This is the second part of a three part series. Read Against the Wall – An Afghan Evacuation Story, Part 1
It was August 19th 2021, three days after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. I received a startling email from Rahmat, one of our editors:
Hope you are doing well. Now I got to Poland. Warsaw airport. This is the contact number of a polish woman who was responsible to assemble us to travel to Poland. Hope you and Basir can find a solution to evacuate all members here.
I was ecstatic and baffled:
How did you do it? How does it work? Can any of our other people take advantage of the Polish option?
I was buzzing with optimism and full of ideas about how to maximize the Polish option for the 22 families we were trying to evacuate from Afghanistan. Like Rahmat, who had edited Searching for a Path and Treasure Trove, they had all worked on or supported Community Supported Film’s documentary filmmaking trainings and production programs in Afghanistan. On WhatsApp I wrote to Basir:
Have you seen the emails from Rahmat about the Polish option? What do you think?
Basir was the coordinator of our recent project, Afghanistan 21: LookListenLocal which sought to amplify Afghan voices during the pullout of the international community. He is a prominent human right activist and in need of evacuation himself.
I introduced myself to the Polish contact via email, explained my connection to Rahmat and attached information about more families that needed to be evacuated. It was 1am in Boston, 9:30am in Kabul. I didn’t know where the Polish woman was but if she was in Warsaw then it was 7am there. “Give it a few hours,” I thought, and got back to work on other evacuation options that we were pursuing.
At 1:39 AM Basir wrote:
Desperately heading back home after 6 hours waiting, pushing, getting punched by Americans, use of tear gas.
Why hadn’t he told me he was going to make a second attempt to get into the Kabul airport for evacuation?
Michael: So very sorry. Are you safe now? Home?
Basir: Back to home
Michael: How are Hosnia and the kids?
Basir: All are fine
Basir: One of my fingers is dispositioned as a result of a kick
Michael: Very sorry to hear it.
Michael: When you are able please call about the Polish option. I have not received a response from my email.
Eight hours after my first email to the Polish, I sent a second:
When you have a brief moment, please let me know if I should be putting any hope in this – will you be helping with the evacuation of our people to Poland – or should I try and find other options?
Why would the Polish take my colleagues? The Polish have a reputation for being hard on migrants and refugees, don’t they? How are they operating in the chaos of Kabul? Where is she working from? Are they really with an embassy or some other organization? Are there Polish troops with planes in Afghanistan? An hour or so later I saw an email pop up:
Sent: Thursday, August 19, 2021 10:28 AM
Cc: Basir; Rahmat;
Subject: Re: Evacuation of CSFilm members in Afghanistan to Poland.
I only now got your email. It had to be stuck :/
What is your situation.?
Really? Is that an email from a diplomat? So short and with emojis? Scammers were already taking advantage of the Afghan situation to get money out of people with promises of evacuations. Rahmat assured me that this was her. I responded with all the information I had provided in the first email: my position, relationship to Rahmat, the situation for my Afghan colleagues and information about 7 families that needed evacuation.
At 7pm on the 19th I hadn’t heard back since the first email that morning. I emailed with the info for three more families:
Please find information and documents for three more families in desperate need of evacuation. One has been at the airport and beaten multiple times for some days.
Please confirm that you received my previous email with submissions and this one and that the information is as you want it.
She responded immediately:
Confirmed. It went to the consular unit. U should get the phone
What did it mean? Consular unit where? Kabul!? Who will get a phone, when? I wrote her back.
Thank you very much.
1. I just want to make double sure that the first 7 I sent (12:33pm EST) starting with “Family 1: Aqeel” also went to the consular unit?
2. Can you also tell me when you say “U should get the phone,” will they call me to coordinate or the individuals?
3. Can you please give me a sense of the schedule for the evacuation order – are we talking about tomorrow, the next days, next week, before August 31st?
4. Is it guaranteed evacuation, or should we still be looking for other options?
I got a response 2 hours later:
2. tomorrow, day after tomorrow
3. next 2 days
4. please look
The response didn’t give me a lot of clarity, but it was enough for me to write to our team that the Polish option was real:
The Polish evacuation option seems to be coming together.
Over the next three days I sent the Polish details for 22 families and 95 individuals. With each submission I hoped for a response, but none came.
For days we all tried to reach out by email and WhatsApp to no avail. There was a painful nerve-racking silence. At the same time, there were ever increasing warnings circulating that people should stay away from the airport, that there were more indications that a suicide or other attack was imminent.
I wrote to the CSFilm evacuees:
The airport is too dangerous. People should STOP trying to go to the airport on their own. The crowds, the heat, the violence must be avoided. We will try and find other ways to get you out. Do not risk your lives trying to go through the airport on your own.
Despite these cautions, Basir let me know that he was making a third attempt on the airport with his family on the 21st. I didn’t hear from him for a nervous 13 hours, and then:
I went to the airport two times today. The first time Taliban stopped me and searched my cellphone. They beat me with a tall circular iron causing bloodshed all over my legs. Taliban took my phone when they could not find any clue of my engagement with government or internationals. I am greatly panicked
Maybe the best advice would be that I stay at home until I get an escort to the airport. Today, I saw a big car with Afghans inside it and French flag on front that was assisted by the Taliban to make it inside the airport. This is one way that Afghans can safely get into the airport.
It is likely that CSFilm filmmaker Aqeela (The Road Above), was on one of those buses. She reconnected with us a few days later and reported that she had been evacuated to France.
The Polish were our hope. On the 22nd we received this message from Hasib, another one of our filmmakers (L is for Light, D is for Darkness):
Last night Polandians from Kabul Airport Called me To Come in (AB Gate )
Early morning I went to Airport There was a Huge crush and nobody wont let us
very very dangerous.
The Poles also reached out to our filmmaker, Reza (Searching for a Path):
Polish embassy called from a private number. He said come to airport and try to come inside
The gates open at 8 am and print a paper with the polish flag. Try to speak with the soldiers to let you come inside of airport
We were excited that the Poles were in touch but concerned that our team wasn’t working together, especially since every attempt on the airport involved danger. Why had Hasib and Reza gone to the airport without first letting us know so that we could try and help? Was this the ingrown Afghan distrust of others? Was this to not burden others? Was this the fog of fear and fatigue?
We needed to do a better job of communicating and sharing information. I wrote to everyone:
I suggest we all work together to maximize our effort and safety.
I tried to take more responsibility for communications and started trying to call the Poles on the hour. I was hoping that if I could talk to them, we could work out a clearer system to guide people through to the Polish troops.
On the 24th morning I started texting and calling at 4am Kabul time. Nothing. I asked others to do the same. Reza tried calling and texting. His text message wasn’t responded to, but it was read. They had picked up the message!? They were there? I picked up my phone and dialed the number again.
Hi! This is Michael Sheridan, Community Supported Film with filmmakers on your list for evacuation. We have been trying to reach you. Thank you for answering. Are you still doing evacuations?
Polish official: Right, the filmmakers. Yes, I really want to get them out. Ok, message me their names on WhatsApp. They must get to the airport now. I will send you a pin for exactly where they must go. Get them to go together. I will send a picture of the Polish Troops. The troops come out of the gate regularly and look for people with P drawn on their hand.
Tell your people to go now or they’ll miss it.
Send me their names and I’ll pass them on for the list at the airport.
It was 9:15am Kabul time. It was late to be making an attempt on the airport. People usually started at the break of dawn. I sent her the names for seven families.
It was 1:15am in Boston. I wrote in the CSFilmEvac group that the 7 families needed to get to the airport immediately. The Poles sent coordinates on a google map and a picture of the troops. They needed to look for the troops at the pins – both the red and blue locations. They needed to draw a big P on the palm of their hands and waive it at the Polish troops. I drew a P on my hand took a picture of it and posted it so they could see what I meant.
Hasib, Reza and Wahid were on their way. No response yet from Hamid, Hashmat or Jafar. Basir was already at the airport but was not responding. Then some bad news from the Poles:
Polish Official: Ppl without numbers not on the list – Hamid and Hashmat
Michael: Is it possible for anyone that is not on the list to still get added to the list?
Polish Official: No :((
So, it was true. Not all our submissions had either been received or accepted. Our editors Hamid and Hashmat were not included.
Hashmat direct messaged me:
[2:07 AM]: Hi, in recent list to polish country my name is not included, may I ask why it’s so? Please.
Michael: I don’t know. I am very sorry. You were on the lists that I sent but your name is not listed. I am very sorry. We will find other ways.
Is there any other family that is not included in the list?
Michael: There are many people who weren’t included, unfortunately.
The Polish wanted us to coordinate and have everyone come to the pinpoint together. There was no way to coordinate that. Reza had to drive 45km to the airport. He gathered his family in the car and started the drive through the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Kabul. His family of six with three young children and an infant left everything behind. Once they got as close as they could to the airport, they abandoned the car and walked.
Wahid and his family of 6 would walk the 4km from Yakatoot to the airport. I was able to share information, photos and videos that I was receiving from vets and others working on evacuations about where Taliban checkpoints were, and which roots were the safest. When I asked my network for a route from his location, I was sent a google map to share. It was a horrifying journey that included the nightmare of his children stumbling over an infant that had been trampled in the crush of the crowds near the airport walls and barbed wire.
Hasib set off first with his wife and elderly mother. Like the others they had already made multiple attempts on previous days and started from a point of exhaustion.
Jafar was not heard from until late in the day when Reza told me he was in contact with Jafar and his wife. They were newlyweds. Married the week before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.
Everyone had each other’s numbers and Reza was doing an amazing job of reaching out to each of them. He spoke a bit of English and kept me in the loop mostly by leaving me brief WhatsApp voice messages. All of this while keeping a family of six together and moving forward through a terribly traumatic experience.
Basir was not heard from until Reza told me that they were in touch. They met near the red pin. I learned later that at a Taliban checkpoint Reza had been attacked and then his friend, a fellow human rights worker, was shot and killed. His wife and children went into shock, and it was all he could do to find them a place to stay to huddle in relative calm at the edge of the swirling, pressing sea of chaos. Basir was mostly focused on his Canadian option. He had official documents from the Canadian government. They had been told to put a red scarf around his neck and to show his documents to a Canadian soldier. He did so over and over and they kept threatening him and yelling to “Get the fuck out of here.”
Four hours after Reza had headed to the airport, he told me that Wahid was near the wall but that he was still some ways away. Two and a half hours later Reza told me that he was near the Polish troops and that Wahid was with him. I told my Polish contact that they were there, and she said she would call the Embassy in Delhi and get the message through to the troops. She said everyone should yell “POLSK AGORA” and waive their hands with the “P.”
It was 7:45am in Boston and Jamal, CSFilm’s first Afghan translator and then coordinator, appeared on WhatsApp and started translating via voice messages. This was so much more efficient than the Google translate I had been using all night to communicate between English and Dari.
Jamal confirmed that only Reza and Wahid were at the wall. Reza told him that he was in communications with Jafar. Jamal told me that Hasib had turned back. Hasib said he couldn’t get his wife and mother through the crowds. I asked Jamal to call him and plead with him to try again and to make sure he understood that the Poles had told me that this was likely the last day of their operation. I also told Jamal that when and if appropriate, he should ask Reza and Wahid to try and get more information from the soldiers about how long they would be looking for people today and if they would be back tomorrow.
A half hour later Reza reported that there were too many people and that they couldn’t get close to the gate. We suggested that one person try and approach the troops and hope that the troops would then come out and get the rest of the two families. At 9:18am Reza said that he had talked to the Polish troops and that Wahid’s name was on the list but his wasn’t.
I reported this to our Polish contact who contacted Delhi. Both Wahid and Reza’s families pushed through the crowds. I sent them the image of the list that our Polish contact had given me so that they could show it to the soldiers. Jamal told them to make sure the Polish troops were looking for Mohammad Reza Sahel on the list and not M. Reza Sahel or Reza Sahel.
At 11:10am, 7:40pm Kabul time, 9 hours since they started, Reza wrote: Michael, I am in airport. Wahid and Jafar were already in. Hasib said he would try again tomorrow. Basir was lost in the crowd.
After 20 days of trying to evacuate 22 families, three were on there way out of the country.
Part 3 will be released in September.