‘Their bravery will stay with me forever,’ say Britons in Kabul

·4-min read
Gemma Paolucci in Afghanistan  (Foreign Office)
Gemma Paolucci in Afghanistan (Foreign Office)

Britons working around the clock to evacuate desperate civilians out of Kabul say the bravery of the Afghan people will stay with them “forever”.

UK Government workers are in a race against time to get as many British nationals, and their Afghan allies, out of the country as possible.

The scramble has intensified with US President Joe Biden expected to stick to his August 31 withdrawal deadline. Reports have emerged of women passing their babies over razor wire to soldiers, outbreaks of shooting and people trampled to death in surging crowds.

The Evening Standard spoke to Government workers who are helping with the “extremely challenging” evacuation.

On Monday the Foreign Office announced they were sending another five members of staff to join 14 already out there working on the evacuation.

They join the Ambassador Laurie Bristow, staff from British Embassy in Kabul and their “rapid deployment” team members. There is also a UK border force team on the ground as well as around 1,000 members of the military.

A charter flights carrying Afghan refugees arrives at a Midland’s airport (SAC Samantha Holden RAF/MoD) (PA Media)
A charter flights carrying Afghan refugees arrives at a Midland’s airport (SAC Samantha Holden RAF/MoD) (PA Media)

Among those on the ground is Gemma Paolucci, from Lancashire, who has worked for the UK Government in Afghanistan for the last six years.

Despite working on emergency crises in the past, she said the scale of this mission was “huge” and added: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been part of.”

Ms Paolucci said they were trying to get as many people on planes as possible and it was “really important” to get out the Afghans who had worked with them.

She said: “It’s a really difficult situation outside the airport - people are scared, desperate and exhausted, families are getting separated.

“We’ve got a good data system going and we’ve been able to reunite people who have got lost, reconnect them with their families and get them on to a plane together.”

She added: “Everything about this is going to stay with me, seeing people at their most desperate stays with you, but it’s also the hope that you see in people, the knowledge that you’ve been able to help.”

Antonia Murray, 24, was working in the crisis centre in London when she was asked to drop everything and fly out to Kabul.

She said: “It’s my first deployment - I’ve been processing visas, running after children, looking after unaccompanied minors, making tea.

“What these people have gone though is so harrowing, being able to tell them that they are safe now has been a privilege.”

She also spoke about how she consoled a young girl fleeing the Taliban, adding: “There is so much uncertainly and concern about girls’ rights and freedoms under the Taliban.

“One girl whose family I was helping was cricket mad, she was a real inspiration to me – she was so worried she would never be able to play again.

“When I was able to tell her she was going to the UK, the home of cricket, and that she would be able to play again, she was just so happy.”

Ms Murray added: “There’s every emotion here – joy, horror, hope, I don’t really know what I’m feeling - at first it felt quite overwhelming and you just had to focus to get the job done.

“I’m exhausted but it’s nothing compared to those journeys the people here are going through.

“Their resilience, bravery and courage will stay with me forever.”

Meanwhile, other Britons are based in the UAE where they are coordinating arrivals before their journey to the UK.

Jeremy Lumb (Foreign Office)
Jeremy Lumb (Foreign Office)

Among them is Jeremy Lumb, 30, from London, who said: “I was on shift one morning at about 3am and a huge military plane had just come in – it still had the engines running.

“We were trying to get people off as quickly as possible and it just hit me that here were hundreds of people who were now going to be safe, they were going to make it to the UK and be able to live in safety.”

He added: “There was one moment – there had been an IT hiccup - it was taking too long to fix and we were at risk of hitting the maximum work time for the crew which would mean the flight couldn’t leave.

“I ended up writing the passenger manifest by hand to make sure the flight could get in the air.

“You are so rushed off your feet doing this, the sheer number of people we’ve been able to help is just so powerful – especially those on the ARAP [Afghan Relocations and Assistance] scheme, knowing that we’ve been able to help, that it’s changed people’s lives. It’s something I’ll be telling the grandkids one day.”

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