The fate of some Afghans who were evacuated from their country to a United States base in the Balkans remains up in the air.
Since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last summer, the US has resettled some 78,000 Afghans – most of whom assisted its 11-year combat mission – inside its borders.
However, a small number of Afghans, flagged for additional screening, were diverted to Camp Bondsteel in the tiny Balkan nation of Kosovo.
Amid vetting delays and security concerns, their journey to the US has stalled and perhaps ended, in the sun-soaked cluster of tents and temporary housing in the American base.
“They just keep repeating the same things, that it takes time and we must be patient,” one of the Afghans, Muhammad Arif Sarwari, said in a text message sent to The Associated Press from the base.
Sarwari made it to Kuwait from Afghanistan in early September with his wife and two of his daughters and says he doesn’t know why he’s been held up.
He was a prominent figure in Afghanistan, serving as the former director of intelligence after the US invasion in 2001. Before that, he was a top official with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
This would make him a target for Taliban reprisals if he were to return.
“The vetting team keeps telling us sorry, Washington is just deciding some political issues,” he said.
This is creating frustration among some Afghans at the base, which is shrouded in secrecy.
Last week they staged a protest, holding up signs with messages such as “we want justice,” according to photos shared with AP.
The US has not provided details about the evacuees. But it says they did not make it through “a multi-layered, rigorous screening and vetting process” and will not be allowed to enter the country.
“While the vast majority of Afghan evacuees have been cleared through this process, the small number of individuals who have been denied are examples of the system working exactly as it should,” said Sean Savett, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Some 600 Afghans have passed through Bondsteel in total, according to the government of Kosovo. The Balkan state initially allowed the US to use the base for evacuating Afghans for one year. But this was recently extended until August 2023.
The chaotic nature of the evacuation helped create the need for overseas facilities. With the Afghan government disintegrating and the threat of the Taliban looming, thousands were rushed onto military transport planes with minimal screening before they arrived at one of several overseas transit points.
In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that Republican congressional leaders were criticising the vetting process for Afghan nationals brought to the US following the chaotic US withdrawal.
The people sent to Bondsteel have been stopped and diverted for several reasons, including missing or flawed documents, alongside security concerns emerging from vetting by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, officials have said.
While the US authorities, and the government of Kosovo, have been reluctant to say much about the people stuck at the camp, a mix of adults and children are present. This is because some of those who have failed to get a US visa travelled with their families.
Sarwari, a former senior intelligence official with the Afghan government, said there are about 45 people there, representing about 20 individual visa cases, after a flight to the US left with 27 other evacuees on Wednesday.
He has applied for a special immigrant visa, which is issued to people who worked for the US government or its allies during the war. Yet still has not received a response, says his lawyer, Julie Sirrs.
“In theory, he is free to leave but it’s not clear where he could go,” Sirrs said. “He obviously cannot return to Afghanistan. He’s clearly in danger if he returns.”
While not detained, Sarwari and his family cannot leave the arid, rocky base and have spent months in tents, which were adorned with handwritten signs during this week’s protest.
“Unfair decision,” read one of the protestor’s messages, while another displayed “children are suffering.”
US authorities have determined that an unspecified number of evacuees cannot enter the US. It is negotiating with other states to see if they can accept them for resettlement.
No one will be forcibly returned to Afghanistan, the NSC spokesperson said.
Kosovo, which gained independence from Serbia in 2008 with help from the US, has provided little information about the Afghans at Bondsteel, citing the privacy of the refugees.
Prime Minister Albin Kurti said in a statement that his government is proud of the role it has played in assisting the evacuation from Afghanistan.
The Afghan section of the US base is called Camp Liya.
It is named after an Afghan child who was handed to US soldiers over a fence at the Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation.