TILL MONDAY MORNING
Rumors of way out
The first wave of refugees rushes to Hamid Karzai International Airport on Sunday afternoon. Among them, 32-year-old Ahmad Zia Ahmadi from Kunduz, who spends the night there with his wife and two young children. Ahmadi is a police officer. As a result, he did not feel safe in the northeastern province. The refugees are buzzing with rumors about evacuation flights. Thousands of people hope for an opportunity, but the road to the airport fills up quickly, Ahmadi says. “The airport was open, abandoned by authorities. We were able to walk into the terminal, there were no staff at counters, detection gates had fallen over.”
The US wants to take back control of the airport. The American military has a clear priority: the evacuation of its own personnel and nationals. Ahmadi: “There was a US Army translator who kept shouting through a megaphone, ‘Keep calm’, ‘We want to help’, but nothing changed for hours.”
The people run through the airport to the runwaywhere equipment is available. Some are overrun, a few others are reportedly hit by bullets from US servicemen, who fire into the air to calm the crowd. “I found the way the US security forces reacted to us shocking. We weren’t even listened to,” Ahmadi said.
Ahmadi sits for hours on the edge of the runway. “There was a lot of noise, people screaming, children crying, the Americans screaming at us. And above us were the engines of transport planes and helicopters. It was overwhelming, a nighttime hell.” In the departure hall, where they are looking for something to drink, they see dead people. In the morning, the family returns to the refugee camp with no results.
It is unclear how many dead there are. About twenty, according to local sources. Among them people who clung to planes. Try some a C-17 transport aircraft to climb in, but fall on take-off. The Pentagon confirms that two gunmen have been shot dead.
One commercial flight after another on the schedule will be cancelled. The only remaining option is military transport and government flights.
On the tarmac it is crawling with people. There are hundreds. It is not always clear what is happening, but it seems that Afghan embassy personnel from several Western countries, with the correct visas and papers, are allowed to join.
The helicopters that Ahmadi heard at night, for example, immediately brought evacuees from the American embassy to waiting aircraft. But even sanctioned and secured flights can barely land or take off due to the large crowds. The US says there are extra soldiers are coming to make that process run better in the coming days. Extra barbed wire is being stretched around the airport, while civilians try to climb over the concrete walls around the site.
“We couldn’t even enter the airport, despite our papers,” says an employee of the Dutch embassy. She had to get to the airport on her own. The hours pass painfully slow for her and her immediate family. “No distinction was made between those who had already arranged or had a claim, and those who were in a blind panic. The gate was kept closed to everyone by the Americans – and the talibs kept an eye on the approach.”
If the Pentagon decides to suspend its own evacuations temporarily to to clear the runway, she has already returned to her home in the Green Zone. Taliban everywhere along the road. “I didn’t even dare to look up all the way. And who knows how long it will take before a new operation can reach the embassy staff of the Netherlands.”
Stuck in the city
The employee is concerned about how the neighbors see her now, who are aware of the failed attempt to get away. It creates mistrust. Moreover, she says: “You have already said goodbye, made the decision to leave. Many of us have given away or given up all our belongings and household effects.” Four sisters who all work in Afghanistan, for example, international institutions or media companies report that they are “on the list of persons not valued by the Taliban.” They present themselves as “free-spirited” – three of them are “deliberately unmarried”.
They say that they hoped to be able to leave the country through their international contacts. But that’s an emotional choice. “Probably our father is not eligible,” said one of the women via WhatsApp. “The thought of having to leave him behind while our homeland is being taken away again… But he would rather have someone in the family rescued than no one.” In the background, women’s voices of approval are heard. The family lives in a small apartment in Kabul: not the house that three of them share, but in the house of the only married sister, hoping that her position as a wife will provide some form of security. Before the phone call they closed the windows, they stay away from the windows as much as possible anyway. On Sunday, one of them saw Taliban fighters when she went to their hiding place first by taxi and later on foot. “With long hair, civilian clothes and weapons. The latter scares me – weapons in the hands of people who don’t have the formal authority to do so.”
In Kabul itself, it will remain largely quiet on Monday. Taliban fighters patrol the neighborhoods, sometimes in captured police cars. But in the afternoon there are rumors of fighters going door to door asking for information. If so, there is a chance that acquaintances will point to the four sisters. It’s a rumor, but it doesn’t matter to them. “Our fear dominates everything.” They know for sure: as soon as the Taliban stop engaging in negotiations and governance, they focus on the civilians.
“Then it gets intense,” the embassy employee also says. Rescue attempts must be made within two days, she estimates. “Otherwise I and my colleagues will be stuck here.” She continues to hope for a new attempt from The Hague. The four sisters can’t help but wait.
Scheduled flight to Istanbul
A commercial Turkish Airlines flight from Kabul lands at Istanbul Airport at 4.50 pm local time. With mainly Turkish nationals on board, says construction worker Göktürk Aydogan, who is traveling with a colleague. The Turkish embassy had called on them to leave Afghanistan, a plane was waiting at the airport.
It was chaos, with the countless people trying to get on board, they say. Aydogan pulls out his phone for a photo: “I’ll show you who was in it. Abdul Rashid Dostum [een prominente Afghaanse politicus], the president’s second adviser, the secretary of state, and senior Afghan families were on that plane.”
Also read: Afghan embassy staff do not understand why the Netherlands waited so long with evacuation
All in all, they were about 250 Turks and about thirty Afghans. And the latter “were all rich,” he says .
Aydogan and his colleague are still impressed by the situation at the airport. “When they saw the Turkish Airlines plane approaching, people on the runway broke down the fences and ran towards us. They said ‘Take us! Take us with you! Save our souls!’” Turkish soldiers, he says, are deploying “special vehicles” to chase that crowd away. “Of course I’m glad I’m home now. But I am sad for the Afghan people we left behind.”
With the collaboration of Melvyn Ingleby
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 17, 2021