In his basement in Kandahar Monday night, a former interpreter for the U.S. military sits quietly with his wife and his five children, the youngest two years old, hiding from the Taliban patrolling the streets outside.

Four days earlier, as the militants took over his home city, he burned an American flag he had been saving, along with a certificate of appreciation he received for his service, signed by two U.S. Army officers. 

If the Taliban had found those things, he said, they would kill him immediately.

“Your professionalism, untiring efforts and outstanding support have directly contributed to mission success,” read the 2013 certificate, now just ashes.

As the Taliban exerted its control over Afghanistan’s capital Monday, the interpreter said he felt that his death was more certain than ever.

“They’re going to slaughter us,” he said in a voice note recorded for Spectrum News, the sounds of his children’s voices echoing off the basement walls behind him. 

He only thought of the next 24 hours ahead. And he only planned to leave the basement to shower or go to the bathroom, or to go buy food as quickly as possible. 

“On the spot, they’re going to kill us,” he said, adding: “They’re not human. They’re like animals.”

The interpreter — who asked to remain anonymous because he fears for his life — is one of thousands who are now hiding in their homes, some in basements, terrified they will face retribution for their work.

Just days before, he said Taliban members knocked on his door, searching for Afghans like him who had worked for the U.S. or for the national army. They didn’t find anything, he said, because his documents mostly exist on his phone, along with pictures of himself smiling beside American soldiers.

He’s one of more than 20,000 who have applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), part of a program specifically designed to bring those U.S. allies to safety. 

On Monday, the feelings among that group were bitter disappointment, resignation and desperation.

“I’m yelling, I’m screaming ‘Please help me,’” the interpreter in Kandahar said of his attempts to reach out to the U.S. embassy. 

“I’m just curious about my family, about my kids,” he explained. “If they’re going to kill me, that’s okay. But they’re going to kill all [of] the family.”

Last month, the U.S. began slowly evacuating a few hundred Afghan allies at a time on flights, as advocates and lawmakers sounded the alarm about the danger they could face and called for quicker action. A total of 2,000 people, including family members, have reached the U.S. so far. 

The current backlog is more than 80,000 people when family members are included, since the SIV program had kept applicants waiting for years due to slow processing even before President Joe Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal.

Hundreds of Afghan citizens flooded the airport in Kabul in hopes of escape Monday, at least two men falling to their death after clinging to a U.S. plane while it took off. 

U.S. evacuation flights were halted later in the afternoon, but air operations later resumed early Tuesday morning local time.

But evacuation is a far-flung goal for Afghan allies like the one in Kandahar and others in provinces far from Kabul, since Taliban checkpoints often block any escape route.

Asked Tuesday about getting those visa applicants out, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said they weren't the focus of the current mission: "Are we going to be able to physically move someone from somewhere else in the country into the airport? Right now, our focus is on the airport itself."

Evacuation expanded amid airport chaos

The Department of Defense confirmed later Monday they would expand the Kabul evacuation to as many as 30,000 total SIV applicants and family members, including interpreters, drivers, cultural advisers and others who aided American forces.

Up to 22,000 would be settled in the United States, a spokesperson confirmed to Spectrum News, and another 8,000 would go to a third country, though the U.S. hasn’t announced a deal with any country yet. 

The new numbers were a notable increase from the 3,500 people originally promised evacuation to the continental United States.

A Pentagon official said Afghan allies could be housed at temporary sites including Fort Bliss in  Texas and Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, in addition to the housing already established at Fort Lee in Virginia in July. 

“There may be other sites identified if services are needed. At this point, we are looking to establish 20-22,000 spaces. We can expand if we need to,” said Garry Reid, who leads the Pentagon’s Crisis Action Group for Afghanistan.

Advocates and lawmakers pointed out Monday that the Biden administration has had several months to organize a mass evacuation, especially after announcing the U.S. withdrawal in April.

“I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country,” President Biden said in remarks Monday

Veterans and advocates immediately decried that statement, pointing to the thousands who have been waiting for visas under threat, stuck in the growing backlog for years. Others have been denied due to technicalities, such as missing a letter of a recommendation from a former supervisor who is unreachable.

Documents destroyed for safety

When the interpreter in Kandahar reached out to the State Department’s SIV email line on Sunday, he received a “delivery failed” message.

“The recipient’s mailbox is full and can’t accept messages right now,” it read. “Please try resending your message later.”

He was forced to burn some of his last documents as the Taliban took over last week, though he’s kept the digital versions locked on his phone, which include letters of recommendation from American soldiers and certificates acknowledging his service. 

On Sunday, the advocacy group Human Rights First released a translated guide for Afghans to delete their digital history.

The very documents that could prove his service to the U.S. could also reveal his work to the Taliban, putting his life at risk. 

“I swear they got a spy everywhere,” the interpreter said in another recorded message. “I got approved documents, certifications, everything. But nobody’s here to take care of us.”

“Right now, we are just thinking about our life, nothing else,” the interpreter said. “Not about food, not about [anything] else. Just about our life, our kids and family, mam.”