One year later, US must evacuate survivors of Kabul drone strike | News and Comments
A year ago, my phone rang in California at what I knew was 2 a.m. in Afghanistan. He was the national director of Nutrition & Education International, the non-profit food aid organization I founded 18 years ago and lead as president. “Dr. Kwon, Zemari is no longer with us,” he told me. “Zemari died with her children due to a drone strike.” In my immediate shock, this news had no almost no sense.
Zemari was one of the first six people hired by NEI. He grew up poor, like many Afghans, and started working for us in 2006 as a handyman. He never attended school for formal training, but was extraordinarily intelligent, a gifted electrical engineer, and became a key leader in our small organization. The concept of NEI was simple: if we could go to poor villages in Afghanistan with high death rates among women and children, and teach farmers how to grow protein-rich soybeans and eat them at home, they could help save their malnourished families. By 2019, we had succeeded in building a national infrastructure for the sustainable development of the soybean value chain in Afghanistan. None of this would have been possible without Zemari.
After hanging up the phone, I couldn’t help but think about how a good person, working to make their country a better place, could die like this, at the hands of my own government. I could still hear Zemari’s laughter so distinctly. He liked to tell jokes and we laughed so much together. For over a decade, he and I spent countless hours traveling together, eating together, and talking about our families, our work, the world, and life. We were so close that my wife and I considered him our Afghan son.
The day after the strike, our country director visited the scene. It was horrible, he told me; he could still see pieces of human flesh. In addition to Zemari, the strike killed her three sons and six members of her extended family. Her two brothers and her sister-in-law lost four children under the age of seven, while Zemari’s daughter-in-law lost her own daughter, a sweet little girl who was just two years old. The 10th victim was Zemari’s nephew, Naser, a breadwinner for his branch of the family, who was only in Kabul to obtain a special US immigrant visa, for which he was eligible because he had risked his life working with the US military. He had hoped that this visa would help bring him and his family to safety.
The Pentagon initially claimed the strike was “successful” and “righteous” because it would have killed ISIS operatives, but NEI’s own investigation and that of prominent US media quickly dispelled that lie. With the help of our Country Director, I tracked down the people Zemari spoke to that day as part of his job – people at the police station, at the refugee camp, at the bank. All said he was his usual upbeat and cheerful self. We reviewed the security camera footage, and a few hours later we saw video of Zemari doing exactly what the guard said: packing and loading large bottles of water into the trunk of his car for them. bring home for his family – not explosives as the Pentagon claims. Weeks later, the head of US Central Command called the strike a “tragic mistake” and confirmed that innocent civilians had indeed been killed in the attack.
Knowing that he was killed by my government for bottled water was devastating to me. With that, I promised Zemari to take care of his family and get justice. I saw it as my moral responsibility in return for his dedication and loyalty to NEI, his country and his family. For the past year, NEI has been paying the living and education costs of Zemari’s wife and daughter to ensure that they are cared for.
It is still amazing to me how many people have been irreparably injured and how many family lives have been shattered because of this unwarranted strike. A legal team led by the ACLU is representing approximately 144 surviving family members and NEI employees. Within months, we documented for the US government the security risks they faced, and since then we have implored the government to coordinate their safe evacuation to the United States.
Sadly, today only 11 of the 144 people the government has promised to help are in the United States. Fortunately, another 110 have been safely evacuated, currently in third countries awaiting immigration processing, but, shamefully, another 32 – including Zemari’s wife and daughter – remain in Afghanistan. Without even an evacuation timetable, those still stuck are losing hope and faith in the promises of the US government.
Most of the survivors were already in danger when the Afghan government fell. Like Naser, many of Zemari’s family members and NEI colleagues previously worked for the Afghan or US governments in Afghanistan. But any hope they had of keeping a low profile was lost with this strike. The US government’s false claims about ISIS have forced many of Zemari’s grieving family members and NEI colleagues to publicly proclaim their innocence, painting targets on their backs.
My national director cried on one of our calls, telling me that after the drone attack he was praying that if he was killed it would be when he was alone so that at least his daughters would be spared. What kind of prayer is this? To kill me when I’m alone and not with my family members?
Zemari was a proud father who constantly talked about building a better future for his seven children. Nothing can bring him, his three sons, or his six nieces and nephews back, but the US government can and must help the innocent people whose lives it destroyed by bringing them to safety and helping them rebuild their lives. On the first anniversary of the strike, I hope my government will finally keep its promise and quickly evacuate all survivors and their families.