‘I can’t risk my children’s lives’: the families left behind at mercy of Taliban – The Guardian

When the email arrived last Tuesday, Faaiz Ghulam and his young family were euphoric. Approved for evacuation, they were instructed to head straight to the west gate of Kabul’s Baron Hotel. There, British officials would process their case. Next step, the UK.

Yet Ghulam, his wife and their two children – an 18-month-old daughter and three-year-old son – are today in hiding in Kabul, terrified for their lives. Their first attempt to reach the hotel ended at a Taliban checkpoint. A second was abandoned over safety concerns as Ghulam and his wife carried their children through febrile crowds outside the airport.

On Thursday, the family were just 10 metres from the suicide bomber who detonated explosives that killed up to 170 people. “We are traumatised. We escaped by walking on dead people,” Ghulam told the Observer.

He spent five years working on an aid project for the UK government and expects the Taliban to punish him. Neighbours know he tried to flee on an evacuation plane, and soon the Taliban will probably know too.

Ghulam’s predicament and failure to reach the Baron Hotel was repeated countless times last week by individuals approved to enter the UK under the British government’s Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap).

Compounding the situation is new evidence that suggests the actual number of Afghans entitled to come to Britain but left behind is likely to run into the many thousands, far above government estimates. As the Observer reveals today, thousands of desperate pleas for help have gone unanswered by the Foreign Office.

Statistics collated by 38 Labour MPs so far show that 1,723 unresolved cases have been raised by constituents. These include two female doctors working for “UK objectives” who received no evacuation pass.

This data – and Ghulam’s account, echoed by many others to the Observer – raises uncomfortable questions over the UK’s approach to the emergency Afghan airlift. Aid agencies believe the UK’s failure to ensure safe passage to its processing centre in the Baron Hotel at the airport meant families with young children were simply unable to reach it. The majority of those approved for evacuation but still trapped in Kabul are believed to be young families.

“Because of the crowds, the checkpoints, the sheer physicality and danger involved, it was only do-able if you were an adult or older teenager and could fight your way through. If you were carrying small children, forget it,” said a senior source at a UK organisation.

Afghans walk along a fenced corridor after crossing into Pakistan near Chaman on Saturday.
Afghans walk along a fenced corridor after crossing into Pakistan near Chaman on Saturday. Photograph: Getty Images

Initially, families and small children were getting through. As the crowds built and the Taliban tightened their grip around the airport, the numbers plunged to zero, he added.

“Of those that got through towards the end, none had small children,” said the source, whose organisation requested the evacuation of hundreds of staff who worked for the British government. Less than 5% have flown out.

A series of WhatsApp messages sent last week between Afghans entitled to enter the UK, British officials and aid agencies – leaked to the Observer – articulate the difficulties.

“If you’re single and strong, yes you can somehow manage to reach [British] soldiers, but with family and children, it will only be suffering,” wrote one Afghan.

Another message, sent last Thursday, laments that it was impossible to get through with minors. It states: “I cannot risk the life of my family, and it is my personal choice not to humiliate myself on the route to Baron. UK government never promised our evacuation safety in our contract.”

Others ask desperately for assistance. “I am writing this email on behalf of a group which could not make it to Baron Hotel. Please let us know about an alternative route,” reads one.

Another WhatsApp user, in a direct message to British officials, asks: “What is the alternative if Taliban do not open routes to Baron, will you leave us behind or you have plan B?”

People outside a closed bank in Kabul on Saturday.
People outside a closed bank in Kabul on Saturday. Since the Taliban seized power 14 days ago government buildings, banks, schools and universities have remained largely closed. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/Getty Images

No plan B was apparently forthcoming. A primary source of anger was the UK’s failure to provide a shuttle bus to the airport; the US and German governments picked up passengers from around Kabul and then drove them directly to safety.

Ghulam said: “Other countries provided shuttles. We requested this numerous times but unfortunately this was not approved. The British said this was not possible.”

Other WhatsApp exchanges reveal that some Afghans were so desperate, they offered to hire their own transport. “There are private buses contracted by other countries. Their mission sent details of their people to the airport gate and TB [Taliban] allow buses based on those details. We are ready to bear that cost if arrangement is done,” wrote an Afghan still stranded in Kabul.

Another note, sent on Friday, following the suicide bombing, states: “My friends bound to US are in buses to airport right now. We have not received any updates from UK.”

Aid agencies also question the route required to reach the Baron, and the need to negotiate a sewage canal. “The only way was to walk through a sewage ditch: it’s extremely difficult when you have a number of children,” said a UK aid source.

It meant some families were forced to make horrendous decisions. One mother who had failed repeatedly to reach the Baron told UK officials she would fly out alone, her only hope of escaping the Taliban.

Naadir, a former translator for a UK development project, left his wife and four of his children behind. Three times last week his family attempted to reach the Baron, once ending up in the wrong place because of “confusing” instructions from British officials. Another attempt dissolved when they were beaten by Taliban as others fired bullets into the ground.

Eventually his wife said it was too much for the children. On Thursday, Naadir reached the airport with just his eldest son. On Friday night, they landed in Dubai en route to the UK.

Other organisations recount similar hardships. Victor Ponsford, who is helping Afghan employees of the British Council, said a group of nine individuals approved for evacuation had tried to reach the airport last week without success. “They tried on multiple occasions with young children in tow. One of the kids actually got hurt in a crush,” he said.

Despite being too late, Ghulam clung to hope. “Please UK, reconsider the deadline. Please get us out. Otherwise we will be slaughtered.”

A spokesperson for the Foreign Commonwealth and Development (FCDO) said staff had “worked tirelessly” to evacuate Afghan staff, and more than 15,000 people had been flown out.

The spokesperson added: “We continue to put pressure on the Taliban to allow safe passage out of Afghanistan for those who want to leave.”

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‘I can’t risk my children’s lives’: the families left behind at mercy of Taliban – The Guardian

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