There are no words for what I am feeling now. After last night’s bomb blast at Abby Gate, they have welded all gates shut so all evacuations are over. On a good note, my convoy was unharmed. I am trying to look at the positives.
The last 10 days have been, without a shadow of a doubt, the most intense 10 days of my life. Starting with calls of desperation of former friends and colleagues I found myself neck deep in evacuation operations.
After connecting with my Kabul partner in crime, Julie Browning from USAID (Dept of State) I learned she was working with a group of former diplomatic staff trying to charter a private plane out. We needed charters because many (if not most) of our friends didn’t qualify for evacuation via official channels. And even if they did, how did they make contact? To whom? Where? How? This is where us ‘shepherds’ stepped in.
For the first few days we were processing paperwork: we couldn’t just evacuate anyone. You had to be an established target due to your work with ‘infidels’ or have a profession like a woman journalist, or a woman’s rights activists, or a woman anything.
List after list, passport after passport we plugged those spreadsheets for visa applications, flight manifests, evacuation request forms.
On day one, Mheria Rahullah who is on my Auckland former refugee sewing team, called me to say her sister, Miriam Azizi who was a Senior Prosecutor for the Attorney General’s office was in Kabul and needed to get out. She had been putting Taliban in prison for the last 20 years. Can you imagine the size of the target on her back, especially after the Taliban opened all the prison doors?
Julie and I got Miriam allocated to our charter and she was destined for Uganda for processing, then likely onwards to the USA. I was plugged in with Task Force Pineapple, a group of former Navy Seals, Green Berets, SAS etc who were running unofficial virtual operations to shepherd our lambs through the city, to the airport and then into special access points where we could often get people onto the tarmac. Shepherds worked from all over the world, sharing intel over Signal and using it to guide our families though the city to avoid Talib checkpoints, then to various gates where they could usher them through through in co-operation with troops on the tarmac. We were planning her evac with TF Pineapple when our efforts in NZ to get Miriam a NZ visa came to fruition after many emails to Phil Twyford’s office. But it was thanks to lobbying from Chloe Irvine that hours later we had a temporary visa for Miriam to come here.
We then realised, she now qualified for evacuation by the NZDF so we had to pivot our operations. I was finding communication with MFAT frustratingly slow and I had no idea how to get through to them to plan her passage to the airport. There was no email or phone number to call and when I was contacted, all reply information was removed. It was like Chinese whispers trying to get a message up, with pretty much no reply coming back down. I knew they were swamped but we had to move Miriam and her family in a matter of hours so decisions needed to be made.
I finally heard that NZDF would manage her evacuation from point to point: her house to the tarmac. But as I already had TF Pineapple in place with armed escort in a bullet proof vehicle things were getting confusing. NZDF tried calling her but she wouldn’t reply. (No one in Kabul was answering their phones unless it was a trusted number).
Finally they WhatsApped her but she still wouldn’t reply. I received a call from Command Control in Tehran requesting I get Miriam to trust them and answer the phone. Thankfully, Miriam screenshot the whatsapp message to me as asked to verify. The bingo moment here was that the calling number was displayed at the top of the screenshot. I had an in!!
I called the number to confirm and thankfully it was [soldier] from NZDF and I had access to boots on the ground on the tarmac at HKIA. He explained they had a full extraction plan in place but she needed to get to Abby Gate where they would guide her in. When relaying this with the TF Pineapple I was told I was nuts and that plan would be suicide for Miriam. They said it would be foolish and most certainly be killed -- under no circumstance should she attempt this unarmed in a soft shell vehicle.
But NZDF urged me to trust them, and the pathway they had mapped out. They knew Miriam would only listen to me and she trusted me to make the best decision for her. We bargained for hours about getting TF Pineapple to drop her at Abby Gate for armed escort to the airport then let NZDF take over from there but neither group wanted to share the operation so I had to make a decision and I had to make it fast.
In moments like these, it’s a split second decision based on gut instincts. In my gut, there lay someone who loved our ANZAC stories -- our reputation for doing things differently. We are known for our ingenuity, and going under the radar in a chilled way that Rambo Americans often find perplexing. So in that split second, I dug deep into our cultural identity and pulled the pin on TF Pineapple and handed my precious parcel over to NZDF. I placed my trust in [soldier] and his boys and his promise that he’d get her out.
They arranged a driver to collect her and drop at a rendezvous (RV) point where she would then be given new instructions. Miriam and her family were collected in the dead of night and arrived at the RV around dawn. Every hour she would msg me ‘I’m ok’. But almost 12 hours went by and they had no word from [soldier]. I couldn’t get hold of him and all comms had gone dark. I asked Tehran to contact him but they had no luck either. I was getting a very bad feeling and Miriam was beginning to get spooked. I heard via the TF Pineapple chat group that cell towers were possibly going to be cut which means all we had to go by was a giant sign with her code word CHOCOLATE and the hope she could get to the perimeter to wave it. (‘Chocolate’ because I knew thousands of people were waving signs of ‘New Zealand’, or ‘USA’… I needed her to stand out) At this stage I texted my friend at MFAT “All comms gone dark and no one at NZDF has contacted Miriam and she’s been at rendezvous for hours. And she can’t get hold of them because [soldier] isn’t answering. I’ll be fucking pissed if they fail. I had US extraction plan in place but they made me trust them that they were better placed to help. If they fail I will fucking rain hell down on them.”
[Next text] “Sorry. I’m emotional”. (I was also getting no more than 4 hours sleep a night at this stage). I also had about 12 other families I was looking after.
I got Miriam to pin drop her location on google maps and I could see she was about 15km away so not even feasibly within walking distance with three kids in 40 degree heat.
Tehran called again to say the reasons their phones were off was because they were out at the perimeter looking for her where cell signals are blocked to prevent phone-triggered bombs. He assured me they were out there looking for her. But she was still 15km away. I was about to puke with anxiety.
Finally, after 12 hours at the RV point I got in contact with [soldier] who said “She missed the gate opening. We have sent her to the Canal gate. I can’t contact her. So please tell her to wait at the Canal gate. We are searching for her. She needs to move to the Canal gate until she sees the soldiers. The boys are looking for her. I’m looking for her.”
An hour goes by.
Miriam gets to Canalgate and as all comms with NZDF had gone dark again. I got her to hold her chocolate sign above her head and turn around very slowly. She did this every 3 minutes.
Another hour goes by.
I ask her to pin her location on maps but when I compared it to the satellite maps I was using from TF Pineapple I suspected she was a long way from where she needed to be. She was on a canal but in the opposite direction.
I send the pin to [soldier] who’s online again and confirms my suspicions. “She’s in the wrong place.”
The driver had gone to the wrong place intentionally because he wanted to find another family. We have no idea why but it was my job now to shepherd her around the perimeter and get her to the correct Canal gate. She had to go by foot. It was 3km through heaving crowds of desperate people, constantly sending pins, with me sending her the next one.
Miriam and her family were within 100m when the Taliban started firing. She ran away and said she was going back to find the driver. [Soldier] messaged me back, “No don’t do that. They are not killing people, they are just firing in the air. They need to take the opportunity. We have got over 50 Kiwis today via this route. This is it.”
I relay this to Miriam but also Mheria in Auckland so she can speak to her in Farsi so there is no misunderstanding. She must follow our orders and not make any decisions so she headed back into gunfire which takes an extraordinary amount of courage.
Miriam treks back to Canal gate and I shepherd her through the route using constant pin drops where I track her movements and guide her to the right spot. She finally finds the tower she was instructed to find, based on a photo [soldier] sent me of the assigned place. She arrives but all comms go dark - all cell phones are blocked on the perimeter but we have the advantage that local Afghan phones continue to work. At this stage, I started a three-way chat on Signal with Mheria and her other sister, Khatera in Kabul who has a local phone. [Soldier] relays to me, I relay to the sisters, who relay back to Miriam. “Move forward”, “get to the tower”, “lift the sign now.”
Minutes later Khatera messages us to say the soldiers found her and pulled her through the wall. She was in!!
Miriam is currently in Dubai and will be coming home with the rest of the NZDF team in a few days. A happy ending!
Shepherding Miriam was a 48 hour operation with no sleep. I was reaching collapse myself; my body was shaking, I couldn't eat and I survived on endless cups of tea made by my very supportive husband. All week I had been shepherding other families through to 3-4am, then up again by 7 due to working across three time-zones: NZT, Washington DC and Kabul.
When the Taliban took control of Kabul, I received a panicked message from my friend Saida asking for assistance with evacuation. I got her allocated to a charter flight but Saida then said that ‘Stephanie’ had her allocated on a flight also. “Who’s Stephanie? Hook me up with her so we can streamline.”
Turns out Stephanie Sinclair is a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer who founded Too Young to Wed. We hit it off and all week we threw case files at each other -- her flights focused on women and girls so she threw me cases that didn’t qualify and I threw her my vulnerable women.
After shepherding Miriam and at the point where I thought I couldn’t go on any longer, Stephanie called me to say she had a convoy of 7 buses with access to Abby gate. We had 20 minutes to shepherd 130 people to the rendezvous. A group chat started to compile the manifest. I pulled in Claire and Caroline in Auckland who worked through to 4am plugging in details: names, passports, levels of risk, jobs, etc etc. It was chaos with some of us screaming at each other via whatsapp - women we love and have worked with tirelessly all week were having screaming matches over the list, the password, and the fact that 1000 people had gathered for 150 spots. The list the drivers had was old so none of the names matched up so they wouldn’t board anyone. No one could contact the drivers and they locked themselves in the vehicles and wouldn’t talk to anyone. We were getting desperate. One of my families had a very sick newborn with the mother who had the most fucked up botched cesarean I have ever seen the day Kabul fell. She had to run from the hospital with 14 inches of stitching and a baby who needed blue light for his bilirubin levels. Thankfully a doctor threw a blue light machine at the father as they ran home so they could hide in their basement with him under the light. But he had now been out of the light for 6 hours and a rash was appearing.
They finally boarded the buses! I was thrilled until I received a message that two of my families were in the wrong place. Through confusing conversations with two other shepherds I thought I was sending them to the NZDF access point in the hope [soldier] could assist but they thought he was going to our bus convoy. The pin I dropped them was for canal gate instead of Panjshir road. The buses left without them. By then it was 5am and I was so traumatised at the level of my error that even though I tried to sleep with the help of a large dose of Lorazapam, I couldn’t switch off. My error had definitely cost their lives.
After 3 hours of very not-deep-sleep sleep I found our convoy had turned to disaster. The whole convoy got broken up. One driver got out and locked the door so they were trapped inside in 40 degree heat with windows that wouldn’t open. The men were smashing the windows open to try and get oxygen. My sick baby was getting sicker. Their dehydration was extreme.
They sat on that bus for 24 hours before we heard Abby gate was opening and the convoy could move in. Their bus was 31st in line. A surge of adrenaline went through me as I thought this might happen after all. Everyone was extraordinarily tired, hot and severely dehydrated; I had serious fears the baby was about to die.
Much of what us shepherds do is just chatting to them; encouraging them, telling them they’re doing a good job. These people are utterly terrified beyond anything we here in NZ could possibly comprehend. They had their papers from the Taliban saying they would be executed under sharia law. This wasn’t a case of simply ‘not liking’ the Taliban.
After instructing them for 14 hours and believing they would get through, safe in the knowledge there was a Three Star General at the gate negotiating access, I was convinced they would get through so I went to bed for some much needed sleep.
I awoke in the morning to news of a bomb that killed 85+ Afghans and 12 Americans. Some gates were being welded shut and all evacuation was over. The Too Young To Wed convoy was further back from the bomb and were unharmed but close enough to have to walk their children through dead bodies to get home.
Despite all the odds being stacked against us, we have not given up hope. We are still tirelessly working for these vulnerable women and girls, and come August 31, we will simply turn in another direction. We will never give up.
On a good note, Saida escaped with her whole family. Sadly, her 9-month pregnant sister who made it through the wall and was receiving medical help from British troops, was thrown back out after the Brits abandoned their post* and the Taliban kicked them all back out.**
For now, I have opened a bank account for three of my families Left Behind. As they are in hiding, they cannot work so we need to financially support them until we can arrange a land passage for them. A one-off gift would be great although $10 or $20pw would be great as it could take a few months to get these land routes established.
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*this was how she reported it to us. We have no details from the British military about what happened.
** Update May 2022 Saida's sister is safely in the USA now.