Desperate Afghans surrounded passenger jets and attempted to force themselves onto a plane in Kabul’s airport overnight as panic spread after the Taliban took control of the capital 20 years after being toppled by U.S. forces.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the airport, separated by a row of barbed wire the United States rushed to evacuate American diplomats from the country. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said late Sunday that all embassy personnel had been safely evacuated to premises at the airport, whose perimeter is secured by the U.S. military.
While the U.S. made for the exits, neighboring countries and American rivals China and Russia looked set to try and capitalize on the chaos of the U.S. disorderly exit from the country.
China has said it is willing to forge “friendly relations” with the militants. On Sunday, Russia said that it was not planning on evacuating its embassy in Kabul and would “now be talking” to the Taliban political office in Doha.
Afghan television channels were only putting out pro-Taliban reports, and there were rumors that the internet might shut down at any moment, a resident who did not want to be named for fear of being targeted by the Taliban told NBC News via WhatsApp. Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was on every network, she added.
In one video shared online, crowds of people can be seen surrounding passenger jets and attempting to break into a corridor linking the terminal to a plane, hanging off the edges not willing to give up. The chaos on the ground means it’s likely impossible, or very difficult, for a pilot to take off.
Afghans say the Americans are only focused on evacuating their citizens, leaving them to find out what life under the Taliban is like in 2021. Their elected leader has left them too. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country Sunday as the insurgents entered the capital.
In the rest of the city, people said an eerie calm had taken over the streets after the storm that saw the militants take the crown jewel of Afghan cities. Most shops were closed, fewer people were out on the street compared to Sunday and overhead a frenzy of aviation activity could be heard, residents said.
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“Everybody is panicking,” said an Afghani who recently moved to Kabul from Jalalabad because no one in the capital knows he worked for the Americans as an interpreter. “Everybody is trying to get to the airport.”
The 22-year-old said he would not try his luck there because he knew the Americans would not let him in. Instead he is patiently waiting for his Special Immigrant Visa, a program for Afghans who worked with U.S. troops and diplomats, to be finalized.
“I can’t take somebody else’s place, somebody else’s flight, I need to wait,” he said. “It’s dangerous to go to the airport.”
Not everyone feels they can be patient, and some don’t even have a roof to shelter under.
The desperately poor — who had left homes in the countryside for the presumed safety of the capital — remained in parks and open spaces in the city. The United Nations said thousands of people continue to be displaced into Kabul and other urban areas, and at least 17,600 internally displaced people need humanitarian assistance.
Foreigners also sat tight waiting to hear from their governments, or scrambled to leave the country.
“It’s like a Covid lockdown,” said Wayne Parry, an Australian citizen who says he got stuck in Afghanistan while on a work trip. “Everyone is just waiting, and is obviously nervous.”
Parry, 50, said he was staying in a guesthouse in Kabul and as a foreigner was too worried to go outside as he waited for updates from Australia’s diplomatic staff.
“We’re holed up here, we can’t go outside,” said the Melbourne native. “There’s a sense of resignation because the Taliban has got what they want, so there’s nothing any of us can do except sit and wait.”
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