Escape from Kabul – a South African’s story
The Cape Times’ Big Friday Read is a series of feature articles focusing on the quickly-forgotten issues that tend to disappear with the fast-changing pace of news. It is also a platform where we feature the everyday heroes who go out of their way to improve the lives of others in their communities. Simply put, the Big Friday Read is a place where we focus on those whose voices are all too often simply not heard.
THE trauma of escaping from Kabul in one of the largest airlifts in history, and jarring scenes of desperate people attempting to escape the city, will live with Somerset West resident Allen Ferguson, 53, and his family for some time to come.
Ferguson, a general manager at an international multi-service company working in support of US and NATO forces and international embassies, had been in Kabul for six months before the large-scale evacuations of foreign citizens and some vulnerable Afghan citizens took place amid the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan and the takeoever of the country by the Taliban.
After the fall of Kabul on August 15, and the sooner than expected collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai International Airport remained the only non-Taliban controlled route out of the country, being protected by thousands of NATO troops.
Ferguson, a father of two, said leading up to the actual evacuation, the urgency of the situation was not yet realised.
“Being in Afganistan up until January, things were okay. With NATO and the US military we felt we were quite safe. When (President Joe) Biden announced the troop withdrawal, that came as a shock to all of us – we thought they couldn't pull out of Kabul because they had created a dependency there,” Ferguson said, adding residents believed the final troop departures would come months later.
By August 13, residents realised the situation they were facing under Taliban rule and appealed to be paid out and for any documents that could help apply for permits to leave the country.
“On the 13th, things started going really badly. We were getting feedback from security companies that we had to pack our things, the Taliban is on the way.”
The next day, Ferguson made arrangements for his staff, as their base would have to close down.
Eventually only four employees were left in Kabul, including Ferguson.
“We locked down the camp, and at this point, our security at the gates turned on us.
“They came at us with AK 47's, they held us at gunpoint, they would not let us out of the camp.
“They wanted money because they were in absolute fear that we were leaving them behind, saying ‘how the hell are we going to survive, the Taliban is coming'.
“I took $10 000 from the safe, gave the money, and our staff got out.”
“There were local staff coming to me that day, there was panic, pandemonium, there were tears, there was a real sense of panic.”
The four were told to head to a secure location in Camp Baron.
“As we drive out the gate, there are just thousands and thousands of Taliban walking in the same direction. They are already there in Kabul. They are on foot.”
“There was just thousands of Taliban, on the left and right side of the road and traffic was jammed. There were Taliban guys walking past our vehicle, looking at us through the windows.
“I felt unbelievably calm, because I thought I was dead. I just sat and prayed to God, I sent a message to my wife just to say goodbye,” an emotional Ferguson remembered. After a three hour journey, they made it to the camp and left for the airport.
“There were just thousands and thousands of people trying to get to the airport to get on a plane. As we drove, people walked with the cars, with their belongings and children. People were walking around with wads of money to buy a seat on an aircraft.
“The airport was absolute, complete chaos, people were climbing over the top of other people to try and get to the counters.”
Despite getting four tickets to leave the country, the plane they were to take was full and could not leave.
“At about 6:30pm, one of the workers said all the customs and immigration officials are running away. I turned around and all the people who were supposed to be checking us in, had gone. The next thing, this guy starts shouting at the top of his voice in the local dialect, and people get up and start screaming and running. We ran.
“People poured onto the airstrip and we saw the aircraft we are supposed to be on, then we heard gunfire outside the airport.”
The four found safety in a temporary air traffic control camp in a container at the centre of the runway, as troops patrolled the perimeter.
“At about 10:30am that morning, we boarded a C-17 military troop carrier and we landed two hours later in Qatar at an American air force base.
“Lifting off was the best feeling in the entire world. We had dogs on the aircraft as well, the military dogs were being evacuated.
“For the next 12 hours it was just a blackout for me. I remember waking up the next morning, not knowing what to do, whether to cry or just lie there.
“There was a huge element of shock, relief, anger, anxiety pouring out of my eyes and ears.”
“When we touched down in Cape Town , I'd never been so happy in my life, just overwhelmed. I'm seeing a counsellor. It has taken its toll,” he said, adding his family was also traumatised by the ordeal.
“The thing about Afghanistan that saddens me the most is the people we left behind.”