Even at midnight, the Dubai airport is sweltering in mid-August. My colleague and cameraman Eric O’Connor and I stood on the tarmac, sweating our way through one of the hardest decisions of our careers. It was the evening of August 14th, we were on assignment for “PBS NewsHour,” and the Taliban seemed poised to take Kabul. We had checked in, cancelled, and then checked in again for our flight to the Afghan capital. Should we get on that plane? We knew that the moment Kabul fell, the airport would likely close and we would be trapped. Journalists from the Times and the Wall Street Journal were already evacuating. Twice, we got on and off the bus to our flight. There were about two dozen other passengers, all Afghans. “Don’t worry,” I told Eric, as we finally clambered up the steps of the plane. “If there is fighting in Kabul we won’t land.” Neither of us was convinced. After takeoff, suspended in the quiet, dark hum of the flight, I journalled to settle my nerves. “As we land, I don’t know if the city will have fallen, or if the evacuations will be over. Everything changes with each hour,” I wrote. “The truth is, I’m afraid.”
Our plane landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport at 8: 30 A.M. on August 15th. It was the last commercial flight from Dubai to arrive in at the airport. I had been covering Afghanistan for thirteen years and had spent a year living in Kabul. It was my third trip to the country in the last eight months. But this one would be different. As we drove into the city from the airport, the day seemed surprisingly normal, sunny and dry with blue skies overhead. Jalalabad, the only other major city that had still been under government control, had fallen to the Taliban hours earlier, but Kabul residents conveyed a sense of calm and business as usual. Traffic jams clogged the streets, bicycle riders weaved through traffic, children burning incense in small tin pots begged for money. We passed busy food markets where vast pyramids of locally grown oranges were piled in neat rows under tarps. We arrived at the Serena Hotel, where we planned to stay with diplomats and other journalists. We reasoned that the hotel, which is a few blocks from the Presidential palace, in central Kabul, would be relatively secure.
At 11: 15 A.M., reports began appearing on social media that Taliban fighters were entering the city—despite assurances from the group’s leaders that they would wait outside Kabul’s perimeter. At 2 P.M., there were reports that the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country. We saw a group of around two hundred men, seemingly unarmed and carrying Taliban flags, march down the central streets past the hotel and toward the Presidential palace. Roads had emptied of traffic and pedestrians. Streets were silent. Police officers, who usually manned checkpoints, had disappeared. Their emerald-green Toyota pickup trucks sat abandoned on roadsides.
At 5: 30 P.M., as the daylight faded, we decided to move to the Baron, a hotel adjacent to the airport that British forces had turned into a small military base. On the drive over, we passed Taliban fighters moving toward the city center. Two gunmen with long, curly hair held American-made M4 rifles as they strode down the sidewalk. Beat-up old cars carried small groups of Taliban, staring wide-eyed at the city around them, some carrying weapons but many not. A pickup truck with a machine gun mounted in the back crawled past us. For a tense and surreal few seconds, the truck’s passengers stared back at us as we stared at them. They disappeared down the road behind us. After twenty years of brutal fighting, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital completely unopposed, driving down the road in a quiet, orderly manner. They didn’t even honk their horns.
The Baron was a large compound ringed with tall blast walls and steel gates. Approaching it, we saw Afghan civilians walking and driving toward the airport entrance, only a few dozen yards away. Behind the hotel gates were several blocks of housing surrounding a rose garden. Before the collapse of Kabul, the Baron housed contractors from the U.S. and other Western countries. Now hundreds of British paratroopers milled around the reception area and the laneways between buildings. The restaurant had become a military canteen; soldiers waited patiently for dinner. The hotel’s management rented basic but comfortable rooms to American and European journalists.
The following morning, on the west side of the compound, a row of half a dozen British paratroopers, clad in green camouflage fatigues and ammunition belts, stood facing a twelve-foot-tall metal gate. Each one gripped a rifle. An officer yelled, “Hold the line! Hold the line!” His voice, sounding agitated and a little afraid, was drowned out by shouts and bangs coming from the other side of the gate. Hundreds of Afghans were pounding their fists against the painted gray metal and pleading for help to get inside the airport. The soldiers struggled to complete their ad-hoc mission: allowing Afghans with ties to Britain, the U.S., and other nations that were organizing evacuation flights to enter the base and escape life under the Taliban.
Since the previous day, the crowds outside the small British base next to the airport had grown into the thousands. If the door were opened at the wrong time, the soldiers would be faced with letting the crowd overrun their small compound or shooting civilians dead. When I asked the officer if I could go outside and interview the Afghans, he refused. “If this crowd attacks you, I have to send my guys to rescue you,” he shouted. “Not happening!” From the other side of the gate, bursts of automatic gunfire ripped through the air. Inside the airport, Afghan Special Forces fired their weapons into the air to keep people off the runway. Outside, Taliban fighters shot over the crowds to keep them back from the British gate. For the rest of the day, the officer kept the gate closed.
That day, desperate Afghans overran the airport, scaling walls and chasing mammoth U.S. cargo planes down the runway as they tried to take off. American Black Hawk helicopters swooped over the runway, attempting to frighten people away from the flight line. From the hotel garden, the sound of gunfire was near constant; I struggled to send reassuring voice mails to loved ones over WhatsApp without it in the background. Hotel security cameras that overlooked the airport and runway showed crowds of Afghan civilians climbing over walls and running in every direction on the tarmac, as Afghan Special Forces in Humvees gave chase. Later that day, cell-phone videos of Afghan civilians clinging to, and falling from, American C-17s as they took off were broadcast around the world.
Some Afghans spent the night sleeping on the street outside. Others gave up and went home. By the morning, the chaos had subsided somewhat; the Afghan forces had restored order at the airport runway. A British officer, with a row of soldiers behind him, cautiously opened a small door in the larger gate on the west side of the compound. In seconds, a dozen Afghan men, women, and children somehow shoved their way through a phalanx of arms and legs and bodies and made it inside the compound. The soldiers shouted, “British passports! Any British passports?” The Afghans, traversing a few feet, changed the trajectory of their lives forever.
Hours later, Eric and I were allowed to walk out through the gate and interview Afghans on camera for our story that night. As we passed through crowds pushing in the opposite direction, it seemed as if the entire population of Kabul was there, pleading to leave the country. Instead of angrily attacking us, as the British officer had feared, panicked Afghans politely asked for help. For the first time in the many years that I spent reporting from Afghanistan, it seemed as if almost everyone we met spoke English. They were members of the country’s educated and mostly professional urban élite. “Please help me,” one woman said, grabbing my arm. “I need help.” She was an unmarried surgeon from Herat city, she told me, and Taliban commanders had threatened to marry her off to a fighter. “I am a surgeon and I am not even allowed to drive my car,” she said, weeping.
Throngs of Afghans who had helped or been associated with the U.S.-backed effort, and who had seen their loved ones threatened as a result, clamored to enter the British base. At least two hundred and fifty thousand Afghans had allied themselves with the American-led effort over the past twenty years. Afghans holding passports, old I.D. cards for staff access to NATO bases, and certificates of appreciation from the U.S. military leaned over rolls of concertina wire, pleading to be let inside the Baron. “I have all the documents that I’m going to U.S. My wife is in the U.S. But they are not helping me! Please!” one man shouted, leaning over another who was holding up a certificate of appreciation from NATO Special Forces Command. Small groups of American and European soldiers wandered through the crowd outside the Baron. It was not always clear whom they were looking for—passport holders, or specific people—and who they would allow to flee Taliban rule. For a few hours, a valid travel visa in an Afghan passport was enough, then only foreign passports were accepted. If a foreigner could vouch for Afghans and they had the right documents, Afghans were pulled from the crowd and rushed inside the Baron. Once inside and registered, they were escorted into the airport and onto an evacuation flight. The chaos gave individual soldiers, aid workers, and journalists the power to decide which Afghans would be saved.
A few feet from one of the Baron’s tall steel gates, Eric and I found an Afghan family sitting with their backs to the wall of the British base. They begged us for help. The eldest son, who said he was fifteen, showed us pictures of his father, a commander in the Afghan security forces who had been killed. Several months before his death, the officer had moved his wife and children to Dubai for their safety. Each of them showed us United Arab Emirates residency cards. After returning to Kabul for his funeral, the family was now trapped. British soldiers, using cement blocks and rolls of shiny razor wire, had cordoned off an area just outside the steel gate, where they separated Afghans who appeared to have the correct paperwork, particularly women and children, from the rest of the crowd. An abandoned armored Land Cruiser sat nearby. Several minutes later, British soldiers began pushing the family trying to return to Dubai away from the base, back through a hole in the wire and away from the Baron. “We don’t want to be doing this, you know,” one paratrooper told me, sounding defensive and angry as we filmed him forcing weeping women and children back toward the Taliban. Peering out from under his green helmet, his eyes conveyed something else—a sense of shame.
On my fourth day at the Baron, I decided to try to get two Afghan friends—young female photojournalists with U.S. visas—into the compound. They tried to make it to the front gate but called and told me that the crowds were so large that they could not get close enough to see it. I told them to try the back gate, on the east side of the compound, and rushed there to beg the soldiers to go outside, find them in the crowds, and bring them inside. The Baron had become a place where favors—a coffee carried from the canteen, agreeing to not film the faces of Special Forces soldiers—could get a gate opened when it was not meant to be. Sometimes it worked. When a delivery arrived that afternoon, the soldiers allowed the two Afghan photojournalists to slip inside. Two days later, I climbed atop a shipping container that had been pushed in place near the front gate to block the crowds, and looked for the family members of an Afghan journalist who were trying to flee Kabul. Staring down at a sea of faces and outstretched hands, I couldn’t find them. After several minutes, a Taliban commander at the front of the crowd grew angry at the sight of me, a woman in jeans and a shirt and loose head scarf, standing on top of the container. The Talib looked at the U.S. marines nearby, and angrily waved his hands, as if to shoo me away. The marines ordered me to get off the container. I grumbled at them, but climbed down. American and British forces were growing tired of our appeals for rule-bending and compassion at the gate.
I saw David Lavery, a retired Canadian soldier who had run a business-development company in Kabul, pull dozens of Afghans out. Known as Canadian Dave to the British and American soldiers at the various entrances, Lavery, more than six feet tall with graying hair, was in constant motion, walking and jogging up and down the razor wire searching for Afghans on lists given to him by aid agencies. He instructed Afghans to wear clothing that was easy to spot in the crowd—a red hat or head scarf. “Don’t worry, you all have a room here for the night. You are safe now,” he reassured one group of young Afghans headed to Germany, after getting them inside. And he talked for hours with the soldiers guarding the gate, in a kind of informal appeal to their conscience.
Seven days after the fall of Kabul, young British paratroopers looked like they had been there for months. Wearied, their faces reddened with sunburn, they slept on gravel or cement floors, hugging the blast walls for shade. Shouting in the dry air and dust, many lost their voices. The emotional toll of coming face to face with human desperation, the moral burden of deciding who would get inside and who wouldn’t, injured them. When I asked an officer at the back gate to open it for the family of the Afghan journalist, he yelled “Fuck off!” at me. Moments later, he pulled his helmet on, grabbed his gun, opened the gate, dove into the crowd of panicked Afghans and belligerent Taliban, found the family, and pulled them inside. “I’m sorry about that,” he told me later, placing a hand on my shoulder. That night, I saw an Afghan man approach a British soldier walking across the base and ask where he could get some food. The young infantryman pulled a hard-boiled egg and a banana out of his pocket and handed them to the Afghan. “It’s not much,” the soldier said, apologizing.
After making it into the Baron, families slept under the light of a full moon. They lay on the grass, covered by blankets and black trash bags, heads resting on suitcases containing the only belongings that they would bring from this life to their new one. Overhead, bats circled the electric lamps, silently scooping up bugs.
By day nine, the street outside the Baron had grown putrid. A drainage canal, which soldiers called the swamp, filled with waste. An overwhelming stench of urine, so pungent it made one’s eyes water, filled the air. Hundreds of people, crammed into a narrow lane flanked by blast walls, had no shelter from the baking sun. Civilians began fainting from the heat. Soldiers stood atop the walls and sprayed water from hoses onto the crowds to keep them cool. Melees erupted. As the August 30th deadline for the U.S. withdrawal approached, at least twenty people died trying to evacuate Kabul. A child-care center was hastily created by U.S. forces after panicked parents passed their children to soldiers and disappeared. A skinny boy who claimed to be fifteen years old but looked much younger burst into tears when I asked him where his parents were. He didn’t know, but someone had written “USA” on the back of his hand.
That night, the British commander came to eight journalists who remained at the Baron—Eric and myself, a team from Sky News, a writer from the Independent, and a Danish TV 2 correspondent—and told us it was time to leave. The next day, the British would be abandoning the Baron and handing it over to the Taliban.
Ten days after arriving in Kabul, Eric and I walked into the back of a C-17 U.S. military transport plane, alongside hundreds of Afghan men, women, and children, bound for Qatar. One little girl around four years old wore a party dress, covered in shiny sequins, for the journey. An eighteen-year-old boy with thick glasses and neatly combed hair sat, cross-legged, next to me. His brother was an interpreter, he told me. I suggested that he might someday go to college in the U.S. “This I hope for,” he said, smiling. An American flag hung in the cargo bay behind us. There are no windows on C-17s, and the inside of the plane is bathed in green light, making it feel like a spaceship, flying from one planet to another. As the aircraft roared down the runway, all of us, Afghans and foreigners alike, huddled on the floor together and braced for takeoff. With nothing else to reach for, we held on to one another.
The following day, an ISIS suicide bomber detonated a twenty-five-pound explosive vest at an airport gate staffed by U.S. marines, about fifty yards from the Baron. At least a hundred and fifty Afghans and thirteen U.S. service members were killed. The following day, a U.S. drone strike in Kabul killed a family of ten people, about half of whom were children. U.S. commanders said that an ISIS leader who was planning another suicide bombing was killed in a “righteous strike.” U.S. officials later admitted that no ISIS commander had been present; the victims had all been innocent Afghans.
Since I left Kabul, my dreams have been filled with frightened, weeping faces and outstretched hands reaching toward me. I watch them and say “I’m sorry” repeatedly. Recently, I called Canadian Dave to thank him. “I don’t sleep well right now,” he told me from Dubai, where he’s still working to get Afghans out. “It’s becoming more vivid. . . . The outside noise, that hum, and that volume of desperation and everybody chattering. And no matter what time it was—daytime, nighttime—it was always light, and it was always that hum, and the smell of the swamp will always stick with me. You know?” Like me, Dave still wonders, despite his efforts at the Baron, if he did enough. “There’s a lot of reflection, you know? There’s the anger. . . . Did you help many people? Did you leave a lot of people behind? All of that I think of. Because I saw so many people in that swamp area that did have passports, and I couldn’t get everybody out.”
Who Gets to Escape the Taliban