Scenes of heartache, danger and desperation continue to unfurl on the edges of Hamid Karzai International Airport as the clock ticks by for tens of thousands of people fearing for their lives under the new Taliban rule.
People are being crushed to death in the mayhem, gunshots are cracking the air, visa and passport documents are being seized by the Taliban controlling the crowded streets.
For those who have already labored through the red tape for their approvals to leave, those who have fought and risked their lives to support the US-led occupation, those who’ve lost limbs and loved ones and livelihoods for the dream of something better and those who are rightful citizens or residences of lands abroad – the feeling of abandonment is not just raw, it is akin to death lingering in their face.
As the window to escape closes with uncertainty as to what will happen beyond the August 31 deadline, these are their voices.
Arshad, a 36-year-old former interpreter for the US Marines, seemed bewildered at the idea that anyone could be left behind by the United States of America.
“I want to thank people who helped me a lot, [the Marines] who would never leave me behind. All of them helped me a lot … you guys showed me support that you would never leave behind your interpreters. And you guys proved it,” Arshad, 36, says, dark crescents protruding from underneath his eyes.
Arshad carries many memories of his years with the Marines – he refers to them as “badasses” – in the combat epicenters of Sangin district in Helmand Province, but it was more than just a job. It was a perilous vocation that gave great meaning to his otherwise simple, uncertain life. He remembers his first job with the troops in the middle of 2011, ensnared in such heavy fighting that almost all other interpreters quit, leaving him overstretched on two or three deployments per day.
“I wanted to help the Marines and the Afghan National Army (ANA) — the language and the communication it is very important,” Arshad emphasizes. “We have some stories of misunderstandings. I wanted to be there to control any misunderstandings. I did not want someone to die for nothing. That was my job, and I had to do it.”
Last week, Arshad was badly beaten by the Taliban – who he often refers to as TBs – leaving one ear crushed purple. He knows the desperate push to get out is not just about seeking a better life — it is about saving his life.
“I remember the Taliban were cutting of the ANA’s and local people’s heads. They were doing a lot of bad things. I remember one day there was an ambush, and I remember a kid was running, and I saw by my own eyes that they shot the girl right on the head. Then they blamed the Americans,” he says of his terp days a decade ago. “Then they told the villagers that the Americans killed the girl.”
Yet, Arshad stands strong and proudly rattles off the names he served alongside – included a K-9 named Fuzzy – as he awaits a new home far from the land for which he was willing to sacrifice his life.
“I helped Americans,” he presses on. “And Americans helped me.”
Photos snapped by our friends amid the exterior crowd on Sunday show men, women and children wading knee-deep through sewage canals in the hopes of being hoisted to the other side by NATO-allied soldiers. Crinkled faces wait for hours underneath the scorching summer sunshine, only to be turned away as darkness falls. For the many caught in the crossfire, there is no longer a safe place to call home.
“Before yesterday, we came to the airport, and there was lots of rush, and we almost died,” lamented Noorzai, a softly spoken 20-year-old sports teacher. “Today, we came here again to search for a door with less people in it. But there is no one here to help us get inside. It is very difficult.”
Noorzai is one of the US invasion success stories turning into a prominent athlete and sports educator after having been plucked from the streets where he begged as a “scale boy” – just a child who supported his family by earning a buck each time he weighed someone.
Yet, he is hardly alone in his mounting fears and frustrations.
“I need to go to another country as I work for an NGO for America, Germany, Australia … and the Taliban is thinking about who is working with NGOs,” stressed Murza, 21, a fellow sports teacher devoted to helping underprivileged youth. “It is very dangerous. The Taliban is checking all the databases in the offices.”
Conditions went from worse to even worse on Sunday, Afghans on the ground said, as crowds swelled, gates shuttered and the Taliban footprint expanded throughout the clogged and crowded streets. Some lamented that families were being split up and mothers were terrifyingly losing grip of their tiny children’s hands as the chaos intensified.
For Fraidoon, a 35-year-old fixer and logistics specialist beloved by many foreign journalists, the barbarity of the airport calamity cuts deep into a place of pure panic for his entire family.
“My wife fainted. She is pregnant,” he recalls. “Two days ago, I heard that a pregnant woman lost her child and she was taken in a very bad condition to the hospital. So many other people have fainted, especially kids.”
Fraidoon said the horrors came to life when he lost his own young children in the sea of swarmers, and I was grateful that a young boy found them and kept them safe until they were reunited. The day before last, the young father passed out himself in the surge – losing his bag and almost everything he had left to treasure.
“There were lots of valuables in my bag, some material values and documents and my photos and memories. My job contracts, my achievements and my awards,” Fraidoon tells me sadly. “You know, I got two high awards from the Government of Afghanistan.”
Moreover, Zaki – a 28-year-old human rights activist – trembles at the notion that the Taliban could be at his door at any moment and that he may be rendered unable to leave before it is too late.
“We are devastated and terrified for our lives,” he says.
And then there is the tiny, delicate voice of Fresta, a 20-year-old student who is in a persistent state of debilitating anxiety.
“I am stuck here, and I can’t go to the airport. Many times I tried my best, and I went there, but there was shooting and fighting. I saw in front of my eyes the people [were] injured … Everywhere we go, the Taliban are there, and they keep asking us where we are going,” she says, quivering in anxiety. “Women and girls – they can’t go anywhere without their brother or husband. We cannot go to the airport. Believe me, I have tried.”
In just a week, Fresta’s whole world had crumpled into a walking, breathing, traumatic nightmare.
“I am stressing too much, and every night I cannot sleep Every night I say, the Taliban is coming, this night the Taliban is coming,” she continues. “I see the window, and I am too much scared. I am alone here.”
Yet Fresta wants the world to know that she has faced her fears many times in the fruitless quest to join her husband Kaihan, who is a world away in Australia.
“I cannot get in. Please help us, day by day, the situation is getting worse,” Fresta continued, her words so childlike it chills me. “Then one day the airport will be closed – and then what do we do?”
And for those Afghans already based abroad – watching their homeland be ripped apart at the seams and those they love most in the world drown in desperation– is especially hard.
Fresta’s husband Kaihan, a real estate developer in Melbourne, is one of many glued to the phone and guttered by helplessness.
“My wife has been trying four of five nights, and she is not able to get inside the airport. The situation is very dangerous, very high risk. You can lose your life at any second,” he emphasizes. “What is going on in Kabul is not getting any better — it is getting worse … There is a big crowd, and you don’t know who is in it. Please help us.”
Meanwhile, a 38-year-old businessman now based in California, who can only be referred to as Saed, said his ailing mother has been targeted and compelled to run because of his close work as a US contractor over the years.
Only time is of the essence for those braving the mayhem before the ominous white Taliban flag reigns supreme. While some elements of the insurgency purport that they are not the same group they were in 2001 – that they have come a long way toward modernizing and valuing human rights – many of those old enough the remember the rule remain incredibly skeptical.
“Now it is 2021. I had a call from my friend, she is a doctor. She was crying and crying and crying. She was saying we have moved and changed our place. She said the Taliban ‘came to my house, and they were looking for me.’ That is terrible,” Ashraf adds softly. “As the Taliban promised, they will not hurt anyone, but they did not stand by their promise.”
And Mujib, a 36-year-old prominent magazine editor, kept repeating over and over the depths to which they were all in a state of shock.
“We think we have lost everything. This is a common feeling among all educated Afghans. We are thinking to get out of this country at least to save [our] lives and the lives of [our] families,” he says in an endearing, polite plea, detailing the many ways in which his magazine has taken an anti-Taliban stance that has put him as a direct target.
“I have contacted my writer friends, my poet friends in the US trying to help me. Unfortunately, the process to get to the airport is very difficult. Everyone is trying to help, but in reality, it is very difficult.”