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World Inside Kabul: An aid worker reveals the devastating chaos that erupted during the US exit from Afghanistan

20:00  05 september  2021
20:00  05 september  2021 Source:   businessinsider.com

Last troops exit Afghanistan, ending America's longest war

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a man riding a bike down the street: Nigel Walker in Kabul, Afghanistan, two weeks before the Taliban takeover. Provided by Nigel Walker © Provided by Nigel Walker Nigel Walker in Kabul, Afghanistan, two weeks before the Taliban takeover. Provided by Nigel Walker
  • Nigel Walker was one of thousands of Americans evacuated from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.
  • Walker faced massive crowds of desperate people in his multiple failed attempts to reach the airport.
  • He was finally evacuated by the US in a secretive operation and still feels a sense of abandonment.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Earlier this summer, Nigel Walker arrived in Afghanistan for what he thought would be a yearlong stint with an aid organization, working on projects related to healthcare, education, and food security.

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Just three months later, he was one of the thousands of Americans chaotically evacuated from the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Walker, an American and British citizen, was working as a communications advisor for the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee (NAC), a non-governmental organization that has been working in the country for about 40 years.

But everything changed - slowly at first and then all at once - as the Taliban swept through the country, taking city after city until finally retaking control of Afghanistan, nearly 20 years after US-led forces ousted the militant group from power.

In the days that followed, Kabul was overtaken by panic, desperation, and chaos as people frantically tried to flee. Walker, like many other Americans, struggled to reach the airport to board an evacuation flight, weathering large crowds, Taliban checkpoints, and a secretive military operation to finally make it out.

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a group of people standing in a room: Nigel Walker at work in the city of Faizabad, located in the Badakhshan province, before he was evacuated to Kabul and eventually out of the country. Provided by Nigel Walker © Provided by Nigel Walker Nigel Walker at work in the city of Faizabad, located in the Badakhshan province, before he was evacuated to Kabul and eventually out of the country. Provided by Nigel Walker

The takeover: 'And then slowly the bigger cities fell'

Walker said he witnessed the Taliban's push through Afghanistan from the very beginning.

A couple of months ago he was based in northern Afghanistan, working on projects related to food insecurity in the Badakhshan province. He would visit a project in a small town, for example in Kishim, where NAC was helping women establish tree nurseries, only to be told the very next day that the town had been taken over by the Taliban.

The Taliban supported some of the projects NAC was working on, according to Walker: "We had their permission to work in those areas because they realized that we were giving aid to the people and they wanted that to continue."

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The Taliban took one rural town after another, pushing Walker's group further and further into Faizabad, the capital of the province. Though the Taliban's rule was spreading, Walker said he did not see it as an indication of what was to come.

Nizamettin Çalışkan et al. posing for the camera: Taliban fighters pose for photograph in Wazir Akbar Khan in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul © AP Photo/Rahmat Gul Taliban fighters pose for photograph in Wazir Akbar Khan in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

As the Taliban closed in on Faizabad, his organization decided to evacuate workers to Kabul, where they planned to continue their work. Even in the weeks right before the Taliban took control of the country's capital, Walker said he did not believe it would happen.

"We were thinking, 'Provincial capitals are one thing, but it's not a big city. Like Kandahar or Jalalabad or Mazar,'" he said. "And then slowly the bigger cities fell."

With Kabul overrun with panic, conditions were ripe for a deadly stampede

When the Taliban finally entered Kabul and seized control on August 15, Walker was not immediately trying to evacuate, and even thought he might stay in Afghanistan.

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"The Taliban encouraged all international aid organizations to stay and continue their work," he said. "My perspective was this is the government we have now, so we need to work with them."

He was encouraging other organizations and media to remain in the country so that they could hold the Taliban accountable. But during the takeover, the city fell into chaos. "Kabul was panicked, absolutely panicked," Walker said, explaining that the entire city went into gridlock as soon as the militant group was on its doorstep.

The day of the takeover, Walker was working at a school that NAC supports, but the group had to literally abandon their car because of the gridlock. Eventually, the situation progressed to a point where the organization was ordered to evacuate the country over security concerns.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Thousands gather outside Kabul airport in hopes of getting on an evacuation flight. Wakil Kohsar/Getty Images © Wakil Kohsar/Getty Images Thousands gather outside Kabul airport in hopes of getting on an evacuation flight. Wakil Kohsar/Getty Images

On Walker's first attempt to reach the airport, a day or two after the takeover, the group drove hours in traffic to get there, only to be turned away at a Taliban checkpoint. The fighters said they needed permission from Taliban leadership to let them pass, even though the group included Americans.

The next day, Walker made a second attempt to reach the airport, a drive that he said took two to three hours each time due to the traffic in Kabul. This time they got further but found themselves in a massive crowd of desperate Afghans who were also trying to evacuate.

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The scene Walker described was absolute mayhem: hundreds of people, packed tightly together, pushing their way towards a concrete wall atop which American soldiers stood.

The soldiers were trying to spot people holding up their passports in the crowd to then grab them and pull them over the barrier and into the airport. But it was nearly impossible to get close enough to the wall to get their attention.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: People who want to flee the country continue to wait around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 24, 2021. Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images © Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images People who want to flee the country continue to wait around Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 24, 2021. Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Walker said the conditions were ripe for a deadly stampede and that half the people in the crowd seemed to be women and small children, even infants: "I'll never forget that and the potential for just these little children getting squashed."

At least seven people were trampled to death in a stampede while trying to make it into the airport, but eyewitness accounts suggest the figure is much higher. One woman said she saw her 2-year-old get crushed to death.


Video: US expects to admit more than 50,000 evacuated Afghans (Associated Press)

Walker was also disturbed by the effect his group's presence had on the crowd and worried he was putting the Afghan people into even more danger.

"The presence of people like us, who would potentially get out, caused a frenzy in the crowd," he said. "They would latch onto you, because they thought you could pull them through."

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"It was dangerous for everybody in that crowd if foreigners were there," Walker said, adding he even wrote to his congressmen to urge the US to stop telling Americans to go to the airport.

'There were impossible choices everywhere you looked'

At one point, a mother with three or four small children struggling to move through the crowd handed a car seat with her baby in it to Walker, hoping he would help her push through.

"There were impossible choices everywhere you looked," he said.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: A man pulls a girl to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer © REUTERS/Stringer A man pulls a girl to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

Another time, a young Afghan girl in the crowd latched herself onto Walker: "I could just see how desperate she was, but behind her, her mother was pushing her towards me and just pleading with me to take her with me."

He said at that moment, he just wanted to help. He thought maybe he could take her with him. But as they tried to move through the crowd, Walker said he was assaulted.

He was holding his phone and his passport up in the air, hoping a soldier on the concrete wall might spot him and help him move forward. He had his phone out because the situation was changing so quickly he needed to read security alerts as they came in.

But a man in the crowd, taking advantage of the chaos, snatched the phone and passport from Walker's hand. The man tried to flee but was trapped in the swarm of people. Walker turned and tried to wrestle the items from the man's hands, sending both the phone and the passport to the ground.

Walker had to quickly choose between trying to save his phone or his passport, as the crush of the crowd made bending over almost impossible and incredibly dangerous.

"Every possible focus was me trying to make enough room to bend down and pick up my passport," he said. He was only able to grab the passport, but did not recover his phone.

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"In the process of that I got twisted around, and I never saw the girl again."

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Women with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer © REUTERS/Stringer Women with their children try to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

At that point, Walker realized it was a bad situation and that he needed to leave. It took all the strength he had to back his way out of the crowd.

The next day, Walker's group traveled to the airport for a third attempt, but this time were met by even greater crowds that had swelled well into the thousands. He decided the situation was too risky and didn't even try to enter the crowd again.

A secretive, 'fantastical' evacuation plan

Walker said he was just about resigned to staying in the country, but was called directly by Americans and the British: "I was contacted by both my governments telling me that I was in danger potentially because of my prior work."

Until about a decade ago, Walker had worked as a journalist investigating war crimes in West Africa. Now, the US and UK were warning him that he could be seen as a threat and be directly targeted by the Taliban.

Eventually, both governments told him they had come up with an evacuation plan, both of which Walker described as "fantastical." He ultimately went with the American plan and successfully made it into the Kabul airport.

He was unable to say exactly how it happened due to security concerns.

a person holding a bag of luggage: A photo Nigel Walker took on the tarmac at the Kabul airport before boarding an evacuation flight operated by the Hungarian military. Nigel Walker © Nigel Walker A photo Nigel Walker took on the tarmac at the Kabul airport before boarding an evacuation flight operated by the Hungarian military. Nigel Walker

From the Kabul airport, Walker was transported in a joint mission between the militaries of Uzbekistan and Hungary, who were aiding the US evacuation operations. About 20 to 30 evacuees, mostly women and children, took off from Kabul and landed at a small commercial airport in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek and Hungarian militaries were "incredibly nice" to the evacuees, Walker said, and set up tents with cots and brought in music for the group. After two days, they were transported to the main airport in Budapest, where American citizens and green card holders were handed over to Hungarian police and then to US Embassy staff.

The undocumented Afghans who managed to make it onto the evacuation planes were separated from the rest of the group. Walker said he never saw them again.

He was put up in a hotel in Budapest to quarantine and get tested for COVID-19, during which time he said the embassy staff was "amazing" and went above and beyond to take care of the evacuees.

After three days in Hungary - about six days since he had left Kabul - he was finally on a plane back to the US.

a large airplane flying high up in the air: A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul © AP Photo/Rahmat Gul A U.S. Chinook helicopter flies near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Since the US evacuations ended last week, reports have emerged recounting some of the special operations the military conducted in order to get people into the Kabul airport.

An investigation by The New York Times found some Americans and Afghan allies were transported via ground to a secretive CIA compound located between the outskirts of Kabul and a mountain range. The evacuees were then transported from the compound to the Kabul airport via helicopter, avoiding Taliban checkpoints. Sources told The Times hundreds of people were evacuated from the site.

Another report from CNN said some Americans were directed to a meet-up point near the airport where they were then escorted by Taliban members to airport gates as part of a secret agreement between the US and the militant group. One defense official told the outlet a "secret gate" was even established.

A sense of abandonment

Days after being back on US soil, Walker was still reeling from the experience. He said it felt "surreal" to be back in California after witnessing the things he had seen.

He feels like the American government has abandoned Afghanistan, but also feels a sense of abandonment on a personal level for his Afghan colleagues and the projects they were working on.

Rhema Marvanne standing in front of a table: Nigel Walker at work in the city of Faizabad, located in the Badakhshan province, before he was evacuated to Kabul and eventually out of the country. Provided by Nigel Walker © Provided by Nigel Walker Nigel Walker at work in the city of Faizabad, located in the Badakhshan province, before he was evacuated to Kabul and eventually out of the country. Provided by Nigel Walker

"I had made all these friends, and I thought our projects were going really well. We were getting really good results from the clinics we'd set up," he said. "So the sadness is the people left behind and how desperate they feel."

He said he hopes the work NAC and other aid organizations were doing can continue, and that if the circumstances are right he would absolutely return to the country to continue his work.

"I still think if we can re-engage with the Taliban and hold them accountable, I still think there's hope. Because otherwise, if there's no hope then what is there?"

Have a news tip or a story you'd like to share about the US exit from Afghanistan? Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

Read the original article on Business Insider

White House says a 'fair amount' of US military equipment provided to Afghans is now in Taliban hands .
"Obviously, we don't have a sense that they are going to readily hand it over to us at the airport," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said.WASHINGTON — National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Tuesday a "fair amount" of military equipment the U.S. provided the Afghan National Security Forces was seized by the Taliban in the militant group's quick route of Afghanistan.

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