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Story Publication logo August 23, 2021

Afghan Children Get Left Behind, Go Missing Amid Chaos At Kabul’s Airport


photo of Kabul

Several young Afghans are fighting for their own survival and that of their country as the Americans...

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The evacuation operation in Kabul is accelerating, with more than 10,000 people airlifted out of Afghanistan in the past 24 hours. But thousands more remain to be rescued, and just over a week remains before the August 31st deadline set by President Biden. The Taliban said Monday they would not allow an extension. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, Jane Ferguson reports from Kabul's airport.

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Judy Woodruff: The evacuation operation from Kabul is accelerating, with more than 10,000 people airlifted out of Afghanistan in just the past 24 hours. But thousands more remain to be rescued, and with just over a week left before the August 31 deadline set by President Biden, the Taliban said today they would not agree to an extension, no matter what the U.S. and its allies and partners say. With the support of the Pulitzer Center, Jane Ferguson reports again tonight from Kabul's airport.

Jane Ferguson: Another morning at Kabul Airport brings with it more people and more desperate pleas to be allowed in. Every day, thousands of men and women, clutching pieces of paper, military I.D. cards, even old photographs, search for someone to talk to, an immigration official, anyone with answers. All they find are heavily armed soldiers.

Man: We have lots of documents, but, unfortunately, we don't have any answers from the SIV. This is the…(CROSSTALK)

Jane Ferguson: So, you applied for the SIV?

Man: We applied, but we didn't have — we didn't get any answers from the SIV.

Jane Ferguson: When did you apply?

Man: Last week.

Jane Ferguson: Last week. You applied whenever you heard that the evacuation was happening?

Man: Yes. Yes.

Jane Ferguson: SIVs, or Special Immigrant Visas, are meant to be for those who worked as interpreters for the U.S. military here. Getting one has for years been an infuriatingly slow and complex process. Earlier this month, the State Department said Afghans who didn't qualify for the SIV program, but were still at risk for their affiliation with the U.S., like those who worked for USAID-funded projects or American news outlets, could apply to the U.S.' refugee program.

Joe Biden: We're working hard and as fast as we can to get people out.

Jane Ferguson: In reality, this was too late. As the Taliban took over Kabul nine days ago, many were left unprepared, not least of all the U.S. government.

Man: We didn't have time for the visa, because my father was …(CROSSTALK)

Jane Ferguson: The process was too fast?

Man: Yes. The Taliban thinks that my father is working with NATO and he is a spy, a foreign spy, OK? We need help. I don't know why they are not accepting these documents. But we have lots of documents.

Jane Ferguson: But the SIV, they say that you need to have an application number.

Man: I know. I know.

Jane Ferguson: Do you think that they will give you a number and maybe you can come back?

Man: I know. We don't know. But I think we don't have time. My family is hiding.

Jane Ferguson: A few have resorted to waving the flags of the nations they worked with. Everyone has some sort of paperwork, but the system of checking has collapsed. Even passport-holders from NATO countries have trouble getting through. The American soldiers here are not immigration officials, and have little idea either as to who qualifies to be allowed in. An informal rule of U.S. passport and green card holders only has become the new reality. The people on this side are being held here by American soldiers. But over here — we will go this way — we have a massive crush of people. And the British forces are trying to keep them back. The difficulty for people here is that they are being told that they don't qualify and they are not going to be let in at all. At least 20 people have died so far in the crush of the crowds, including one 2-year-old child, according to The New York Times, her mother, a former U.S. military interpreter trying to get out. Overnight, a gunman opened fire on Afghan forces monitoring access to the airport gate, killing at least one Afghan soldier and wounding several more. U.S. Central Command said no U.S. or coalition service members were injured. Each day brings more bodies in the street, and those who succumb to the brutal summer heat forced to wait in the open for days. There are no bathrooms. The entire area is an open toilet. Taliban fighters watch on. Even they seem stunned by the situation. Back in Washington, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. is in regular contact with the Taliban to ensure that the evacuation operation is secure. He would not confirm whether the August 31st deadline would be extended. The Taliban said today that would be a red line for them, if the U.S. is not gone by the end of the month.

Jake Sullivan: In the days remaining, we believe we have the wherewithal to get out the American citizens who want to leave Kabul. We are in touch with the Taliban daily. We are in touch with our allies and partners. We are reviewing our progress in this particular operation, which we feel has been substantial over the past few days.

Jane Ferguson: Sullivan also confirmed that the U.S. is doing biometric and biographic screening on all Afghan refugees granted admission to the U.S. before they arrive. Today, White House officials reported 28 U.S. military flights have evacuated some 10,400 people from Kabul over the last 24 hours. The U.S. has now relocated about 42,000 people since the end of July. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed U.S. helicopters are also being used to ferry out Americans still trapped inside the capital city.

John Kirby: Our commanders on the ground are doing what they feel they need to do to help Americans reach the airport. There has been at least one additional instance where rotary airlift was used to help Americans get from outside the airport into the airport.

Jane Ferguson: While politicians in Washington scramble to manage the fallout from this crisis, American and allied soldiers are dealing with it face to face. Almost 6,000 U.S. Marines and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division are on the ground to support the emergency evacuations. No training can prepare soldiers for something like this, a sea of human trauma. It's a near impossible task, one profoundly testing, shaking tempers, and bringing out acts of compassion. Inside the U.S. air base, the chaplain for the 82nd Airborne, Lieutenant Colonel Pinkie Fischer, in her 16 years of service and spiritual counseling in the military, says she has never had to deal with so many in emotional need. How in demand are you right now?

Lt. Col. Pinkie Fischer: Wow, from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. And, I mean, I'm getting maybe three hours of sleep a night.

Jane Ferguson: Because people need to talk to you.

Lt. Col. Pinkie Fischer: Yes. They will come off shift or even during shift. They will see me, and they will say, "Chaplain, do you have a minute" That's usually the call sign. "Chaplain, do you have a minute?"

Jane Ferguson: The moral injury of having to turn people away, and play a role in their pain, is weighing on many here.

Lt. Col. Pinkie Fischer: Some are married with children of their own. And I think they're looking at local nationals, and they see their family in their own eyes. And I think that's what pulls them, especially children. I think that pulls every human being, is to see children. So, any time you see a child hurt or they look like they are hurting, that pulls on you. And I think that's what's tugging on a lot of soldiers. They are ready to fight an enemy, but you don't touch kids.

Jane Ferguson: Kids are especially vulnerable to being lost in the crowds. This missing poster appealing for information about a little girl. On the U.S. base, a collection of lost young boys, separated from their parents at the gates, are being cared for by the U.S. military.

Man: He didn't know if his parents are in the USA or in Afghanistan.

Jane Ferguson: These boys have been through a terrifying ordeal, and still aren't sure when or where they will see their mom and dad. "There were so many people at the gate, and everyone was pushing," this little boy tells us. For the ones whose parents are on planes to America, officials here have written "USA" on the back of their little hands. They will follow behind soon, joining these long lines by the runway, shuffling between a life left behind and an unknown new one. These are the fortunate few, for whom promises made by politicians have been kept. Most others will bed down the best they can outside the airport gates, waiting for another day and another chance to make it out of here.

Judy Woodruff: And Jane joins us again from Kabul. Jane, so moving to see those children and your conversation with the chaplain. But to the politics of this, what is the reaction on the ground right now to the word from the Taliban that they are not going to go along, they say, with extending the deadline for exit past August the 31st?

Jane Ferguson: It seems, Judy, they're taking that very seriously. That has massive implications here if the Taliban really mean it, because, of course, that means that the deadline is hard, that there is very, very little time to get out not only the rest of the Americans left here and green card holders, but other citizens of Afghanistan who have helped American forces, or who have been involved in America's development projects here. Many other people are entitled to apply for visas, and who — and they may be entitled to board those flights. But whether or not they will be able to by the 31st is now very unclear. Up until now, there had been hopes, and President Biden had mentioned they might have to extend beyond then, and they would do if they needed to get more Americans out. If that is really not an option, then that really kicks into motion now the evacuation of the evacuators, the people on the ground. I'm in a base surrounded by British soldiers, and all these soldiers are dependent on the Americans being here because of that air support and the facilities and the capabilities. So, everybody else that is here will be watching to see when the Americans will need to be packed up, because they will need to be packed up first.

Judy Woodruff: And no question. Questions then about whether the U.S. would do this without Taliban approval. But, Jane, is it getting any easier at all for people to get to the airport? We have seen U.S. officials saying that they are taking measures to extract people from around the country.

Jane Ferguson: It is becoming…

Judy Woodruff: I don't know whether you can hear me, Jane. Is it getting any easier at all for people to get into the airport?

Jane Ferguson: It is definitely — it is becoming a lot more frantic at the moment in terms of getting people out. They are willing to do more and to go further, as you have heard there from the Pentagon, that they have been sending helicopters out to pick people up, but there are still other Americans to be extracted from Kabul, and not just from Kabul, from around the country. The advance of the Taliban, the fall of the capital happened so quickly, very few people were able to prepare for it or were ready. We have even seen other nationalities, other NATO nationalities, Europeans, showing up at the gates with passports, but struggling to get to the front of the crowds, struggling to get in, and then also simply having to get through the chaos of this process, which doesn't really exist in certain senses. When we first arrived here a week ago, and there was — it was a lot easier to get inside bases, because, if you could show paperwork, if you could show the promise of a visa, an acceptance e-mail, then it was easier to get in. But as the system has become more strained, and as the scenes at the gates have become much more chaotic, it seems to be becoming harder. And many people out there are aware that sometimes having a connection on the inside or knowing someone inside a base will help you — will help you plead your case, might just be enough to get you across the doorway. And so there is an awareness that the system is always — is not always particularly fair.

Judy Woodruff: And finally, Jane, we heard your reporting about the shooting incident outside the airport last night. Just how unstable is the security there?

Jane Ferguson: There is a fear that it is becoming increasingly unstable. You can't really secure this area. These are roads around the airport that have Taliban checkpoints on them, blast walls, thousands and thousands of desperate civilians and soldiers from U.S. and NATO and partner nations all over the place, all intermingling almost. And so it is a chaotic scene, and certainly one that is very vulnerable to attack. We have also heard from intelligence warnings from government — various governments, saying that ISIS could target the area, that they could send in a suicide bomber to the area, and that there is a significantly higher threat of that. Now, I think that that is something that was always a threat in Kabul, it is worth noting. ISIS have menaced the capital for years. And they have been known for huge suicide attacks and complex terror attacks that — or terror attacks that attack civilians. They are, of course, the sworn enemies of the Taliban. So if the Taliban want to look like they have the situation under control, then ISIS would very much so want to counter that. Now, the incident that happened at the airport that ended up killing a member of the Afghan security forces, we haven't heard very much information about this, beyond some statements that were given by the German military, as well as the Pentagon, saying that a sniper killed an Afghan commando, that there was then an exchange of fire in which some other Afghan security forces were injured. But this is the first such shooting since the crisis began. And it really ups the kind of sense of insecurity, and the reminder that all of these forces that are based at the airport are surrounded by the Taliban at all times.

Judy Woodruff: Jane Ferguson, just remarkable reporting. Thank you so much. And, again, please stay safe. Thank you, Jane.

Jane Ferguson: Thank you, Judy.


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