The road to Kabul airport – crowded, chaotic and punctuated by regular gunfire – has proven impractical for dozens of Australian citizens and visa holders trying to reach military evacuation flights out of Afghanistan .
On Thursday afternoon, the Australian government sent a public message to Australian citizens and visa holders in the Afghan capital to travel to Kabul airport to board an evacuation flight out of the country which is fell into the hands of the Taliban.
This group includes a number of former interpreters who served alongside Australian forces and whose service – in Australian uniforms – made them particular targets for Taliban retaliation.
But despite assurances from the Taliban that those seeking to leave the country would be granted “safe passage,” militant fighters blocked the airport gates, letting a few through and punching and shooting those trying to. pass.
Many of those seeking a flight out of Afghanistan approached a few hundred yards from the plane that could take them out, only to be repelled by armed Taliban.
With the Taliban now almost completely in control of Afghanistan – the Panjshir Valley being the notable exception – and being in charge of all of the country’s land borders, Kabul airport is the only practicable way out of the country.
While US forces have secured Kabul airfield itself – after deadly chaos on the tarmac following the fall of Kabul – the Taliban are controlling checkpoints on all roads leading to the airport.
Video from Airport Road on the south – civilian – side of the airport showed a chaotic scene, with a mass of humanity pushing forward, then stopped by regular gunfire.
In some videos, men, women and children can be seen curled up as the Taliban shoot crowds forcing them to back down. Others show the Taliban flogging people who plead to be allowed to pass.
In another video, a child walked over the airport wall to an American soldier.
Australians at the airport gates said they were pushed back and shots were fired. Several said they were beaten, beaten with weapons and whipped by Taliban militants when they presented their documents and insisted that there were robberies awaiting them.
“No one can come in,” said one man. “The Taliban are arresting everyone. “
Some Australians have been trying for days to go through Taliban checkpoints to reach the airport.
African-Australian Leeda Moorabi tried to help her brother-in-law and sister, also Australian citizens, get to the airport so they could board an evacuation flight. The Guardian chooses not to name the couple for their safety.
Moorabi’s brother-in-law was on the manifesto of Australia’s first evacuation flight. She said that within 30 minutes of notification of the theft, the airport gates were flooded with people: the flight eventually left with just 26 people on board.
She told the Guardian that the road outside the airport was chaotic and violent.
“They are now stuck in front of the gates,” she said Tuesday evening. “Afghan troops (who look and speak like Taliban) are shooting and threatening civilians to leave. The consulate is aware of this and has given no further instructions to help them. I fear they will be injured by the crowd or by the so-called Afghan troops.
Moorabi said he spoke to Dfat officials on several occasions who advised him to stay at the airport if he felt safe, but return home if he felt the situation was dangerous.
“Not very helpful advice considering I had told them over and over that he was stuck in the crowd and could neither move forward nor backward… he and his sister were being pushed and pulled from all directions. “
Moorabi said his brother-in-law saw women and children being pulled away from the crowds.
“The crowd got worse… night fell and he was still stuck and things got more violent… a seven year old was shot dead. .. and died right in front of him… he saw children being trampled and he was helpless.
“If he bent down to pick them up, the crowd would have trampled on him… he’s traumatized.”
“He was beaten up by Afghan security personnel at the airport… He showed them his Australian passport and they rejected it, claiming it was a fake.
On Thursday, after the Australian government’s call to come to the airport, Moorabi’s brother-in-law returned to the airport in another desperate attempt to enter, but the situation remained unchanged.
“He’s stuck in front of the door and they won’t let him through, these are the same issues as the other day,” she said. “They don’t accept his Australian passport. “
A former Australian army interpreter was shot in the leg by the Taliban on Wednesday. He has since attempted to return to the airport to try to enter again.
Some have managed to escape Kabul. Fahim, who was working as an interpreter for Australian troops, landed in Perth early Friday morning.
He boarded a flight from Kabul with his wife and toddler son on Wednesday evening, after several dangerous attempts to reach the airport. He said that for several days it had been impossible to pass Taliban checkpoints because of the constant gunfire, people beaten by the Taliban and gas bombs thrown by the militants.
Fahim said he was relieved to have arrived in Australia – his “new home” – but was upset that he could not bring his brother Farhad, who also worked for Australia as an entrepreneur but been found ineligible to apply for a visa because he was found not to be at serious risk due to the nature of his job.
A third brother, Fayaz, also an interpreter and who has already relocated to Australia, told the Guardian he received a heartbreaking call from his brothers at Kabul airport as Fahim cried telling him Farhad should stay .
“Fahim also made great efforts to take Farhad with him on the plane but they did not allow it, they said that Farhad did not [a] visa, ”Fayaz said. “Fahim was crying so much and he said ‘I have no hope now because anything can happen with him’. He said ‘you have to do something, I had no choice, I couldn’t take her with me’.
Farhad remains in Kabul, in hiding.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne praised the “extraordinary” work of Australian officials under difficult and dangerous circumstances, but acknowledged that there were “significant problems with access to Hamid Karzai airport” in northern Kabul.
“We were concerned about the reports… Taliban troops used gunfire and violence in an attempt to control the crowds around the airport. So suffice to say that it’s still, like I said, a very complex and very difficult environment to work in.
“We continue to reach out to these Australians and visa holders and assist them, where we can, to go through these checkpoints and get into the airport. “
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said during negotiations with the Taliban that the militant group promised “that they are ready to ensure the safe passage of civilians at the airport, and we have the intention to keep them to this commitment ”.
Sullivan said that a significant number of people were able to reach the airfield, now under US military control, “there have been cases where we have received reports of people being turned back or pushed back or even beaten… We take that up again. in one with the Taliban to try to resolve these problems. And we are concerned whether that will continue to happen in the coming days. “
Sullivan said keeping the roads open to the airport was an “hour-to-hour problem … It’s something we’re clear-sighted about and very focused on in holding the Taliban accountable for delivering on their pledge.”
Former Special Forces Soldier Wes Hennessy, a veteran of seven Afghanistan deployments, said Australia’s evacuation efforts were launched too late.
“Whether it was at higher levels of defense or higher levels of government, we definitely acted too slowly: the narrative they didn’t know does not fit the timeline.
“Instead, we waited until Kabul was taken and the mainstream media broadcast horrific images of Kabul. “
Hennessy said the Australian government should do more to help people in Kabul who are trying to flee.
“Let’s get the people out there on the ground,” he said. “Let’s bring together the Australians and Afghans who have worked for us and bring these people out safe and sound.
“It is a national embarrassment that we evacuated only 26 people during the first outing. Our coalition partners have pushed their crews and planes to the limit and our ADF is certainly capable. “