At only 31, Aleem has already endured a lifetime of threat and trauma. More than a decade of military service alongside British Special Forces in Afghanistan culminated in a nail-biting evacuation after the Taliban took control of the country last August.
Escaping the retributive clutches of the hardline group was a journey he made while being consumed by inner conflict. His acute pain and guilt at the separation from his family was eased only by the dramatic birth of his daughter on board his flight to the UK.
Nearly a year after arriving in England, the guilt lives on but Aleem – not his real name – and his family are feeling lucky.
He cycles to and from his daily English lessons, returning home to a modest semi-detached house in which he, his wife and three children, aged 10, 5 and 11 months, have been resettled in the ancient city of Cambridge.
After eight months spent in three holding hotels around London, the family were moved to a home of their own in March.
Life in limbo for Afghanistan's refugees
Of the 18,000 Afghan and British citizens who were evacuated under Operation Pitting and promised a “warm welcome” in the UK, only 7,000 have been moved into permanent lodgings. About 9,500 Afghan evacuees are still living in holding hotels.
“Most people in the hotels are thinking primarily about getting a house, ideally in a Muslim community so that there are halal shops around them,” says Aleem.
“It’s their biggest concern because only when they are settled can they begin their lives.”
Four months after moving in, the walls and tables still lack the personal pictures and trinkets that turn a house into a home, but a deliciously comforting aroma of freshly cooked biryani more than compensates.
A back garden dotted with various playground toys reveals where the couple’s furnishing priorities lie.
“I built the swings and slide myself,” says Aleem, with a pride also for the flowers and vegetables they have planted outside.
But his relaxed attitude suddenly sharpens when he begins to tell the tale of his escape from Afghanistan.
Despite the almost 6000 kilometres between them, Aleem's fear of the Taliban remains high and he asks for anonymity. Having already lost two siblings to the militants' gunfire this year, those fears are far from unfounded.
Serving Afghanistan with British soldiers
Soon after leaving high school in 2010, Aleem joined the army to “serve my country”, he tells The National proudly, and worked with British Special Forces.
Nearly a decade on from the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban regime, the early days of victory and democracy-building were soon replaced by a deteriorating security situation that claimed at least 176,000 lives over 20 years.
By the time Aleem joined the military, British troops, numbering more than 150,000 over the two decades, were regularly part of joint offensives with the Afghan army against the Taliban.
“I have been fighting them everywhere for years so when they came back into power there was no doubt that I would be killed,” he says.
Later, over the fluffed and spiced rice dish made by his wife, he said dropping his weapons after the withdrawal of Nato troops ushered the Taliban back to power was “one of the most shameful things you can do as a soldier”.
But it was time to recognise the fight was over.
Kabul has fallen, time to leave
His years of service alongside British troops made him eligible for the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme, which opened in April 2021 to former locally employed staff in Afghanistan.
Some Afghans had already applied and moved to the UK in the months before the Taliban resumed power. Once the group took control of the capital city of Kabul on August 15, 2021, the numbers of people wanting to flee soared.
In the two weeks that followed, the US and coalition partners evacuated more than 123,000 people from Kabul’s main airport.
During that time, thousands of terrified Afghans thronged the airport inside and outside, seeking an escape route. People queued for hours in the heat, or hid in the sewers, carrying their children and a few precious belongings, waving documents proving their eligibility for evacuation.
One day, Aleem got a call from a friend who had made it inside the airport telling him to come too.
“I had some very tough times in my military career but what I saw there was the toughest," he says.
“Someone was asking for water, another for food, another for help, but there was no one to help them.”
After struggling to make his way through the crowd for seven hours, he reached one of the British soldiers letting people into the terminal.
“But there were Taliban members around too and I was scared," he says. "If I showed him my documents, they’d know I had been in the army and that I had fought them and I would be a marked man. If the British soldiers didn’t let me in, I would be dead.”
Eventually, he found his way into the airport through another entrance next to the Baron Hotel.
A few hours later he would hear the explosions that ripped through the crowd at the Abbey Gate, killing at least 95 people and wounding 150 others.
“It was a short distance between dying and living,” says Aleem.
And it was only the beginning.
Kabul to Birmingham and a baby born on board
It would be some time before Aleem was able to get himself on an evacuation list, appealing to the British soldiers with whom he had worked side-by-side for help.
Once approved, he asked his brother, who had also served in the military, to bring Aleem's heavily pregnant wife and two young boys to the airport gates.
“When I opened the door and saw the crowd outside, I could see some of the friends I had worked on missions with for 12 years. They raised their hands and asked me for help. But there was nothing I could do so I ignored them. I felt so helpless and ashamed,” he says.
Aleem describes what seemed like a haphazard process of selection. Some were rejected, some were accepted and it was not clear why – a criticism made by several people in the UK government who were working on the evacuation process at the time.
His brother was not allowed to join him on the flight out.
“I told them he had been in the army too, that he had been injured fighting the Taliban but they said no, he couldn’t come with us, so I had to say goodbye to him,” he says, his voice breaking and tears streaming down his face. “And then he was gone.”
It was the last time he would ever see him. A few months later, two of Aleem's brothers, including the one left behind at Kabul airport, were shot and killed at a checkpoint while attempting to flee to Iran.
But there would be little time for Aleem to process what he had just left behind – country, family, friends, career – because a new life was quite literally awaiting him.
After first disembarking in the UAE, the evacuees were put on another flight headed for the UK but no sooner had they taken off than Aleem's wife went into labour. There was no doctor on the plane so the cabin crew relied on their training to help deliver the baby girl.
After an emergency landing in Qatar and a visit by the doctor, the family continued their journey to Birmingham and arrived laden with mixed feelings.
“It was complicated, I was happy because we had a new baby girl but I had also just left my brother in the airport, and the rest of my family in a country where the situation was changing dangerously, so my happiness and my sadness were mixed.”
They named their daughter Havva, meaning ‘air’ in Dari, but the novelty of having a baby mid-flight quickly wore off once the bureaucratic difficulties set in.
Confusion over where to obtain her birth certificate – the UAE, from where the plane had departed, Turkey, the aircraft operator’s origins, Qatar, where they had landed or the UK, their destination – has reigned since Havva’s birth.
Conversations with the local authority and Home Office case workers have not proved fruitful. Some even suggested Aleem get her birth certificate from Afghanistan.
“People are normally excited about this exceptional case of being born on a plane but I am the opposite because it is causing problems,” he says.
Havva will turn 1 in a few weeks and still doesn’t have a birth certificate.
From unsettling hotels to a home of their own
When the family arrived to England in September 2021, existing Covid restrictions meant they had to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks.
They were later moved to a bridging hotel in central London where they stayed for two-and-a-half months.
“There were too many of us in that hotel,” he says of a place that housed several hundred Afghan refugees. “It was disorganised, the food wasn’t good either but it was a lot better than the next place they put us in.”
The next hotel had loose wiring, broken cupboards and an insect infestation that left his children with rashes.
Continuing to weigh on Aleem's mind were the people left behind in Afghanistan.
A cousin had been imprisoned by the Taliban. His sisters were no longer allowed to continue their education.
His brothers are dead.
“I never saw them, I never saw their bodies or went to their funeral, I just can’t really believe that they’re gone,” he says.
But, life must move on. Aleem has been trying to take the advice of his fellow Afghans: “Make yourself ready for your family, be strong and look forward.”
Once his English is good enough, he’ll start looking for a job. Becoming a plumber appeals to him.
Until then, language classes, taking his children to school and long walks around the capital occupy his time.
“I think we must have visited all the museums in London,” he says with a reminiscent smile.
When asked how he feels now, he says: “I’m happy.
“My only concern is that I wish I could bring my family here, I have three sisters and one young brother left. My parents are getting old, I wish they could be here with me.”