In Washington, the last employees at the Afghan Embassy work until the lights go off
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
The Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C., was once a powerful symbol of the country's future. Now it and dozens of other Afghan embassies around the world are in limbo. They're staffed to serve a government that no longer exists. At the embassy in Washington, workers are racing to help thousands of refugees before the money runs out. NPR's Laura Sullivan takes us inside.
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LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: For more than 70 years, the Embassy of Afghanistan, with its stately Georgian brick and stone, has held down the corner lot in a neighborhood of grand embassies.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Please.
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
The inside is just as striking. A staff member leads the way through a maze of stairs and hallways, all adorned with the red carpets of Afghanistan. The ceilings are high, the hallways long and down each one empty offices, empty desks, empty break rooms until you reach an office on the top floor.
ABDUL HADI NEJRABI: How are you?
SULLIVAN: Abdul Hadi Nejrabi is the deputy ambassador. He's the highest-ranking person here. A new ambassador was supposed to come this summer, but then Kabul fell.
NEJRABI: We continue to operate here at the embassy. We have to continue. We don't have any other options.
SULLIVAN: Nejrabi is sitting in his office overlooking a large garden. He's got a shelf full of binders on Afghan election results and another on Afghan public opinion surveys - two things that hardly matter anymore.
NEJRABI: We choose to serve the people. That's the reason we are here. We can't close the door of the embassy.
SULLIVAN: They haven't closed the door, but Nejrabi says he's let most of the staff go. He can't afford to pay them. The Afghan republic, the government before the Taliban, used to fund the embassy in quarterly installments. Now that money's almost gone. Nejrabi and 11 other diplomats show up each day and work for free, trying to help people escape and help them and refugees get critical documents. Nejrabi says they can keep the lights on for a few more months, but eventually even he and the rest of the staff will have to find a way to pay their own rent and electric bills.
Can you go home?
NEJRABI: Absolutely not. Currently, they captured our house in Kabul.
SULLIVAN: Your personal house, your family house?
NEJRABI: Yes, they captured our family house that was built by my father 35 years ago.
SULLIVAN: Nejrabi says his family is in hiding, terrified they will be executed. Every week, he talks on the phone with his former colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They are also living in fear.
Have you heard from the Taliban? Has anybody called you on the phone?
NEJRABI: They tried, the Taliban. They tried and they arranged a Zoom meeting.
SULLIVAN: Nejrabi says a few weeks ago, the Taliban's acting foreign minister sent all of the ambassadors a Zoom link.
NEJRABI: All our embassies, they refused that, and no one attended that Zoom call.
SULLIVAN: A small smile crosses Nejrabi's face. He explains that the Taliban foreign minister got on the Zoom, but all the ambassadors confirmed with each other afterward that not a single one of them showed up.
NEJRABI: We refused because we don't recognize them. We are not representing them, and they are a terrorist group.
SULLIVAN: This embassy and most of the others are in the same limbo. They're too far away for the Taliban to reach, and yet they cannot survive on their own. Embassies need countries, countries with governments their host countries recognize. You can see this played out down a long hallway outside Nejrabi's office, where a dozen portraits of former ambassadors line the walls.
NEJRABI: So you can see it from there. From the first time we opened the embassy...
NEJRABI: ...1943 to...
SULLIVAN: And on down the hallway. Every five inches is another portrait.
'67 to '78, '78 to '80, '80 to '81. OK, what happened between...
NEJRABI: The gap was here. You see?
SULLIVAN: The portraits suddenly jump from 1981 to 2002. The gap is just five inches of beige wall, but it represents 20 years of civil war and brutal totalitarian rule.
NEJRABI: The next ambassador was 2002, you know, after the removal of Taliban from power.
SULLIVAN: During those 20 years, this building was closed and shuttered. State Department officials say the U.S. holds embassies in trust until new governments are recognized. Just down the road, the Iranian embassy has been frozen in such a state for more than 40 years now. As we wander down the darkened hallways, Nejrabi says he worries more each day that the United States will eventually recognize the Taliban. Pressure is growing as the country's economy collapses and ISIS-K and al-Qaida threaten its stability.
Can we see this room?
On the first floor, the stately reception room is still anchored by the republic's tri-colored flag. Nejrabi says he can't imagine the Taliban here.
NEJRABI: This room, it's a symbol of Afghanistan. When I come to here every day, it brings hope to me that we have a country, you know, we have a tri-colored flag. And one day, we will free our country back and we will take it from the Taliban.
SULLIVAN: The room is still set up for a party - table clothes, candlesticks and gold chiavari chairs, all waiting for guests that are no longer coming. Nejrabi says he and the other diplomats will stay as long as they possibly can. Then they will turn out the lights and hope it won't be another 20 years before someone turns them back on.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.
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