Some slept, some cried, all were now refugees: inside one of the last Afghan airlifts

The American marine shouted “push!”. And hundreds of people did, shoving inside the Boeing C-17 military aircraft; tumbling over, then pulling their bodies into tight huddles on the floor to let as many others in as possible.

As the rear door closed and the deafening engines started, lifting the heavy plane off the runway at Kabul’s international airport, people broke down wailing; crying. Now refugees.

Military aircraft are far noisier inside than passenger planes and almost windowless, so the plane heading for a Qatari military base did not grant its 400 passengers a last view of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

Most on board had lived comfortable lives, weeks filled with work and weekends with family and friends – with visits to suburban gardens or parks, drinking the traditional iced yoghurt beverage “dough” during the hot summers. Their lives were dignified, happy even, despite the war. They had not wanted to leave their homes, but their lives tilted overnight when the Taliban advanced, taking the Afghan capital on 15 August.

US troops left on Tuesday, evacuating their 5,400 troops sent in to help facilitate the mass evacuations that began just days prior to the Taliban’s takeover of the capital and turned into one of history’s biggest airlifts.

For the Qatar-bound passengers last weekend, the journey had already been unbearably hard – with crowds of thousands to push through at the airport’s gates, where bombs were expected and then detonated – but the most difficult part was still ahead: the process of claiming asylum in a foreign country, of living in a camp, of facing discrimination and rejection, of starting a new life out of the single small suitcase they were allowed to bring. Of being a refugee. Escape was undesired but necessary; leaving their homeland a tough and quick decision to be made.

Three young men sat in the crowd, wearing matching button-down shirts, their heads bowed, fingers wiping silent tears from their eyes. Former Afghan soldiers travelled in the uniform of an army that effectively no longer exists, looking not all that different from the US soldiers representing the country that signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020.

Of those on board, many said they had been awake for several days in a row waiting at the airport, so as the engines rumbled and ice-cold air blasted in through huge pipes, the discomfort was nonetheless bearable. Sleep overcame many; bodies leaning against those of strangers or piled on top of other people’s legs, eyes covered by T-shirts or scarves. Some stood for the duration of the three-hour flight, watching movies from computer screens. Others – like a young father of four – never stopped weeping.

The US did not prioritise comfort on the C-17: this was an evacuation, so the soldiers thought practically. Accommodating as many as possible was the aim, even if it meant shoving people tightly on to the plane; even if a mix of male and female strangers were touching in a close space – usually unthinkable in Afghan culture.

All knew that thousands remained behind, some waiting under a scorchingly hot sun, sitting amid piling rubbish consisting of empty water bottles and full nappies. Children developed skin rashes, diarrhoea, heatstrokes. The two-year-old daughter of an Afghan interpreter who had worked for the US was trampled to death in a crowd outside the airport. Last Thursday, as many as 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing and gun attack near the gates.

Some children on the flight remained cheerful. “I’m going to Kandahar,” said Arzam, a three-year-old girl heading to the US, who believed she was off to a place in southern Afghanistan she had heard of.

The sun had risen when the C-17 touched down at the al-Udeid airbase in Qatar, humid air rushing in as the door opened. The heat sat heavily, causing beads of sweat to form on people’s foreheads.

A mother stood up, holding the hands of her two adult sons, watching blank-faced as US soldiers unloaded people’s few belongings.

Passengers were not allowed to disembark until a uniformed American had set up a camera, filming the new arrivals walking off the plane. Almost 30,000 arrived at the al-Udeid transit hub in the past weeks, housed in large air-conditioned tents that offer shelter but little privacy, as documents are processed. Several colourful bouncy castles have been blown up outside for the children.

In the camp, communities have formed, organised around elders who listen and pass on the needs of those in the giant tent city: more blankets are needed, lost luggage still has not been found, toilets are overflowing.

While Qatar is a transit hub, Afghans have, in the past week, arrived in dozens of countries around the world. The UK, South Korea, Uganda, Germany, Mexico, Ukraine, France and Colombia are part of a long list.

As Afghans again flee the Taliban regime, they are again a nation uprooted and scattered.

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