When Haadiya first heard the loud banging sound, she thought it was gunfire. But then the people who were walking started running toward her, until it turned into a mad dash.
“I heard the explosion. I thought it was just a fight between troops, but when people started coming I asked questions, and they said it was an explosion. Many were men and boys, and their clothes were stained in blood,” she told VICE World News.
Haadiya, 27, was at the Kabul airport on Thursday when a suicide bomber attacked Abbey Gate, situated at the civilian side of the airport. She had been standing by that very gate just minutes earlier, for eight hours, waiting to enter. But none of the American soldiers were checking documents. They were repeatedly told by troops, she said, to turn around and go back.
But the crowd pressed on in a desperate attempt to enter the airport. The area got so packed as more and more Afghans descended upon the gate, that she had to physically throw herself into a sewer to protect herself from the crowd. Discouraged, she decided to turn around and head home, right before dusk, to clean her clothes and return another day.
It was on her way out that the explosion happened. The same sewer she had earlier been in turned red with the blood of the dead and the injured.
“I was so sad. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “So I left the area. They said there would be another explosion.”
And there was. This time it was nearly two kilometres (over a mile) away from the airport, in front of Baron Hotel, where many Afghans were gathered to get on evacuation flights from the UK.
The Islamic State Khorasan Province, or IS-K—an offshoot of the extremist militant Islamic State group—claimed responsibility for the attacks, stating they singled out “translators and collaborators with the American Army.” As of publication time, at least 100 civilians and 13 U.S. service members were killed in the bombings, which came days after repeated warnings from the U.S. government that a terror attack was imminent.
IS-K is characterised by its brutality and propensity for mass casualty, and is also linked to the Haqqani Network, one of the most lethal insurgent factions within the Taliban that is currently in charge of Kabul’s security.
Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen condemned the attack in a public statement, saying, “The Islamic Emirate strongly condemns the bombing of civilians at Kabul airport, which took place in an area where U.S. forces are responsible for security. The Islamic Emirate is paying close attention to the security and protection of its people, and evil circles will be strictly stopped.”
A day after the attacks, Haadiya said she believes the actual death count is significantly more than the initial figures reported by several news outlets. She estimated that there were thousands of people at the gate when she was there. Haadiya said she is still in shock over the things she had seen and heard.
“I can’t forget the sound, the pictures, those people. The children. I met one family who came two days ago, with their wife and children. They’re just kids,” she said. “I think about these people.”
It was a nightmare not just for Haadiya but for most in Afghanistan, who have had to go through a surreal life shift in recent weeks as the Taliban swiftly took over the country, ahead of the planned total withdrawal of U.S. troops. Since the Islamic fundamentalist group entered Kabul and overthrew the government on August 15, Afghans have flocked to the airport hoping for a way out, fearing a return to the human rights abuses that characterised the Taliban’s previous reign of terror from 1996 to 2001.
But the airport has since turned from a site of desperation to horror after the twin bombings.
A harrowing video seen by VICE World News showed a chaotic scene moments after the explosion. Bloodied bodies are strewn on the ground, along with clothes and deserted belongings. In the background, children are heard crying amid screaming women. A frantic crowd is pushing each other to escape, while others are trying to scramble out of the sewage, its concrete smeared with blood.
Separate images showed the dead and the injured being taken away in wheelbarrows. Black body bags line the ground outside a nearby hospital. Other photos from inside medical centers show rooms packed with beds, on which the injured lay.
Fatima, a Dubai-based entrepreneur, told VICE World News that six of her immediate family and around 60 relatives had been waiting to board flights for the last few days. On the day of the attacks, they were away from the site of the bombings, but suffered injuries from the mad rush.
“My sister-in-law is pregnant, and she got stomped on by the people. She was bleeding,” said Fatima. “My brother’s shoulder got dislocated and he now has a broken arm. My mother fainted. My poor one-year-old niece is still crying, even in her sleep. They saw dead bodies. They are all in a state of shock.”
Aisha, a 22-year-old woman who has been waiting to be evacuated since last week, also managed to narrowly escape. She said she left the airport with 20 of her friends hours before the blasts after she was informed about the bomb threat warning by an activist who was helping her with her evacuation. One of her friends, however, refused to leave the airport.
“My friend left a message in our WhatsApp group, saying, ‘I will not go anywhere because we struggled so much just to get here. I will not leave, even if I die,’” Aisha told VICE World News. Aisha said she hasn’t heard back from her friend since the attacks. “I don’t think she is alive anymore.”
Emergency, a humanitarian organisation in Kabul that is treating victims of the bombings, said in a statement that their surgical centre received a “massive influx” of people in their facility that was already 80 percent full. They were all Afghan civilians, and consisted of men, women and children.
“We can confirm over 60 patients arrived so far since last night, with more than a dozen already dead on arrival,” the statement said. “They had received terrible injuries due to the direct trauma of the explosion.”
Alberto Zanin, the medical coordinator of the organization, added that many who arrived at the hospital were catatonic with panic. “[They] could not speak. Many were terrified. Their gaze was blank,” Zanin said. “We have rarely seen such a situation.”
In reaction to the bombings, the U.S. vowed to exact revenge and make IS-K pay for their actions, but said that despite pressures to extend their August 31 withdrawal deadline, they will find other ways to evacuate Americans and their Afghan allies by the end of the month. So far, the U.S. claims to have evacuated over 100,000 people, although at least 1,000 Americans and tens of thousands more Afghans are awaiting evacuation by the U.S.
But for Haadiya–who had worked for a company that assisted the American military and now holds a special immigrant visa for the United States–she doesn’t yet know if she would return to the airport again, even if the U.S. asks her to. It had been her third attempt to enter this week alone, but she had failed in all her previous tries despite coordinating with an American contact. Now she is left confused and traumatised.
“If they ask me to go back again I will not go again. With what I saw there, I’ve seen so many loss of lives,” she said. “I will be waiting for what the next instructions are. Maybe I will go. I don’t know, the situation is very bad.”
Like many Afghans, Haadiya is caught between a rock and a hard place. Leaving Kabul means having to go back to the airport, reliving the trauma, and risking her life again, but staying is just as dangerous.
Just last week, she said her sister’s fiance was killed in Kabul, but they have yet to know the perpetrator. Aside from increasing violence, the Taliban have started door to door searches in their area, she said, and her neighbor had been asked if they knew of anyone working for the government. She fears that she could be targeted having worked with Americans.
“They can do anything. In this case, we are not safe here. I tried to find a good way to leave Afghanistan,” she said. “I can never trust them.”
For now, Haadiyah is in disbelief that she is still alive.
“I can’t explain my feelings. I am not fine. I am alive but I can’t live. I’m just happy about my family, to have me alive,” she said. “That was the worst day of my life. I hope I don’t ever experience it again.”
All names of witnesses have been changed for their protection.