The first passenger to board RAF Flight 65YT strode purposefully on to the aircraft in front of his family, leading a long line of people seeking to escape the dark shadow of the Taliban for a new life in Britain.
The parents of that passenger, nine-year-old Mujtaba, had achieved something thousands of others desperately craved, the chance to get away from a shattered country with a deeply uncertain future. “We are so happy that we are actually on this plane, but even now we are nervous that something will happen until we take off,” said the boy’s father with a nervous laugh, before adding: “I am sure it’ll be alright.”
Safi Abdullah Hidaytullah, a 67-year-old retired academic who was listening to the conversation from a nearby seat, leant forward: “He is a young boy and one day he will be able to return and see his country again. But me, I am too old, I don’t think I’ll be able to see Afghanistan again in my lifetime.
“I am sad about that, but I am glad that young people are getting away. They’ll have no life here with what is going to happen with the Taliban – they look to the past, not the future. That is their way.”
The C-17 took off from Kabul Airport with 134 people as well as cargo on board, all the seats taken and some people sitting on the floor.
There has been criticism that some evacuation flights have taken off with just a handful of people. The British military and officials say that they have been filling as much of every plane as possible while trying to turn flights around as quickly as they can.
The UK has evacuated 5,725 people in the past 10 days under Operation Pitting, with 1,910 people flown out between Saturday and Sunday night – the largest 24-hour total since the airlift began, with eight flights leaving on Sunday alone. There are around 1,000 members of the British military involved, and the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) flew out more people to Kabul on Monday to help the ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, and his team process the documentation required.
But the situation remains extremely volatile. On Saturday, at least seven people were crushed to death outside the British base by the airport. An Afghan security guard was shot dead on Sunday, and four people were injured in a firefight. While US authorities had warned about a threat from Isis, there is currently no evidence of a connection.
A key reason for the surge in numbers trying to enter the airport is that the Taliban has warned that the airlift must end by 31 August, the deadline the US president Joe Biden has given for pulling out its troops. Nevertheless, at an emergency meeting of G7 leaders today, Boris Johnson is expected to ask Biden to extend the deadline beyond 31 August, to enable the evacuation to continue.
While the Taliban has declared that they will consider any delay beyond that date a breach of the Doha agreement, and despite its spokesperson, Dr Suhail Shaheen, threatening that “there will be consequences”, it seems unlikely they will risk attacking the 6,000 heavily armed western troops who are still planning to leave, albeit slightly later than Mr Biden had originally announced.
Squadron Leader Di Bird was focusing on just how much can be done in the time available. She and her 1 Tactical Police Squadron had deployed to Afghanistan a number of times before, training and serving with Afghan security forces in some of the most dangerous parts of the country.
Sqn Ldr Bird, like many other Afghan veterans in the forces out here now, wanted to stress the vital importance of this mission as well as its deeply personal nature.
“We are here to help those who helped us. We are here to stand by those who stood by us. That is what is expected of us, and surely that is what we must do,” she said.
“I don’t know exactly how much time we have, but we need to make full use of it. We are running a 24/7 operation, we are maximising all the capacity we have, I can tell you we are not going to let any space go unfilled if we can help it.
“I have never taken part in anything like this before and we all want to play our part. There was an opportunity the other day for a few of our people to be based at a less difficult place, but not one person wanted to go. They wanted to be here to get as many people out as possible.”
Getting to a safe haven has become a long, difficult and often dangerous journey for Afghans. Those who have become eligible for the airlift – because they are under threat from the Taliban – have to go past checkpoints of the same Taliban in order to get to the airport. Some do not make it: they are detained and then disappear.
Many of those who do get through end up in front of the British camp, The Baron Hotel. Those trying to get to the UK are processed here, while others have to get to the checkpoints of the countries in which they hope to be resettled.
Conditions are very hard for all those seeking refuge. But those whose destination is the UK at least have the chance to be inside the base, which is large, with a garden, and where they receive food and water.
For many of those heading to other destinations, the wait for processing takes place on the side of a hot, dusty, rubble-strewn road with no shelter from the sun, for hours or even days, and with no certainty of a successful outcome.
It took Larmina Qurban two days to reach the airport from her home in Kabul. As a student activist she had spoken out against Islamists and reactionary clerics, and had received regular online threats and abuse. They have become markedly more virulent and menacing since the Taliban took over.
“I lived by myself, which made things even more difficult,” she said. “The Taliban had been coming to our area and asking questions about people. One of my neighbours said I was putting everyone at risk by being there, that I should go and live with my family,” she recalled.
“I told him I had every right to live where I wanted to. But I knew then that I could not stay there any longer. My brother came and took me back to our parents’ home and we sat and talked all night about what to do. At the end, we decided that I should leave.”
As well as worries about being targeted for her political and social views, Ms Qurban, 22, had another grave concern expressed by other young women. That, as a single woman, the Taliban may force her to marry someone of their choice.
“This happened when they were in power before and in areas they control now. It may not seem something real to people in other countries, but it is something which I am frightened of and my friends are frightened of,” she said. “Most of my friends have not been able to go away; I worry about them very much.”
There is much hurried re-arranging of luggage at the airport: only one piece of hand luggage, weighing 10lbs, is allowed per person, and a lot has to be discarded by many of those who have arrived.
The bags are checked by Lance Corporal Ceri Jones and his sniffer dog Copper. “Everything from a life has to be packed into one bag. I can see how difficult that is but people simply accept it, facing what they are facing,” he said. Copper, a friendly and inquisitive spaniel, has another role: “He is very good to have around children who are crying or are frightened. They become calmer with him.”
Fardun Ahmed, who had worked at a UK base, received an email on Sunday morning from British authorities saying his life was in danger, and that he and his family must leave now and go to the airport. The message came at 10.30am. “We were ready to leave in half an hour,” said his 28-year-old son Syed. “We already had our bags packed because of the way things had gone. It took us about three hours to get here.”
Syed, who has a degree in computer science, used to work in telecommunications for a multinational in Afghanistan. The same company, he says, has offered him a job in the UK. “I was depressed thinking that all my studies and hard work will be wasted. But then I had the job offer and I felt I had another chance to start again, it was such a good feeling,” he said.
Carrying out checks as Flight 65YT prepared to depart, Flight Lieutenant Peter Maughan reflected: “I want to make sure that I do the best I can. These people deserve that. I don’t think I will ever do anything like this in my life again. We really are taking part in history being made.”
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