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Story Publication logo August 25, 2021

Afghanistan Evacuees Wait Hours in the Heat due to Bottleneck Backlog at Kabul 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 U.S. and allied evacuation of Afghanistan is now flying out thousands of Americans, allied personnel, and Afghans every day, as a Biden-pronounced deadline looms for a complete withdrawal in less than one week. The first of the nearly 6,000 American troops have left, and many thousands more Afghans — and Americans — await. Lisa Desjardins and Jane Ferguson report.

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Amna Nawaz: The U.S. and allied evacuation of Afghanistan is now flying out thousands of Americans, allied personnel, and Afghans every day, as a Biden-pronounced deadline looms for a complete withdrawal in less than one week. The first of the nearly 6,000 American troops have left, and many thousands more Afghans and Americans await. To date, 82,300 people have now been evacuated by the United States from Kabul since August 14; 19,000 have been flown out in just the last 36 hours by the U.S. and its partners. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today more than 4,500 Americans, plus their families, have now been evacuated. Up to 1, 500 Americans may still be in Afghanistan trying to leave, he added. Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

Lisa Desjardins: Outside the Kabul Airport, throngs still desperately try to get past the razor-wire barriers. Many stand and wait in an open sewer. The Biden administration has faced heavy pressure to answer exactly how remaining Americans and Afghan allies will be brought out. Out front today answering questions, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Sec. Antony Blinken: I take responsibility. I know the president has said he takes responsibility. And I know all of my colleagues across government feel the same way.

Lisa Desjardins: Blinken seemed to try and quell the panic in Kabul by saying he expects the Taliban will let people leave even after the U.S. is gone.

Sec. Antony Blinken: We will use every diplomatic, economic, assistance tool at our disposal, working hand in hand with the international community, first and foremost to ensure that those who want to leave Afghanistan after the 31st are able to do so.

Lisa Desjardins: But trusting the Taliban in the past was a life-and-death risk.U.S. officials have acknowledged that evacuation flights will slow down in the coming days in order to reduce the number of U.S. and coalition troops and the many tons of equipment brought back to Afghanistan. Fear has become paralyzing for some at risk, including one Afghan man who spoke with "NewsHour" by phone. He worked for the Afghan government and an American news outlet.

Man: If they recognized me that I was working with the government, with different organization, they might cut me. I'm just afraid of that. And my small daughters, they are afraid of these things. They cry to me all the time. And they're asking: "Please save us. Save us."

Lisa Desjardins: He urged the U.S. to extend the deadline for withdrawal.

Man: Somebody has to take me as soon as possible. If Biden government extend this program, it will be much better to find a way to go there to the airport. Even now, I cannot go today. Believe me, if I go to the washroom, my daughter and my sons, they are crying, even my wife.

Lisa Desjardins: Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. has been adamant with the Taliban on who should be allowed through.

John Kirby: We have been very clear with Taliban leaders about what credentials we want them to accept. The people that we have made clear to the Taliban that we want to have access through the checkpoints have been able to get through, by and large, again, with caveats. So it hasn't been a big problem to date.

Lisa Desjardins: "NewsHour" spoke by phone with one American citizen as he drove to the airport. He says he reached out to the U.S. Embassy, but never heard back.

Man: I'm a U.S. citizen. My wife, she has a green card. My two kids was born in Boston, Massachusetts. And, right now, the situation is really tough, as you know. So, I came, I think it was on July 13. On the U.S. Embassy Web site, there was an e-mail address that I could send an e-mail and I can request embassy assistance. And I did that. I just got the auto reply, and I didn't get anything else other than that. And then I was just waiting from last three days for a response, and I didn't receive anything.

Lisa Desjardins: He and his family finally got help from a U.S. senator. Yesterday, President Biden reaffirmed that the U.S. would stick with the August 31 evacuation deadline, despite pleas by some world leaders and members of Congress to prolong the mission. The president did say there were contingency plans being drawn up to stay longer. But sources involved in the evacuation efforts, including members of Congress, tell "NewsHour" that the situation the ground is glaringly different, that the American process remains a bottleneck, and there is no way everyone can be out by August 31 under current conditions. Some world leaders said that they will continue evacuations until that deadline, but would not be able to stay past that without U.S. support. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains catastrophic. According to UNICEF officials, one million children under the age of 5 will be severely malnourished by the end of the year if no action is taken.

Sam Mort, UNICEF Afghanistan: In addition to the conflict and crisis that we have seen, in addition to the malnourishment crisis we're seeing, in addition to the fear and anxiety across the country, Afghanistan is a country in drought. People don't have enough water.

Lisa Desjardins: The World Food Program estimates 14 million people in Afghanistan today are struggling to put food on the table. The worsening economy in Afghanistan is troubling for many too.

Mohammad Amin Noori, Barber (through translator): There is no work. And in the previous system of the Islamic emirate, our work was against the law. Everyone is scared, and I work in fear.

Lisa Desjardins: As some grapple with a frightening future, for many Afghans, the next day or two remain crucial and desperate, as the window to leave with the Americans seems to be closing fast.

Man (through translator): People are leaving, my brother, because they are afraid of complications in the future. People are afraid for their lives, brother.

Lisa Desjardins: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

Amna Nawaz: As you just heard, Lisa, and not Jane Ferguson, narrated that lead story. That's because Jane and producer and videographer Eric O'Connor were flown from Kabul this morning on a U.S. Air Force evacuation flight to an American Air Force base outside Doha, Qatar. They're working with the support of the Pulitzer Center. And I spoke with Jane just a few minutes ago. Jane Ferguson, we are all so glad that you are safe and out of the country. Just describe for us, if you can, what was that process like? What did it take to leave? What did Kabul Airport look like as you were leaving?

Jane Ferguson: I am still not at the very far end of my destination. It has taken that long. But Kabul Airport itself was more orderly on the inside than it had been before. You could really, really see the uptake in those planes coming in and out. Now, it's still a six-, seven-hour wait once you arrive, once you make it in through the gate and you get registered. And the register process system is fairly simple. They're taking passports. They're giving people wristbands. They're taking biodata. But once you get — once you get registered for a flight, it's just a case of waiting. Six to seven hours is a vast improvement. There have been people who've gone to the airport and waited for days for a flight in the past. And then, essentially, once you get — once the flight comes for you, you're only allowed to bring limited luggage. And so we see several hundred people are basically guided down the flight line, down the tarmac towards a huge C-17, or these massive, massive military aircraft, which can carry large amounts of people and cargo. And you're basically seeing families, people clutching little children, very little luggage. People come with like what — a tiny amount, perhaps a small handbag, and that's it, small children, elderly. There was someone on our flight who is an elderly lady in a wheelchair. And everybody literally just climbs up the back of the ramp and into the aircraft. Once inside, everyone just sits down and holds on the best that they can. There is — it is so crammed that there is not — there's barely enough room to lie down really. Some people can if they're lucky. And most people are just sitting cross-legged, squashed up against one another. Children are sleeping. And the flight from Kabul to Qatar, it is only about three, four hours. So, that's relatively comfortable. But once people get to this end, it is — there is a log. There is still a lot there is still a backlog of people here. The hangars are still full. When we got, we sat on the tarmac for over an hour on the plane. And then the people — then, when we disembarked the plane, although it is obscenely hot here — this is the Persian Gulf in the summer. The people who had been on the plane had to wait outside on the tarmac for nearly two hours because they were waiting to go into a hangar. Those hangars are so full of people, that the soldiers that were here, the American soldiers, told us that it can be a six-to-eight-hour wait to get inside a hangar just to start getting processed. And that's before these people have even gotten on a flight to the United States. So it is an arduous and long journey to safety.

Amna Nawaz: And, Jane, we are seeing some of these stunning pictures and videos that you have been shooting along the way documenting your journey out, some of the people with you on that journey. Tell us a little bit more about who else was on that plane, in — on that military aircraft. Are the vast majority of people Afghans? Are they from other nations? Who's there? And what's the sense once they get to this transit center in Doha?

Jane Ferguson: We were a part of a small group of journalists. There was about eight of us foreign journalists there. Other than us, everyone appeared to be — I believe everybody was Afghan on the flight. And we — I — we managed to chat to a few people. These are huge military aircrafts, so they are very, very loud. You have to shout at people to talk just because of the noise on the inside. But we did manage to talk to a few. And they were relatives of interpreters. So, I do believe that a fair few of the people on our flight were those who had been granted that the Special Immigrant Visas that the military interpreters that have worked with U.S. service people were granted. So I believe that's who they were. But it was a hugely diverse group in terms of gender and age, lots of small, small children and also the elderly, so, like large families traveling together. The atmosphere was very much so one of people who are exhausted. Not only have they gone through this horrendous journey of getting to and through Kabul Airport, but which we're all very well aware of now, but they have lived through the collapse of their own state, the uncertainty of the last 10 days. And so people look exhausted. But there's a certain sense of relief. It's a very strange atmosphere on these planes, because, obviously, there's a deep sadness. There's a grief and a trauma of leaving home behind. And anyone who's getting on an evacuation site fleeing a war is not choosing to leave. And so there is that sadness. But you're also surrounded by so many tiny children whose entire lives will likely be lived in a different country as a result of this. So, there's a real sense of history, of a history that's personal for these people, but also on a huge scale for the country, when you're inside and watching these different generations watching their lives change overnight.

Amna Nawaz: Jane, you have covered Afghanistan for years. On this last trip, you were back there for over 10 days, I believe. What is it that told you that now was the time to leave?

Jane Ferguson: This has been one of — this has been the most logistically challenging assignment I have ever done in my career. We have had to reassess and question ourselves and question our judgment and our choices all day every day, because it's unprecedented. We have never been in a country that's been taken over by a group recognized internationally as a terror group. We have never been in a country where the entire state and state institutions have collapsed. I have covered coups, civil wars, revolutions. They're very different from this. And so, towards the end, as the — as we were all watching what President Biden would do with that August 31 deadline to pull out completely, that really impacted our decisions and everyone's decisions on how and when to move. And we were in constant contact with the military, the — with the (AUDIO GAP) who are — who also had a large contingency here for flights out. And we were told basically that, although the deadline might be August 31, that doesn't mean that people like us, foreign journalists, can just show up at the airport on August 30 or 31 and hop on a plane. We were told that it seems, within the next day or two, getting on site is going to become more difficult. So, journalists have the choice. You can either stay on and take your chances with the airport closing afterwards, and being in the country with only the Taliban control and an airport that's not operational, or try to hop on one of these sites. And, as with all journalists, I want to be on the last one I — possible, so I can continue to do my work as much as I can. And we went to the airport. And this is the one that the American military put us on. So I'm grateful for the opportunity to get out safely, but I still — as every journalist, I think, feels the same way, that maybe they could do more, maybe they should stay longer. We always have that tug, that conflict of a feeling.

Amna Nawaz: Jane, your "NewsHour" family and I'm sure many more people are so glad that you and your reporting partner, Eric O'Connor, are safe. We are grateful to you for your continued reporting. And we know you will continue to follow this in the weeks and months ahead.

Jane Ferguson: Thank you, Amna.

Amna Nawaz: Jane, thanks so much. Please stay safe.

Jane Ferguson: Thank you.


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