Thursday, September 16

On board one of the last planes to leave Afghanistan: tears, dreams and a lot of uncertainty

The US Marine yells “push!” and hundreds of people obey the order. They are crammed inside the Boeing C-17 military plane and crowded together so that as many people as possible can enter. When the back door closes and the deafening engines start, and the heavy plane takes off from the runway at Kabul International Airport, the passengers burst into tears. They have become refugees.

End of international evacuations leaves tens of thousands of people behind: “How can you say ‘mission accomplished’?”

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The cabin noise of military aircraft is much higher than that of commercial aircraft. They have almost no windows, so the 400 passengers aboard the plane, which was heading to a Qatari military base, were unable to get one last look at the Hindu Kush mountain range.

Most of them have had a comfortable life, with busy weekdays and weekends with family and friends. They visited the gardens or parks on the outskirts of the city and enjoyed the traditional frozen yogurt drink during hot summers.

They had a dignified life, even a happy one, despite the war. They did not want to leave their homes, but their life was turned upside down overnight when the Taliban gained positions and took the Afghan capital on August 15.

The United States Army completed the withdrawal on Tuesday, with the departure of the 5,400 soldiers deployed to support the mass transfers that began a few days before the takeover of the capital by the Taliban and which became one of the largest operations. air evacuation history.

For passengers bound for Qatar last weekend, the journey had already been excruciatingly rough before taking off. They had to fight their way through thousands of people at the airport entrance, under the constant threat of bombings.

And one of the most difficult steps still lay ahead: the process of applying for asylum in a foreign country, living in a refugee camp, facing discrimination and rejection, starting a new life with the one tiny suitcase. that could be taken. The difficulty of being a refugee. It is an unwanted but necessary escape; Leaving his homeland was a tough decision, but it needed to be made quickly.

Three young men are sitting in the crowd, wearing matching shirts and heads bowed. They wipe the silent tears with their hands. Former Afghan soldiers travel in the uniform of an army that effectively no longer exists, looking not unlike the US military representing the country that signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020.

In the background of the plane, many passengers say that they had waited awake at the airport, for several nights in a row, for the opportunity to leave the country. When the engines began to rumble and the icy air entered through the pipes of the plane, the discomfort, they said, was now easier to bear.

The dream conquers many. Their bodies rest on strangers or piled on other people’s legs, their eyes covered by T-shirts or scarves. Some remain on their feet during the three-hour flight, watching movies on computer screens. Others, like a young father of four, won’t stop crying throughout the flight.

The United States did not prioritize comfort on the C-17. It was an evacuation, so the soldiers thought practically. Accommodating as many as possible was the goal, even if it meant shoving people onto the plane; even if an amalgamation of unknown men and women were playing in a closed space, something generally unthinkable in Afghan culture.

Everyone knows that thousands of people were left behind, some waiting in the scorching sun, sitting in the middle of a pile of trash made up of empty water bottles and full diapers. Children have skin rashes, diarrhea, heatstroke. The two-year-old daughter of an Afghan interpreter who had worked for the United States was trampled on by a crowd at the airport gates. On Thursday last week, up to 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing and firearms attack near the airport entrance.

Some children say they are happy. “I’m going to Kandahar,” explains Arzam, a three-year-old girl on her way to the United States. He thinks he is going to a place in southern Afghanistan that he had heard of.

Dawn has already risen when the C-17 lands at al-Udeid air base in Qatar. Humid air rushes in as the door opens. Due to the intense heat, beads of sweat begin to appear on the foreheads of the passengers. A mother stands up, holds the hands of her two adult children, and watches with expressionless face as the American soldiers unload the few belongings of the passengers.

They are not allowed to disembark until a uniformed American installs a camera to film the newcomers getting off the plane.

Almost 30,000 people have arrived at the Al Udeid transit center in recent weeks. They are housed in large, air-conditioned tents, which offer shelter but little privacy, while the necessary documentation is processed. Several colorful bouncy castles have been installed outside for children.

Communities have been formed in the camp, organized around the elderly who listen and convey the needs of those in the gigantic tent city: more blankets are needed, lost luggage has not yet been found, no there are enough toilets.

Although Qatar is a transit hub, Afghans have arrived in many countries in the last week. The United Kingdom, Spain, South Korea, Uganda, Germany, Mexico, Ukraine, France and Colombia are some of the states that are part of a long list.

The Afghans are once again fleeing the Taliban regime and are once again an uprooted and dispersed people.

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