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Thousands of Afghans converge at Kabul airport amid chaotic evacuation

Thousands of people remain camped inside and outside the busy airport anxiously waiting for a chance to flee after Taliban’s shockingly swift takeover of the country in a little over a week’s time.

US Marines assist in evacuation efforts at Kabul airport in Afghanistan on August 20, 2021. (AP)

Thousands of Afghans have gathered near the military entrance gate of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, hoping to get out of the war-torn country as a number of countries continue to evacuate their citizens and diplomats.

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Since the Taliban completed an unexpected power grab in Afghanistan, the capital has been swarmed by people rushing to flee Afghanistan, including civilians who assisted foreign soldiers or groups and now fear retribution, despite Taliban granting a general amnesty.

Food, water, and other essential supplies are scarce at the airport, leaving men, women, children, and the elderly increasingly desperate after several days of what they say has been an agonising wait.

‘I just want to get out from here’

From behind the barricades set up at the airport, Afghans with passports and flight permits are selected one at a time and allowed to enter the gates controlled by foreign military forces, taking them one step closer to their ‘journey of hope.’

“There is no water or food here; there is nothing except a lot of problems. All I have are my passport and ID documents, nothing else,” said an Afghan man who has been at the airport for three days.

His response to a question about his preferred destination gave another glimpse into the stark reality of Afghans: “I just want to get out from here; it doesn’t matter where I go.”

Scenes of chaos

In footage shown on UK broadcaster Sky, British troops were seen attempting to calm down crowds that gathered outside Kabul Airport hoping to be evacuated from the country.

According to Anadolu Agency, shots were fired to disperse the people from the area, where they reached after staying at the main entrance for two days.

Senior US military officials say that the processing of passengers inside the Kabul airport has begun, but that there is a considerable backlog of people waiting to fly to Qatar.

Gates to the airport were closed overnight due to overcrowding in the area, and processing began on Saturday morning. It would be roughly 5 to 9 hours before the backlog clears and more people could be allowed in through the gates.

The officials spoke to the AP news agency on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to discuss ongoing military operations.

‘We are now in a safe country’

On Saturday, Italy said its military has evacuated nearly 1,000 Afghan citizens out of Kabul over the last five days.

The Defence Ministry said that two flights carrying 207 Afghans arrived on Saturday in Rome from Kuwait, which Italy is using as a staging ground for the Kabul evacuations.

In a video distributed by the ministry, an Afghan man who was brought to the base thanked “the Italian armed forces, who didn’t leave us alone in Afghanistan. With all the difficulty, they brought us away.”

Speaking with his back to the camera, he said the journey took two days.

“We are tired. We are happy. We are now in a safe country,” he said, expressing also hope that one day “if Afghanistan becomes safe, we can return to our country.”

But the growing question for many other Afghans is, where will they finally call home?

Already, European leaders who fear a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis are signalling that fleeing Afghans who didn’t help Western forces during the war should stay in neighbouring countries instead.

The desperate scenes of people clinging to aircraft taking off from Kabul’s airport have only deepened Europe’s anxiety.

Remaining in Afghanistan means adapting to life under the Taliban, who say they seek an “inclusive, Islamic” government, offer full amnesty to those who worked for the US and the Western-backed government and claim they have become more moderate since they last held power from 1996 to 2001.

They say they’ll honor women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law, without elaborating.

US warns citizens away from airport

Meanwhile, in a new security warning, the US Embassy on Saturday told citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without “individual instructions from a US government representative,” citing potential security threats outside its gates.

Tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan are waiting nervously to see whether the United States would deliver on President Joe Biden’s new pledge to evacuate all Americans and all Afghans who aided the war effort.

Time is running out ahead of Biden’s August 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining US troops, and the president on Friday night did not commit to extending it.

He faces growing criticism as videos depict pandemonium and occasional violence outside the airport, and as vulnerable Afghans who fear the Taliban’s retaliation send desperate pleas not to be left behind.

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