I’m a journalist who had to flee the Taliban in Kabul – this is what it was like

·5-min read
‘Inside the airport, we were overcome with worry, fear and remorse’  (AP)
‘Inside the airport, we were overcome with worry, fear and remorse’ (AP)

At 7am, I found my three other colleagues. We all had to leave Kabul since it wasn’t clear what would happen to us journalists if we stayed behind. These were very hard hours; every second felt like a minute and every minute felt like an hour.

We went toward a place where a car was to wait for us. Since the airport area is overcrowded and people have already lost their lives due to these conditions, the countries giving help to Afghans now have a new method: a vehicle picks up passengers at different points and then it goes toward the airport. The movement of these rides has been negotiated with the Taliban, but the stress of the passengers is so deep that they might as well have been passing through Taliban checkpoints with no prior notice.

When we got to the designated place, there were no vehicles. We were thinking about what to do with our backpacks and how to hide ourselves from members of the Taliban who occasionally patrolled the area.

Any of the Taliban forces who passed by we’d assume were watching us to see what we were doing, and why we were there. It was 11am when the vehicles appeared: two minibuses for around 50 people.

Before the vehicles turned up, there was no one around – but when they came, it was as if people appeared from nowhere. So many passengers surrounded the vehicles. We were meant to leave in 10 minutes, but one family was missing. Except the four of us journalists, everybody else was an interpreter working with foreign forces and their families.

We weren’t sure whether we should wait for the last family or leave ASAP. The day before, 150 people on board such minibuses were not allowed entry to the airport by the Taliban, and were taken to some unidentified place. They were mostly citizens of India, but also some Afghans.

After hours of international efforts, they were rescued – but the driver who took us to the airport told us what had happened: they were beaten up, insulted and had their valuables such as mobile phones, laptops, watches and money stolen.

Even though we wanted to leave earlier, we didn’t feel we could leave behind a poor family. We knew that if they didn’t get to the vehicle, they might never be able to leave Kabul. We waited for half an hour – the family finally arrived, but they were still one person short. The driver ignored the family’s begging this time and left for the airport. The person was in a taxi behind us but couldn’t get to the vehicle due to the traffic and crowds. We were 100 meters away from the airport gates when he finally joined us.

Inside the airport, we were overcome with worry, fear and remorse. Dozens of men, women and children – under a burning sun with no shade – were staring at the gates of the airport. They had no documents to prove that they needed to leave Kabul, but they expected to be evacuated too. Many might have had their lives threatened, just like us, but were unable to prove it.

We’d already been worried and fearful on the journey, for around 90 minutes, but the 10 minutes we spent passing through a couple of Taliban checkpoints had a different feel. None of us dared looking into the eyes of the Taliban forces. We were afraid that if we did, they would not allow us to leave.

The Taliban have repeatedly said that they wouldn’t bother anyone wanting to leave, but who would believe them? Armed and patrolling around, it was clear the rank and file soldiers wouldn’t necessarily heed the general amnesty declared by their top commander; or the agreement made with foreigners to not disrupt the evacuation process. Every time a Taliban soldier looked at us, we were scared to death.

When we got to the last Taliban checkpoint, the armed patrol didn’t want to cut the barbed wire blocking us. In Pahsto, he repeatedly said “Na Kiji” (‘it’s not posible’) and we thought they would not let us through. We could see that, 30 meters away, there were fully armed and alert US soldiers, but we knew they couldn’t do anything; we hadn’t gotten to the area under their control yet.

It finally dawned on the checkpoint guards that their commander was not there, and they would not let us through without approval from high-up. The commander arrived in a couple of minutes and ordered us to leave Kabul, but the soldier would still not budge.

The assistant driver and coordinator got off the minibus and cut the barbed wire themselves. Finally, we were surrounded by many Americans and could express a sigh of relief.

The Americans did an easy search and then put us in their cars and took us to their base in the northern quarter of the airport. We thought it would be only us and a few other foreign passengers, but when we entered, it looked like there were thousands like us waiting for their planes. You could see people from all walks of life; from high-ranking government officials to Afghan commandoes getting ready for their exit.

I interviewed Ahmad (pseudonym), a commando. “Why are you leaving? You are a soldier,” I asked.

“Taliban want me dead more than anyone,” he said. “They know that we brought them the most damage during the war; they’ll kill us without amnesty.”

“Why didn’t you fight?” I asked.

“Fight whom? No one told us to fight!” He said with a bitter smile. “Our commanders surrendered unconditionally.”

I remembered a video going around which showed a commando crying and begging his commander. “My weapon is like my honour. Don’t take it from me! Allow me to fight,” he said in the video.

At around 3pm, an Emirati flight came. Myself and many others were let on, to go to an unidentified location. The military plane had no windows, so I couldn’t say goodbye — and what if it it had? I had no one to bid farewell to.

If there had been a window, all I would have been would be those on the other side of the cement walls, looking at the aircraft, knowing that they might not ever reach any planes.

Fereydon Ajand is a senior reporter at The Independent Persian

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