Wednesday the 25th, six in the afternoon. (Park Hotel. Kabul). Tonight I will try to leave. I leave the hotel after 23 days in Kabul towards the airport. I carry two bulky suitcases that mainly contain cameras, recording equipment and material for the documentary I want to make. They are heavy. But you need to go with me wherever I go. The plan is to contact Spanish soldiers near the airport’s Porta Abbey. My contact is a Spanish military man, Pablo (fictitious name, like all those in this chronicle, for safety’s sake). I have your number. I will communicate with him via WhatsApp. That is all. That and luck.
I’m Chilean. As Chile does not have planes here, an agreement with the Spanish Government will allow me to leave for Spain first. I’m not going alone. Come with me Azadeh, a 19-year-old Afghan journalism student who will also travel to Chile later. She goes to the meeting accompanied by her uncle and brother. Also with us is Fahima, a journalist for a newsroom where the Taliban have banned women from working. She received death threats. He wants to escape the country with his brothers and his father. Fahima supports her entire family. His father, let’s call him Ahmed, was once a man of means, elegant. But he arrives as sick and weakened as he is armed with courage. Walk with a stick. I think it will be impossible for him to get through the crowd around the perimeter of the airport to get to the door. We’ll see. It’s the third time you’ve tried. I tell him we’ll make it. Desperate hotel employees ask me for letters of recommendation so that they too can escape. I sign them, even though I know they won’t do any good.
We are going in two cars: in the van behind, there are Fahima and her family; in the front cab, Azadeh, his brother, my producer and me.
– We are leaving.
Seven at night. (Road to airport. Kabul). The way to the airport is crowded with cars. It took us two hours to cover two kilometers. Along the way, drivers get out of their cars to smoke and talk. It’s already night. Shots are heard here and there. Remember where we are going. We decided to take a longer but safer path, with fewer Taliban controls.
When we can’t go any further with the cars, we go down. Now, let’s walk. The truly difficult begins. We walk between the rows of parked cars. I look at Fahima’s father, walking with his staff. His family continually tells him, “We can do it, we can do it.” After a few kilometers, we found a Taliban control. They are mad. They carry sticks, clubs. They don’t want anyone to pass. Some are mounted on US military vehicles (known as humvees). The air is unbearable because the Taliban sprayed pepper spray, which mixes with the road dust raised by the huge lines of trucks, buses and cars. We wait.
I see Ahmed getting more and more tired, more and more impatient. Suddenly the control disappears. Everything here is like this: crazy, brutal, unpredictable, irrational. The Taliban are leaving without knowing why. Maybe fight elsewhere, because there are many fronts to defend. With free control, we pass.
We started to advance through open fields and plantations. My producer, I don’t know how, gets some wheelbarrows to take the bags. Let’s light the way with cell phones. This consumes the battery, and I’ll need the phone to get in touch with Pablo later on. Without talking to him I won’t be able to leave. So the phone is vital. But there is no other remedy.
We need to take several breaks for Fahima, who is very worried about her father, old Ahmed. There are arguments between members of your family. Some say they must continue. Others don’t. “My father will do it: let’s go,” says the youngest daughter, the most optimistic, the most confident.
Midnight. (Channel that surrounds the airport). We arrived at the canal that borders the perimeter of the airport. It’s kind of a moat. It is almost three meters deep. To continue it is necessary to descend these three meters, cross it, with the dirty water that runs through it at waist height, and climb another three meters to get out on the other side. On the other side are the American, Norwegian, Canadian and Turkish soldiers. But for them to help you up, you need to convince them. It’s not easy. There are people who take the documents in order. Others carry a simple letter of recommendation. The military doesn’t differentiate most of the time and generally doesn’t accept you. We sit on the edge of the canal taking advantage of the fact that there aren’t many people yet. We have to think about what we are going to do. I wonder if in the end I will be saved. I suppose others, as exhausted as I am, wonder the same. A scarf I used to cover my head falls off and I lose it. And, I don’t know why, perhaps from exhaustion and anxiety, I see it as a sign of ill omen, that the pincers will close in front of us and we won’t reach the door.
We decided to proceed at night, despite everything, along the edge of the canal as far as possible, always towards Porta Abbey. Elder Ahmed’s youngest daughter keeps encouraging him, almost pushing him to keep going. But I see that its march slows down and that it will not arrive. And what’s worse: it slows us all down. Along the way we meet little delinquents who approach, ask questions, smile. At the first carelessness they will steal whatever is at hand.
Dawn (Thursday, 6 am) at the edge of the canal. (Among the crowd). At six in the morning we reached a point where it was impossible to advance because of the crowd. Thousands of people surround us. It is dawning. We sat on the floor, waiting, exhausted, leaning on our bags. Pablo, the Spanish military, tells us to swing pieces of cloth and red T-shirts from right to left so he can try to spot us, even from a distance. If it works out, we’ll cross the channel and the American soldiers can let us through to the other side. I tell others, but they don’t care. They have a certain demoralizing fatalism. No longer trust. More and more people arrive. The Taliban are close, besides. We need to keep advancing along the edge of the canal, to reach a point where Pablo can see us from inside the airport. But it is impossible. The military writes to me via WhatsApp:
– Where are you?
“Here on the bridge. We cannot reach the end. There are many more people now.
Ahmed’s family gives up. They decide to come back. What awaits them at home in Kabul, with the city in Taliban hands, is no better, in my opinion, than what surrounds them now. But they cannot continue. Ahmed is unable to take another step. How are you going to slip through the crowd, make your way through it? The worst thing is that we’re all so tired, so exhausted, so angry with each other for blaming each other for the failure, that we don’t even say goodbye. I stay with young Azadeh, her brother and my producer, who continues to help me, carrying one of my suitcases.
I get a message from Pablo:
“Yes, here we see the white and red tower.
“We’re on the bridge.
– OK. Let’s go.
– If I run out of battery, Azadeh will contact you. Go swing a red scarf.
But we failed again. We cannot move forward. Azadeh and his brother are also thinking about giving up. I tell them we need to continue. I convince them and I convince myself that we can do it. Talk to them. I say that it is necessary to push, grab us by the arms and by the head, scratch us if necessary, not let go for anything in this world. And we went back to trying to get past the people, advancing along the edge of the canal. Decisive meters for Pablo to see us, and identify us.
We enter again in the middle of the mass. Then I see that my producer, dragged by people, goes astray. I lose him. And he takes the suitcase with the cameras, the hard drives and the rest of the material for the documentary I’m making. We advanced a few meters. We arrived at an area a little less crowded. But I tell Azadeh and his brother I’ll be back for my suitcase. Without my suitcase I can’t continue, this stuff is my life.
So I go back to the hell of people and the Taliban who are behind and I manage to cross it in the opposite direction. For a moment I think my producer ran away with my suitcase, that he stole me. But not. It had simply fallen into the channel. Miraculously, the encounter. I record to record the moment. I’m in the canal, soaked up to my waist in dirty water. It is necessary to go back and get to where I left Azadeh and from there make the last attempt to reach Pablo. I feel this is the last chance. I ask the producer to help me. Say yes, but let’s get some rest beforehand. That’s what we do. we replenish our strength by drinking red bull fakes — which look delicious to us — that street vendors offer us. Even on the last corner of hell there are street vendors. The producer then asks me to help two women he knows, a friend and her sister who are by his side. Let us try to get some country to take them. One of them is a lawyer. We went back inside and made our way through the crowd. I manage to reach the place where I left Azadeh and her brother. I manage, with a charger from the producer’s friend, to connect my phone, which had run out of battery. I send a message to Pablo:
– Let’s go now. We’re on the antenna again.
– Come. At seven in the morning we will try.
Seven in the morning. (Channel edge). We move forward, but we don’t see Pablo, nor he us. And without it the American soldiers will not let us through. Suddenly sends me another message:
– Where are you?
– Just arrived. I stopped on the channel. Red scarf. In front of the Portuguese flags.
It’s eight in the morning. We are about to make it. We advance through the channel. The three women carry the backpack on their backs. Azadeh is sad. He has just said goodbye to his brother, who will not be able to accompany us. It gets hotter and hotter. We are already close to Porta Abbey, where less than 10 hours later a terrorist wearing an explosive vest will commit suicide, killing dozens of people. Now I think I could have taken longer to arrive, been late for whatever reason, and got there just as the bomb exploded, or the terrorist could have gone ten hours early and met me. Now think about it. But at the time, he continued advancing, with the girls, determined to arrive, see Pablo, to end the nightmare once and for all. As if listening to me, Pablo sends me another message:
— We are on the flag of Portugal. Shake the camera when you see Spaniards.
— I’m on the flag of Portugal.
Then you saw me.
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