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Follow the perilous course of Afghan refugees with this firsthand account

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Our guest, Matthieu Aikins, is a Canadian-born journalist who has reported on Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2008. He was in Afghanistan from June through November last year, covering the chaotic withdrawal of American forces and its aftermath. He had the lead byline for The New York Times story, reporting that the drone strike in Kabul, which U.S. military officials claimed had taken out a car bomb threatening American troops, was, in fact, mistakenly targeted at an aid worker, killing him and nine others, including seven children.

For his first book, Aikins tells the story of joining his long-time Afghan interpreter and driver in his 2016 journey to flee the country along smugglers' routes and reach Europe. To accompany his friend, Aikins had to ditch his own identity and passport and assume the role of an Afghan refugee. Aikins says his ethnic background makes him look uncannily Afghan. The experience gave Aikins an intimate look at some of the Afghans, Syrians and others risking everything to start new lives through this massive movement of humanity. The book is a story of tough choices and, at times, harrowing experiences trekking over land and sea.

Matthieu Aikins is a contributing writer for The New York Times and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. His reporting has won numerous honors, including the George Polk and Livingston Awards. His new book is "The Naked Don't Fear The Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees."

Matthieu Aikins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from the book. This is a moment that I've asked you to share with us. It'll give us a sense of the writing and one of the more troubling moments that you encountered in this long journey. You want to just set up what's happening here?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah, sure. My pleasure. I mean, this is a moment in the narrative where my friend Omar and I have finally made it to Turkey after various trials and tribulations crossing borders. And Omar's found a smuggler who's going to send us to the Greek islands on one of these little rubber boats that cross the Mediterranean at night. So we're sent to a safe house in the coastal city of Izmir. And then at night, we're suddenly taken out, brought to a van. We're the first ones in, but pretty soon, all these other migrants, Syrians, start piling in the van or crammed at the back. And we set off on the highway. We don't really know where we're going, but it's pretty clear we don't have control of the situation anymore. And then the van stops, pulls over. There's some kind of problem with the escort car. And the driver doesn't really want to be hanging out with a bunch of illegal immigrants in the back of his van, so he takes off. And we're left there, waiting.

DAVIES: And this is the reading.

AIKINS: (Reading) The van soon grew stiflingly hot. The Syrians whispered to one another in the dark. My joints were throbbing, and my neighbor's skinny limbs pressed into my kidneys. I felt the wave of nausea and closed my eyes. As a kid, I used to have nightmares of being trapped in a dark space filled with pressure and heat, like the center of the Earth. Back when I was planning this trip, I read about 71 migrants who had suffocated in a meat truck in Austria that past summer and promised myself to never get into a situation like that. Now I thought about what the man in Nimruz had told us - brother, we're like a football being kicked up the field. There was a sense of vertigo in handing yourself over to criminals - no recourse, legal or moral, for what befell you. The blame, rather, for putting yourself there in the first place.

DAVIES: And that is journalist Matthew Aikins reading from his new book, "The Naked Don't Fear The Water: An Underground Journey Of Afghan Refugees." Yeah, putting yourself in the hands of criminals many times over the course of this journey. The man that you took this journey with, whom you call Omar - just tell us a bit about him and your relationship.

AIKINS: Omar was one of the first friends that I made in Afghanistan, not that long after I got there in late 2008, and we worked on a story together. He was a former interpreter with the U.S. military and Canadian military who now wanted to start working with journalists. He had grown up as a refugee in Iran and Pakistan. You know, his parents fled the Soviet invasion. And he had returned, along with millions of other Afghans, to his country, you know, shortly after 2001, believing in this bright new era of hope and democracy, that the West was going to help rebuild their country, that peace would come to Afghanistan after so many decades of war. And so we spent a number of years - when I was living in Kabul, we saw each other a lot and became very close. I got to know his family, as well.

DAVIES: Right. And we've heard a lot about Afghan refugees in recent months. This was, you know, five years before the American withdrawal - 2016. Why did he want to leave?

AIKINS: Well, it was already clear by then that things were not going well, that the foreigners would eventually leave and that the Afghan government was, you know, becoming more and more dysfunctional and corrupt. The Taliban were on the march in the countryside. The Taliban briefly captured a provincial capital at the end of 2015. So there's that, and there's also the fact that Omar - you know, since he was a kid, he had dreamed of emigrating to the West. He used to watch a Canadian television show on - when he was a kid in Iran. And he had actually applied for a visa to emigrate here. He should have been eligible under this Special Immigrant Visa program for former Afghan and Iraqi employees of the U.S. government, but he was rejected because he didn't have all the paperwork. So after that happened, he decided to take the smugglers' road to Europe.

DAVIES: Right. And he certainly would have qualified. I mean, he had done translating for coalition forces. He'd seen combat. He - but they wanted a lot of documentation that people, when they're in action, don't think to collect. So you decided you would go together and report on this, which meant you would be traveling as an Afghan. But, of course, you are, in fact, a Westerner. You're Canadian-born. What advantages or risks did that pose to the two of you, that you were there kind of looking like an Afghan refugee, but really a Western journalist?

AIKINS: Yeah. Well, it was the only way that I could do it because, you know, if I had my passport on me and we were caught by thieves or, you know, could be kidnapped or the police would separate us. So there was no other way to do it. I think that it probably added some risks, but it also meant that we were traveling together. We could, you know, take care of each other. And, of course, if something really serious did happen, you know, I was going to do everything I could to help him.

DAVIES: You know, for you to pass as an Afghan, you had to look plausible. And as I mentioned in the introduction, because of your ethnic background - I think your mother is of Japanese descent - you kind of have the skin color of an Afghan. So you look the part. But you've also got to sound the part. And you speak Dari - right? - which is one of the major languages in the country. You were fluent enough to pass as a native?

AIKINS: You know, in the end, it turned out that I was. I mean, I had been studying the language for years and practiced a lot ahead of this trip, repeating myself. It helps also that Afghanistan has so many different languages and dialects, accents, people who've lived abroad as refugees and come back. And, you know, also when you're on the road in these smugglers' safe houses or in the camps, everyone's kind of hiding something. So people don't pry and ask too many questions, even if maybe they think something's a little off.

DAVIES: You would need a lot of money, both just for traveling and living expenses and to pay smugglers, who are not cheap. Where did the money come from? How did you hide it?

AIKINS: Well, the money came from the book advance. And there's a system for transferring money that Afghans use. It's called Hawala or saraf. And so you can actually just leave all your money with your mother in Kabul, and then she can go to money changers and have it sent to various spots along the route. And it's one of these many ingenious systems that migrants use that we discovered in the course of this book.

DAVIES: As you begin this journey, there's an interesting piece of historical context here. You know, there were lots of places in the Middle East and South Asia where large numbers of people wanted to flee. I mean, huge numbers of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan all headed to Europe and other places, too. It - the journey was, you know, risky, illegal, difficult but for this remarkable development in 2015 when things suddenly changed. Do you want to describe this?

AIKINS: Yeah. I mean, in the book, I call it a miracle. The border opened, this iron wall that, you know, had separated Europe from all these people who've been kind of piling up at its borders - right? And Turkey had the largest refugee population in the world that time, mostly Syrians displaced. And then in late - the summer to late 2015, the dam kind of broke. People started crossing in numbers that couldn't be prevented without, you know, extreme force against helpless, unarmed people.

So in order to prevent a total breakdown of the European Union's border system, Germany and some other countries allowed this humanitarian corridor to open through the Balkans. So people were just walking in, you know, to Europe basically. You could land on the Greek islands, you could travel safely in buses and trains, you know, relatively speaking, to get to where you wanted to go and - so a total suspension of the normal state of affairs.

DAVIES: Yeah, you said a million people reached Europe by sea during this movement, the largest movement of refugees across waters in history. By the time Omar decided he was going to go, he had some personal considerations that delayed him. Things had changed. How did they change?

AIKINS: Well, the border had slammed shut again. The European Union, you know, even as there was all this rhetoric about welcoming refugees, was busily putting up barbed wire fences, border barriers, creating new, you know, camps to detain people and paying off countries like Turkey to keep migrants from getting there in the first place. So by the time we arrived on the scene, you know, in the summer of 2016, we very much faced a newly defended Europe, you know, a new and improved, in many ways, in its efficiency border apparatus.

DAVIES: So all these Greek cities and islands, which were welcoming these refugees, now took a different attitude, right? There were (laughter) Turkish and Greek patrols and patrols funded by the European Union to try and send people back, right?

AIKINS: The mood had definitely changed. And it's difficult. You have some sympathy for especially the Greek islanders who are being made responsible for this crisis that has, you know, to do with an entire continent, and their islands are being turned into open-air prisons, basically, for migrants. But it was quite an ugly scene on the ground.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a little break here. We are speaking with Matthieu Aikins. He's been reporting on Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2008. His new book is "The Naked Don't Fear The Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and my guest is journalist Matthieu Aikins. He's reported for many years on Afghanistan and the Middle East. His new book is about joining his longtime Afghan interpreter in that interpreter's effort to flee the country along smugglers' routes to Europe. The name of the book is "The Naked Don't Fear The Water."

Right, so Omar, he - it's a pseudonym. You've - protecting his identity for reasons that are pretty clear. Omar decides he's got to get to Turkey first and then, from there, make his way to the Greek islands. Turkey does not share a border with Afghanistan. What are his options for getting to Turkey? How does he do that?

AIKINS: So if you think about the world through the eyes of a migrant, you know, there's all these different ways to get places illegally and where the shortest line is, let's say, the safest. So that would be flying directly to Turkey, right? And that takes the most money. You have to basically pay bribes to get a visa. Then there could be a slightly longer route, you know, over land, crossing the border as it's cheaper but more dangerous. Omar, of course, wanted to go the shortest, safest way. But unfortunately, that turned out not to be possible because of the disruptions caused by the attempted coup in Turkey around that time.

DAVIES: So you decided you would go ahead. You could travel easily on your own, and you would meet Omar in Turkey. He could not easily travel (laughter) on his own. He managed to get into Iran and then make a very difficult crossing over - through some smugglers over the Zagros Mountains. You weren't with him then, but you were hoping he would make it. He eventually - you connect with him in Turkey where his mother and sister and, I think, a friend are there, right? What is your goal there? Now you're in Turkey, where do you have to go? How are you going to make it?

AIKINS: Well, I was trying to leave choices up to Omar 'cause it was his trip, after all, and not mine. And there was a few options. You could try to go through the mountains of Bulgaria or cross over land to Greece, but he thought the best idea was still to go to the Greek islands. The problem was now the islands were kind of like prisons and you couldn't leave them but figured there'd be some way with smugglers. And so that's what we did. That's how we ended up in the little boats.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah, there was no legal way for you to get on a boat and go to a Greek island. And it's interesting because you - word had spread that some islands were better than others to land on. The island of Lesbos was one that you wanted to avoid. Why?

AIKINS: It was the largest, most notorious, most violent prison that had just burned to the ground a week before in a riot. So it sounded terrible, and everyone warned us not to go there.

DAVIES: And when you say prison, we're not talking about a regular prison for criminals on the island. We're talking about a - what was a refugee camp that, in effect, functioned as a detention facility, right?

AIKINS: Yeah, people were somewhat free to come and go from the camp itself but not to leave the island.

DAVIES: So you made it clear to the smuggler that you didn't want to go there, and the smuggler that you connected with said, no, you're not going there. But as you say in the book, you put yourself in the hands of criminals. What actually happened then when you paid the smuggler and went down to the shoreline of Turkey to try and get to Greece?

AIKINS: Well, he sent us to the exact place that we had asked not to go to. He lied through his teeth to us, which is unfortunately a very common experience dealing with these people.

DAVIES: Tell us about the watercraft that you got in and who else was there.

AIKINS: Well, we were about 40 people. We were taken to the beach at night. Omar's forced to get down at gunpoint because he was angry we were going the wrong island. And then...

DAVIES: Wait, let me just back up there. Did you say Omar was forced in at gunpoint?

AIKINS: He's forced to get out of the van at gunpoint when he wouldn't leave, insisting that we be taken to a different island.

DAVIES: He said, this is not what we paid for. And he saw a weapon and said, you're going now. So that's - you got into this little boat.

AIKINS: Yeah, we had no choice at this time.

DAVIES: Wow.

AIKINS: So we get into this little boat, which is about 25 feet long. It's rubber. It's 40 of us - women, children, most of them are Syrian. And the way it works is the smugglers just kind of pick a refugee to drive the boat because the boat's making a one-way trip. Everyone gets arrested when they land, and the boat's confiscated. Lesvos is actually close enough that you can see its lights at night across the strait, you know, it's a few miles, and just kind of point for that and go, which is what we did. But it was not an easy crossing.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, you describe the boat at one point as an overgrown pool toy. And you got a little outboard motor on the back that one of your fellow refugees is driving. This is in the middle of the night around midnight, right? It was not an easy crossing. Tell us what happened.

AIKINS: Well, we - about halfway across, we were found by this warship, I think it was a NATO frigate, that followed us, and I believe some in the Turkish Coast Guard who came and attempted to violently capture our boat and take it back to Turkey, which is something that the other people in the boat absolutely refused to do. And despite their terror and the unfamiliar situation, they rose up and they pushed the Turks off, fought them off. At one point, I thought maybe we would be rammed and sunk, but just as things were about to get really bad, a rescuer showed up, a Norwegian cutter, and they ended up picking up and taking us in.

DAVIES: Yeah. At a point, you realized you had actually crossed into Greek territorial waters, which meant that the Turkish couldn't take you back, right? What kind of contact did you have with the Turks? I mean, did the boats come in contact? Did people try and board your raft?

AIKINS: They came up and rammed us amidships and were trying to sort of push the boat's bow around back toward Turkey while trying to lasso our engine or disable it, which set off sort of a melee between the passengers and these two Turks, who were unarmed as far as I could see.

DAVIES: Wow. So you're actually rammed. Did you think at this point that you were going to die?

AIKINS: I thought maybe we'd all go in the water, and if we did, people are going to die. You know, I'm a strong swimmer. I've grown up on the ocean. Many of the people there, they had never seen the ocean before; this is Omar's first time in a boat. So I just knew that things were going to get really bad if we capsized.

DAVIES: Right. And one of the things that the smugglers offer is lifejackets. You didn't have one, as I recall, right?

AIKINS: Well, by the time we'd finished kind of arguing about which island we'd go into, all the lifejackets had been divvied up. So there's only one left and I told Omar to take it because, like I said, I grew up swimming.

DAVIES: And they weren't always reliable anyway, right?

AIKINS: No. A lot of times they're counterfeit, and they'll actually absorb water. And after an hour or so, they will take you down. You know, a lot of people drowned making that crossing.

DAVIES: So this Norwegian vessel encounters you. You do make it to Lesbos. You were arrested, as you expected to be; people will get arrested and apply for asylum and hope to continue their journey. And so you end up in this camp called Moria. Tell us what the conditions were like, what the experience was.

AIKINS: Well, this camp was built for maybe a thousand people or so. And at the time, there were more than 5,000 crammed into it. And as I mentioned, there'd been a fire which destroyed most of the kind of semipermanent housing, so people were actually living in little camping tents in the mud. There was long lineups for food, fights would break out, the toilets were, you know, unspeakable. People were really sick. It was just a horrible, horrible place and kind of shocking to see that in the European Union.

DAVIES: There had recently been a fire there. Did you find out why, what happened?

AIKINS: Well, there'd been a fight between inmates, between different groups of Afghans and Arabs and Africans. One of the things about this camp - and this is something that the Kurdish Iranian author Behrouz Boochani writes about in his wonderful, you know, tragic memoir of these Australian detention camps in the Pacific for migrants and refugees - is the camp pits people against each other. You know, there's a competition for food, for access to medical care, to get out. And so it dehumanizes you - it can, at least - and it creates this violence, which then makes it very easy to, of course, blame these migrants for burning down their own camp in the first place, where you had - and this is the case to get back to Moria, where you had some troublemakers lit each other's tents on fire and it got out of control and spread. And, of course, the vast majority of people who were just trying to live there in peace had to flee and had nothing to do with it but lost a lot of their belongings in the fire. It was really just, like, kind of, like, desperate scene when we arrived, the way people were living in the mud.

DAVIES: Let me take another break here and let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Matthieu Aikins. He's a veteran journalist who has been reporting on Afghanistan in the Middle East since 2008. His new book is "The Naked Don't Fear The Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK WOESTE, RYAN KEBERLE AND VINCENT COURTOIS' "BLUE FEATHER")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is journalist Matthieu Aikins, who's reported on Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2008. His new book details the journey he took in 2016, when he shed his identity and passport to join his longtime Afghan interpreter in his effort to make his way along smuggler's routes to Europe to start a new life. The book is "The Naked Don't Fear The Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees."

So you and Omar, your interpreter and driver when you were reporting in Afghanistan, have made it to the Greek island of Lesbos at this squalid refugee camp, which people really refer to as a prison, called Moria. You don't want to stay there. You want to get from there to Athens, from which there are other opportunities to try and make the leap to Europe. But you're on an island (laughter), right? How long were you there on Moria? How did you spend your days?

AIKINS: We were there for a few weeks in the end. And we would try to get out of camp as much as possible. So like I said, you could come and go freely, just not leave the island. So we would take the bus or walk into town and hang out by the port with a bunch of other migrants. And there was this ferry boat that left, you know, several times a day for Athens. So everyone - it was right by the place where these migrants would hang out on the dock. So they'd spend their time kind of watching the ferry boat and scheming of ways to sneak onto it.

DAVIES: Yeah. What were the opportunities? What were the options there for spiriting your way onto the ferry boat?

AIKINS: Option No. 1 was try to pass as a legitimate passenger. So you could buy a ticket in town and then just try to walk on because technically, this is a domestic ferry. But of course, the Greek police are there. And they're checking to make sure no migrants, you know, who don't have proper paperwork can get on this ferry. But maybe if you looked enough like a tourist or an aid worker, it was your lucky day, you could walk past. Of course, that - you had to look kind of European for that. Another way, if you were - this is for the desperate - was to crawl into a truck and try to stow away aboard these cargo trucks that were going on. But that's, of course, quite dangerous.

DAVIES: Right. And when you say get on the truck, you're talking about, often, in the undercarriage by the axle, right?

AIKINS: That's one of the hiding places, is to climb onto the axle itself, often with, like, a little board so you don't get caught in the spinning shaft.

DAVIES: And you had a lot of conversations with other refugees because everybody was trying to accomplish this same thing. Did you know people who tried that and they succeed?

AIKINS: Yeah. The most, you know, determined usually do get through. And so those people who had made it through - later on, when we got to Athens, we'd be walking down the street and suddenly bump into someone we recognized from the island, and be a very happy moment that they had gotten out. And I would ask how you did it. And a lot of times, it was on the trucks.

DAVIES: And, of course, where there's a need, there are people to meet that need. So there were smugglers on Lesbos, as there are at any other point along this journey. You - I guess you decided you could go to Italy on your own, where your passport was there with a friend, but not Omar. He had to find a way off. How did he finally get off of Lesbos?

AIKINS: You know, one of the themes of the book is how borders create smugglers, and how the more, you know, walls and laws that you put up to block people from moving, the more profits and opportunities are going to be for smugglers. So yes, smugglers had started taking people off the island and getting them to Athens. So Omar ultimately got fake documents that let him escape and go onward to Athens.

DAVIES: Got on a plane, didn't he, a commercial flight to Athens?

AIKINS: He did. Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. He eventually - he doesn't end up in Greece. He's not still there, right? He's made it to safety?

AIKINS: He is, yeah. And he's doing fine.

DAVIES: One of the remarkable things about this book is that there's - it's a very detailed account of a pretty remarkable experience. And I know in my own reporting experiences, when you're out at something where there's a lot of action, like a demonstration, or when you're on the road, it's hard to take good notes, hard to preserve them. You had to keep your identity as a journalist secret. How did you keep records and notes of what you were experiencing?

AIKINS: Well, it turned out to be easier than I thought because I had this smartphone, you know, a cheap Samsung, and so did everyone else. And they were all on Facebook or whatever - WhatsApp - all day. So I could just sit and type up these notes on my phone. I ended up taking 60,000 words of notes over the course of the trip. And I would periodically email them through a kind of dummy email address, and then delete them from my phone so they wouldn't be there.

DAVIES: You know, you spent so much time with refugees both, you know, in Turkey, trying to get to Lesbos - in Lesbos, trying to get to Athens - and Athens. You know, one of the things that this journey gave you was an intimate look at refugees, which most of us never see. I mean, even reporters who come and interview people, it's often in a circumstance where they're not able to be candid. You simply had lots and lots of frank conversations. You certainly got to know Omar's family very well. I'm wondering what you saw that surprised you that would surprise other people about these people fleeing for a new life.

AIKINS: I don't think it was very surprising to me because I had spent so many years in Afghanistan. And I had lots of Afghan friends and knew Afghans, and knew they're capable of humor in dire circumstances, and that despite all the challenges they've had, they have an incredibly rich family life that helps them. And, I mean, I would say that what I learned is how different things like the law and borders look from the bottom, from the perspective of people who are driven by desperation to cross them. And it really muddles the moral picture that I think we often have of the world growing up in safe, orderly societies. We don't realize how much violence is necessary at our borders to keep people out.

DAVIES: You went through some harrowing experiences when we talked about being in this boat crossing to Greece. And there was also a moment where you were actually arrested in Turkey for circumstances we won't get into. And you spent so much time in circumstances where you weren't in control, where you handed your fate over to, as you put it, criminals, smugglers. And you say that - you talk in the book a bit about your willingness to take risk and how that changes over time. And you said that repeated exposure to risk had made you more willing to take it. And you write, I understand I was probably damaged. But at the time, it seemed useful for working in places like Afghanistan and Syria. I'm wondering if you could just explain that a bit, how you feel you were damaged?

AIKINS: Well, I think I was not behaving in a way that would seem normal to a lot of people. You just get so inured to the risk and the death and destruction working in war zones. Perhaps, it made me a bit reckless. But I was really trying to understand that and its impact on the people that I was traveling with to see their perspective that, you know, they weren't seeing this as a story or an adventure. This was their lives and was something I struggled with was to defer to, you know, Omar's ideas about what risks we should take and shouldn't.

DAVIES: Now that you've been back in the states for a while, is the damage repaired? Have your feelings changed?

AIKINS: Yeah. You got to take care of yourself. And, you know, I was in Afghanistan for five months. I started in the summer and covered the evacuation. And I think everyone's still processing just the tragedy of what happened there and what it tells us about the last 20 years. So you got to take some time to recover after this kind of stuff. But I've been lucky. I've had very supportive people in my life.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here. We're going to take another break. We are speaking with Matthieu Aikins. He has been reporting on Afghanistan and the Middle East for many years. His new book is "The Naked Don't Fear the Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees." We'll continue in our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Matthieu Aikins. He's a journalist who's reported on Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2008. His new book about his journey with his former Afghan interpreter in his effort to make his way to Europe along smugglers' routes is called "The Naked Don't Fear The Water."

You recently returned to Afghanistan. You were there from June through November - right? - and you were there for the withdrawal of the American forces. One of the stories that you wrote about, I think you were the lead byline on this, was the one about the drone strike, which the U.S. military claimed had taken out a car bomb probably engineered by ISIS in Kabul that posed a threat to U.S. troops; turned out to be a horrible mistake. You were one of those who basically exposed the truth, that this was - this targeted an innocent family. How did you get the story?

AIKINS: Well, the strike happened in the evening. And at first, it was reported maybe it was, like, a rocket that missed the airport and landed there, but there was also suggestions there were civilian casualties. The next morning, I went with my then-housemate, Jim Huylebroek, photographer, so we rode over and found the place where the strike had been. There was a crowd of neighbors gathered around the shattered, you know, smoldering wreck that was spattered with body parts and everyone was mourning the deaths of this family. So right away, we could see that something was very wrong with the military's official narrative.

DAVIES: Was the family willing to talk to you? How did you put this together?

AIKINS: They had their cellphones out and were showing me pictures of the children they said had died in the strike. They showed me the business card and documents belonging to Zemari Ahmadi, who was the one targeted in the strike and saying, you know, he worked for an American NGO, you know, he's an aid worker. They had the documents right there.

DAVIES: There were other Times reporters in Afghanistan and, I assume, working the story from other places. What was it like getting the U.S. military to acknowledge that this had happened?

AIKINS: Well, I've covered these kinds of civilian casualties stories before, and when there's an investigation, you almost never see results this fast. It can take months. They drag it out. Sometimes you have to sue to try to, you know, get the FOIA request through to get the documents. In this case, I think there was so much attention around the story that they felt they had to get out ahead of it. And, yeah, very quickly after our investigation came out - and there was other investigations by other news outlets, too - the military admitted that it was completely wrong and that all these innocent people had been killed for nothing. But of course, there was no consequences for anybody, ultimately. They decided the procedures have been followed, so no one's going to be disciplined, which is obviously very upsetting to the family of the people who were killed.

DAVIES: It was interesting that - you wrote a 20,000-word piece that was on the cover of The New York Times magazine in December about the withdrawal of American forces and its aftermath. It's a really gripping tale of both kind of what happens among Afghan governmental elites as well as people on the street. I'm just wondering, you know, you spent a long time looking at this. What's your take on the American withdrawal? You know, it's gotten such criticism and you must know countless Afghans whose lives were turned upside down or, in some cases, lost in the course of all this. Should the Americans have stayed longer? Should they have had another surge to stay and fight the Taliban?

AIKINS: No, definitely not. I think that would have been a mistake, would have been trying the same thing that's failed already once. I mean, I think the Biden administration made the worst of an impossible situation. They were handed a situation where there were no good options, but the way that the evacuation unfolded was, you know, catastrophe. It completely destroyed the country's institutions. Right now, like, there's no functioning financial system in the country, and people are starving because it all collapsed. There was no orderly transfer. Everyone who was in a position of power cut and ran if they could. So I think the U.S. military forces did have to leave Afghanistan some point soon, but I don't think it could have gone any worse than the way it did.

DAVIES: When you were back in Afghanistan this past year, and most or all of the Times staff left, you stayed there because you're a freelancer. Were you the only Times reporter there during the withdrawal or after a point?

AIKINS: I was the only reporter on the ground for a while, along with two photographers, Jim Huylebroek and Victor Blue. But because we were freelancers, we were able to choose to stay behind, whereas all the staff had to evacuate.

DAVIES: What was that like, I mean, a country in chaos? How did you decide what to do? Did it - did you feel a lot of pressure?

AIKINS: Yeah, I didn't really sleep for two weeks, but there was so much adrenaline going that we were able to work every day. I normally write for magazines, long-form stories, a bit slower paced, but now I was kind of lent to the newspaper for a while. So that was a much faster pace, and there was a lot of attention coming from television and radio. And we were learning to navigate the new Taliban power structure while, at the same time, you know, trying to get to these areas around the airport where there was this massive suicide bombing or this drone strike. So it was completely tumultuous and a blur, but you felt like you were doing a job that was important, that you knew you had a responsibility to document what was happening because we were one of the few people on the ground. So you just had to do it.

DAVIES: And would you return to your house in Kabul every night to write?

AIKINS: Yeah, Jim and I lived on a street that had formerly been guarded by the police, and now there was Taliban outside our house. And, you know, we kind of got to know them, and they didn't give us any trouble. But it was a little bit sketchy, and the city changed. You know, it was a ghost town as soon as sunset came around.

DAVIES: You know, when you were on the smugglers' roads, one of the things you said was, like, if you were known to be a Westerner, there was a risk of being kidnapped and being held for ransom. Did you have that fear in this period, when the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban were taking over?

AIKINS: Well, it was the Taliban who were going to kidnap you beforehand a lot of times. And now that they were the government and supposedly claimed to want to protect foreign journalists and NGO workers because they wanted to portray themselves as a responsible authority, there was actually less threat of kidnapping in the beginning, at least. We were more worried about ISIS, who might want to kill a foreigner, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was a lot of shooting around the airport.

DAVIES: What kind of future do you see for Afghanistan?

AIKINS: I think that the country is in survival mode right now. The state is on the verge of collapse because it's completely dependent on foreign funding, which has now been cut off. And there is a very uncertain political situation. I don't know if the Taliban is going to be able to unite the country under them and govern. And if they can't, then we could see a new round of civil war. So fortunately, I think that this is dependent on the actions of the United States and other regional countries. And if there's a way to stabilize the state and prevent a new outbreak of fighting, you know, it might not be as bad. But we're looking at a situation where millions of people are in danger of starvation.

DAVIES: And is the Taliban - I mean, are they refraining from, you know, the mass imprisonment and executions and hard oppression of women that people feared?

AIKINS: I think if you look at the worst-case scenarios or what the consensus was about how awful the Taliban were going to be, that they were going to massacre people in the streets and, you know, refuse to allow women to leave the house, then, no, those worst-case fears haven't panned out. They're partially based on a, I think, demonization of our enemy. But are they repressive? Have they committed human rights violations? Are they exclusionary? Have they rolled back the rights of women? Yeah. Absolutely, they have.

DAVIES: Do you plan to keep reporting on Afghanistan? Do you plan to go back?

AIKINS: I do. I don't know how I could ever forget this country or not go back. I mean, it's been most of my adult life that I've spent there working on it. So, yeah, I'll be back.

DAVIES: Matthieu Aikins, thanks so much for speaking with us.

AIKINS: It's my pleasure.

DAVIES: Matthieu Aikins has been reporting on Afghanistan and the Middle East since 2008. His new book is "The Naked Don't Fear The Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees." Coming Up, Nick Quah reviews "The Trojan Horse Affair," the latest podcast from Serial Productions. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE MASON TRIO'S "THE STRANGER IN THE MIRROR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.