Afghans rush for airport on rumors of aid flights to Turkey

KABUL — In a startling echo of the chaotic scenes that followed the Taliban takeover 18 months ago, several thousand Afghans rushed toward the airport in the capital late Wednesday after rumors spread that planes were taking volunteers to Turkey to help with earthquake relief.

The stampede erupted spontaneously and videos showed swarms of men — all in street clothes and without baggage of any kind — shouting and shoving in the dark as they run along the boulevard lined with elaborate wedding halls that leads to the airport. They were stopped by airport security forces, who fired into the air and reportedly left several people injured.

The rush toward the airport appears to reflect the increasing desperation of daily life in Afghanistan where a severe economic crisis has left people seeking to leave by any means possible — even aid flights to disaster zones.

At about 10 p.m., a government spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, tweeted that any rumors about special flights to Turkey for “people without official documents” were not true. “Nobody should go to the airport with such intention and nobody should disturb discipline in the airport,” he said.

The episode appeared to have been sparked by the Taliban regime’s announcement that it would donate $165,000 in aid to earthquake rescue efforts in Turkey and Syria, a highly unusual diplomatic gesture by the cash-strapped Islamist government that has been ostracized by much of the world and faces heavy financial sanctions.

In a formal statement Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said the aid was being sent in solidarity with Afghanistan’s “Muslim brethren” in both countries. It also said that “emergency response and health teams” from Afghanistan “stand ready to participate in rescue operations” in Turkey and Syria if asked. No further details were provided.

But at home, the magnanimous message of the announcement was lost, and instead it triggered a word-of-mouth rumor that planes were coming to Kabul from Turkey, offering Afghans a chance to get out. There was no truth to the rumors, but as they spread, men across the capital simply jumped up and ran toward the airport.

“We were on our way to a wedding party when I saw people running toward the airport. In a moment, we heard gunshots and people said the Taliban are not allowing people to enter,” one witness was quoted in a tweet from an Afghan journalist, Mohammad Farshad. “People were saying they are taking people to Turkey. My brother and I also wanted to go and try our luck.”

While quickly quashed and shrouded in darkness, the sudden mass attempt to flee evoked the much larger and more visible panic that gripped the capital when Taliban forces entered Kabul in August 2021. In chilling scenes shown around the world, people were beaten and trampled while trying to enter the airport, and several died while clinging to planes as they took off full of luckier passengers.

Since then, people in Kabul have adjusted to Taliban rule, the capital has been under tight security, and the government has become more professional. But the sudden impulse to flee, based on a rumor with no basis and against all likelihood of success, reflected the dire conditions in which many Afghans are living today.

Millions of people are jobless, forced to beg, borrow or scavenge to survive. International aid groups estimate that nearly half the population of 40 million is suffering from hunger this winter, and that 6 million of those face “emergency-level food insecurity.”

A series of repressive measures taken by the Taliban in recent months have also contributed to public fears for the future. The regime has banned females from attending high school or college and working for foreign charities. It has also reinstated severe physical punishments for theft, adultery and other offenses.

“This shows the vulnerability and desperation of those who are attempting to flee the Taliban regime,” Khalid Amiri, a former Afghan TV news journalist living abroad, said in a tweet after news of the stampede spread Thursday.

Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s.
Afghans rush for airport on rumors of aid flights to Turkey