Metro

Afghan soldiers who fled Cape feared death at home

Soldiers sought Canada asylum

A security gate at Camp Edwards, where the three Afghan Army officers had been taking part in a training exercise.
STEVEN SENNE/AP/FILE
A security gate at Camp Edwards, where the three Afghan Army officers had been taking part in a training exercise.

BATAVIA, N.Y. — They watched a YouTube video to find the best way to cross the border into Canada. They made their getaway during a group outing to Walmart. And they spent more than $1,600 on taxis to travel from Cape Cod to a border checkpoint in Niagara Falls — just steps away, they hoped, from asylum and a new life.

The three Afghan soldiers who fled a training exercise on Camp Edwards last month never made it past the famed Rainbow Bridge to Canada. Instead, they are fighting deportation from a US immigration jail in this town surrounded by cornfields and cabbage patches — and on Tuesday, explained for the first time why they disappeared.

To send them back to the Afghan army, they say, would be to give them a death sentence. Family members of two soldiers have reported recent death threats. The men fear that if they return, they could be the victim of a Taliban assassin’s bullet.

Advertisement

“They catch us, they kill us,” Major Jan Arash, a slight 48-year-old man with thinning hair, said of the Taliban. “They tip those who kill us.”

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The soldiers said the Taliban are targeting them for fighting alongside the Americans, and they are constantly dodging sniper fire for $400 to $500 a month in pay and little protection.

They sought asylum in Canada because they figured it was more likely to grant them protection than the United States.

“For me is not important, Canada or America,” he said. “I need just asylum.”

The men, who spoke to the Globe in separate interviews Tuesday at a federal detention center in upstate New York, are set to appear in immigration court in Batavia on Wednesday.

Advertisement

Their saga began after they met at a training conference at Camp Edwards last month. Before then, the three soldiers said, they had been strangers, facing the same threats of crime, terror, and drug trafficking from different parts of the Central Asian nation.

RELATED: Afghan soldiers left Cape, headed for Canada

It was the first trip to the United States for Captain Mohammad Nasir Askarzada, the youngest of the three. But the other two, Arash and Captain Noorullah Aminyar, said they had trained in the United States before, Arash for eight months in 2009 in San Antonio and Aminyar for 10 months in 2012 in Georgia and Texas.

Major Jan Mohammad Arash, Captain Noorullah Aminyar, Captain Mohammad Nasir Askarzada
Fox News
Major Jan Mohammad Arash, Captain Noorullah Aminyar, Captain Mohammad Nasir Askarzada

Arash and Aminyar said they could have defected on those earlier trips but did not because they were career soldiers. Now, they say, the situation in Afghanistan has worsened.

Aminyar, a 30-year-old former platoon leader, said friends have been killed in attacks by the Taliban. Days after he arrived on Cape Cod on Sept. 10, he said, the Taliban went to his family’s compound in Nangarhar province searching for him. His father relayed the news over the phone on Sept. 16.

“Their leaders, they give the orders to kill me. My father told me the story,” he said. “ ‘They will find you and they will kill you.’ ”

Advertisement

Afraid, Aminyar confided in Askarzada, a communications specialist out of Kabul.

Askarzada shared a similar story of how his father received a threat three months ago.

Quietly, Askarzada showed Aminyar a YouTube video of people crossing the border into Canada, a popular route clogged with foreigners drawn to the park with stunning views of Niagara Falls.

Nobody would notice them, the men concluded. Askarazada and Aminyar had several hundred dollars each. They decided to find an opportunity to leave.

On Sept. 20, the US military hosting the men offered the perfect opportunity: The foreign soldiers training at Camp Edwards would get three hours off duty.

A group of the soldiers went to the beach and to the mall. Two of the Afghan men split from the group and visited the Walmart, trying to decide when to leave the Cape. Taxis were lined up nearby. They had money. But they also had one problem.

Arash, the major, was following them.

Aminyar finally tried to ditch the major in the women’s section at the store. But the major looked at him evenly and said he was going with them.

Aminyar said, “I told him, ‘Really, you want to go with us?’ ”

“I told them I don’t have money,” Arash said in a separate interview. “They told me, ‘We have a little. Come on.’ ”

The three men jumped in a taxi. Arash and Askarzada estimated that the trip cost $1,600, but Aminyar, who speaks better English, said it cost $230 to Boston and then another $1,600 to Niagara Falls.

The trip was a blur, the men said, with night turning into day. Back on the Cape, US soldiers frantically searched for the men at the Walmart and even a strip club, where the owner said he believes the men visited.

They vehemently denied visiting a strip club, as the owner reported to the Mashpee police. The men, all Muslims, said they were planning to defect and not concerned with such triviality.

“Not true,” Arash said of the report.

Aminyar said they made it to Niagara Falls early on Sept. 22.

He said they spent some time in the park, gazing at the falls, snapping photos, and figuring out the English signs, which pointed them down a narrow walkway to a single metal turnstile topped with barbed wire, the pedestrian entry to the Rainbow Bridge and Canada.

They finally decided to make their crossing. But when they reached the Canadian side at about 10 a.m. on Sept. 22, they were turned back by the authorities, because of an agreement with the United States regarding asylum seekers.

Askarzada, 28, who speaks the least English, said he wanted to go to Canada because he has an uncle there who can support him while he seeks asylum. He said he still hopes to end up there, if the judge allows it.

Since he sought asylum, Askarzada said, he fears the Afghan government will stop paying him, and he is worried for his own safety and his family. He has his parents, a wife several months pregnant, and a 1-year-old daughter.

“I want request of people live in the US, accept me or not,” he said, in halting English, and broke into sobs. “I worry about my wife. My daughter.”

He struggled to compose himself and said, “Help me.”

Arash said he fears his salary has also stopped, endangering his wife and five children.

Aminyar said he is unaware of what has happened to his salary, but he fears for his life, and the lives of his family, including five children.

“I hope they will not make the wrong decision about us and they will help us,” said Aminyar. “We work with the United States. We fight with them, we fight together, shoulder by shoulder. Now is the time they should help me.”

The men are scheduled to appear before immigration Judge Steven Connelly, who has approved just 10 percent of his asylum cases in the past five years, according to TRAC, a research organization at Syracuse University.

The soldiers said they fear reprisals from the Afghan government, which inaugurated new leadership this week.

The spectacle of the men’s departure — including reports that they had visited the strip club — has made them well known in the United States and in Afghanistan.

“We can’t go back now,” the major said.

The men are mortified to be in jail, wearing blue prison scrubs and reduced from elite soldiers once planning missions alongside Americans.

“It’s very bad for us. I never was in jail. Never in my life. At the end of my life I am in jail,” Arash said, though he is only 48. “We are not dangerous for anyone in the America,” he said. “Please tell them to let us on the outside.”

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at maria.sacchetti@globe.com.