‘I’m very scared, I have no one’: Children orphaned as parents crushed to death in Kabul airport chaos

The human cost of frantic scenes outside the airfield in Afghanistan’s capital is likely to be far higher than official figures suggest, writes Kim Sengupta from Kabul

Saturday 21 August 2021 18:16
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<p>Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul </p>

Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul

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The woman looked around with an anguished cry, frightened, seeking familiar faces as she stumbled out of the crowd. She tried to speak but no words would come out: then she fell to the ground, her hand raised in supplication.

The hopes this mother of three young children had of escaping a grim and uncertain future in Afghanistan, and starting a new life abroad with her family, had ended on a dusty road full of rubble in front of strangers, most of whom were so busy with their own troubles that they did not even notice what had happened.

Among those who did were the British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment. They ran and dragged her clear to give first aid. They put her on a stretcher and put a sun-screening sheet over her body. But it was too late: the sheet was soon pulled up over her face to become a shroud.

“My wife, my wife, what has happened to her?” cried a man rushing forward. He tore at the sleeves of his brown salwar-kameez in his grief. The soldiers held him back and made him sit down, two of them knelt with their arms around him.

“Why did she die? Why not hospital? Why is this happening to us? What is going to happen to our children?” the man asked through his tears. “I am sorry, we did the best we could, we really did,” said one of the soldiers. The other said, “My heart breaks for you, mate.”

This was another death in the chaos outside Kabul airport as thousands try to flee on evacuation flights organised by the US, UK and other foreign governments for those who are believed to be in danger from the Taliban.

The official count for fatalities is 12, but the real figure is almost certainly a lot higher. Four were killed outside the British base adjacent to the airport in the space of two hours, on a road hot, airless and packed with desperate and frightened people.

Those who had made their way there were not just trying to get passage to Britain, but to the US and other countries, through checkpoints further down the road. And a surge had taken place, on already huge numbers, after politicians in Washington and London warned that the evacuation process may end in just a few days’ time.

A family came, supporting an elderly relation by each arm. “This is our uncle, he has fractured his ankle, we were going to take him to the hospital for treatment and then come here tomorrow,” said 22-year-old Usman Khan Mohammed. “But we heard that the UK is going to stop the flights so we came as quickly as possible. It took us six hours to get here, we had to carry our uncle most of the way.”

As the crowd grew, another woman collapsed and died, followed by a third, younger one who may have been a daughter of the first victim. The bereaved father and husband fainted when he heard what had happened.

Then came a fourth death, another woman, also overcome by the crush of the crowd and heat.

The bodies, wrapped, had been placed across the road for collection by the families. A young Hazara girl, around eight years old, lifted one of the shrouds and fainted; it was her mother. The girl, who had a hand missing, the result of an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion, had asked me earlier to try and find her mother. “I feel very scared, I have no one,” she had said. We looked but failed to find her mother.

As the girl was being treated by a medic, a soldier came over to say: “We’ll look after her, don’t worry. Do you know, I have been in the army for 12 years and what’s happening here is the worst I have ever experienced.” A younger soldier simply said: “I have never seen a dead body before, joining the army I expected to see people die, but not this, I didn’t expect this.”

As they spoke there were sudden shouts of “get down... keep down”. It was a security alert, a man with a suspect device had been spotted. “It’s a male in a white dish-dash, a red cap and a blue bag” was the warning relayed by the soldiers. Specialist jamming equipment was brought out in case a bomb was primed to be set off electronically.

The incident passed off after a search, but what happened was a reminder that the Taliban is not the only Islamist group in the space created by the collapse of the Afghan government; Isis and al-Qaeda are also very much present in this country.

A barrier of barbed wire and cars put up in front of the base, The Baron Hotel, had looked formidable. But it had been simply been dismantled by the crowd in 24 hours.

A new barricade made of containers had been put up, but the numbers coming through were unpredictable, depending on how many were being allowed through a Taliban checkpoint further down the road. The Islamists, it seems, turned the tap on or off depending on how much pressure they wanted to keep the British troops under.

Abdul Fattar, who said he had worked for the Americans as well as the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) said he was assured of adequate documentation to get on a flight, but had been turned away at the checkpoint. “I want to contact the ICRC, but I cannot get through,” he said.

Samira Haidari (not her full name) had arrived at the gate and was hoping to be evacuated by the Americans. A 22-year-old student, she had been critical of conservative clerics and Islamists and had been receiving threats on social media.

“It got much worse since the Taliban took over. And then the Talibs started visiting our neighbourhood and taking a list of people. My parents told me I must leave for my own safety,” she said.

“I knew I had to go, they can arrest me or, as I am single woman, even marry me off to someone. It was very hard coming through the Taliban checkpoint, a cousin came with me most of the way, but it was still very frightening. I don’t know what I’ll do if I get turned down, I can’t live under the Taliban. That would be impossible, I would rather be dead.”

As she spoke, Ms Haidari’s eyes fell on the covered bodies laid out on the side of the road. “I didn’t mean that, I don’t want to die,” she said. “Those poor, poor people and their families, I wonder if people in the world outside realise what is happening here?”

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