The first warning came in September 2014. It arrived in the form of a night letter, a handwritten death threat posted in darkness by a Taliban messenger on the front door of Zabi’s family home. The letter was direct: “Zabihullah, son of -----, residing in ----- District, has been working and cooperating with the U.S. Army and slaving for them against Islam... Do jihad and save your religion. Otherwise, you will be punished.”
Seven years ago, when I first met Zabi, he was a lanky 18-year-old interpreter for John’s Construction, an Afghan company that built rudimentary buildings. Each morning, Zabi would arrive at an American military base with a group of construction laborers. His job was to stand at the building site and communicate between the Afghan foreman and the American engineers who supervised the projects. Compared to the laborers, Zabi’s job was a comfortable one. In 2009, Zabi spoke only rudimentary English, but that was all he needed to get by.
In total, Zabi worked as an interpreter at John’s Construction (and later Azrakhsh Construction) for roughly six years. The companies sent him to job sites in Kunar Province, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Kabul, and he left his home in eastern Afghanistan for long periods of time. (Zabi asked that I not name his family or his home village because he is afraid of a violent reprisal.)
For years, while the number of American military forces grew, the construction business boomed in Afghanistan. The U.S. military financed the building of thousands of barracks, offices, gyms, cafeterias, blast walls, and guard towers. They hired Afghan firms to build facilities for the Americans, for the Afghan National Army, and for Afghan police forces. Zabi worked on many of these projects. He worked alongside me at Camp Blackhorse in the suburbs of Kabul, and later he worked at the American base in Surobi, 50 miles farther east.
Then, in 2013, the American military began to reduce the size of its presence in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of American soldiers departed the country, and the Afghan construction boom—which had long been driven by American military dollars—stopped abruptly.
Suddenly unemployed, Zabi returned to his village that sits near the eastern border with Pakistan. He married, and, in August 2014, his wife gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Not long after his daughter’s birth, the first night letter arrived. Zabi’s younger brother, the one who wakes up the earliest, found it.
“We can’t see anyone because we are asleep,” Zabi told me. “They put the letters on the door. In the morning, my brother goes to work, to take the cows to the field, and he found the letters.”
More than a year had passed since Zabi last worked with the American forces, but he took the threat seriously. He quietly departed his village alone and traveled to Kabul, where he began sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. Without a job, he couldn’t afford to bring his wife and daughter with him, so they remained with Zabi’s father, who swore to protect them.
Zabi searched for a job in Kabul, and after some months, he was hired as a staffer for the Afghan Ministry of Education. Today, two years after the first night letter, even Kabul doesn’t feel entirely safe to Zabi. He still keeps his precise location secret.
“Some friends, I don’t say that I’m here,” he said. “I tell other friends the incorrect place.”
American soldiers have all but disappeared from the province where Zabi grew up, and security conditions in his home district have worsened. Zabi has not felt safe visiting his home since 2014. When he does travel outside Kabul now, he tells his plans to no one but his wife or parents.
So far, Zabi has avoided any close encounters with the Taliban, but his friends and relatives have not been so fortunate. In April 2015, Zabi told me that his brother-in-law’s uncle, Khan Mohammad, had been murdered in his sleep by the Taliban. They had figured out that Mohammad was working with the Afghan government. On Facebook, Zabi wrote to me in awkward English, “Taliban killed him with knife and fire with gun in mouth.”
Last September, Zabi sent me a photo of his friend Azatullah’s dead body. Azatullah, he told me, was stabbed in the heart with a knife. Azatullah had been Zabi’s best friend, and the two used to play cricket together. Zabi doesn’t know why Azatullah was killed, but he speculates the killers belong to either the Taliban or Daesh.
Zabi doesn’t know if Khan Mohammad or Azatullah received night letters too. He has told almost no one about the letters he’s received.
For these reasons, Zabi doesn’t go home anymore. Instead, he tries to occasionally meet his wife in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Zabi feels safe taking taxis to Jalalabad only on Fridays, the Islamic holy day. On that day Afghan security forces stand guard along the main eastern roadway. On other days, he risks being stopped by a Taliban checkpoint.
When he does travel to see his family, Zabi stays in Jalalabad only briefly. He takes these risks to spend time with his two-year-old daughter and one-year-old son (who was born after Zabi went into hiding.)
At his day job in the Ministry of Education in Kabul, Zabi works at an office computer where he handles information management, but his salary arrives infrequently.
“I don’t know when the government will give me my pay,” he told me a year ago. He’s getting paid now, but sporadically. “11,000 Afghani is about 200 dollars per month. It’s not enough.”
Zabi has thought about moving his wife and daughter to the relative safety of the capital, but an apartment for his family might cost $800 per month. And with what he’s making, he can’t afford it.
A second night letter arrived at the home of Zabi’s family on January 20th, 2015, after he had fled to Kabul. It read: “You didn’t heed our warning. If we see you and your family members, we will kill you all. I am going to perform jihad on you.”
Zabi hasn’t said a word about the night letters to his friends or neighbors in the village. One of them, he suspects, may be the sender.
“I tell everyone that I am not working with foreigners, but they don’t believe me,” he said. “They thinking I am still working with the Americans. My brother told me, ‘They will get you. They will kill you. Don’t go to your district again.’”
In Kabul, Zabi asked his most trusted friends what he should do. One of them, an Afghan who had worked closely with the U.S. military, told him to call the Americans. But Zabi doesn’t know any Americans very well, and the ones he once worked with in construction have all returned to the States. Too many years have passed since he last worked for John’s Construction.
On January 9th, 2015, Zabi logged in to Facebook. He looked up the name of an American he’d met many years before, someone he’d worked with at Camp Blackhorse for no more than three months. He typed a desperate paragraph in clumsy English—and then he sent it to me.
“Now I am jobless, and I am in big problem, and I am faced with threat,” he wrote in part. “If possible can you help me?”
I ignored Zabi’s message for two weeks. I tried hard to not get involved, to keep myself emotionally separated from his problems. But with the immediate communication we had through Facebook, Zabi became difficult to block out.
On January 26th, he wrote again.
“Friend I need help.”
I’m ashamed at how long I took to finally answer. It was that last message that got me, “Friend I need help.” I asked Zabi to explain.
“Some people told me, ‘Why do you work with American Forces? You are a Muslim,” he wrote. “You must not work with these people, and don’t cooperate [with] them.’ Some people told me that ‘We have your photograph and illustration. If you do not accept our order, we will take revenge from you.’”
I asked Zabi why he wrote to me and what he wanted. He told me I was the only American who still spoke to him, and I had only infrequently. He wanted me to write a letter of recommendation for his U.S. visa application.
I wrote five different versions of that letter, each time adding more specifics about Zabi’s identity, his role at Camp Blackhorse, the dates we worked together, and whether or not he was trustworthy. I the final version, I wrote, “It is with utmost regard to his personal safety and his potential for greater service to the U.S. that I again recommend the approval of his request for a Special Immigrant Visa.”
Zabi is still waiting for his visa. I expect it will never come.
It has been a year and a half since Zabi first contacted me about the night letters. He’s still living in semi-secrecy in Kabul. We talk on Facebook about once a month. We never talk about anything important. I just keep checking that Zabi is still alive.
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Tim Patterson is a 2002 graduate of the Naval Academy. He served aboard the nuclear-powered submarine USS Philadelphia, survived a collision at sea in the Persian Gulf, and mentored police in Afghanistan. Then he spent two years riding a motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina. In 2015 Tim earned a masters in journalism from Columbia University. He reports for the Naples Daily News. Reach him at@trpatterson33.