Escape from Kabul – a South African’s story
Share this article:
CAPE TOWN - The trauma of escaping from Kabul amid one of the largest airlifts in history and jarring scenes of desperate people attempting to escape the city, will live with Somerset West resident Allen Ferguson, 53, and his family for some time to come.
Ferguson, a general manager at an international multi-service company working in support of US and NATO forces and international embassies, had been in Kabul for six months before the large scale evacuations of foreign citizens and some vulnerable Afghan citizens took place amid the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from the War in Afghanistan and the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan.
After the fall of Kabul on August 15, and the sooner than expected collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai International Airport remained the only non-Taliban controlled route out of the country, being protected by thousands of NATO troops.
Fergusson, a father of two, said leading up to the actual evacuation, the urgency of the situation was not yet realised.
“Being in Afganistan up until January, things were okay. There was danger, but with NATO and the US military we felt we were quite safe. When Biden announced the troop withdrawal, that came as a shock to all of us - we thought they couldn't pull out of Kabul because they had created a dependency there,” Ferguson said, adding residents believed the final troop departures would come months later.
By August 13, residents realised the situation they were facing under Taliban rule and appealed to be paid out and for any documents that could help to get them to apply for permits to leave the country.
“On the 13th, things started going really badly. We were getting feedback from security companies that we had to pack our things, the Taliban is on the way.”
The next day, Ferguson made arrangements for his staff, as their base would have to close down.
“On the 15th, at 5am, I had vehicles and drivers ready to take the expats from the company in Kabul to the airport. We hadn't been able to secure commercial flights for all of them, we were scrounging seats on charter aircrafts. Some of the staff managed to get flights to Eastern Europe, some flew to Turkey.”
Eventually only four employees were left in Kabul, including Ferguson.
“We locked down the camp, and at this point, our security at the gates turned on us. They came at us with AK 47’s, they held us at gunpoint, they would not let us out of the camp. They wanted money because they were in absolute fear that we were leaving them behind, saying ‘how the hell are we going to survive, the Taliban is coming’. I took $10 000 from the safe, gave the money and our staff got out.”
“There were local staff coming to me that day, there was panic, pandemonium, there were tears, there was a real sense of panic.”
The four were told to head to a secure location in Camp Baron.
“As we drive out the gate, there are just thousands and thousands of Taliban walking in the same direction. They are already there in Kabul. They are on foot.”
After a shortcut to the camp failed, they travelled the Kabul–Jalalabad Road, a notoriously dangerous route.
“There's just thousands of Taliban, on the left and right side of the road and traffic is jammed. There are Taliban guys walking past our vehicle, looking at us through the windows.
“I felt unbelievably calm, because I thought I was dead. I just sat and prayed to God, I sent a message to my wife just to say goodbye,” an emotional Ferguson remembered.
After a three hour journey, they made it to the camp and departed for the airport.
“We get to the airport and there are just thousands of thousands of people trying to get to the airport to get on a plane. As we drove, people walked with the cars, with their belongings, and children. People were walking around with wads of money to buy a seat on an aircraft.
“The airport was absolute, complete chaos, people were climbing over the top of people to try and get to the counters.
Despite getting four tickets to leave the country, the plane they were to take was full and could not leave.
“At about 6:30pm, one of the workers says all the customs and immigration officials are running away. I turn around and all the people who are supposed to be checking us in, have gone. The next thing, this guy starts shouting at the top of his voice in the local dialect, and people get up and start screaming and running. We ran.
“People poured onto the airstrip and we saw the aircraft we are supposed to be on, then we heard gunfire outside the airport.”
He said luggage was being ransacked in the chaos.
They four found safety in a temporary air traffic control camp in a container at the centre of the runway, as troops patrolled the perimeter.
After receiving information that the camp was compromised, they were again evacuated to a nearby base.
“At about 10:30am that morning, we boarded a C-17 military troop carrier and we landed two hours later in Qatar at an American air force base.
“(Lifting off) was the best feeling in the entire world. We had dogs on the aircraft as well, the military dogs were being evacuated.
"Qatar wouldn't let us leave the base as we didn't have the necessary paperwork, and the Americans didn't know what to do with us, so we hung around for two days. The American Embassy eventually organised an aircraft to fly us to Kuwait and two days later we managed to get an aircraft to Georgia, near Turkey and Russia, where we were interrogated for at least an hour about the groups movements,” he said.
They then flew to Sharjah in the UAE.
“For the next 12 hours it was just a blackout for me. I remember waking up the next morning, not knowing what to do, whether to cry or just lie there. There was a huge element of shock, relief, anger, anxiety pouring out of my eyes and ears.”
For the next two weeks, Ferguson worked in Dubai and then flew home to Cape Town.
“When we touched down, I’d never been so happy in my life, just overwhelmed. I'm seeing a counsellor. It has taken its toll,” he said, adding his family was also traumatised by the ordeal.
“It’s just been a tough couple of weeks at home. I can't get into a routine and am hoping that a break will recharge my batteries.
“The thing about Afghanistan that saddens me the most is the people we left behind, especially the women and children.”