‘It was total chaos in the airport’, Afghan journalist tells Richard Hall
Ramin Rahman rushed to the airport just as the Talibã was spreading out across Aceitar. The 27-year-old Afghan journalist joined thousands of others who had done the same, fearful that they would be targeted by the militant group. They crowded onto the runway and waited for a way out.
“It was total chaos in the airport. Everyone was so desperate, they were so scared," ele disse O Independente.
“You could see women crying everywhere, men worried about their family. A lot of people were with kids and had no food for them," ele adicionou.
The Taliban moved closer to the airport. Mr Rahman could hear gunfire and shouting from behind the perimeter walls. There were false starts when he thought they would leave, and an agonising wait. After more than ten hours on the tarmac, Mr Rahman made it onto a plane packed with hundreds of others.
“When they locked the doors there was no water. It was hard to breathe. It was the hardest moment. Everyone was so ready to leave and the plane was not leaving and no one was saying anything," ele disse.
The plane finally took off and flew more than four hours to Qatar, but the ordeal for Mr Rahman and the tens of thousands of Afghans who were spirited away from Kabul on emergency flights was close to the beginning than the end.
The US has overseen the evacuation of approximately 58,700 people from Kabul since 14 agosto, de acordo com a Casa Branca, many of whom will now be processed at temporary holding facilities around the world.
Mr Rahman, a photographer by trade, has been waiting at a US military base in Qatar for more than a week. Information is scant – he was told he would be leaving on a flight to Germany, but it has not yet arrived. Many others are in the process of applying for visas, but the process has been facing backlogs in the thousands.
“Life is hard here. They are doing their best, but people are facing difficulties – if you want to get food you need to stay in line for four hours, sometimes you don’t get food because people are taking food two or three times,” Mr Rahman said.
“The weather is really hot and inside the rooms are really cold because the air is always on. For those who had nothing and just jumped on a plane to save their lives, it’s not an ideal life but they are happy. But for people like us who had a life back there, it’s really hard. For me, it’s really hard. I was not supposed to be here, I never imagined I would land here," ele adicionou.
Mr Rahman’s account of difficult conditions at the camp has been corroborated by officials on the ground. The Al Udeid base has been described as “a living hell” by US embassy officials in a leaked diplomatic cable, Axios reported.
“We are aware of and as concerned as anybody about what had been some terrible sanitation conditions at Qatar that were facilitated by the sheer numbers and the speed with which those numbers got there,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a news briefing Tuesday.
He added that conditions were improving now, but that additional locations were being sought to temporarily house the refugees as more are evacuated from Kabul.
While the US has overseen the evacuations from Kabul, not all of those who were rescued will go to the Qatar base. The UK is planning to set up offshore asylum centres in countries such as Pakistan and Turkey.
The US and its allies are in a race against time to evacuate their own citizens, as well as potentially tens of thousands of Afghans who worked alongside Nato forces, and who are now at risk of Taliban reprisals. Among them are interpreters, journalists, soldiers and embassy guards. Advocacy groups estimate there could be as many as 20,000 Afghan nationals who worked with the US, junto com 53,000 of their family members, eligible for special immigrant visas.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday committed to a deadline of 31 August to complete the evacuation, and the Taliban has ruled out any extensions. US officials are reportedly concerned about the volatile security situation at the airport beyond that deadline.
Speaking to G7 leaders on Tuesday, Mr Biden said there was “added risk” to keeping US troops in Afeganistão beyond the deadline, citing a threat from an Islamic State affiliate, the White House said.
The Biden administration has faced heavy criticism for the way it has handled the US withdrawal. Although the timeline was set into motion by his predecessor, Donald Trump, many US veterans and aid agencies have for months called for a greater sense of urgency from Washington over processing special visas for Afghans. Biden officials have blamed the Trump administration for delaying applications during his tenure.
Officials are now warning that not all those Afghans who want to leave will be able to. Mr Rahman’s own family is still in Afghanistan.
“My whole family except my wife is in Afghanistan. My parents, my brothers, my sister. I am worried about their safety and lives," ele disse.
An unknown number of Afghan interpreters are still in hiding, unable to pass through Taliban checkpoints to reach the airport.
Muhammad, a former interpreter for US forces for 13 years who spent two days at the airport with his wife and five children trying to flee, called the situation “ disgrace” in an interview with O Independente.
He said he has conducted “hundreds and hundreds of missions” with the US military, only to be left stranded as they exit.
Mr Rahman has spent the last week contemplating his family’s fate, and his own future.
“I feel really sad and disappointed. I knew this was gonna happen if the US withdrew their soldiers from Afghanistan, but I was not expecting it this fast," ele disse.
"O que posso dizer? It’s my country, I’m really sad for my people, for what’s happening.”
He hasn’t had a chance to make plans yet, but he does know that he wants to continue with his work.
“The ideal scenario for me is that someone comes and takes me to Germany or somewhere. Just get me out of here first. The life I always imagined is that I become a professional photographer.
“Honestly I don’t know what is gonna happen next because I am in this base and they are not telling us anything. I’m just waiting.”