As soon as you set foot on the runway at the international airport of Kabul, in Afghanistan, you are taken by the intensity, the urgency, the darkness of this hour.
In all directions, there are huge gray military transport planes from the United States and many other countries. Military helicopters are in the sky.
Towards all planes, there are long lines of Afghans. The lines seem to be endless. They have been told they can only bring a suitcase and the clothes they wear when they leave their country – now controlled by the Taliban.
But it’s not just the country they’re leaving. They are leaving behind the life they lived and, for the generation of educated young people, the life they built, the dreams they formed over 20 years.
There are said to be 14,000 people inside this area, controlled by the US military, waiting to board.
Satellite photo shows lines of people awaiting departure at Kabul International Airport on August 23, 2021 — Photo: Maxar Technologies/AP
Freelance journalist Bilal Sarwary was among those who made it to the site, having left behind everything he had worked so hard to build – taking just a few pairs of clothes and his young family.
Sarwary, a former BBC journalist, planned to raise his daughter – named Sola, which means “peace” – in his country, the place he spent 20 years covering, starting as a translator in 2001.
Instead, he hopes that one day she will understand his decision to leave.
“Today is the day a generation of Afghans buried their dreams, aspirations and our lives,” he said.
“This city for us is our home. Despite its contradictions, we call it home, we were created from here. bullets, towards a road where everyone can see each other.”
On Twitter, he wrote: “Sunday, August 22, 2021: The day I leave my country, my city, my Kabul. A massacre of my dreams and aspirations. A tragic day in my life.”
About 17,000 people left Afghanistan through Kabul airport last week, according to the US. It is not known how many Afghan citizens have received visas to work with governments and international organizations amid fears of being targeted by the Taliban.
Many are professionals and graduates, and Sarwary fears what this “brain drain” will mean for Afghanistan. Afghanistan, he said, is “a country where good people don’t grow on trees.”
Outside the airport gates, there are another 10,000 or more waiting to enter the aviation area – a crowd of people wanting to leave anyway.
Image courtesy of the US Marine Corps shows people boarding a Globemaster III C-17 during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 18, 2021 — Photo: AFP/US MARINES CORP/Lance Cpl. Nicholas GUEVARA
The longer it takes, the more desperate the crowd becomes. Reporters in attendance described Saturday as one of the worst days, with several women losing their lives as people advanced.
According to NATO, they are among at least 20 people who have died in and around the airport since the Taliban took over the city.
Sunday was described as calmer at the gates, although witnesses report that Taliban fighters fired into the air and used batons to keep people in line, according to the Reuters news agency.
Evacuated children await the next flight at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug 19, 2021 — Photo: Mark Andries/Us Marine Corps/AFP
Internationally, concern continues to grow that countries will not be able to withdraw nationals and Afghans who worked with them before the end of the month, at which point the US said it would withdraw.
On Saturday, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that it was “mathematically impossible” to evacuate so many people in the next nine days.
Bilal Sarwary said that leaving now didn’t mean he was ready to give up. “Our affair with Afghanistan is a fatal love affair, no matter what happens, we will never give it up,” he said.
* With the collaboration of Flora Drury, in London