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Afghan official evacuated by U.S. says he and his family living "like prisoners" on American military base in Kosovo

Muhammad Arif Sarwari says this photo, which he shared with CBS News, shows Afghan refugees protesting at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo in June 2022. Muhammad Arif Sarwari

A former Afghan intelligence official and politician who worked closely with the United States after the September 11 terror attacks says he and about 45 other Afghan refugees have been stuck at a U.S. military base in Kosovo in unsuitable conditions since they were evacuated by the U.S. from Afghanistan last summer, and that they have felt "like prisoners."

Muhammad Arif Sarwari, known as "Engineer Arif," worked with the CIA during America's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He went on to serve as a top intelligence official and a politician before the Taliban retook control of the country last August.

"There are people here who have been in the Defense Ministry (MOI) in Afghanistan, those who worked in the CIA, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, police officers, and a few regular people who escaped from the Taliban," Sarwari told CBS News in a text message from Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. "We have absolutely no freedom to leave the area. We only have access to one field, the bathrooms, the dining hall, and our tent. … Not only are we unable to leave the camp, but we can't speak to most of the visitors."

The U.S. State Department told CBS News that they could not comment on individual cases, but that Sarwari's account didn't give a full picture of life at the camp.

Sarwari said when he and some of the other refugees made it onto a U.S. military plane evacuating people from Kabul during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal last August, he was initially taken to Kuwait and Qatar, but then told he would be taken to Kosovo for further processing. He said that when he ended up at Camp Bondsteel, he was told that if the refugees had to stay there longer than a few weeks, better housing would be provided.

Muhammad Arif Sarwari says this photo, which he shared with CBS News, shows Afghan refugees protesting at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo in June 2022. Muhammad Arif Sarwari

But Sarwari said nothing has changed in nine months at the camp, apart from some refugees being denied entry to the United States. 

That, plus a lack of information about their cases, prompted some of the Afghans to stage a protest earlier this month. In small groups, they held signs saying: "Human rights violation"; "How long should we suffer";  "We want justice"; and "We want freedom." Children were among the refugees in photos Sarwari shared with CBS News.

"I'm here with my wife and two daughters. After about 3-4 months of our stay, they provided a few classes for the kids and gave them some games to get distracted. There are no proper schools," Sarwari said.

He believes that stress has caused a range of medical problems in the camp. "The only trip we've had so far is going in and out of the hospital. One man here had a heart attack which was severe enough to be sent straight to the U.S. for surgery. The cause was stress. A few of the ladies here had miscarriages — also caused by stress. We've faced multiple other health problems."

Another refugee at the camp, who also worked with the U.S. in Afghanistan during the war, said he was among a number of Afghans who were told they would not be granted visas to enter the United States, after months of waiting at Camp Bondsteel. He asked to remain anonymous to protect his family, who are still in Afghanistan.

He said after he was denied entry to the United States, he was told the State Department would arrange for him to get a visa to go to a different safe country. After another two months of waiting for that visa, he was recently informed that he would not be eligible to go to the country he had requested.

The refugee said he was desperate to leave Camp Bondsteel so he could start earning money to support his family back in Afghanistan, and was considering just trying to walk out of the camp.

"We are living in the camps since day one as inmates and even lower than inmates; inmates have the right to work and the right to find some means of sustaining their families but, why don't we have that right too?" he said in a letter to the State Department, dated June 25, 2022. "Why are we deprived of all the freedoms? We are not allowed to go outside the camps. Why don't we have access to legitimate legal entities and services? Media is not allowed to come inside the campus, and we are not allowed to individually seek solutions for ourselves."

A State Department spokesperson called the description of the situation at Camp Bondsteel provided by the refugees incomplete and said that Afghans at the camp have access to a number of facilities, including a gym, a safe space for women and children, and a playground, as well as medical and psychological services and classes and activities.

A U.S. government source familiar with the situation said that over 600 Afghans have been processed in Kosovo and proceeded to resettle in the United States. The State Department said that the relatively small number of residents who have not been approved for resettlement in the U.S. were examples of the system working as it should.

The State Department said the U.S. was committed to supporting the safe and dignified travel of its Afghan allies and their families. An official at Camp Bondsteel said a CBS News request to visit was being reviewed.

Last week, three refugees on the base — two of whom had worked for the Afghan Security Services under the previous government — requested permission from the U.S. to return to Afghanistan, and their requests were granted, the anonymous refugee said.

"Upon return to Afghanistan, they must face a credible threat of death and surely might be killed," he wrote in a letter to the State Department. "Who would be responsible in case they are killed?"

He said he had received no reply to his letter.

"Engineer Arif" said his application for a Special Immigrant Visa is still being processed, but that "nothing about our case is known to us." He said he was told the U.S. is working on migrating him and his family to a third country where they have relatives, but he's still waiting to hear more about that.

"After 9/11, I welcomed the first American group who came to Panjshir Province at the time, and it feels contradictory to their mission name, 'Operation Allies Welcome' to practically unwelcome someone who welcomed them first," Sarwari said.

Operation Allies Welcome is what the U.S. military called its operation to evacuate Afghans who worked for or supported the U.S. after the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year.

"People here have worked with the U.S. against terrorism and have risked their lives for this cause and are innocent, yet some were titled as ineligible. While other people have unclear futures. The vetting team and Washington has clearly failed, just like how they failed in Afghanistan."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a response from the U.S. State Department.

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