You Have a Notification: ‘They Are About to Kill Us’

You Have a Notification: ‘They Are About to Kill Us’

By Erik Nelson

An air crew prepares to load evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
SourceTaylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via Getty


I've lived and worked at Kabul airport. I get the chaos around the evacuation. But it's still not OK.

By Erik Nelson

Through ambient screaming, the young woman on the WhatsApp voice message frantically describes brutal gunfire and rifle-butt clearing of Afghan crowds outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport: “They are about to kill us!”

I heard that forwarded message across my dining room table this weekend. With the miracle of wireless networks operating in spite of a Taliban takeover, we’ve all seen videos of these scenes. Seven people lost their lives on Saturday, among at least 20 deaths surrounding the evacuation. Those included a 2-year-old girl trampled to death Sunday and, in images that will forever follow the history of this moment, young men falling from a U.S. cargo jet as it ascended out of the city.

It is a time of bitter reunion for people I worked with a decade ago in Kabul. We message each other for help in evacuating someone we know. Invariably, the person you contact is already working on the case of yet another Afghan who aided America in the 20-year war. Many are trying to get their families out. Some are stuck themselves, sending images of the badges and permission letters and commendations they’ve accumulated. These credentials could save their lives, or just as well get them killed if they fall into Taliban hands — if widespread expectations prove accurate.

One of my former military colleagues who worked on Capitol Hill shared emails of U.S. Senate aides who were quick to forward the particulars of three family members to the State Department. There’s also an evacuation request form to fill out online. But do you seriously want to rely on that, and maybe an automated reply, when you’re fighting for your family’s safety? Another Afghan former colleague sends me a spreadsheet of at least two dozen relations. I forward it, wondering how I might triage my own loved ones if they were faced with mortal danger.

The responses from those within the American establishment, while sympathetic, are often accompanied by the caveat that U.S. citizens are the priority. They’re followed by translators who’ve at least begun the process of applying for a coveted Special Immigrant Visa. After that, the chances of getting onto an evacuation list fall off precipitously. One Afghan who got the visa some time ago and resettled in the U.S. contacts me about his best friend who’s stuck. His digital collage of memorabilia and confusing identification won’t be much help, another congressional staffer warns. They ask if he can send something better. I ask. Maybe he has an SIV case number? We wait to hear back. Others live far from the capital and international scrutiny. What do you say to someone like that? Thank you for your service? 

European friends are also pulling every string they think might work for those who don’t seem to qualify for U.S. help. But with slow claims processing and near-impossible airport access, some countries have sent back almost empty planes, while others are agreeing to fill seats for evacuees processed by other nations. Not being on the ground on the military side of the airport, where I lived and worked as a civilian for a year before I left in 2012, it’s hard to know just where things are going wrong. But it’s easy to believe tweets about British and American troops nearly coming to blows over how to get people in. Or tales of German foreign ministry staff refusing to allow anyone they haven’t processed themselves onto a Luftwaffe flight. I’m not there. But I can understand why the evacuation isn’t being conducted more efficiently than the previous two decades of intervention.

There are small signs of hope: President Joe Biden, whose single-minded stop-the-war mindset got us here to begin with, is using his authority to compel U.S. airliners to ferry those airlifted to crowded camps in the Middle East and elsewhere to places where they’ll be processed as refugees. But at least those in these camps are already out of Afghanistan. The critical challenge is getting evacuees out of Kabul, and that’s a complete shambles, exemplified by ineligible young men reportedly taking the space of more vulnerable Afghans like the young woman I heard in the voice message. The analogies are threatening to devolve from the fall of South Vietnam to Cambodia’s killing fields.

Amid the tales of Taliban door-to-door searches for collaborators and ruthless crowd control outside Kabul airport, I’ve spotted some hopeful headlines: British soldiers helping Afghans outside the gate after the melee, and Taliban fighters roughly forcing evacuation seekers into lines, one British and one American.

Maybe that will inspire Western officials to get their act together.