"We sneaked past the crowd": Airline pilot recounts escape from Kabul

·2-min read

(Corrects typo in paragraph 2)

By Ognen Teofilovski

SKOPJE (Reuters) - As thousands of people thronged Kabul airport in a bid to escape the advancing Taliban on August 15, Kam Air pilot Jovica Rajhl and his colleague had to resort to subterfuge to reach their plane and take off safely.

Rajhl, 54, a North Macedonian, said that ahead of the fall of Kabul, his employer Kam Air, the largest Afghan private airline, had contingency plans to rebase its three Boeing 737s and three Airbus 340 to Ukraine's capital Kyiv.

But the advance of the Taliban was too quick.

Many Afghans in the company were "discussing ... plans B and C in case of Taliban arrival ... there was a great fear among Afghans," Rajhl told Reuters on Friday in Skopje, where he lives.

Rajhl said that he and his colleague were told to prepare for a flight to Kyiv on Sunday, August 15, shortly after news reached them that the Taliban had taken over government buildings in Kabul.

"The airport was completely open ... all the security people were gone," he said.

Thousands of Afghans hoping to board planes out of the country flocked to Kabul airport. The capital has swelled with people from other provinces fleeing the advance of the Taliban.

Rajhl's Boeing 737 was parked away from the main boarding platform, where throngs of people "were climbing and falling from ladders", he said.

Three Kam Air planes were already blocked by the crowds.

"Our biggest fortune was that no one paid attention to us. One of us was not in uniform but in civilian clothes," he said.

Passengers from their flight were told to board quickly and as night fell, Rajhl and his crew decided to start engines and perform take-off procedures in complete darkness to avoid drawing the attention of the crowd.

"It was good that the people on the other side (of the runway), and I am sorry about them, could only hear noise but saw nothing moving with its lights on."

Shortly before takeoff, the crew had been warned via radio that they would have only 10 minutes to depart, after which their "security will not be guaranteed on ground and in the air".

Rajhl's plane finally took off at 20:32 local time and, after refueling in Tbilisi, Georgia, made it to Kyiv.

(Reporting by Ognen Teofilovski; Writing by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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