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WASHINGTON - Whipped by the Taliban and shoved from behind by other desperate Afghans, marriage certificate in hand, Sharifa Afzali thrust her cell phone at the U.S. soldier barring the Kabul airport gate. On the other end was her husband, a U.S. Army veteran in Oklahoma.
"I told her, 'Hey, see if he'll talk to me on the phone.' I didn't think he would do it, but he did," said Hans Wright, who pleaded with the soldier to bend the rules for the visa-less woman he loves.
"And by the grace of God, he let my wife and my interpreter through," Wright recounted to Reuters.
Afzali made it out of Afghanistan, counting herself among the lucky ones.
Unknown numbers of U.S.-affiliated families fearing Taliban retribution have been split up in the chaotic scramble for flights before the U.S. evacuation operation ends by Tuesday, said people involved in ad hoc networks racing to help extricate at-risk Afghans.
With U.S. President Joe Biden's administration prioritizing U.S. passport and green card holders, many streaming to the airport through Taliban checkpoints with Afghan families have faced an agonizing choice: leave relatives behind or risk their own lives by staying, these people said.
"We have dealt with multiple cases of families that either have been separated or told that only the family members holding a blue (U.S.) passport or a green card are allowed through the gates," said Stacia George, a former USAID official.
Some have had to leave children with U.S. citizenship rights with relatives, she said. Others managed to get children into the airport with family members who are Americans or green card holders.
Joe McReynolds, another advocate for evacuees, said he has cataloged a dozen cases of Afghan-born active-duty U.S. military personnel or American veterans in the United States struggling to extract relatives with Special Immigration Visas or in the SIV process.
"If the U.S. soldier was there in Afghanistan, we probably could have gotten them through," he said, adding he knows of only one case succeeding. He declined to provide details, citing safety concerns.
Afzali's escape was aided by her determination, luck, her husband, their marriage certificate, and her SIV application.
Critical help also came from Ashley Sogge, a former U.S. Army special operations officer who believes an email she sent to White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki proved crucial for getting Afzali on a list at the airport.
"It is a good news story. But unfortunately, nothing that is replicable," Sogge told Reuters. "It was truly ad hoc."
Asked for comment, Psaki said those responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives were the men and women of the military and the national security and State Department teams on the ground in Kabul.