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Afghans adrift on US 'lily pad' in Kosovo

Teri Schultz
August 28, 2022

Afghan evacuees whom the US had said would be temporarily housed in Kosovo are still there a year later — with no way out. Teri Schultz shares the story of one man who says he is treated more like an inmate than an ally.

Afghan evacuees protest on US Army base Camp Liya in Kosovo
Evacuees at Camp Liya in Kosovo protested in June after being stuck for months on the US Army base while awaiting resettlement decisionsImage: Muhammad Arif Sarwari/AP Photo/picture alliance

Two weeks after the Taliban reclaimed Kabul in 2021, diplomats and US soldiers in Kosovo welcomed with open arms and newly built accommodations Afghans who had been evacuated because of their work with the United States and allied governments. Camp Liya, constructed alongside the US Army base Camp Bondsteel, would briefly be their home — a "lily pad," they were told — while Washington arranged their resettlement in the United States or a third country.

"We are honored to be able to help Afghan refugees who worked for NATO,” Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti said on August 29, 2021, greeting the first arrivals at the airport. "They left their homes and their country in desperation. But we will do everything to make sure that they will be safe, secure here.”

John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman at the time, said the agreement signed with Kosovo pledged the US to relocate Afghans that are housed in the camp "to the United States or a third country within 365 days.”

Liya lingers on

Fast-forward — or for the residents, slow-crawl forward — to today. The plan for Camp Liya to be dismantled within a year has fallen by the wayside. Though many hundreds of Afghans did pass through quickly, receiving US visas or offers to live in another country, others are stuck there after receiving either a negative decision from US authorities or no decision at all.

Afghan evacuees arriving at Camp Liya in Kosovo
US soldiers help Afghan evacuees arriving at Camp Liya in KosovoImage: Sgt. Gillian McCreedy, US Defense Dept

"Some people are depressed; some people have psychological problems," an Afghan man who had been evacuated told DW, asking that he not be identified because of security risks. "They told us that we would be here for a couple of months, but we are here for almost one year. After eight months they said: 'You are not eligible to go to America.' We ask them what's the reason. They didn't tell us.”

The long-term residents may have been told that they were guests initially, but this man said now it felt like a prison. He said residents were not allowed to leave the base unless they give up their right to come back. They cannot work to earn money to send back to their families, who in many cases were not allowed to be evacuated with them, so he is worried his children are going hungry.

A family split between the US and Afghanistan

After reflecting, he said the information vacuum made the situation feel worse than prison.

"A prisoner can have access to his case, and he can ask about his case, why he is here, for how long he will be in detention," the man said. "If we ask that, they don't give us any reason why we are in this camp and for how long."

Treatment 'just shocking'

Earlier this summer exasperation on the base boiled over and evacuees staged a protest, holding signs signs saying "women and children are suffering” and "we want justice.”

protest signs made by Afghan evacuees at Camp Liya, Kosovo
Afghan evacuees at Camp Liya in Kosovo protested in June, saying their rights were being violated by long stays there and rejected visa requests.Image: Muhammad Arif Sarwari/AP Photo/picture alliance

Most of the people whose visa requests have been rejected have no lawyers to press their cases with the US government. One who does is former Afghan intelligence chief Mohammad Arif Sarwari. He was among the first Afghans to coordinate with US forces when they invaded Afghanistan after 9/11.

Back then Julie Sirrs was a defense intelligence analyst with the US Department of Defense, and became acquainted with Sarwari while working in Afghanistan. Later in her career, she became an attorney. When she learned that his life was in danger with the return of the Taliban last year, Sirrs decided she'd repay Sarwari his assistance of decades ago and represent him as he sought resettlement in the United States.

"He protected my life and that of many other Americans," Sirrs told DW. "He was the primary contact for the CIA team that went in immediately post-9/11. I don't think there is any individual in Afghanistan who did more than Mr. Sarwari did to help the United States."

American attorney Julie Sirrs stands in front of bookcases
Sirrs is representing Mohammad Arif Sarwari in his efforts to resettle in the United StatesImage: privat

Sirrs is puzzled that her client has been rejected for a US visa and frustrated that she is given very little information about his case. "I think the treatment is highly improper, especially in cases like my client's, who provided tremendous assistance at great risk to his life,” she said. "I understand there are others in a similar position to him in the camp and it's just shocking to me, the very poor treatment they've been getting through this process. No one disputes the need for appropriate vetting. But in some cases, for those individuals who are still in the camp, it seems to be a process that has gone wrong in some way.”

Asked what might be their fate, State Department Spokesman Ned Price had little to share. "There is a small number [of evacuees] still there who are undergoing additional vetting," he said on August 16. "We've been able to clear a number of them already. But, again, each vetting process is done on a case-by-case basis, and that's ongoing for those who remain there.”

US strikeout stigma

Seeking a third country for evacuated Afghans becomes infinitely more difficult once US officials have determined that they are not eligible to live in the United States. "The first thing other countries do tend to assume is that there may be some security issue," Sirrs said, adding that she doesn't believe there's any such concern with Sarwari. He recently was able to negotiate a departure from Camp Liya to another location to await a resettlement offer, but, she said, no country has offered to take him in.

Going back to Afghanistan would mean certain death for Sarwari, she said, as it would for many others at Camp Liya.

Taliban forces drive through Kabul
Taliban forces took over Kabul in August 2021 as international troops withdrewImage: AP

That leaves the problem in Kosovo's lap. One year after he promised the new arrivals safety and security, Kosovo's Prime Minister Kurti, visiting Brussels, acknowledged his government had agreed to let the US blow its deadline of August 29, 2022 to have Camp Liya disbanded. He did not respond directly to  this reporter's question of whether the people who remain in Camp Liya could be resettled within Kosovo.

"It's a humanitarian duty to help refugees who had to flee," Kurti said. "On the other hand, it is duty toward our allies and partners and friends — first of all the United States — to help when they are in need. And we will continue to do so."

Continuing the status quo is just the opposite of what Camp Liya's left-behind inhabitants want.