day notice of intent to sue for obstructing important migration corridors for jaguar and ocelot. This is an ESA, Endangered Species Act, violation.

RD: The Center also intervened as defendants in the governor’s lawsuit against the feds. Russ submitted a declaration in the case. That declaration was filed November 1, seven days before the midterm elections. Silver – the co-founder of the Center – was sending his images from the field directly to Biden’s top land managers, including the Ducey lawsuit defendants, as well as Department of Interior Secretary Deb Halaand.

With four decades of experience suing the federal government, often successfully, Silver’s connections in Washington ran deep. The Center’s longtime co-founder demanded that the feds do their job and stop Ducey. The message he got back was clear: wait until the elections are through.

Chris Hayes, MSNBC: We are now projecting that Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs is in fact the winner in the Arizona gubernatorial race, this will make her [fade out].

RD: Less than 24 hours after Arizona’s polls closed on November 8, Russ and I were on the ground in Coronado.

[Sound of truck blaring horn]

This time, instead of watching from the ridge, we drove directly to the site. Up close, the scene had a Mad Max feel. Swirling dust. A wall of containers crowned with razor wire. Trees snapped, trampled, and shoved into mangled heaps. The contractors had put down more than a mile of boxes since our last visit. The desert washes that provide run off for monsoon rains were blocked. Most startling of all were the bus-sized military vehicles racing down the narrow road running along the border. It felt genuinely unsafe for all living things in the area, including the workers.

[Sounds of trucks]

Security Guard: This area is very dangerous.

RM: Understand, but this is Forest Service. They can stop.

Security Guard: Please, don’t walk through here.

RD: We passed through the container fort on the way back to our vehicles. The contractors exploded, shouting that we couldn’t be there and that they would call the sheriff.

RM : We were walking, you know, we weren’t on the road. We were, we were just walking through back to our cars and, you know, one guy just started yelling and, and telling us to, to get outta here.

And I was pretty adamant that we were on Forest Service land and if he wasn’t Forest Service, he couldn’t tell us to do that. And, he threatened, he threatened the group, you know, it was a couple of us, and he said he’d put some people in the hospital recently and he was ready to do it again. You know, I mean, it was just a threat. It didn’t feel, I didn’t feel like he really meant it. He was just being a shithead. [Laughs]

[Suspenseful music starts]

RD: By mid-November, the federal government still hadn’t stepped in. Deep in the Huachucas, close encounters with Ducey’s project were beginning to have a radicalizing effect.

North of Ducey’s container wall, a zigzagging road leads the way to Tucson. The views in Lyle Canyon are stunning, but the backcountry highway is barely two lanes. The curves are blind. The shoulder is marked by drop offs and walls of earth. There are no lights.

Martin Brown — no relation to Michael and Christie — lives in the canyon and teaches high school art in Tucson. He treasures his scenic commute, but it requires taking off before dawn. The most dangerous portion of his drive is in the canyon. Last month, he nearly died there.

MB : Yeah, I would say that was the closest I’ve come to death, ever, you know. Every morning, I pass this convoy of trucks and I am terrified now after that experience. I just happened to go down a hill and around the corner and there was a truck in my lane. And if I hadn’t been coffee’d up and alert that day, I wouldn’t have made it, it would have hit me head-on. But I swerved off the road just in time and managed to not overcorrect – I don’t know how.

RD: Martin’s neighbor, Kate Scott, had her own close call with the governor’s contractors. She was outraged. Her greatest worry though was the environmental damage that the container wall was causing.

Kate Scott : Arizona is blessed with along the border having all these incredible wildlife refuges, national monuments. You name it, we have it. And we were mortally wounded.

RD: A veterinary technician by training, Kate runs the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, where she rehabilitates injured raptors.

KS: This is inhumane. It’s a crime against nature. Everyone in America should be mad because it’s going through their national forest and done in such a anti-democratic manner. It might as well be,  it’s another form of insurrection to me. It’s like you’re saying, “I’m not going to follow the rule of law, President Biden.”

RD: Kate wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Jennifer Wrenn and her husband and Andy Kayner live further south down Lyle Canyon. They are among Arizona’s closest residents to Ducey’s wall. For more than a month, their mornings began with the clamoring of convoys passing their front door. They continued non-stop until sundown.

Last month, Jennifer put out an email call to her neighbors to see what could be done. She and Kate started talking. The Browns were looped in. Together, they began brainstorming the possibility of a protest at the construction site. Nobody knew, for sure, what that would look like. Would the contractors run them off? Would they call the sheriff? The group decided they needed to do a test run.

[Upbeat music begins]

On the morning of Sunday, November 20, the neighbors, along with the Browns, Russ from the Center for a Biological Diversity, and a handful of others, drove out to the container wall. As usual, they were met by one of the site’s private security contractors. This time, however, they had numbers.

Security Guard: We talk to the Border Patrol, the sheriff, the Forest Service,” the guard said. Everybody comes out here and they all have our back.

Protester: You’ve been given injunctions against this!

Security Guard: I haven’t been given anything. I am security. That’s it. I’m out here trying to support my family. That’s it.


Security Guard: I’m not doing anything. I’m doing my job.

Protester: But your job is protecting an illegal operation.

Security Guard: Whether or not it’s illegal, it’s state-funded and whatever the case is.

RD: Michael Brown asked the man who he worked for.

Security Guard: I work for a security company.

MB : Who?

Security Guard : I was in the Marine Corps.

MB: What’s the name of your company?

Security Guard: I don’t need to tell you that. It’s a private company.

RD: The residents stuck around as one hour bled into the next. They noticed the construction stopped. At 3pm., the contractors packed up and left. They hadn’t put down a single container since the locals arrived.

The test run at Coronado had been a revelation for the valley’s agitators: not only was protest possible, if people went to the site the work stopped. Kate circulated a call to action to trusted contacts. On the morning of November 29, the protesters converged on the container wall. Everybody had their signs. Many were of retirement age.

Kate Brown: Well I want you all to know how thankful and grateful I am for you to be here today.

RD: The sound of approaching trucks came echoing down the canyon. The protesters scrambled to their vehicles. At 10:30 a.m., they reached the ad hoc checkpoint that led to the wall. They didn’t stop.

A private security contractor with a pistol on his belt held a walkie talkie to his ear. A voice crackled through the receiver.

RM : What’s going on this way, this is closed?

Walkie Talkie Voice : “They got all their vehicles coming in. And they’re heading…”

RD : One of the massive military vehicles that ran containers to the end of the wall was preparing a delivery. The protesters stood in its way. The vehicle stopped. With the gargantuan container-mover half-parked on the border road, its one working headlight still on, Kate delivered an impassioned speech while the private security guards wandered over to the protesters’ cars and began eyeing their license plates.

KS: This is your public land. They are here illegally, they have no say over you at all: your body, your person, your car, your equipment, your anything.

[Sound of sheriff pulling up]

Tim Williams: Tim Williams, I’m with the  Cochise County Sheriff office. Is there like a head guy around with you guys here? Someone that’s in charge.

RD: About two hours after the protesters arrived, a black pickup with tinted windows pulled into the site. Two men stepped out. Both wore ballcaps and beards. Badges swung from their necks as they approached. The larger of the two introduced himself as Sergeant Tim Williams, head of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department’s Southeastern Arizona Border Regional Enforcement task force. That’s a special operations unit better known as SABRE. It was the same unit that visited the Browns’ home a month before. Williams explained that his office got a call about the protesters.

TW: So we understand that you guys are protesting here.  We just request that you guys keep it kind of civil and try not to get hurt or do anything like that stuff.


Michael Brown: We are. This is totally civil.

Tim Williams: And we’re just requesting that on our side. You guys got any questions for us? No, alright.

RD: Michael did have a question.

Michael Brown: Well, actually I do. Do you know how many people actually cross from that mountain west?

Tim Williams: Yeah, give or take right around 1,000 a month that we know of, probably, between 500 and 1,000 in this corridor here.

RD: Over the next hour, Williams painted a portrait of Coronado as a war zone, invoking language justifying lethal force that I often encountered covering U.S. drone strikes.

Protester: So how do you know that information?

Tim Williams: I actually run the border unit for the Sheriff’s office, so if you actually look up SABRE. It’s Southern Arizona Border Region Enforcement, there’s a whole bunch of things out there. We run a national camera system from all over the state of Arizona. So we actually see them on our cameras. And we have cameras all over this area watching. So we are actually able to document. So when I say that, you know, how many, we actually document how many come across.

So in the Cochise County area alone we’re up in the thousands that we see every month. And these guys are the ones decked out in camouflage. They all run from us. They’re all in groups. Most of them are what we call military-aged males.They’re between the ages of like 15 and 25 and they’re all coming across in large groups.

RD: Michael interjected.

MB: I cut wood out here. I’ve been doing it for 10-12 years.

TW : Yeah.

MB: I’ve only seen one.

TW : Yeah, let me see if I still have the picture…

RD: Williams insisted Cochise County was suffering a wave of unauthorized border crossers of historic proportions.

RD: What do you attribute that explosion to?

TW: You know, a lot of them, the illegals will tell you directly that it’s President Biden has changed policy.

RD: Which policy?

TW: The immigration. They feel like they come across – they’ll actually tell you that it’s changed, that’s what they’re actually coming across, is that President Biden has made it easier for them to be here.

RD: When the topic turned to the container wall rising up before us, Williams suddenly became guarded.

TW: So opinions are something I don’t talk about. But you can absolutely ask our elected officials on their opinions. I know when you do any project like this, environmental studies have to be done and all that stuff.

RD: They didn’t. For this project there were zero.

TW: That I have no idea.

RD: The morning after the protest, Coronado National Forest issued its first public statement on Ducey’s project. The message: stay away.

The statement read: “The Forest Service has informed the State that the presence of the containers is unlawful. Until the situation is resolved, visitors to the Coronado National Forest, including those seeking to recreate, hunt, or collect fuelwood, should refrain from entering the area where the State’s activities are taking place or otherwise exercise caution when traveling the area.” The agency highlighted the presence of “unauthorized armed security personnel on site.”

[Mysterious music begins]

The Forest Service wanted to avoid a conflict, but the protesters on the ground were already in one. The same day the agency warned the public to stay away, demonstrators were back at the site. Once again, their presence stopped construction. It had become an ongoing effort to do what the federal government would not: protect public lands from illegal destruction. The protests continued and a new younger group of demonstrators joined in. Ducey needed to adjust.

On December 6, at 6:45 a.m., Kate returned to find the governor’s work crews had added 17 stacks of containers in the night. She alerted the growing group of volunteers. If Ducey’s contractors were going to work at night, then people needed to be on the ground at night.

Within hours, a plan took shape. A shift schedule was created. Food and overnight supplies were purchased. There were eight public land defenders on the ground that night. They needed to secure two locations: the staging area where Ducey’s containers were kept, and the end of the wall where the heavy equipment was parked.

The contractors arrived. For the protesters, there was no tapping out. If they moved, construction would commence. The contractors turned on their vehicles. Some slept while the activists stood. Four long, cold hours passed. At 3 a.m., the governor’s contractors gave up and left.

[Sounds of protesters talking by campfire]

People were ready for the contractors to try another night installation, but it didn’t happen. Instead, strangers and neighbors created a 24/7 encampment at the work site. I drove down from Tucson to spend the night.

[Protesters talking by campfire]

The moon was nearly full, casting a new light on the same landscape everyone saw during the day.

[Protester playing guitar and singing]

The next morning, we awoke to frost on our tents. The desert was still. Ducey’s men did not return for work.

About a week later with the protest movement continuing to block the placement of containers the feds finally stepped in. The Justice Department sued Ducey over the placement of the shipping containers. That same day, Ducey’s men began transferring the unused box to a state prison complex outside Tucson.

Ducey’s Democratic successor, Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs, has said she will stop adding containers to the wall. She has not, however, committed to taking the existing structures down. If she does, it could cost as much or more than it did to put them in. If she doesn’t, it will mean the collapse of a remarkable binational ecosystem and the death of a stunning Sonoran Desert landscape set aside for all to enjoy.


And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted.

You can also watch a video we produced about the neighbors’ efforts to stop Ducey’s wall and read the full story at The Intercept dot com.

Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept.

Special thanks to video producer Kitara Cahana for the recorded interviews you heard in this episode.

Jose Olivares is Lead Producer. Supervising Producer is Laura Flynn. Ali Gharib edited this story. Roger Hodge is editor in chief of The Intercept. And Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to Intercepted. And definitely do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find us. If you enjoy this podcast, be sure to also check out Deconstructed, as well as Murderville.

If you want to give us feedback, email us at . Thanks so much.

We’re taking a short holiday break but will be back in the new year with new episodes.

Until next time, I’m Ryan Devereaux.

The post Borderland Residents Shut Down Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s Illegal Wall appeared first on The Intercept .

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    Iran’s Protest Movement and Its Future / TheIntercept · Wednesday, 30 November - 11:01

For a month and a half, Iran has been rocked by protests. The sustained demonstration, which were kicked off after a young woman was killed by the notorious morality police, are the most serious challenge to the ruling regime in at least a dozen years — maybe since its inception. This week on Intercepted: Murtaza Hussain, a reporter at The Intercept, is joined by Neda Toloui-Semnani, a journalist and the author of “They Said They Wanted a Revolution: A Memoir of My Parents.” Toloui-Semnani discusses the recent trajectory of the protests in Iran and its parallels with the 1979 revolution. Then, Hussain is joined by Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a longtime activist, an expert working on issues of women in conflicts, and the founder of the International Civil Society Action Network. Naraghi-Anderlini and Hussain discuss the West’s approach to the demonstrations and the future of the movement.

Transcript coming soon.

The post Iran’s Protest Movement and Its Future appeared first on The Intercept .

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    The Fed's War on Workers / TheIntercept · Wednesday, 2 November - 10:01

This week, the Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates again, despite coming under scrutiny in recent months for its aggressive hikes to battle inflation. This week on Intercepted: Jon Schwarz, senior writer with The Intercept, talks all things Fed, the most powerful economic institution in the U.S. Schwarz is first joined by Intercept reporters Ken Klippenstein and Daniel Boguslaw, who discuss how banks are lobbying the Fed, raising questions about the institution’s independence. Schwarz is then joined by former Fed economist Claudia Sahm to break down the Fed’s role in the economy and how its efforts to curb inflation are destabilizing the global economy and raising unemployment.

Transcript coming soon.

The post The Fed’s War on Workers appeared first on The Intercept .

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    No Way Home, Episode Four: Getting Out Alive / TheIntercept · Wednesday, 21 September - 10:00 · 18 minutes

Marked as enemies of the new Taliban regime by his work with Westerners and his family’s Hazara ethnicity, Hamid, his wife, their 8-year-old daughter, and their new baby move furtively from place to place, living under assumed names. Their year in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan echoes Hamid’s own war-torn childhood as he tries to guarantee his daughter’s future. Suddenly, an escape route opens: Will they finally make it out?


Hamid: After the crowd subsided, we leave the scene in clothes full of dirt and blood and bare feet.

Summia Tora: That’s Hamid, the man I tried and failed to help leave Afghanistan last year . After the suicide attack at the Kabul airport last summer, Hamid and his family went back home. They huddled there, keeping their heads down. They kept using the nicknames Hamid had come up with when the Taliban took control. I’m not using their real names because they are still in danger.

Hamid’s wife, Jamila, has a master’s degree in sociology. She was pregnant when the government collapsed. And then there was their daughter Eliza, who was just outside the blast radius of the bomb that killed more than 180 people at the airport.

Hamid: As a father, everyone hopes for their children, the first thing is to be safe. And then they should have access to at least basic life facilities. Like, the first thing is education. Good nutrition. We cannot provide the basic needs. When we cannot provide it today, so the future, it worries us the most.

Summia Tora: On December 2, 2021, Hamid got an email from Geres, the French NGO where he’d worked for four years.

Hamid: “France does not wish to expand its reception capacity for political asylum. It is therefore with great sadness that we have to acknowledge that we cannot, today and without the support of France, help you to leave Afghanistan.”

Summia Tora : So how did you feel, knowing all of this and receiving a rejection letter?

Hamid: Hopeless. I lost the only option I had in my life to get out of this country. So I missed it. I missed the only hope for myself, for my family, for my kids.

[Theme music]

Summia Tora: I’m Summia Tora, a human rights advocate. This is No Way Home , a production of The Intercept and New America.

In this four-part series, you’ve been hearing stories that were found, developed, and reported by Afghans like me , who have been forced into exile. Our stories reflect what we saw with our own eyes and what we and other Afghans have experienced firsthand since the U.S. military pulled out, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took over last summer.

This is Episode Four: “Getting Out Alive.”

[Theme music ends]

Like everyone, Hamid and Jamila knew the Taliban’s history of denying basic rights to girls and women. It was one of the main reasons they risked their lives trying to leave last August.

Jamila (translated voiceover): You know, it all happened so suddenly. There were fights in the provinces, and you would hear about it on Facebook that this province or that province has fallen. In that moment, the first thing I remembered was my daughter. I looked at her, and she was sleeping, and then I cried intensely and said, “My daughter’s future is over and ruined.”

Summia Tora: But something else was even more threatening to Hamid and his family. They are Hazaras, an ethnic minority that has faced decades of discrimination in Afghanistan. Hiding is difficult: Their ethnicity is clear from his and his family’s facial features and their accents, and they practice Shia Islam in a place that is mainly Sunni.

Hamid was born in Kabul and spent his early childhood in a mainly Hazara neighborhood called Dasht-e-Barchi. That’s where he and his family lived last year, when the U.S.-backed government fell.

Hamid: I went to school until two grades in Dasht-e-Barchi, in west of Kabul. So I felt that it was obvious for everyone that like other people, except Hazaras, they had a good life. They had access to more facilities in their lives. They had cars, they had bicycles, they had motorcycles — all these things that most of the Hazaras didn’t have at that time.

Summia Tora: Hamid was 8 years old when the Soviet-backed Afghan government collapsed — the same age his own daughter, Eliza, is now.

When the mujahedeen factions that had been fighting the Soviets with backing from the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries took Kabul, each group seized control of a different part of the city, and they began fighting each other. The country fell into civil war.

The mujahedeen factions were dominated by different ethnic groups. A Hazara faction called Hezb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami controlled Dasht-e-Barchi. Hamid and his family spent about six months in Dasht-e-Barchi, while the mujahedeen fired artillery at each other, destroying Kabul’s buildings and killing many civilians. Then his parents decided to take the family to Bamiyan, a mountainous province north of Kabul that is known as the Hazara homeland.

Hamid: So when we left Kabul for Bamiyan, it was a very tough time. All the roads linked to Bamiyan were closed at that time, and everyone was detained and questioned.

Summia Tora: Bamiyan has remained relatively peaceful over decades of war. But getting there was hazardous.

Hamid: So when we were going in this route and passing these route, we were questioned. We were insulted, like Hazaras, for our features and our faces. And all the kids were, everywhere that the kids were around the street and when we were crossing, they were shouting at us and laughing.

So many checkpoints were on the road and stopped our car many times and asking, “Who are you? Where you going?” And even they made us to pay them some money to allow them to cross the road.

Summia Tora: The Taliban’s leaders grew up fighting the Soviets, and the group came to power for the first time in 1996 by defeating other mujahedeen factions.

One of their most notorious acts, in 2001, was to destroy the giant 5th-century Buddhas carved into the mountains in Bamiyan. The Taliban blew up the towering sculptures with rockets, tank shells, and dynamite. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan last summer, some said they had changed. But much remained the same — including their attitude toward Hazaras.

Last July , the Taliban killed nine Hazara men in Ghazni, a province southeast of Kabul. In August, just after the Taliban gained control of the country, Amnesty documented another massacre in the central province of Daykundi. The Taliban killed 13 Hazaras there, including a 17-year-old girl.

Around the same time, some Taliban decapitated a statue of renowned Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, in Bamiyan city, the capital of the province that Hamid had fled to as a boy.

Rabia Khan: Mazari was actually killed by the Taliban in 1995 when he went to meet them for peace talks. So I think, symbolically, the fact that you are destroying a statue of an important political leader for the Hazaras kind of shows what your intentions are and the direction of your rule on what it means for these people going forward.

Summia Tora: That’s Rabia Khan , an academic in the U.K. who did her doctoral research on the Hazara community. In the late 1800s, Khan told me, Hazaras had their own self-governing region in the central part of the country, an area known as Hazarajat. But at the end of the 19th century, the Hazaras’ circumstances suddenly — and drastically — changed.

Rabia Khan: The rhetoric of religion was used to justify a really horrific and severe war against the Hazaras, which started around 1890 and lasted for several years. And then in that time, countless Hazaras were massacred. And many Hazara women were raped.

Summia Tora: Many were forced to flee to Iran and the part of British-occupied India that is now Pakistan. In the 1920s, a new Afghan king outlawed slavery — but for Hazaras, the practice continued.

Rabia Khan: They were the cheapest slaves in Kabul. So what we see in the earliest 20th century is, although the war has ended for some time, perception of Hazaras as the slave class and having a low social status is something very prevalent in the wider society. So that’s something very widespread in the early to even mid-20th century, and that perception you can even say it persists to this day when we started to see more Hazara visibility in more recent years.

Summia Tora: The 1990s, when Hamid was growing up, was a pivotal period for Hazaras in Afghanistan.

Rabia Khan: And again, they’d be mocked and ridiculed for their appearance. So even the word “Hazara” was used as a pejorative. Not only in the 1990s, but even now “Hazara” is used as a pejorative by some people. And that there are even specific racial slurs that are used in reference to Hazaras only and not other ethnic communities. The most common one that came up in my interactions and discussions was with the Hazara community was a racial slur, which I won’t say in Persian, but the translation in English is “rat eater.”

Summia Tora: After the United States forced the Taliban from power in 2001, Hazaras welcomed the new Western-backed government and embraced opportunities, particularly for education. They routinely scored at the top of the national university entrance exams, and Hazara-majority areas recorded among the highest voter turnout in elections. Many went to work for Western NGOs and the government. But with that progress came risks.

Rabia Khan: So you see this very strange situation unfold post-2001, in terms of visibility and representation, but how that’s also almost a threat for the community. Because in having this heightened visibility, there’s now this perception that “Hazaras are now a threat, so something needs to be done about that.”

Summia Tora: I thought of the story my dad had told me about the killing of Hazaras in northern Afghanistan. My parents left Afghanistan in the 1990s to escape persecution and give my siblings and me a better life. That’s what Hamid wanted for his kids, and especially for his daughter, Eliza.

Eliza: I am 8 years old.

Summia Tora: Aww.

Summia Tora (in Dari): What subjects do you like to study?

Eliza (in Dari): I like Dari and math subjects.

Summia Tora (in Dari): Why do you like Dari and math?

Hiding and Surviving

Summia Tora: After we failed to get Hamid and his family out of Afghanistan, I kept in touch with him through my colleagues at Dosti Network, an organization I founded last year to help Afghans get aid and support, and to leave the country if necessary. But after the U.S. pulled out, many countries refused to help more Afghans evacuate.

Hamid worked for a French nonprofit organization, Geres, which focuses on climate and the environment.

Michael: The French government, I think, turned their backs on a lot of the civil society workers that they funded through their programs. Which is a shame because if you really think about it, it’s like the whole idea of trying to build up Afghanistan really was the idea that you tell people not to, say, pick up guns and fight through politics.

Summia Tora: That’s the American I’m calling Michael, who worked with Hamid and tried to help him and his family leave last year.

Michael: The whole idea of having a peaceful civil society was what NATO was trying to push, right? To build up this country. You can’t just say that it’s just the military members that were the ones that were at risk here. It was actually a lot of the civilian and civil society workers who were really a critical part to any kind of Afghanistan that would be peaceful and would actually be built under the principles that NATO was trying to achieve.

Summia Tora: On March 24, I sent Hamid a text message to find out how he was doing and if he was still in Kabul.

NBC : A missile striking an industrial park in western Ukraine [explosion]. A helicopter assault on an airport outside of Kyiv, close intense fighting. And there are civilian casualties.

Summia Tora: The war in Ukraine had started a month earlier. Europe, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S. had welcomed thousands of Ukrainian refugees, while Afghans still had to jump through hoops and fill out endless forms. Hamid sent me a voice memo while standing in line at the passport office.

Hamid (Dari translated): Salam, Summia Jan, I hope you are doing well. Sorry for the delay in responding, as I was standing in the passport line.

Summia Tora: Hamid told me that he was still in Kabul, and that he and Jamila recently had a baby boy. Hamid was trying to get their travel documents in order when Afghanistan suddenly burst into the news again.

Ari Shapiro (NPR) : Three blasts rocked the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Tuesday. They appeared to target schools, and six people were killed.

Summia Tora: On April 19, a school called Abdul Rahim Shahid — known for its students’ educational achievements — was attacked. Hamid had studied there himself years earlier.

Hamid: The recent attack in Abdul Rahim Shahid high school. It reportedly killed about 200 schoolchildren. This attack also was called the series of ISIS attacks that targeted Hazara Shia ethnicities in west of Kabul, particularly schoolchildren in this area.

Summia Tora: Dasht-e-Barchi had gained a reputation as a place where Hazaras could get a good education for their kids and lift their families out of poverty. But since 2015, deadly attacks like these had grown common.

Rabia Khan: That status and reputation of the area really changed post-2001, because there were so many targeted attacks against Hazaras there. Although there have been great achievements, and the community has really worked hard to lift themselves out of their previous circumstances, there were outside elements that made it very hard to just live a normal life as a Hazara in Kabul since 2001.

Summia Tora: Bombings were occurring so frequently the shock of them wore off.

Hamid (in Dari) : Whenever there is a bomb incident and you find out, you are shocked, but when it keeps repeating often, you either become courageous, you don’t feel scared, or you try not to think about it because you know it will happen again.

Summia Tora: Hamid would try to find out who was killed, how many people were injured, if any of the victims were family members. There were times where he was close — 500 meters from a targeted school. Bomb attacks had become a part of everyday life for them.

So far, the Taliban has allowed education for girls up to sixth grade in schools that are segregated by sex. But Hamid and Jamila moved often to avoid being found by the Taliban, and they were too scared to send Eliza to school most days because of the threat of violence. After the attack at Shahid school, Hamid decided he’d had enough. He would take his family to Bamiyan.

So this past May, they fled Kabul and made their way north. Bamiyan was familiar, but it was far from the life Hamid and Jamila had imagined for themselves and their children.

Jamila (translated voiceover): We don’t have hope; we don’t have motivation. We are always thinking about how can we leave. We don’t feel free. Even now, when I am at home and my head is not covered, I constantly make sure the curtains are closed so that the Taliban don’t see and send [the Ministry for the] Propagation of Virtue to inspect. “Why is this woman walking around at home without her head covered?” I have no interest in going out. I am at home all day.

Summia Tora: Hamid had managed to renew his and his family’s passports and to get one for his son. But they still couldn’t leave.

Hamid: Having a passport is one side of the matter. The visa to leave the country is another side of the problem. So it is the only two countries we have, Iran and Pakistan, they give us visas. So if we go to Iran or Pakistan, we cannot accommodate. We don’t have, like, our expenses to live there. That is why we prefer to be here under the Taliban rule.

Summia Tora: In Bamiyan, Hamid registered Eliza for school. But like Jamila, he felt lost.

Hamid: Staying in Afghanistan, it is also scary here. And also everything is unknown. We don’t know what happens next. What is waiting for us? We don’t know, days and nights, what will happen, what our future would be. What should we do, which way we should follow to reach to our goal or to at least to stay safe. And it is a kind of advice for myself just to be patient. It is the only option right now.

A Door Opens

Summia Tora: Last month, I messaged Hamid to see how he was doing. He replied with amazing news: He and his family had made it to Pakistan. I reached him by phone there on August 15, exactly a year after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Summia Tora: Hello? It’s great to hear that you’ve heard back about your P-2 application. I had completely forgotten that you had applied for that. Would it be possible if you could share about the process of the P-2 application for the U.S.?

Hamid: When I received the approval for my P-2 application for the U.S. program, I got so happy. It was a cheerful moment sharing this good news with my wife and my little kid.

Summia Tora: A few months after the final U.S. withdrawal last year, Hamid had applied to come to the United States through what’s known as the Priority 2, or P-2, program. It’s a visa program for Afghans who worked as employees, contractors, or interpreters for U.S. and NATO forces, for U.S.-funded programs or projects, or for U.S.-based media organizations and NGOs. I knew Hamid had worked for Geres. But it turns out he’d also worked for an Afghan NGO that was funded by the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

On August 2, about a year after he applied, he got an email from the U.S. government saying that he and his family met the eligibility requirements for the program.

Hamid: When I received the approval for my P-2 application, actually it was in the morning. When I shared this good news with my wife, she suddenly stood up. She got so happy to express her feelings by shaking her hands and head to dance. And she got so hopeful, and also she got surprised. She was hopeful that we would be able to leave this country finally.

Summia Tora: Hamid and his family drove from Bamiyan to Kabul and then took a taxi to the Pakistani border. The crossing was hot and crowded, and Hamid worried that his kids might get sick or overheated. But after 12 hours, they made it.

They stayed in a hotel for a couple of nights in Islamabad, then found a house to rent. The U.S. makes Afghans go to a third country to await the next stage in their immigration process. Hamid and Jamila don’t speak Urdu, and they don’t have visas that allow them to work in Pakistan.

Summia Tora : Do you have any thoughts about living in Pakistan and how long you’d be able to live there because you have to wait for a couple of months until the P-2 process moves forward?

Hamid: Our concern is the unemployment for refugees. For sure, I’m looking for a job for myself and my wife too. And in Pakistan, particularly in Islamabad, it is very difficult to find a proper job. And also it is very low-paid job that does not cover the family expenses and it is very difficult to afford.

Summia Tora: Leaving Afghanistan, as anyone who’s done it knows, comes with its own difficulties. Just ask my father.

Summia Tora: So you are now in Virginia. What is it like living there?

Sayed Tora: Living there have some benefits, and some it’s good. On the other side, it’s hard to live in USA. You have to work. You miss your friends, family. Now you can speak, but [laughs] there are no people to listen to you. [laughs] This is the difference. [laughs]

Summia Tora: My father is safe, but his life isn’t the same, and it never will be. And it never will be for Hamid and his family.

Summia Tora: Does getting this email and now moving to Pakistan, waiting for this process of P-2 — is it giving you hope about being able to have a future that you hope for, for yourself and for your family?

Hamid: Actually it is not very certain that I can move to U.S. one day because I am right now in the third country. So I hope so, that it will happen one day to go to U.S. It is the only chance I have right now. And I hope so it will happen one day.


Summia Tora: No Way Home is a production of The Intercept and New America’s Afghanistan Observatory Scholars program.

This episode was written and reported by me, Summia Tora.

Our executive producer and editor is Vanessa Gezari.

Supervising producer and editor is Laura Flynn.

Candace Rondeaux is the director of Future Frontlines Program-New America and project editor.

Ali Yawar Adili, is the Afghanistan Observatory Project Coordinator.

Laura Flynn and Jose Olivares produced this episode.

Rick Kwan mixed this episode.

Zach Young composed our theme music.

Legal review by David Bralow.

Fact checking by Emily Schneider.

Awista Ayub is the director and project manager of New America’s Fellows Program.

Voiceover in this episode by Humaira Rahbin.

To learn more, visit where you can find transcripts and show art.

Philipp Hubert is our visual designer and Nara Shin our copy editor.

Roger Hodge is editor-in-chief of The Intercept.

If you want to give us feedback or have any questions, email us at

Thanks, so much, for listening.

The post No Way Home, Episode Four: Getting Out Alive appeared first on The Intercept .

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    No Way Home, Episode Three: Born Again / TheIntercept · Sunday, 18 September - 10:01 · 16 minutes

Maryam Barak, an Afghan journalist, made it to Italy with her family last summer. In Rome, she met Qader Kazimizada, another newly arrived Afghan who is helping refugees find community in an alien place.


Qader Kazimizada: Come ti chiami?

Nargis: Nargis.

Qader Kazimizada: No, you have to complete it. Io mi chiamo —

Nargis: I o mi chiamo Nargis.

Qader Kazimizada: Quanti anni hai?

Nargis: Sette anni.

Qader Kazimizada: Complete it: Io ho sette anni. OK, very good. Da dove sei?

Maryam Barak: Qader Kazimizada is playing with his 7-year-old daughter, Nargis, in their temporary home, a spacious apartment in central Rome. They have been living in Italy for about a year, and the children are learning the language.

They’re picking it up more easily than their parents, who fled Afghanistan after Kabul fell to the Taliban. Qader and his family made it out and ended up in Rome, where they are trying to start a new life, in a new country and a new culture.

[Theme music]

Maryam Barak: From The Intercept and New America, this is No Way Home . In this four-part series, you’ll hear stories that were found, developed, and reported by Afghans like me , who have been forced into exile. Our stories reflect what we saw with our own eyes and what we and other Afghans have experienced firsthand since the U.S. military pulled out, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took over last summer.

This is Episode Three: “Born Again.”

[Theme music ends]

Maryam Barak: I’m Maryam Barak, an Afghan journalist.

I left my home, my identity, and everything on August 23, 2021. But still, I consider myself more fortunate than many other Afghan refugees: I am with my family in Italy.

What I’m about to tell you is a different kind of Afghan refugee story. It isn’t about the struggle to get out of Kabul or a dramatic life-and-death journey. Instead, it’s about adapting to life in a new country, about finding hope — despite all we have left behind. These quieter stories are just as common; they are stories of resilience.

I met Qader Kazimizada as I was also trying to learn Italian and integrate into this new society. Qader already spoke English when he arrived in Italy with his family last fall, but he struggled to learn Italian. He soon realized that other Afghan refugees were having the same problem. He created a WhatsApp group to communicate with them.

Qader Kazimizada: So I created a group, and called them. “Are you ready? Do you need my help? I want to have a class for you.” They were surprised and really felt very happy: “Oh, that is wonderful, please! That is good.”

Maryam Barak: Despite the fact that he himself was just beginning to learn Italian, Qader began teaching Afghan refugees what he had learned in his own classes, offering both support with the language and a sense of community. He taught the classes in languages Afghans could understand, like Persian.

Back in Afghanistan, Qader worked as a finance officer for Jesuit Refugee Services, an international nongovernmental organization that at the time provided education, vocational training, and emergency services to people in Afghanistan. Qader had been worried about the worsening security situation in the country, but like many others, he thought he and his family would be safe in Kabul, the country’s cosmopolitan capital.

Sitting in his living room in Rome, with his children playing near him, Qader told me about the day everything changed: August 15, 2021. He was at his office in Kabul when he learned that the Taliban had entered the city. He grabbed his laptop and immediately rushed home. When he got there, he realized the Taliban were already in his neighborhood. Suddenly, the lines of people rushing to the airport made sense.

Qader Kazimizada: They have entered, and there are many people, many people, many young boys. They are clicking pictures with the Taliban.

Maryam Barak: Working for a Catholic organization put Qader in danger . Leaving Afghanistan suddenly seemed like the only way to save his family. When the government collapsed, he started contacting every foreigner he had ever met, asking for help. Eventually, Jesuit Refugee Services said they could evacuate Qader, his wife, and two kids, Nargis and Firdaws.

But they couldn’t take everyone. Qader would have to leave his parents and siblings behind. He and his wife took their 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son to the airport. The Italian government agreed to take in the group. With no notice, Qader and his family were now headed to Rome.

Qader Kazimizada: We didn’t have even any choice. There was no choice because at that moment, the only thing important was to get out from Kabul.

Maryam Barak: When Qader and his family arrived in Italy, they spent two weeks in a hotel, quarantining because of pandemic-related restrictions. Then they were sent to a camp for refugees and migrants in Vibo Valentia, a city in the south of the country. The camp was crowded and isolated, and Qader’s wife and children struggled.

Qader Kazimizada: It was not a good place for the family. We were four families among 18 single refugees from Africa, from Pakistan, from different parts of Africa. And also we were not provided the keys, and there we had no actual privacy.

Maryam Barak: Qader didn’t feel it was safe for his family.

Qader Kazimizada: They were drinking, shouting, fighting during the night at the corridor. I was always awake and standing behind the door, in order to avoid if they come at the door, because my family is here, my wife is here, my children are here. They will be scared.

Maryam Barak: With the help of his former employer, Qader was eventually able to move his family out of the refugee camp and into an apartment in Rome, one of several homes made available to Afghan refugees through Italian charity organizations.

That’s where we’re sitting. It’s April 2022, and Qader’s wife Habiba, who is nine months pregnant with their third child, plays with the kids. Qader’s daughter is attending an Italian school and loves her new home.

Qader Kazimizada: Fortunately, she found Italy very nice. And now she’s very happy.

Maryam Barak: And she is going to school?

Qader Kazimizada: She is going to school. She has found many, many friends. She goes to her friends’ houses. They are inviting her in order to play, to do homework together. Yesterday, one of these families took her to the sea. And she was very happy. She went with them.

Maryam Barak: The Italian government evacuated 5,000 Afghans after August 15. Like other refugees resettling in Italy, they were given food and accommodations. Once they receive official refugee status, they begin the “r eception and integration” process, including Italian language classes and employment training.

The Italian government is paying for Qader’s apartment, and he receives about 380 euros a month for food and other expenses for his family of four, as well as a transit pass. Through the program, he has also started learning Italian.

In Afghanistan, Qader mostly spoke English at work to communicate with colleagues from around the world. He thought that would be enough to get by in Italy too. But he soon learned that was not the case at all.

Qader Kazimizada: It was something that really surprised me, oh my God, it is something that it is a little difficult, but anyhow I will cope with later. It was difficult, only the language, because many were not speaking in English, only Italiano. While we didn’t know anything in Italiano.

Maryam Barak: Not speaking the language was a huge challenge for him, particularly as he needed help to navigate his new city.

Qader Kazimizada: I asked two police officers in English, “Where can I get bus 75 to go to Monteverde? They did not speak English, and they got very angry, said, “Qui Italia, Italia.” And now I understand that they were saying, “Where is this?” And asked me, “Where [are we]? Italia, Italia. Italiano, italiano.” And this was, for me, OK, no problem. I said, “Thank you.” I knew only one word: grazie.

Maryam Barak: From then on, Qader became more serious about his Italian lessons.

In Italy, several refugee NGOs offer language classes, but a challenge for many Afghans learning Italian is that their teachers often rely on English as an intermediary language, which some Afghans don’t speak. As Qader continued his lessons and started studying more, it dawned on him that many Afghans would face even greater challenges than he did picking up the language.

Qader Kazimizada: W e are learning Italiano, trying to get integrated with the people, with Italian people. How they can manage to learn Italian, while they have no English background?

Maryam Barak: Qader was particularly worried about two Afghan families he knew who had a hard time settling in.

Qader Kazimizada: So I thought better to start a class for them. Because I knew English, so I was trying to do self-study. Then I thought, “OK, I can teach them!”

Finding Hope Through Teaching Others

Maryam Barak: Qader started teaching other Afghan refugees what he had learned in his own classes. His wife and children also joined his lessons.

Qader Kazimizada: I told them that I will explain everything in Persian, and I will teach you very slowly. They said, “Yeah, that’s good.”

Maryam Barak: Word spread fast, and the number of participants increased day by day. He shared an open Zoom link, and as the classes continued, more Afghans called in from all around Italy. Then at a gathering organized by the Afghan community in Rome, Afghans introduced him as an Italian teacher.

Qader Kazimizada: They said that Qader is an Italian teacher. And everyone was shocked! “How can it be possible?” I said, yeah, this is my motivation — that I can help. I help Afghan families as much as possible, but I have learned I can pass it to them, so they feel comfortable. They can learn a little bit, if not a lot, at least few things they can learn. It could be a basic step for them.

Maryam Barak: Inspired by Qader’s work, others jumped in to help, including Sitara, an Iranian refugee who had been living in Italy for several years. Because of privacy, she only wanted to use her first name.

Qader Kazimizada: She came to me, said that “I’m really impressed by what you said, and I’m really interested to help you, if you want my help.” I said, “That is wonderful! I appreciate anyone who can help me. Welcome.”

So she explained, “I used to teach in Iran, at a university, Italian for one year or one year and a half.” She said, “Here also I have a class teaching others, so maybe I can help you.” I said, “That is wonderful, please!”

Maryam Barak: In 2015, Sitara had traveled to Afghanistan to film a documentary. She fell in love with the country and realized there was a huge disconnect between the reality of Afghan life and the ways in which the country was often portrayed by the international media.

Sitara (translated voiceover): A country where we have always heard of war and terrorism, adversity, misery and extremism — here I met really lovely people. People [in] civil society who had tried to work on culture and art. I met them in person, up close. The efforts and struggles they, especially women, especially artists, had been making. There were poets, poetry nights, film festivals, and women filmmakers. It was all very strange to me, and it was an image that would not be transferred outside Afghanistan.

Maryam Barak: After the collapse of the Afghan government, Sitara wanted to help Afghan refugees. When she met Qader, she thought this was the opportunity she had been looking for. So she started teaching Italian, using Persian as a go-between.

Sitara (translated voiceover): The level of students, their age, their family situation, from where in Afghanistan they came, their background, and where they live now are different as night and day. It’s very different. Because we have a link open to people who want to introduce it to their friends, and we welcome all of them. And the door is open to all with a condition, the only condition. These classes are completely free and charitable: Be present and study.

Maryam Barak: Sitara, a refugee herself, can relate to the challenges her students face.

Sitara (translated voiceover) : I may say migration is like being born again, or I may say it is a kind of death. That is, you die from a human being you were, from everything you had, from your previous life, and are born in a new world — especially when it is not self-imposed migration and it’s forced. In the case of Afghans, it happened overnight. They are still in shock, and I am sure that they are still digesting, processing the psychological consequences of what happened, the volume of violence that was inflicted on them, and the fear and horror that was imposed [on them].

Maryam Barak: Qader’s Italian classes have helped him not only to learn and teach the language, but also to find a purpose in his new life, and a way to remain connected to other Afghans and build community. The classes also helped him overcome some of the emotional challenges that often accompany becoming a refugee — including a bout of depression in his first weeks after arriving in Italy. In those early days, he would walk around Rome by himself, trying to make sense of his new life.

Qader Kazimizada: I experienced depression in the beginning, so I was always thinking how to come out of that depression. Sometimes I used to go to Gianicolo, even during the night after 10 [p.m.] to walk and just see Rome, come back and sometimes get engaged with other things with my lessons.

Maryam Barak: Afghan migrants from all over Italy are joining Qader’s classes today.

Mohammad Tahir is one of them. He lives in Ancona, a port city on the Adriatic Sea. Mohammad Tahir and his wife can’t read and write, so they worried that would make learning a new language even harder. Not speaking Italian made them feel cut off from their new community.

Mohammad Tahir (translated voiceover): There is a supermarket here that issues cards and where we go for shopping. At the counter when they count and tell us the amount of money, we just give the card [to pay]. When my children are with me, it’s a bit better. For me it is very hard, and my blood pressure goes up. When you cannot speak [the language], you feel dumb and it is very hard to bear.

Maryam Barak: For the first five months in Italy, Mohammad Tahir’s family did not have access to language classes. But now they’re taking weekly lessons from native Italian speakers, and three of their children have started school. They also call into Qader’s Zoom classes for additional practice. This is Tahir’s wife, Latifa:

Latifa Tahir (translated voiceover): Now it’s very good. Our anxiety has decreased significantly. In the past, when our electricity was gone, we could not tell our neighbors, who are all Italians, [that we didn’t have power]. We remained without electricity even for two days. We ate dinner in front of the telephone light. We could not turn on the central heating that had been out of commission and went through much trouble.

Maryam Barak: Recently, I sat in on one of Qader’s Zoom classes. The lesson began with him greeting his students in Italian.

Qader Kazimizada: Ciao buona sera. Ciao a tutti, come state?

Ali Hussain: Bene grazie.

Qader Kazimizada: OK, OK.

Student: Bene grazie.

Qader: Come sta, Murtaza? Murtaza, come sta?

Murtaza: Bene.

Maryam Barak: The students I met in Qader’s class deeply appreciate his efforts. And Qader is happy to be helping people cope with the stress and anxiety that comes from leaving behind their country and adjusting to a whole new culture and language.

He recalls a recent memory from class.

Qader Kazimizada: During the class, the teacher asked him in Dari, in Persian, [say], “We have eaten dinner, and we have done our dinner.” Then, immediately, a little boy, he said, “Abbiamo, I think like that?” And another phrase, he said, “Abbiamo mangiato.” For me, immediately, without any thinking, I really got happy that, oh, thank God, I have done something. And this is what the fruit is: They are learning.

Maryam Barak: Qader knows that learning Italian is only the first of many challenges ahead for him and fellow Afghans. For now, he is focused on finding a job, so that he can take care of his family in Italy and back in Afghanistan.

Qader Kazimizada: I am ready [for] any job, but in fact, this is important for me, the job which has a little more payment. [laughs] Now the first priority is this: At least I can stand on my feet. I can support my family here, and I can support my family there, if I can bring them here. I’m also thinking about starting maybe a small business, maybe cafe, coffee shop, restaurant, or whatever.

Maryam Barak: The Italian classes he runs have helped him envision a future for himself and his family here. Qader hopes helping others can help him chart his own path in this new home.

Qader Kazimizada : I have been always thinking that I am a human being. I have to be — how to say? — I have to be a person who can at least help others, not harm others. I know that today, many, many people are harmed by each other. So I was always thinking that I have to be like this: My path has to be very defined, very clear that I have to help others if I can.


Maryam Barak: Next time on No Way Home.

Hamid : About staying in Afghanistan it is also scary here. Everything is unknown. We don’t know what happens next. What is waiting for us? We don’t know, days and nights, what will happen, what our future would be. What should we do, which way we should follow to reach to our goal or to at least to stay safe.

Maryam Barak: No Way Home is a production of The Intercept and New America’s Afghanistan Observatory Scholars program.

This episode was written and reported by me, Maryam Barak.

Our executive producer and editor is Vanessa Gezari.

Alice Speri also edited this story.

Supervising producer is Laura Flynn.

Candace Rondeaux is the director of Future Frontlines Program-New America and project editor.

Ali Yawar Adili is the Afghanistan Observatory Project Coordinator.

Jose Olivares helped with production.

Rick Kwan mixed this episode.

Zach Young composed our theme music.

Legal review by David Bralow.

Fact checking by Emily Schneider .

Awista Ayub is the director and project manager of New America’s Fellows Program.

Voiceovers by Humaira Rahbin and Mir Miri.

To learn more, visit where you can find transcripts and art of the show.

Philipp Hubert is our visual designer and Nara Shin our copy editor.

Roger Hodge is editor-in-chief of The Intercept.

If you want to give us feedback or have any questions, email us at

Thanks, so much, for listening.

The post No Way Home, Episode Three: Born Again appeared first on The Intercept .

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    No Way Home, Episode Two: The Desert of Death / TheIntercept · Wednesday, 14 September - 10:00 · 30 minutes

As the Taliban claimed territory last summer, Mir Abdullah Miri and his cousin Aziz both planned to flee their homes in Herat, a city in western Afghanistan. Mir, an educational researcher, made it to the Afghan capital and tried to get on a flight, while Aziz, a cellphone programmer, decided to cross into Iran on foot with his wife and two young children, hoping to reach relatives in Germany. After Aziz and his family set off through Afghanistan’s southern desert, Mir was left to untangle the mystery of what really happened to them in that desolate wilderness, where thousands of Afghans have risked their lives in search of a way out.


A quick warning: This episode includes descriptions of a traumatic experience. Please listen at your discretion.

Leila (translated voiceover) : I couldn’t walk. My toenails were completely ripped off. All my toenails were torn off on the way. I felt it myself. I couldn’t sit down to take off my shoes, but I could feel that my toenails were coming off.

I had to take care of my children. I had fallen in several places, and my eyes were closed. All I could hear was my daughter and son crying.

Mir Abdullah Miri: When the Taliban seized Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, Leila’s husband, Aziz, quickly started planning the family’s exit from the country. Their attempt to leave would irreversibly change their lives — and mine.

Leila (translated voiceover): I don’t know who had given me water. It was a stranger. One of them offered to carry my daughter, but I didn’t trust them. I was worried he might take my daughter and run away or something.

[Theme music]

Mir Abdullah Miri: This is No Way Home , a production of The Intercept and New America.

In this four-part series you’ll hear stories that were found, developed, and reported by Afghans like me , who have been forced into exile.

Our stories reflect what we saw with our own eyes and what we and our families have experienced firsthand since the U.S. military pulled out, the Afghan government collapsed, and the Taliban took over last summer.

This is Episode Two: “The Desert of Death.”

[Theme music ends]

Mir Abdullah Miri: My name is Mir Abdullah Miri. I’m an educational researcher living in the U.K. Around this time last year, I was still in Afghanistan, fighting to get out. And so was my cousin, Aziz.

The last time I saw Aziz, he was standing in front of the cellphone store where he worked in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan. Located in the western part of the country, the city has been home to many renowned poets, writers, and artists. A jewel along the Silk Road, Herat has long been coveted by conquerors and occupiers.

[Sounds of gunfire]

In July of 2021, Taliban fighters were intensifying their attacks in Herat. This was about a month before they would take control of the capital, Kabul.

That day in front of the cellphone store, Aziz and I had a short conversation. He told me about his plans to leave the country and settle in Germany. He had an uncle and cousin there. His wife, Leila, said Aziz wanted a better life for their kids.

Leila (translated voiceover): He would say, “I don’t like raising my son here. My son should go and study somewhere he deserves.” Because our son knew the English alphabet and was smart.

Aziz: Ice.

Amir: Ice.

Aziz: Ice.

Amir: Ice.

Aziz: Cream.

Amir: Cream.

Aziz: Ice cream.

Amir: Ice cream.

Aziz: Cookie ice cream.

Leila: Aziz would say, “He is a waste here. I want to raise my son somewhere he deserves.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz wanted to raise his children somewhere where they could go to school, play, and have fun. But getting to Germany was going to be more difficult for Aziz and his family than I realized the last time I saw him.

For reasons that will become apparent, I’m using pseudonyms for all of the subjects in this story.

Leila (translated voiceover): Both Aziz and I had passports. Our passports had expired. Our son and newborn daughter didn’t have a passport.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The original plan was to get to Germany through Iran, then Turkey. But because Aziz and his family didn’t have passports or proper travel documents, their options for getting there were limited.

[Sounds from passport office]

Following the collapse of the government, Afghanistan’s passport offices were flooded with people. They were forced to close because of malfunctioning biometric equipment, leaving thousands of Afghans stranded.

Leila (translated voiceover): Aziz would say, “I can’t afford to go illegally from Islam Qala border. I will go from Nimroz with my uncle because he has taken this route before.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Islam Qala is a town in Afghanistan on the border with Iran. It’s much closer to Herat than Nimroz, but also more heavily patrolled .

Nimroz, a province in the southwestern part of Afghanistan, borders Iran and Pakistan. It’s a well-known smuggling hub , where drugs, people, money, and more are trafficked between borders.

Leila (translated voiceover): I think he would not have taken this illegal route if the passport office had been open.

Mir Abdullah Miri: To make the journey, Aziz sold his laptop. He learned from relatives that his uncle Ahmad wanted to go to Iran, so he would come along too. Leila’s dad knew a smuggler in Herat who could help them get there.

The day Aziz decided to leave the country, he wrote on Facebook, “Goodbye Afghanistan, Goodbye Herat.”

That same day, Aziz visited his aunt to say goodbye and ask for her blessing. They waited to hear from the smuggler.

Leila (translated voiceover): We were supposed to exactly go at 4 o’clock on Friday. Our bags were packed in the morning. We were ready to go, but it did not happen, and the smuggler called us and said that we would go tomorrow. The next day, again, it did not happen and was delayed to the next day, which was Sunday, when he called and told us that on Monday at 4:00 p.m., he would definitely move us from Herat to Nimroz.

Mir Abdullah Miri: On Monday, August 30, 2021, two weeks after the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban had taken control of the country, Aziz posted on Facebook: “O God, send blessings upon Muhammad and the Progeny of Muhammad.” Perhaps a sign that he was nervous about the journey ahead.

The Journey Begins

[Sounds of the Herat bus terminal]

Mir Abdullah Miri: Later that day, Aziz, his wife, their 3-year-old son, and infant daughter, and his uncle, along with his wife and their baby, went to the Herat bus terminal.

Leila: We only had taken one extra set of clothes, because I had a little daughter who was a newborn. So I took a small bag with medicines and syrups for my son because he had dust allergies, and formula milk, boiled water, and a baby bottle for my daughter. I knew that there might not be water and food available during this trip, and I may not be able to breastfeed my daughter.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The smuggler was supposed to take Aziz’s family across the border, but they only had about a third of what they needed in cash to pay him. They also needed money to cover travel expenses like food, lodging, and transportation along the way.

They told the smuggler they would pay the rest when they arrived in Iran. They set off to Nimroz to meet the smuggler.

[Sounds of crowds in Nimroz]

Leila (translated voiceover): Once we arrived in Nimroz, all the crossing points were closed. It was very crowded in Nimroz. There was no car that we could take. We stayed there four nights. After four nights, I told Aziz that it was not possible: “Now that it is impossible to go, let’s return home.” He told me that he would not return even if he died during this journey.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Fearing life under the Taliban and economic collapse, hundreds of thousands of people across the country have tried to flee. Although the desert and mountainous terrain is treacherous, Nimroz is easier for people to cross into Iran illegally.

Hotels were packed. The deserts and mountains were crowded with people. Everyone wanted to leave. While they were waiting for the smuggler, Leila and Aziz got into an argument.

Leila (translated voiceover): I told him that we have our house; we have everything. We don’t care if others leave. Let’s return. Aziz said, “Had I known you are like this, I wouldn’t have married you.” He even told me, “Even if I get killed, I won’t return home. Bury me in Iran next to my father’s grave if I die. I won’t return to Afghanistan.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Migration from Afghanistan rose in the months before the Afghan government fell to the Taliban.

VOA : The number of Afghans crossing the border illegally has increased by 30 to 40 percent since May, when international forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban increased its attacks.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The number of people trying to leave was still high at the end of August last year.

Afghans make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Over 2 million Afghan refugees are registered in Iran and Pakistan, which together are home to about three-quarters of Afghan refugees. At least 1,500 Afghans have lost their lives on migration routes across Asia and Europe since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration ; most of those deaths occurred while crossing into Iran.

Since there is so little official data on the deaths of migrants, the actual figure is probably much higher. Most of these deaths occur along the Afghanistan-Iran route that Aziz and his family chose.

Afghan refugees have had devastating experiences in Iran. In May 2020, 23 Afghan migrants who were trying to cross the border to Iran drowned in the Harirud River after Iranian border guards beat them and forced them to jump into the water. A month later, Iranian police shot at a car carrying Afghan migrants. The car burst into flames ; three people died.

[Sounds from the streets of Qom, Iran]

Aziz had grown up in Qom, Iran. His parents had migrated there during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s. When Aziz was 7, his dad died in a traffic accident. At the time, Aziz’s mom was only 20 years old, left to raise three kids. To make ends meet, she cleaned their neighbors’ houses. As a kid, Aziz would work half a day and go to school the other half. After finishing high school, he was no longer eligible for free education in Iran.

In 2008, seven years after the U.S. military arrived in Afghanistan, Aziz and his family moved to Herat. It took Aziz a few years to get used to living in Afghanistan. He started working as a software programmer at a cellphone store. Leila and Aziz married in 2015. A few years later, he got his bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Aziz grew to love Herat. He used to call himself Aziz HRT — short for Herat — a nickname he chose to show his regard for his new home. Even his Facebook pictures had the caption “Aziz HRT.” For several years, Aziz lived a normal life in Herat, until insecurity and conflict in the country increased, leading many Afghans to flee their homes.

As the economy weakened, Aziz struggled to make ends meet. He began thinking about getting a new job or a part-time job, but he didn’t succeed because almost everyone had a similar problem.

[Sounds from Nimroz]

Mir Abdullah Miri: Back in Nimroz, Leila and Aziz were growing impatient. They still hadn’t heard from the smuggler. They had no information about their border crossing or know what to expect.

When they finally got a hold of the smuggler the next day, he told them to keep waiting. Aziz, Ahmad, and their wives and children were sharing a space with five other families.

Leila (translated voiceover): It is a place where you cannot make a call, and no one helps you [if you] cry out of pain.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila described their time in Nimroz.

Leila (translated voiceover): We lived on fruits like melon and watermelon. During the four nights in Nimroz, in our initial place, we could make calls and were in contact. The internet also worked but not properly. We were told to hide our phones. I even took my marriage ring off my finger. I was told to hide my ring because we would be chased.

From Smuggler to Smuggler

Mir Abdullah Miri: After four days and no progress, Aziz found a new smuggler, Khalil, with the help of a family friend.

It’s not hard to find a smuggler in Nimroz who will agree to take you across the border for the right price.

Leila (translated voiceover): The smuggler said, “It’s up to you. You have a choice to make: All border crossings are closed, except Kalagan, which requires four hours of walking.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Khalil, the new smuggler Aziz found, warned that the only route open to them was not safe for a family with two young children. But Aziz insisted.

Leila (translated voiceover): It was Friday, and the smuggler himself moved us to a new lodging place. He didn’t charge us for the place, but he charged us for the food. The food was like what you’d cook for a small child. And because the food is not enough, the child won’t get full. He would charge us 200 Afghani per person for that food.

Mir Abdullah Miri: It was very expensive for them, and the accommodations were sparse.

Leila (translated voiceover): The new place was inside the city. It was inside the city but in the backstreets. It was a ruined house and had two floors. Married people were on one floor; singles were on the other floor. The women and children were on one side of the room, and the men — whether their husbands, brothers, and everyone else — were on the other side of the room. There was only a curtain between men and women.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Before I continue, let me explain how smugglers work in this part of the country.

Smuggling networks work with sarafs : basically freelance financial agents. The sarafs act as intermediaries between smugglers and migrants. Migrants usually pay the sarafs in advance, but the money is only handed over to the smuggler once the client has reached his destination.

Migrants are usually divided into groups of 5 to 10. They rely on their guides for information about the geography and length of the trip. Throughout the journey, they’re passed from one smuggler to another, all part of the same network.

The new smuggler gave them a phone number and told them to use it if they got lost. Khalil told them that they were now Abdullah Kaj’s people, another smuggler. He told them what to expect from the journey.

Leila (translated voiceover): He told us to put the phone number in each child’s pocket, so they could be found in case they were lost along the way.

Mir Abdullah Miri: By rickshaws, the smuggler took Leila, Aziz, their two children, his uncle, and his uncle’s family to a place where another set of smugglers would meet them.

Leila (translated voiceover): The weather was unbearably hot. We were in a desert. It was not in our control. We didn’t have the choice to decide [when to go and how to go]. When you say “smuggling,” it’s clear from its name. It’s not for you to say. You have to bear it.

All the children were crying; even my son and my daughter were crying. I didn’t know how to calm them.

Mir Abdullah Miri: In the desert, they arrived to find pickup trucks and cars.

Leila (translated voiceover): The cars were not that comfortable to sit in. They were worn-out Toyotas. It was me, my two children, my uncle’s wife, two other women — who were our distant relatives — with a child each, plus the bags we had. We were crammed into the second row of the cabin with difficulty. The men had to sit on the back of the truck.

Mir Abdullah Miri: After about nine hours, they were dropped off near a tent in the desert in Pakistan. About an hour later, another car drove them through the desert and hills.

Leila (translated voiceover): Around 2:00 to 2:30 am, I had a Nokia phone with myself, and I was able to check the time. He stopped near a hill and told us to rest there, and they would move us again at 5:00 a.m. There were so many people sleeping there who had arrived earlier. There were cars and one tent there. They were all migrants. When we stopped there, the vehicle remained with us and the guy went somewhere else. There, my daughter was crying a lot and did not take anything. I mean, I couldn’t sleep from 2:30 am — when we arrived there — until 5:00 am until they moved us.

There, it was full of sand, thorns, and thistles. Because we were so bone-tired and exhausted, we laid down there without even thinking if it was sand, rock, clumps of earth, or whatever. My son didn’t eat at all during the way. Whatever I give him, he would throw up. He would even throw up a drop of water I give him.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The next morning, they left at 5:00 a.m. The driver spoke Balochi on the phone, a language spoken in the region they were passing through between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

It is known as Dasht-e Margo, or the Desert of Death. Leila and Aziz didn’t realize this.

Four hours later, they were dropped off at a site with little shade, just a few palm trees and no water.

Leila (translated voiceover): After an hour, two cars came. They asked, “Who are Abdullah Kaj’s people?”

Mir Abdullah Miri: That’s the smuggler.

Leila (translated voiceover): “We are,” we said. The men raised their hands. The smugglers said that the men would go in one car and the women in another.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz didn’t want the families separated. He insisted on being able to travel together with his wife and children.

Leila (translated voiceover): The smuggler told Aziz, “Wait here. Once you’re burnt in the sun here until the evening, then you will regret it.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: And so they were left in the desert.

Leila (translated voiceover): But we didn’t know that the weather would get that hot under those palm trees.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Every few hours, they would change places, chasing the shade of the palm trees. Finally, about eight hours later, a pickup truck pulled up, and people crowded around it. Aziz and his family were allowed in. They were put on the back of the pickup truck.

Leila (translated voiceover): The driver would drive so fast. He told us to hold fast. If anything like the bags, our kids, or ourselves fall, he would not stop for us to take our kids because there are patrol cars all around us.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Along the way, each family had to pay people at different checkpoints.

Leila (translated voiceover): Most of our money was spent paying the Taliban and the Baloch tribespeople along the way. They would take money from everyone, both families and singles. Those who did not have money, they would hit them.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila shared a story about a young man traveling with them.

Leila (translated voiceover): He gave his bag and his phone to us to hide because the poor man said, “These are all I had. Hide them because I have nothing else, and I might end up hungry and thirsty.” When the Taliban searched and couldn’t find anything, they hit him as much as they could.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Around midnight, they arrived at a place called Abbas Hostel, where they would be staying for the night. It had no roof — so they huddled under the desert sky.

Leila (translated voiceover): It wasn’t a hostel. It was a big compound with four walls and two doors. I should tell you, it was like a moat. It was water and dirt. There was no place to sit. We finally decided to sit next to a toilet on the dry ground, in the dirt. We had no option except to sit there. There, we ate no food and drank no water — nothing.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The next stop was at the mountains on the Pakistan-Iran border. By that point, two nights had passed since they had left Nimroz. They reached the mountains in the evening and were told to rest for two hours. They had a long walk ahead.

Leila (translated voiceover): Once he dropped us off there, we walked a few steps. We sat at the top of the mountain. Aziz was too tired to sit. He lay there on the rocks. Our son was also lying there, next to his dad.

There was no one we could buy food or water from. We had taken only some dried bread with us since we knew that dried bread doesn’t go bad easily.

[Sounds of motorbikes]

Mir Abdullah Miri: A few smugglers on motorbikes showed up at 9:00 p.m. and divided the group in two and assigned each to a different smuggler: “Mojib Baloch” and “Asmaan.” Aziz and his family were told that Asmaan would be their smuggler.

They were told to shout “Asmaan! Asmaan!” whenever they were lost, since the route was dark and crowded.

Leila (translated voiceover): All of us had to walk. It was too dark to see anything. In fact, we couldn’t see ahead of us. Our small mobile phone had a light, but the smuggler even told us to [keep it] off because if police patrols saw it, they would follow and find us.

The smuggler was on a motorbike, and he would himself go two, three mountains ahead of us and stand on the top of a mountain and signal us with his big light, asking us to follow him. He told us if we didn’t follow him, we would be left behind.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz had a backpack and carried his 3-year-old son, Amir. Leila carried their baby daughter in her arms. Aziz and Leila walked together, holding hands.

Leila (translated voiceover): My son was crying a lot. As Aziz walked, he would put Amir down, held his hand, and asked him to follow him. Within minutes, he’d put him back on his shoulder. I held my daughter’s hand. Amir would cry a lot and say things like, “Daddy, I’m sleepy. Daddy, I’m hungry. Daddy, I’m dying.” His daddy was silent.

Mir Abdullah Miri: They hadn’t walked more than 30 minutes before Aziz couldn’t go any further.

Leila (translated voiceover): Once Aziz couldn’t walk, in the dark, a man approached us and offered to carry our bags because my son was crying a lot and my daughter had also started crying at this point. We even stopped and sat down to rest in a few places. But the guy took our bag and soon disappeared with our water and food.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila called for their uncle, Ahmad. The route was crowded with donkeys and motorbikes that typically smuggled gas, but since nearly all the borders were now closed, the business of smuggling humans was booming.

Aziz was in pain.

Leila (translated voiceover): Aziz would moan and cry “Aakh, aakh.” [expression of pain]

Mir Abdullah Miri: They stopped a man on a motorbike to ask about taking the family the rest of the way.

Leila (translated voiceover): The motorbiker looked very scary. Aziz talked to the motorbiker and asked how much he would take us. The guy said, “400,000 tomans per person.” Aziz said, “I don’t mind. It’s me, my wife, and my children.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Aziz agreed to pay the fee, which was around 1,200 Afghani or $14, but they needed to make it down the steep mountain first. Uncle Ahmad helped Aziz down. Leila and the rest of the family followed closely.

Leila (translated voiceover): When the motorbiker stopped there, he would shout out, “Amir? Leila? Amir? Leila?” I would reply, “We are here. We are here.” He was worried about us a lot.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Once they reached the bottom of the mountain, Aziz sat on the ground in pain and even more exhausted.

Leila (translated voiceover): He was conscious, but he couldn’t find people to help him get on the motorbike. I implored some people to get him on the motorbike. Six people put him on the motorbike.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Ahmad would accompany Aziz on the motorbike with the smuggler. Leila was left with the children and her uncle Ahmad’s family. The plan was to meet at the next hostel in Iran.

Leila was growing tired too, now carrying her two children on her own. After two and a half hours, the motorbike driver came back alone. He told Leila that they took Aziz to the hospital.

Leila (translated voiceover): I got worried and I asked, “What has happened that you took him to the hospital?” “His blood pressure had gone up,” he replied.

He lied to me.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The smuggler had come back to take her and the children down the mountain. Initially, she refused to go with him. But she was so tired, she ultimately gave in.

Leila (translated voiceover): The smuggler forced my son on his motorbike. Then I sat on his motorbike with my daughter. I was crying and asking him, “Where did you take my husband?” “We took him to hospital. Now I will take you there,” he replied. My son was crying a lot. He would tell my son to stop crying, as he would take us to his dad.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The smuggler didn’t take them to the hospital as he had promised. He took them here and there, Leila said it felt like he was stalling.

They had crossed the border into Iran. But it would be awhile before she would see their Uncle Ahmad again.

Leila (translated voiceover): Suddenly I saw Uncle Ahmad from behind us.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Ahmad told Leila that he would take her to see Aziz. He took her to Zahedan, a city in Iran. Once there, Ahmad told her, Aziz was in a hospital in Afghanistan. So they would need to return.

Leila was overwhelmed, anxious, and frustrated. She had been told so many contradictory things about Aziz. No one was giving her clear answers. Her children were crying, and she cried with them, begging others to tell her what happened to her husband.

In order to get back to Afghanistan, they had to turn themselves into the authorities in Zahedan. Because they didn’t have the proper travel documents and crossed into Iran illegally, they had to be deported back home.

After spending a few days and nights in Iran, they were deported to Afghanistan on September 12, 2021.

No Clear Answers

I was sitting in a Kabul hotel when I received a call from my brother, Omid. My family and I had received word that the U.K. government would evacuate us. I was told that I was eligible to be relocated to England because I was working as a trainer with the British Council. But chaos at the airport, and then the suicide bombing, grounded commercial flights.

Omid told me that Aziz was missing after trying to cross the Afghanistan-Iran border. Together we began trying to find Aziz.

Omid, who lives in Herat, had an Iranian visa. He set off to look for Aziz in Iran. Ahmad had told Omid that he wasn’t sure if Aziz was still alive. Ahmad had told other relatives that Aziz was in Khash, a city in Iran.

But while searching for Aziz, Omid learned that his body was actually in a hospital in Saravan, a city in southeastern Iran, 100 miles away from Khash. The hospital staff told Omid that Aziz’s body had been discovered by villagers in Saravan, which wasn’t far from where he was supposed to meet Leila.

Aziz’s body had been in the desert for a couple of days before it was taken to the hospital on September 9, 2021, they told Omid. According to the hospital report, Aziz died of three things: the first, being hit by a hard object; the second, head injuries and concussions; and the third, a cerebral hemorrhage. His brain was bleeding. When Omid saw Aziz’s body, he noticed that his clothes were torn.

Aziz’s death remains a mystery. What happened to him? Did he fall? Was he pushed? Was he beaten? Did he suffer a heart attack? Did anyone help him, or did they leave him behind? Did he have time to realize what was happening? Was he alone when he died? And why was Ahmad giving conflicting stories?

I’ve talked to those who were directly or indirectly involved in this trip and who had information about Aziz and his decision to leave the country. We all have tried retracing Aziz’s steps.

When I asked Ahmad what happened to Aziz, he revealed more than he had told Leila:

Ahmad (translated voiceover): Finally, as we approached the hostel, I saw Aziz have three hiccups on the motorbike, like someone who was breathing his last breaths. I took him to the hostel. When I took him to the hostel, I put him on my lap and called him nephew, nephew, breathe, breathe, but he didn’t breathe at all.

There were 3 to 4 people in the hostel. I asked them to check him, he is my nephew, why he is not breathing. I was pushing his chest to help him breathe, but nothing helped; he couldn’t breathe.

A guy at the hostel told me Aziz had died. May he rest in peace.

I was told not to tell Leila about Aziz’s death because if she cried, all the travelers would be fucked up.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Meaning it could put them all in danger of being captured by the police.

Ahmad (translated voiceover): I asked the smuggler what happened to my nephew. He told me, “We took him to the hospital to give electric shock, we took him to the morgue.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila doesn’t understand why Ahmad wouldn’t tell anyone what really happened. When they got back to Herat, everyone would ask Ahmad to tell them everything, and according to Leila, Ahmad would say, “This was everything.”

She has her own theories.

Leila (translated voiceover): I think Aziz fell off the mountain because Ahmad was so frail, and as he was helping Aziz get off the motorbike, he must have fallen.

Mir Abdullah Miri: The mystery surrounding Aziz’s death has torn our family apart. We’ve all been left to speculate about what actually happened and whether anyone could have helped Aziz or saved him.

Illegal migration is a difficult decision. Many uncertainties await the traveler. The journey becomes even harder when you start from a war-torn country like Afghanistan, at a moment when power is shifting, when many people are terrified and running for the exits.

Afghanistan has had confusing policies to prevent or discourage the use of smugglers. Only recently has the Taliban ordered a ban on migration from Nimroz to Iran. But it’s been reported that those who pay bribes to the Taliban border guards can continue their journey.

Leila (translated voiceover): Aziz was someone who loved his family. He loved his children. He always said, “Leaving home is like leaving your soul.” When he left home, he indeed left his soul behind.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Since Aziz passed away, his family has been struggling. Leila and her children live with Aziz’s mom and brother. They don’t have any source of income and rely on the little money Aziz’s brother gives them to cover living costs.

Leila: When Aziz died, my daughter was two and half months old. I had to pay for diapers, medicine, and doctors. Once we got back, I had to spend a lot on my kids’ health. My son has a blood infection. Even now, if he gets a microbe in his body, we have to pay a lot for his treatment.

Mir Abdullah Miri: Leila worries about the future of her children.

Leila (translated voiceover): All the dreams Aziz and I had as a couple were buried. Now, the only dream I have is for my children to get educated in a good place.

Mir Abdullah Miri: When I talked to Leila about this, she fought back tears.

Leila (translated voiceover): I just want from my God that whatever good or bad memories I had here in Afghanistan, I leave them in Afghanistan. I even just want to be somewhere where I can put up a tent, where I can live with my children, because there are no good memories left for us from Afghanistan. And even today my son cried for about an hour, saying, “Mommy, I want to see my dad’s clothes. Open dad’s closet so I can see my dad’s clothes.”

Mir Abdullah Miri: She worries about the trauma her son, Amir, still carries. He’s scared all the time. When he’s sleeping, even when Leila is next to him, he wakes up and cries, “Where’s my mommy?”

Leila (translated voiceover): Every night when he goes to bed, he does not fall asleep until he recalls those days. He says, “Mommy, when I grow up, I won’t take you to the mountains. I’m afraid of mountains.”


Mir Abdullah Miri: Next time on No Way Home.

Maryam Barak: What I’m about to tell you is a different kind of Afghan refugee story. It isn’t about the struggle to get out of Kabul or a dramatic life-and-death journey. Instead, it’s about adapting to life in a new country, about finding hope — despite all we have left behind.

Qader Kazimizada: We didn’t even have any choice. There was no choice, because at that moment, the only thing was important was to get out from Kabul.

They were drinking, shouting, fighting during the night at the corridor. I was always awake and standing behind the door in order to avoid if they come at the door, because my family is here, my wife is here, my children are here. They will be scared.

We are learning Italiano, trying to get integrated with the people, with Italian people.

Mir Abdullah Miri: No Way Home is a production of The Intercept and New America’s Afghanistan Observatory Scholars program.

This episode was written and reported by me, Mir Abdullah Miri.

Our executive producer and editor is Vanessa Gezari.

Supervising producer and editor is Laura Flynn.

Candace Rondeaux is the director of Future Frontlines Program-New America and project editor.

Ali Yawar Adili is the Afghanistan Observatory project coordinator.

Jose Olivares helped with production.

Rick Kwan mixed this episode.

Zach Young composed our theme music.

Legal review by David Bralow.

Fact checking by Emily Schneider.

Awista Ayub is the director and project manager of New America’s Fellows Program.

Voiceovers by Humaira Rahbin and Ali Yawar Adili.

To learn more, visit where you can find transcripts and art of the show. Philipp Hubert is our visual designer and Nara Shin our copy editor.

Roger Hodge is editor-in-chief of The Intercept.

If you want to give us feedback or have any questions, email us at

Thanks, so much, for listening.

The post No Way Home, Episode Two: The Desert of Death appeared first on The Intercept .

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