Sayed Ali Rezwani joined Afghanistan’s national army in 2008

How did an Afghan air force member escape Taliban jail?

Sayed Ali Rezwani did not imagine that one day he would be caught in the custody of a group of enemies who have taken a political oath to kill him. In 2008, the young Ali left his home village for Kabul confused about whether to pursue his education or seek job opportunities abroad. In Kabul, his friends advised him to join the national army.

Convinced by his friends, the ambitious Sayed Ali Rezwani joined Afghanistan’s national army. After receiving basic military training, he decided to attend an engineering course to become a technician of military aircraft. Hardworking as he was, Ali won scholarship program receiving training in the United States, India, China, and the United Arabic Emirate.

In mid-June last year, he took his wife and daughter to his home province, Daikundi, to spend a one-week vacation. A week later, on June 26, 2020, while he and his family were heading back to Kabul, the Taliban militants stopped his riding vehicle in Jalrez district of Maidan Wardak. The militants took Ali and two others from the minibus. After checking their bodies, the Taliban started to check Ali’s mobile phone. Out of around 2,000 photos saved in his mobile phone, the militants finally found photos showing Ali with the military aircraft.

The militants took me to a nearby garden where they first handcuffed me to a tree and then blindfolded me, Ali said in a private conversation for this story. Not to be traced by any outsider or government spy, the militants take him to the next hideout where he finds himself sitting before three Taliban men in a green valley covered with green trees.

The most painful part of the drama was to set on play: interrogation and torture. “I told them, ‘I am an aircraft mechanic’,” Ali tells the truth as the militants torture him to extract information. But they did not trust him and took him as a pilot serving the Afghan Air Force, a force they consider as a fierce enemy of their jihad. “They lashed me a lot and threatened me to death.”

As the night falls, the militants take Ali to a different location. This time a two-story muddy house somewhere in Maidan Wardak. Sayed Ali contracts severe diarrhea after he eats food provided by the militants. “I was in a very bad situation, repeatedly asking the militants to permit me to go out.”

The next day, the Taliban take him to another location—this time on their way they pick up another captive with them. After a two-day drive, the militants finally take them off in different locations—this time a muddy complex.   

Inside a mud-built house, as they move to go upstairs, a captor leaves up a large slate from one of the stairs. Beneath the slate, they found a well dug deep with a rope hanging into it. The captives were told to take the rope and descend into the well. Ali comes first and takes the rope down the well. He loses his balance and falls down. The next captive was also ordered to descend into the well.

They [the militants] ordered us to crawl a thin tunnel dug underground that was leading to a small cell, Ali told Kabul Now in a conversation for this story. Inside a 2×2 –meter square cell, Ali’s new cell-mate introduced himself as Haji Noor Mohammad, the Taliban’s deputy intelligence chief for Ghazni and Maidan Wardak provinces. Haji was jailed for alleged cooperation with the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP), another extremist group established in Afghanistan in 2014.       

Haji gives some money to the prison’s guard to bring him a Quran and a watch. When they receive the Quran, the two inmates would always pray and read Quran in a poor light installed in the cell’s ceiling.

Breaking the prison

In the gloomy, numb-stricken small square cell under the earth, Ali had almost lost his hope. There were two ways ahead waiting for Ali: staying rest of his life in Taliban cell or getting killed by insurgent’s bullet. But Haji, hardened as he was by his intelligence experience, had not lost hope. He would tell Ali to stay strong whenever they fell into a conversation. Haji’s enlivening words instilled hope in Ali’s mind and spirit.

I enjoy the most when I eat fruit [in freedom.]

After days-long brainstorming and a thorough assessment of their surroundings, the captives made a plan to escape from the Taliban prison. “One sign was an attenuated light spread along with the water pipe which was piped down from above, and the other one was footfalls of a flock echoing from the muddy wall side,” Ali said.

They finally came to conclusion to dig a tunnel towards the right direction.  

Locked in the same fate, Haji and Ali ultimately agree to set their differences on the direction of the tunnel, deciding to implement their plan. In the meantime, the Taliban adds another prisoner, an army soldier, to their cell. Ali gives him one of his blankets.

But the Taliban militants take Haji Noor Mohammad out of the cell before their escape mission is accomplished. Ali is now left alone with an escape mission. His new cellmate, Mohammad Musa, seems to have come accepted his fate, something that makes the mission more difficult for Ali.

The determined Sayed Ali talks to Musa encouraging him to join him in his escape mission.

Musa and Ali finally make the momentous decision of lives in Taliban custody as they knew they had little chance to be freed. With short nails, hammered into the wall of the well, they start digging a tunnel towards the direction they hear footballs of a flock.   

After more than a month of hard labor in digging, a small hole opens through which the wind touches their faces.

They set the timing of escape. A cheap hand watch left behind by Haji Noor gives them a life-changing help. The two Afghan servicemen offer their night prayer and take the Quran left by Haji Noor Mohammad and break out at 12:00 AM. “The possibility of a re-arrest or getting killed was 99 percent. We had just one percent chance of success. Life was that worthy for us that we tried not to lose that one percent chance.”

Outside of prison, dogs spot and attacked them. The two comrades, with their feet chained and locked, jump in a streamlet to protect themselves from the dogs and hide from the Taliban. With no knowledge of the place they find themselves in, by instinct, they escape towards the nearest mountain.  

Ali and Musa move stealthily from the residential area to nearby farmland where they break the chain and lock. The two freed servicemen walk throughout the night to take themselves out of villages but to no avail.

As the dawn appears, the two men find themselves near the only mountain seen in a wide desert. They climb the mountain and spend the whole day sleeping in a cave. When the night falls, they continue their life-saving journey. The journey lasts for seven days. Suffering hunger and thirst, they would often miss the risk of death and a re-arrest to the Taliban.

Sayed Ali has been serving Afghan Air Force for 13 years now.

After a week-long on the run, the exhausted men are forced to approach a road which they didn’t know where it would lead to. Finally, they reach a small bazar and get into a passenger bus bound for Ghazni with the help of an old man.

“I burst into tears when we got on the bus. I put my head on my hands and covered my face with my scarf to avoid others see me crying. Still, I wasn’t sure whether we would make it or we will be again arrested [by the Taliban].”

All burst into happy tears

Their riding bus arrives in Ghazni around 08:00 AM. After paying 200 afghanis as transport fare, they run out of money. They ask a loaded rickshaw to take them from the downtown of Ghazni to Qala-e-Shahada neighborhood of the city where Ali’s maternal cousin lives. In the small bazar of Qala-e-Shahada, they beg everyone for a mobile phone to call Ali’s cousin. But whoever they approach, they would ignore their appeal taking them as men addicted to drugs. Ultimately, they find a man and tells him the whole story. After hearing the story, the man gives them his phone and Ali calls his cousin. Then, the two men go to Ali’s cousin house, take shower, and rest. After hearing about their successful escape, Ali’s brother reports it to the Air Force Command in Kabul. Then, the Air Force calls Ali and advises him to leave the area immediately as his presence is very risky there. Ali’s cellmate, Musa, leaves Ghazni for his home province, Panjshir, by road.

Ali goes to the Ghazni airfield with the help of driver of Ghazni’s governor and gets transferred to Kabul by military aircraft.

Before his arrival at home in Kabul, all his relatives had gathered to welcome him. When he arrived, everyone embraced each other and burst into tears.

In the Taliban’s custody, Ali would often think about how his father and mother would endure the news about their son’s held captive and possibly would be killed by the Taliban. He is the eldest son of the family who is a breadwinner for his six sisters and brothers, father and mother, his spouse and daughter.

“The Taliban would ask me what cooperation I could offer them. They would ask about how airstrike is planned. What they should do in order to defuse the airstrike,” Ali says. “When they put me inside that well, I asked a Talib whether it was possible for me to be released. He replied ‘no’. ‘Whoever is released or exchanged is not brought here’.”

Facing disciplinary measures

After the Taliban took out Haji Noor Mohammad, Mohammad Musa was one and only associate who could help him escape Taliban’s jail. Musa, originally from Panjshir province, was a solider with the Silab Military Corps in Nangarhar. While traveling from Kabul to Herat, the Taliban militants took him off the passenger bus in Ghazni. He had decided to go to Herat for completing the official procedure of receiving the honorarium – a sum of money paid for families of fallen soldiers – of his brother who had been killed years earlier in western Afghanistan. Musa, 31 years old, was suffering a bit hear losses and would often tell stories for Ali inside their small cell. When Ali would become sad, Musa would start sharing life stories, jokes, and experience of his service for the army.

While in custody, Ali decides to leave the armed forces once he gets released. But he stays determined to serving the air force. The incident, however, has largely impacted his life. Since his release, Ali has allocated a certain amount of his monthly salary to donate for the poor people and help improve their living condition.

“When I returned to life, I got changed a lot. Material [things] has no longer any place in my life. Now I think I have what I need: freedom. This is the biggest blessing that I have. I enjoy the most when I eat fruit [in freedom.] I’m with my family. When I was a captive, I wished to see my daughter, Kawsar, at least one more time. Now, I’m really grateful to god.”

Ali has been serving Afghanistan’s air force for 13 years now. Returning to the air force, he, however, faced many unexpected disciplinary measures. After interrogating him, the security unit of the air force command shifted him from Kabul to the insecure province of Urozgan. “I rejected this decision and filed a complaint with the command of the air force. Then the command of the air force accepted my [reservation].”

He complains that the Ministry of Defense punishes army forces by posting them in volatile areas or decreasing their salaries if they escape the enemy’s prison or are exchanged. “I expected that the defense ministry would praise me for showing braveness in saving my own life and that of another soldier. They [the MoD) released the Taliban prisoners paying each of them 20,000 afghanis, new cloths, and an appreciation letter. But when the [army] forces escape the Taliban captivity or get released, they do not care,” Ali complained.

With the help of his university professors, Ali has written what he has undergone during the 65 days in Taliban captivity. His memoir is supposed to be released soon.

This story has originally been developed by Etilaat-e-Roz’s Aber Shaygan and translated to English by Mokhtar Yasa.