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Outside the wire

When the US entered Afghanistan, local DJs were hired to help with the war effort. And when the American military pulled out, they abandoned those voices, leaving many of them for dead.


On any given day in 2012, Wafa was one of the rare Afghans who was allowed inside Combat Outpost “Little Blue.” It was a US military camp in an open, arid pan in Shah Wali Kot, Afghanistan. The outpost was surrounded by a mix of Hesco bins filled with earth and concrete blast walls topped with razor wire, sitting in the south of the country, Kandahar Province. There were tents, camouflage netting, and a gravel lot where helicopters beat down from above, scattering a gyre of silt into the air. Moondust, the American soldiers called it. But inside one of the only solid buildings on the outpost, in the relative hush of a plywood shed, Wafa sifted through CDs. He was a digital disc jockey, picking out Pashto pop songs to play on his radio show. A US soldier had given him a hard drive filled with American classic rock. Wafa put on a heavily Auto-Tuned Pashto ballad and twirled his finger in the air to the chugging beat, absorbed in the music. This was a potentially lethal act.

A fellow Afghan DJ named Jan grew up in the same province as Wafa, which was the site of a widely known cautionary story about a taxi driver. It took place when US commandos and ground troops had only begun to trickle into Afghanistan. The cabbie stopped to pick up riders, but Taliban on the roadside heard music playing inside his car. They took a chain to his head and beat him until he was dead. A product of the Taliban dictum: “Those who listen to music and songs in this world, on the Day of Judgment, molten lead will be poured into their ears.”

But Jan also remembered the first sign that the Americans had actually secured his home province at the end of 2002, nearly two decades ago. He was inside his home and heard music on the radio, a signal that the Taliban was gone. Outside, young people fired Kalashnikovs into the air to celebrate. “I wish I could have an AK-47 at that time, so I could shoot it too,” Jan says. He was only 14 years old at the time. By the time Jan and Wafa were DJs, they were in their 20s. Both of them spoke to The Verge on the condition that they are only referred to by their nicknames in order to protect their own and their family’s safety.

At Wafa’s right hand in the studio, sitting on a plastic-looking American flag tablecloth, was a black box. It was three shoeboxes high, with nobs, buttons, and digital readings. The top half was a commercially available Denon DN-X500 pro DJ mixer; below was a cool-gray box with blue trim. The radio transmitter was inside. The first time they fired it up, they were unsure if it worked. They flipped it on, and Jan grabbed the mic and said, “This is Kerwan FM and we are broadcasting from Gardez, Paktia.” He announced a phone number listeners could call. “If anyone hears us, please call.” The phone lines were immediately slammed with more than 500 calls.

“We were so happy,” Jan recalls. “The radio was very simple. It was just in a box. But it was very powerful.”

With an antenna and the watts cranked up, it could travel hundreds of miles. It turned Wafa’s glorified shed into a radio station and turned hundreds of Afghans working for the US military into DJ warriors. The program was unassumingly called “Radio in a Box.”

While Wafa worked the airwaves, American forces patrolled Shah Wali Kot, wary of improvised explosive devices planted in potholes. It might have looked like Wafa sat a safe distance from the war in Afghanistan, but he didn’t. By the time Wafa arrived at “Little Blue” to work, two DJs had been killed nearby. The remoteness of the base did nothing to alleviate the creeping feeling of siege mentality. “We did everything at Little Blue ourselves,” says one American soldier who worked with Wafa. “It was tiny.” Sometimes Wafa went along on patrol, microphone in hand, passing through the valleys in the backyard of the old Taliban capital of Kandahar City.

Listen to the podcast version of "Outside the Wire"

One October day, a call came in to the studio. The local police had a Taliban fighter in a jail cell at the precinct. Come interview him, they said. Wafa grabbed his recorder and headed out.

He arrived at the police station. Rarely had he seen the Taliban up close. This Talib had been shot. Wafa started recording. The Talib explained he was caught searching a roadway for some recess to tuck a bomb into. Wafa asked why he joined the Taliban. He claimed to work for the Afghan police, but they were attacked by the Taliban one day, and they stole his money. So he decided to join the Taliban and exact revenge from the inside and, apparently, planned to eventually give inside information to the government.

Wafa knew immediately that he was lying. Transparently bullshit Taliban stories deserved radio airtime right away.

Back at Little Blue, Wafa burned the lying Talib interview onto a CD and prepared the radio show. In that moment, Wafa was powerful, free to brandish his microphone in the enemy’s face.

Within a few years, Little Blue and the radio station would be completely gone. Troops would be withdrawn, combat outposts shuttered, and, eventually, huge bases handed over to the Afghan military or taken over by weeds. Wafa would be permanently “outside the wire,” as they say, no longer protected by the blast walls and machine gun nests of Little Blue, and back in his hometown. Instead of Wafa running around with his recorder, the Taliban would be out seeking Wafa for an interview of their own, while he searched and begged for a way to escape.

Personal photos of Wafa in Afghanistan as a former news broadcaster and his three children.

During Wafa’s childhood, he rarely saw the Taliban. He grew up in a small village a couple of miles down a dirt road. He spent his boyhood sitting with his grandfather in their house, listening to BBC radio for hours on end. Wafa’s hero was the BBC Pashto correspondent Gohar Rahman Gohar. “He had this amazing voice,” Wafa says. He loved song requests and peppered the BBC with letters, three of which he says were read on air. This set Wafa running around the house, urgently telling his whole family. His next goal: actually getting his voice on air during a live call-in show. He came extremely close. A station took his call, and he queued up to go on. “But my phone ran out of batteries,” Wafa says.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, Wafa was pro-American. He thought the nascent Afghan central government and the US had similar goals of progress in the country. He joined a team of Afghan journalists who made radio and television news broadcasts for the US Special Forces, which were transmitted out of the legendary CIA base Camp Chapman.

This wasn’t the United States’ first run at propaganda. When the US military arrived in Afghanistan, its go-to was leaflets. Planes flew over villages, dumping thousands of white papers. Pick one leaflet up, and a villager might read about 9/11 or the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Sometimes pictures helped. One leaflet depicted bin Laden with part of his face flesh-eaten to reveal his skull. Experts don’t think they worked very well.

The Radio in a Box was a psychological operation (or PSYOP, as the military and intelligence call it), and it was a huge strategic innovation in Afghanistan. In rural areas, about 75 percent of Afghans depend on the radio to get information. Generally, over 80 percent of Afghans have access to a radio. The US Army sought to capitalize, especially on its primary target: Pashtuns. Afghanistan is an amalgamation of ethnicities and tribes, but Pashtuns represent around 40 percent of the population. They are also the Taliban’s chief recruiting target. Wafa, and DJs like him, fought a psychological war against the Taliban inside Pashtun heads — a positive glimmer in a war for the hearts and minds of Afghanistan, which, until that point, had not been going well.

A personal photo of Wafa in the studio with the “Radio in a Box.”

This is what made Radio in a Box such an exception to American psychological warfare: it was run by Afghans on a day-to-day basis, with PSYOP messaging handed down from the American command.

“I remember the Radio in a Box was a big deal and a lot of commanders liked it. They could instantly see the benefit of it. They could send out messages immediately about IEDs,” says Arturo Muñoz, a former CIA analyst who studies US PSYOP tactics. There was no other way. Many of the existing stations were afraid that airing anything that could be seen as pro-US material would make them bombing targets for the Taliban. So the military set up its own broadcast.

Aside from the practicality and enormous reach of radio, Radio in a Box capitalized on one of the cornerstones of psychological warfare that Muñoz and his colleagues write about: credibility. It was by Afghan people and for the Afghan people. This was an important advance, and a journalistic interview by an Afghan radio personality with a lying Talib, like Wafa’s, was authentic. The best propaganda is actually true.

Muñoz points out that the Afghan DJs took on the risks of the American psychological war, especially those living outside the protection of the US bases, outside the wire, where Taliban lurked. When combat outposts started closing up, the territory was usually ceded right back to the Taliban weeks later. The DJs who were integral to the new push for credible propaganda were forced to play a fatal game of hot lava, hopping to a home village until the security situation deteriorated, then hopping to a new city as more and more patches of safety were gobbled up. When the US packed their equipment onto planes, the DJs were left behind. Muñoz says those DJs could be fugitives in their country forever: “Everyone knows they collaborated [with the US]. They were on the radio for Christsake!”

Personal photo of Wafa’s of him on a reporting trip with US troops.

Back when the United States’ pullout was still years away, the US Army rolled out radio propaganda on a huge scale during President Obama’s troop surge. Money poured into security initiatives. Because the Radio in a Box program showed promise, the US was ready to expand it. They hired a private military contractor called Relyant to help. Relyant hired hundreds of Afghans like Wafa to DJ radio shows and deployed them to American bases, large and small. They worked under US command, occasionally receiving propaganda messaging issued from the chain of command. Other than that, the DJs were on their own, making their way through cans of American-issued Rip It energy drinks while they edited their interviews into the show and arranged their playlists. Wafa worked for nine months before the Relyant contract with the military’s Radio in a Box program ended sometime in 2013 and his show, Peace Radio, closed up shop. Wafa returned home, and that’s when the calls started.

It was the Taliban. They told him he collaborated with the US occupiers. He needed to come down and face trial at one of their courts. These so-called “courts” often ended with the defendant summarily executed. Wafa kept the threatening calls secret from his family, afraid it would scare them. He needed to get out of Afghanistan because, sooner or later, the Taliban would find him. When the United States drastically reduced its troop presence in 2014, the country’s security deteriorated. But there was one hope: the Special Immigrant Visa.

Stemming from a law that Congress barely passed, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) allocates visas to Iraqis and Afghans, among others, who worked for the United States during the wars. So long as an Afghan like Wafa could provide proof of employment, the correct letters of recommendation from supervisors, and worked for at least one year, they could flee to the United States. But keeping the program alive caused congressional mayhem.

Ever since Wafa applied, there have been SIV shortages. Thousands more visas are needed every year, and Congress has to create them. This culminated in two straight years of what one Senate staffer describes as a “knock down drag out fight.” Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and the late John McCain (R-AZ) led the charge for more visas. A vicious battle played out behind closed doors, and SIV applicants paid a high price. Three thousand visas were approved, but a web of new obstacles was packed in them, including a new two-year minimum of work by the applicant. The next year, Shaheen and McCain rallied to approve an amendment for another 4,000 visas.

On the floor of the Senate, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) blocked it, allegedly to leverage a different amendment into the bill. “McCain just went apeshit on him,” a Senate staffer says. McCain tore into Lee, “They’re going to die if we don’t pass this amendment and take them out of harm’s way. Don’t you understand that?” In the end, 2,500 visas were poised to be written into the bill — and they were — but only after another 1,000 visas were shaved off.

Wafa applied to the SIV program and was rejected, even with a glowing letter from his supervisor, Air Force Maj. Paul Wever. “Wafa was poised to take the district by storm and quickly established a strong following with a 14-hour-per-day schedule,” Wever wrote. But the letter missed several State Department requirements: Wafa’s date of birth, a statement that Wever was his supervisor, Wever’s contact information, a description of ongoing threats to Wafa’s life, and an assurance that he wasn’t a national security threat. When Wafa went looking for Wever for a revision, he couldn’t be found. This was a common problem. Time passed, and when Afghans who worked for the US went looking for their old bosses, they discovered email addresses no longer worked, phone numbers had changed, or contact information had been lost. In a different case that resembles Wafa’s, three DJs had a group picture of themselves standing with the American lieutenant from whom they needed a letter of recommendation. In the photo, they stood frustratingly close, side by side, but they were still unable to locate the lieutenant.

Wafa receiving a certificate of appreciation from “Anarchy Troop” from the 1st Infantry Division.

The State Department created a “Supervisor Locator” program to address the widespread struggle for SIV applicants searching for their military bosses: fill out a form, and the Department of Defense looks for an Afghan’s military supervisor. However, Betsy Fisher, a director at International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), an NGO that has helped thousands of Afghans apply for SIV, says, “There was one case several years ago where we saw the supervisor locator work, but we have not seen the locator work in several years.”

The State Department declined to comment.

These stories are among many. Twenty rejected DJs have come forward and shared their experiences with The Verge. Out of the hundreds of Afghans deployed to the frontlines, likely scores more have also been rejected. Similar to Wafa, every DJ I spoke to had received repeated death threats from the Taliban.

Wafa’s mediocre English has also faded. His go-tos were “What’s up?” and “How are you?” he says. He struggled to understand the SIV application in English, and the State Department does not offer the forms or instructions in the Afghan national languages of Dari or Pashto. Wafa says his denial letter from the State Department also said he failed to file the paperwork properly. The letter’s exact details on proper bureaucratic box-ticking were inscrutable to Wafa because it was written in English.

Some DJs did make it out of the country. Jan’s SIV process, for instance, went much differently. But his background, service, and staunchly pro-American views were irrelevant to his application. Jan’s chances for a visa rested in the hands of his military recommender. It didn’t matter that his personal history reads like dispatches from a lifelong anti-Taliban mission.

During the Soviet occupation of the ‘80s, Jan’s military family resisted the Mujahideen, parts of which came back together after the war and morphed into the Taliban the world knows today. Jan’s father worked for the Afghan intelligence agency KHAD, often as a driver. While transporting the Kabul intelligence chief in a food supply truck to avoid detection, they were ambushed. Gunfire pelted the truck, and 18 shots from an RPK machine gun left Jan’s father halfway-disemboweled. The Mujahideen inspected their bodies. The chief was dead, but Jan’s father was still breathing. One fighter asked aloud if they should finish him off. “No, let him suffer. He will die,” another said. Sitting in the driver’s seat, his father “collected his organs by his hand,” Jan says, and he tied a scarf around his abdomen to hold his guts in. He survived. The entire family supported the Americans when they arrived in 2001. They considered the Taliban antithetical to their Pashtun values. Afghanistan, however, had a 50-50 split opinion.

Jan’s dad taught him English, and Jan applied to work for the US as a translator, crushed his exams, and began helping with psychological operations for US Special Forces at the CIA’s Camp Chapman. Same as Wafa, in 2009, he was initiated into Radio in a Box.

Relyant took over the operation around 2011, which was when things started to fall apart, Jan says, and other DJs agree. Relyant hired a new translator to help oversee the project, an Afghan named Hewad Hemat. DJs I spoke with say Hemat installed himself as an unofficial supervisor. One day, Jan covered a cricket match, and two other DJs came to help. When they returned, Hemat confronted the two DJs, claiming they shirked real work, and fired them.

This happened at other stations, too. Jan cataloged the firings: almost 15 DJs from six different bases. Another DJ said Hemat emailed his American commander claiming the DJ had contacts with the Taliban, but the commander knew this to be a lie. Still, the DJ claims Hemat’s false report to Relyant got him fired. Jan says that Hemat then hired his relatives into the open jobs. An “Afghan system of corruption,” he calls it.

One DJ who is now struggling to put together an SIV application says that Hemat is his “aunt’s daughter’s husband’s brother.” He got the job because his cousin, who is also related to Hemat, recommended him.

Hemat calls the DJs’ claims “baseless accusations.” In an interview, Hemat claimed he did not hire relatives. Also, he adamantly insisted that only Relyant controlled hiring and did not oversee firing. He says the US military was the only authority who could let go of DJs, but he did add that Relyant fired a site manager for unspecified corruption allegations.

However, among the hundreds of documents that DJs gave to The Verge, there are several signed DJ contracts. Each contract states that “Relyant may terminate this Agreement before the anticipated ending date at its sole discretion for any reason, which will be effective immediately upon Relyant’s verbal or written notice of termination.”

When I read the firing clause over the phone to Hemat, he again insisted that firing DJs required military approval. Hemat declined to provide documents he has that support his assertions, citing “personal information.” He said he could not comment on firings alleged by DJs who, concerned for their safety from the Taliban, talked to me only on the condition of anonymity.

Wafa posing with military equipment.

To Jan, these firings were a huge loss of experienced DJs, and Hemat’s family was clueless about radio. Once, a Hemat hire cussed on air, causing a furor that ended with an officer trying to calm down an angry village elder. Jan confronted Hemat and complained to the American commanding officer, but nothing happened. Relyant’s Radio in a Box contract with the military ended in 2013, the radio stations shut down, and, soon after, US troops began to pull out.

Around this time, Jan received death threats. “The enemy sent a letter to my home and they were threatening my life, my daddy, my brother,” Jan says.

One day, Jan was inside his base when he picked up a call. “Hey, we can kill you today.” Jan, indignant at first, asked, “How?” The caller claimed to have his location, his information, everything. Jan realized it wouldn’t be hard to determine his whereabouts. “I was a DJ. I was very famous,” he explains. More threats were mixed into reams of fan mail, including one love letter from a woman who claimed she wrote Jan’s name on the front and back of a piece of paper and swallowed it.

It was a terrifying time for Jan. When he walked through villages, he wondered who might try to kill him. Many DJs carried multiple cellphones as a safety measure. The tactic was to quarantine all of their work for the US military onto one phone. That phone was used to interview people, orchestrate call-in shows, and take song requests. That “show” phone stayed on the base. Their other phone was dedicated to family and personal contacts, so if the Taliban stopped and questioned them, they could plausibly deny cooperating with the US. DJs went even further to obscure their relationship with coalition forces. One DJ who worked with Jan protected himself with camouflage; he grew a thick beard, which is generally forbidden by the US Army. “Americans would call me Jesus,” he says. Another DJ, still in Afghanistan, says he speaks a fake dialect to disguise his well-known voice.

Jan, fearing for his life, applied for an SIV and got it in six months. His wife and kids moved to Buffalo, New York, where Jan now works as a private security guard most nights. Jan jokes that, one day, he’ll change his name to John “when I apply for my citizenship.” Almost his entire family remained in Afghanistan. A couple of years ago, Jan’s brother was shot in the stomach by assassins. He survived.

In 2015, Congress increased the mandatory time of employment for Afghans to be eligible for an SIV from one year to two years, a dramatic new obstacle. Jan says at least 15 DJs he knew personally were rejected from the SIV program because their employment was cut short of two years by Hemat. In 2017, Hemat was Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-CT) special guest at President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress where Hemat says he lobbied for the SIV program. Today, he lives in Connecticut on an SIV.

Relyant handed out boilerplate letters for employment verification, or “HR letters,” which are crucial to the SIV application. In some cases, Relyant’s staff members didn’t reply to DJs’ requests for employment verification. Other Relyant boilerplates included classic “certificates of appreciation,” which the State Department has never recognized as a qualifying document for SIV. A few certificates are signed by a Relyant project manager who says he had never heard of the Radio in a Box program. Wafa says Relyant did nothing to help him find his military supervisor. He sent repeated emails to his Relyant supervisor and never received a reply. A dozen DJs I spoke to say they experienced the same problem. The company’s old slogan adorns the DJ’s boilerplate certificates: “A Promise Delivered.”

Relyant did not respond to requests for an interview or follow-up requests for comment.

Jan thinks Relyant was aware of the risks of DJ work. One former Relyant site manager confirmed Jan’s suspicion in a brief phone call. “It was a dangerous job for them, I believe,” says John Bagby, who managed 20 to 30 DJs. Jan got lucky. His Army supervisor told him that if he couldn’t get Jan into the United States, he’d never forgive himself.

Wafa worked nine months and six days for Relyant. If the three months he says he handled PSYOPs for the US Special Forces can be accounted for, he squeaks over the original one-year work requirement. But now, it’s two years. Wafa considered appealing his rejected application.

Wafa posing with military equipment.

DJs who stay in Afghanistan to apply for an SIV face a different fatal risk: wait times. State Department statistics suggest SIV processing doesn’t take so long. However, in a lawsuit against the State Department, lawyers for the International Refugee Assistance Project discovered that the data systematically undercounts processing times. Time awaiting interview scheduling, time spent doing background checks, and time the consular officer spends making a final decision, among other time sinks, isn’t counted. The maximum legal wait time is nine months. The State Department already confesses it was blowing the deadlines in the statute and reported that it was racking up an additional nine months in wait time on average. IRAP, on the other hand, closely tracks wait times and says the situation is even worse than the State Department admits. They estimate the first step in an SIV application, which is a petition to the National Visa Center, takes two and a half to three years for Afghan SIV “class members”; for Iraqis, it takes five years. IRAP found that after the US Embassy approves a petition, 2,300 SIV applicants have waited an average of three years for a final say. In September, a judge gave the State Department 30 days to come up with a plan to fix the backlog.

Wafa couldn’t afford to wait for the SIV system’s notorious backlogs. The phone calls from the Taliban had kept coming, and, finally, he confided in his dad. His wife, two daughters, and son were at risk, he said. They agreed he needed to leave.

Wafa paid $5,000 from his savings to an illegal human smuggling operation. The destination was Europe — specifically, Germany. What really mattered to him was that he protected himself from the threats to his life in Afghanistan. Beyond that, he was flexible. But the journey to Europe was filled with dangerous prospects. When Jan heard about Wafa’s plan, he called him up.

“There are security forces in every country, they can shoot you, no one wants illegal immigrants!” Jan told Wafa. “Wafa, you should not do this because you can die.”

Lawyers for IRAP estimate they’ve met more than 100 Afghans who worked for the United States and who, because of problems with SIV applications, went to Europe to plead for asylum. And it’s unlikely they took a straightforward trip to get there. Ignoring Jan, Wafa traveled to Kabul with two friends. At 2AM, they prepared to board a bus for the border with Pakistan. Wafa’s father was there. He offered a prayer aloud for a safe journey. With tears in his eyes, he hugged Wafa goodbye. “Just pray for me,” Wafa told him.

Wafa posing for a portrait at his apartment in Elsdorf, Germany.


The bus trundled
into Quetta, Pakistan.

They decamped into the desert and clambered through loose, gravelly hills. Water was scarce. As they descended into the flatlands, Wafa and his friends say they saw human body parts scattered on the ground. One believes they were migrants like them who hadn’t made it, the bodies from shallow burials, exhumed by the wind.

Pickup trucks arrived, and Wafa and somewhere around 35 other Afghans piled into the back. They cut through the middle of the orange pebbly desert, headed for the unmarked border with Iran. Exhaust and dust kicked up in their faces, covering them. In the middle of the desert, the trucks slowed down. There was a checkpoint in the distance. As soon as they were close enough, they could see who was manning the roadblock: the Taliban.

The group of Taliban forced the pickup to a stop. Wafa and his friends were terrified. They were told to get out. Wafa and the Afghans spilled out of the back, and the Taliban gathered them next to the pickups. The Taliban didn’t recognize Wafa, but he knew he was a wanted man, that he had been summoned many times for what he expected to be an execution. What unfolded in the desert instead was something of a roadside sermon.

The Taliban talked about the correct interpretation of Islam, “what to do, what not to do,” who is Taliban, who is not Taliban, and a message to oppose the Afghan national government. The pressure over the entire situation began to lift. It became clear to Wafa that this was a pointless Taliban PSYOP administered in the middle of the desert to migrants and refugees, some of whom were leaving precisely because of them.

Wafa walks around his neighborhood, a small village called Elsdorf 30 km from Cologne, Germany.

They got back into the pickups, and once they crossed the border into Iran, the Afghans were piped into a sprawling smuggling network toward Europe. Generally, the only information the smugglers knew was the next drop-off location. The Afghans moved through an endless series of safe houses and, once, a cow barn.

“We were herded like animals,” Wafa says. They were dropped by the Turkish border and scaled freezing mountains on foot, around cliff faces and through precipitous ravines, crested the top, and picked their way into Turkey. Smugglers showed up in cars, and Wafa and the Afghans jumped in. They got their first shower in Istanbul. The smugglers advised they buy energy drinks and cookies for their most formidable obstacle: Bulgaria. The strategy was to spirit themselves through Bulgaria’s forests on foot. An Afghan migrant like Wafa had been shot on the country’s border.

The smugglers took Wafa and the Afghans to the edge of a massive forest in Turkey. By this point, they had been traveling for about 45 days, and after issuing directions to march through it to the other side, the smugglers left. Wafa and the Afghans set off into the woods. When it started to get dark, they found a place to huddle together beneath the treetops. No one slept. Hours later, they staggered out of the forest, hungry, onto a road. They were inside Bulgaria now. They waited, and two cars arrived. Everyone jumped in, and they sped for Sofia, arriving at night. The 25 or so Afghans were led to a dirty three-room house where they slept on the floor, using their backpacks as pillows. They were unable to go outside for about five days, as the smugglers price-gouged them for groceries. The smugglers moved them at night and drove to yet another forest to pass through, undetected. Wafa and his friends’ heads spun with rumors of migrant killings, true and false, and believed the police were constantly searching for them.

When Wafa and the Afghans emerged from the woods, the smugglers led them to an open field and told them to stay put. Then the smugglers said they would scout for police activity. An hour passed. Then two. Then three. “We were just left there,” Wafa says. Despite the smuggling expenses they paid, suddenly, they had nowhere to go. “Of course, they lied to us,” Wafa says. “That’s what the smugglers do to you.” Abandoned and panicked, the Afghans broke into groups, setting off in different directions. Wafa and six others stuck together. They wandered for hours, until they encountered a shepherd — two of them, older Bulgarian women, tending their sheep. They were not alarmed by the Afghans, and they began talking. By this point, Wafa and his friends were half-crazed with hunger. They asked if there was any food nearby. Yes, there was a village with one small restaurant. They asked about police, any other threat of being caught by authorities. No, the shepherds reassured them, there were no police here.

They made their way along a road, and as they walked, a car crept up and passed slowly. A man and a woman were inside. Up ahead, the car stopped. When Wafa and his friends passed the car, it leapfrogged ahead again. Wafa’s friend turned to the group. “This car is suspicious. We should ask them what they want from us.” They talked and asked if food was nearby. “Yes, come and follow us!” the couple said. The friends were unsettled. It didn’t take long before the driver hit the brakes and came to a complete stop. He stepped out of the car and stood there. In Bulgarian, he told them not to run, the police were coming. The friends looked at each other. It was the betrayal they halfway expected and feared most.

They made for the woods, climbed down into a ravine, and waited intently for any sign of the police pursuit. They were unsure whether they had escaped. After a while, they sent a friend up the hillside to have a look. He didn’t come back down. The rest followed. When they emerged from the forest, they were surrounded by police. As soon as the cops saw Wafa and his friends, they fired warning shots in the air. The Afghans were rounded up at gunpoint. One of Wafa’s friends, Ahmed, tried to talk to the police. Communication was difficult. An officer punched him in the head and neck, twice, and ordered him to sit. The rest didn’t need to be told.

Wafa talks to his neighbor Sharif who also comes from Afghanistan. They both live in the same refugee shelter in Elsdorf, Germany.

The officers confiscated their phones, money, and bags and took them to a detention center called Busmantsi on the outskirts of Sofia. The prison was all square lines, tall stucco walls, razor wire, and, in the winter, it was surrounded by bleak open land and a hamlet of houses. It had a huge steel blue gate for cars, with a human-sized door built into the lower-right corner. Beside the gate, a placard: “Ministry of Interior - Migration Directorate.” Inside, it was filthy and overcrowded with migrant detainees. Wafa and his friends were released into a giant room with no assigned bunks, but, lucky for them, they found a place to sleep. They ate two small meals a day. There was no bathroom after 10PM, meaning people relieved themselves in their cells. Some of the Afghans said it might be worth deporting themselves back home rather than stay in Bulgaria, whose government they viewed as more corruption-riddled than Afghanistan’s.

After 24 days, they were released. The Bulgarian authorities took their fingerprints. “They think that even if you go to some other European countries you will be sent back to Bulgaria,” Wafa says. It’s likely the fingerprints were just mind games. Any refugee can apply for asylum in the EU country of their choosing. Wafa and his friends left and reunited with their smuggler, demanding they go directly to Serbia. The smugglers simply drove across the border this time. From Serbia, it was a series of bus transfers and train rides to Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and, finally, Germany, where Wafa disembarked in Cologne. A friendly German aid worker greeted him with a hot meal and clothes.

He applied for asylum and was given a government-issue apartment in a small town called Elsdorf. The German authorities called him in for an interview. Days later, he received a letter. His interview was deemed not credible and had been denied asylum. There was no explanation. Wafa still wonders why his application was rejected.

He hired a German lawyer with wild gray hair named Frank Schönebeck for 900 euros. When Schönebeck inspected Wafa’s documents, he turned to him in disbelief and said the German authorities’ decision was insane. Wafa’s Radio in a Box documents were compelling. Schönebeck told Wafa he could keep his 900 euros and that he was confident his client would get his asylum papers in eight months to a year, after Wafa appears in a court appeal.

Until very recently, he didn’t have papers to work in Germany while his case was processed. During that time, his family has slipped into poverty while he stayed inside his apartment in Elsdorf, alone.

“I just want to go to the court and defend myself… My family is away from me for four years now,” Wafa says. “What is my crime?”

Wafa on a walk close to his apartment in Elsdorf, Germany.

Shortly before July 4th, I got Maj. Paul Wever’s phone number. Had Wafa been able to reach him for the elusive letter of recommendation, it may have helped his SIV process. I tried calling Wever. No answer. I texted, wanting to know how he might have felt about Wafa’s fate, what his sympathies were as commanding officer. Five days later, Wever texted back. He wasn’t sure whether he could go on the record. He wanted to check with US Central Command Public Affairs first. I contacted that office, and they had no objection. Still, Wever went dark.

One information operations military officer directly involved with the DJs did eventually talk to me about the Radio in a Box program. “Albeit the toughest deployment and most dangerous… the most fulfilling, like as a self-actualization thing,” he says. He remembers their motto, “first with the truth,” where, in the wake of a bombing, they were racing the Taliban and other groups like al-Qaeda to get their reporting and side of the story on the radio first. “From a perspective of loyalty, I really think the DJs put their neck on the line to be on the air,” he says. As for the tougher SIV rules, “personally, I don’t think two years is just. One year is” because he says the danger was so extremely acute for the DJs. “I try to fathom it, these guys are just playing music and reading scripts.”

I texted Wever more details about Wafa’s story. Nothing. Finally, I sent photos of Wafa. “Do you remember him?” A picture of Wafa receiving a framed certificate from an Army officer, a picture in front of a military vehicle, a picture of Wafa standing next to a sergeant on patrol, him cradling his M4 machine gun, Wafa’s microphone at his side. No response except for the faint gray text marked below the photos — read receipts, indicating Wever had seen my messages.

Recently, Wafa found work at an Epson warehouse, slapping promotional stickers on printer boxes. One purple sticker from a thick roll boasts to the consumer, “Nuance Power PDF.” His schedule flips between day and night shifts. The company has the police come down routinely to review Wafa and his co-workers’ work certifications, and Wafa is exhausted all the time. Despite his agony searching for safety outside the SIV system, the mere mention of his past work for Radio in a Box still prompts a grin of recognition, a snap, and he points a finger gun. Wafa can’t muster a single bad word about the United States.

“I dedicated myself to them,” he says. “Honestly I was working for them with my heart.” Sometimes, Wafa is so confused by his SIV rejection that he pins the blame on himself. “Maybe it was my English. I’m not very good at English and I’m not fluent,” Wafa says. “It might be my problem.”

If Wafa’s bid for asylum in Germany fails, he says he would go to the nearest US Embassy in Germany and present all of his documents one last time. He still believes the US might help him. “I was loyal to them,” he says, still hopeful.