Their whole lives were packed away in four small bags. Like thousands of other Afghans, they hoped for a chance to escape Taliban-occupied Afghanistan.
As they arrived at the Hamid Karzai International Airport’s north perimeter at 9 p.m. on Friday, the pressing crowd made it impossible for Ilham, 34, his 28-year-old wife, and their four children – aged between one and eight years old – to come anywhere near the gate.
Ilham, a journalist, had gotten word from a foreign embassy that he and his family were on their list of evacuees, and were assured seats on a plane, with one major catch – they had to find a way to enter the airport. Ilham’s name, as with others in this story, have been changed for their protection.
“I don’t want to lose the opportunity, [so] we came here. But no chance to enter,” he told VICE World News in a text message sent from outside the airport. “I’m with my family. It’s dangerous. They are firing.”
At 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, Ilham sent another message: “We didn’t sleep. We just have waited here for hours.” Even the diplomat they had been in touch with, he said, told him he needed to reach the gate before foreign troops could assist Ilham and his family further. “He couldn’t help.”
Videos at the scene sent to VICE World News showed crowds of people standing at night in the darkness, outside the airport’s huge perimeter wall topped with razor wire. A video the morning after showed swirling dust, as the family sat on the ground with hundreds of others. Gunshots could be heard in the background, amid chaotic traffic. Over the weekend, Kabul reached a stifling high of 37 degrees celsius (98.6 fahrenheit).
By 10 a.m., over 12 hours after Ilham and his children first arrived, the airport gate was still closed. “I think we should return home and prepare for the next operation,” he wrote in a text message. “I believe it may need a tight arrangement.”
But Ilham was torn. Going back home meant rest for his weary children and wife, but it was also dangerous, especially with reports from rights groups that the Taliban were going door to door targeting journalists and anyone who had aided U.S. forces.
“I just try to use this chance because we don’t understand what’s going to happen by tomorrow,” he said. “I think staying here [in Kabul] is a big risk.”
Ilham is one of many desperate Afghans who have risked their lives to enter the airport, which has become the epicenter of all evacuation efforts in Afghanistan and from which heartbreaking scenes continue to emerge. Foreign governments have depended on U.S. armed forces to protect the airport and negotiate with the Taliban to help facilitate safe passage to the airport for people looking to depart Afghanistan.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department released a statement, saying “The U.S. government cannot ensure safe passage to the airport.” It said those who have been told to come to the airport “should remain vigilant when traveling given the high potential for violence and security threats associated with large crowds.” It added, “We are processing people at multiple gates. Due to large crowds and security concerns, gates may open or close without notice.”
Taliban checkpoints line the roads to the airport, and reports of beatings at the hands of the fundamentalist fighters are prevalent. Over the weekend, reports emerged of people dying while waiting outside the airport. On Saturday, this risk was highlighted by the harrowing death of a toddler. The two-year-old was trampled by the crowd, as her mother, a former interpreter for an American company, attempted to reach the airport gate.
“There are gunshots around Kabul day and night but mostly the gunshots are going on at the Kabul airport gates. Every single minute. The past 48 hours that I spent at the airport with my family, I witnessed lots of violence. The crowd is huge. Dozens of families are there,” Ilham said on Saturday evening, recalling his first two attempts to enter the airport with his family.
“They are pushing each other to get close to the gate and enter the airport. You can see girls, women, children on the ground. They’re sleeping the whole night there. There are very horrible things I have seen there,” he added.
“Soldiers, guards, made a circle around people and they are firing every single minute in front of children, women and all people. You can see wounded and injured people in every hour there. I hear some people lost their lives as well.”
Even for those like Ilham who have made it to a coveted list of at-risk evacuees compiled by foreign governments, escape is still nearly impossible without life-threatening risks.
“My name is on the list but the foreign soldiers are not out of the gate. Unfortunately it is completely irregular. Crowds are dangerous,” he said.
Jalila, a 26-year-old woman who works for an international aid organisation, said she too is on the lists of several European countries. A letter issued by one of the embassies shown to VICE World News,confirmed Jalila’s sponsorship by their government, and asked “authorities to allow them and their families safe passage so that they can reach HKIA airport without delay.”
But as with Ilham, Jalila could not be assisted until she reached the gates on her own. “If I get confirmation from anywhere, they won’t take me to the airport. I should go by myself,” she told VICE World News.
She has since made her parents and four siblings – the youngest aged 11 years old – travel from their home province to meet her in Kabul. “We will go to the airport in the evening, and get to the gate at midnight,” she said. “I know it’s not easy but we [will] try.”
As she waited for her family, Jalila packed her bag – a single backpack – to take with her. “I will put my documents and one pair of clothes. That’s all. I won’t even take my laptop,” she said. “We are risking our lives to get to the airport. We will be lucky to get in. It’s a matter of life and death. We will [take] our chance to get in.”
The U.S.-led evacuation efforts have faced mounting criticism. American troops have turned away U.S.-passport holders and Afghans with the right credentials, as soldiers struggle to contain crowds and improve coordination efforts.
For those who do make it inside the airport, conditions are far from ideal.
Upon entry, people are herded to camps of the countries that are sponsoring their departure, where they are searched and their documents are further reviewed. There, they wait for military planes to take them out of Kabul, often to U.S. bases in Qatar, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, before they are flown again to their country of resettlement in Europe or North America.
“We are risking our lives to get to the airport. We will be lucky to get in. It’s a matter of life and death. We will [take] our chance to get in.”
In a series of social media posts, a U.S. citizen waiting for their evacuation flight at the American camp inside the airport, shared photos and videos of the situation inside. The images showed hundreds of Afghans sitting on the ground under the blistering sun.
“Literally sleeping on rocks and trash here in the camp provided by the US Military in Kabul,” she wrote. She added there were only four portable potties for 4,000 people which were filled to the brim, limited supply of water and food, and no electricity.
“Four days sleeping out in the cold. My daughter is currently freezing and crying and no one is helping and we’re constantly being told that we’re only here for security and to get you out,” she said. She also claimed that the food given to them by the troops included pork, which is prohibited in Islam.
Another Afghan photographer, who managed to board a flight for France, also slammed U.S. efforts. “I will never forget the mistreatment of American troops with those who have no other option but to flee the war to survive. Shame on you cruel humans,” she captioned a photo of American troops on Instagram. She did not elaborate.
Despite the tales of chaos and anguish from the ground, U.S. President Joe Biden insisted there have been some improvements as the week wore on.
In a press conference on Sunday, Biden said that 11,000 Afghans and foreigners were evacuated in 36 hours, bringing the total number to 28,000 since the Taliban took over the capital the week before. The U.S. government has also ordered commercial airlines to provide planes to help transport Afghans from the Gulf states to other countries. Biden added that the military has improved security around the airport, are looking at safer ways to bring eligible Afghans in, and are considering staying in the country past the original Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw troops, in order to keep helping with evacuation efforts.
He also said the Taliban appeared to be cooperating with American requests to allow safe passage.
One day later, on Monday, an Afghan guard was killed in a firefight with unidentified gunmen. Three other people were injured that also involved German and United States forces, according to the German military.
On Sunday morning, Ilham, for the third time, gathered his children and wife for yet another attempt to enter the airport. This time, he coordinated with an embassy official in advance, who told him when to come to the airport and reach the gate.
But he still needed to risk his and his family’s lives, by going through the suffocating crowd. He said he had no choice.
“We crossed the very crushed and crowded way. It was very dangerous. In the middle of the way, I felt that I’m about to lose my children or my family. Even I was about to die,” he told VICE World News. “I had to do that. I had to take the risk because if we lose another day in Kabul, it seems to me the ways [out] are closing.”
He said foreign soldiers finally saw him and “encouraged me to move forward among people.” As he moved through, he was forced to drop the bags he was carrying, in order to keep his children close. His wife fell, which could have cost her her life, but she fortunately managed to get back up.
“After almost five hours, we reached the gate finally,” he said, in a message sent from inside the airport.
It’s stories like Ilham’s that give those like Jalila hope that they too will make it.
Jalila’s family arrived in Kabul on Sunday afternoon. Together, they readied to try their luck at the airport.
“We have the documents. And coordinated with someone in advance inside the airport. And now I will fight for it,” she told VICE World News, hours before executing their planned departure. “I am stressed but at the same time, hopeful. If I [can only] get to a safe place for work and have a quiet life. Because I will be wasted here with all the potential and capabilities I have.”
As it sunk in that she could potentially be leaving the country she has called home since birth, Jalila had tears in her eyes. “Yesterday I cried, you know why? I left everything behind. From my beautiful house, I take only a backpack with clothes. I had thousands of hopes to stay here, work and serve. But it all collapsed.”
Her despair is echoed by those who did manage to make it out. The photographer who successfully made it to France compared her ordeal to a “horror movie” – from looking for “any way to get to the military airport” to witnessing her “whole life destroyed in Kabul.”
“I still can’t deal with it. I can’t believe everything I saw and feel. The fall of Kabul happened so quick and sad I can’t believe how I am still alive,” she wrote.
Like Jalila, she mourned having to say goodbye to her haven in Kabul. “The last time I was in my balcony, in my little house in Kabul,” she captioned a nostalgic Instagram story of her home, with friends. “I can’t believe it. I left my everything behind and just locked the door to run away.”
“I left Afghanistan, my beloved motherland with a little suitcase,” she wrote.
In her last message to VICE World News before heading to the airport on Sunday, Jalila was hopeful. “Let’s hope for the best. I will struggle. I will do my best,” she wrote. There was no update from her as of publication time on Monday.
Inside a military plane on Sunday afternoon, Ilham sent his final message from Afghanistan. He was heading to Dubai as his first stop, where he and his family would transfer planes that would take them to their new home in Europe.
Asked how he was feeling, Ilham texted back: “Happiness and sorrow, I'm carrying both. Leaving my birth place, Mom, my relatives. My beloved books, friends, it’s all a heavy sorrow in my heart. On the happiness side, that I could rescue my life and my family members, I wish a bright future for my kids.”
As the plane started to move, he sent a final photo. In the blurry selfie, he held one daughter in his arms, while his young son held his little sister. His wife cradled their sleeping one-year-old against her chest. Ilham and his wife, faces weary, and their four children, with big smiles on their faces.