People rush to Afghan capital as Kabul airport only way out

Passengers fleeing war worry that Taliban could close the country’s airspace at any moment


News Desk August 14, 2021
Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. PHOTO: TWITTER/ @BBCYaldaHakim

As the Taliban tightened their territorial stranglehold around the Afghan capital, refugees from the insurgents' relentless offensive flooded the capital with Kabul International Airport as the only option to leave the war-torn country.

A large number of people rush to the ticket sale counters set up on the parking lot outside the terminal and have to wait for over three hours to get inside if they luckily managed to get a ticket, AP reported.

As the Taliban draw closer, the lines and the panic only grow.

“I packed whatever I could to start a new life away from this war,” said Naweed Azimi, who flew to Istanbul with his wife and five children, fearful the Taliban would kill him for working with Nato as a subcontractor.

Kabul International Airport — formally known as Hamid Karzai International Airport, after the country’s first president following the US-led overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 — sits just northeast of the city.

Its single runway is long enough to accommodate military aircraft; the airfield as a whole can accommodate over 100 planes on the ground.

Surrounded by perimeter fencing and secured by multiple checkpoints, the airport is in sight of the mountains ringing the Afghan capital.

Also read: Taliban now 50km away from Kabul as US scrambles to evacuate

Those flying out have for years had to trudge with their luggage up to outdoor screening points before getting to the terminal — a precaution meant to prevent insurgent suicide bombings.

On an ordinary day, the terminal would be filled with Afghans in business suits and traditional dress, mingling with tattooed military contractors sporting wraparound sunglasses and aid workers from all corners of the world.

That sedate crowd has been replaced with panicked travellers scrambling to leave Kabul. Afghan airlines Ariana and Kam Air have every seat booked for at least the next week, airport workers said.

Those with a plane ticket in hand also have to get a coronavirus test at a clinic amid the pandemic in order to leave.

“I had never seen such a rush at the airport before,” said Farid Ahmad Younusi, an Afghan businessman who said he abandoned a contracting firm worth $1 million and fled Kandahar with the Taliban trying to find him. “Now Taliban have everything that I worked for over the past 20 years.”

The airport rush is only expected to get worse — and even more complicated.

Insurgent fighters are now camped just 50 kilometres away, leaving the United States and other countries scrambling to airlift their nationals out of Kabul ahead of a feared all-out assault.

US embassy staff were ordered to begin shredding and burning sensitive material, as units from a planned re-deployment of 3,000 American

Those at the airport on Friday night described paying $375 and more for rides from the northern city of Kunduz on unpaved roads to avoid Taliban checkpoints, a trip that typically costs around $40.

The cars “don’t even take a break,” said Yousuf Baghban as he waited for his flight out. “If you stop, you are gone.”

Having abandoned Bagram Air Base — which served as the American military’s main hub in Afghanistan — ahead of the final US pullout at the end of the month, the US military will now have to rely on flying people out of the Kabul airport.

For now, commercial flights continue at the airport. Air India, Dubai-based carriers Emirates and FlyDubai, Pakistan International Airlines and Turkish Airlines all either have flights en route or planned to Kabul for the next day. Local Afghan airlines continue to fly as well.

But passengers worry that at any moment the Taliban could come, closing the country’s airspace.

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