DOHA: Around 150 passengers, mostly Afghans with dual citizenships, departed Kabul on a Qatar Airways flight Friday evening in a tense and emotional return to their home countries following the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the capital last month.
The flight was just the second commercial flight to resume from Kabul’s international airport. It had previously been closed to commercial flights since last month’s messy evacuation of tens of thousands of people fearful of life under Taliban rule after the last U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan, causing panic and chaos. Thousands of people remained grounded in Afghanistan for weeks after the evacuation operation ended, among them Afghans with dual citizenship unable to get back home.
The mood at the departure gate of Kabul’s airport was tense.
Members of the Qatari army guarded the perimeter of the Kabul airport’s bullet-strewn tarmac as passengers boarded the flight.
Weary looking passengers lined up for check-in, but most refused requests for interview. Upon landing in Qatar for processing many looked visibly relieved, albeit exhausted, and opened up to media requests.
“If we knew this would happen, we wouldn’t have come to Afghanistan,” said Abdul Wali Ahmad Zaid, a British-Afghan dual citizen who boarded the flight with his wife and four children.
He said he and his family had come to Kabul to visit his parents and extended family when the US withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover took place.
Their vacation was supposed to be over by the end of August, but the rapid course of events, capped by a lightning seizure by the Islamic insurgents, stranded the Zaid family for ten extra days. The family stood outside the airport for two days, along with tens of thousands of people hoping for airlifts from western governments. They didn’t manage to get aboard any.
When the state of Qatar -- which maintains friendly diplomatic relations with the Taliban -- re-opened parts of the capital's airport -- the Zaid family decided to return to London.
“I don't know where to start,” Abdul Wali said of their departure during such a precarious time for Afghanistan. “We left behind our extended family, our parents. It's heart breaking. We should all be excited, but we left behind so many people.”
The state of Qatar has stepped in to provide badly needed aid to Afghanistan since the United States withdrawal created the conditions for the Taliban to rapidly seize the country. The small Gulf country has since then escalated its diplomatic efforts, hosting thousands of Afghan refugees, sending at least 100,000 tons in humanitarian aid, and facilitating the return of dual nationals to their home countries.
Apolan Kamraan, a 27-year-old Canadian citizen with Afghan nationality, alternately laughed and broke into tears as she discussed her decision to leave Kabul.
She had arrived in Kabul one month ago to marry her fiancé, who lived in Afghanistan.
On August 14, they were wed. One day later, the Taliban overtook Kabul. Court offices and government institutions closed in the chaos that commenced, she said, and the couple were unable to legally register their marriage.
The Taliban takeover complicated Kamraan’s plans to return to Toronto with her new husband. Stranded, she contacted the Canadian embassy, hoping for a way out.
“According to new laws in Canada, they announced that newly married couples can travel because of the emergency situation in Kabul,” she said. Qatari officials told her they were unsure whether the Taliban would recognize the Canadian law, since their marriage was not registered in time.
They made it. After arriving in Qatar’s international airport, her relief was overtaken by fear for the rest of her and her husband’s family, who remain in Afghanistan.
“I couldn't decide I should stay in Kabul to help my family from here,” she said tearfully, standing next to her new husband – a mild mannered man who has never travelled outside Afghanistan country before. “My brother and sister insisted. They said, ‘we don't want to put your life at risk because you are a Canadian citizen.’ You can help us from Canada.”
Kamraan’s conflicting feelings are echoed by many of the passengers who disembarked from the Qatar Airways flight from Kabul.
Abdul Wali Ahmad Zaid, the British-Afghan dual citizen travelling with his family, expressed a sense of abandonment from the international community.
“Suddenly in a matter of two weeks, everything has been destroyed.”