NZ has left 200 in Afghanistan

Although there are no official figures, it is thought that NZ has left 200 in Afghanistan after the Taliban moved to implement sharia law in the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Former interpreters and other at-risk Afghans who had worked with the New Zealand forces, police, and other Kiwi missions over the two decades-long war, had to wait for their paperwork. For some, they’d been trying for years.

It included a group of 37 Afghan civilians who helped the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZ PRT) in the Bamiyan Province – including interpreters, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, cleaners, and female kitchen workers.

While they hid in Kabul – a city of around five million – there were reports of Taliban militants armed with blacklists, going door-to-door, looking for people just like them – so-called collaborators who had worked with the enemy.

And although Taliban leadership had told the world’s media that there would no reprisals or revenge killings, they were sceptical.

One former translator, who the Herald will call Ali, felt himself losing his mind waiting for his visa to come through.

On August 15, when Kabul fell to the rampant Taliban, who strode into the Presidential Palace without a shot fired in anger and claimed control of the country, Ali cautiously ventured into the streets.

He found armed gunmen setting up checkpoints, doing patrols. He darted down side-streets, knowing he now had to stay underground.

Every night, he would run to a new safe house. Friends would shelter him. He would lie awake and listen to the gunfire.

“Terrified, mate,” he would message in the early hours of the morning.

“No idea when we will be evacuated. We don’t have time to waste on bureaucracy.

“It’s coming on [my] mind that they are looking for me.

“I talked to a friend today who managed to get to the airport. It took him three days … your life is not guaranteed, there is no safe passage.

“It’s not normal … it’s 1.20am and I’m writing this.”

The evacuation window was closing. US President Joe Biden said all his troops – who were in control of the airport’s interior – would be gone by August 31. The Taliban warned that they better be.

Finally, on Thursday, the interpreters got the news they had been waiting for – some of them, like Ali, had been trying for years. Their emergency visas had been granted.

“It’s the best news, mate,” Ali messaged, so excited that he’d started googling New Zealand and researching it on Wikipedia.

“I’ll let you know once we get through,” he vowed.

Officials told them to head for the airport on Friday.

Ali started deleting his social media, wiping his history clean for any Taliban scrutiny at checkpoints. All documents other than his visa paperwork would need to be destroyed.

But hours later, his dreams were put on hold. A major terrorist threat had emerged.

New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the US had intelligence that terror group ISIS-K (Islamic State-Khorasan Province) – an affiliate of Islamic State active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, violently opposed to the Taliban – were planning an imminent attack on the airport.

MFAT warned New Zealanders and visa holders trying to flee to stay away.

“Do not travel to Kabul Airport … There is an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack,” New Zealand Government’s Safe Travel advice said.

Ali and his group were told to hold tight. More instructions would follow.

Another ex-NZDF translator in touch with the Herald, who had also been fighting for months for a visa, decided to try his luck.

With a group of other visa holders, they tried the various gates. They were as crowded and chaotic as in previous days.

Turned back, they left at 3pm.

Just hours later, the attack happened. Two suicide bombers – one at the airport’s Abbey Gate and a second explosion at the nearby Baron Hotel, where New Zealand visa holders have been congregating in previous days – killed dozens before at least one gunman opened fire on the crowds.

At least 170 civilians are said to have been killed – along with 13 US military troops.

The scenes were horrific.

The two Afghan journalists, trying to attach themselves to fleeing Kiwis, were blasted beneath sewage water in the canal with “dead bodies all over us”.

Covered in blood, they retreated to their homes in Kabul. Their contact back in Auckland told them, and the others he’d spent countless hours through the night helping over the last fortnight, that he couldn’t help anymore. His conscience couldn’t take it if anything had happened to them.

If it wasn’t already over, it spelled the end of the New Zealand evacuation mission on the ground. The last RNZAF C-130 flight safely got out the day before – along with all NZDF personnel.

And when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern faced the press on Friday, she admitted: “We did not get everyone out.”

Just what happens now to those left behind, remains uncertain.

The US and UK are completing their last flights from Kabul but time is running out.

The resumption of commercial flights resuming out of HKIA, once the dust settles, remains a possibility, if not a remote one.

Thousands are trying to escape by foot. But the journeys are arduous, dangerous, and uncertain. The Taliban controls all of the country’s border crossings, including at Spin Boldak on the south-western Pakistani border, and many are being turned away.

With the NZDF’s mission now over, the final number of people evacuated is yet to be confirmed.

Before the last flight, 276 people had been flown out – not including another 100 on the last flight, although it’s not clear how many were destined for New Zealand.

But for those estimated 200 people left behind, like Ali, life in Afghanistan remains highly uncertain and volatile.

“It was devastating to wake up to the news the evacuation had ended. There must be an option for us,” he says.

“Otherwise … I do not know what we will do, but it will not be good.”

New Zealand Defence Force evacuation mission to Kabul