Escape from Kabul: Irish contacts and a trudge through sewage

Over-the-phone diplomacy saved Afghan human rights activist and his family

Members of Taliban check a car in Kabul: “I quickly deleted all the messages on my phone, emptied my computer and burnt a few documents because of the fear I had,” says Ali.  Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP

Members of Taliban check a car in Kabul: “I quickly deleted all the messages on my phone, emptied my computer and burnt a few documents because of the fear I had,” says Ali. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP

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A human rights activist from Afghanistan who feared he would be targeted for retribution by the Taliban has spoken of his dramatic escape from Kabul with the help of Irish contacts.

He waded through an open sewage canal with his wife and young child in a desperate effort to show his Irish travel documents to soldiers so he could get into Kabul airport in the days after the city fell to the militant group.

But for calling an Irish contact, and putting that person on the phone to the troops at the airport gate, he said he would have been turned away.

Ali, not his real name, has decided to withhold his identity at this time as he fears relatives still in Kabul could be targeted because of his activism in the city over the last 20 years. He said he must also protect the identities of some of the Irish people who he credits with saving his life.

He told The Irish Times that on August 15th he left his home in Kabul to apply for a new passport as his was expiring. While at the passport office, the “unimaginable” news broke that the Taliban had taken over districts in the city.

“The passport office employees locked the doors and they said ‘Go away!’ And then I saw everyone was running in the streets – nobody knew where to go, but everyone was running,” he said.

Along with his wife and child, who is of early national school age, Ali took refuge in a relative’s house across the city. They hid there for a week.

“The children came in at one point and said ‘quick, quick, the Taliban are in the street outside’. So I quickly deleted all the messages on my phone, emptied my computer and burnt a few documents because of the fear I had,” he said.

“They were going door to door . . . and they seemed to be going to look for people based on information that they had. But they didn’t come to our house.”

Taliban checkpoints

Ali spoke with contacts in the international human rights community in an effort to secure permission to travel to Europe. Dublin-based Ed O’Donovan, a special adviser to UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor, was among them.

O’Donovan and Lawlor were able to rapidly secure a visa waiver from the Department of Foreign Affairs for Ali and other Afghan human rights activists.

“We learned the Taliban were checking documents at checkpoints and taking people aside and tearing up their passports or turning people back,” O’Donovan said, adding that he feared Ali might still not get out of the city despite having Irish travel documents.

In the days immediately after the fall of Kabul, O’Donovan and contacts in Ireland worked to supply Ali with information, down to the level of which Kabul streets the Taliban checkpoints were located on and what route he should take to the airport to avoid them.

O’Donovan, who is on secondment to the UN from Front Line Defenders in Dublin, was “at home on a Saturday night watching football” when he began receiving information about the environment in Kabul.

Aircraft takes off from Kabul: The man’s contacts in Ireland studied flight radar websites in an effort to move them towards the British or US military rather than troops from other countries. Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP
Aircraft takes off from Kabul: The man’s contacts in Ireland studied flight radar websites in an effort to move them towards the British or US military rather than troops from other countries. Photograph: Karim Sahib/AFP

It was decided between the small group of Irish security and humanitarian contacts that Ali, his wife and child, and three other human rights activists they were helping should move at once to get to the airport.

Ali was told to go to the Abbey Gate at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport and to only approach from the direction of the Baron Hotel. He took his son’s hand and, along with his wife, set off for the airport.

Sewage canal

“I was remembering my childhood. I was at the same age as my own child when the Russians were bombing Afghanistan,” Ali said, recalling his father taking him to the mountains in the dead of night in the 1980s to avoid bombs that had killed his uncles.

Once he reached the airport’s Abbey Gate – where a suicide bomber struck two days later – he saw an open canal about three metres wide which was filled deep with sewage.

It divided those desperately trying to get out of Kabul and the international troops guarding the airport. Ali’s Irish contact, who had a military background, told him to get into the sewage and wade up through to get close to the troops on the gate.

“We had to throw ourselves into that canal and we stayed there in the sewage for about half an hour. It was about 1½ metres deep but we had to be there. There was no other way,” he said. “The French and the Americans were there and the British. And we showed them our visas. We had an Irish flag and then one of them said ‘yeah, come, come’.”

However, the next soldier they spoke to was French and insisted Ali and his family would not be getting in as “we are only taking French citizens”.

“A British soldier grabbed my hand and said: ‘Move out of there. Move now, now; move!’ But I went back to him, I pleaded to him. I said ‘I have my wife and my child, I can’t go out, my life is in danger; I can’t go back’.”

Radar websites

Ali then tried to call international friends, including the Irish contact with a military background, who he put on the phone to the British soldier.

“I could hear him on the phone to the soldier, insisting ‘Don’t push him out of there because we will lose him’.”

The over-the-phone diplomacy worked and Ali and his wife and child were allowed into the airport. The three other Afghans being guided by the Irish managed to get in too and they joined up to form a six-strong travel party bound for Ireland.

Their contacts in Ireland then studied flight radar websites to establish what planes were on the ground in Kabul airport in an effort to move them towards the British or US military rather than troops from other countries.

Once inside the airport campus, a wait of 24 hours followed but their paperwork was eventually processed and they were placed on a US military plane bound for Doha, Qatar.

They remained there for five days before being flown by the Americans to Germany. On arrival, Ali, his wife and child were finally able to take a shower, a week after wading through the sewage canal.

After five days there, they met Irish officials who got them on board a commercial flight from Frankfurt to Dublin, despite Ali’s passport having expired.

On arrival in Dublin, he was met by the Front Line Defenders group and taken to the Mosney direct provision centre in Co Meath.

“I am so happy to be here, so thankful,” he said.

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