Around 150 former Afghan Air Force pilots and personnel, who were trapped in Tajikistan for months after fleeing Afghanistan, have been airlifted by the United States out of the country to the United Arab Emirates.
The pilots had spent nearly three months in detention in Tajikistan after they used their military aircraft to fly to Afghanistan’s northern neighbor as the Taliban seized Kabul in August. But some of the pilots found themselves in a frightening limbo, detained in a hotel complex by Tajikistan's authorities, where they said they spent weeks held largely incommunicado and unsure if they might be sent back to the Taliban.
The pilots who spoke with ABC News also said they were poorly fed and were often without electricity in detention. Among them was a female pilot nine months pregnant, they said.
The pilots were taken to the airport in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe by staff from the U.S. embassy last Tuesday and put on a charter flight to Dubai, according to the pilots and Department of Defense. There, the evacuees were placed in quarantine in a hotel and are now beginning the process of being assessed for resettlement to the U.S. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the pilots were evacuated as part of a group of approximately 191 Afghans.
The evacuation occurred as the U.S. continued to wrestle with the colossal task of resettling tens of thousands of Afghans who served the U.S. and Afghanistan's toppled American-backed government and who are now at risk of mistreatment or execution by the Taliban.
"It's just a huge relief," said David Hicks, a former brigadier general and CEO of Sacred Promise, a nongovernmental organization run by current and ex-U.S. military officers that have been working on getting the pilots out. "The team is tremendously relieved and happy to have those individuals out and moving onto their next step to freedom."
In August, as the Taliban closed in, around 400 pilots and personnel also used their aircraft to fly to Uzbekistan, where they too were detained. But the U.S. was able to negotiate their release in Uzbekistan more quickly, flying the group out in mid-September, officials said.
But negotiations to arrange the evacuation for those in Tajikistan took longer and the pilots said they had been unsure whether they might be sent back. The Taliban had called on the pilots to return and have promised a general amnesty for former Afghan military personnel. But few of the pilots said they did not trust the guarantees.
"It was a rough time over there," said Ahadi Ab Wajid, a lieutenant who piloted A-29 light reconnaissance aircraft and was evacuated Tuesday.
Speaking by phone from Dubai, he said in Tajikistan, the pilots had lived in poorly heated accommodation and at times had to drink river water.
Ab Wajid said the pilots were still worried about their families, who many had left in Afghanistan.
"It's hard for them, because they left the place we used to live in. Now they're living somewhere else and nobody is there to support and help," he said. "But still thanks God, thanks God that we are out of there," he said, referring to Tajikistan.
The pilots in Dubai are now being processed to allow them to be resettled in the U.S.
"All the guys are happy," said Haseebullah Ibrahimkhail, a helicopter pilot also on Tuesday's flight. "You can see it in their faces."
Ibrahimkhail said he was missing his wife and two young daughters who are in Hungary now, having fled Afghanistan. He said he was also preoccupied with thinking about his comrades still in Afghanistan.
Thousands more former Afghan Air Force and other military personnel are still trapped in Afghanistan, with many still appealing for evacuation by the U.S., according to Hicks. Ibrahimkhail said his former comrades fear execution if found, and are barely venturing outside, meaning they are unable to work and are now struggling to feed their families.
The Taliban are reportedly searching for former military personnel and some pilots have told ABC their relatives had been questioned about their whereabouts.
Hick's NGO, Sacred Promise, is lobbying the U.S. to prioritize the evacuation of the pilots still in Afghanistan, where he said the danger to them was growing.
"We get stories, pretty much daily, either of beatings or having to move," said Hicks. "And frankly, it's not going to go away anytime soon—this is going to continue either until we get them out or until the worst case happens."