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International - August 21, 2021

Afghanistan: The desperate scramble to escape

Afghanistan: The desperate scramble to escape

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“Get back, get back,” screamed the British soldier at a crowd gathered in front of the secure compound where those being evacuated by the UK embassy are taken before flying out.

In front of him, many frantically waved their British passports in the air, hoping to be allowed through but a group of Afghan security guards wielding rubber hoses tried to push them back.

Many in the crowd had not received any indication they would be evacuated, but had pitched up in any case, desperate for a route out of Afghanistan. Others, however, had received emails from the embassy telling them arrive here, and wait to be processed for a flight.

They include Helmand Khan, an Uber driver from west London, who had arrived with his young children in Afghanistan a few months back to visit relatives. He thrusts a handful of British passports towards me. “For the last three days I’m trying to go inside,” he tells me in despair, with his two young sons by his side.

Also here is Khalid, a former interpreter for the British army. His wife gave birth to a child just two weeks ago, and he’s terrified the baby could die in such scenes. “I’ve been here since the morning,” he says, “the Taliban lashed me on the back on my way.”

A short walk away is the main entrance to the compound. Thousands have turned up, the vast majority with no realistic prospect of being evacuated. British soldiers at times fired into the air to control the crowd. The only way to get inside is to somehow push your way through the crowd, and wave your documents in their faces, hoping they will allow you past. The situation seems even more chaotic at the airport gates manned by US soldiers, while in front of the main civilian entrance to the airport the Taliban have been regularly firing into the air and beating back crowds who try and surge inside.

I’m constantly bombarded with questions by the Afghans who are trying to enter the British controlled compound, and who are at a total loss as to what to do. “Can you help me?” “Will they let me in?” Many try to show me documents they’ve brought with them, proving they spent time working with international forces or foreign embassies.
One young woman tells me she was an international basketball player. She has not had any contact with the British embassy, but says she’s in fear for her life. She chokes up trying to describe her terror.

The Taliban insist all those linked to the government have been granted an amnesty. The group says it intends to establish an “inclusive” government, but many here are deeply anxious about the future.

Elsewhere in the city, things are far calmer. It feels like a different world. Shops and restaurants are opening up, though at a fruit and vegetable market stallholders tell me there are still significantly fewer people out and about. One man, selling cosmetic products, says there are far fewer women in particular, though it’s not uncommon to see them on the streets.

The Taliban meanwhile are everywhere, patrolling in vehicles seized from the Afghan security forces. They say they’re maintaining a presence to prevent looting and unrest, and some residents tell us they do feel more secure, not least because the militants are no longer carrying out targeted killings or bomb blasts.

Many are still trying to establish what life under Taliban rule will look like. One taxi driver tells me he ferried a group of fighters across the city whilst playing music from the car stereo. “They didn’t say anything,” he tells me whilst grinning, “they’re not strict like they were before.”

But other reports are emerging of the Taliban turning up at the homes of journalists or former government figures and questioning them. Many fear it’s only a matter of time before they’re targeted violently.

Back close to the airport, and Khalid, the former interpreter with a young baby finally manages to make it into the holding compound.

Others are still struggling though and one British Afghan pleads with me to help. “How can I take my children through this crowd,” he asks? Many others, not eligible for evacuation but desperate to leave, will be left behind to face a deeply uncertain future.

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