What it’s like for an Afghan family trying to make it to the Kabul airport

·6 min read

On Aug. 24, Syavash, an Afghan journalist, attempted to flee the country with his family, making the perilous trip to the Kabul International Airport. They did not succeed. A couple of days later, ISIS-K suicide bombers attacked the airport, killing 13 U.S. Marines and more than 170 Afghans. The names of the journalist and his wife and children have been changed to protect their identity.

I don't know if anyone will read this and I don’t care, but I am so broken right now that I need to share the last 13 hours I spent trying to get myself and my family to the planes to evacuate us from Afghanistan. My family — myself, my wife and my two sons, Pasoon, 7, and Atal, 2 — left yesterday at 3 p.m.

I have been a journalist in this war-torn country for more than 15 years, reporting on reconstruction, democracy and women rights among other issues. I look back at many journalists and media professionals who are still in the country, those that left the country, and those who, under very tragic circumstances, have left the world.

In these years, I reported for an Afghan audience on seemingly small but important issues, like how to meet their elected member of the national assembly, and why a women’s right to inheritance is important for human rights. By profession I am a documentary filmmaker, and I have covered most aspects of Afghanistan’s life and development in more than 300 radio programs and 100 video documentaries. My wife, Sarah, a doctor, was one of the first women to attend medical school after the fall of the Taliban in her province of Parwan.

An injured Afghan
An injured man is transported for treatment after the bombing at the Kabul airport, Aug. 26, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Because of my job as a journalist and contacts abroad, I was able to get paperwork to leave with my family to Western Europe. Our preparations for leaving Afghanistan began at home, where we hid the bags under a sheet in the car so that they wouldn’t be visible until we made it to the airport. Before we left, Pasoon was jumping up and down preparing his bags and selecting his drawings to take with him. I had already told him a little about how he might see people shooting in the air and chasing us, and maybe also seeing tear gas. I tried to prepare him. But nothing could prepare him for what we experienced.

The mayhem started from the first traffic circle. We saw thousands of people holding bags, papers and plastic files. Others were holding nothing, and probably had nothing. There were elderly, the young, men and women all making their way to different gates. There were babies as young as a couple months old in the crowd. Some had been told to go there by the companies they once worked for, or drawn by rumors they have heard that this particular gate is a good access point and that Afghans are being taken to foreign countries without documents.

As we advanced to the airport, we had to drag ourselves through shit — literal shit from the sewer water that had spilled on the road — and when the Taliban weren’t paying attention or chatting, we’d slide an inch forward. This whole time, I wondered: Do we have to go through a river of shit to get to freedom? To gain even an inch or two of ground toward the airport, we had to drag ourselves in a seated position, because if we got up the Taliban would hit us with sticks and shoot guns over our heads.

My wife was hit with a stick several times and so were numerous other people. They threw water on us and repeatedly said, “Your owners, your masters, the Westerners abandoned you.”

My wife, who suffers from severe back pain, was hit so many times and I could only beg, “Please don't hit her, she is a woman and she is sick.”

Pasoon may only be 7 years old but he knows what is going on around him. He kept saying, “Let's go home. I will tell the Taliban to take two of my toy cars and don't hurt my father and mother.”

Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle along the street in Jalalabad province on August 15, 2021. (-/AFP via Getty Images)
Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle along the street in Jalalabad province on August 15, 2021. (-/AFP via Getty Images)

We would wait for a Taliban guard to run towards another group that was trying to break and run for the Abbey Gate, and then break from the crowd and make an attempt to slide forward a bit. At one point, after making my way through large crowds of people in at least six places, I was able to make it to the outer gate, where thousands more were waiting to enter the airport. We spent many hours there trying to make progress amid the lashes, screams, insults and misery.

This chaos went on for hours — advancing inches, and then being chased back to the point we started. I might have chosen to stay there and try to make it into the airport, but I wanted to respect my family’s wishes, and they had had enough. I stood up and told the Taliban guard we were going back and so we were pulled out of the crowd and joined the groups that were walking away from the airport. Some of them had spent three days, some four, and some even close to a week to try to get in, most of them without any documentation or history of work with Western companies. You could hear them as they walked back home, giving up, cursing everything and regretting spendings days in the open, never able to make it to the gates of a better life and survival.

So, 13 hours after we left, we made our way back home in the middle of the night, hopeless, broken and scared. What can I say? My hands are shaking, my eyes can hardly see the computer screen, and tears are just rolling down. My children and the thousands of other children and women there don't deserve this.

Crowds of people wait outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 25, 2021 in this picture obtained from social media. (David Martinon/Twitter via Reuters)
Crowds of people wait outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 25, 2021 in this picture obtained from social media. (David Martinon/Twitter via Reuters)

I have already put aside my dignity, my values and my self-esteem to try to make this happen. I’ve made repeated requests at odd hours to colleagues in the West; I have made life hard for so many. I know they are doing their best, and I will not forget this.

I know what to expect with the Taliban back in power, and I will try again to leave with my family. I want my children to live like normal human beings. I want to provide a better life for my children, one in which they don’t have to ask me every day where the bomb blast happened, and will we be killed? 

I wish I could convince my wife to go back with me to the airport and try again, but she won’t.

She says it’s OK if someday they will come and kill us. After what she experienced, she won’t risk the humiliation again. It is hard to convey the feeling you have when your family is beaten in public and there is nothing in the world you can do. That moment of helplessness will live with me forever.

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