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Story Publication logo August 21, 2021

Afghans Desperately Try to Flee; U.S. Evacuation Continues


photo of Kabul

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

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Chaos at Kabul airport continued as thousands of Afghans desperately tried to flee the country. At the same time, at least 17,000 people have been evacuated from the country, 2,500 of them American nationals. The Taliban came a step closer to taking over officially as the group’s co-founder and political leader Mullah Baradar arrived in Kabul to begin talks about forming a new government. NewsHour Correspondent Jane Ferguson reports with support from The Pulitzer Center.

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Michael Hill: I spoke with NewsHour Correspondent Jane Ferguson earlier today. It was after 9 P.M. in Afghanistan. She is reporting from Kabul with the support of the Pulitzer Center. Jane, the U.S. allowed you in on their side today. What did you see there?

Jane Ferguson: They wanted us to see with our own eyes people were boarding these flights and with relative regularity. So we saw people lining up as they were getting onto the C17s on the tarmac. We also saw some pretty remarkable and touching and quite sad scenes of young children that had been separated from their parents and that were basically being were in the care of the U.S. military. And this has been an increasing problem because of those chaotic scenes of crowds, of people, some getting trampled, some families getting separated. Outside of the compound, an increasing problem is children just being found by soldiers, by American soldiers, or people handing their children to a soldier to get them out of the crush of the crowd. And so they end up with with children from anything from tiny tots to teenage boys where they just can't find their parents. We were basically brought through to a medical facility where we were looking at what facilities they had and the capabilities they had to treat the injured. Whenever we came across a bunch of little kids who were in the care of the U.S. military, on the backs of their hands, they had in black marker USA written on them, but they were frantically trying to find their parents and they believe that their parents may have already been basically shuffled onto a flight and they are either en route to the United States or there already. So now they have the task of trying to reunite these children with their parents. And one of the most tragic scenes I've seen today on some of the wire fencing that has been put up, a missing sign with cell phone numbers and a picture of a little girl. So that's one of the reasons that people are becoming more cautious about whether or not they should come. They call us before they come saying how dangerous is it? Can I bring my kids? Because people are getting separated from them and struggling to find them.

Michael Hill: We also have been hearing that the U.S. embassy had instructed Americans not to go to the airport unless they were instructed to go.

Jane Ferguson: That's likely in response to exactly those images and that situation that that is there. It's just not safe. You've got bullets being fired in the air, you know, tear gas, smoke bombs, panicked, panicked civilians, many of whom are being personally attacked by the Taliban. Their way of crowd control seems to just be simply lashing out and beating people with sticks and whips. And so it is the kind of nightmarish, almost combat-like situation in the street. But what's most dangerous is humans being crushed by other humans. It's effectively the kind of crowd control nightmare of people being suffocated or trampled. That's a very serious threat to people there. So it makes sense that the U.S. embassy would say, you know, come whenever you're asked to come because they're desperately trying to control the flow of people. But of course, that's just pushing back against a very natural sense of panic that people don't want to miss the last flight out.

Michael Hill: I'm curious, what are the expectations for the next couple of days, the next few days?

Jane Ferguson: I don't think anybody's expecting this to wrap up anytime soon. Whenever you look at the crowds that are outside and the people that are begging for help and who are genuinely showing up with evidence of having worked with foreigners, I think that these flights are likely to have to continue. It seems as though there's still a degree of cooperation between Taliban fighters or commanders and the U.S. and NATO allied forces here. So that does bode well for these flights to continue. I saw myself today when I was up on the roads where people were coming in and we saw massive crowds of people desperately trying to get into the airport. I saw one Taliban commander come over and stand for quite a long time having a heated discussion through an interpreter with a British commander discussing what's the best way to do crowd control. And so these are bizarre and surreal scenes, but they're certainly important to make sure that the kind of cooperation that is needed continues so that these flights can continue. So I think there are definitely, at least for the next few days, going to continue like this and potentially for longer.

Michael Hill: Jane, is there any sense that more relief is coming, more flights, more evacuations to get more people out of harm's way and sooner?

Jane Ferguson: I think what's one of the major, major priorities right now is figuring out where people will go. You know, there were reports not too long ago, earlier this morning that effectively the flights that were stopping in Qatar in the Qatari capital of Doha, where people were being sorted, many of them, before they went on to the United States, that they no longer had the capacity to really hold any more people. So I think that's what's going to be the top priority right now is going to be how where are we going to get people out to wherever we just need to get them off the ground here. And once that has been resolved, then, yes, you're likely to see more flights, especially if the landing strips and the tarmac remains clear of people.

Michael Hill: Jane, 10 days from now, the U.S. troops are supposed to be out of Afghanistan, any sign that they will be?

Jane Ferguson: I think that's really all going to depend on this evacuation. There's no appetite, I think, for them to stay for any other reason, of course. But if the United States leaves, no other nation is going to be staying to run this kind of scale of operation and to be able to sort of create a certain protective barrier around themselves in this island of Taliban control. So whether or not they stay will depend on whether or not they can get everybody out by that stage. We know that President Biden has said that they would stay longer if U.S. citizens were left behind, that they wouldn't leave them behind, that they'd stay. So I think that's really what it's going to come down to. And they'll be doing the math as to how many people they need to get out every day before the 31st. And really, it's going to depend on how close they are to zero.

Michael Hill: Correspondent Jane Ferguson for us this evening in Afghanistan. Thank you.

Jane Ferguson: Thank you.


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