Kabul: If traveling to Afghanistan from Delhi was “risky” enough, then coming out from that war zone required skills I never imagined I had.
As the Taliban entered the city and Kabul fell on 15 August, my office booked me onto the next Air India flight AI0244 for 16 August that was to depart at 11 am.
Sensing chaos and mayhem, I, along with another journalist from Delhi, reached the airport early, only to find that it had been completely taken over by the Taliban and the main entry was blocked by 8-10 armoured vehicles from which they were firing in the air and people were made to sit outside the main terminal buildings on the road.
Thousands of Afghan families were sitting in fear while they also attempted to catch their flights. I sheltered myself from the bullets that were being fired in the air by sitting under a tree and in between an iron barricade. Beside me, many Afghan families were sitting with little children.
Eventually by 7 am, the entry gates were opened and people started running towards the main terminal buildings; the more the crowds swelled, the more the firing increased.
While some people were getting scared with the sound of the bullets, others were taking it very casually. One of them, seeing me visibly unnerved, told me, “Madam, nothing will happen. We’ve grown up seeing these people.”
Meanwhile, as I kept waiting for my flight, an announcement was made that all commercial flights at Kabul Airport had been suspended.
Chaos at the airport
But as more and more people started entering the airport to catch flights out of Kabul with no confirmed tickets in hand, the gathering quickly turned into a mob and that made the Talibs guarding the airport angrier and they started firing at the mob indiscriminately.
The crowd there also started spreading rumours that the Kabul Airport may not become operational for the next six months. With no option in hand, I contacted the Indian embassy as well the MEA headquarters in Delhi who gave me three options — go back to the hotel where I was staying, go to the technical area of the airport, or go to the Indian embassy.
On my way out, I was also checked by a handful of yelling Taliban guards as they were about to throw my bags on the floor. Keeping my composure, I told them I am a journalist from India and have come to cover the situation on the ground. They immediately set me free.
Meanwhile, by 11:15 am, a massive crowd from outside attempted to gatecrash the airport, and to control the mob, the guards started firing at them indiscriminately and a person beside me got shot in the leg.
I, however, somehow managed my way out of the airport with the help of a stranger who had also come there as part of the crowd. He held my bags and safely made my exit out of the airport where the Taliban was present in large numbers.
Finally, after walking for half a kilometre, he managed a cab with which I was able to reach the main entry point of Street No. 14 Wazir Akbar Khan Road, where the embassy is located.
Negotiating way into Indian embassy
The Taliban had closed the road and I was told I won’t be allowed entry. The Indian embassy was not in a position to send a car or a person outside as they were threatened by the Taliban.
After haggling for 45 minutes in Kabul’s scorching heat, I confronted one of their main leaders sitting near the gate carrying a shoulder launched anti-tank weapon and negotiated my way in with ThePrint press card while I also told him that as a true Talib, he should not make a foreigner woman stand on the road for so long.
Within five minutes, I was allowed inside and I could finally make my way inside the embassy that was a 15-minute walk from there; the time was about 2 pm.
But the gate was crowded as many wanted to make their way to the embassy in search of a better life. I was approached by a woman who was crying and told me she wanted to visit India to meet her brother. There were two boys who wanted to come and apply for visas to work in India.
The embassy was already under evacuation and a carcade was being prepared. Gradually, after following all protocols, me and my fellow journalist friends and civilians living there were put inside designated bullet-proof Land Cruisers. We were also told that since the compound will now be looked after by the Taliban, we had to leave our luggage back at the embassy. I only hope I get my suitcase back because I have memories locked in it.
I was lucky to have Jagat from the ITBP driving the car I was in and how he managed to drive it through the dead of the night was outstanding. At every step, the Taliban stopped our car only to check it. He managed them with a smile and a thumbs-up sign.
Finally, we boarded an Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster that was parked in the technical area of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, which was manned by US forces. After a brief stopover at Jamnagar, we landed at the Hindon air base Tuesday evening.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)