Former Bay Area resident killed in Afghanistan plane crash

UNION CITY, Calif. (KGO) -- A former Bay Area resident was killed over the weekend in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. ABC7 News spoke to the man's friends who don't believe reports that the crash was an accident.

As a teenager in Afghanistan in the 90's, Mohammad Sarwar, refused to work for the Taliban despite threats to his family. In 2004, he began working for the UN and USAID in Afghanistan and he was relatively safe with with US troops on the ground. But, when US and NATO forces pulled out of Afghanistan in 2014, Sarwar's life was on the line once again.

A reporter in Afghanistan shared cellphone video with ABC7 News of a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on Saturday. Friends in the Bay Area say Mohammad Sarwar was on board. They say he was killed, when the helicopter crashed and caught fire, shortly after taking off from an Afghan military base.

"I was totally numb. I didn't know what to think, where to go," said Shahab Samar who heard about the crash from a friend in Afghanistan who took photos of the wreckage. Shahab was friends with Sarwar for decades. And for two years, they were neighbors in Union City, when in 2015, Sarwar moved to the Bay Area to escape the Taliban. While living in Union City, Sarwar wrote a five page letter pleading for asylum in the U.S.

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He explained that the Taliban was sending him letters and had ordered his death because he refused to leave his job with the UN. As a result, he had to hide his family. Shahab says Sarwar's asylum case was referred to a court, but says the hearing was postponed until August 2018 and then postponed again to an unknown later date. So in 2017, Sarwar moved back to Afghanistan to be with his wife and four children, who were in danger.

Shahab said moving back to Afghanistan was "a suicide mission for him," because of the previous threats from the Taliban and because Sarwar had lived in the U.S.

"I told him that he shouldn't go back because I knew that he was receiving a lot of threats from the insurgents and anti-government elements," said Ahmad Parwiz, another Bay Area friend. Sarwar, Shahab and Parwiz all worked together for the United Nations in Afghanistan in 2004. Parwiz says he does not believe reports that the helicopter Sarwar was working in, crashed because of a mechanical failure. "As for the Afghan government is concerned, sometimes they hide the facts," said Sarwar who added, "from the footage that I saw, I believe that it was a remote control bomb inside the helicopter or the helicopter was hit by an RPG or something from the ground."

Sarwar's friends are frustrated. They feel Sarwar proved his loyalty to the U.S. throughout his life and only died because asylum was not granted to his family soon enough. Shahab is hoping for a change in U.S. immigration policy.

His friends are also worried about Sarwar's family and started a GoFundMe page to help with burial costs. Visit this page for more.

The following statement is from Mohammad Sawar Sarwari's asylum application:

My name is Mohammad Sarwar and I am an Afghan Citizen from Mazar-e-sharif City in the North of Afghanistan. I was born on May 4, 1980 in Mazar-e-sharif and also raised and educated in there. I got married to Parwana Sarwarei in 2004, we have 4 children, two sons and two daughters. My daughters, Fatema is 11 and Mursal is 8 and my sons, Mosawer is 3 and Modaser is 1. I went to Ghazi Amanullah High School in Mazar-e-sharif and graduated in 2002.

The Taliban occupied my city in 1998. The economic situation of my city was very bad at that time. I had to work very hard to support my parents and siblings. I was driving a truck and transporting merchandise of the traders who imported goods from Turkmenistan through Aqina border. It was very difficult to find a job when the Taliban was in power and I was very happy with the small amount of money I was making and supporting my family. I continued this job for almost a year, until I caught the attention of the Taliban. The Taliban was fighting on several fronts at that time against the Northern Alliance and they approached me and my father and asked me to transport their weapons and ammunition by my truck from Mazar-e-sharif to Darzab District of Jawzjan province. We refused to do this and the Taliban came to our house one evening and took out my father and I. They started beating us on the street near our house. The neighbors gathered and mediated but the Taliban told them that we were against the Taliban and against Islam and they want to kill us both. With very strong pleads of the elders in our neighborhood and with a promise that the neighbors made that we would be cooperating with the Taliban they released us.

The very next morning, my family moved to Faryab province from Mazar but we were living under very difficult circumstances. No one in my family was working and we were almost starving to death and were surviving only with the support of some friends of my father in Faryab. This situation continued for at least two months until I went and started working in a mechanic shop. We were very much afraid that the Taliban would find us in Faryab and only God knew what they would have done to me if they had found me in Faryab. My entire family was living under a lot of stress. We were praying to God all the time to save us from the Taliban and all the stress that we had because of the fear that they would find us. At that time I believed that it was just a matter of time before the Taliban would find me.

Several months passed and luckily, there was no sign of the Taliban, but I had got a message from my friends back in my neighborhood in Mazar-e-sharif that the Taliban had come to our neighborhood three times looking for us. My fear never decreased because I knew how brutal they were, as a teenager I remembered how they had massacred thousands of people in my hometown, Mazar-e-sharif in 1998 when they captured Mazar. The dead bodies of the victims were everywhere on the streets of my town.

I would specially think and get stressed when I went to bed. Thoughts would come to my mind that if they find my whereabouts I would simply be another person added to the list of all those victims. Several months passed with stress and anxiety and luckily no sign of the Taliban. I or my family never thought that the Taliban would lose power because they were growing in power every day and were brutally suppressing small pockets of resistance in the north of the country. It was in September 2001 that we heard the tragic event of September 11, 2001.

The world had changed. The terror and tyranny had gone far beyond Afghanistan affecting other people very far from Afghanistan. Affecting innocent victims, most of whom would not have even heard the name "Taliban".

There was soon discussion among the different Afghan communities that Taliban would pay for what had happened in the US. While I and my family were very sad for the September 11 event, we were happy about all the rumors that the Taliban will be removed from power. The rumors changed to facts, US Military forces came to Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban freeing millions of Afghans from tyranny and terror. Americans coming to Afghanistan and rescuing Afghan people not only gave me and my family the chance to go back to Mazar-e-sharif but also opened many other opportunities for me. I went back to my truck driving job with much better income and no fear of the Taliban. In 2003, I found a job with the political mission of the United Nations (UNAMA) as a driver. It was a dream job and now I was making very good money and was able to support my family with no difficulties. I worked for this job for two years. Then I was offered a better job with a different agency of the United Nations (UNOPS) as a driver in 2005.
As a driver I was supporting a project funded by the US Government and implemented by the UN. The project was called District Center Roads Program. The main goal of the project was to improve access to services and markets to the rural population of Balkh Province. The emphasis of the United Nations and USAID was to gain the support of the people for the Afghan government and bridge the gap between the government and people.
This would lead to insurgency mitigation and encouragement of people to support the Afghan government and stay away from the Taliban. With my UN job, I was traveling all the time to the rural areas of the northern provinces and despite the fact that I and my other colleagues were welcomed in most of the communities, I would receive words in the form of advice by some elders (in particular in districts such as Dawlatabad, Chemtal and Charbulak where some communities have very strong sympathies for the Taliban) to stop working for the foreigners. They would say, that it was not good for me as a Muslim and Afghan. But I would continue my work because I liked my job and the positive changes this project was bringing. In 2008 USAID handed the project to Swedish Government in the Northern Provinces of Afghanistan. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) continued the efforts of the USAID with the same goals (to discourage local support for the insurgency of the Taliban and bridge the gap between Afghan government and people). My UN contract was renewed with SIDA funding and I was offered the position of Senior Driver. As a senior driver, I continued traveling to the rural areas where our project was being implemented. As the local people saw my face more often, the advices that I was receiving in the past changed to words of threats. But I continued my job as a senior driver and the SIDA first phase of funding continued until 2012.

Because of my hard work and dedication to the project when the second phase of the project started in 2012, I was promoted to the position of Community Development Assistant. This was a much better position and I was working very closely with the local communities of Balkh, Samangan, Jawzjan and Sar-e-pul provinces. My main responsibilities as a community development assistant included mobilizing of female workforce in the project activities such as road maintenance, conduct of environmental and social assessment of road projects and managing conflicts that hindered the project. I was also responsible for women empowerment small project such as carpet weaving, livestock and milk producing, bakery etc. In 2014, I was promoted to the position of Community Development Officer. The situation had changed very much in 2014. The Taliban and the anti-government elements were active in most rural areas. The 2014 was a scary year for the Afghans because it was the year that marked the exit of a lot of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan.

Most people were afraid that the Afghan Government security forces were not able to maintain security and fight against the Taliban without the support of the American troops. The people's fear was right and the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan. Going to the project site was a challenge especially in the rural areas of Sar-e-pul and Jawzjan provinces. Almost every time, I visited the project sites I would receive threats on the phone with the sign "unknown number". My wife and my parents were very concerned and they wanted me to leave my job. I could not leave the job because I had to support my family. But the threat I received on 10 February 2015, changed everything. A man gave a letter to the Imam of our local mosque and told him that the letter belonged to me. The Imam sent the letter to our house, as I came home from office in the evening, my father gave me the letter and said that it was sent to me by the Imam of the mosque. I opened the envelop and when I saw it, I felt weak in my legs. I think my father realized it form my facial expression that the letter carried some bad news. He asked who had sent the letter and what was written in it, I tried to hide it from him and told him that it was from a friend but he insisted to see it and he was shocked as he read it. He told me that I should leave Mazar as soon as I could. It was during a time that I was doing very well in my job and my office wanted to send me for a training abroad. I had heard about a short term summer course in Virginia, USA. I was so happy and excited about the program but this letter of threat from the Taliban in Pashtu language and in the official letterhead of the Taliban ruined everything. I informed my office and they contacted the Police in my province.

I was barely going to the office and I changed the time and my routing. But this did not help and in the following weeks, I received two more letters one from the Taliban on 25 April 2015, claiming that they knew I was still working for the UN and as a result the Taliban court has decided to issue a death penalty for me. The letter stated that as I was warned before to leave my job and I did not leave the Taliban decided to issue death sentence for me. The second letter came to my office and also to my house from the Intelligence Section of the Police HQ in Balkh Province on 14 May, 2015. This letter wanted to inform me and the UN Office that the Police have received classified information that the Taliban shadow District Governor for Charbulak has ordered his men to assassinate me. After I received these new letters, I moved my family out of our house and they are now in hiding in a different part of the town.

I strongly believe that I don't have a safe life in Afghanistan. As the American Nation helped me once to come out from hiding in Faryab and have a normal life in 2001 I ask them once more to help me live in this land of freedom. I am only threatened because I helped the UN and the USAID help my fellow Afghan citizens. If I go back to Afghanistan, I have no doubt that I will be prosecuted by the Taliban.
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