By Noorulhaq Lali
For the past 16 years, I have worked with Coalition Forces and, for the last seven years, as part of the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan’s Political and Human Resources (HR) sections. The collapse of Kabul and the sudden entry of the Taliban into the capital city shocked and surprised everyone. Many of us felt like it was a bad dream, but when we awoke each morning, we found that we were living in this nightmare yet again. We were advised to remain at home, which created uncertainty and stress as my main concern was to escape in order to save the lives of my family. As I lived close to the airport, I went out in my car to see whether the roads to the airport were still open. Three armed men claiming to be Taliban stopped me as I was leaving the parking lot of my building. They asked me where I was working and demanded to look at my phone to see whether there were messages in English. I refused to let them check my phone, as I knew that if they saw the communication, they would realize that I was working for the embassy. They then attempted to steal my car, just as other Taliban fighters were passing by. I asked the second group for help. They were actual members of the Taliban, not criminal opportunists, and arrested the would-be car thieves while telling me that they were going to rid the city of crime.
With Taliban checkpoints being quickly set up around the city and one right outside of the airport, there seemed to be little hope of evacuation. On the night of Aug. 18, we received an email from the embassy’s front office that advised us to go to the airport gates as early as possible the next morning, and that the American military would allow us through the gates with our embassy badges. Like hundreds of other locally employed (LE) staff, I arrived with my wife and four children, from 7 months to 8 years old, and words cannot explain the chaos that we found. There was a mob of thousands trying to gain access to the airport, with excruciatingly loud gunfire and tear gas, and the Taliban pushed people back by beating them. As we tried to get closer to the gate, where we could see the U.S. soldiers, I almost lost my children in the crushing mass of people, and we couldn’t breathe. While we yelled out to the soldiers for assistance, no one could hear us over the noise of the crowd. Although we were close enough to hear the soldiers yelling that everyone should leave the area, we decided to return home for the safety of our children. Fighting against the flow of people moving towards the gate, we emerged from the crowd after three hours. It was the worst experience of my life, and we returned home disappointed and without hope.
As many sections had done, the HR team had created a WhatsApp group to maintain contact; we shared our frustration about none of us making it through the gate. On the morning of Aug. 19, I had a call with Embassy Kabul Human Resources Officer Richard Johns, and explained the challenges we were facing at the gates. After discussing several alternatives, we came up with a strategy to hire buses and have LE staff and their immediate family members meet the buses at locations around the city. We reached out to the procurement team to find the names of the companies that we had contracted with previously and to see whether they were still operational. After reviewing the plan, the front office asked us to combine our efforts with the political team (Charles Sellers, James Feldmayer, and Sadiq Amini), who were at the airport, also working on an evacuation plan.
With the help of the HR team, we worked day and night to update and consolidate the information for our LE staff and their immediate family members. Communication was challenging due to power outages and lack of Internet connectivity, so we needed to ensure that we had multiple means of communication (WhatsApp groups, cell phones, email addresses, etc). As the timing was critical to our escape, we had to ensure that we could reach each person and inform them when and where to meet and board the buses. Including the family members on the list, we had 3,800 people to evacuate, which was at least 64 busloads of people. Working with the procurement team, we found a transportation company that could supply the buses and drivers. The evacuation team asked me to move to the airport so that we could coordinate the processes more efficiently. It was difficult, but I had no choice other than to leave my family alone while going to the airport to help my colleagues.
With the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. to be out of the country quickly approaching, we all felt the pressure to move as quickly as possible as we worked around the clock. Due to security challenges, we had to cancel the first couple of attempts; however, we succeeded in bringing three buses into the airport without any major issues on Aug. 25. On Aug. 26, my family made it out of Kabul on one of the military planes along with many other embassy families. While I was relieved that they were getting to safety, I felt the constant anxiety of not knowing where they were being sent, as the destinations were often changed after the planes departed. I continued to work with the evacuation team at the airport, scheduling buses, providing a manifest for each bus, and assigning a bus manager to maintain constant contact with the evacuation team—communicating any situational changes while the buses were moving and assessing whether there was a possibility of the bus being targeted and attacked. With the safety of our staff the top priority, we often had to change the routing of the buses as they made their way to the airport. There were instances where the Taliban stopped our buses and held our staff for hours, sometimes physically abusing and threatening our colleagues and their families. They would sometimes deny them access through the airport gates as well, requiring us to find alternative routes and options. When the bombing occurred at the airport, we had eight buses en route, which we had to cancel and reschedule. After the bombing, no one was allowed to bring suitcases with them for their journey, resulting in many LE staff arriving in the U.S. with almost nothing. As every minute was critical during this operation, I did not sleep for 48 hours as we worked to get every one of our LE staff and their families out. Finally, on Aug. 29, after our last buses were loaded and arrived safely at the airport, I had a chance to take a deep breath and think about my family.
Along with thousands of evacuees, my family had been transferred to the U.S. military base in Qatar. As none of my family members had the required travel documentation, they stayed in Doha for two days before being transported to Germany, where they remained on Ramstein Air Base for eight days. Conditions there were challenging for them, as they spent 24 hours in cold and rainy weather without shelter and three days in a large tent without beds, sleeping on the wet ground without enough food, water, or warm clothes. Meanwhile, as one of the last people out of the airport, I was sent to Bahrain, where I stayed for two nights, before being sent to Dulles International Airport. I slept at the Expo Center for three nights while waiting for my family to arrive. After we were reunited, we were moved to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey, where we are currently located and looking forward to starting our new lives in the United States.
Our journey has taken many twists and turns with a large number of people and teams playing important roles in the success of the evacuation, including Department of Defense, USAID, and Department of State colleagues. I would like to give a special thank you to Embassy Kabul’s HR, political, and procurement teams, for their tireless work and contributions during these challenging times. I was proud to work with such great teams, and happy to play a small role in helping my colleagues and their families. While there have been trials and challenges throughout our ongoing journey, we are the lucky ones who made it out of the country to safety. Thank you!
Noorulhaq Lali was a locally employed staff member at Embassy Kabul.