It was a text message from a bloodbath.
And while the words had been said many times before, Zorah Aziz knew immediately that something was not right when she found the note from her husband, Nazir Ahmad Qasimi, who was trapped in Afghanistan and trying desperately to escape.
“He said ‘I love you,’” Aziz said. “I just want you to know I love you and that was it. And I was so weirded out by it.”
So, as she had done countless times since Kabul fell to the Taliban, she texted him back with words of love and reassurance.
“Okay, I love you too,” she wrote. “It’s gonna be okay.”
It would be several days before Aziz found out how close she came to losing the love of her life and the father of the baby she is carrying.
Qasimi, she said, was just inside the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26 when 13 Marines and more than 100 Afghans were killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing.
“I didn’t know he was actually in the middle of all that,” she said.
Aziz, 30, said her husband is safe now in Germany and waiting at a U.S. military base for the greenlight to join her in California, where she lives amid the large Afghan émigré community. She said his papers are all in order, but he has to quarantine before being allowed into the U.S.
Four months pregnant with a child conceived during her last visit to Kabul, Aziz said it’s likely that they’ll be reunited before she gives birth.
“God, it means the world to me,” she said. “I was so worried he wasn’t going to be here for that.”
Just a few days ago, it seemed unlikely that Qasimi, 24, would ever escape. He and Aziz married in June 2019 after a four-year courtship over the internet and he’d already been approved for a visa by U.S. immigration. But his departure was initially delayed by the pandemic.
Then came the Taliban.
Three times, Aziz said, Qasimi joined the crowds of desperate Afghans trying to get into the airport. And three times, despite waiting for hours on end, his bid ended in failure.
On his third try, after a 40-hour wait, Qasimi managed to get close enough to the Marines guarding the gates and show them his passport and visa, she said.
“They looked through it,” Aziz said. “They flat out denied him. And so that was pretty much the last straw for all of us. I begged my husband. I said please just don’t go back to airport.”
Meanwhile, Aziz said, the stress was taking a toll on her.
“Every single pregnancy symptom that you can think of started around the time that all this was happening,” she said. “And the doctor looked at me and said: ‘Well, you need to just stop. Like, you’re stressing yourself out.’”
“My husband was a mess over there, and I’m a mess over here,” she said.
But unbeknown to Aziz, Qasimi, who worked in Kabul as purchasing manager for a U.S.-based company, found another way into the airport, with a little help from work.
“His boss had a contract job with the military,” Aziz said. “I think they were, like, providing them with Porta-Potties and stuff like that inside the airport.”
So one day, Qasimi rode shotgun with the driver making the delivery and simply stayed.
“I don’t know exactly what he was doing,” Aziz said. “But yeah, he went through another three or four days of hell at the airport.”
Aziz said she had no idea that Qasimi was at the airport when the suicide attacks happened and, even though he’d texted her, she knew he’d been trying to get inside via the same gate where the massacre happened.
“Prior to this my husband told me, don’t ask any questions,” she said. “We may not talk for a few days.”
But not long after word of the bloody ISIS-K attack broke, Aziz said she got a text message from Qasimi’s boss that her husband was all right. And then, a few days later, Qasimi texted her a selfie from inside a crowded plane.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Aziz said. “I almost, like, just broke down on the floor.”
Aziz said she knows how lucky she is that Qasimi got out. She said her in-laws are still trapped, and thousands of other Afghans with ties to the U.S., and who fear what the Taliban might do to them, are in the same boat.
Born and raised in California, Aziz said she understands and supports the decision to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. But she says the evacuation was mishandled and too many people were left behind.
“The (U.S.) embassy could have finished up the cases they had and direct all the new cases to neighboring countries,” Aziz said. “It didn’t have to happen this way.”
Asked what she plans to do once she is finally reunited with her husband, Aziz said she will take him shopping. She said he escaped with just his documents and the clothes on his back.
“I just want to hold him, I just want to hug him,” she said. “And just to know that he’s safe and he’s with me.”