Deadly race against the clock to flee Afghanistan ahead of the Taliban deadline | International

In a part of the airport in Kabul guarded by Norwegian troops there is a 50-year-old man, completely dejected. Next to it, his wife and two children, aged 9 and 10 years old. All around is a confusion of thousands of people desperate to get in, moving forward and backward. To access the metal gate from this point, it is necessary to jump over a fence and then cross a ditch two meters deep and another two meters wide, through which dirty water flows. In the middle of the stream there is a barbed wire. On either side of the gap hundreds of people wait. Inside, too.

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When this man, after going down to the canal, tried to jump over the barbed wire, a thief stole his travel bag. There went the savings of three years: 7,000 dollars (almost 38,000 reais). All your money. A little over an hour after the robbery, the man, sitting on the ground in an area some distance away, doesn’t know what to do. He worked for five years as security for the United States in Kabul, and had been at the airport for five days trying to get to some gate through which he could finally leave Afghanistan. Both he and his family had all the documents. “I kept those 7,000 dollars so that, if all went wrong, I would try to escape overland through Iran or Pakistan. Now I no longer have any hope. I hope thieves run into the Taliban and cut off their hands,” he cursed.

All this happened last Sunday. But every day similar scenes are repeated. Entering Kabul airport remains a recurring nightmare for thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of Afghans trying to flee their own country, turned into lethal territory for them after the Taliban’s victory. And the fight for that has already turned into a race against the clock, after a Taliban spokesman announced on Monday in an interview with Sky News that the group’s intention is to take absolute control of the airport from 1st of September. If the deadline is respected, there are only eight days left for those who want to escape.

The first difficulty is to reach the controlled areas (“controlled” is a certain exaggeration) by international troops. In a word: overcome the Taliban’s street blitzes.

It’s difficult. Armed with automatic weapons and a kind of whip made of plastic-lined chains, Islamic fundamentalists, stationed at barriers at intersections leading to the airport, generally don’t let anyone through. You have to wait for them to get distracted, to go out to eat or leave in their pickup trucks to watch another spot that, judging by the gunshots heard, seems out of control. So the fleeing Afghans take the opportunity to run, in their thousands, down the street that has been left free.

These Taliban checkpoints are, in effect, a border within the city. Later, theoretically, the law on international troops applies. But in this chaos, with thousands of people wandering or grappling for a privileged place near the gates, the only law that truly rules is that of save yourself whoever can.

A group of people waits at the entrances to Kabul airport.
A group of people waits at the entrances to Kabul airport.
STRINGER / EFE

Others know shortcuts that lead to the airport, paths that communicate with the surroundings of the terminal, which are reached at the base of entering certain houses or crossing streets crossing on roofs. From there, it is sometimes necessary to walk for about two kilometers through open fields and gardens, until you reach the perimeter delimited by the airport’s concrete wall. It doesn’t mean sure to enter. There you have to be very careful, because for several days gangs of robbers have taken advantage of the fact that refugees are trying to board with everything of value they have.

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A family that prefers not to be identified was waiting on Sunday near the moat. Grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, two small children and a cousin. They all had a US passport, as it should be. In fact, everyone but the cousin lived in the United States. They traveled to Afghanistan over a month ago for the holidays, to see the rest of the family. They didn’t imagine what would happen.

They never thought they’d find themselves trapped like that. The woman, who works in a day care center in the United States, indignantly commented that they spent several days going to the airport, taking risks in Taliban blitzes, only to find themselves completely helpless. “No one shows up to ask for anyone. We don’t know where we have to go. They sent us an email with a special visa, but it doesn’t work because no one helps us. Where are the American soldiers?” she asked desperately.

Beside him, a forty-year-old man, alone, was waving an Italian passport. “Where are the Italians? Where do we have to go for those with an Italian passport?” This man claimed to have worked for several years as a military analyst for the United States and added that it was the second time he had gone to the airport surroundings, without success.

More than 20 dead

Chaos and danger are unimaginable. On Sunday, near this area, a small girl was trampled to death. More than 20 people have died near the gates. There are Afghan police – interposed as the first barrier between the crowd and US troops – who, according to several witnesses, shot to the ground in an attempt to contain the human avalanche, leaving several people injured in the legs.

Camps have been improvised where those who don’t want to go to and from the airport to Kabul sleep, with all the risk involved in Taliban controls. There are people with all the usual roles who don’t know where to turn, but also those who don’t have them and go there hoping to seize some opportunity or simply to snoop.

Others dare not leave the city center. At the Park Star Hotel, in District 4, an upper-middle-class neighborhood, an executive from a foreign company based in the Afghan capital waits with his family to be able to embark for the United States. He is an Afghan and used to work for this company for a good salary as a computer analyst. Has three small children. And he’s been there for more than eight days, along with his wife and children, waiting at the hotel until the situation clears up.

In the beginning there were security guards at the entrance and in the lobby of the hotel. But the Taliban took their weapons, and the guards deserted. The computer analyst is afraid to go to the airport because he fears for his children: he thinks they might die from being trampled on or in some other incident. And so he waits, more and more anguished, as time passes and the terror grows that the Americans will definitely abandon the airport and leave them alone.

“There are rumors that they will take us out in another way, with meetings arranged in the streets or squares of Kabul, with cars controlled by US officials,” he says. But these are just rumors. Nobody can give them as facts.

While the computer analyst consumes himself waiting without leaving his hotel room, watching on his cell phone the images of crowds trying to evade Taliban controls or reach the airport’s metal gates, Yussuf, a watermelon and melons street vendor, installs his stand on a nearby corner, in the same District 4. Like many other humble sellers, he rejoices in the arrival of the Taliban. He comments that they will bring security and less corruption. These sellers are satisfied despite the fact that business is going “very bad”, as the banks are closed and money does not circulate.

ATMs are also all empty. The missing ballots are in the pockets of the thousands of people who huddle at the airport entrances, looking for an opening to penetrate and escape until August 31st.

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