~ 26 August 2023 ~
Two years ago today, I was at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul when an ISIS militant detonated a bomb that killed 13 US service members, and as many as 170 Afghan civilians, and wounded hundreds of others. The Abbey Gate bombing remains one of the highest losses of US military service members in a single incident in Afghanistan. The path to that moment was deliberate and direct.
My team was in Afghanistan investigating human rights violations, possible war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed by the Taliban. However on 13 August, we were alerted that surrounding territories were falling rapidly to the Taliban, and we were encouraged to hold up in Kabul.
On the morning of 15 August, we were notified that something was happening, or about to happen. We were instructed to leave the hotel and go to the airport. That same day, we learned that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country, along with many other officials… and then the Taliban took Kabul.
Almost immediately, panic and desperation resulted in tens of thousands filling the streets leading to the airport. Families were separated in the chaos. At the time an estimated 300,000 Afghan nationals who had worked with the US during the two-decade-long war, were now at risk by the Taliban.
The next day, 16 August, thousands pushed through the barbed wire and overtook the airfield. Hundreds swarmed a cargo plane. Dozens climbed onto the plane’s wings and landing gear, hanging onto the wheels as it taxied to the runway. At least one person was killed after he fell beneath the wheels. As the aircraft lifted off, several people fell to their deaths from the plane. From the distance, we could see the bodies dropping to the ground.
A military officer who had been at Ground Zero on 9/11 sat down on the tarmac and put his head in his hands. He told me later that evening that the bodies of the Afghans hitting the ground reminded him of the day people jumped from the Towers.
For the next ten days, we worked around the clock helping to vet, clear, and organize people for transport out of the country. Among them were several of the witnesses we had interviewed. There were so many people. Tens of thousands were constantly pressing to pass through the gates. Although flights were continuous, it seemed the amount of people in the streets never decreased. Each day, some 10,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan. The mission was clear, help get out as many as possible… to save as many as possible. The mission, still to this day… to save as many as possible.
The impact of what was happening was overwhelming. But more, the reality was that the ones left behind would have to face the Taliban, who did not hide their abuse outside the airport gate. Checkpoints were set up around the airport perimeter. The Taliban was brutal. We watched helplessly as they beat and executed people in the streets… for no other reason than they were trying to leave. There was no doubt that anyone left behind at the airport would be executed.
By 25 August, the airport was the base. Fortifications were limited… it was as secure as it was going to be. And everyone knew that an attack at the airport would have been very difficult to defend. The people calling the shots tried to reduce exposure by permanently closing all the gates, except for Abbey, but they did not make any adjustments, or put any safety protocols to the routes leading to the gate. The British military were still at the Baron and if they closed the road, they would have no way back to the airport. So the decision was made to leave the road open.
Our daily briefings alerted us that an attack was certain. People were very concerned that someone strapped with explosives would make it onto a plane and detonate mid-air. The planes were packed with 700 or more civilians and personnel. Many agencies were telling people to stay out of the area of Abbey Gate, that an attack was coming.
Abbey Gate Attack
At 5:36 on the evening of 26 August 2021, Abdul Rohman al-Logari, an ISIS-K militant strapped himself with 20 pounds of military-grade explosives, stepped toward Abbey Gate, and blew himself up.
There was a flash, and then there was the explosion. We felt the impact of the pressure of the blast, and then we heard the boom, within a millisecond. At that moment, we were not sure that the Taliban was not trying to take the airport. Of course that turned out not to be the case but at the moment there was confusion. And in the middle of all of that… destruction and death.
We held in place for a few minutes, but then we were called to help with the situation. Ball bearings and shrapnel cut through everyone and everything in its path. Bodies were violated, ripped, and torn apart. In the aftermath, there were human remains, body parts, and the dead, and hundreds were injured. It was very difficult to take in. In the field, we say, “I need a minute”.
There is not some aspect of that experience that does not haunt me… that does not haunt us all. That day, we witnessed seasoned military members break down and cry. Even the resolve of the hardest Marines broke in their humanity. We had interacted at that gate with many of the soldiers who were injured, and at least one of the service members who was killed. And while our eyes witnessed a horrific scene, there was still a job to do. Everyone that day experienced the most difficult moments in their lives, and every single person on the ground did the best they could to keep it going.
The Mission Continues
Flights resumed quickly, and security tightened. In the process, sometimes people, even families, were sent back into the crowd, into danger, back to the Taliban. At least 120,000 were evacuated by air in less than 20 days. Hundreds of unaccompanied children, separated from their families were put on planes and sent to a new country. But tens of thousands were stranded at the airport, left behind.
I will be forever grateful for the commitment all the service members made to get through the evacuation. We all agree that it was difficult, and mistakes were made. But even with the best-laid plans in place, there was never going to be a perfect time to leave Afghanistan, with perfect conditions. Neither would there be a perfect case in which everyone who wanted to leave would be able to leave. But there is still work left to be done.
Now, we work to help those left behind.
With gratitude… Lara
Photo Credit: A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit teaches a child how to do a handshake on August 21 at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan. US Maine Corps photo by Cpl. Davis Harris. Licensed under CC BY SA 4.0
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