Ottawa man reunited with Afghan interpreter after harrowing escape

For eight months in 2010, Tyson Martin and Abdul Hakim Azizi forged a bond like no other.

“He ended up doing over 100 missions with us, with the team, outside the wire in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. You go through what we went through, you’re going to be brothers for life no matter what,” Martin, a former Tactical PSYOPS Team Commander said.

Azizi is one of hundreds of Afghan interpreters who served alongside Western forces during the war who was forced to watch as the Taliban slowly retook control of his country.

“When we came to the city, we saw the Taliban tanks were in Kabul, so we went home and for two nights I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking ‘on this day they might come and search our homes or on the other night they might come and search our homes,’” Azizi said.

On a Taliban kill list and fearful for the lives of himself and his wife, Azizi knew he needed to do something.

“You become lost in that moment; you cannot imagine the exact thing what will happen to you. Everything is possible and everything can happen to you,” he said.

On the opposite side of the globe, Tyson Martin was following the developments in Afghanistan, constantly trying to keep updated on his friend’s situation.

“Come July 12, I was concerned enough to reach out to Hakim and he said ‘Actually, no. Things are getting pretty hot around here,’ Martin continued. “Then August 15 happened and the Taliban just rolled in overnight; that kind of propelled everything into overdrive.”

Help from an underground network 

With Azizi waiting on a visa and government authorization to evacuate the country, Martin began searching for solutions on his own.

“There’s an underground network of private citizens, mostly journalists, NGOs, diplomats, government ministers, special forces, ex-generals - a lot of faces that I recognized from over the years - but they’d sort of come together into one network, working together over Zoom calls just strategizing how to get people out,” Martin explained.

However, figuring out how to get Azizi to the airport an on to a plane was far from simple.

“Every time we came up with a plan it was ixnayed right away by just changes on the ground, things were happening so fast there. Safe houses were being shutdown, there were shootings,” Martin said.

Eventually, Martin’s contacts were able to get Azizi’s name on a flight manifest.

“Essentially it just came down to ‘okay, Hakim, there’s a flight on this day, you’re on the list if you can get inside the airport go for it,” he said.

That was only half the battle.

“Getting to the airport was like you were crossing the hell, it was not easy thing to do,” Azizi said.

Azizi and his wife made their way through Taliban checkpoints and overcrowded streets to make their way to the airport but after hours outside the airport, Azizi’s wife collapsed and had to be resuscitated.

“We came to the airport, once we got there all the roads were blocked by the Taliban. Somehow, we found that there was another gate, so we spent more than 24 hours there and we couldn’t get in. It was very worse time because peoples were rushing and it was not simple to get in so people were being killed at that time and firing was going on around us, military people were shooting,” Azizi explained.

Forced to leave, it was on his third attempt that Azizi finally made it past security and into the airport, and eventually onto a plane.

“The moment we were taken in we had some sort of relief, yeah, so that was worst time of our life,” he said.

Reunion in Ottawa

Azizi landed in Ottawa on Friday, grateful to be reunited with the friend who had helped coordinate his rescue.

“In this case, he needed help. I guarantee you he saved my life on the battlefield more than a few times and, to me, I can’t imagine not returning the favour,’ Martin said.

Support for Azizi has quickly grown. A GoFund Me campaign has raised over $17,000 for his family, along with donations of clothing and furniture. He’s also secured a job and is now looking for a permanent place to live.

“One thing was clear that at least if we go to Canada our life will be safe. Right now, we are in a hotel living here temporarily until we find a flat or a house to live in. That is the short term that we have but in the long term we definitely have to stand on our own feet,” Azizi said.

Reunited safely in Ottawa, the pair are still thinking about those who weren’t as fortunate as Azizi and did not make it out of Afghanistan.

“Those who are still in Afghanistan how stressed they might [be]; they definitely require the worlds attention to the Afghan people,” Azizi said.