While Frishta and Farzana were stuck outside Kabul airport, John and Lorna Norgrove were trying every avenue they could think of to evacuate our staff from Afghanistan. Here, John tells the story behind the headlines.
On 29 August our Afghan staff, Frishta and Farzana, along with Frishta’s husband Murtaza, their baby Kia and their younger brother Zakar, had been at Kabul airport for two days and nights. (Read Murtaza’s story, ‘Facing death at the airport’.)
Among a terrified crowd kept back by ‘our’ soldiers constantly shooting at the crowd’s feet, they’d seen a man shot dead in front of them when he defiantly moved too far forward. They had suffered interminable hours on an overcrowded bus with a crying baby, with no seats and in temperatures in the high 30s.
They were twice within a whisker of entering the airport. First they were knocked back because not all of the family were on the gate guard’s out-of-date evacuation list. Another time the gate closed because of a perceived bomb threat just when they had got close to the front of the line to get inside.
Emergency rescue planned
It was now the middle of the night. By an amazing set of coincidences involving phone calls across the globe, we had found someone who knew and could directly phone the US guard on the gate nearest to them.
An emergency rescue was planned, involving a small team of US soldiers coming out into ‘no-man’s-land and escorting them inside. Negotiations with the Taliban had been completed. The airport was uneasily quiet in the hours before dawn, it was dangerous, but they were to be ready with no bags, waiting.
Then WhatsApp messages from the guard started coming at 0330:
“So sorry ma’am. There is a vbied (bomb) threat and we are going on a pause.”
“I think your safest bet is just go home I think. The pause could be significant.”
“Very sorry ma’am, wish we could have been successful.”
It was a low point for everyone. They went home, commenting on how they had learned to appreciate simple things like the comfort of their own home, a pillow, healthy food.
We had been on or checking WhatsApp for 46 hours, catching less than four hours sleep. We were all dejected, tired, drained and needing our beds.
It was 10 days previously they had asked us to try to arrange for them to be evacuated. Farzana and Frishta were doubly at risk because of their Hazara ethnicity and their work with us empowering women.
As the Taliban were searching house to house, they had burned all of their academic certificates and papers.
They had received threats from Taliban informers that, because they were involved in awarding scholarships only to women and none to men, they would be reported to the new regime. As the Taliban were searching house to house, they had burned all of their academic certificates and papers.
We contacted our MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, who took up their case on our behalf. By a fortuitous coincidence, the next day we met a friend on the road in Uig, Torcuil Crichton, Westminster Editor for the Daily Record. He offered to help and the next morning had contacted major Westminster politicians.
But after a week of getting no response from those managing the UK evacuation efforts, we decided we had to make more noise and get more attention for their plight.
We issued a press release and appeared on both STV and BBC evening news, as well as in various newspapers. We carried out a Twitter campaign that was supported and amplified by many of our followers. And we contacted as many influential people as we could think of. Shortly after, Frishta, Farzana and family were placed on the UK evacuation list.
Another amazing coincidence occurred when our Stornoway accountant put us in contact with a very energetic Canadian visiting the Hebrides who knew Linda from her time in Afghanistan, and whose grandparents were from Harris.
She was well connected to US military and State Department folks and was actively involved in trying to arrange the evacuation of others from Kabul from her Stornoway hotel.
History in the making
Through her connections, and through the efforts of DAI, Linda’s employer from Washington DC, we managed to have our party added to the US evacuation list, too.
Later that night, in a dim office, with the rain battering off the window, tapping away at the keyboard sending passport scans for evacuation lists, I was struck by the parallel with the film Casablanca, arranging the evacuation of good people at risk from a totalitarian regime sweeping the country. It felt like history in the making and this was just about the only light, pleasant feeling during the whole saga.
Two days after returning home from Kabul airport, on 31 August, Frishta received an unexpected phone call from a US charity, Afghanistan Uplift, telling them to travel by bus to the northern city of Mazar e Sharif where there were planes waiting.
After an eight hour bus trip they arrived, were billeted in a wedding hall and advised that there were more planes coming the following day. All was optimism. But the next day they were told that another eight busloads had to arrive before any flights went out.
Taliban soldiers came in, arrested people and took them away.
Three weeks of delays followed, during which time they moved eight times, trying to avoid Taliban attention.
At times there were 12 people to a room, the baby had no space to move and had to be on his mum’s lap 24 hours a day. Husbands and wives were split up. Taliban soldiers came in, arrested people and took them away.
Frishta’s husband was involved in two fights when he insisted on being reunited with his family. He was twice taken in for questioning by Taliban soldiers.
Frishta’s baby became ill with diarrhoea. He couldn’t stop crying, so Frishta spent some nights on the roof, freezing but without the hassle from roommates.
Eventually they made it onto a plane but even then the Taliban came on board before take-off to question people and check documents.
They only knew they were safe when they landed in Qatar. They were met and well looked after by UK FCDO staff for three and a half weeks of security and medical screening. Then to Edinburgh for 10 days’ quarantine.
Their final stop was Stornoway on 26 October, 10 weeks after the Taliban takeover. It was a very happy meeting for us all.