It was three hours to midnight on a hot Virginia evening in early July when Nasrat Ahmadyar returned to the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his wife and four children. He’d just finished a game of volleyball, but the night was not over.
Ahmadyar, 31, was struggling to pay rent, behind on his car payments, and constantly preoccupied with the situation in Afghanistan, the country he’d fled not two years earlier after the Taliban took over. Had he stayed, he was certain he would have been killed because of the years he spent helping American special forces in their long and ultimately fruitless campaign to stop the hardline Islamist movement from returning to power.
He settled in Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington DC, and like many Afghans got into rideshare driving, after saving up for a down payment on a Toyota Highlander SUV. Friends who’d been in the country for a while warned him that though the suicide bombings and assassinations the Taliban were known for did not happen in the US, other perils existed.
“I told him, like: ‘Dude, Uber and Lyft is not safe in America,’” recalls Mohammad Ahmadi, a cousin and former interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan who is now a truck driver in Texas. But Ahmadyar shrugged off his concern. If anyone wanted his car, they could have it, he said; insurance would buy him another. “But I said: ‘People do not understand a lot of things, they are on drugs, they are on alcohol, they’re gonna shoot [you].’”
Back at the apartment, Ahmadyar informed his wife, Mezhgan Ahmadyar, that he had to get to work.
“Aren’t you tired of those late nights?” Mezhgan asked. “Don’t go.” But Nasrat was insistent. “Bye,” he said as he headed out the door. Then, unusually, he stuck his head back into the apartment to tell his family: “Be careful. Take care of each other.”
Hours later, Mezhgan was awakened by a knock on her door, and opened it to find two police officers. The police told her Ahmadyar had been shot to death in Washington DC. His murder remains unsolved.
Using interviews with his relatives, friends and former colleagues, the Guardian put together the story of Nasrat Ahmadyar’s life in Afghanistan and his escape to a country where they believed he would be safe, only to fall victim to its epidemic of gun violence.
When American forces swept into Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, one of their first priorities was securing Bagram airfield, a Soviet-constructed facility that soon became crucial to the US-led war effort in the country. It was located next to a village called Gholam Ali, where Ahmadyar grew up. He was still a child when the Americans arrived and was raised in the riverside village during a time of civil war between the Taliban and militias who opposed it.
While the Taliban transformed into an insurgency in the countryside, the Americans built up Bagram into a major base, where warplanes would fly out on missions, presidents would fly in on visits and the CIA would, for several years, torture prisoners. Looking for work in Afghanistan’s war-ravaged economy, Ahmadyar began helping with construction projects on the base, learning English from the soldiers around him.
In the years that followed, he became a fixture for the army special forces, also known as green berets, who rotated in and out of Bagram. They called him “Nas” and relied on his fluency in Pashto and Dari. He, in turn, became an enthusiast of the American culture he learned from the military, recalls Matt Butler, a special forces company commander who arrived in Afghanistan in 2009.
“He literally grew up being raised by green berets, if you can imagine that,” Butler said. “He watched American movies, listened to our music – hell, he was even buying protein powder and going to the gym and getting huge.”
Butler and Ahmadyar formed a unique bond. “He was just slightly older than my oldest child,” Butler said. “I was closer to him than … any of the other interpreters I worked with.”
Around that time, Ahmadyar married Mezhgan in a joint ceremony held alongside an older brother and his fiancee. The newlyweds were cousins who grew up in the same village and were engaged after realizing each had their eye on the other.
Mezhgan knew Nasrat sometimes accompanied the soldiers on missions where they’d come under fire from the Taliban. “It’s kind of dangerous. I just want to let you know,” he would say, but he would also tell her not to worry too much – these were well-equipped American soldiers.
In the years that followed, other Afghans Ahmadyar knew applied for special immigrant visas (SIV) that allowed them to move to the United States, but he decided to stay, even though he would receive threats from the Taliban. Eventually, he changed his mind and sought out Butler’s help for a visa.
His application was still in process when American troops withdrew, the then president Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed and the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021. As western nations carried out a last-ditch air evacuation from the capital’s airport for their citizens and allies who now risked retaliation from the Taliban, Ahmadyar tried and failed to get his family on to a plane. When that proved unsuccessful, he was connected with Jeramie Malone, a volunteer in the United States who was working with groups attempting to get former translators and others out of the country.
Communicating over messaging apps, they plotted a way for him to catch a charter flight. Ahmadyar, in turn, helped provide Malone with information that she used to help other at-risk Afghans get out.
“He gave me a lot of information that allowed us to either direct people towards or direct people away from locations and travel routes,” Malone said. Though they’d never met, Malone built up a rapport with Ahmadyar as he bundled his family into a car and headed north from the capital.
Lanky and more than 6ft tall, Ahmadyar often stood out in a crowd, and with the Taliban in possession of biometric data collected by the US military and former Afghan government that would have betrayed his collaboration with them, he told Malone of the terror he felt at the chance of being identified at a checkpoint.
“I don’t want to be murdered in front of my children,” Malone remembers him saying.
Eventually, the family took a flight from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to the United Arab Emirates, where Ahmadyar’s fourth child, Ali, was born. They waited months for their visa to be processed, eventually arriving in the United States in April 2022.
Under the SIV program, the United States has admitted more than 114,000 Afghans who faced retaliation for their work with the military, according to the state department. This year, the advocacy group the Association of Wartime Allies estimated that more than 360,000 SIV applicants were awaiting processing, but that at the pace the government was moving, it would take 31 years to resolve their cases.
Upon arriving in the United States, a resettlement agency found Ahmadyar’s family a place to live in Philadelphia, and he was reunited with Rahim Amini, a friend from Afghanistan who had also worked with the US military and immigrated to the United States a year prior. From Pennsylvania, he would commute to northern Virginia to drive a tow truck with Amini, before returning to his family in Philadelphia. But he did not feel welcome in his new surroundings.
One time, as he was walking to pick up groceries in the city, a man stopped him and accused him of being an undercover cop, Amini said. Two other times, teenagers tried to rob him on the street. It got bad enough that a neighbor offered to escort him whenever he would leave his apartment.
“It was very difficult … for Nasrat to take a break to go home because he was driving three hours, sometimes four hours to go visit the family, then come back, and his children were not of the age that they can solve their problems,” Amini said. “And he was not safe in Pennsylvania.”
By November 2022, he had relocated to Alexandria, but a few months later, he quit the tow truck company after a dispute with management and started driving for Lyft. Rideshare and delivery companies are common employers for newly arrived Afghans, said Janis Shinwari, co-founder of No One Left Behind, a group that supports SIV recipients.
But such jobs aren’t without risk. Shinwari has heard of Afghan drivers who have been robbed, had their cars stolen, or had intoxicated passengers trash their vehicles, and end up deciding to find other work.
“They think that when once they come to the United States that they will be safe here. But once they come here and see these [incidents], they think: ‘That’s not safe,’” Shinwari said.
Amini and Ahmadyar were both concerned about those left behind in Afghanistan. Ahmadyar was particularly worried about his former neighbors in Gholam Ali, his hometown, now caught in the grips of the economic downward spiral Afghanistan has been on ever since western nations cut off aid following the Taliban’s takeover.
The two friends would send whatever money they could spare back to help feed and pay for medical care for people they heard needed help, with Ahmadyar working overtime to afford the charity.
“I worked eight hours for my own, then another four hours for the people,” Amini remembers him saying.
Malone and Ahmadyar finally had a chance to meet after he relocated to Virginia, and they’d trade phone calls and text messages regularly. “Something about Nasrat is he always had time for friends,” she said.
Ahmadyar also had a reputation as trouble on the volleyball court. He’d bedeviled American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even got to challenge professional players flown in by the USO.
On the afternoon of 2 July, Ahmadyar headed for a pickup volleyball game at a park in Alexandria, and brought his sons Asem, eight, and Wahdat, 11, along. He seemed tired that day, Amini recalls, and they called it quits after two matches.
As they parted ways, Ahmadyar told Amini that he planned to do a shift with Lyft because he needed rent money. Amini suggested he wait till tomorrow – there was unlikely to be much work so late on a Sunday night. Ahmadyar appeared to agree, and Amini told him he’d call him early in the morning for the Muslim prayer time.
Amini does not know what made him change his mind, but Ahmadyar did go out that evening, traveling a route that took him to a tree-shaded block of rowhouses and apartments in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
While the US as a whole saw homicides rise nearly 30% in 2020, as the pandemic began, data indicates many cities have seen a decrease so far this year. But in Washington DC, the murder rate has ticked even higher, with homicides up 37% so far this year compared with 2022, and vehicle thefts up 106%, according to the Metropolitan police.
In footage from surveillance cameras shot just after midnight on 3 July and made public after Ahmadyar’s death, figures can be seen approaching the rear of a car parked on the street with its hazard lights on. A single gunshot is heard, then what appear to be four boys run down an alley beneath the building where the camera is mounted.
“You just killed him,” one of them can be heard saying. “He was reaching, bro,” another replies.
A spokesperson for the police department declined to comment on the investigation. At a community meeting in late July, the local news blog Capitol Hill Corner reported a police lieutenant, Araz Alali, said the investigation into Ahmadyar’s death “is making significant progress and we should be anticipating a closure in that imminently”.
In a statement, Lindsey Appiah, the deputy mayor for public safety, said the city had “far too many people carrying and using illegal guns, and too many people acting without accountability for the terror they’re inflicting on our communities. A safer DC is possible, and our community agrees the status quo is not acceptable.”
Ahmadyar’s death shattered Mezhgan’s life, and the belief she had that she’d finally be safe in the US.
“We never thought we were going to lose one of our family members here. We thought here was different. It’s not Afghanistan,” she said through a translator. “I thought that killing, it’s just in Afghanistan, not in America. But now, I see it’s no different.”
Unable to speak English and suddenly alone with four children, Mezhgan is trying to piece together how to sustain her family. She’s considering moving to California and buying a house, using money from a fundraiser Malone set up on GoFundMe, which has now received more than $500,000. “This should not happen, and it shouldn’t happen to anybody here. But if there was one person that absolutely did not deserve something like this, it was Nasrat,” Malone said.
Ahmadyar’s children, meanwhile, are struggling to adapt to life without their father. “For Nasrat’s family, he was responsible for everything,” said Mateen Rahmati, a cousin of Ahmadyar who is hosting the family in northern California as they decide their next steps.
Rahmati, too, drives for Lyft, but after his cousin’s murder and another friend’s carjacking, he’s hesitant to get behind the wheel at night. He’s also been helping with Ahmadyar’s children, who call him when he’s out driving, asking to take them somewhere to play.
“I take them to the park, playing soccer with them … to keep them happy,” he said.
Five days after Ahmadyar’s death, mourners gathered for his burial at a Muslim cemetery an hour south of his home in Virginia. His family hopes to get a stone headstone for his grave, but for now the site is marked by a piece of paper, where Ahmadyar’s name is written, in English.