Fall of Afghanistan: ‘If you can’t take us, take our children’ plead crowd outside Kabul airport

The desperation was palpable as a baby in a green dress was passed from hand to hand over the heads of a crowd packed too tightly to move.

Then someone raised another little girl to pass on to the British soldiers behind the barbed wire outside Kabul international airport. The crowd had one purpose, and one plea: take our children to safety if you cannot take us.

Meanwhile, Taliban fighters used captured American weapons to disperse another packed crowd of men, women and children. They waded into the throng, thumping people with rifle butts and opening fire – not in the air, but straight ahead, taking aim.

Thousands of people who worked for Western armed forces over the past 20 years have rushed to Kabul airport since Sunday, hoping for a place on one of the military transport planes that every so often roar into the blue summer sky.

They have been encouraged by promises by British, American and other Western governments that none of their former allies would be left behind to face the wrath of the Taliban.

Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said yesterday that “most” of those cleared for evacuation were making it to the airport and on to the planes.

More than 500 British nationals, Afghans and those on the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (Arap) resettlement scheme, and third-country nationals were flown out of Kabul on RAF transport aircraft yesterday, while the US state department said 6000 people were processed and waiting to board flights.

A UK Foreign Office spokesman said: “The government’s priority remains facilitating the return of British nationals and those eligible to relocate to the UK as safely and quickly as possible.

“UK military personnel are helping to maintain security at the airport in Kabul to allow hundreds of eligible people to safely depart every day.”

But thousands more are trapped between the barbed wire, the concrete airport perimeter, Taliban security details and a confusion that has seen many being turned away despite being cleared for travel.

“We have all these documents, but now we have been here for eight hours in this crowd,” said Masoud Zamani, displaying passports with UK visas for himself and his parents. “Will we get inside the airport?”

Others, including women and children, spent nearly 24 hours outside after being told by Western authorities they were cleared to fly.

“There are tons of people waiting outside the civilian camp. They just sent the same email to everyone to come here because there is a flight today,” said one UN employee sitting among hundreds of women and children outside the airport late on Wednesday night.

On Thursday morning the woman, who had US travel papers and had been told she was on the evacuation list, gave up. “They promised to open the door at 8am, but they didn’t open it. We are going home. No other choice,” she said.

Taliban fighters perched atop captured American Humvees and wearing the fatigues of the Afghan army they defeated only days ago watched over growing crowds surrounding the airport yesterday afternoon.

Young children ran down gridlocked streets, selling water and fruit to the hundreds trapped in cars, while women in abaya gowns struggled to pull suitcases through a passageway filled with hundreds of people.

Men used their scarves to wipe the sweat off their faces as they watched young Taliban fighters loudly shouting at the crowd to “move back” in order to establish some kind of crowd control.

The militants were also on the lookout for cameras, running at anyone holding a mobile phone and interrogating them about why they were filming.

The Taliban’s approach to crowd control is thuggish, crude and has reinforced the determination of many Afghans here to escape the group’s rule.

One woman who works for the Adam Smith Institute and was trying to flee after receiving death threats, called her sister to say the fighters were “throwing hot water” on the women waiting at the eastern gate of the airport.

Meanwhile, paratroopers stood feet apart from the militants they previously fought, separated by little more than barbed wire and vehicles, as they had no choice but to co-operate with the Taleban to keep the evacuation moving.

For now, the uneasy partnership mostly functions. But that could change at any time.

The mission is expected to wrap up at the end of the month, the date President Joe Biden originally set for full withdrawal. Biden indicated on Wednesday that he might be willing to extend the US deployment, but that would be dependent on Taliban patience.

For the crowds at the airport gate, and thousands of others still in hiding in Kabul, that question could be the difference between life and death.

One ex-Nato interpreter who worked for 10 years with British, German, and Canadian forces said he had applied for evacuation with all three countries, but has yet to receive an answer.

In the meantime he remains in hiding at home in Kabul, debating whether to risk taking his family to the airport and trying to bargain their way in on the strength of a letter from a British officer he once worked with. He knows it would be a high-stakes gamble.

“I just heard they have beaten my relatives who wanted to get out by plane at the airport,” he said. “They were called for evacuation by the US, but the Taliban did not allow them to get in.”

“They are fighters and do not say the reason, their job is to not to let the people go out. They might have this order from their leadership.”

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