The Taliban have widened a security cordon around Kabul airport, at American request, but the move means Afghans heading for the last evacuation flights encounter more checkpoints.
Moreover, witnesses say the Taliban guards are becoming more aggressive, especially with women, as the clock ticks down to Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden’s deadline for the American airlift to end.
“They don’t spare women,” a 20-year-old student told VOA in a phone call from Kabul, where she is in hiding, too fearful to make a second attempt to leave the country.
“They won’t spare us just because we are women,” said Hamdiya, describing what she, her mother and younger sister endured at multiple Taliban checkpoints.
“One Taliban held a gun to my head,” she said. “We were told we are infidels because we want to go to the United States,” she continued. “I said I wasn’t an infidel and he said he was going to shoot me,” she added.
Hamdiya has worked for both the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and for a German nongovernmental organization.
On Thursday she, her mother and sister made it to the airport just as a suicide bomber struck, leaving 13 U.S. service personnel dead and at least 170 Afghans.
“I was running and I accidentally tripped over a head, and it had no body. I can’t get rid of that image” she said.
Her mother was injured in the bombing, which an affiliate of the Islamic State group has claimed as its attack. Hamdiya said she, her mother and sister are all too terrified to make another bid to reach the airport and she has been trying to find any Western assistance to help them navigate the Taliban checkpoints, to no avail. She said women not accompanied by male relatives are encountering special hostility from Taliban gunmen.
“Sometimes I wish I were a man,” she said. “I am failing. It is very painful,” she added.
The final opportunities to leave are likely slipping away from Hamdiya.
The U.S. State Department Saturday urged American citizens and others to leave the vicinity of Kabul’s airport immediately due to fears of another terror attack. Taliban forces sealed the airport off Saturday to most Afghans hoping for evacuation, The Associated Press reported.
Even before then, other Afghans trying to reach the airport told VOA that Taliban guards often were only allowing a maximum of two members per family to cross checkpoints, now increasingly manned by uniformed Taliban fighters with Humvees and night-vision goggles seized from Afghan security forces.
Afghans who have been at the airport painted a grim picture of Taliban fighters firing rounds into the air.
The Taliban claim they have to disperse crowds, but several Afghans told VOA that they believed the episodic shooting was intimidatory and being done just to scare them. The Taliban also Saturday fired canisters of colored smoke around parts of the airport, adding to the confusion and mounting fear, Afghan civilians said.
NATO’s European members have now ended their airlift, with some governments urging Afghans eligible for evacuation now to shelter in place.
Britain ended its evacuation mission Saturday with the final British troops and diplomatic staff arriving at RAF Brize Norton, a British air force base in southeastern England, Sunday morning, drawing to a close Britain's 20-year deployment in Afghanistan.
The two-week mission to rescue British nationals and Afghan allies was Britain’s largest evacuation mission since World War II. In all, Britain evacuated 15,000 people. In a video posted on Twitter Sunday British Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised the soldiers involved.
On the end of military operations in Afghanistan. pic.twitter.com/sOeXjeYtIr— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 29, 2021
“U.K. troops and officials have worked around the clock to a remorseless deadline in harrowing conditions,” he said.
“They have expended all the patience and care and thought they possess to help people in fear for their lives,” he added, “They've seen at firsthand barbaric terrorist attacks on the queues of people they were trying to comfort, as well as on our American friends. They didn't flinch. They kept calm. They got on with the job.”
Johnson and his ministers, however, are coming under vitriolic criticism for the airlift, with claims that the British government was too slow to get the evacuation mounted in earnest. A former head of the British army, General Richard Dannatt, said the mission should have been started much earlier in the year.
“We should have done better, we could have done better. It absolutely behooves us to find out why the government didn't spark up faster,” he told The Times newspaper.
Hundreds of Afghans have been heading to the country’s land borders but are being charged thousands of dollars by smugglers and drivers, according to Western NGOs.
The Tajikistan and Uzbekistan borders are currently officially closed. Making for the frontier with Pakistan is highly risky for Afghans who have worked with NATO forces or Western governments as to get to the border they must travel deep into Taliban heartlands. Moreover, most border smugglers are connected with the militant Islamist movement, say private security advisers exploring overland routes to get Afghans out of the country.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.