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The treacherous journey into Kabul airport to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan

Dispatch from Afghanistan

U.S. soldiers secure an evacuation flight at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan on Aug. 17. (Susannah George/The Washington Post)

KABUL — Two days after the Taliban’s sudden takeover of Kabul, we were given a chance to escape: seats on a chartered plane to Qatar set to take off from the city’s airport within hours.

Security around the airport was crumbling, and the future of my Afghan colleagues was increasingly uncertain. They had received Taliban threats in the past, and both have young families for whom they fear the most.

Reaching the airport would be the most difficult part, and it was something we decided we had to do together.

We hadn’t seen each other since the Taliban took over the capital, and the reunion — after so much anxiety, fear and change — was emotional. On a dusty gravel road lined by concrete barriers outside the airport, we embraced. It was one of the first moments of joy and relief in a long time. Everyone was in tears.

U.S. and Afghan forces at Kabul airport on Aug. 19, held back crowds attempting to flee Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover. (Video: The Washington Post)

Next, we had to make a run for the military side of the airport, a part of the city quickly becoming the most dangerous.

The night before, Taliban fighters had stormed a crowd waiting outside the terminal, beating men, women and children attempting to flee the country. By morning, the militants had set up checkpoints and deployed dozens of fighters to block roads leading to the airport. One of those checkpoints was a just a few hundred yards from the compound where I was staying.

“Why do you want to leave the country? What are you, traitors?” the militants screamed at a crowd forming beside one of the main airport entrances, known as Abbey gate, in a scene witnessed by Washington Post reporter Aziz Tassal. One fighter slapped a man who approached the barrier, and another was struck with the butt of a rifle.

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Washington Post editors had arranged seats for staffers and their families on a charter flight set to leave within hours, but getting to the flight would require entering through that same gate. Our chances of making it through the gate safely and then onto the plane were slim. But the crowds at the airport were growing by the day, and the Taliban was becoming more brutal. We decided it was worth a shot.

We were traveling with eight small children, the youngest not even a year old, and were most concerned about their safety. Two nights before, Tassal and his young daughter were beaten by Taliban fighters as they waited on the civilian side of the airport for a flight that never materialized. That experience, my colleagues later said, only hardened their resolve to escape, but it left their families terrified of returning to the scene.

“I will never forget how they beat my small daughter,” Tassal said, showing me the dark blue bruise on her side. “They will never change. My country is gone forever.”

It was possible that we could experience a repeat of that night. But I felt that if I was with the group — the only Post employee left in the country with an American passport — we would be more likely to get inside the base. And if we rented armored cars, we would be partially protected from an attack if the road was breached.

The recent surge of hopeful passengers was triggered by news that the Biden administration was escalating evacuation plans after security around the airport began to collapse. But while the number of evacuation flights was reaching six or more a day, there was no system to get people safely inside the airport. One of the latest warnings from the U.S. Embassy advised U.S. citizens wishing to leave to come to the military side of the airport, but also read, “THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT CANNOT ENSURE SAFE PASSAGE TO THE HAMID KARZAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT.”

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The day The Post team was set to leave, British troops had arrived at the security compound where I was staying to escort a larger evacuation. U.S. and NATO forces have made a series of agreements with the Taliban to protect the evacuation of their citizens from the country.

It was a coincidence, but it created a small window of opportunity for all of us to get inside the airport’s walls together.

I asked the lead British officer about the security of the road, and he showed me what was blocked off from the Taliban. Tassal sent me his location in a WhatsApp message, and we compared maps: It was just a few meters away from the perimeter the soldiers had established.

Initially, the men were cautious about helping us. We weren’t part of their evacuation, and the officer said they needed sign-off from the U.S. Embassy. But after a few phone calls, they agreed to wave Tassal, another Washington Post employee and their families through the Taliban checkpoint.

“I can let your guys through, but ma’am, if you leave them here, it’s just going to put them in more danger,” the soldier said. The British troops were only planning to keep the road clear of Taliban fighters for an hour or two more until their evacuation was complete.

After meeting up on foot, our group of 13 staffers and family members piled into two rented armored cars driven by private security guards and began the short trip to the gate. We passed a graveyard of half-destroyed vehicles and dozens of desperate families held back by rows of barbed wire. The drivers said Taliban fighters had attacked a convoy attempting to reach this gate the night before. One car appeared to have been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, shattering a window of thick bulletproof glass.

The American soldiers guarding the gate were surprised to see cars on a street that was supposed to be closed to traffic. I held my press badge against the windshield, nodded to the guard tower and got out of the car, holding up my hands. After a quick exchange on his radio, he allowed us through.

Inside the U.S.-controlled military base, we all breathed sighs of relief through nervous smiles. It felt like the most difficult part of the journey was over, but we had begun hearing rumors that no charter planes would land that day. I suppressed a wave of anxiety and fear that after managing to get this far, we would merely be turned back into an even more dangerous situation. Smoke had begun to billow into the sky above the Taliban checkpoint behind us.

A group of U.S. military officers approached our cars and asked me to come ahead. Initially, I resisted, not wanting to be separated again, but I was the only one who could move further into the base and find out what flights were leaving and if we had seats.

Outside a makeshift passenger terminal, groups of people waiting for flights — mostly families — sat in the shade leaning on their luggage.

An American officer was speaking to a group gathered below an abandoned shop. “We are committed to securing the perimeter of this airport and keeping you safe,” he said. “You just need to be patient.”

Behind him, the tarmac was lined with armored American military vehicles. Half of it was littered with twisted metal and rubble, but large gray C-17 planes continued to take off and land at pace.

Inside the makeshift terminal, I was introduced to an American military officer coordinating flights. There would be no chartered flights today, he said. My heart sank. He must have been able to see it on my face.

“How many of you are there? You need to go to Qatar? I can get you on a military flight.”

It was an act of kindness in the midst of chaos.

He put us on the U.S. military flight list, but a conflict arose about our names appearing on the manifest. Ultimately, a senior military official authorized us to take the flight.

Within an hour, all 13 of us were waiting on the tarmac as Marines on foot established a security perimeter. They knelt down, pointing their rifles away from the aircraft, an attempt to prevent people from rushing the planes as they taxied away.

To fit more people aboard, the seats had been taken out of the C-17, so we strapped ourselves to the floor. For most of the kids, this was their first time on a plane. They giggled, playing with the nylon webbing.

The roughly 300 people packed aboard were mostly Afghans, some in fatigues, others in civilian clothing. Many families wore traditional dress. A young girl in a stylish headband curled up on one of the few seats lining the sides of the plane and tapped dully at an iPad.

The day’s adrenaline slowly started to fade and a deep sadness took over. I didn’t want to leave Afghanistan. I felt ashamed that I was abandoning such an important job. I couldn’t quite read the faces of my colleagues. We were all trying our best to keep the mood light for the kids, as if the day were one big adventure.

The flight lasted about five hours, and it was well after midnight when we reached the processing center at Al Udeid military base outside of Doha. We were exhausted, but there was a sense of relief the journey was over.

Our faces dropped when we walked in. The scene — a gigantic airplane hangar with weak air conditioning — was like so many I had seen before covering migration and displacement.

But I had never had to leave friends alone in such conditions. We set up cots in one corner of the hangar. Soldiers handed out pop-tarts to the kids and MREs to the adults. It was orderly, safe and temporary, but this was not the soft landing we were expecting.

We spent the first night there as a group, but I had to leave the next day: As hundreds more people arrived over the course of the night, anyone who could move on — people with onward visas, green cards and American passports — was being processed out as quickly as possible.

I prepared for a stay in Doha to help from the outside in a process that we feared could take weeks. But on Friday morning, I received a WhatsApp message from Tassal. It was a photograph of a flight path. The plane just over Italy was headed west.

“We are going to Washington, D.C.,” Tassal said in shock in a voice message.

Both Washington Post employees and their families were loaded onto a plane and not told their destination until they took off. It’s unclear what the next step will be for them in the United States. It will probably be another period of processing and then perhaps the most difficult phase: beginning their lives anew. But the happiness in Tassal’s voice was unquestionable.

“I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “I am really surprised.”