KABUL, Afghanistan — This was as far as they would go, a dozen Marines inside the gutted Kabul airport, fanned out beside a blue gate by a fountain bearing a landmark sign — “I ❤️ Kabul.’’
One of us, Thomas “T.M.” Gibbons-Neff, a correspondent from the Kabul bureau of The New York Times, had moved with the troops to the gate in the hours before dawn. The other, Mujib Mashal, a Times correspondent who grew up in Kabul, carefully approached T.M. in the darkness. The Marines would not move toward him onto de facto Taliban turf.
“We cannot go any further, Mujib. We cannot,” T.M., a former Marine who had served two tours in Afghanistan, said into his phone.
Moments later, the Americans saw Mujib step into the eerie half-light under a flickering street lamp, along with his escort: three Taliban fighters who clutched their rifles nervously.
Behind them, in the murky distance beyond, was a group of more than 120 people: current and former Times employees and their family members.
It was the early morning of Aug. 19, after days of chaos and terror; days when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban; days of tens of thousands of people rushing the airport to escape; days of trying, and failing, again and again, to evacuate the Times families.
When the Taliban went on their blitz through Afghanistan’s cities in August, many of The Times’s Afghan employees and their family members did not yet have passports, let alone visas to anywhere. Some of them were just days away from receiving their documents when the Taliban walked into Kabul uncontested on Aug. 15, and senior Afghan officials fled the country.
In the days that followed, a chartered plane had closed its cabin door in our Afghan colleagues’ faces, its crew panicking and taking off with empty seats. The Times group, including dozens of children, had huddled under the open sky all night and all through the next day near the runway as food and water ran out. They had been charged and beaten by Taliban fighters trying to clear the crowds.
But now the Taliban were helping our group navigate the chaos of desperate crowds at the airport. After days of deal-making and rushed coordination, it had all come down to this: forging an unsettling collaboration between Marines and the insurgent fighters, and bridging the yards between a former American Marine and an Afghan native who had become friends and colleagues, to usher the Times group to an evacuation flight and new lives in another country.
First, T.M. and Mujib had to make sure that no potentially fatal misunderstandings happened in this impromptu meeting that during the decades of bitter war would surely have led to blood.
Mujib coaxed his Taliban escorts — led by a senior field commander who had directed insurgent units and suicide bombers — toward the Marines.
“There are three of us walking over, OK? Straight down the road, we are walking straight down the road,” Mujib said in a voice message to T.M. “Three of us, OK, to the domestic terminal — three of us and one guy behind us.”
“Three Taliban, one you?” T.M. said.
“Yes. One Talib is behind me, three of us on the same length,” Mujib said.
“Keep walking straight to the domestic terminal,” T.M. advised.
The groups came together in a surreal scene: men wearing the uniform T.M. once wore, waiting to greet disheveled insurgents they had battled for years. One of the fighters was clutching an American M4 carbine.
Suddenly, the war between them was over. And in the strange light of our cooperation, it almost felt for a minute as if it had never happened.
“This is my friend, my colleague,” Mujib said in Pashto, introducing T.M. to the Taliban, and then greeting the Marines in English. Marines and Taliban reached across the gate, and shook hands.
“My commander, General Sullivan, has authorized you to come through this gate,” the Marine unit’s leader said to Mujib, who interpreted for the Taliban.
“We will move them then,” one of the Taliban guards said. He went back to get the rest of the Times group.
With the sunrise approaching, we were finally moving ahead.
THOMAS ‘T.M.’ GIBBONS-NEFF I was 13 when the United States went to war in Afghanistan — I remember hearing it on the AM news station 1010 WINS while my friends and I were bouncing home in the back of a minivan from a friend’s birthday party. Those were the emotional days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when American flags were flying from highway overpasses and people from my neighborhood in suburban Connecticut were still talking about how they had watched the towers burn from the town beach.
I was already steeped in war, and what I thought it meant. My father had served in Vietnam, and I grew up reading war histories and playing paintball whenever I could. I enlisted in the Marines five years later, at the end of my senior year of high school. My mom was distraught and my dad was quiet, in a way I would only recognize later.
I was small for my age, and it’s hard to separate any sense of patriotism from my desire to prove myself. I guess that’s the case for many 18-year-olds who signed up in the middle years of the 20-year war.
I deployed to southern Afghanistan in 2008 and again in 2009. I was taught little about the country’s culture or its people. Most of our training was focused on defeating or at least surviving roadside bombs, and killing the Taliban on our terms. Anything else was reserved for the laminated pamphlets our bosses gave us, buried in the bottom of our bags.
They were tough deployments. We killed and we died — almost always it seemed like the wrong people were suffering — and passed chunks of our lives in Afghanistan’s extreme climate. I remember the cold, the heat and the anguish of moral and practical confusion.
Even when we were told that we were part of a broader strategy to turn the tide or win the war, it felt nothing like that. We knew even then that we were losing, because no matter what we did, the Taliban kept shadowing us, and now and then managed to kill another of my friends. When my four years were up, I turned in my uniform and returned to civilian life.
When I came back to Afghanistan as a journalist in 2015, after the war had changed yet again and the Afghan military was supposedly leading combat operations, evidence of failure was everywhere.
More than 100,000 American troops at the war’s height had briefly subdued some places, those little shaded areas around outposts on the map. But as the United States pulled out, each remote patch reverted to Taliban control, sometimes within hours.
As the last U.S. military support dwindled this past year, Afghanistan’s government dissolved under a Taliban offensive: district after district, provincial capital after provincial capital, until Kabul itself was the Taliban’s prize, and I was standing next to Marines from the very unit that I had first deployed with in 2008.
They were helming the final American defensive position of the war: Kabul’s international airport, the best hope for thousands of Afghans and foreigners scrambling to escape the Taliban’s victorious grip.
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
MUJIB MASHAL The hopes of much of my generation of urban Afghans took shape between two sudden and bewildering collapses.
I grew up in Kabul, living through the Taliban’s first turn in power, and that first collapse when I was 13 was the moment their grip was broken. After nights of heavy American bombing that lit up the sky, we woke up on Nov. 13, 2001, to find that the Taliban had abandoned Kabul, the capital city they had ruled as part of an oppressive police state for six years.
Mullahs had run everything, from civil aviation to athletic federations. Some of our teachers — I was in middle school then — used to come to class with their guns strapped into side holsters.
The vice principal, a mullah who wore his striped brown turban with swagger, threw me to the classroom floor one afternoon and lashed the soles of my feet with tree branches until his arms got tired. I was made an example of for a tiny act of dissent: I had gone to him, on behalf of our class, complaining that the geography teacher he had assigned us couldn’t even read the numbers on the map.
And then the Taliban were suddenly gone — for good, we thought.
On the streets, there was the chaos and uncertainty of collapse. But there was also music and color, making a sudden return to lives that had seemed to crawl along in black and white. Barbershops began trimming beards that had been uncuttable under Taliban law. Cassette sellers brought their collections out into the open — music cannot be silenced entirely, really, but the Taliban had relegated it to an underground crime.
The next 20 years, shaped by the American troop presence, was an era of opportunity for many. Millions of girls returned to school, including my sister, who had been forced to stay home for five years. Roads and new commercial air routes connected the country. Independent media blossomed.
There were opportunities abroad, too — scholarships to the United States, or India, or Japan. With only broken English, I got a scholarship to go to Deerfield Academy, a high school in Massachusetts, and then to Columbia University. In the summers, I returned to my family in Kabul to see new buildings going up everywhere. Universities were a favorite, and sprawling wedding halls, too.
Like a lot of Afghans educated abroad in those years, I chose to come home to make my living after getting my degree. It was a violent and complicated place, but it still allowed me the space to live the way I wanted, building a life as a writer, or as any other thing I chose. Belonging felt effortless — we could have roots in our own home, and yet be part of the world.
That is what we just lost, why we feel adrift now.
That the loss would come seemed increasingly inevitable as I traveled the country as a journalist in recent years. I saw firsthand the extent of the inequality and corruption in a Western-manufactured democracy that kept falling so short.
For everyone like me, whose world opened up to bigger possibilities, there were more young Afghans in large stretches of the country for whom there was little improvement, only the disruption and indignity of constant war.
My job required reporting on the daily carnage, on the promising lives cut down en masse, many of them belonging to people like me. Putting the final touches on a story late at night would allow me to let the tears come, to finally weep and unburden my chest a little before falling asleep. The next day required strength to do it all over again.
I became increasingly sure that I was documenting the disintegration of a system built on corruption and false promises. The Taliban certainly believed it — even as they began talking peace, every Talib leader, negotiator or fighter I spoke to seemed increasingly sure that the American-backed government was fragile and unsustainable, and would soon crumble.
The government, impotent and run by leaders who had kept their families abroad all these years, collapsed before the Americans were even gone. The Taliban were at Kabul’s doorstep as suddenly as they had left in 2001.
I was there, visiting my family, when the Taliban walked in on Aug. 15 this year — the second collapse that will forever mark my generation, and my country.
The Families of The Times
Bilal became engaged a year ago, but he had to leave his fiancee behind. “I gave her a hug before leaving the house. That’s the last thing I did. Every day, I dream of traveling back by myself and bring her out with me.”
“While I watched the Taliban beat up Sattar and Omran, I was clutching my daughter, who kept screaming: ‘Don’t beat my dad! Don’t beat my dad!’ I don’t remember feeling anything then, but when I got home, the bruises on my abdomen showed that I’d been hit several times, too.”
Aug. 15 — The Fall of Kabul
We woke up on Sunday morning with the conviction that we no longer had a few days to prepare to leave — we barely had a few hours.
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
Just the morning before, we had gathered all our staff members — the team of reporters, drivers, house staff and security advisers that works every day with our correspondents and photographers — together at the Kabul bureau, a house near the U.S. Embassy and military command, to tell them that The Times was looking for ways to evacuate them. Another major provincial capital had fallen, and people broke down in tears when one of our staff members said he most feared that his children would have to watch him get shot in front of them.
Early Sunday, our reporting dug up more bad news: The Taliban had taken the larger towns near Kabul. All summer we had been plotting the captured cities and districts on a map in the bureau newsroom. On that day, we completed the picture of an almost complete encirclement. Only Kabul was left.
The call went out on the security advisers’ channel: Foreign groups were told to get to the American Embassy for evacuation.
On the street, terror was setting in. Panicking elites, their privilege no longer a surefire protection, rushed around, the screeching wheels of their armored vehicles stirring alarm along the street. Some of them already knew what we would discover only later: President Ashraf Ghani and some other senior officials had quietly flown out of Afghanistan.
Afghan policemen and soldiers began stripping off their uniforms, leaving them in roads and in parking lots, desperate to disappear.
As rumors circled that the Taliban were coming, the street took on a fevered air. Crowds of people scurried around, blank-faced, clutching whatever documents they had, rushing to make one more bank withdrawal or clambering for a place in line for a passport or visa that would never come.
MUJIBThat morning, I left my parents’ home to take a last bus ride around the city in the hours before the Taliban entered. I had woken up with a feeling that the window on Kabul as my generation knew it was closing, and I wanted to see my city — my life until that moment — the way it had been, one more time. These scenes played out all around me as I traveled and talked with people frantic to prepare for the unstoppable.
As our Western staff members moved to the American fortification in the Green Zone, we made the call to our Afghan staff and families to gather at the airport parking lot. The hope was that our Western and Afghan staff members could meet at the airport and wait together for a plane out.
Among the dozens of people we were trying to evacuate were our current and former Afghan reporters — the faces of the Times operation in Afghanistan, and the people most vulnerable to any potential vengeance from the Taliban, who had attacked and killed journalists all through the war.
Some feared they had been marked by their years of service to a Western news organization, doubting the Taliban’s promise that no one would be targeted. And everyone faced the sickening realization that this, suddenly, was the end of hope for the kind of lives they wanted for their children.
Through the years of the American military presence, the sprawling Kabul airport was partitioned. There was a small civilian side, and next to it a vast military one run by the American-led military coalition. In our calculation, the Americans were likely to secure and protect a wide radius for their withdrawal — and we hoped that the civilian side of the airport, where our families were gathering, would fall into that.
Our Western staff members were quickly being whisked to the military side of the airport by helicopter. Mujib stepped in to start coordinating our Afghan staff’s movement to the airport. He had come back to Kabul a few days before, taking a brief leave from his post at The Times’s New Delhi bureau to visit his family. As the staff began moving, he stayed at his parents’ home so he would have Wi-Fi to help with communications.
Even with that, it took hours for the families to even reach the airport parking lot. Traffic was frozen at every roundabout, and at one nearby a gun battle sent people scattering to find a different route.
On another side of the city, the Taliban were already arriving. While our staff was in transit, a caravan of insurgent fighters, packed into pickups and seized American Humvees, began entering Kabul. The photographer Jim Huylebroek was there as the Taliban drove in, and he called to alert us. “People are cheering them in the streets,” he said. Taliban convoys moved quickly to the heart of the capital.
Our editors, legal advisers and colleagues, working across time zones and communicating in bursts of text and voice messages in WhatsApp groups, were busy knocking on other governments’ doors with requests for transit and temporary visas for our staff members. They called airlines and charter companies for any seats they could find, and suddenly, something clicked: A charter flight to Ukraine would be available in a few hours, carrying the promise that around 40 of our Afghan group could get out.
But by dusk, it was not clear who controlled airport security, and whether our people without visas or tickets — and some even without passports — would be let in. The paper’s leaders in New York quickly drafted letters on Times letterhead for each family requesting that they be allowed to enter the airport, and then sent PDF versions to each family’s phones.
Inside the once-heavily fortified airport, it was as if the Afghan government’s whole top echelon, left behind by the helicopters that had whisked President Ghani out of the country, had descended on the terminal and tarmac.
Ministers, directors, lawmakers, generals — an elite cohort accustomed to V.I.P. treatment — now elbowed their way for seats on the last of the planes. They competed with young men who had rushed in from the streets without passports or privilege. For once, they were all equals.
There were no security guards, no ticket agents, no gate attendants, no clear protocol or order. The planes were so overcrowded that they couldn’t take off. Then young men started climbing their wings, and onto fuselages.
Fahim Abed, a Times reporter, ushered a group of 37 colleagues and family members from the parking area into the airport terminal, on their way to the Ukrainian jet. Fahim was communicating directly with the Ukrainian flight attendant onboard who had the manifest, keeping her updated as our group left the terminal and boarded buses to get to the plane.
Sharif Hassan, a reporter who had joined the Times Kabul bureau just two weeks before, and his sister and daughter had boarded a bus with the flight crew and were already on the plane.
Then, the unthinkable: As Fahim and our families approached the plane, the crew pushed the steps away and began moving for takeoff without them.
“I yelled to the pilot that we are supposed to be on this flight, but she said ‘No, no, no!’ and they closed all the doors,” Fahim, out of breath, said in voice notes to our WhatsApp group.
FAHIM ABED, TIMES REPORTERThe bus drivers wanted hundreds of dollars just to take us from the terminal to the plane. You could feel that everybody was nervous. They started moving the steps away as we drove up, and I ran toward the plane, trying to get some explanation. The pilot stuck her head out the window and shouted that there was an emergency. They had to go. Everyone was confused, furious. “Why aren’t we leaving? Why aren’t the Americans coming to get us?”
At the airport, any hopes that we could get our Afghan families to meet up with our Western staff to evacuate together were quickly dashed. The civilian runway was being overtaken by crowds, and military forces were using force to keep people away.
Over on the military side of the airport, our Western staff and correspondents were quickly put on a flight to Qatar by the U.S. military, but getting any more planes to land on the civilian side was impossible.
Our Afghan group reassembled at a parking lot near the tarmac and waited together in the chaos of the airport all night, their food and water gone.
Aug. 16 — Chaos on the Tarmac
In a city made frantic with fear of what the conquerors might do, it seemed like everyone was willing to take their chances at the airport, not even caring where they might land.
At first light the next morning, Mujib nervously left the home of his parents, who had decided to stay in Kabul, to join the rest of the team at the airport. He took with him the only food he could find — 40 loaves of bread from the one bakery in the neighborhood that had opened.
As crowds began streaming into the airport, Mujib slipped in among them. Some carried a change of clothes folded into shawls, others carried backpacks. One little girl simply carried a pair of shoes.
Mujib found the Times families, but the group had grown. That morning, our group was joined by more than 100 others from other Western news outlets, looking for help and direction.
All morning, Mujib and his colleagues tried to negotiate with the Marines to let the group cross to the military side of the airport, where planes were still able to land and take off. But in the growing chaos our unwieldy band managed only to move from the airport parking lot, which was no longer safe, to the base of a tower guarded by the Marines on the edge of the runway. There, our group waited in the scorching sun.
Times officials in New York were on the phone with top officials in Washington, who said they would help get our group to the military side of the airport. And T.M., from a run-down room in a bunkhouse in Qatar, was in contact with the Army and Marines at the Kabul airport, who assured him they would do what they could.
But their assurances could not change the reality at the gate — even putting senior military leaders from U.S. Central Command on the line with the Marines at the airport wasn’t helping. The only people the Marines would wave through to the military side were people with Western passports.
One young Afghan woman, in tears, begged the Marines to let her cross.
“What passport do you have?” a Marine asked. She opened her passport to show a visa to the United States.
“I was supposed to fly for my studies, but now there are no flights,” she said.
“But your passport says The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” the Marine said, smacking the document’s cover.
Crouched on the ground near the tower where the Marines kept guard, the children in our group were fading from dehydration, and panic was etched in the faces of their parents.
The Marines would not let us in, but some tried to help. One exhausted Marine dragged himself to the control tower’s slim shade. When asked for water, he walked back to talk to one of his commanders, but the man just threw up his arms. The young Marine kept walking, and 10 minutes later quietly reappeared with eight bottles of water.
“Pretend this didn’t come from me,” he said, and walked away.
For almost the entire afternoon, the runway was flooded with waves of people hoping to reach the military side of the airport. Helicopters thundered overhead, and occasional gunfire rang out from the ground as American Marines and Turkish soldiers tried to control the crowd. But as the hours passed, the crowds stopped fearing the bullets, knowing that the soldiers would not shoot directly at them.
When the crowd saw that there were no flights, people started going wild, seizing any piece of the airport they could grab — mattresses, buckets, even empty water bottles.
Our group tried to hold on to a corner of the airfield, building a makeshift boundary around us from rolls of barbed wire, even as we worked to be moved to the secure side of the airport. We knew spending a second night at the airport would be dangerous, not just because we lacked water and food, but also because the mob had run out of things to loot. A few men lingered, eyeing our group as we tried to keep together.
The main avenue of communication was a WhatsApp group, with Mujib exchanging quick voice or text messages with U.S. military and civilian officials at the airport, with Times leaders across the world, and with T.M. in Qatar.
Mujib became increasingly certain that if we couldn’t make it to the military side by 5 p.m., everyone would have to disperse to find food, water and protection at home. The children were getting too weak. The Marines suggested that we try to cut through the crowd and walk to their side in a single file, which was impossible — we would be rushed by thousands.
As we waited for some operation that might clear part of the crowd, the Taliban made our choice easier, in a way: They came to clear everyone away, including us. This was the first time many of our people had come face to face with the Taliban. It was chaos and crying as the fighters fired into the air and started beating people to get them moving.
“We are moving toward the Marines,” Mujib wrote, warning the Marines and Times leaders on the joint WhatsApp group as the gunfire continued and the Taliban kept throwing everything they had at the crowd. “We have no other choice.”
We reached the edge of the crowd, trying to keep our group together — and trying our best to keep others away. We were about 400 yards away from the column of Marines who could usher us to the military side. But we were engulfed by people who would rush right along with us if we moved.
So we devised another plan: We all sat in a circle, and moved two little girls who were dressed in bright red to the front of our group. They were the only visual way to quickly distinguish our group from thousands of others. The Marines said they would begin an operation to push back the crowd on each side of us, and we would move forward through the opening.
Helicopters dipped low over the runway, but the crowd didn’t even budge. When the Marines moved toward the mass of people, the crowd did the opposite of what could have helped us: Instead of backing up, they pushed toward the Marines.
And then, just as we were trying to figure out whether to try to push our way through, the Taliban cut right into the middle of our line.
The fighters started pushing, swinging clubs and rifle butts into us. Automatic weapon fire hammered out right beside us as the Taliban began firing into the air. The crowd erupted into random motion.
Our colleagues fell to the ground, family members and children were trampled, screaming in terror and pain. One of our longtime bureau drivers, Farid Rahimi, went down with a broken arm as he tried to help keep the stampede away. Even some of the children bore deep bruises.
“It’s a mass stampede — we are leaving, we are leaving,” Mujib told the WhatsApp group in an audio message, his voice hoarse with thirst and exhaustion. “We got beaten by the Taliban — they came in the middle and they started beating everyone.”
FATIMA FAIZI, TIMES REPORTERThe Taliban just came out of nowhere, it felt like. My mom had bruises on her back, and my sister was beat up. And the fighters were just shooting everywhere. In that moment, I could see it so clearly, what it would look like when they shot me, shot my family.
Our escape from the airport was almost as hazardous as being there: As thousands of people were being driven out, thousands of others were packed outside at the roundabout trying to push their way in.
In the chaos of the two crowds pushing against each other, almost all of our suitcases were lost — bags packed with critical belongings for people who were fleeing their homes and country.
As family members began finding each other and trying to make it home, a cry of alarm went out over the group chat: Abdul Salim and Hafiza Samadi’s teenage sons were still missing.
“Please! Please!” Abdul Salim, a longtime staff member, said in a voice note. “I don’t know what to do. Can anyone help?”
Frantic calls to Taliban checkpoint guards yielded nothing — the crowds were too big, and lights were out in the neighborhoods around the airport. Hours passed, and Hafiza, the boys’ mother, became convinced they had been shot.
But they had not been. Separated from their family and each other, each boy found a way to straggle home on his own. The oldest, Seyar, 17, made it to a school where the watchman knew his father. A cousin was eventually able to bring him home. Sohail, 14, had a harder time. After being chased away by the Taliban, he searched for a long time before finding a white-bearded taxi driver who was willing to take him home without paying up front.
For a few hours, we also feared that one of our reporters, Najim Rahim, had been detained by the Taliban in the airport chaos, but in fact he had fought them off and been taken by the Marines to the secure side of the airport.
We had made it out of the airport alive. But the airport had become close to impossible to get into directly.
The next morning, T.M. boarded a U.S. military transport plane in Qatar and flew back to the Kabul airport. We needed someone there on the military side dealing directly with American forces. Another Times correspondent, Christina Goldbaum, stayed behind in Qatar to help in coordinating with officials there and making temporary housing arrangements for the Afghan families.
T.M.I had to get back. We had left too soon, and left our people and Mujib behind to face the crowds and the Taliban on the tarmac on Monday. We couldn’t do it that way again, and I came back to the military side of the airport as a liaison, trying to find help for our families from machinery that was already running at 130 percent in an effort to get thousands of foreigners, diplomats and service members out of the country in a hurry.
“I started keeping a diary in fifth grade, writing almost every day, all the way through the decades of building my career and starting a family. I had all these boxes of diaries, a lifetime, and as we were getting ready to go, I wanted to leave them with my extended family. But my uncle said I should burn them — it would be too hard to explain, too suspicious if anyone ever found them. So I did it. I poured diesel on the diaries and burned them all. It took me hours. I kept trying to read as much as I could, remember as much as I could.”
“I wake up now and it takes me awhile to figure out where I am. It’s hard, having to start from scratch when you’re already burned out and overwhelmed. It’s difficult to put into words. It feels really bad when people have to bring you charity. I was privileged, and then I came here and people have to bring me things. People are really nice, but you want to be able to take care of your own stuff.”
“When I was kissing my mother goodbye, she took out her gold ring and gave it to me. I returned it to her, thinking that she may need to sell it one day, for food and essentials if things get really bad. I regret it, I wish I had a piece of her with me now.”
Aug. 18 — Return to the Airport
We had to find a way to get to the airport, and to a plane, while protecting the families. And that meant we had to work with the city’s new rulers.
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
To calm the panic of our staffers now stuck at home, we began talking with Taliban leaders. They promised that they had instructed their fighters not to pursue anyone, let alone journalists, and that if anyone in their ranks harassed us, we had specific numbers to call for help.
Qatari officials had agreed to take our people on a military transport flight to Doha. From there, we planned to take a charter flight to Mexico, which had agreed to admit even those without passports while they waited to be processed into the United States.
But gathering at the airport was too unsafe. On a daily basis, there were reports of as many as a dozen deaths there. We needed an alternative.
T.M. had spent the morning finalizing details in discussions inside the American command center at the airport. As the crowds grew, bombers and drones flew overhead, while rifle fire at the airport’s North Gate — often the Taliban firing into the air to break up crowds — had everyone on alert.
Even with several thousand troops at the airport, the situation was dire. The airport itself was practically indefensible, with entryways all under pressure from throngs of people.
Americans and their international allies tried to navigate the difficult task of screening evacuees and moving them through whatever gates were deemed secure enough. Rumors ran wild on social media about which entrance might be passable at that particular moment, sending crowds of people surging down the nearby streets.
We asked all our families — back down to our core group of 128 — to gather at the Serena Hotel, about five miles from the airport. It had become a hub of diplomatic meetings, and Taliban fighters guarded its outer ring. Qatari state security was in charge within.
The plan was to start moving our group from the Serena to the airport in two buses around midnight Wednesday, Aug. 18.
But for many of our group, just getting to the hotel was a fearful prospect.
The Serena is the city’s poshest hotel, but it had become a grim symbol of Taliban violence over the years of the war. In 2014, the Taliban attacked the hotel on the eve of the Persian New Year, mowing down a friend to many of us, the journalist Ahmad Sardar, and his family as they had dinner.
It was also the first time many of our group had ventured out since the Taliban had beaten us at the airport. Now we would potentially be navigating Taliban checkpoints on the streets, and gathering at a hotel where the fighters guarded the gates.
To help ease minds, the Qataris had arranged a code phrase with the Taliban that our colleagues could whisper at street checkpoints in case we were stopped: “Qatar One.” But as we prepared, many of our group expressed this worry: Yes, we can reach the Serena, but who will let us in?
Our group began trickling to the hotel compound, where Mujib was standing with the Taliban guards to help wave them in and assure them. As each family came in, they took a place sitting against the hotel’s wall. Taliban guards stood above them as the Qataris rigorously checked every name and identification.
The Taliban fighters were at first disgusted. Perhaps reading fearful body language from our group, they practically oozed contempt — in their eyes, we were losers, clinging to the coattails of a defeated force. They kept asking where we were going, why we were leaving our own country. Mujib told them we were journalists who no longer felt safe, headed for a refugee camp in Qatar.
“But who is going to do the journalism here, me?” asked a middle-aged fighter, Hajji Suhbat Khan.
Mujib kept chatting with the guards, trying to draw them out with small talk, jokes, requests for little, human favors. Over the hours we spent with them, the Taliban’s reaction turned more sympathetic. One offered tea from a thermos, and helped keep track of a colleague’s child who needed to find a bathroom.
Another fighter related that he enjoyed looking at pictures of beautiful landscapes. He shared his WhatsApp number with Mujib, saying he hoped to receive scenes from abroad.
MUJIBI could only think of the fear gripping my colleagues and their families. Over the years, I was exposed to the Taliban, embedding with their fighters, spending time with their leaders. For many of my colleagues and their children, being beaten at the airport was their first time face to face with the Taliban, so at the hotel, I was trying to break a little of the fear that was building up.
After several hours, we gathered around banquet tables in the hotel’s ballroom, where the Qataris had arranged for a simple rice dish for dinner, and Qatari guards manned the ballroom door. As the wait dragged on, the children fell asleep — on the tables, or curled on the floor.
Around 11 p.m., the Qatari ambassador introduced Mujib to our Taliban escort. The ambassador, Saeed Mubarak al-Khayarin al-Hajri, was the most in-demand diplomat in Kabul. When not personally escorting delegations to the airport, he was using the Serena as a venue to help mediate between the Taliban and many governments.
At a corner table at the hotel, the ambassador had prepared a feast for our Taliban escorts and welcomed them with boxes of dates from home.
Mujib told him that the plan was to make it to the airport’s Abbey Gate, near the main entrance. Ambassador al-Khayarin warned that a diplomatic convoy was still stuck there in the crowd. But the Marines, through T.M., insisted that it was the best option.
“Let me know when you’re leaving,” T.M. messaged Mujib, at 11:14 p.m. “We’re ready to jam.”
But things were already going wrong. The perimeter at Abbey Gate was overrun by crowds, pushing British paratroopers and U.S. Marines back to a second control barrier. As that happened, a surveillance camera captured images of a group of 40 or so people breaking through a gap in the northern side of the airport, forcing the Marines to send a quick reaction force to plug the breach.
Helicopter gunships circled overhead, and soldiers at the nearby guard towers occasionally flipped on their rifle-mounted flashlights, spotlighting people below as they yelled at them to get back. On the ground, Afghans held up signs and paperwork, pleading to be let in.
Our group began boarding buses at the hotel in Kabul. And in Britain, a senior Times operations adviser, Charlie O’Malley, began playing a crucial role by helping to coordinate plans with Mujib, and with anxious Times leaders around the world who were monitoring the developments on WhatsApp channels.
Each bus had a Taliban guard in the front seat, in case it was stopped on the way — but that, too, was a source of tension. The Taliban commander began openly complaining to us about how painfully slow the whole process was, as we methodically checked the details of each person as they boarded.
Our convoy set off at midnight into the darkened city.
FATIMAI was sitting in front of the bus, and I was thinking to myself, why did we survive? You know, why did I survive so many suicide attacks only to have the Taliban take over Kabul? We were just driving here and there, and the Taliban guy was just sitting there in the bus and he looked like a baby. He was nice. But I have had friends killed directly by the Taliban. I felt that by getting help from the Taliban and being escorted by them, I was betraying my own friends.
Before he arrived in Kabul as a conqueror and went straight into the presidential palace, the leader of our Taliban escort — a senior commander at just 29 years old — had never been to the Afghan capital. So when he got orders to move his forces from southern Afghanistan to the capital city, he recruited an uncle who knew the route to drive him there, he told Mujib.
Now, in the same pickup truck, he led the way for our group as we left the hotel — uncle and nephew in the front, Mujib, another Times colleague and a young Taliban fighter in the back. The fighter said he was exhausted after a 20-hour shift, but was dragged along because he at least knew where the Abbey Gate was.
Behind them were two buses of our colleagues and their family members.
The Taliban commander shook his head repeatedly at the absurdity of it all, of helping strangers flee a triumph he had fought for more than a decade to achieve.
Aug. 19 — Crossing the Gate
As our buses approached Abbey Gate just after midnight, we were stopped by a churning wall of people.
At first, from the window of his pickup, the Taliban commander tried to order any Taliban foot soldier he could see to help clear the crowd. The fighters, who appeared exhausted, looked shocked by the naïveté of the order.
The commander began scratching his head, out of immediate ideas. His uncle tried to order, and even bully, the fighters. Clear the people, even if it is a thousand people, he barked at one soldier.
“It’s not a thousand people, it’s, like, 20,000 people,” the fighter told him, frustrated with the lack of understanding.
The buses reversed, and began turning around.
T.M.I told the Marines, “The Taliban aren’t going to do it — too many people.” I felt those pangs of failure again. I was afraid that night would turn into something like Monday, when I was stuck in a room in Doha and unable to help while my friends were being beaten on the tarmac.
On the way back to the city, our buses crossed the roundabout that led to the main entrance of the now gutted civilian airport. It was sealed by the Taliban, armored Humvees parked at the entrance and guards scattered around. What if the escort could negotiate with them to let us in? By now, we were desperate for anything.
The Taliban commander got out of the car to negotiate, as the buses idled behind us at the roundabout.
At the airport, T.M. spoke with Col. Eric Cloutier, the commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a group of 2,000 or so Marines at the airport — and the same unit he had deployed with to southern Afghanistan in March 2008. The colonel said he would try to find a Marine unit to link up with our group at the domestic terminal.
T.M. sped off in an armored Toyota to meet with 30 or so Marines near the post-apocalyptic remains of the domestic terminal — barbed wire, abandoned planes, heaps of lost luggage. The Marines spread out and waited for our group. An uneasy truce had held up for days between the Taliban and Marines, but this was unexplored territory.
The Taliban commander’s negotiation with the airport guards took about 20 minutes, during which a crowd built around our buses — dozens at first, then hundreds.
There were two issues: The Talib in charge of security was trying to sleep and kept declining calls, and they couldn’t figure out how to move the Humvee blocking the main entryway. The second entryway appeared too small for the buses to fit. Someone suggested looking for a measuring tape, even going on foot.
As the crowd swelled, gunshots filled the air as the Taliban tried to break it up. The Taliban commander said he had given his word to make this happen, even if it meant at the cost of a few people. Mujib urged him to drive away before people were killed.
The buses drove off. Failed again.
FAHIMOut the windows, we could see these huge crowds around the airport, how difficult it would be. It was like, this is not working. I could see it on everybody’s faces: If this doesn’t work, then it’s going to be very, very bad.
“Can the Americans suggest another gate, from a different direction?” Mujib asked T.M. by voice message as the buses drove off. What about the side gate that was once used by the Afghan Air Force? As the buses inched closer to it, we saw that it was controlled by a ruthless Afghan militia unit reporting to the C.I.A. — the Taliban escort warned that we needed to speed away before there was trouble, not wanting to break the truce.
As T.M. looked at a map and discussed options with the Marines, the Taliban escort realized that the sleeping fighter who led security at the airport actually happened to be his subordinate. He had him woken up.
“It will be done! It will be done!” he exclaimed after speaking to him on the phone.
The buses needed to get through to the domestic terminal in order to meet the Marine unit waiting there. In the WhatsApp group that some of our colleagues and families on the buses were using, Mujib shared occasional voice updates — just to reassure them that we were still trying to find a way in. We had to kill some time for the roundabout to be cleared, so the buses drove into the city’s darkness, our people aboard chatting, waiting, hoping.
Our Taliban escorts were thirsty. The first roadside stall we stopped at to get a drink was open, but the owner couldn’t be found. The commander called several times, no one came. At the second stall, as the commander bought energy drinks, a small crowd surrounded the escort vehicle and asked the Taliban commander if he could help get into the airport a baby who had been left behind. The baby’s parents had already made it out, they said.
Our escort scratched his head. He was skilled in overrunning outposts and conquering territory, not reuniting lost babies with parents. All he wanted to do now was lose the crowd. He denied that we were going to the airport.
“We are going to the Qatari Embassy,” our escort told the gathered men, not thinking about what two busloads of people would be doing at an embassy at 2:30 in the morning. “If you want to go to the Qatari Embassy with us, be my guest.”
Mujib tugged at the escort’s sleeve and whispered that maybe it wasn’t such a smart cover — what if they say yes?
The fighter’s uncle stepped in again, with what he clearly thought was a solid ploy.
“Which way is the road to Jalalabad?” he asked, voice raised to carry. Someone responded with instructions. “OK, that way and then forward? OK! We are going to a wedding in Jalalabad!” the uncle said, his chest puffed out, and the convoy began driving toward the airport roundabout.
When our convoy finally made it back to the airport entrance, the crowd had been pushed back by a ring of armed Taliban. The escort vehicle and the buses easily drove right to the entrance where the buses could fit, but the Humvee still hadn’t been removed — it appeared the Taliban couldn’t start it up. So we tried the second entry, but it was too narrow for the buses to fit, and the vehicles got stuck.
The crowd started pushing. The Taliban guards pushed back, shooting into the air. The window on our most promising opportunity was closing, and Mujib feared the Taliban would start shooting into the crowd.
It was time for quick action: Mujib asked everyone to disembark from the buses and make a run for it through the gates while there was still an opening. As gunfire intensified, our group crossed the barrier one by one, hurrying to the protected stretch of the airport. About 20 others from the crowd sneaked in with us.
Then the gates shut again.
The Taliban at this stretch of airport started barking at us, ordering everyone to the ground and pointing their weapons. Our escort rushed in — balancing himself on the concrete blast barrier like a gymnast — to reach the airport guards. Once he established his seniority, things got easier. The Taliban checked the names against the list, and it was time for our group to go to the American side.
But the Taliban would not move to where the Marines and T.M. were waiting for the group. Ask the Americans to come get you, one of the Taliban guards told Mujib. “They have said ‘we will shoot anyone who comes toward us,’” the Talib said.
The compromise: Mujib would walk over with a few Taliban to talk to the Marines and T.M.
Meeting of Former Foes
Mujib and the Taliban walked the final stretch toward the Marines, calling in the details to T.M. to head off any potentially fatal misunderstandings.
T.M.I almost couldn’t believe it. There, finally, was Mujib, my friend, walking to me. Through those days in August I was afraid I wouldn’t see him again.
Mujib called out to the Marines: “They are asking do you guys have a translator, or should I do it?” The Marines didn’t have one.
Then, in an unforgettable moment that looked to us like the end of one era and the beginning of another, Marines and Taliban reached across the barrier to shake hands.
“Now that the problem is solved, may God have mercy on all humans, let alone Afghans and Muslims,” one Talib said.
“I wish the best for the Afghan people,” said the Marine who shook his hand.
“I will visit the U.S. one day!” the fighter said.
“I hope so,” the Marine said. “I hope so.”
MUJIBAs one of the Taliban fighters went to fetch our people, there was a brief and complete silence. T.M. and I looked at each other without saying much — what do you say after all that? But there was relief. It was the first time I thought we were finally going to get our people through.
Still, there was another hurdle: the Afghan militia unit working with the C.I.A. stopped everyone, asking for papers. We obliged, too exhausted and emotional to complain about the absurdity of a force now without a government asking to see documents. Mujib and T.M. were the last to get their papers checked. As they walked toward the terminal with the Marines, one of the militia fighters called out to Mujib.
“Hey, translator,” he said, “ask the Americans — when is our flight coming?”
Days of tumult were yet to come: scenes of panic and desperation at the airport as the U.S. evacuation began shutting down; scenes of carnage as hundreds of people were killed at the Abbey Gate by an Islamic State suicide bomber — including several members of the broader Marine unit that helped our families.
But that morning, as we moved into the military side of the airport, we could finally feel some relief.
There was still heaviness, though. The families walked slowly, toward floodlights that cast long shadows from the parked planes ahead of us. They had shed their belongings, while bearing the unshakable weight of leaving their homes and all they had known. And the path ahead was still painfully unclear.
No one comes through a passage like that unchanged — not people, not countries.